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Archive for September, 2007

The feast of the French community of Belgium

28 September, 2007 at 12:40 pm by belgianwaffle

The 27th of September is a busy day for my family.  The boys were 2 yesterday and it was my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary.  If I weren’t sick as a dog, I would compose eloquent posts on both these topics but it will just have to wait while I go back to bed and keep coughing.

A weekend filled with incident and adventure

25 September, 2007 at 12:13 am by belgianwaffle

On Saturday morning the boys and I went to the supermarket leaving the Princess and her father to be sick together.  On our return, the Princess had, miraculously, completely recovered and her father was sick as a dog.

The children and I took ourselves off to the Brocante, you know, the Belgian experience where they close off the streets, add some chip vans and neighbours sell unwanted clutter to each other.  It is surprisingly appealing.  The afternoon took us off to a birthday party where the anglophone world was represented by a New Yorker, an English speaking Quebecer, an English woman and, my favourite, her half Irish (Kerry), half Spanish husband.  Their little girl looked entirely Irish/English, definitely a pale Northern European and their little boy was entirely Spanish.  By the end of the party, Mr. Waffle had stopped vomiting and was in a position to come and collect us. Good news as our paediatrician would say.

By Sunday, my loving husband was largely recovered.  We took ourselves off to enjoy car free day.  My colleagues were saying today – where did all the children come from at the weekend and I felt like replying, they were all mine.  There were no cars anywhere in Brussels, all 19 communes.  I insisted on taking the children out so that they could scoot and pedal up and down the road.  This turned out to be a bit of a disaster as the boys soon lost interest in pedaling and began to try to throw themselves under the odd passing taxi.  Undaunted, we took the tram into Place Royal where there were bouncy castles and farm animals and all manner of excitements.  Sometimes I think my standards for high entertainment have really plummeted over the years.  It was good, though.  I was also allowed my obligatory moment’s smugness when I read in the paper that in Dublin they closed exactly two streets to cars.  A token gesture, surely even they must feel.  All over Brussels in odd corners there were neighbours who had hauled out tables and chairs to have lunch together in the middle of the street.  It was lovely.  Over on Bxlblog, they’re saying they should do it once a month, wouldn’t that be fabulous?

And then, in the afternoon we went to the “Fair of Gascon produce” in the Sablon.  They went the whole hog and decorated the Sablon to look like a French village square.  They also supplied a small free merry-go-round.  This was, frankly, disastrous as the two men drinking wine and pressing the buttons were indifferent to order and the rule of the jungle prevailed in getting your children onto their preferred or any ride.  We retired early with only minor injuries and took home some foie gras and cassoulet to nurse us back to health.

Weekend reading round-up

24 September, 2007 at 11:45 pm by belgianwaffle

From the Observer magazine:

“…a plethora of other 12-step programmes, including Clutterers Anonymous and Obsessive Compulsive Anonymous – two meetings you hope don’t ever get mixed up or invited over to each other’s houses.”

From the Irish Times birth announcements (fadas omitted apologies to purists):

Cuireann Seamus agus Rhonda an-fhailte roimh Aengus Seosamh Alan, A rugadh i Melbourne, An Astrail ar an 18u Mean Fomhair, 2007.  Dearthair le h-aghaidh Annabelle agus Charlotte.

Seamus and Rhonda are delighted to announce the safe arrival of Aengus Seosamh Alan on September 18, 2007…a brother for Annabelle and Charlotte.

Buiochas le Dia”

Does anyone else feel that Annabelle and Charlotte were named at a time when the family felt less enthusiasm for the Irish language?

Betjeman at bedtime, surprisingly pleasant.

Stoic

24 September, 2007 at 11:25 pm by belgianwaffle

The Princess was sick as a dog on Friday. Mr. Waffle stayed home with her this morning and I took over in the afternoon. She was hot and lethargic but she insisted on making fairy cakes. We did, she has a will of iron.

Halfway through her first cake she said “Mummy, I feel sick” and she ran to the bathroom but unfortunately got sick all over the hall floor. I comforted her and cleaned her up and put her into our bed. “You stay there while I clean up the vomit.”

“OK, Mummy, but call me when you’re finished because I want to go and finish my bun.”

What future for Brussels without Belgium?

20 September, 2007 at 10:10 pm by belgianwaffle

This was the headline I read over a fellow commuter’s shoulder the other morning. Belgium is in crisis, in case you didn’t know. It made page 33 of the London Independent a couple of weeks ago. Yes, that big a crisis. As Angeline (and to be fair, a number of others) kindly pointed out to me, the country has been offered for sale on ebay. I am sure that this has garnered just the kind of publicity that the caretaker government welcomes

Since the national elections on June 10, Belgium has been without a government. And no sign of anything budging either. The King is rushed off his feet.

Belgium is divided into regions and communities in an extraordinarily complex way for such a small country. There are Flanders and Wallonia which are federal areas. Then the Brussels region has special status. The Flemish want to leave Belgium and take their money with them – they subsidise Wallonia, it appears. My taxi driver from the airport the other night, a Walloon with a Flemish father, said “if your lover says she wants to leave, do you forbid her? Let the Flemish go.” And unbelievable as it seems to me, it looks like they might split.

A country formed in 1830 and given a minor German princeling as King (the late Princess Charlotte’s husband, since you ask), it’s hardly a historical entity of great antiquity. In its time, it has presided over murder in the Congo – “Heart of Darkness” anyone? – and been a battlefield for two world wars – remember plucky little Belgium? It’s fair to say that it has some negative associations. The late W.G. Sebald, beloved of literati, gave it a particularly hard time, saying “And indeed, to this day one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness, dating from the time when the Congo colony was exploited without restraint and manifested in the macabre atmosphere of certain salons and the strikingly stunted growth of the population, such as one rarely comes across elsewhere. At all events, I well recall that on my first visit to Brussels in December 1964 I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year.” That is unfair. I like the Belgians. I like their food. They have acres of great art and know lots about it. I am endlessly entertained by their attitude to linguistic diversity and their coastline (it is dull, they adore it). The Belgians are an enterprising bunch. It’s probably the only place in Europe where tramps routinely speak three languages. And though Belgium is largely flat, it has beautiful towns and some lovely countryside (in the South, the non-flat bit, I concede).

