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February 25, 2007

English Crocuses

How to mow this lawn?
This is my neighbor Janet's front lawn. She gave me permission to photograph her mass of crocuses, with one lone daffodil in the midst of them. She said I should really come back with the camera sometime when it is sunny. I'm not holding my breath. That said, today when it wasn't busy raining, hailing or being cloudy, the sun did come out partway for a few moments now and then.

I often hear a woodpecker at work when walking past this lawn. Nice hollow sort of echoing sound.

February 25, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

A Tromp in the Mud

WaitingturnforpuddleWe spent the afternoon with some old friends we hadn't seen in years. Actually, they're more precisely a former coworker of David's mother from her teaching days in Belgium, and said coworker's husband. The kids and I had only met Rosemary once, back in California, and had never met Chris. They are both British, but have lived in several countries; now that we live in their country, only an hour from them, it was high time we paid them a visit. They have been married 40 years and live in an old house surrounded by fields of sheep, all of whom are currently pregnant and will be lambing soon. They are a sweet and friendly couple with an old black dog, Zoe. They have three grown daughters, and when the first had a child of her own, Rosemary gave Chris a coffee table, and Chris gave Rosemary a comfortable armchair, to celebrate each other's emergence as a grandparent.

Five minutes after we arrived at their house on the hill, we all donned Wellington boots and raincoats and took off on an hour and a quarter walk through the woods and fields to a pub for lunch. Zoe happily trotted along with us as we slogged through huge quagmires of mud alternating with dry bits of path, brilliant green grass, and leaf-covered forest floor. The squelch of the mud was impressive. The key was not to let one's boots come OFF in the mud. The kids had a great time making the thick, brown, oozy stuff burp and hiccough as it appeared to eat a bit of our wellies with each step.

During the course of the afternoon we saw horses, cows, sheep, rabbits, chickens, the dog, and even two pheasant. After the delicious pub lunch (crowned with some sticky toffee pudding), we thankfully piled into the car which had been planted there earlier by this couple full of foresight, and drove home instead of hiking back in the pouring rain and even moments of hail. Emily was tired anyway - mud walking takes more out of one than a dry terrain.

A few games with cups of tea for those so inclined, and our visit was over. Thank you, Rosemary and Chris, for a lovely day!

February 25, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 20, 2007

Discovery: Quilt of Grace

I've just discovered the encouraging blog Quilt of Grace - authored by a gracious homeschool mom of 5 biological kids (including some with serious special medical needs) + 2 foster kids (with special emotional needs), almost adopted. Her composure and humility and bright spirit are a blessing to me. I even love her blog title.

- For those who think there are no truly wonderful men or beautiful long-term marriages out there, read what Laura's husband does for her. It's a heart-warming thing.

- Had a bad day? Laura can certainly commiserate, though she generally tries to be encouraging. She ponders blog honesty: "When we write only a few times a week, it isn't that hard to write about the few token moments where everything was actually going right. We often don't write about all of the moments where everything was falling apart."

- Laura addresses the fears of people who think having lots of children means less parental love for the younger ones. Speaking of her fifth child, who just turned one:

He is so special to our family. I can't imagine life without him. Although I absolutely love my children equally, I have to say that I have definitely enjoyed Giovanni more than I did the others. This has nothing to do really with him or his awesome personality, but more to do with me. The more children I have, the faster time seems to fly by. I made the conscious decision with Giovanni to really stop and enjoy him. When the other children were babies, I tended to get caught up in the busyness of the day. But with him, I would skip that extra load of laundry, and just sit and cuddle with him. I just cherish this time so much. Lord willing, I will still be doing laundry 25 years from now. But you just can't get back that time with a baby.

- Read this heartwarming post on plenty of lavished attention for the kids in big family. I wanted to post an excerpt, but it all really goes together, and I found I was going to be republishing the whole thing, which really isn't fair. So just go over and read it for yourself. I'd like to go visit Laura's house some day (and I don't even know where she lives).

