Thursday, August 30, 2012

No-Car Update: Grocery Shopping

I apologize for the long post here, I crammed too many of my thoughts in it, but I'm not motivated to trim it down.  If I could give you a prize for making it start to finish, I really would.

But anyway, here we go.

returing home with a full shopping trolley
Skeptics of our no-car plan (about 90% of people we talk to) usually bring up one or both of the following issues:

  1. Difficulty shopping, particularly stocking up on groceries and supplies
  2. Limited options/convenience for travel and special outings, "doing stuff" on the weekends, etc.

(Surprisingly, no one mentions transporting kids to the doctor in case of middle-of-the-night-but-not-ambulance-worthy-medical-emergencies, which is the part that does worry me.)

I will share how we're adapting to #1, but before I go on, I'd like to quickly address two principles on which we operate:

  1. A car is a convenience.  It is not a necessity, provided that you have intentionally arranged other aspects of your life (i.e. work, choice of location/climate, etc) so that it's not.  Just think of how many people and families all over the world survive without a car.
  2. There is no law that says you HAVE to buy in bulk or get the cheapest possible groceries in existence.  You don't HAVE to do massive stock-up trips and buy bulky/heavy amounts that require a car to transport.  We canceled our Costco membership years ago when we realized that a slow-and-steady, low-inventory system was much more our speed.

Pete coined a saying a few years back which I think fits here: "Other people are not malfunctioning versions of yourself."  I suppose people have their set way of doing something and often can't see doing it another way.  So when they say, "But how are you going to stock up on groceries every week/month?" or "But how are you going to go to France/Germany every month/week to get the cheapest groceries?" they are thinking of how they would do their own system without a car.  And the answer is, they wouldn't - they would have to make a new system.  Or live somewhere else.  Or even just be someone else in the first place.

The challenge this summer has been working the shopping trips around my time with the kids, which is of course, all the time.  I learned quickly that one trip per week with the kids is quite enough for me.  There's just that higher level of stress and inefficiency associated with managing the groceries and buses and walks and weather and random hiccups that ALWAYS occur with kids that I'd rather keep to a minimum if possible.  While this aspect of shopping will be much easier when the kids are in school, I will be trading my independence for cold, rain, and occasional snow.  But as of right now, I'm still naively confident and figure I'll cross that snow-covered bridge when I come to it.

Anyway, here's my current system.

2 shopping trolleys, 1 small insulated bag that fits inside about half a shopping trolley, 1 ice pack.  Eventually, umbrella and/or waterproof gear.

Overall Plan:
I/we shop 3 days a week.  I plan 2-3 days of breakfasts, lunches and dinners at a time and shop only for these upcoming days, plus stocking up on a handful of non-perishables each trip.  I go to the store that's on the closest bus route to our place and is also my favorite (we do have one within reasonable walking distance, but with limited selection, higher prices, and fewer open-hours)

If Pete gets home from work by 6:30, I have enough time to eat a quick dinner with the family and then head to the grocery store on the bus.  The store closes at 8pm.  The whole grocery trip from leaving the apartment to getting back takes 1-1.5 hours and I quite enjoy it when the weather is decent.  If Pete has to work late, I just buck up and go on Tuesday morning with the kids instead.
I take the kids on the bus.  This is probably a 1.5 to 2 hour round trip.
Pete or I go alone, or Pete takes one or both kids (walking to the local shop or busing to whatever store seems appropriate)

We recognize that we are making some sacrifices and trades in this system.  We give up the general convenience of the car - which could save us on number of shopping trips, total time spent, and provide more flexibility and shelter from the weather.  We could also conceivably save money buy buying large amounts or traveling to France or Germany for groceries and supplies that we've heard can cost about 30% less (but, there goes some of your convenience and gas money).