If Belgium dissolves, I will be sad. In a reflection on the fact that I have spent far too long in the heart of Europe, I also note that it will mean at least one extra country in the EU (and this scenario ignores the fate of Brussels) and the consequences for Council voting rights and the new Treaty will be ominous. I bet the Portuguese (the current holders of the EU’s rotating Presidency – there’s a new one every six months to keep you on your toes) are hoping that Belgium will wait until next year to disintegrate.

And in other non-dissolution of Belgium news – Michael has started vomiting again and the Princess went to bed with a temperature but, hurrah, my husband is home.


Late, late, late

19 September, 2007 at 10:25 pm by belgianwaffle

I am one of life’s tardy people. My father always says that my mother has no appreciation that time is finite and I have inherited that flaw. I always think things will take less time than they do.

Yesterday I had to take leave to mind sick Daniel (poor Daniel, he’s fine today, thank you for asking) because, alas, my husband is off in foreign parts and I am holding the fort. In between being sick Daniel slept, so it could have been worse. At 5.30 our student babysitter came to mind him (he had been made safe by a motillium suppository and, if you don’t know what that is, you’re better off) and I drove off to pick up Michael from the creche and the Princess from the childminder. The traffic was dreadful and I didn’t get back until (eek) 6.30.

I fed the children and the babysitter (well, otherwise when was she going to get dinner?) and then we bathed the boys and put them to bed and then while K got the Princess cleaned up and ready for bed, I got ready for my dinner with a delegation visiting Brussels for work. I felt mildly self-conscious applying my make-up in front of a beautiful 21 year old but, never mind.

At 7.30, I drove to the school in pouring rain and finally found parking at 7.45 and ran in, late, for the parent-teacher meeting that started at 7.30. This was a mildly depressing experience. Mostly from pragmatism but partly from principle we put the Princess into the school nearest to our house. It is a school with pupils who are overwhelmingly the children of poor immigrants and the remainder are the children of poor Belgians. On the whole we have been very happy with the school and very smug about our choice. However, it is undoubtedly true that we were also aware that a lot of the children in the Princess’s class didn’t speak French but, to be honest, I would have thought that in their third year in the school system (Belgian school starts at two and a half – it keeps them tough) with significant extra language tuition, that problem would have disappeared. Apparently not. Madame Christine tells us that she is still gesturing to get her meaning across. There are children who do not understand “folder” (OK), there are children who do not understand “school bag” (less OK) and there are children who do not understand “put” (not OK at all). Lots of the children don’t know their colours. This is daft, they’re FOUR. I was telling the Princess an edited version of last night’s encounter this morning and asked her did she know her colours and she said “oh yes and when Madame Christine does the exercises on colours, she keeps saying to me ‘stop, you’re going too fast, give the others a chance.'” I don’t think this illustrates that my child is vastly gifted but my smug four year old clearly does.

At the end of last year, the teachers found that the children didn’t know what things were made of. Sample dialogue:

What’s this made of?

A fork.

Yes, I know it’s a fork, but what’s it made of?

Pointy?

Sample dialogue with the Princess at breakfast:

What’s my spoon made of?

Metal.

What’s your spoon made of?

Plastic.

What’s your bowl made of?

China.

What’s the cornflake box made of?

Cardboard.

I’m hoping that this business of what things are made of is not the key learning for the year. I know that she needs to learn lots from school other than ‘academic’ things, how to socialise, how to work out her place in the world, how to become autonomous but I know that the problems her classmates are having are almost certainly not experienced in the posh communal school down the road (which had no places by the time her feckless mother called them).

Funnily enough, the Princess’s school is private (as it’s Catholic) and the posh school is public. The fact that it was catholic was one of the selling points of our school for me until the head ‘reassured’ me that it was Catholic in name only. I see where he’s coming from, although there are lots of statues of ‘dead Jesus’, if the Princess is to be believed, there doesn’t seem to be any religion in the classroom. This is also funny when you consider the situation with faith schools in the UK as outlined recently by the GPmama. In fact there is a (Catholic) friend of Mr. Waffle’s in London who is still doing the flowers in her local Protestant church because she cosied up to them in the hopes of getting her daughter in. Unfortunately, the daughter didn’t get in despite all that creative use of oasis.

So, 8.15, I really had to go though I would have liked to stay until the end because, you know, when you get worried about things like this, you like to have a complete picture so that you can drive yourself insane. Bucketing down and I was supposed to be at the restaurant near the office and was striding womanfully across the school yard. I rang and said, quite mendaciously, that I was circling looking for parking and they should go ahead without me. Oh no, they would wait. Alas. Mercifully parking very easy on arrival so no one was forced to eat the table.

My delegation being on a bit of a break from their day jobs were very relaxed. I meanwhile had my mobile phone on the table waiting for a call from the babysitter to tell me to come home because Daniel had been sick. She didn’t which was just as well because we were paying for dinner and it would have been difficult to do before people had finished eating which they didn’t until gone midnight; you will recall that they were relaxed. I dropped a couple of my Brussels based colleagues home (because I am kind) and pitched up about 12.30 all apologies to saintly babysitter who had an 8.00 am lecture next morning. Called her a taxi, put out the bins and went to bed at 1.00. Up with the boys at 3 and 5 and the Princess prodded me out of bed at 6 so that we could have breakfast alone together before the boys woke up.