- I loved Laura's family's idea of sleeping under the Christmas tree!

- Funny post on Modesty Gone Too Far.

- Great idea for mattress flipping labels.

Thanks, Laura! I'm blessed you can find the time to blog!

February 20, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Bunny Riding Roller Coaster

ChristinaThe Napkin Holder Roller Coaster takes Christina Bunny on the ride of her life. I'd have to say she looks a little worried in this shot, but you'll be relieved to know she made it off the roller coaster and is now safely sleeping with Emily.

February 20, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Setting the Time

How to set the time on a British Telecom Freelance XD 510 telephone-answering-machine, in case you ever need to:

- Press the Menu Button twice and then press zero twice, and then the star key (perfectly intuitive so far?).

- At the prompt, press a number for the day of the week (starting with 1 for Sunday), then immediately the four-digit representation of the time on a 24-hour clock.

- That's it. Easy peasy, if you know how.

It took me 7 months in this house to get irritated enough to find out how to set the time. It is nice to know when callers left their message, given that the machine has the capability (but was thus far spouting incorrect times picked out of a hat).

It only took me about 10 seconds to find the manual online (the phone belongs to our landlords), and another 30 seconds to perform the prescribed actions. Life is funny.

February 20, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 19, 2007

License Plates on trip to Belgium

We saw the following license plates on cars around us as we drove from England to France to Belgium and back the weekend before last. We saw many of them on multiple days, so I just kept track of the new ones each day.

Friday (in England & France):
GB of course (Great Britain)
D (Germany)
NL (Netherlands)
RO (Romania)
F (France)

Saturday (in France & Belgium):
B (Belgium)
CZ (Czech Republic)
H (Hungary)
LT (Lithuania)
L (Luxembourg)
PL (Poland)

Sunday (in Belgium):
E (Spain)

Monday (in Belgium, France and England):
A (Austria)
BG (Bulgaria)
BY (Belarus)
EST (Estonia)
HR (Croatia)
I (Italy)
P (Portugal)
SK (Slovakia)
SLO (Slovenia)
TR (Turkey)

That's 22 countries! I think the Bulgaria, Belarus and Croatia were new sights for me. Maybe Turkey, too. Fun to see the European world zooming by. But admittedly a lot like seeing 22 states on a road trip in the U.S.

February 19, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Woods of Brussels

DavidgianttreesSee David dwarfed by the enormously tall beech trees? When he was young, he had a sweet golden labrador retriever puppy. She grew and was with his family a long time, until after he had left the household. While they all lived in Belgium (where they got her), they would often go for walks in the beautiful beech woods of Brussels.

So the kids and David and I enjoyed strolling in these woods as well last weekend. One of the things I love about beech forests is the copper-colored ground when the leaves have fallen (and then all winter). Also, there is not much else on the ground other than the shallow roots and plentiful leaf carpet of the beech trees. Nothing else grows under beech trees. This makes for a long view of the sea of bronze, and easy walking.

I had thought I'd heard that the beech trees emit some kind of acid which kills other growth, but again it would appear it was just another of my misconceptions that did not show up in any sources I could find. Rather, there are simpler reasons.

According to blueplanetbiomes:

"There are two reasons why it is hard to grow anything beneath the tree. The first is because the leaves that grow on the tree block the sunlight and keep the ground constantly in shade. The second reason is because much of the root system grows all over the ground's surface, and uses any moisture that may reach the ground."

Wikipedia concurs: "A beech forest is very dark and few species of plant are able to survive there, where the sun barely reaches the ground." An amazing beech fact from the same source: "The European Beech starts to flower when it is between 30-80 years old." That's pretty old to begin making fruit! Compare, for instance, with the dogwood, which begins blooming after 2-6 years.

Arborday.org divulged some other cool beech facts I didn't know:

Beechnuts are eaten by birds and mammals and are important food for chipmunks and squirrels.

