Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The countdown begins, and a Uni party in Liege

The hallway. I am really over living like this!

I got back from Germany at about 3.30pm on Monday, started working as soon as I walked in the door, and didn't stop until I left for Liege on Friday morning! Koi and Jan had decided that the current phase of work on the house had to be finished this week, so after them sitting around for months while builders came in once a week they tried to finish it all off by working non-stop for a week themselves. So I had the kids non-stop for a week myself, and I think I will right up until the go to Thailand.

Alice has a newfound love of toilets
The original deal was for me to work a 35 hour week here with two days off. Even with my two days off I've been doing 45-50 hour weeks and I'll get paid for the extra time, but I am starting to feel a bit abused, they are putting a lot of pressure on me to look after both kids and do all of the cooking and cleaning. I realise this is what I'd be doing if they were my own kids anyway, and it's not really a big problem, I prefer  being left alone with the kids to organise things my own way, but I think its hard here because they have such high and specific expectations of me. Like, if it were my kids and house, then I could decide just to order pizza and let the dirty washing pile up for an extra day if I had a headache or if the baby was sick, but here I'm paid to just get stuff done. Also, they somehow expect me to be doing all of this and actively engaging with Arin one-on-one at the same time, like reading with him and playing outside etc. Which I love doing, but I only have one pair of hands and can only be in one place at once. Yesterday, a Belgian girl my age came to play with Arin, and Jan got all 'look at how happy he is playing outside with her, we expected you to do that'. I was too shocked to give him a witty reply about how I was inside cooking them dinner and dealing with the baby the whole time. I'm sure if she tried to cook dinner and juggle both kids, then Arin would have just been hanging out in the kitchen like he does with me most evenings. I think their unrealistic expectations have a lot to do with why they chew through nannies so fast, they really need to decide whether they want a one-on-one tutor for Arin, or someone to cook and clean and look after the baby, because achieving both at the same time are not possible, apart from the brief time that she naps.

Liege train station
I think that because we all know we've only got a week left to go, no one is being polite anymore. This last week, everything that has gone wrong here has been my fault. Which does kind of make sense, seeing as I am the one that does pretty much everything, but its really unfair. Like, blaming me for using the washing machine when there was a problem with the pipes. Seeing as I am the only one who using the washing machine, would it not make sense to tell me about that? I used it at 5am when I got up for the crying baby and she puked on me, her bed and the couch, I really don't appreciate being told of for doing washing when I was never told not to. Nor did I appreciate being yelled at today when the two of them left the house too late to pick up Arin and still make it to the doctor on time, when I had given them three hours warning that I wasn't happy taking the sick baby out into bad weather to pick him up myself. And on the subject of the sick baby, I am getting so stressed out by them not taking her to the doctor. She's been coughing and scratching her ears for a week now, and I keep telling them but they keep insisting that she's fine. She might be fine for the whole 20 minutes of each day that they see her, but she certainly isn't fine the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of each day.

So, I am definitely counting down now. I almost feel like I should do something about the situation here, but I'm a bit lost as to what I can do. They leave for Thailand next Tuesday, so I guess I only work Wednesday and Thursday this week and Sunday, Monday, then I'm done and off again traveling for the rest of the month.

Lena and I
I spent last weekend in Liege with Lena. I waited over half an hour for a bus to get to Antwerp, which then turned up so loaded that I couldn't get in the front door and took so long that I missed the train I had planned to take, and then I got all confused when I had to change stations because Liege is actually Luik in Flemish (this is annoying right? If it's a french-speaking city then it should have the more common french name on the sign, even in the flemish region!) but must have managed a connection that the website deemed impossibly fast because I still arrived in Liege at the time I had intended.

Part of the HEC party
We went to 'HEC Escape Garden Party'. HEC has something to do with their university, pretty much it was a huge party held by their student union or something, to celebrate the end of the school year. It was meant to be a summery garden affair, but it was raining and instead of gardens it was half on a uni driveway and half in the forest that surrounds Liege. It was a bit different from any organised university party that I went to in NZ - there was no toilets (everyone just peed in the trees) no rubbish bins so the ground got disgusting, and as we arrived they had Jim Beam there checking the ID's but only of people who volunteered them. So if you showed them your ID you got a free drink, if you didn't, then you just had to walk in and buy one. Totally illegal in NZ!