But, we feel we can counterbalance these sacrifices by saving money in other ways, such as:

  • no car insurance, gas, maintenance and repairs, not to mention cost of car purchase (and we don't do car payments, period)
  • carefully budgeting for food and sticking to the budget
  • meal planning and sticking to the plan
  • knowing and using what we have, not overbuying or wasting food
  • perishables here spoil quickly - coincides with frequent small trips and not wasting food
  • eating meat only about two times per week, which is enough for us anyway
  • living a generally simple and frugal lifestyle in other areas, thus creating more room in the budget

Plus, the system fits well with our values and lifestyle:

  • eco-friendly travel method
  • increased fresh air and exercise
  • sense of gratification in being resourceful - using pre-existing transportation and "my own two feet," as well as thinking outside the box(car).
  • tangibly passing these values to our kids as they participate in the system
  • a small fridge, minimal storage, and generally minimalist/small living fits perfectly with small grocery trips
  • we're not too busy or over-scheduled with activities, so time is available for grocery shopping and household tasks
  • each shopping trip is simple and relaxed, not overwhelming or marathon-like
  • we're big weirdos anyway, so, yeah.

Oh, and regarding our grocery budget, we'll be tweaking it as we go, but we're averaging around 120-140 Euros per week on strictly food (not household/personal supplies like shampoo, toilet paper, etc) with hardly any eating out.  From what I've heard so far, that's actually relatively low for a Luxembourg family of four.  We have also set aside a budget for a monthly stock up trip for bulky/heavy household supplies (we're starting with 100 Euros), possibly with a rented/borrowed car.  Yet, we could probably manage fine with a couple additional bus trips, or the four of us going together one time a month with the two shopping trolleys and a couple additional carried bags.

This month a friend loaned us a car and I went on a stock-up trip, spending around 70 Euros.  Frankly, it was not an enjoyable experience.  I can only handle a certain amount of time at a huge supermarket (especially where many products/labels are still unfamiliar) before I'm just done with buying stuff.  Maybe that makes me lazy, but then I remember principle #2 from the ages-ago-beginning of this post:  there is no law saying I have to do it!  I find it's also easy to get carried away and go off-script when you're in that stock-up shopping mode as well.  A mentality of "Well, I might as well grab one of these while I'm at it!" takes over.  It's like the old running joke form the US about not being able to visit Costco or Target without spending at least $100.

I will eventually try shopping in France or Germany to see what it's like - maybe a friend will be kind enough take me and provide moral support.  I'm sure I'd find some great deals.  I'll reserve final judgement until then.

Well, again, sorry that was so long, but at least now when someone looks at me with disbelief and asks a "but how?" I can say, "You know, I wrote a blog post about that once, would you like the link?"

Too obnoxious?  Probably.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

No English? Really?

Below is a carton of juice our friends brought over the other day (for a breakfast-for-dinner feast).
also a nice close up of my oddly color-schemed kitchen
As I was about to recycle the carton I became curious about the ingredients. It's very common here to see ingredients in multiple languages on products.  I'd say the average is around 3 or so, and often English does make the cut (and I do a little happy dance in the store when it does).  But I understand that's just a lucky perk when it happens - English is not one of this country's official languages and I must adapt accordingly.

However, this product (or should I say, this obviously highly important, globe-trotting product) featured its ingredients in a whopping 13 languages.

 this is a juice that gets around, people
But no English!  

I had Pete double check just to make sure I hadn't suddenly become illiterate in my mother tongue.

The sneaky part was, right under the name of the brand on the front, it says "Premium Since 1856" in English.  And on another side there is a bunch of flowery ad copy in English (along with German and I think Portuguese).  

I'm mildly offended by this.  Can you tell?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Same But Different: #4

But shouldn't it be "Hippos Gloutons Gloutons?"

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Just some stuff about living here in the summer

In a way I think it's fortunate timing that we're hitting the predicted culture shock stage right about now, in the middle of Luxembourgish summer.  At least the weather is nice, our schedule is really flexible, and we can be as busy or not busy as we want to be.  In general, we aim for just enough activity to keep occupied and not slump into a bad state of mind for lack of other things to focus on.  So far it's going pretty well, but maybe it's just a delay of the inevitable...

But it's kinda funny here right now.  August is the absolute peak of European vacation season.  In Luxembourg, everyone gets 5 weeks total vacation, no matter their occupation (Pete will too!), and most people take a big chunk of that in August.  In the city center, there are always people eating at restaurants and cafes, or touring around on their own vacations from other countries.  But other than this and the occasional evening rush at the grocery store, the rest of the city feels almost deserted at times.

