School Days

I’ve only ordered one thing online from the States since we moved here at the beginning of March. It was our homeschool curriculum. I ordered and had it shipped via UPS. After a few small glitches and a few large moments of panic, we finally received the package. The short version of the story: if you’re having something shipped overseas, pay the taxes online or they’ll show up at your door and ask for cash and they don’t accept credit cards. I am usually pretty good about keeping some cash on hand here in Europe, but I didn’t have any the first day he tried to deliver. Then I realized I could pay the invoice online. So I stalked and practically accosted our poor UPS driver the next time he came to deliver. There’s a pretty good chance the he thinks I’m completely nuts. There’s also a pretty good chance he’s not wrong…

A lot of homeschoolers use a school-year schedule. That doesn’t seem to work well for our family, so we homeschool year-round. This works well for us as we take breaks at different times. In Austin, we often take off the entire month between Thanksgiving and Christmas and then homeschool during the hot summer days instead. This year the flexibility has been quite a gift. We have done so much traveling that there’s no way the kids would thrive in a regular school environment. We “do school” on weekdays when we’re in Leuven and we take breaks whenever we travel.

I wasn’t the only one who was excited to receive new books!

We pulled out all of the materials and the kids tried to read about half of the books while I tried to check everything off the packing list. There are a lot of books!!!

These are the Instructor’s Guides that are all about to be sorted into the BIG binder sitting on my lap. This guidebook is my primary resource during the school year.

If you know me, you’ll know that I love to be organized. I love to be able to have a place for everything. This is one of the things I most enjoy about buying a boxed curriculum. All I have to do is sort this out and follow the directions.

I love to set up all my Instructor’s Guide every year. This is me in my happiest of happy places.

We have chosen to use a literature-based curriculum, so we spend a LOT of our day reading. I hope the kids will someday look back on their days as homeschoolers and remember us snuggled up together with a good book (or 70). In addition to the “spine” of our BookShark curriculum, both kids are using Beast Academy Online for math (although they both enjoy reading the comic-book style textbooks, too). They are working on Keyboarding Without Tears so they can learn proper typing techniques. We are using All About Spelling to improve their spelling skills. Laine is about half-way through her final level of All About Reading. It will be bittersweet when she finishes that particular curriculum as she started it with the Pre-reading level several years ago and it’s been a big part of our homeschool for both of my kids.

This year’s piles of books are all sorted into their categories – at least temporarily. That binder Isaac is holding up is the Instructor’s Guide. This is *just* the new curriculum, so it doesn’t show all of the extra stuff they’re working on.

Another of our favorite parts of the new school year is taking the first-day pictures. While my son isn’t always eager to be in front of the camera, this day we all had a lot of fun with it because the kids got to pose with their favorite toys and wear their favorite outfits… after I got the “official” shots. Give and take, right? Thank goodness I remembered to pack their school shirts back in February!

Fourth Grade Boy
Second Grade Girl – without shoes because we homeschool
Ready for another year of elementary school

I also got them to take a few shots with the teacher. This is my fifth year guiding our homeschool and I am thankful for the time we’ve had. Homeschool has been the right answer for our family, particularly this year, and I hope we get to continue this for a long time to come.

Back to School!
One last “official” photo

Our school year is off to a great start. On the weeks when we finish everything we’re supposed to finish, we go out for a little treat on Friday afternoons to celebrate. We’re trying to fit in all of the Belgian waffles we can while we still can. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

München Again

At the end of July, we caught up with some German friends in Munich! This was our second trip to Munich in as many months, but it was fun all over again. We had an *amazing* time catching up with our friends! Todd & I were friends with Christian & Elke before any of us had kids. We met for the first time in Munich when we crashed a party for Elke’s birthday. They later moved to Austin, where our families started growing and we all started camping together. They moved to California a few years ago and we’ve missed them tremendously. As we don’t seem to be able to coordinate a trip in the U.S. (something about jobs and 5 kids between 2 families), we managed to catch up in Europe this time, doubly amusing because none of us actually live in Germany…

Germany is one of our family’s favorite places to visit. I think the primary reason for this can be summed up in one phrase: beer gardens. Even if you don’t imbibe, there’s something to be said for eating at a picnic table while the kids run around and play on the playground instead of having to sit at the table while the boring adults chat on and on forever. Everyone wins! There are large pretzels, apfelschorle, good bratwursts, and plenty of space for the kids to roam and play while the grown-ups hang out. Thus, once we were checked in to our hotel for the evening, we were off to the beer garden for dinner and catching up with our friends.

The hotel turned out to be fun, as well. Our room had a large bed for Todd and me, plus two bunks. There was a (small) ball pit downstairs in reception, which was a great place for the kids to play during check in and check out. There was a foosball table. And the breakfasts were very good, so we didn’t have to hunt down food early in the mornings.

Our first full day in Munich, we headed to Olympic Park. Todd and I went there several years ago (the same year we crashed Elke’s birthday party), but we didn’t go to the top of the tower then as we did this year. The view from the top is unparalleled!