The European Beech tree has an unmatched place in history. The Beech nuts were food for prehistoric man and are still consumed today. The wood has been employed for centuries for both fire and furniture in Europe. Historians claim that the first written European literature was inscribed on Beech bark in Sanskrit. The English word 'book" comes from the Anglo-Saxon "boc", a derivative for the Anglo-Saxon "beece" or Beech.

BrusselswoodslikefireswampSomething that occurred to me while in the beech woods: they look like the Fire Swamp. Do you think? Hmmm, looking that up, part of the Princess Bride was filmed in a beech forest - but in Buckinghamshire, England. Actually, 45 minutes north of our home! The things one finds out. The Cliffs of Insanity were in Ireland, and some of the studio filming took place only 30 minutes east of where I sit, in Shepperton, UK. But I digress. Just a little. David did introduce me to both the Belgian woods and the Princess Bride, so there IS a connection, if you look for it.

Jason is a tiny grey speck in the horizontal photo, at the back right. He and Emily had fun running around in the leaves.

February 19, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Brussels: Museum of Cocoa & Chocolate

ChocolatedressAs a final stop on our brief walking tour of Brussels, we popped into the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate. You might enjoy the entertaining English translation on that link. I wonder if it was translated from French or Flemish/Dutch. The Maître Chocolatier presiding over the kitchen while we were there was definitely of the Dutch side, though he spoke heavily accented French and a few words of English.

As we entered, a woman handed us samples of four speculoos (Belgian spice cookies) freshly dipped in melted chocolate. She had all four of them propped in one hand, one rectangular cookie between each finger, with the warm chocolate-coated part sticking up, and we were supposed to grab one each. It was such an interesting way to deliver them that I was speechless at first for a second, before reaching for one and indulging in its delectable crumble and savor. Thankfully, the woman's other hand offered a pile of napkins.

We were then able to read posters about the origins of chocolate, where to find cocoa pods, and what chocolate was thought to be good for in various eras. I think it's good for anything. Proceeding to the back of the small museum, we admired the handiwork of a maître chocolatier as he prepared those famous "fruits de mer" chocolates: the ones in the shape of seahorses and shells, with a hint of white chocolate, lots of milk chocolate, and yummy creamy chocolate inside.

Upstairs, I was surprised to find an array of chocolate CLOTHING. Now, I did say I thought chocolate was good for anything, but I meant in an eating fashion; I don't really go for the fashion fashion. Original thought, though. I would constantly be wanting to eat my hat.


February 19, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Belgian Languages

Before I can get to the Chocolate Museum photos, I have to pause and talk about what they speak in Belgium. I was confused about this before I did some research. Take a look at this helpful language map.

The CIA Fact Book tells me about Belgium's Ethnic groups:
Flemings (officially speak Dutch, in the north - Flanders) 58%
Walloons (speak French, in the south - Wallonia) 31%
Mixed or other 11%

There is controversy over whether to call the Flemings' language Dutch or Flemish (herein lay my confusion). But no one contests that Wallonia speaks French (albeit the issue of a special-sounding accent could be raised). Then there is 1% of the country that officially speaks German; to no one's surprise, it is the in eastern part of the country snuggled up next to Germany.

So what is Flemish, if it's not mentioned in the list of official languages of Belgium? According to answers.com, it's "the Belgian variant of Dutch" rather than a separate language, and spoken by approximately 5.5 million people in Belgium (and by a few thousand people in France). "So closely are Flemish and Dutch related that the difference between them has been compared to the difference between American and British English; however, some scholars hold that they have diverged sufficiently since the 16th cent. to be described as separate languages." Wikipedia says Flemish is also spoken in the southwestern Netherlands.

I found this interesting tidbit about the Dutch spoken in Flanders:

The A to Z Guide of Belgium defines Dutch as

A strange language spoken in Flanders and consisting largely of the consonants v,s,c,h,r and k. Dutch is surprisingly easy to learn. Simply fill your mouth with crisps [editor's note: potato chips] and then speak English and German simultaneously without breathing.

