Mar 5, 2015

How Do You Say First World Angst In French?

We spent last week in the French Alps for the kids' midwinter break. Which sounds much more sophisticated than it is. Not that it was a bad trip, but the sentence we spent last week in the French Alps for the kid's midwinter break just really doesn't convey the reality of family travel, which has plenty of reality in it, even in the French Alps.

Cue the battle with pretentiousness that is blogging whilst expatting, embodied in the use of the word whilst. 

Cue Gwenyth Paltrow: "Oh, we've just returned from skiing in the French Alps, and darling, it was just lovely. You've been of course? By the way, I'm a perfect perfectly normal person and totally get what it's like for the peons. I was just telling that to my 24-hour-on-call eyebrow stylist the other day." 

Cue me just telling an amusing story and calling it a day. 

We spent our last night in France in a tiny village near the Belgian border. For dinner, we drove down to the McDonald's by the highway. The official story is that there was nothing else around besides a Chinese Palace. The unofficial story is that after a week in France we were not even a little bit disappointed. We were giddy at the thought of familiar food, and a place where French kids do, in fact, throw food and get fat. 

The best part of McDonalds is that the sandwich names are all in English, even in France. So I approached the counter and started off our order with "un McRancher, s'il vous plait." Blank stare from the teenage girl. I pointed at the large "McRancher" sign, and she says, " ahhh, le Meeghraaahnshay?" 

[At this point, it takes the slightest second for my brain to register what just happened. Then there is a short pause while I'm sure we were both controlling the urge to laugh each other out of town.]

Oui. Le meeghraaahnshay.  

Yep, that happened. Tarantino totally nailed it

This after driving all day through French countryside that wasn't so different from the drive from Seattle to Portland, just minus a few Toyotas and volcanoes, and plus a few more Renaults and castle ruins, but still with plenty of whining, fighting, and poking from the backseat, amid stops for bad truck stop food (that's right, even France has bad truck stop food, a teaser for our bad American fast food dinner.) 

So when you're on your US road trip this Summer, and maybe feeling a little deflated that you're not traveling around Europe, just remember that even Europeans dream of visiting American National Parks. And when you stop in McDonalds for lunch, you can order a McRancher, and say it with a big nasally a, and curl that r like you're sneering at some pretentious expat writing her snobby travel posts. 

OK, kids, just act cool. Self-aware, not too pretentious, still grateful, not braggy. Like you're not at all complaining about having to vacation by a beautiful lake in the Alps, with random castles to take pictures in front of. Then we'll go to McDonalds, I promise. 

Jan 8, 2015


Guys, I just had a brainflash: since it's a brand new year, let's all think of new things we're going to do this year! Kind of like things we're going to resolve to do. Seriously guys, I don't know where I come up with things.

I'll go first. In 2015:

I resolve to stop making fun of hashtags. #somuchmorethantictactoe #hardresolutions

I resolve to take more high-def photos with blurry backgrounds of homemade drinks in mason jars. I didn't take nearly enough mason jar beverage photos in 2014, and this needs to be remedied. #ASAP

I resolve to do nothing lest it is hacked. Figuratively, literally, technically, ironically, emotionally... I'm going to hack the crap out of 2015. #hackityhack

I resolve to send all my mail in felt envelopes with felt heart stamps and zig zag stitches where the address should be. #reallyusefulpinterestideas

I resolve to high-five anyone I see wearing rolled skinny jeans with no socks. I will high-five them with anti-fungal cream. #hipsteroutreach

I resolve to put little pirate flags on sliced melons. #pirattitude

I resolve to improve my facial expressions in five easy steps. #selfiestickforchristmas

I resolve to make tiny bows to adorn all my paperclips, which I'll put on reminder notes that say Time is precious, don't waste it.  #wisdom #papercliphack #adorn #yolobow

I resolve to finally learn the 13 things my camera wishes I knew. #2014regrets

Any you?
Happy New Year. 

Dec 22, 2014

2014: The Newsletter

...even though it's not actually a newsletter... Wonder when the kids will figure out that I do this every year? 

2014 "In Quotes"

"Can you just walk in a straight line? Please? Just walk straight?"
-Donna's constant refrain to Sam and Nate anytime they are walking, ever.