Looking down on the Olympic Park and beyond

We headed to lunch once we’d finished enjoying the views from on high. Great news! At the top of the hill, we found the beer garden. While this one didn’t have a playground, there was a patch of forest close by, so the kids were able to explore there while the baby napped and the parents chatted.

The next day, we had a park play date. Christian and Elke arranged the fun and then offered to watch our kids while Todd and I did some shopping. I bought a new dirndl (I bought a used one 15 years ago and it’s worn out) and Todd finally bought lederhosen. Elke’s family left early to head to their next hotel destination. We were staying in Munich for an extra night, so we joined our other friends for dinner in Munich instead. If you guessed we found another beer garden, you’d be right! This one had 2 playgrounds so the kids were thrilled. We stayed out way too late with our new friends before catching the tram back to our hotel.

The following morning we had a leisurely breakfast in our hotel before packing up and moving on to follow Christian and Elke to the next destination. After figuring out how to navigate the partially-closed railway system, we found our way to a wonderful new hotel. This one is about a half-mile walk from the train station (but it’s out in the country and you can see it from the station). The best part? The beer garden is part of the hotel property! The kids saw their friends and scrambled over the fence to play while Todd and I checked in. Our friends were hosting a large group of local friends and we got to enjoy the party. The kids played all afternoon in the open field beside the tables. We took Laine and her friend Milena for a rock-climbing adventure in the woods behind the hotel. A full day of outdoor time led to some DEEP sleep that night!

Going up!

We spent the last couple of days of our trip in Würzburg, which was absolutely beautiful. We had the chance to learn some of the city’s history from locals (it helps that we were traveling with them)! In particular, we learned that on 16 March 1945, about 90% of the city was destroyed in 17 minutes by fire bombing from 225 British Lancaster bombers during a World War II air raid. Many of the residents hid in the hillside caves during the raid.

All of the city’s churches, cathedrals, and other monuments were heavily damaged or destroyed. The city center, which mostly dated from medieval times, was totally destroyed and 5,000 people perished. Once the war had ended, the city was rebuilt reasonably quickly and primarily by women. It took about 20 years. (There are some areas of Europe that are still rebuilding even after 75 years). They tried to rebuild everything just as it had been before the war. Every year at the time the fire bombing occurred, the church bells in all of the local churches chime for 17 minutes.

We climbed to the top of the Marienberg Fortress for an amazing view of the city. There is a lovely garden at the top and the kids had a great time running around and preparing to fight battles on the garden steps. Thankfully there weren’t many visitors that day, so we didn’t have to worry about them disturbing other patrons.

A beautiful garden overlooks the city across the river below
Vacation mode!

While the view was lovely and the kids were entertained, we could see the rain coming in the distance, so it was time to move on. We found another beer garden for lunch. We hadn’t been in a beer garden for nearly 24 hours at that point, though, so we were overdue.

Fields in the foreground, the river, and the oncoming rain in the background. We spent a lot of time trying to identify all of the church steeples from up here. So many churches!

The beer garden where we lunched was down alongside the river. If you look closely at the photo above, you can see a lock on the near side of the river. This allows the barges to move back upstream. While we were at lunch, we got to see two barges in the locks with the water levels rising. The kids were unimpressed, but the adults were fascinated! As we were watching the lock flooding with water, I looked up to see dozens of people on the bridge overhead watching as well.

We did a short walking tour of the city after lunch, crossing the bridge into the city center. We were able to see the room in the Rathaus (town hall) where our friends were married before they moved to the States. We also peeked our heads in at the Residence, but decided not to pay to tour. The kids were ready for some fun. We found playgrounds for them and they got to let off a bit of steam.

That evening we returned to our hostel for some rest before catching a flight the next morning. They had a nice breakfast set up, so we ate there in the mornings. Isaac and Todd were able to squeeze in one last game of foosball in the lobby before we left.

Isaac’s favorite feature of the hostel…

Museum of Natural Sciences

Science museum love continued in Brussels! We visited The Museum of Natural Sciences to learn more about dinosaurs, mosasaurs, bears, and evolution.

Naturally, our first stop was the dinosaurs. There’s a fancy app and also a set of downloadable questions for kids. We started both and gave them up pretty quickly. You’d have to read nearly everything in the museum to be able to answer all of the questions and our kids didn’t want to “do school.”

Isaac watched a video on Tyrannosaurus Rex and learned a ton.

Isaac watched a video at the foot of this display and was bubbling over with new info afterwards. Apparently T Rex wasn’t so much a predator as a vulture. It seems they preferred to eat meat that was already dead (carrion). That said, they did have some major battles. This particular dinosaur had several broken bones in various stages of healing, as well as a hole in the skull that was approximately the right size for another T Rex to have bitten it. The dinosaur survived the bite to the skull and was killed by something else.