Celine, Valeriane and Lena
Anyway, we spend the the afternoon drinking and running around in the rain meeting different people. A vodka-filled watermelon and Lena's sister made notable appearances, and Lena did a good job of scheming free drinks out of the bartenders. We had to wait aggeeees everytime we wanted food or drinks - we once waited like 15 minutes for an expensive sausage that Lena took one bite out of and then dropped on the ground. Quite a good party though, they had a DJ with a good crowd going and Lena's friends are really cool, although I found it really weird to look around and see only all-girl or all-guy groups standing around talking, here it's definitely less common to have friends of different sexes.

The Square

Then it was back into the city, with a brief stop at her place before we headed into town. Liege is famous for its bars, they are all centered in this area of old cobbled alleys called The Square, I went there a lot last time I was there, its fun but really gross. Unfortunately, the almost twelve hours straight of drinking caught up with us and we headed back to bed around 1am.

Garlic (The french dude is smoking an awesome pipe)
We headed out around lunch time the next day, and visited a weird international market that was taking place in the centre. The stalls were mostly dedicated to food, whole tables piled with huge cheeses or saucisson or garlic, and I ate some good polish barbeque for lunch. We had coffee and then went to a movie, Get Low, which was actually quite an event for me because I hadn't been to see a movie in over a year and a half (and that time was with Lena too funnily enough!). Then her mum cooked some awesome duck for dinner and I was off back to the train station. Liege is only a couple of hours away by train, but I got stuck outside the Antwerp train station. Normally, no matter what time I arrive back here by train, I miss the bus by a few minutes. This time I was at the bus stop three minutes early - and then the bus was 23 minutes late! I think they've been on strike or something, normally the buses are pretty good but I had two bad runs in two days. It was a great weekend, I came back to Antwerp feeling a lot better, I think I just needed the reminder that I have friends in this country, it was good to hang out and not feel so isolated, and as things get crazier here, its good to actually get out of the house during my time off.

my packing. so far unsuccessfully!
But, the weekend left me feeling quite tired and now I'm sick, everyone is sick but of course I am still the one who gets up for Alice all the time. Last week, I had managed to run every day even when kids woke me up in the middle of the night or early in the morning, I was quite impressed with myself, but being sick has thrown a spanner in the works the last couple of days and I really hope that I wake up healthy tomorrow. It's also been really really hot the last couple of days, highs of 35 even when it's pouring. I'm  trying to pack, not easy when I'm working thirteen hour days and then collapse into bed sick at the end of them. So far, I haven't gotten much further than walking around my room aimlessly wondering how my stuff all managed to multiply while in my closet the last three months. I'm going to take a suitcase or two to Luxembourg next week, but I am really not looking forward to returning to the nomadic thing with such a huge backpack again. Plans for the next month are starting to take shape, I'm staying in Belgium a little bit longer to visit Gent and Liege again, and go to a festival with Lena, and then I'm off to Gottingen again, Dusseldorf, Hannover, hopefully Nuremberg to see a (non-AFS!) kiwi friend, Italy for a week, and Mainz where I hope to prove once and for all that I can eat the spiciest currywurst! Then Luxembourg at the end of July.

One week to go....

Photos of the weekend in Liege are here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Reflections six months in

My first day in Germany (in Gottingen)
So, this time six months ago I arrived at Frankfurt airport in Germany to start my big OE and my first trip to Europe. I've since visited nine different countries, stayed in both the major cities and the quant countryside, had a billion new experiences and caught up with many friends. Looking back, I have done so much and been so many places that it feels like much longer than just six months, but in other ways it seems to have flown by!

I've learnt a lot. I thought that taking my first big break from study or intellectually-challenging work would mean my brain would kind of stagnate, but spending so much time visiting museums and historical stuff and talking to people from different countries has taught me so much. In NZ we study things like different architectural periods from books, but here you can see everything and I think it makes it easier to understand. It's like, at school I learnt all these separate pieces of knowledge, different parts of history and culture, and now that I'm seeing the bigger picture they are all falling into place together.

Eating typical food in Bern, Switzerland
I can now really appreciate how New Zealand, being an island, has a totally different world view to Europeans. Here, borders normally aren't regulated, and you can cross in a train or car or boat or even on a bike and not even realise that you've crossed. This gives people here a totally different viewpoint, I don't think you'd find anyone here who has never left their country like many New Zealanders, to the point where they are really blasé about international travel because they jump across borders just to buy cheaper groceries or petrol. It also means that they understand their neighbouring countries really well and most people can speak the basics in the other languages. A lot have even studied or done a short exchange in another country, it seems like people over here just understand the world a little bit better, whereas so many New Zealanders don't travel futher than the Gold Coast for a week on the beach, don't speak another language, and know next to nothing about our neighbouring Pacific Island countries. It's funny that six months ago, going to Germany was a really big deal, something that I spent so long dreaming about, saving for and planning. When I went to Germany last week I packed at the last minute and only just remembered to check I had my passport and paperwork, and then on Monday I woke up in Germany and caught the train back here in time for work. International travel has become kind of routine for me!