"That's right, I'm a contrarian!" 
Mia, gleefully discovering a label she can fully embrace. Tweendom, we have arrived.

"So we're staying? Moving? Which is it again? ...Have we decided?" 
-This was more or less the bulk of all our conversations from January through April, indicating our prolonged indecisiveness about returning to the US. Looks like we'll be moving back in the Summer of 2015. Right Honey? We're sure about that?

"Mom, look how brave I am."
-Nate, sitting on the couch, picking his nose.

"Can I get a drone?"
-Sam, moments before his first crushing disappointment.

"In my defense, they were very heavy pancakes."
-Mark, attempting to justify tearing his rotator cuff while lifting a serving platter full of pancakes.  

"But I have really bad goosebumps." 
-the reason Sam couldn't get off the couch to set the table.

"Missed my flight from Budapest (haha). Send cc#, urgent." 
-Donna, in a text sent to Mark at 2 AM outside of the central train station in Brussels. Long story. 

"What's a twinkie?"
-Mia, Sam, and Nate's unison response to an offhand comment. Not sure if we're failing or winning as parents.

"He doesn't like to hear people chewing. It's a thing." 
-Our explanation to guests as to why Sam sits in another room wearing earphones while we eat. Good times.

"That's OK Mom, we all know that you just say 'mmm-hhhmmm' when you're not really listening." 
-Mia, after Donna was caught not listening to Nate go on and on and on about Star Wars. Just one of the billion times Nate went on and on about Star Wars this year. And on and on and on...

"I think we've lived in Europe too long. I was eavesdropping on an American couple with Southern accents, and I couldn't understand a word they said."
-Donna, shocked to realize that after three years in Amsterdam, American accents now sound foreign. Win? 

Not technically a quote, but no annual review would be complete without Nate's sweet dance moves:

We wish you all, near and far, a wonderful holiday season and a joyous 2015. 
Donna, Mark, Mia (11), Sam (9), and Nate (6) 

Dec 18, 2014

Let's Not Talk About Christmas

This post is not about Christmas.

But I bet Christmas is going to think it is. That's just like Christmas, you know? Thinking everything is all about it.

I'm not really on speaking terms with Christmas right now.

I mean sure, Christmas acts all sweet and innocent, like everyone's darling, but in reality, Christmas will borrow your favorite sweater and then return it with a big stain. Like we're not going to notice. So there, Christmas, everyone knows now.

But I'm not talking about that.

Instead, you know what is way more interesting than Christmas? Dutch bathrooms.

That's right. Just about every Dutch house has a WC (pronounced vay-say)-- a small room with only a toilet and an adorably tiny sink. There is an entirely separate room for the shower and vanity. Again, Europeans seem to understand bathroom needs so much better than Americans.

Exhibit A: our WC. Sorry, I didn't clean it for you. 

Oddly, however, the Dutch use their WC as the display spot for the family birthday calendar. Why? So you can always associate the birthday of your loved ones with pushing out big turds?

This is why I love Dutchies.

The Dutch love modern bathrooms, or at least, Amsterdammers do. You don't see French Country bathrooms, or Craftsman style, or shabby chic. It's all ultra-modern, sleek, and minimal. I've never seen so many open showers and Ikea cabinetry.

My husband broke the toilet seat on our ultra-modern, hidden-cistern, square-shaped toilet recently. You can imagine the nicknames we have for him now. I assure you, they are all exactly what you're thinking. We looked into the replacement. 220 euro.

Two hundred and twenty euro for a toilet seat. And it doesn't wipe your bum or do your taxes.

I don't even understand the world anymore.

By the way, did you know you can buy used toilet seats on Amazon?

And let's just add to all the potty talk with this tidbit: if you're putting together a puzzle of the Sistine Chapel, chances are absurdly high that on any given puzzle piece there is going to be a penis. I'd say at least a 75% chance, from personal experience. Just really makes you think of the Sistine Chapel in a different light.

Take that Christmas. And guess what? On Christmas Eve, we're going to Istanbul. Not many people care about you in Istanbul,  if you can imagine. And when we come back, I'm going to put away all your stuff, and not think about you again for at least 11 months. Maybe 10 1/2, because dammit I need to get started earlier next year.