Arrived into work this morning to hear young colleague complaining that she is exhausted; jet lag from her trip to LA. Firmly buttoned my lip.

Cultural differences

17 September, 2007 at 10:11 pm by belgianwaffle

To celebrate the journées du patrimoine this weekend we did a tour of the Saint Gilles Hôtel de Ville which was very splendid.  Then, on Saturday afternoon, we went to the Maison Pelgrims which was not only splendid but had a playground attached as well.  Sunday morning was best though.  We went to the musical instruments museum which sounds dreadfully dull but is actually excellent, something that is reflected in the normally hefty entrance fee.   The boys liked it but the Princess was enchanted.  They give you headphones which play the music of the various instruments in the glass boxes as you approach them.  It really is very clever.  I would so love, if she were musical.  I asked whether she’d like to come back with me another day without the boys and she said “oh yes, Mummy and we could go to the café as well.”  That’s my girl.  Tired of culture, in the afternoon, we went for a walk.  Well four of us walked but the Princess said she was tired and plonked herself in the boys’ span new double buggy.  Culture is tiring.  I rang the heart surgeon that evening for a chat.  When we visited her and her family in Vermont, I swore we would do more outdoorsy things because they did and our children loved running after balls.  I felt the weekend had not been hugely successful from that point of view.  What, I wondered had she (now five months pregnant) and her two children under two done for the weekend?  They went camping.

Oh well, I need my strength, Mr. Waffle is off on a two day work trip tomorrow and Daniel is sick.  Tomorrow evening will see me arrive home, feed the children, put the boys to bed, leave the unfortunate Princess with the unfortunate babysitter, rush out to a parent-teacher meeting at 7.30 (which I know will not start on time) and then hare off to a work dinner at 8.30.  And when I get home, I’ll have to put out the bins too.  Just as well I didn’t spend the weekend with only an air mattress between me and the damp ground.

The back office team

14 September, 2007 at 1:34 pm by belgianwaffle

I have been busy. Mr. Waffle has been busy. I have been away for work. He is away for work next week. I took today off work to have a day off all for myself but, alas, poor Michael was sick all last night, so I have spent my time tending to him. Sigh. Well, at least he’s asleep now which has allowed me valuable blogging time. Onward.

All this gadding about has made me think about the support team that makes it possible for us to do this.

The people

We have the Princess’s school and the after school garderie until 6, if we need it, which we usually don’t because we have C who minds the boys and collects the Princess three days a week. On the other two days, I collect the Princess unless I have something at work in which case, I often ask K, a student to do it. If K is unavailable then there is another C who lives around the corner who might or childminder C’s sister, also C (that’s three Cs, try to keep up). There is also Y whom we have used occasionally when things are desperate and our cleaner G, who is sometimes available. Yes, ha, ha, next person we hire is a HR manager. My friends who do not work are very kind about minding the Princess from time to time when I am stuck though I am unlikely to ever be in a position to repay them in kind. The boys are also enrolled full-time in a creche which they attend a couple of days a week but can go to, if the childminder is sick (which, mercifully, she almost never is).

It works fine, on the whole and it costs us an arm and a leg. This makes me think about the UK government’s bid to get single mothers out to work. How on earth will these women manage? I concede that they will probably have family nearby, which I don’t (though we are importing the parents-in-law for mid-term) but even so, there are always times when you are stuck, even with relatives to hand, I imagine. And I suspect we are not talking about particularly well-paid jobs on the whole here. If these women would like to stay at home with their children, particularly when the children are very young, then why on earth not facilitate them to do so. I think that the arguments about getting mothers out to work are all economic and not a lot of thought has gone into the well-being of mothers and children. Of course, there are mothers who are desperate to get back into the workforce and have some adult company (me, for example) but I’m not sure that many people are desperate to get back to minimum wage jobs. And, while support for those who want to get back to the work force is welcome; withdrawing support from those who don’t doesn’t strike me as particularly clever.

Minks is a good example of what I’m talking about. Here is a woman who loves staying at home with her children (mostly). Isn’t this great? It suits her to be at home. But she is broke. Probably not on the breadline but the system is set up to push her out to a minimum wage job for which she would be over qualified and which, I strongly suspect, she wouldn’t like. Wouldn’t it be excellent, if there was some allowance to support women like Minks in staying at home for the first, say, 3 years of their children’s lives. Would it break the bank? The Finns seem to manage it. I notice though that the British have a particularly negative attitude to tax. Would it kill everyone to pay a little more tax provided it was properly spent. Personally, I think that the British administration, on the whole, does a pretty good job of spending the British taxpayers’ money wisely (I’m from Ireland, I even think the NHS is pretty good). So, if it were up to me, I would be happy to pay higher taxes to support such measures. Vote me in for happier families and higher taxes. I think tax is an excellent idea, if properly applied. No, I am not a Liberal Democrat – do I look like a vegetarian to you?

The equipment

I have to put this down because over the holidays, I calculated that we own ten car seats: 4 in Brussels, 3 in Cork and 3 in Dublin and that’s not counting the one we bought and abandoned in America.

We have 7 travel cots: 3 in Brussels, 2 in Cork and 2 in Dublin, again not counting the one we bought and abandoned in the US.

We have 8 buggies: in Brussels there are the three in one travel thing, a single maclaren, two double maclarens (broken), a double mothercare (broken), and we have single buggies stashed in Dublin and Cork also. This does not include the buggy that was stolen (sigh) and this weekend we’ve got to go out and buy a new double buggy. Blah.

I can’t even begin to count all the other stuff, it’s too tiring, we are busy keeping the baby sales sector booming.