Case in point:  There is a real estate agency directly below our apartment.  One morning, the two gals who work there just didn't show up for work.  The office was closed with no sign or notice posted anywhere.  That afternoon a young man came to drop off some papers and buzzed our door when he couldn't get into the agency.  I explained that I didn't know where they were but that they must be out on an appointment at a property and that they'd probably back soon.

That was 2 over weeks ago.  They just got back yesterday.

Businesses close and people disappear for weeks, and it's just normal.  You just can't imagine that happening in the US.  As Pete reminded me, part of the cultural mindset over here is that they are willing to leave some money on the table in the name of a rest, enjoyment, and balance.  It's kind of nice, actually.

(Along the same lines, if a store is supposed to be open until 6:30, the lights are turned off at 6:15.  At 6:30 the employees expect to be GONE and you'd better be too).

Anyway, the flip side of the August=Vacation culture is that everyone who is here and is working at ANY point during the month of August tends to be grumpy - as if someone forced them to work on Christmas and without holiday pay.  So, combine that with my language handicaps when communicating with these poor unfortunate souls, and let's just say I've received my fair share of eye rolls and scoffs this summer.

One more note about groceries - the shops run out of stuff quick.  If you don't get there by 5, they're not just out of the kind of bread you want - they may be out of all breads, period.  Yesterday I was there right before close and they were completely out of any and all leafy green vegetables.  I think part of the reason they don't stock as much is because perishables here spoil quite quickly.

Some other observations, some summer-related, some not:

  • Europeans love their bottled water.  They buy a constant supply of giant packs of giant bottles.  The water here is very hard, but as far as I know quite safe to drink.  In the States, you tend to get the impression that Europeans are quite eco-conscious, but apparently they didn't get the memo on that one.  At least they seem to do a good job of recycling them.  In other possibly related news, Luxembourg just installed its first public drinking fountain.  No joke.
  • At parks and playgrounds, I'd say there are far fewer parents on their smartphones (even just taking pictures with them) than I noticed in Oregon.  They are most often engaging with their kids or chatting with each other.  The trade off:  there is also a lot more smoking at parks. (I think it's pretty well known that Europe hasn't fully digested the memo on that one either.)
  • Many pools require males to wear Speedos, or at least tight-fitting swim shorts.  We have not yet visited a pool where this is required, and it seems unlikely that we will in the near future if Pete has anything to say about it.  However, this does not change the fact that we've seen plenty of dads in Speedos.  Nothing says, "Why yes, I DO live in Europe" like hanging out at the local pool with vaguely Italian-looking dads smoking cigarettes in their Speedos.
  • Air conditioning in a home (and many stores) is quite unheard of.  I don't think most people even own a fan.  They don't see it as worth it for the maybe 10 days in the high 80s or low 90s each year.  We don't have a fan, and will probably just sweat it out, so to speak.
  • And speaking of sweat, people don't take off their layers when it's hot.  They seem to say, "I've assembled this outfit perfectly and I'll be darned if I ruin it by taking off the jacket component!" Honestly, I think this corner of the world would smell a whole heck of a lot better if we'd just embrace the removal of layers.  It's what they're for, right?  Must have been on the same memo with smoking and water bottles.

The kids have had a playdate here and there this summer, but most people have been gone or busy with their own families' visits.  My plan to get them some good Luxembourgish exposure has pretty much failed, aside from watching the three Luxembourgish DVDs from the library a few times.  I've gotten pretty lazy on my French studying as well.  Oh well.

We've got nearly a month until school starts September 17.  I don't see a whole lot changing for us between now and then.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Same But Different: #3

Well, hey! If isn't Harry

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Parc Merveilleux (Wonderful Park)

Today was a Catholic holiday and Pete had the day off work.  We decided to check out the zoo about 15 minutes south of the city.  We actually have a car on loan for a couple of weeks from a friend who's on vacation in the States, but a quick train and then bus ride put you right at the gate (6-8 Euros for all of us to ride depending on the day).  Admission to the zoo was 30 Euros for all of us, so very comparable to the Oregon Zoo.

So, Parc Merveilleux, in Three Parts:

Part 1: Animals

We really enjoyed how accessible the animals were, particularly for kids.  We hardly ever had to pick them up to look over walls, and most of the animals were out and about and quite easy to see.  I could easily take pictures on my dinky little camera without even zooming in.