Unbelievably, I managed not to take a picture of the iguanadons in the room. This is remarkable because they are all together in large glass cases, their bones are black, and they’re clearly the main draw of the room. One of the fascinating things about the display, however, is that as you’re walking through, you learn that the iguanadons, each modeled as standing on its two rear feet, would not actually have walked that way. And as you stand and look at them, you realize how massive the bones to the forelegs are, so they were clearly designed to help carry the dinosaur’s weight. Due to the fragile state of the bones, the museum is not able to modify the displays. If you’re interested to see more about this, there’s a quick video here from the museum itself.

These iguanadons were discovered in a coal mine, which helps to explain some of the darkening of the bones. The bones were also treated and sealed with a chemical which further darkened over time, making the bones appear black. As you walk down into the lower levels of the museum, you can see what the cave looked like and how the dinosaurs were found there.

I couldn’t capture the whole space at once. There were a lot of bones there!

The theory is that these dinosaurs were trapped by a flood or mud slide as it made its way through a swamp. The area of the coal mine was a low point, and thus, final resting place, for whatever dinosaurs had been caught by it.

“Major discovery bones in fault Bernissart coal mine STOP Pyrite deterioration STOP Send Depauw to arrive Mons station tomorrow 8 AM STOP Will be there STOP Urgent STOP Gustave Arnaut.”

In addition to all of the amazing dinosaurs, we also learned more about mosasaurs, which are Isaac’s favorite prehistoric creature. This is the second time we’ve been exposed to mosasaurs. The first time, we were on vacation in Big Bend National Park (which used to be completely underwater). Isaac would like me to note that mosasaurs are NOT dinosaurs. No marine dinosaurs have been discovered to date.

I honestly think this picture is why Isaac likes mosasaurs so much. There was a very similar one posted in Big Bend, as well.

The fossil on display here is massive – I couldn’t photograph the whole thing. Seeing the skeleton was impressive – there was no fossil on display in Big Bend. The mosasaur had enormous teeth, a long body, strange flippers, and an exceptionally long tail.

“At the end of the age when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, marine lizards, often gigantic in size, roamed the seas. They were mosasaurs.”

The museum has a large area dedicated to the evolution of humankind. If you’ve read or watched any documentaries on this, you may be familiar with “Lucy.” It was very cool to see a replica of her skeleton. I remember watching a documentary on her several years ago when Isaac was a baby.

The skeleton of “Lucy”

Our final stop in the museum was in a display on bears. There was some info on Theodore Roosevelt and the invention of the teddy bear. There were also some neat displays about bears in children’s books (e.g., Winnie the Pooh, Paddington, and Baloo from The Jungle Book). The kids enjoyed some of the interactive sections about how bears live and what they eat.

Mama Bear and stages of a cub’s life

After a fun afternoon exploring the museum, we grabbed a few chocolate-covered waffles near the station and headed home to Leuven.

Choo Choo!

Schaerbeek, a suburb of Brussels, has an amazing train museum. We had the chance to go explore it one Sunday in July. They advise you to plan at least 1 1/2 hours for your tour. We took 4 hours and it was fantastic. There were lots of ways to engage the kids and my train-loving heart was thrilled.

The trip started on the right foot. We arrived at the station about 15 minutes before our trains was scheduled to depart. This is probably a new record for us. We’re usually lucky to have 7 minutes… We boarded the front of the train where the conductor and the engineer were on break. They heard us talking as Todd pointed at the open door to the driver’s seat. They driver invited the kids to come sit in her seat and see what it looks like to drive the train. Both kids were excited at the chance to do that and Laine was thrilled the driver was a woman.

Once she was seated, they raised the seat so she could see over the dash.

One of the things we’ve learned to ask in every museum is whether they have an activity for kids. This museum had a fun treasure hunt. The kids were to find the letters associated with various types of food hidden throughout the museum. They would then use the fruits to spell out a phrase, find the treasure box, and claim their prize in the gift shop. Along with this, the food items were usually placed alongside some other activities the kids could choose to participate in. The first activity was to pretend you ran a food cart and draw what you would sell.

Our little artist added watermelon to the array of items in the notebook.

The first room was set up as the depot and had seating for Laine to draw. Around the perimeter of the room, there were models of over a dozen types of steam locomotives. Most were at a 1:10 scale, but this one was a bit larger and the most unusual:

The placard alongside this one notes “Steam locomotive Puffing Billy (1813) used in English collieries, at scale 1/5, Central Workshop Mechelen”

The depot is the introduction to the train museum, but most of the museum is in a second building. We walked out through the back of the depot on our way to the rest of the museum.

This greeted us as we stepped outside…

Belgium is quite proud of its history with trains. Brussels was the first European capital to have a railway connection, which began May 5, 1835. At the time, Belgium had only been independent for 5 years. It seceded from The Netherlands in 1830.

There shall be established in the Kingdom a system of railways with Mechelen as its hub, extending eastward towards the Prussian frontier via Leuven, Liège, and Verviers, northward via Antwerp, westward to Ostend via Dendermonde, Ghent and Bruges and southward to Brussels and to the French border through Hainaut.

Act of 1 May 1834 ordering the creation of the Belgian State Railways
Steam Engine Type 10 from 1913

The Type 10 was designed by Jean-Baptiste Flamme of Belgium. Flamme was already famous in the steam locomotive world for another another invention. In 1905, he developed a technique to increase the efficiency of steam locomotives by means of super-heating. They heated the steam in the boiler to 425 degrees Celsius, so condensation no longer takes place. This allowed the locomotives to run faster and more efficiently, thus they soon were able to exceed 100 km/h (62 mph). Until the end of the steam era, virtually all locomotives were to be equipped with Flamme’s super-heaters. The Type 10 engine above included this new technology and was able to run at 120 km/h. It was the most powerful locomotive in that category. (All of this info was on placards within the museum).

We see electric trains all the time as we travel across Europe. We also see the occasional diesel engine as it hauls freight. There are fences along all of the tracks, so we never get close to a train unless we’re in the station and standing on a raised platform. It’s easy to forget how big these trains are when you can’t stand too close to the tracks. But they’re big!

Same engine, different angle

We were able to climb into the cab of several different types of steam engine in this room. There are so many gears and handles to pull that it’s a little overwhelming!

Turning the handle, which turns the screw, which ???
Sounding the horn

In addition to climbing into the cabs of the trains, we learned quite a bit about how the trains move along the tracks. There was a display to we could interact with to see how switches work. There were others to show how signals are used to indicate to the train driver whether it’s safe to continue on the tracks or another train is on the line ahead. We also learned that apparently all of the clocks in Belgium are synchronized because of the trains.

Todd and Isaac operating the switches, while Laine looks at how the train lines overlap.

The entrance to the second “room” of trains is amazing. As we entered the first room, we came in from above and looked down on 4-5 engines below. Those trains were on tracks set on the floor. As we entered the next display, however, the trains were up on beds of rock as they are out in the real world. It was a little daunting to walk in and see this before us:

The pic doesn’t do it justice. It felt a lot like we were going to be run over! This was the last steam train made in Belgium.

This section taught us a lot about the engineering behind steam engines. My dad loves steam engines, so I probably know more about them than the average accountant, but the displays were fantastic for teaching me the details on how it works.

The location of the second museum building is remarkable because it was built around the house where the train signal man used to live. This person had an interesting job as he was required to respond at any hour to pull down the crossing gates to keep cars/people off the road. The house itself was also remarkably small. It was a split-level home, so you entered on the level of the entryway and living room. You would go down 3-4 steps to get to the kitchen. Or you could go up about 8 steps to the bedroom. If you opened the door to the kitchen, you could see into the bedroom as well, as there was an open space. There was a display of a car that was reported to have been hit by a train to demonstrate why you should never try to run through the gates.

While the trains were responsible for connecting so much of Europe in positive ways, they were also responsible for transporting thousands upon thousands of people to concentration camps during the second World War. There was a powerful display to discuss how people were treated and what happened. It was moving and an important reminder that we must never let such a thing happen again.

On a more light-hearted note, we also got to see some of the ways trains were used to entertain people. Sometimes it meant traveling in a “comfortable” first class carriage. And some trains were prominently featured in movies.

This was part of the scenery for Murder on the Orient Express

Our last stop on the tour was an interactive display to allow you to drive the train. This was Isaac’s favorite part of the whole day. The driver needs to maintain certain speeds, stop in the correct location for a station, wait for the signal lights to allow the train to move on, and then safely steer through a maintenance area. One child drove and the other would work the train horn.

They were pretty good drivers!

It made for a great Sunday! It was an added bonus that we took the train system back home at the end of the day. These are electric instead of steam-powered, but we learned a bit more about how much difference trains made in the lives of all Europeans and how they continue to improve our lives.

My little engineers

Ambling Around Amsterdam

We’re taking fun birthday trips this year! Laine got to explore a real-life castle in Germany for her special day. Isaac chose a day at Delta Works in The Netherlands to celebrate his. For mine, we went to Amsterdam for a long weekend.

Amsterdam is only a few hours from Leuven by train. We rode up on Friday evening in time to check in, find dinner, and get a feel for the lay of the land. It gets dark there even later than here, so it was a great introduction to the city.

One of the first things we noticed in Amsterdam was the prevalence of the XXX symbol. In Amsterdam, it does NOT mean what you think it means. It actually kind of reminded me of the “lone stars” all over Texas. “Amsterdam’s coat of arms is pretty prevalent sight throughout the city. At its core is the ‘XXX’ symbol, which is actually three vertical St. Andrew’s Crosses, not (as some people assume) shorthand for the Red Light District. For the Amsterdam coat of arms, the three crosses are in white, atop a red shield with a black pale. St. Andrew was a fisherman who was martyred on an X-shaped cross in the 1st century AD, which is relevant to Amsterdam as the city’s symbol dates back to 1505 when it was a fishing town and all ships registered in Amsterdam flew this flag. In its most official form, the coat of arms is also decorated with the Imperial Crown of Austria and two golden lions.” Our tour guide later in the weekend told us that the crosses are supposed to indicate the 3 deadliest dangers to Old Amsterdam: fire, floods, and the Black Death. There is some dispute as to whether this is true, however, as the symbol was used by some families in 1505; before the plague hit Europe.