The return to earth

7 September, 2007 at 8:37 pm by belgianwaffle

On the morning we were leaving Vermont, the children were, alas, up at 5.30. When we got to Burlington airport our flight was delayed for a few hours due to fog in NY but after an anxious half hour and some bitterness about the New Yorkers with only one child and no connecting flight who had somehow managed to get themselves on to an earlier flight because it is sooo tiring travelling with children, all was well.

We saw the nicer part of JFK this time and checked out the train between terminals which was by far the most exciting part of the journey. When we got on the plane, I went ahead with the children and Mr. Waffle followed with the gear. I installed a child per seat, I turned around to see where Mr. Waffle was and when I looked back Michael was gone. Much panic but he eventually turned up in the back of the plane surrounded by well wishers and laughing delightedly. I have to say that Aer Lingus were fantastic. So fantastic that we even wrote a letter to them telling them how wonderful their cabin crew were – we were impressed by their stamina, particularly the guy who was trying to persuade his colleagues to go to Dublin when they got in at 5am local time. The journey was mercifully dull though the Princess stayed awake throughout sustained by the force of her iron will.

Everything was fine until we got to Dublin airport which, even at 5.00 on a Sunday morning, contrived to have long, long queues for passports. Sigh. We arrived out to the grandparents at 6.00 and there they were up and ready to meet us, hurrah fresh troops.

You will be delighted to hear that after going to bed at 7.00, we were all up again at 2.00 to inspect the “Festival of World Cultures in Dun Laoghaire where the middle classes were at play in their Crocs and Ugg boots (toasty).

I was also able to come in on this touching scene between Daniel and his grandmother:

Daniel shrugs his shoulders gallicly.
Grandmother (holding up doll): Where’s the dolly’s mouth?
Daniel points it out.
Grandmother: Where’s grandma’s mouth?
Daniel points it out.
Grandmother: Where’s Michael’s mouth?
Daniel shrugs his shoulders gallicly again.
Grandmother (to me): But he does know where it is, why doesn’t he point out his own mouth?
Me: You know this is Daniel not Michael.
Poor boys, it’s rough being a twin, we all mix them up though they are not particularly alike, I suppose it has its compensations.

In a piece of quite spectacularly poor planning, I had to be back in Brussels for a work thing on Monday, so at 5.00 on Monday morning I again found myself in Dublin airport. At 4.00 on Monday morning I woke up thinking, do I have money for the taxi, I have no dollars left, hang on this isn’t Vermont, but wait, it isn’t Brussels either, where am I, why do I need euros?

I flew back to Dublin on Wednesday night having left poor Mr. Waffle to deal with the worst of the jet lag. We all spent Thursday in Dublin and had a look at the new Children’s Museum which was fine though could perhaps do with some highchairs for the café, just a thought. On Friday evening all five of us flew back to Brussels and I’ve been writing this ever since.

The End.

Jehovah and the continental congress – continued!

5 September, 2007 at 8:29 pm by belgianwaffle

Monday, August 20

We went to the Shelburne Museum – these Webbs, they were big people locally. I love the Shelburne Museum and this was my third visit. According to our guide book, it’s about to be overtaken in popularity as Vermont’s biggest tourist attraction by the Ben & Jerry’s factory. If this happens it will be a shame and a sin. The Shelburne Museum is fabulous and fabulously odd. It consists of a range of houses from all over America and from different periods reconstructed on a large leafy site. They contain all sorts of odd things from people dressed up in 19th century gear to an excellent collection of impressionist paintings. My favourite building is the lighthouse which was transferred from the lake to the grounds with, I would imagine, quite considerable effort. When it was sold off by the government or Commissioners for Lights or whatever, someone bought it for 5 dollars and very shortly thereafter, sold it on to Ms. Webb for a whopping profit; she forked out 1,300 dollars. The most spectacular thing must be the large steamboat sitting proudly on a large grassy expanse. However, by far the most popular thing with the children was the carousel on which they could have as many turns as they wished. The Princess also suffers slightly from what Mr. Waffle refers to wrongly and unfairly as my “weakness for chintz” meaning that she likes looking around other people’s houses but Mr. Waffle and the boys tired of this activity far too quickly for our liking. Even I find it a bit difficult to work up wild enthusiasm for somewhere just because it’s been around since 1804. Lots of places have been around since 1804. I was quite impressed that it had been moved from New York though (the Princess looked around anxiously and asked whether I thought it was about to move again). Everyone, however, was fascinated by the blacksmith as he worked on making a wrought iron letter for the Princess. Surprisingly, the children were also fascinated by the “settler” who talked about how people managed in the 1700s. Let me tell you one thing, making shirts out of flax is no picnic.

That afternoon we went to the big cheap supermarket out of town and the children had trolleys like little cars; I thought that the boys might expire from happiness. Why can’t we have that here?

Monday was the first day we fully appreciated just how hard our hosts have to work. They put in long days. Their childminder comes to the house at 7. They leave about 7.30. The childminder takes the children to the creche and then brings them home again in the evening just after our friends get in from work. She stays and gives the children dinner which is marvellous. They are blessed with their childminder who is a pleasant, kind, patient woman whom the children adore and whom our Princess wanted to move in with. It’s just as well they have her because each of them is on call one night a month and on back up call another night and they both work one weekend a month. It’s a lot, particularly for demanding jobs where you spend a lot of time on your feet – I suspect hospital doctors are the professionals who use computers least. At one point P asked me, if I would be able to find the on button on their laptop and Mr. Waffle was able to say confidently “she’s worked in offices all her life, I’d say she’ll be alright”. I digress. As well as long hours they have two small children. Their little boy is two and a half and their little girl just over one. I think it’s pretty hard to have it all. And they are so good with those children. P, in particular, maybe just because he’s an American, seems to have endless energy and goodwill (high five again and again and again, no problem). I think J, Mr. Waffle and I are similar in that we, obviously, love our own kids and are prepared to be interested in those of our friends but we’re not natural children people. P is. The children adored him, particularly the boys and Michael went flying out to meet him when he came home from work somewhat to the chagrin of P’s own unfortunate little boy who was exhausted from sharing with all these visitors.