Somehow in the US I don't think they'd let us get so up-close and personal with porcupines, for example.

Probably a boring amount of pictures of animals, but thought I'd post a few more because, who knows, someone might be curious as to what animals live in a zoo in Luxembourg.  We didn't get to all of them  this time.

Part 2: Fairy Tales

Ok, so here's where things get a bit different.  Interspersed throughout the animal exhibits were little huts containing partially animatronic dioramas of various fairy tales.  Often there were 2 or 3 dioramas per fairly tale.  Buttons for narration were in German, French, and Luxembourgish.

Cindy, of course.

Final chapter of Little Red (note wolf pelt)
ok, let's see if you can guess this one?
did you guess right?
some were...unfamiliar.
rounding out the fairy tale experience
We're getting more and more accustomed to the sort of whimsical/quaint/ponderous/creepiness that the Luxembourgish seem to enjoy.  I don't think it's as creepy to us as it was at first.


Part 3: Playgrounds
I see Pete.  I don't see the kids.
this thing spins as you climb

I'm on the end other end powering this one.  I remember similar swings at Golden Gate Park as a kid.
 A second, more "organic" playground...

chains...they didn't make it too far up this part
fun little obstacle course
Daphne is easy to spot in her yellow shorts
At first I was skeptical at the thought of playgrounds in the zoo...why can't it be all about the animals without the need for extra entertainment?  But it was actually quite helpful to have the fairy tales and playgrounds mixed in; they provided a way for the kids to let off steam and renew their interest in more rounds of animal-looking.

Bonus Part 4: Rides

Oh yeah, there are were 3 little rides for kids as well, costing 1 Euro each.  We decided to pass on them and save them for next time.  Something to look forward to, and if we're lucky they won't raise the prices before then.

James wants to know if next time is tomorrow.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

If you enjoy wandering oddities on stilts...

....then Luxembourg is the place for you.  It's worth pointing out.

At least these weren't as terrifying as the eyeballs.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Nice Day to Visit Dad

Our Friday began with an impromptu walk down to a little park at the end of the Pertrusse Valley closest to us.  We'd found it back during the school year but the kids had asked to go back, so I thought I'd make their little wish come true.

the park in early July (yes, still in coats and pants)
from today
A big reason they wanted to come back - you can't see it but there's a really, really, really, fast slide going down the hill, with hard dirt at the bottom.  They couldn't try it last time because it was wet and puddly.  Daphne tried a few times today but could never quite land on her feet.

Anyway, I noticed there happened to be a bus stop at the top of the hill, so I decided we'd pay Pete a visit at his office (we're not allowed inside--top secret Amazon stuff), but we went anyway.  First time even going down there during work hours, actually.
waiting for the bus.  something we do A LOT.  we ended up trying 3 new buses today.
too nice out not to stop for ice cream first in the Center (and good motivation to keep following Mommy-Without-a-Real-Plan)
and for a photo-op on an empty fountain
 When we got down to the Grund and to Pete, he took us on a little walk by the river past the office.
the Casemates above - I actually don't really know what they are yet (must be military?) but I know you can tour them! And that they're old.
throwing pebbles in the river 
James on a big pebble

hopefully we made his day a little brighter

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Same But Different: #2 (Going to the Movies)

So I wanted to establish a way for Pete and I to get out on the occasional date, and I also wanted to see The Dark Knight Rises.   In the US, as part of the local MOMS Club I was in a babysitting co-op in which the moms exchanged babysitting using a ticket system.  Then, after a couple years of that, a few of us started trading off the record, figuring it all evens out in the end.  So I am spoiled in that I'm completely unaccustomed to paying for a babysitter.  (Hello, sticker-shock.)

But through the unending magic of the American Women's Club of Luxembourg and Facebook, I was able to set up a babysitting trade!  Another mom and I agreed to exchange a few hours of kid-minding for date nights/afternoons, and we got to go out first!

I don't know why this looks so much like a stock photo but I promise I took it.
We went to Utopolis in Kirchberg, where American films are shown in English.  We didn't have much time to take bloggish-pictures or really savor the experience since we were trying to find the right buses (which turned out had some alternate weekend routes) and basically just make it there and back in a reasonable amount of time.