Celebrating my birthday with friends in Spain
I have the most amazing friends. I can't say that enough, you guys have welcomed me into your homes and gone to such effort to give me a glimpse of your lives and countries, and you and your families have really made this trip a success. Visiting you has shown me the very different backgrounds we all come from, and made me really appreciate the fact that we overcame these differences to be good friends. There are still some AFS students needing short and long term host families in New Zealand if you want to meet one of these awesome people yourselves!

Me and Hauke with a chunk of Berlin Wall
On the other hand, I've also learnt that not everyone is as friendly as New Zealanders are. I've had quite a few conversations with people who've gone to NZ and had really amazing experiences of welcome, help and generosity, and those conversations have really highlighted how different it is over here. People are much more reserved and you really have to make a huge effort to befriend them, rather than being welcomed with open arms. I can only think of two occasions when someone noticed how completely lost I was and tried to help me out, once in Germany and once in France, but both times made a huge difference to my day and I'd encourage anyone anywhere in the world who notices someone with a map in their hand or a confused look on their face while staring at the train information screen, to go up and ask if they need help.

Me up the Eiffel Tower
The little things really do count. Sure, stuff like going up the Eiffel Tower was awesome, but things like riding a public bicycle home after a night out and getting to point out all of the different license plates and going to the supermarket here really put a smile on my face. For this reason, I am so glad that I have been staying with the locals most of the way around, I've seen a totally different side of things. I remember talking to an Aussie in Paris who had visited all of the major cities, but had no idea about the education systems in the different countries, or Christmas celebrations, or whether or not recycling was a big deal there, and it made me happy to have not just done the tourist thing in various hostels. Also, it's normally the little things that remind me of the enormity of this whole trip. It is only now beginning to hit home that I am doing something amazing, not because of the cool monuments I've seen, but because I am living here and experiencing the small stuff. Most people head over to Europe and check out the Berlin Wall, not so many actually live here and learn the random stuff like what it takes to get a drivers license in Germany!

Me in Wurzburg, Germany
Finally, I've surprized myself. In the beginning, I surprized myself by at first not being as independent as I thought I was. I'd done the whole 'live in a foreign country without knowing the language' thing as a fifteen year old in Costa Rica, and so I thought being older and wiser would make traveling around here a breeze. Not so, I really struggled and relied heavily on Hauke my first month. Now I'm the opposite, I've got my independence mojo back and I am surprized at how I've coped with the isolation nannying here. I'm also surprized at how calm I've become about my lack of a solid plan. I was the kid that always knew what I was doing with my life, before I threw the five-year plan out the window and came over here. I planned my first three months here more than most backpackers would, and then the new me has coped with my plan of working in Spain falling apart and me ending up doing something completely different. While I now know that I am moving to Luxembourg, I still don't know what I am going to be doing two weeks from now between here and moving there, and I don't know where I will spend Christmas this year, or where I will be living this time next year, or even when I will return to New Zealand. This is definitely a new Claire!

So, all in all its been a pretty amazing six months and I've learnt more and changed more than I thought I would have, and I am looking forward to whatever the next six months bring me!

Top five awesome things we don't have in NZ

My first year of studying politics I had to write an essay detailing five major points that I would build my campaign for Prime Minister around. Since visiting Europe, my campaign plan now revolves around the introduction of the following!

Squirrel in Madrid, Spain
5. Wildlife - we really missed out on the no-mammals thing, because Europe has some pretty cool wildlife. Admittedly, the things I think are cool are at best considered as normal as sheep are to us and at worst considered pests, but I still think they're awesome. Like foxes. I saw my first fox running through the snowy fields in Germany at Christmas and it was awesome, and Hauke's mum's look of bafflement in response to my excitement made it even awesomer. And then I saw a fox in London, running through the middle of the city, how crazy is that? Squirrels are another one, these things are like tiny balls of fluff on crack, watching them run around is always so entertaining.

4. Window shutters - If I ever build my own house in New Zealand, I am totally going to import shutters. If you're like me, shutters makes you think of those old fashioned wooden ones of the outside of American houses that I could never imagine anyone actually using. In Europe, they have modern metal or wooden ones that roll down electronically and keep the heat in (or out, in the case of Spain) and the light out when the sun rises early (or you're too hungover to face the day yet!). Windows also open in freaky directions, like you turn the handle different ways and they open inwards or outwards or tilt open a little bit to one side. Its crazy.