I was struck too by how hard J&P work on politeness with their children. It’s not that I don’t want my children to be polite, of course I do, but they were insisting that when their little boy said sorry, please or thank you, he made eye contact and that he answered all questions clearly and politely. I think that they were setting standards that the Princess even now, alas, fails to meet. I was struck by their success. Maybe this is why the Americans are such polite grown ups. I am tackling the Princess with new vigour.

Tuesday, August 21

We went back to the Shelburne Museum. Our ticket was for two days and I needed more chintz. It was as well that I had a successful morning to sustain me because that afternoon we had a disastrous walk into town. The Princess was tired and crabby and for quite a while she lay down while we discussed strategies to get her moving.

Her father carried her for much of the journey and relations reached a low when in protest at some indignity, she bit him on the shoulder. She’s never done that before and I don’t think she’ll be doing it again either. I gave him a little break from the children and sent him to the supermarket while the Princess, the boys and I went for a walk on Church Street. Inevitably, the Princess had to go to the toilet. Furthermore she would only walk, if I used a form of words known only to her and since I was pushing the boys in the buggy, it was pretty essential that she walked. “Please, please, pretty please walk”.
“NO!”
“I’m begging you here.”
“NO, say what you said before!”
“What? What?”
“YOU KNOW”
“I DON’T”
“OK, say ‘it’s a miracle, she’s walking’”.

By the time we got back to the house, I was exhausted and refused to budge so I was able to enjoy the wholly suburban experience of cooking dinner while trying to stop the dog attacking the man who came to mow the grass. Dinner itself passed off peacefully though there was some excitement beforehand when my sous-chef (Mr. Waffle) was flummoxed by the complexity of American equipment and using only his skill and judgement managed to wedge the plug in the sink where it stayed until the heart surgeon later extracted it with a pliers. She doesn’t call her work plumbing for nothing.

Throwing ourselves into the American experience we spent an hour watching the Red Sox with P. Baseball may be like rounders but there seems to be a lot more science involved. I was pleased to note that he was wearing his People’s Republic of Cork t-shirt, the obligatory fashion item for all foreign men who marry women from Cork. But that does remind me of our other American holiday theme song – “Take me out to the ball game”. Does anyone know what Cracker Jack is?

Wednesday, August 22

We went out to hire bicycles. All three of our children threw themselves on the ground and screamed when they realised that nobody was allowed to rent the little pink bicycle with trainer wheels, it wasn’t for rent. It was almost funny. It was certainly very loud. We set ourselves up with two bicycles and little trailers and cycled out around the lake. It was pleasant but a bit chilly. When we stopped for our picnic, Michael snuggled up to me and said pathetically “coat, coat” as we ate ham sandwiches dolefully in a gale force wind. We wrapped the children up in the towels we had brought in case we felt like a dip in the lake (ha!) and put them in their trailers and cycled back, the only mild excitement being when Mr. Waffle’s trailer went adrift leaving poor Daniel sitting gloomily in his trailer on the cycle path. Not maybe an outrageous success.

However, that evening we went out to dinner in the Shelburne Inn with J&P and that was great. J and I went a bit early and had drinks in the library, a chat, a roaring fire and a view over the lake while the men wrestled with the children and joined us later. Dinner was delicious and it was just really nice to have a chance to go out all together. One of the best things about Vermont was the four grown-ups sitting down together every night for dinner and eating and talking all evening. J said that she felt that with all of the pressures of work and children, her social life had been squeezed and I know what she means. It was nice not to have anything to do other than sit and chat, no thinking, I’d better pay some bills or sort out some paperwork or anything.

Thursday, August 23

We went to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory. What can I say? They do their best but it’s boring, it’s a factory. I have to say that the fact that our daughter tripped on the concrete path (not their fault, I fully concede) and got the most enormous egg shaped bruise on her forehead when she bounced audibly, did not make me warm to the experience either.

In the afternoon my daughter and I went to town and as well as extra luggage (ouch, the credit card bill), I got a chance to gloat yet again over the purchases I had made in Hatley’s for the children (cute pyjamas, lovely coat) and Danforth pewter (measuring spoons, a Christmas tree ornament, if you laugh at me, I will never love you again, J has already) earlier.

The Princess and I had a heart to heart about life and how no one can ever really have everything he or she wants. I asked “can grown-ups do everything they want?” She thought about this for a while and then said “No, because you want to read your dull books but you can’t because the kiddies are jumping and shouting in your ear and want your attention.” She may be cranky, but she has insight.

That night J was on call. We overheard her talking on the phone. “He is scheduled for emergency open heart surgery at 8.30 in the morning, WHY did he think it would be a good idea to have a shower now?” Much dark muttering followed.

Friday, August 24

We went to the ECHO centre. I see that Senator Leahy has his name in the title. He may not perhaps have Mayor Daley’s presence but you can see that he’s working hard on it. I didn’t have high hopes for the ECHO centre which was a small enough premises describing itself as a “lake aquarium and science centre”. I was completely wrong. Though, mostly, the exhibits were neither high tech nor expensive, it was another example of how something simple done well can work marvellously. The staff made a big difference. There was someone feeding turtles and talking about them, there was a man with a projector in a room with a couple of paper dinosaurs making shapes on a wall, there was a woman encouraging children to touch star fish and sea urchins. All hugely enthusiastic and engaging for the children and grown-ups. There was a water feature pretty like what we had seen in the Children’s Museum in Chicago but this time there were little stools so that I didn’t have to lift the boys up to play with the boats on the ‘river’. There was a fairly high tech dinosaur moving about downstairs but my children got just as much fun out of finding plastic dinosaur bones in a pretend dig site. They got to pretend to be on television. There was a room for small children to wander about in with a miniature boat and a fish tank with a glass circle in the middle that a child shaped head could fit through. Clever. And they stayed there for ages while we chatted able to keep an eye on them in the enclosure. Excellent.