Our AirBnB was an incredibly beautiful space and I think it’s the best one we have had so far. We had terrific views from the balcony and the roof-top porch. We had plenty of space to spread out! The jarring part of it was opening the front door to see 35 very steep steps up to our “first” floor. Todd opted to leave the larger suitcase in the living room instead of carrying it up the next 17 steps to the bedrooms.

This was daunting when we had our suitcases!

The apartment was really beautiful. The people who live here seem to enjoy traveling the world. There were some well-worn travel books on the shelves in the library (the kind you really use, not the kind you place on a coffee table). There was some lovely art from Africa, China, and a few other places. I wish I had taken a few more photos of the place. The master bath was incredible with a good shower (which is harder to find than you’d expect), a claw-foot bathtub, and really nice sinks. The apartment was a great place to use as a home base as it was well-located and very comfortable.

View from the dining room table to the front room.

In addition to the lovely decor, they also left a chess board set up for us. Todd and Isaac played at least a half-dozen games while we stayed there. We’ll have to pull out our chess board when we return to Austin!

Todd won about half of the games…

We had a sweet little balcony on the front of the apartment which overlooked the canal. The houseboats along the side of the canal are permanent residences. It is no longer possible to get a new space allotted along the canal, so the spaces are worth far more than the houseboats themselves. No new permits will be issued by the government, so this has caused an astronomical rise in the prices.

A (living) room with a view

Once we’d had a chance to settle in, we headed out to find a dinner spot. We walked along the canal before finding a burger place which advertised they served local beers. Good news – it was not Heineken!

This was so good that I requested at every restaurant we visited. Another page I follow had recommended it and I’d completely forgotten. I just found my note to myself last week – long after we’d returned from Amsterdam.

After a restful night in the apartment, we woke up to search for a breakfast restaurant. We were seated at a very large square table. There were seats for 12, so we joined a lively group of 6 other Americans at the table. We had a fantastic chat with them and swapped notes on the fun stuff everyone had planned. They were spending a couple of weeks touring various places in Europe. Apparently they take an annual European vacation together, so we took lots of notes on where else we should visit! When we got up to leave and pay our tab, we learned that they had paid for our meals. What a lovely surprise!

The Rijksmuseum, above, and the train station are sister buildings designed by the same architect. Both are beautiful.

We left breakfast at exactly the right time to be able to catch the next boat tour along the canals. Those boat drivers are incredible! Despite remarkably tight turns and lots of traffic, everyone seems to work it out. We learned a lot from the boat tour and we all enjoyed it immensely. The kids had a separate audio tour from the adults and they had a great time learning to be “fresh water pirates.” We had a unique view of the architecture from down in the canals. It is possible to tell whether you’re in the industrial/working section of the city or the residential area based on the height of the canal walls. The lower walls are used in the industrial sections to ease the loading and unloading of boats. The higher walls in the residential sections meant there was less likely to be damage from flooding. In addition to that, we learned about the hooks on the front of each building. These hooks were used to load in/load out of the homes and warehouses as people moved their goods or furniture.

We spent a terrific afternoon at Nemo; the science museum. The bridge leading into it reminded Laine of Austin’s Pennybacker Bridge, so she was quite excited to walk across it.

My own Pennybacker!!!

There was a water clock directly inside the front door that was fascinating to watch. We saw a fantastic chain reaction that took up 2 floors! There was an area to discover how hormones impact our bodies. Another for how personal space works. A social experiment on racism…

One place where we spent a lot of time was a special demonstration about bicycles. There was a really cool display set up with all sorts of small model bicycles to coast down a conveyor ramp. Some bikes had larger front wheels or larger back wheels or long center beams. The idea was to test them to see which was the most stable. I think Isaac could have stayed there for hours watching the perpetual motion of those bikes going downhill. Meanwhile, Laine, Todd, and I drew bicycles on paper and then had the opportunity to “ride” them through the magic of technology. I think we did pretty well!

Laine loved her creation
It’s a little tricky to steer…

Once we left the “Fantastische Fietsen” area, we found a great section on our solar system. Isaac’s favorite thing about this was the demo for how Earth’s atmosphere protects us. He and several other kids ran around with shields over their heads to help deflect any meteors which might threaten our safety here on Earth.

Isaac is in the blue tee and shorts – he played for a looooong time.

We studied a bit about optical illusions and how our eyes work. We also looked at how a machine can use “eyes” to sort items through another great demo. Laine used different colored balls to load a truck with items which had to placed by color to simulate how machines can do this.

She wanted to squash him like a bug.

As we were preparing to exit the building to find the penultimate Women’s World Cup game, we came across the giant bubbles, so we had to try one last experiment before we left for the evening.

Isaac in a bubble
Laine in a bubble!

We found a small bar where we were able to watch the soccer match between Sweden and England. The bartender warned us that the screen was small, but Isaac and I were happy to watch, all the same.

Focused on the game

That night we had another fantastic dinner at a nearby restaurant. The kids were toast by the time we finished, so we put them to bed and enjoyed the late-night sunset (around 11:00 p.m.) without them.