This isn't quite right, but Dutch is quite similar to both German and English. It's the closest language to English (other than Frisian, spoken in parts of the Netherlands), thus making it sound almost comprehensible to people who have never studied the language. Its grammar is relatively simple: the only tricky bit is that, like German, there is a tendency to throw verbs to the end of a sentence. The lexicon (vocabulary) is often similar to English, so words are pretty easy to learn...even more so if you also know French and/or German. It also helps that we've borrowed some words from the Dutch as well. The one tricky thing (for me anyway) is the pronunciation.

Besides being near several countries speaking different languages, another reason Belgium speaks multiple tongues is that, at different times, it was actually ruled by France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Austria. Not to mention the Romans! The latter took over the lands of a Celtic people named the Belgae - hence the country's name. Did you know Belgium didn't become a country until after the U.S.A. did? Indeed, not until around 1830. That said, Brussels was founded in the 10th century. It just didn't have its current national identity until recently. Brussels (from the Celtic/Latin word Bruocsella) means...a bridge over the marsh.

And now, back to chocolate...

February 19, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 18, 2007

Speaking of Heart-Shaped Things: Belgium

HeartshapedstreetlightWe were astonished (and the girls were delighted) to see a series of these Heart-Shaped Traffic Lights in Brussels. We need more of these around the world. They made us smile and hope for lots of red lights to wait at, grinning.

Last weekend we drove from England through France to Belgium and back. Isn't it amazing we can do that? I am still impressed with the Euro-Tunnel under the British Channel. It was our second time using it.

We missed our allotted time slot on the way over to France, but luckily they have a grace period of two hours and just put you on the next available train (there are 4 per hour). No problem.

On the way back, we were a few minutes late for check-in and thought we'd miss that train as well, but we were among the last few cars allowed onboard, and thus we were on the bottom level of the train for the first time (it's a double-decker car-carrier, and we'd always been on top before).

We spent one night in Calais, France (as we had arrived late at night), had fun in the hotel pool in the morning, and then were on our way to Brussels, where David lived from 3rd grade to 8th grade. We toured his old elementary school (where his mom taught kindergarten and preschool), peeked at his old house, and enjoyed some Northern European cuisine. Also speaking of visiting churches around the world, Sunday morning, we stopped by the Brussels Vineyard Church, which has simultaneous translation from English into French for those who need it (with headphones you can pick up at the back).

We walked around a bit in downtown Brussels. Can you name any landmarks? We focused on two: the Grand Place and the Manneken Pis.GrandplacebrusselsMannekenpisscale
Here's a 360 degree rotating view of the Grand Place - we were standing right there, but in my photos it's cloudy and windy and grey. This link shows it better. My main issue with the Grand Place is the grammar of it. Place is feminine in French, and Grand is masculine. I have not been able to find an explanation of this oddness. I would think it would be Grande Place. Oh well. Really, it bothers me each time I say, hear or type it! If someone knows why it is this way, I'd love to hear the reason.

MannekenpisHow would you feel if your town's most famous landmark was a little statue of a boy peeing? That is what the Manneken Pis is. The main impression upon seeing it: it's really small. The same kind of impression we had upon seeing Stonehenge, only a lot worse, because there was no majesty or mystery. Apparently the town used to get their water here, and apparently he pees beer at certain times of the year, when he gets to don various outfits. Very interesting...Actually I think that may be an urban legend. But he does wear different clothes.

NowaffleeatingSo what is Belgium really famous for? Belgian chocolate, Belgian lace and Belgian waffles, right? They really do sell a lot of wonderful-looking waffles along the touristy streets, but what cracked us up was this sign at the front of a lace shop, admonishing people NOT to eat the waffles in front of their window! Since the waffles are often dipped in chocolate, this tied together all three commodities in one shop window.

The chocolate fountains were tempting, and the smells wafting out were mouth-watering. Next post: browsing in the Brussels Chocolate Museum, and walking in the Belgian beech woods where David used to walk his golden lab as a boy.

February 18, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack