Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Post-Thanksgiving Post

a turkey that size would NEVER fit in a European oven.  BBQ it is.
Thanksgiving came and went with little fanfare.  Pete worked.  The kids had school, but it just so happened that they were ill and stayed home (and I am pretty sure some of the parents and teachers suspected we were playing hooky for our American holiday).   I could have placed an order for a turkey, cans of pumpkin, and other Thanksgiving fare through the American Women's Club a few weeks ago, but I decided it wasn't worth the trouble and expense.

We had vegetarian chili for dinner.

An approximate 2pm gathering and mealtime for our families in Oregon meant for a brief Skype with Pete's side of the family and an even briefer phone call with mine before we headed off to bed.

Many Americans learn quickly here that if you're going to "do Thanksgiving" with your family, you may as well opt for the Saturday after.  No work, no school, and plenty of time to cook and hang out.  Fortunately, our friends Peter and Marcia (from church and borrowed-their-concrete-drill-for-several-weeks-to-hang-pictures-and-light-fixtures fame) invited us to a traditional American feast.  As they are former military, they can do much of their grocery and household shopping year-round at a full-on American grocery store at a nearby military base in Germany.  We were joined at their house on Saturday afternoon by a couple of other Americans - but this is a Luxembourg after all, so of course there was a Brit and a German thrown in to round out the group.

we all loved Marcia's mix-and-match China set, we each got a different place setting...
and James got the best one, for sure.
We even got to do some singing of our thanks.  (Marcus plays professional basketball in the Luxembourgish basketball league.  Who knew?)
a rare photo of the two of us
As much as I am not a person tied too strongly to American traditions, or any traditions for that matter, I am grateful to Peter and Marcia for recognizing that this was our first Thanksgiving away from the U.S. and our extended families and reaching out to invite us.  I even made my "traditional" sweet potatoes.  If it had been left up to my lazy self, I probably would have just let it go.  Instead, we can treasure a special memory of our first Thanksgiving in Luxembourg.

Peter and Marcia, you've now saved us twice.  Many thanks!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

6 Months in Luxembourg: Update

a sunset from our balcony
Happy Thanksgiving, America!  It's definitely not a holiday today in Luxembourg.  We will be celebrating with some American friends on Saturday.  We're contributing sweet potatoes, of course.

Tomorrow marks 6 months since we moved to Luxembourg, and yes, it's flown by.  I think we're due for an overall summary and update on our experience so far.

Culture Shock and Homesickness: This hasn't been as bad as we expected.  Sure, there were rough patches and difficult adjustments, but if we were going to hit a rock bottom I suspect we probably would have by now.  It is also quite possible that we were sort of Europe-y people to begin with (or at least not intensely American, if that makes sense).

We miss our family and friends - that's the most difficult part.  We don't particularly pine for the USA or Oregon or Portland.  I still miss familiar comforts such as my stand-up vacuum, wall-to-wall carpets, Trader Joe's, Mexican food, and walking around without hyper-vigilance to avoid dog droppings on the sidewalk.   I was surprised at how quickly I adjusted to things like our tiny sink with no garbage disposal - I don't even notice it anymore, whereas it sort of drove me crazy at first.  It's all about finding the right system and routine.

Overall, I think the fact that we can treat Luxembourg as home because we are here indefinitely makes it easier.  I think we'd all be more homesick if we were constantly thinking of the the U.S. as our "real home," making frequent trips back and forth, always mindful of the date we'd return for good.  We are free to assimilate into the local culture as much as we are willing and able.

Home and Neighborhood:  We love our location.  We feel fortunate to have found our place for the price this close to the city, yet it's still a very quiet neighborhood.  We like our apartment, it has very functional layout, more than enough space, and we and enjoy the fact that it's all on one floor.  The only downside is not being able to send the kids upstairs to go crazy every once in awhile - instead, all the crazy happens in close proximity to everything/one else.  We recently made a fun purchase for our apartment, which I'll save for another post.  Meanwhile, our house back in Oregon is still rented - no problems yet on that front.  We don't miss it.

School:  Between last June/July and this fall, the kids have completed a total of 15 weeks of school, so about 3.5 or so months.  Considering this was our biggest concern in moving here, we really can't complain so far.  The kids leave for school each morning and return each afternoon in excellent spirits almost without fail.  Academically, they are both doing great.  Daphne practically aced her first German test and she tells me the teachers are calling her "the best!" in front of other students which is a bit embarrassing to her.  She enjoys learning German and Luxembourgish, as well as her religion class, gym, and math.  James' favorite part of school is "playing" and lunchtime.  We've puzzled at the way the school and the teachers operate sometimes because it's different and unfamiliar, but that's to be expected.

Socially, it's not perfect and not all the kids are "nice," of course, but there have been no major problems such as blatant bullying or rejection/isolation this school year.  There are a couple of English-speaking kids at the school in different grades with whom Daphne interacts on a regular basis, which has been a welcome comfort to her.

We are reassured and confident that attending the local school here is an amazing and worthwhile opportunity for our kids, no matter what the future holds.  I'm reminded, though, of what a difficult decision process this was 6 months ago!

Friends:  The kids have a handful of friends from church and from school and we've had a few playdates with each.  I am beginning to make friends with several of the moms at school.  When the weather is decent, many kids and their parents stick around at the playground after school, and this has been a great opportunity to get to know them better.  So many of the other moms have been incredibly welcoming, kind, and friendly.  My closest friends are still probably the people I've met at church, since I think it's just easier to fall into a natural, closer interaction without navigating too many cultural or lingual differences.  But I love the amazing variety of people I've had the opportunity to meet through the school.  It's one of the main highlights, for me, of living here.  And because we all live within walking-distance to school, it's very easy to get together.

Languages:  James is still learning all Luxembourgish (which is like a German dialect but still quite distinct, and largely spoken and not written), while Daphne is continuing to pick it up casually at lunchtime (1.5 hours on M-W-F) and recess and a little bit each week in class.  She is simultaneously learning to read, write, and speak German, and this is the language of instruction.

If I had to guess (and I do have to!), I'd say both kids understand roughly half of what's being said at school.  I suspect James may be more "fluent" in Luxembourgish but it's hard to know because he's less talkative in general.   From the beginning, they could usually figure out what they were supposed to be doing based on gestures and some English translation on the side.  Now, Daphne describes German like this: "I can always understand when there are motions and words together, and sometimes I understand when it's just words."  If either of them are asked a simple question in German/Luxembourgish, they can answer back in German/Luxembourgish most of the time.  So while they understand simple directions and sentences, I don't think they'd be able to follow, say, a movie or large chunks of dialogue between others speaking.  They talk to their classmates and teachers in a sort of "broken" German or Luxembourgish with the occasional complete sentence.  Sometimes they do this with each other at home as well, but it's the exception.

My French is coming along, albeit very, very slowly.  I haven't been super diligent or regimented in my studies, but I try to fit in a podcast when I can, and I'm encouraging friends to speak more French around me.  I use more around town as well, but mostly still ask if people speak English first so I can understand what they say to me in return.  I have attended French Conversation at the American Women's Club almost every Monday since September.  Let's just say I'm better than when I first arrived and call it good.

Work: Pete loves his job and walking to work.   He walks the kids to school each morning on his way, and gets home around 6:30pm (excuse me -18:30) most evenings.  He builds complex Excel tools all day, which is kind of his dream job.  Again, no complaints here!  And I should add that he's had almost no culture shock.  Somehow I'm not surprised.

Church: We still attend the first church we visited upon moving here (English-speaking), and it's really starting to feel ours.  I'm sure jumping right in and getting involved with the music has also reduced the impact of culture shock, and it provides a much-needed creative outlet. We've met some wonderful friends and have received a lot of great help and advice.
Operation Christmas Child!
Travel:  We haven't done much except for a few local trips.  Our most immediate goals are a trip to England to visit family and to Paris for fun.  However, we don't feel rushed as we are not on a specific schedule to move back to the U.S.

Weather:  The weather has been very similar to Oregon (although a bit colder) which has probably also gone along way toward culture shock prevention.  The weather forecast on my phone often says "Dreary."  Is that a technical weather term?  Seems rather subjective to me.  Anyway, today = fog.

Transportation: Life without a car has been fine, for lack of a better descriptive word.  It's not always fun or convenient, but it suits us well.  I spend a lot of my "free time" while the kids are at school trekking from place to place on foot or by bus, but I don't mind.  We've borrowed or rented cars about a half a dozen times since arriving.  The hardest thing for me is adjusting back to no-car after we borrow one for awhile.  I get spoiled and I really don't want to leave the house the first time I must go grocery shopping after we've returned a car.  But it's okay.  And I don't feel bad about relying on others for transportation every once in awhile.  People seem happy, even eager, to share.  Overall we do not miss having a car, and people still think we're wackadoo.

Food/Shopping:  We're still going grocery shopping three times a week.  It would be great if I could reduce it down to two eventually.  I've developed a decent arsenal of dinner recipes I can make with the available ingredients.  When we eat out, we usually get doner kebabs or Indian food.  We're buying most of our clothes at H&M (they're everywhere!).

Communication:  Sigh.  This is not my strong suit under normal circumstances - staying in touch, making regular contact and communication a priority.  I hope my family and friends accept and re-accept my apologies.  Between Facebook, email, video chat, and regular old phones, there's never been an easier time to move to a foreign country and stay in touch.  However, one of the main reasons I blog here is that it's my way of reaching out to friends and family to stay in touch.  Maybe it seems impersonal and one-way at times, but I'm comfortable with it so I just go with it.  I think of you all specifically at different times as I write and share, hoping you are reading and that we are connecting in this way.  All this to say - I do it because I love you!!!!

In the spirit of 2-way communication, however, do you have any questions or comments about our first 6 months?  An area I didn't touch on that you're curious about?

(P.S. As I read back over this, I realize it's a bit sunshine and flowers.  Please know that it's really not always.  There are bad days and really bad days, but we also tend to set our expectations on the low side.  I think that overall our experience has been positive, and that what I've written probably just reflects that.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Languishing at Language Level Zero

As a monolingual American in polyglot Luxembourg, much of my day is spent feeling pretty stupid and inferior.  Now, some of you may protest: "No!  You're being too hard on yourself, it's not actually a measure of your intelligence!"  Yet when you're faced with polylignualism day in and day out, "stupid" is a hard feeling to shake.  Most people living here speak at least two languages, but the average seems more like three or four.

Granted, it's not entirely my fault.  When you can travel hundreds of miles in any direction from your home and still speak English, there's no pressing motivation to learn other languages unless you have a particular goal in mind - perhaps specific travel or occupational aspirations.  I certainly never had a goal like this.  It was only a year or two ago when we put "live in a foreign country for a year" on our bucket list, and even that was still extremely vague and frankly I was never really sure if I actually meant it.  But, whoops, it kinda happened.  The power of writing your goals down...

Yet, even many Americans do better than Pete and me, having invested the time and effort to become bilingual or at least moderately bilingual by taking more that bare minimum of language courses in high school and college (and thank you to these smarty-pants Americans who make us look even more stupid).  But even then, their second language is often Spanish.  However, you might be surprised - this actually comes in more handy than you might think here!  If you are attempting to integrate into the local culture, ANY second language will allow you to talk with some folks in Luxembourg, as it seems you're bound to encounter nearly every language in existence at some point.  Pete has used more Spanish here than any other time in his life, even though he took the bare minimum at school.  (At his workplace, the language of business is not only English, it's American English.)

Still, it's quite humbling to constantly be stuck at what we call Language Level Zero.  Level Zero is just recognizing what language you're hearing in the first place.

Whether you're in a cafe, store, bus, or walking around town, you're constantly catching snippets of conversations, only a very small fraction of which are in English.  You instantly feel that ever-so-familiar-friend "stupid" settle in as your puzzler begins its puzzling.  An overwhelming, visceral sense of just how painfully slow your own brain is washes over you - as if your all your supposedly lightning-quick neurons were replaced by a bunch of snails and sloths taking naps.

Sample brain quotes:

"Ok, that's definitely French.  I think.  I'm pretty sure."
"Um, was that German or Luxembourgish?  Eh, it's sounds too French-y for German, it must be Luxembourgish."
"Could that have been some form of Russian...no wait...Portuguese???"  (I swear, sometimes they sound similar! Really!)
"Come on, brain! You can do this! Focus!!"
"Oh...wow...I have absolutely no idea what that just was."
"Ok, I'm pretty sure that last one was Danish.  Process of elimination."
"No, actually, never mind.  I give up.  Language Level Negative One for me." :(

While completely humbling and mind-boggling, it's also fascinating and wonderful.  Here are just a few recent day-in-the life situations:

I just met a mom at school who's half British, half Italian.  But she lived in New Jersey and the Netherlands for awhile.  Her husband is Luxembourgish.  She speaks Americanish-English, French, German, Luxembourgish, Dutch, Italian....Aaaahhh!!!!!

We attended a dinner party hosted by a Canadian and Mexican-American couple.  We feasted on amazing authentic Mexican food (hallelujah!).  Several Canadians attended, plus another American, but also a Russian, an Italian, and a Swiss gal with an American accent.  We all spoke English that night (hallelujah!).

At school I heard two moms talking.  I happen to know that one speaks Portuguese (from Brazil) and the other speaks Spanish (from Paraguay) - both among other languages, of course.  As I listened out of one ear I thought I heard some Spanish.  I asked afterwards what language they were speaking.  They told me (in English) that one was speaks Portuguese and the other speaks Spanish back, and they can pretty much understand each other.  (People do this sort of thing A LOT here!)

Daphne found one of her school friends at the park.  I located the mom and introduced myself, asking if she speaks English.  She said no, only Serbian and French.  We sort of muddled through a French conversation, with lots of gestures and mostly sharing really basic information, but we managed to "chat."  If I understood correctly (perhaps doubtful?), they moved to Luxembourg 11 years ago in part so their kids could learn more languages.  I think her husband makes pizzas at an Italian restaurant.  And why not?