The 'F' on the left stands for France...obviously!
3. Car license plates - ok, I hear you thinking 'but wait, we have those in NZ too', but you do not have them like Europe has them. Here, license plates have country codes on them, causing me to point out cars from all of the countries like Lithuania and Poland. I'm sorry to anyone who has spent any length of time with me within view of a road, I realise watching me get all excited over license plates goes from cute to old real fast, but I still can't get over it, in NZ all the cars are from NZ! I have also spent large amounts of time pondering which codes belong to which countries, like during a night out in Spain when I may have had a few drinks, forgotten that Spain is actually 'Espana' in Spanish, and then gotten so perplexed by the 'E' on license plates there that I took a photo of it so that I would remember to Google it the next day. Opps.

Accordion bus in Mainz
2. Accordion buses - Buses that have two or three sections linked like train carriages are, with that stuff that looks like an accordion. Apparently they're called 'articulated buses', but I started calling them accordion buses when I first cast my amazed eyes upon one in Gottingen, and Wikipedia tells me that accordion buses is actually a legitimate synonym (shame Hauke for laughing at me!). I since seen them in probably every city I've been in, (why the hell don't we have them in NZ yet?), rode my first one in Mainz and now ride them into Antwerp all the time, but I still can't stop chiming 'accordion bus' with a big smile on my face everytime I see one! Wikipedia also tells me that they're been around since the 1920s, which is pretty crazy. New Zealand barely had electricity back then!

1. Speculoos - definitely the greatest thing I've discovered in Europe so far, I first tried Speculoos spread for breakfast in Liege, Belgium. I've since discovered that the spread is a new, 'award winning invention' based on the old Dutch/Belgian Speculoos biscuits, and my obsession has seen me hoard Speculoos while I was in Spain and use any excuse to bake something containing it. I'm pretty sure New Zealand is sick of hearing me rant about this magical spread that you can't lay your hands on anywhere there, so to infect you all with the Speculoos bug too, if you ask nicely I can post you some.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mainz - Hauke's birthday

Chocolate Speculoos cake that I made

Early Friday morning I headed back to Mainz in Germany for Hauke's 22nd birthday. The trip over was pretty uneventful, although I left the house at 8.30am and realized once I got to the train station that I hadn't written down the connections and knew nothing more than my first train to Brussels. I texted Hauke asking him to google it for me and apologizing for my stupidity, then thought I figured it out myself anyway and texted again to inform him of my awesomeness. Of course, once I arrived at Frankfurt I got lost in the train station and missed my connection there and he had to ring me and sort it out, although I swear I was actually in the right place in the beginning because I remembered from last time I was there, but then the signage was really bad and I convinced myself I was wrong. Anyone who has been in Frankfurt station will agree its a complete mess there. In the end it took me 6 1/2 hours to get there, but an hour of that was just catching the bus to Antwerp and I lost about another hour messing around and then waiting in Frankfurt, so it wasn't so bad.

I was shattered by the time we got home, its been a really long month and I hadn't had a night of uninterrupted sleep all week, so I took a nap while Hauke went to a lecture, and then we biked around doing some errands. It's funny how biking still has such novelty value for me, like for Hauke (and most Europeans) its just an everyday means of transport, but for me it's really entertaining. Also scary, I'm still not used to the no-helmet thing, it feels like being in a car with no seatbelt on, just not right, but at least they have cycle lanes everywhere here. Riding around in them made me realize how annoying I am, because I am always the dumb pedestrian that stands in the cycle lanes in Antwerp! I apologise Belgium, we don't have them in NZ and I don't realise, I swear I will try to do better in the future!

Going out on Friday, also a good 'before haircut' photo
Back in Rauris in January I had bragged about my ability to eat spicy food and Hauke had challenged me to eat some famously spicy currywurst (sliced sausage in curry sauce) in Mainz. Apparently they have five levels of spiciness and the fifth is so hot that you have to eat the fourth just to prove you're even capable of trying the fifth, and that people who eat the fifth puke from the spiciness of it. I'd never gotten around to trying it because I've always been so hungover busy whenever I visit, so this time we stopped and grabbed some of the second-spiciest. Hauke eagerly declared that I was going to suffer and started videoing me but turned it off halfway through, I was eating it without any trouble and I guess he didn't want proof that I beat him. Anyone who thinks that is spicy should come live with Koi for awhile! We didn't come back for the fifth level stuff, so that will have to be on the cards for the next visit! We also sat outside the huge cathedral in the centre for awhile drinking some beer and finished the night off out clubbing, back at Red Cat and another club I hadn't been to before where we entertained ourselves in typical juvenile fashion, sticking animal stickers on unsuspecting people and watching them dance around us. We met heaps of spanish speakers, it was good to get some practice, and also some German guys that taught me how to call Hauke some bad names.