Sunset view of the moon from our balcony. You can also see the hooks along the top of the building that allow you to move things in and out without carrying them up or down the stairs.

On our last day in Amsterdam, we toured the Van Gogh Museum. They offered a search mission for the kids and our kids had a lot of fun trying to find all of the items and solve all of the quizzes. It made the art museum a bit more engaging for the kids and Todd. I could have stayed for another hour, so I was plenty engaged! The kids earned prizes – a postcard of their favorite piece of Van Gogh’s artwork. One of the cleverest ideas in the museum was a touchable replica of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. One of the original versions of Sunflowers is on display in the museum, but there are others around the globe. The special exhibit compared the differences among the 4 masterpieces of the same name. But it was made more meaningful to the kids as they could feel it first. And because I’ve never been allowed to touch the art in an art museum, I also thought it was amazing!

As we left the museum, we stopped in the nearby plaza for stroopwafels! They were so delicious. They are remarkably thin waffles. Once they have finished baking on the special griddle, they are sliced in half across the width. A caramel syrup is spread around the middle of the waffle and then the top is placed back on it. Laine and I are fans!

Waffles bigger than our heads! No, we did NOT eat them all.

Our final major adventure in Amsterdam was watching the US Women’s National Team beat The Netherlands in the Women’s World Cup (soccer) finals. It was a great game and US team made us proud. We clapped little golf claps so as not to be rude to all the other people in the restaurant. But we were all pretty giddy walking down the street afterwards!

Our last day in Amsterdam, Todd had to fly back to Austin for a work trip. The kids and I packed the enormous suitcase and our backpacks before making our way back to the train station. I made the kids wait at the top of the staircase while I carried the bag down because I was afraid that if I tripped and let go of the bag they’d be seriously injured. Thankfully, I needn’t have worried as we all made it down safe and sound without leaving a suitcase-sized hole in the front door. We caught the trains back to Leuven without incident and got Belgian waffles to celebrate my birthday.

Animals Animals!

Back in April, a friend introduced us to an amazing zoo: Pairi Daiza. When we visited the first time, we traded in our day passes for season tickets. Now we’ve been to the zoo 3 times. The second time, we went by ourselves on a Sunday afternoon.

There are a lot of things I love about the zoo. The spaces for the animals all feel large. There’s plenty of room for the animals to move around. Most of them also feel accessible, though, such as walking through the Australian area with nothing between you and the animals. Another way they break up the spaces is with architecture. Each area has buildings around and through it to help it resemble the specific part of the world where the animals originate.

There are Bengal tigers and Indian elephants over there! Similar buildings can be found in some areas of India.

The architecture definitely adds to the experience, but the animals are the star of the show. Unless you ask my kids. They might say the epic playground is actually the star! There are enormous bird nests above the playground, though, and the storks love them, so it still feels like a part of the zoo.

This was a particularly exciting spotting for us as the kids and I had recently finished reading Sticks Across the Chimney. Having a stork build its nest above your chimney is considered good luck in some places in Scandinavia. People have been known to place old wagon wheels and all sorts of things to encourage the birds to build.

One of the animals first animals we visited was the otters. They’re so lively! There are 3 in the enclosure at Pairi Daiza and they would run across the ground, dive in the water, swim across, and climb out to do it again. They looked like they were having a wonderful time. Their space has a glass front to it, so even as they swam under water, we were still able to see them when they approached the glass. After observing them from beside the enclosure, we climbed up for a different perspective.

This fellow climbed out of the water, raised up on his back legs, and chattered away at us before diving back into the water for another swim.
The building to the left is where we stood to talk with Mr. Otter.

The treehouse above was intriguing, but off limits. We were wondering whether we could get in and instead worked our way over to the bird enclosures.

We walked in through a gate and were inside the enclosure with the birds. It’s enormous! At ground level, we saw these flamingos. There were also roseate spoonbills not far away.

There was a vast array of different types of birds. It was breathtaking! But one of the coolest features is the rope bridge. You can see it ascending in the background of the photo above.

Up we go!

The rope bridge goes up inside the netting for the bird enclosure. You get an incredible view below of the birds. It’s a little wobbly, too, which adds to the adventure. The foot bridge is one direction, so once you start up, you’re committed to finishing. There’s a gate at the top as you exit the bird enclosure. Then you wander down from there and end up on the opposite side of the park’s creek.

Walking on this bridge was my favorite part of the day. It was so neat!

Upon our descent, we decided to head for the Asian animals. Again, the architecture helps you to shift your mindset about where these animals are native.

It’s a tea room!

The red panda is native to the Himalayas and southwestern China. It’s also downright adorable. There are only about 10,000 in the wild, so they are on the endangered species list.

They were much smaller than I expected, but so fluffy!

These pandas are only distantly related to the giant pandas with which we’re all familiar. Their faces remind me more of a raccoon than a giant panda, though. They’re fantastic climbers and are known to descend trees head first!

This red panda is in a separate enclosure from the first.