Let's see, what else: at school there's the Hungarian-Italian couple.  And the French-German/Irish couple who speak English at home.  And the couple from Peru who lived in France before here.  And the couple from Switzerland about to move to New Jersey.  And the Chinese couple with a son who's the only other Enlgish-speaker in Daphne's class.

In my friend's neighborhood there is a large concentration of Icelandic folks.  Huh?

Ah, Luxembourg, you crazy little country, you.

(We all say that.  It means "bye-bye"- from Italian, of course.  Yep.)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Metz Cathedral and the Birth of "Simplicity Sightseeing"

Saint Stephen's Cathedral - Metz, France.
The kids had this past week off school, and Pete took the week off from work (Europe = more vacation time!).  We spent the first part of the week just hanging out as we typically do - lots of pajamas, music, walks, playgrounds, leisurely meals, and unstructured play for the kids.

Thursday was a national holiday, and Friday we had a borrowed car from a church friend on vacation.  Although we really are quite content generally lazing about, we decided we MUST get out and do SOMETHING.  We chose to visit France for the first time since arriving in Luxembourg.  The closest town of note is Metz, 45 minutes directly south.

We woke up on Friday to cold, gray, wind, and diagonal rain, but we weren't going to let that deter us.  After some Google searching I identified a half-a-dozen "sights" we could visit in Metz.  I should re-emphasize here that carefully plotted sight-seeing isn't really our thing, so we planned on mostly winging it anyway.

We packed a lunch since we'd planned to eat out for dinner later.  We found an awning and feasted like...hobos.
amazingly, the restaurant staff didn't make us leave.
Then we quickly headed for the shelter of the cathedral.  We spent quite a while perusing the particuarly large expanses of stained glass windows (Wikipedia now tells me they're the largest in the world??), installed gradually over the span of several centuries.

Pete and I had a fun moment when we both recognized the unmistakable work of Marc Chagall on several of the panels.  We had visited the Marc Chagall museum in Nice, France on our trip with our church choir in 2005.
one of the three Chagall windows
We also admired and discussed the pipe organ at length:

Then came this awkward moment when we decided to leave the cathedral, but didn't know if we should do any more exploring of Metz.  Maybe we were just wimpy about the weather, but somehow we decided to split up for a few minutes and then meet back at the parking garage.   I took Daphne and Pete took James.  Comparing our photos afterward we both discovered we'd taken pictures of the kids in front of pastries:

And Daphne got a shot of me in front of the cathedral:

Even though Daphne had been keen to explore a bit more (hence the split from James and Pete), after grabbing our pastry snack she was satisfied and ready to go home.

So that's what we did.  We went to France, saw a cathedral, got a pastry, and went home.  But why did we feel sort of weird and "lame" about it?  We drove to France for the first time and that's all we did?

I pondered these feelings for a bit.  Then I had an epiphany.

One of my favorite books is called Simplicity Parenting.  As the title would suggest, the author is an advocate of a "less is more" parenting style.  By limiting their toys and activities to a select few, children are able to more deeply and thoroughly enjoy and appreciate what they have/do.  For us, this philosophy spills beyond our parenting into how we generally try to live our lives.

And thus, my French epiphany: "Simplicity Sightseeing."

Why should our approach to sightseeing be any different then the way we do everything else?  Why should we feel pressure to "see everything" a place has to offer in order to make the trip worth while?  Why can't we intentionally pick and choose, slowly savor?  Might this approach be more meaningful and memorable for the kids as well?  By avoiding overstimulation and rushing from place to place, they can more thoroughly enjoy the simple pleasure of a simple experience, with the resulting memories more deeply ingrained.

It was so pleasant to just be sheltered from the elements and slowly soak in the beauty of the cathedral as a family, taking the time to notice and discuss the details.

So! Henceforth, we are officially done feeling strange or guilty or "lame" for not doing more when it comes to sightseeing.  The key from now on will be to make this an intentional approach.  Imagine we'd set out on Friday with the clear intention: "Let's go see the cathedral in Metz, grab a nice French pasty, and then head home" instead of: "Let's go explore the top 5 things Tripadvisor told me to do in Metz because we only have a car for a limited time so we need to make the most of it." It would have been true to our family's approach to life and thus completely satisfying.  No lingering feelings of loser-sightseeing or not seizing the appropriate opportunities.

The next time we go to Metz I think we will go with the express purpose of visiting the Pompidou Center (annex to the famous Pompidou modern art museum in Paris).  It's right next to the train station so we don't even need to borrow a car.  Then we'll grab a pastry and go home.  Grabbing a pastry is an essential tenant of Simplicity Sightseeing, just so you know.

Are there any other Simplicity Sightseers out there?  Does this approach appeal to anyone else?  Let me know!