And then, at lunch time, Mr. Waffle minded the children to allow me to have a long lunch with J. After lunch we went back to the pool for one last afternoon before preparing for our long trip back.

I was sad to say goodbye to J and P and their children but I have determined that we will come back in 4 or 5 years to go on a skiing holiday and wouldn’t that be lovely?

I loved America and we had a fantastic holiday. I feel oh so smug for deciding to go. It’s our first holiday with all three children without any parents to help out and it was fine. Even better we had a great time. Even the poor Princess whom jet lag hit hardest. Where will we strike next? Over the Summer I heard that my oldest friend has just been appointed ambassador to an exotic Asian country. Mr. Waffle’s first words on hearing the news were “We’re NOT going to visit” but yet..

Jehovah and the continental congress!

5 September, 2007 at 7:36 am by belgianwaffle

Yes, I know this is ridiculously long, look it’s for me and my mother, not for you, you can skip over it.

Thursday, August 16

On Thursday, we bade a tearful farewell to Chicago (well, I was tearful, the others seemed to bear up fine) and had a relatively pain free journey to New York and a dull wait in JFK before catching our 50 minute flight to Burlington, Vermont. We went to Vermont to see my school friend J and her American (exotic!) husband P and their two children. P was waiting to meet us at the airport and this announced the beginning of the Rolls Royce service that they put on for the duration of our stay.

I have been in Burlington three times now which makes it the place in America I have visited most. I love it. A friend of mine has a theory that when people go on holidays they like places to be like home. Certainly Burlington is a lot like Cork only smaller and American. After Chicago, Vermont seemed very rural and pleasantly so. Our friends live in a lovely big house (very big when you consider that nine of us fitted there comfortably) within easy walking distance of the town centre. I fell in love with their house and I covet it. It was built in the 1920s and it has colonial ambitions including a sweeping staircase over three floors (even the staircase to the basement was mildly sweeping). They have more space than they really know what to do with. As well as our bedroom, we had a guest sitting room; a lovely sunny room overlooking the garden. And there is a huge attic bedroom upstairs that they haven’t bothered to do anything with as they don’t need it. Their four sofas are almost unnoticeable in this enormous house and they need lots more furniture. They have beautiful wooden floors everywhere and the bathrooms all have the gorgeous original tiling. It is a wonderful place to live and it was pretty good to visit too.

On arrival, we gave J the full page article about her first cousin the Pulitzer prize winner which we had carefully saved from the Irish Times earlier in the month. “You think I haven’t been sent this already?” she asked in astonishment. J comes from an extraordinarily talented family. Her mother is one of six, five sisters and a brother and they all were very clever and sporty and have very clever and interesting children. Frankly, I think the Pulitzer prize winner should abandon the journalism and write a bit about her own family. I always felt that J becoming a consultant heart surgeon in her early 30s was an amazing achievement but with the maths geniuses and the millionaire businesswoman and so on among the crop of cousins, it’s hard work to come out on top. Though if the Pulitzer prize winner becomes secretary of state eventually she will definitely win the cousin one upmanship game. J was driving down to NY at the end of the month to watch the tennis with her mother and various aunts arriving from Ireland and they were all going to stay with her aunt (the prize winner’s mother) and J was determinedly reading herself up on all relevant issues to keep her end up over dinner conversations.

Friday August 17

Once our children had finished torturing our hosts’ young children and tossing their toys around the house (it’s hard to mess up a big house we discovered) we walked into town a 15 minute journey unless you are accompanied by a grumpy four year old who can make it last 50 minutes. The weather was lovely, unseasonably cool but not overcast. I love the clapboard houses in Burlington and the views over the lake as you walk in. We passed the house where Calvin Coolidge married his wife (is Calvin Coolidge Vermont’s only president? No Dorothy Parker type quips please). When we finally got into town we sat in the first café we came to and the Princess demanded snails. How we laughed; you can’t get snails in America! Which just shows what we know because there were snails on the menu there and in another local establishment as well. The Princess chewed smugly through six.

Then, on the pedestrian main street, we picked up an Obama 08 bumper sticker from a crowded table. I told the faithful I would put it on our car but now Mr. Waffle says I can only put it on with blu-tack as they reduce cars’ resale value. Still, he gave them 5 dollars which will doubtless see Obama elected. A sole Republican sat alone and unloved trying to get signatures for Mr. Giuliani. It was obviously not the day that all the rural Republican Vermonters hit town and the tattooed, hippie townsfolk didn’t seem to think much of Mr. Republican. We went on to the local supermarket which was very right on and had loads of lovely local produce and where I was made to feel very guilty of taking a plastic bag instead of a paper one. Shades of home. It was great. Mind you, J&P do a lot of their shopping there and I can see why they may be the only people on the planet who have a larger weekly shopping bill than we do. All that delicious, local, organic food isn’t cheap.

We spent the afternoon back at the house playing with the family dog. I had been a little worried about Drexel who has been J’s dog for years and years. He is a large black mongrel who used to be very jumpy. My children are scared of dogs. I needn’t have worried, age has calmed him and the children loved him and he is now used to the kind of abuse that small children like to inflict on dogs. It makes me more determined than ever that we must get a pet. It was wonderful to see the Princess overcoming her fear of dogs and throwing balls and rolling in the grass with this dog who was somewhat larger than she was. The boys were somewhat less brave, Daniel working himself up to patting Drexel occasionally but Michael always losing his nerve at the last moment. But the great thing was that they were transfixed by him. They would stand on the porch looking at him in awe, too fascinated to walk away but too scared to go any closer. Meanwhile, I lay in the hammock. Every morning their first words were Drex, Drex, doggy. Fantastic.