The long covered walkways meander through this area of the zoo. It’s a great way to allow a lot of people to see the animals at the same time, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming. At least as a person walking… I have no idea how the red panda feels about it.

We walked deeper into the China area to see the giant pandas.

This giant panda was reclining and snacking the whole time we walked around outside his cave.

Giant pandas are considered vulnerable, but not endangered. Pandas, both the red and giant varieties, have a “false thumb,” which is actually part of its wrist. This allows the panda to more easily grasp and shred bamboo stalks.

This hall is filled with Buddhas and other statues

As you walk through the space above, many of the Buddhas have a swastika on them. Needless to say, that can be a bit jarring if you’re used to having a certain association with the symbol. Thus, there are signs to explain this. I am going to quote their signs so I don’t accidentally communicate the wrong thing:

Swastika is a word from Sanskrit and means “what brings happiness.” This decorative or symbolic sign is one of the oldest in humanity. The symbol originated more than 10,000 years ago and spread throughout the world, through different cultures; especially in India and the Far East, where this sign is very often used in the iconography of local religions.
In India this sign stands for the rotation of the universe. In China and Tibet it evokes eternity. Buddha sometimes wears it on the chest or forehead.
In Japanese Zen Buddhism, the symbol stands for the “seal of the mind of Buddha.” It is therefore always a favorable sign.
The swastika from Hinduism or Buddhism should certainly not be confused with the swastika of the Nazis.
There are in fact two variants of this sign in different eras and cultures.
The left-turning variant: the most used in the Far East.
The right-turning version: widely used in India. It is this latter variant, turned at an angle of 45 degrees, that was chosen as a sign of the Nazi regime. The symbol was consequently an unfavorable sign!

– Pairi Daiza

On our next visit to Pairi Daiza, we met our friends again. We were all very excited because a new section had just opened and it was the first weekend to see it. Laine’s been eagerly awaiting this particular opening for weeks! It is intended to feature some of her favorite animals, wolves. The section is for animals from North America! They’ve called it The Final Frontier. They have some “seaside” houses which I mentally picture in San Francisco. They also used signs from the U.S.’s National Park Service, which is delightful. We love the national parks!

I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to see this!

It was a fantastic area to walk around. They did a terrific job making it feel like the northwest areas of the U.S. and southern Canada. There are trees native to that area and the habitats feel, somehow, more like the American/Canadian border and Pacific Northwest. I was concerned that it would feel campy, but they really got it right.

This black bear looked like it was going to walk right up to us (there’s a ravine and a fence between us) before turning and ambling along the other side of the ravine.

In another space, brown and black bears share an enclosure. It’s a large area with running water and room to sprawl. I think they need more trees, but the area is new and trees take some time to grow. They also need the bears to leave them alone and you could see where a few of the “unwrapped” trees had already been used for claw-sharpening in the other section. Those trees aren’t going to survive.

Bear sighting!

We saw a Smokey the Bear sign, as well, which reminded me of 1980’s commercials. I’ll bet many of you remember them, too! It was kind of funny because one of our friends is an Italian who lives in France and I did a terrible job trying to sound like Smokey the Bear.

“Remember kids, only YOU can prevent forest fires!” I think those ads must have aired during Saturday morning cartoons.

We found some of the wolves! Laine was very excited to see them. There was a new wolf baby for one “family,” and they weren’t ready for visitors yet. The rest of the wolves were resting in the shade on a hot day.

There is a wolf in the shadow cast by these logs. The rest were way back in the back of the space, also in the shade. They share this enclosure with a few of the bears, and there was room in the space for them to spread out and enjoy a lazy morning.

There’s a brand new hotel that’s opened right here. We were actually standing on its roof as I took the photo above. The rooms have windows that look out onto the wolf/bear enclosure – right at ground level. That seemed like an incredibly neat idea before we learned that the rooms cost 1,000 Euros/night!

The sea lions were one of the most exciting exhibits on this trip. They were my favorite because they seemed to be playing for all of us to see. They would swim right up to the edge of the glass, turn, and swim away upside down before flipping over to gracefully swim back toward us. Over and over again – so peaceful! I would have missed this entirely if Isaac hadn’t shown me where we could walk under the deck to see the water. The hippo enclosure and the otter enclosure have this same feature and it’s wonderful!

My boy and 2 sea lions

This was the last sign we saw before exiting the North American area. It was really cool because we remember reading these same warnings in Big Bend National Park in Texas a couple of years ago!

This was a fun flashback for us – mostly because we didn’t have to USE this knowledge.

The kids were excited to see a real reindeer. This guy was hanging out in the shade to try to stay cool. The mother and young reindeer were around the corner having a drink of water.

Hiding from the sunshine

The reindeer were still working on losing their winter coats and this guy had grown some enormous antlers! Both males and females grow antlers, but the female in this area did not have any. Hers begin to grow later than his. These antlers are still covered in their velvety outer layer. As the year wears on, the antlers will shed this layer and harden. I am very curious about how much these things weigh!

At the end of a fun day, the girls were our tour guides and helped us map our way to the exit.

Follow the leaders!