There were three main differences between the cinematic experience here and in Oregon (and you would call it going to the "cinema," not the "movies."  Although I can't speak to the concession stand, but it looked similar and we saw buckets of popcorn.  I will say we had no trouble smuggling in our own treats like we always did before.  Anyway, the differences:

  1. Before the movie, previews and advertisements are alternated instead of the ad chunk followed by the preview chunk.  The ads were mostly in French, some in German, and with some random English tag-lines thrown in.  Previews were English.
  2. Previews are NOT rated for all audiences.  Thus, we were treated to an extremely foul preview for an upcoming American movie, complete with numerous F-bombs, naked (elderly) people, and graphic sexual dialogue.  Yes, when American trashiness and a European lack of modest sensibilities collide--that's where the real magic happens, folks.
  3. Subtitles during the movie are simultaneously displayed in both French and German, one under the other.  This resulted in an overwhelming compulsion for me to use it as an opportunity to practice my French comprehension skills.  I probably would have enjoyed the movie more if I could have brought myself to ignore the subtitles.
preview (and here I thought I escaped these guys...)
Other than that we could have been in any American theater watching any American movie; it really looked and felt the same.

This truly is an amazing world - I can move half-way around it, yet still set up a babysitting trade with another mom (from the US), and then go see a current American movie in English.

But maybe I'm easily impressed.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

American Women's Club of Luxembourg (AWCL)

One of the first things I did upon moving here was to join the American Women's Club of Luxembourg.  This is a club for English-speaking women of any nationality and has been an invaluable resource for me already.  The Facebook group is particularly helpful, as you can ask almost any question on almost any topic--shopping, travel, recycling, repair services, restaurants, events, etiquette, doctors, on and on--and someone (or lots of someones) chimes in with an answer.

The AWCL "clubhouse" (converted apartment) just a couple blocks from our place.  Here, they hold gatherings such as welcome coffees and nights out.  They also carry some American groceries (think Jiff and Cheerios), and stock American/English books and DVDs to check out.  There's someone woman-ing the front desk several hours a day if you have a question or need a chat (in English).  There are also sub-groups you can join based on your interests, such as cooking, hiking, scrapbooking, and French conversation to name just a few, which often use the clubhouse as a meeting space.

at one of the monthly Welcome Coffees

shelf of groceries in the kitchen
I am amazed and thankful that such a resource exists here.  I've met lots of interesting and amiable women already through the group, and between the AWCL and the similarly acronym-ed ANCL (All Nations Church of Luxembourg), I am keeping one foot solidly in the English-speaking/expat world.  The tricky part continues to be planting the other foot in the immigrant/non-expat world that we more technically "belong" in, with Pete's indefinite local work contract and the kids in the local schools.  We'll be working on that one for a long time before we really feel comfortable.  I think once people return from their summer holidays (they city's sort of emptied out right now) and the kids more fully integrate into school this coming fall, it will get a bit easier.  And as I learn more French.  Ack.

Oh, and there's a British Ladies Club of Luxembourg as well!  Haven't checked that one out yet.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Flight Recommendations - Portland (PDX) to Luxembourg (LUX)

Just a brief post in case you're thinking about a trip to Luxembourg.

Which we hope you are!

As far as we know, here is the easiest way to get to Luxembourg from Portland (if that's what your aiming to do rather than stop here on the way to somewhere else or as part of your grand European tour):

Delta Airlines has a flight from PDX to Amsterdam.  Balpark 9-10 hours.  Then KLM (Delta) has a flight from Amsterdam to Luxembourg that's about an hour.  You can do the whole trip in under 13 hours (basically no layover).  Going back is pretty similar.

Price: Of course this may change over time, but as of this writing, and based on the couple of flights we've done, if you can get the tickets for under $1000 each, that's probably a pretty good deal.

Of course, if you make it out here, you've got your lodging and food covered, so all in all it's not so bad, eh??

Here's a screen shot of a sample Delta flight.  As I somewhat randomly chose a few dates between now and next summer (when I'm betting you can't get tickets for under $1000!), this was representative of about the best I found:

So, if you're considering a visit, keep any eye on those flights!!

P.S. Extra incentive: 2 hr high speed train to Paris from here!!  Germany, Belgium, and other countries also within spitting distance.