Saturday, August 18

Alas, J was on call for the weekend but P was not so we were all able to go to Shelburne Farms with the children. This was an excellent expedition. I was struck by how successfully elements which I have come across many, many times before were combined. Mind you, the farm buildings are quite spectacular. As we all drove out there in the hay wagon, the Princess thought it was a fairy castle. It was “created in 1886 by William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb as a model agricultural estate” and guess where the money for that venture came from. It was essentially a petting farm but it was really well done. There were beautiful, friendly American teenagers everywhere to introduce you to the animals and show you how and where to pat them and tell you about them and their habits. There were little tractors to ride around in for the youngest children. The animals were all clearly well cared for and seemed happy with the attention. The children could look for eggs in the hen coop. The Princess with her new found courage around animals milked a very patient cow. And then we all had a picnic lunch at the little tables outside. It was perfect in every way for small children and pretty good fun for the adults too.

In the afternoon, the Princess and I skipped into town on our own and the Princess climbed every rock on Church Street (these are put there to torture the parents of small children). We were working our way up to the Ben and Jerry’s outlet at the top of Church Street where we were encouraged to support Ben & Jerry’s and buy local. Not a slogan that they can use in Singapore, I suspect. However, the Princess was distracted by a crepe seller and would not be persuaded away from her chocolate crepe; still that was buying local too, I suppose and we did meet some other locals. One of them was an all-American man with his wife and three daughters. We got chatting and it turned out that he was French but his family had moved to Tennessee when he was 12. Very odd. He attempted to speak to the Princess in French but she was having none of it; she turned against French in America, see, the problems of la francophonie are, in fact, all caused by American imperialism.

We went home by taxi because I couldn’t quite face carrying the Princess all the way back. The taxi driver picked up another fare as well, a couple of Quebecois down for a bit of shopping. I was surprised how poor their English was and how readily they lapsed into French with us. As the Princess maintained a mutinous murmur of “no French”, “no French” for the duration of the trip home, they must have felt that all their linguistic issues had been brought South of the border. The taxi driver was somewhat confused by the linguistic regime and the Princess’s imperious instruction that he bring her to North State Street between Ohio and Grand.

That night, Mr. Waffle and I went out to dinner and our kind hosts babysat and town was full of Quebecois. We went to a bistro. What with the Belgian style cooking and décor and everyone speaking French, it was like a home from home. Our waitress explained that there were a lot of Canadians because the Canadian dollar is strong. Nope, the American dollar is weak, admit it. Though, mind you, my credit card bill is still hefty. Alas.

Sunday, August 19

The next day we actually made it to Ben & Jerry’s and then let all five children disport themselves in the fountain at the top of Church Street. After this excitement, the afternoon spent by the side of the country club pool could only be a disappointment. Our friends are members of two (!) country clubs, one for tennis and one for golf. If only they weren’t both doctors working weekends and 12 hour days, they might get to use them. We decided that we would make it our mission to help them get value for their membership – though J was able to join us for the afternoon as, very considerately, no one had a heart attack. There was a great kiddie pool and all of the children loved it. I did have some concerns about the lifeguard who was watching out for our well being. She was one of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of pretty American teenagers available. Unfortunately, she did have a broken foot which made me feel that she might not be able to limp down from her post in time to save any of us from drowning.

Since J&P were going to give us their enormous car for the week – apparently, they don’t use it much because it’s environmentally unfriendly and they like to walk to work (I think it might be a bad buy) – it was decided that I would test drive it home. That was alarming. It was huge and automatic. For the first time in our entire acquaintance J manifested a twinge of irritation. “You’re going too fast and you’re too close to the cars on this side”. That was after I had forgotten that automatic cars only need one foot to stop and the screeching to a halt and tossing around all the children in the back was probably unnecessary. Certainly 7 people looked at me balefully from their various seats in the car and 5 of them started to whimper. But, you’ll be pleased to hear, I mastered it – well, we’re all still alive, aren’t we?

A complete guide to Chicago in several parts – Part 4

4 September, 2007 at 10:04 pm by belgianwaffle

Are we there yet?

Monday, August 13

We went to the Museum of Science and Industry because Time Out recommended it and, by this stage we had realised that we were going to inspect all the museums in Chicago and it was next on the list. It was out past Soldier Field which, uniquely, in my experience, combines a monument to dead soldiers with a large sporting stadium. They’re nice those Americans, but different from us.

The science museum was, despite it’s unenticing name, fantastic. There was something for everyone. It was entertaining and fascinating. There was the Burlington Zephyr which was a beautifully restored train from the 1930s. Trains have lost out to cars in a big way in America and I found it somewhat distressing that this train had to be brought to the museum by a lorry instead of by rail. Ah, sic transit and all that (no pun intended but kind of funny, no?). All five of us spent about half an hour mesmerised by the “Swiss Jolly Ball” which was, essentially, a giant pinball machine used by the Swiss tourist board to promote Switzerland. It was made from random junk by an English man living in Switzerland. I suspect he was not married.

There was the “ideas factory” which allowed you to get wet and tossed balls in the wind (sounds dull but, you have to trust me here, it wasn’t). There was a walk through heart and an opportunity to take your own blood pressure. There was a room of miniature circuses (a tenuous link to science and industry, I would have thought, but frankly, who cares?)
And then, what with all the excitement, it was lunch time and time for the boys’ nap. Mr. Waffle nobly said “I’ll take them home and you two stay here and look at more things”. “No, no”, I said “you stay, after all, my sister is the one collecting us”. “OK” he said. I nearly cried. It was only a token offer and I wanted to stay there all day. In retrospect, I really regret that we didn’t go back there another day. It gets my vote for the best all round family attraction in Chicago.