Living in Leuven

Despite the fact that we spend an inordinate amount of time traveling, we genuinely love our little city. We live right in the heart of “downtown,” which is utterly comical if you’re to compare it to say, any city in the U.S. Our garage door is the very last spot on the street before it turns into a pedestrian zone. The next street up from us (1/2 block) is a retail center. It’s all pedestrians from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Other than those times, the only cars allowed on there are those going to shops to make deliveries, street sweepers, and garbage trucks.

Here’s the thing about garbage collection, though. There is a LOT of it. We have 5 different containers for trash in our house:

  1. the blue bag: plastic bottles, cans, and aluminum products (collected every 2 weeks)
  2. the pink bag: almost every other type of plastic (collected every 3 weeks)
  3. the green bag: all food scraps (collected every Friday)
  4. the cardboard/paper recycling bin (collected every 2 weeks, provided you have gathered it into a cardboard box and sealed that box)
  5. the brown bag: all other trash (collected every Tuesday)

Pop quiz! Did you realize I didn’t list a particular type of trash? Go ahead and read over the list again. I’ll wait.

Did you figure out I didn’t mention glass? That’s because we don’t actually have a container for glass. We rinse out the bottles and set them aside. Glass is not collected for us. We have to take it away ourselves. Glass recycling is more complex. If it’s a particular type of beer bottle, it can be turned in via machine at the grocery store. The machine tallies the total number of bottles and we get a receipt. We present the receipt to the cashier at checkout and they treat it as a coupon for 10 cents/bottle. The beer producers here expect to receive a certain number of bottles back each month, so they don’t order new bottles as often as they would otherwise. Wine bottles and all other glass, however, have to be taken somewhere else. There are various collection centers throughout the city and the closest to us is about a block from our grocery store, so we generally detour on the way to shop. There we separate the glass between clear and colored glass and drop it into the appropriate container. I don’t know what the schedule is for collecting glass, but you can hear it loud and clear when they do!

Alright, enough trash talk. Part of the fun of living here is the sheer number of celebrations. The Flemish people celebrate everything. It’s wonderful! A couple of weeks ago, there was a mid-week holiday for a Celebration of Flemish Community and it’s celebrated annually. Usually these celebrations involve rerouting the main bus route into downtown and blocking the streets with vendors and fun. I believe the buses run on a different street at least once every 2 weeks and more in the summertime. Last week, there was a sand volleyball tournament in the plaza closest to us, so they relocated half of the Friday market into the street and rerouted the buses to accommodate the vendors/shoppers. The volleyball tournament was set up for 3-4 days, which means that a lot of people took time off work to compete in it. They also had bounce houses and ice cream stands set up around the perimeter, so the kids and I stopped to check it out when we went to the market last week.

The volleyball tournament was part of Het Groot Verlof (The Great Leave) which takes place through July and August every summer. This festival means there’s a party every weekend. On Friday evenings, 2 stages are set up in 2 different, but nearby, plazas. There are 2 concerts. We live about 2 blocks from the second one, which fires up at 10:30 p.m. (as it finally gets dark) and goes for a couple of hours. Even with all the windows open, however, it’s still not very loud and you have to listen hard to hear the music from this distance. It’s perfect! The other amazing part is that by Saturday morning, the stages are down and the plazas are cleared of all debris. You’d never know there had been an event!

Play space in Grote Markt for Het Groot Verlof – can you find Laine?

In addition to the music and sand volleyball, there are fun days set up in the park. The kids and I went a couple of weeks ago as we waited for Todd to get back from Austin. There was a band (think big band) playing show tunes and 80’s American music, plus there were cold drinks and ice cream, and a bounce house for the kids. Everyone had a great time: Laine and I on the lawn while Isaac bounced.

My girl & me. Isaac was busy having the time of his life in the bounce house

There are a lot of random parades here. We usually find out about them because we accidentally stumble into the sidelines of one. They’re fascinating in their uniqueness. They are incredibly esoteric, so we don’t “get” some of them. But they’re lively and fun!

A bit of the parade: The unicyclists were so talented; they’d pretend to be out of control and then save themselves to be upright again. The orange car expands at all of the joints, raises itself on a scissor lift, and breaths smoke. The silver car was playing music as this man was the DJ. And the people on stilts were amazing, especially considering these streets are cobblestone.
The kids did get picked up by the police, but it was just a misunderstanding.

Elsewhere, we got to see street performers, balloon artists, and numerous bounce houses. And all of it took place within a few blocks of our apartment. We started at one end of the celebration and worked our way around in a semi-circle surrounding our apartment building.

Balloons and bounce houses and face paint! Oh my!

On days when there aren’t major celebrations in front of our door, we go to parks and explore. We have learned we can get fresh milk from a machine at one of the parks just outside the city’s inner ring. We’ve gotten quite spoiled from the delicious milk and now no one wants “store bought” milk. This will be a major adjustment when we return to Austin.

The kids are familiar enough with Leuven to navigate on their own. It’s been exciting to see how much they’ve grown living here.

Independent kids leading the way