Dec 10, 2014

When I Grow Up (I Should Really Have This Figured Out By Now)

In the 2nd grade, I wanted to be a stand-up comedian.

By 3rd grade, I predicted in an essay that I was going to be a "computer whiz" while married to a prince, and running my own clothing store.

Pretty big dreams for a young girl in America, whose only computer experience involved Typing Tutor and making greeting cards on Word Perfect.

Eventually, I went through a mid-childhood crisis, lost all sense of direction in my big bangs phase, and at some point thought I might be an actress. Toward the end of high school I was briefly fixated with Music Therapy. Problem was, I couldn't ever figure out exactly what Music Therapists do.

In college, I started out in Psychology, at one point dabbled in Biology, thought about Geology, Interior Design, and finally ended up with a degree in Performing Arts. By the time I graduated, I was working as a personal trainer at a women's gym, while managing the apartment complex we lived in.

Mia came along, then 2 more children, and it's now been 11 years since I've been in any paid employment position. So what now? Computer whiz?

What were you going to be when you grew up?

Fun fact: Francine Pascal, author of the Sweet Valley High series, didn't go to her own prom, and wasn't that into High School. She preferred writing political commentary.

Dec 5, 2014

I Have a Reading Disorder

My "Oh I didn't know I was taking a picture of myself" selfie.*

Literally, my reading is disordered. Specifically, it happens in this order: beginning, end, middle.

Yep, I skip ahead and pre-read the end of every book I start. I never read the end last. Never. And, yes, every single book. Doesn't matter if I'm enjoying the book or not. Doesn't even matter if it's non-fiction.

Are you freaking out now?

When you see a spoiler alert, you probably cover your eyes and run away? Not me. I love them. In fact, please do tell me how your favorite book or movie ends. Actually, let me guess: he gets the girl? The beloved dog/horse/mythical creature dies? The world is saved? They figure out the secret code just in the nick of time? She becomes a vampire and has vampire babies?

**Spoiler Alert** I'm going to go ahead and tell you how this blog post ends: I kill off the character you've grown to love. Sucks, but that elf on the shelf had it coming. And then I ask a question, like all good blog posts, and that question is: can you believe how much more complicated the actual US criminal investigation and prosecution system is than its TV counterpart?? Guys, I feel betrayed.

Back to the reading thing-- I know, you are horrified. You think it's wrong, unnatural, immoral maybe. And I tell you I was born like this. I can't help it; I'm chronologically challenged. Even as a child I couldn't understand why Grover didn't just peek at the last page to get a glimpse of the monster. Why, Grover, why?

You know what's horrible and unnatural? People reading an entire book that they hate, just to see how it ends. Recently, my husband was reading a terrible book**, and he complained constantly about how awful it was, how it was literary assault and battery. And then he would pick that book right back up and read more of it, groaning and writhing the entire time.

Me: Why do you keep reading it?

Mark: Because I have to find out how it ends. No matter how painful it is. What if the end makes it worth it?

Me: Maybe you should just peek and see.

Mark: WHAT???!! That would be a crime against literature! I'm just going to have to suffer for... 157 more pages.

Me: You're sick. You need help.

Endings don't save books. An unsatisfying ending might tarnish, or even ruin, an otherwise good book, but if the middle (i.e. the plot and characters and conflict and development) is bad, then it's just a bad book. End of story.***

It's not just that I peek at the end to scandalize civilized people, or to see if it's worth it to keep reading. There's a bigger, deeper reason: I skip to the end, because once I know what's going to happen, I can relax, and enjoy how it gets there. Provided I think it's a book worth finishing, of course. (Guys, stop feeling obligated to read bad books!)

So it all comes down to suspense. Suspense, and my supreme aversion to it.

You might say that it's in human nature to enjoy suspense-- isn't that the point of all entertainment? To keep us in suspense until the end?

I say no. Think about a book or movie that you love. I mean, your house is on fire and you grab it before your children and pets LOVE. Chances are you've watched it or read it a second time or more, even though you already knew what was going to happen.