We had a good afternoon in that the Princess helped us search Millenium Park and we found Daniel’s lost shoe but a bad afternoon in that she insisted on removing her clothes while doing so.

Tuesday, August 14

In our continuing round of Chicago museums, we dutifully tackled the Adler Planetarium. It was at this point that we realised that we could probably have saved quite a bit of money by buying combined entry to a number of museums. Never mind, onwards and upwards.

In deference to the younger members of the family we saw “Zula Patrol” in the Planetarium. Frankly, I felt Zula Patrol (a cartoon about the weather) didn’t really get full value from the planetarium but it was still pretty spectacular. A couple of times, the Princess grabbed on to me and asked “Mummy, are we moving?” We then spent a great deal of time in the children’s section which was magnificently tedious for the adults but the kids seemed to like it.

In the afternoon, my sister and the children and I went to Lincoln Park Zoo again and met a friend of my sister’s and her four year old daughter. This child was absolutely lovely and beautifully behaved. Where oh where were the badly behaved American children that I had been promised? My daughter was charmed by the polite little American and all was well until the Princess saw a fountain that other children were running through. She wanted to go too. I should have just folded early but I could see that the polite little American girl’s mother didn’t like the idea so I attempted to exert my feeble control over my daughter. I was defeated on all points and looked on as she soaked herself to the skin and then put on the polite little American girl’s spare clothes which her mama had prudently packed. I have never met a better behaved child and she and her mother were lovely but I had a moment of longing for a child who would not show mine up and despite her mother saying “we’ve all been there”, I couldn’t help feeling that she hadn’t been there quite as comprehensively as I had.

That night I swam alone in the swimming pool looking at the Chicago skyline which felt very decadent. In fact every night, before going to bed, I turned off the lights and looked out at the extraordinary and very foreign view.

Wednesday, August 15

We went to the Field Museum in the morning. My sister got us in free as she is a member and it was just as well. It didn’t really work for us and somewhere around plants of the world we despaired of ever finding the wretched dinosaurs and decided to go for a cup of tea.

The only cafe in the Field Museum is a McDonald’s and it is deeply depressing. I certainly went to McDonald’s when I was in school; I remember the excitement when one opened in Cork. It was the 1980s we took glamour where we could find it. But, I haven’t really been back since and it took me a long time to get the hang of the menu and I was a bit flustered and I couldn’t remember what American’s called chips (do they call them crisps?) and by way of further torture all their bills are the same colour and their 10 cent piece is smaller than 5 cents. It was all a bit fraught. I was not really aware of the happy meal concept and the woman after me got two happy meals and my daughter expressed vocal interest. The lovely, lovely Americans behind the till took it in their stride and gave me a free box and toy and I think maybe an extra packet of chips. The whole thing for the five of us cost 10 dollars and the kids ate it all up. “Chicken” my daughter informed me severely as she gulped down her deep fried nuggets “is very healthy”. I don’t think we’ll be going back all the same because the chief paying officers in this operation were distinctly less keen on the food and grim decor. We shook the dust of the Field Museum from our feet.

Later, the Princess and I went swimming and then we had cake. The Princess asked for chocolate cake and she got the largest slice I have ever seen. It was the size of those triangular battenburg cakes we used to have when we were little. I cut off a slice and the waitress put the rest in a box to take away (those polite Americans, that service industry, it’s a constant source of astonishment). Then we went to the “American Girl Place“; I had seen everyone with the bags and I was curious. It was terrifying. It sells the most expensive dolls and ludicrously expensive outfits and accessories for them. There was a queue for doll hairdressing. The place was full of little girls wearing the same outfits as their dolls. There was a doll theatre, doll DVDs, doll and owner afternoon tea. I swear that I am not making this up. Hilariously, every item in the all-American girl place seemed to have been made in China. Feeling very middle-class and superior, I approached an older shop assistant who seemed sensible and said laughingly “This little girl want something but her mean mother won’t pay more than 20 dollars for anything, can you recommend something?” Edna was not on my wavelength; “No,” she snapped, in the one and only example of poor service I encountered in America “the cheapest thing we have is 24 dollars for the basic outfit”. “OK”, I said “we’ll get one of those then.” “Have you got the doll?” Edna asked crossly. “No” I said. “Well, there’s no point in buying the clothes then because they won’t fit”. Dear Lord. I was trying, quite unsuccessfully, to persuade the Princess that we could probably get something cheaper and nicer in Baby Gap, when we came across Elizabeth. A lot of the dolls are done by period, so, for example, there’s plucky little Molly on the home front. Elizabeth is the side kick of main character Felicity. Let me give you a little background on Felicity:

“Felicity Merriman is a girl who’s as spirited and independent as the American colonies she lives in.

Felicity believes the colonies should be free, not ruled by a king who lives far away. But in 1774, just before the American Revolution, her belief isn’t shared by everyone. She knows that her grandfather and her best friend, Elizabeth, support the king’s rule.

Torn between what she believes and those she cares for, Felicity must find a way to hold both love and loyalty in her heart.”

Need I say more? Well, all of the dolls have little dolls dressed identically, so we were able to pick up an Elizabeth doll doll for 20 dollars and flee. I had to carry the Princess all the way back home, but it was worth it.

Really, it was probably time to leave the big city.  I would always have my memories of the skyline by night, the children’s shoes lighting up in a pile inside the door (all with flashing soles and chucked there by their careless owners) and the boys leaping into their buggy in delight every morning at the prospect of more wonderful things to do.  And, of course, Elizabeth.


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