And once you know how it's going to end, by definition the suspense is over. But there is still tension, created by conflict. And that's what's in human nature to enjoy-- conflict and resolution. And we can watch or read that over and over, knowing full well what happens in advance, and it's actually very satisfying.

Like this:
Feels good, doesn't it? 

So after the many conversations I've had with people about my reading disorder, I've decided that there are two kinds of people in the world:

Those who will never skip ahead, and those who always skip ahead.

If you're in the first category, you are in the majority, and quite frankly, you probably waste a significant amount of time.

If you're in the second category, we are soul mates, and chances are you also hate click-bate with a passion.

So, which one are you?

*Crap, selfies are hard. Props to Kim Kardashian.
**OK, not the actual book he was reading, but I couldn't resist.
***Mmm-hmmm. Pun intended. 

photo credit: Michael Kappel via photopin cc

Nov 28, 2014

Silesia: Europe's Forgotten Corner

So far, while traveling in Europe, we've stuck with major cities, and haven't wandered too far off the tourist's path. Until, after a lengthy rabbit-hole session on Airbnb, we ended up heading to the Silesia region of Poland.

The where now?

Yes, exactly.

Guys, you can stay in legit old palaces there, and not like the L.A. Best Western Royal Palace Inn. Your stucco palace facade isn't fooling anyone Best Western.

And in Silesia, palace stays are actually affordable.

They're also half-way run down, but so is everything there. But it's a quaint sort of run down. Let's just call it vintage.

Silesia is here, tucked between the Czech Republic and Germany:
Silesia, more or less.

And it is certainly off the beaten tourist track. We got to brush up on our pantomiming skills, and it was challenging to find places to eat that were not depressingly similar to all-you-can-eat buffets in American strip malls, circa 1992, with the added adventure of all-Polish menus.

On the plus side, my hair was looking fabulous this day. 
But it is also beautiful-- rolling hills of deciduous trees, tiny farms, and towns with medieval walls. For centuries, Silesia was kind of a big deal, and extravagant buildings, country houses, palaces, and castles dominated the countryside, mixed in with the tiny farms and towns.

You see what I'm talking about. I don't think many people think of Poland like this. 

I'm going to go historic on you for a minute, so hang tight.

Before WWII, Silesia was actually part of Germany. But when the boundaries of Poland were redrawn in the aftermath, the three million mostly German inhabitants were suddenly living in Poland-- they were asked, maybe forced, to leave. And as the region emptied, two million displaced Poles from other areas moved in, directly in to the newly abandoned homes and structures.

Am I the only one who finds this fascinating?

Almost the entire population has no roots in the region going back any further than 70 years. The actual people, not just the ruling powers, have completely changed. It's an area with a long history, and no history at all.

After WWII, the Communist government prohibited private ownership, so the country houses and estates, though stripped and plundered, were largely left empty and the majority sat abandoned for decades. Some were used by collective farm workers. Most are now in ruins, or in dire need of restoration. And they are all over the region.
This absolutely gorgeous castle was deserted and mostly unused for 70 years.
It's currently being restored, and open for tours (in Polish). 

Today the beauty of the region pervades, stamped with evidence of past extravagance,  sprinkled with the grit and neglect of communism. It is bleak, and beautiful, and bizarre.

We stayed in one such charming, dilapidated palace dating from the 1300's, currently being restored painstaking detail by painstaking detail, by a lovely British/Polish family with 5 kids. The oldest two girls, hilariously extroverted, ran our kids around the property, showing them all their little magical spots and corners, playing in falling-down barns ("just watch out for the holes in the floor"), and running in terror from the evil cockerel that hated children. We picked the last raspberries of the season from the garden, tossed bread to the geese in the "moat", and explored every last bit of the palace, all the way up to the tower.

Then we drove around and around, in and out of the Czech Republic, and through Polish villages, over hillsides, and came back each evening to sit by the fireplace.

Oh look, another beautiful castle. 

A beautifully restored building on the Czech side.
This was one of my favorites. 

It was absolutely enchanting.

(OK, so I also played a fair amount of Sudoku, did not write a single word for a week, and the kids spent every second of every drive on an electronic device. But still, everyone was happy and our marriage stayed in tact. So I say, enchanting.)

 Just remember, we went there before anyone else.