We didn't go to sleep until 7am and I definitely regretted it waking up at 11am the next day and knowing that Saturday night would be even bigger. The night before we were talking about haircuts and decided it would be fun to go to the hairdresser and let Hauke pick a cut and colour for me and tell the girl in German so I'd have no idea what was happening and would just have to sit and wait, so we spent the afternoon at the hairdressers where the poor girl shook her head at the mess that my hair had become while I've been traveling around. Hauke and I must have a weird concept of what 'fun' is, we always end up doing such random stuff rather than just going out for coffee or to the movies or whatever normal people do! I left with dark hair that is the shortest it's been in at least ten years, a pretty big change but I love it.

the new hair!
We stopped in at the gallery/studio of Hauke's flatmates, they are really cool people and put up with me being a pain in the ass in their flat all the time, and I loved some of the stuff there. Biking home was interesting, I was riding Hauke's flatmate's bike that was way to big for me, so I couldn't touch the ground. At one point I actually fell sideways onto a parked car when I couldn't get going fast enough, it was pretty funny but then he led us the wrong way down a bike lane, and when some bikers came the other way and I couldn't stop I ended up in the path of an oncoming car and it didn't seem so funny anymore, I was not really impressed!

Some of Hauke's friends from Mainz
Saturday night we had drinks back at the house with a bunch of Hauke's friends from Gottingen who came down for the night and joined those from Mainz. Hauke's cocktails are now pretty awesome, and everyone had a really good time and was really friendly. The chocolate speculoos cake that the kids 'helped' me to make turned out well, recipe is here. I didn't have so many "Hi, I'm Claire" "yes, I met you last time you were in Mainz/Gottingen" moments this time, I'm finally starting to remember who everyone is! We went back to Red Cat for awhile, and then to another club that I had been to before. It was cool to meet a lot of Hauke's Mainz friends that I didn't know before, they speak pretty good english and the Gottingen boys got around the language barrier by teaching me stuff in German that I don't think the teacher will be explaining in my german language courses! We weren't out quite so late this night, I think we got to bed at around 5am, although we were up again at 9 when Hauke's phone started going crazy with people calling him to say happy birthday. Once everyone else was up and moving we headed to the Rhine and sat on the banks having a picnic brunch but the weather was pretty dodgy and we ended up in Vapiano for coffee after an hour or so.

Me and Hauke on Saturday night
Then everyone else headed home and we spent the rest of the day cleaning up, sleeping and lazing around the house. It's funny, I was really looking forward to four days of no housework, but I ended up spending a lot of the weekend doing laundry, unloading the dishwasher and taking out the trash! I was not in a really good way all day, the lack of sleep has really caught up to me, I don't think I've had eight hours of uninterrupted sleep since we got back from London and then this weekend was a little more than my body could handle. We slept through the alarm on Monday and I had to do a mad dash to get to to the station and just made it onto my first train. The trip up to Cologne was really nice, all the way up to Koblenz the tracks follow the Rhine and go past tiny old villages and castles perched up on the hills, it is one of the best train journey's I've taken. It was a funny feeling to arrive at Cologne and know my way around after being there in January, Europe is becoming home rather than the awe-inspiring adventure it once was. I had quite a while to wait there so I went and sat in the Cathedral. It's funny to think that my grandparents came all the way from New Zealand to see the Cathedral here, and now I go there just to kill time between trains!

Coffee on Sunday morning
So, an awesome weekend, although most of the awesomeness was those funny, random or meaningful moments that no one else will understand, or stuff that just shouldn't be recorded on the internet for eternity! Also an exhausting weekend, dealing with the kids tonight has been interesting, and I've only got a couple of days to recover and catch up on sleep before I go to another massive party with Lena in Liege this weekend! 

Photos are here, I'll try to get the currywurst video off Hauke too.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Brussels, Antwerp, and a big decision

Saturday morning I was up and off to Brussels again. I quite like this city, its not to small and not to big. It amazes me here how you can tell the difference between cities in the french and flemish halves of the country - the cities in the flemish half are clean, those in the french half are all dirty and grimy. Completely different feel.

I had coffee with a Norwegian friend Lillian, who I know from the Ship for World Youth programme in Japan (side note, applications for NZers wanting to go on the Ship in 2012 are open now, if you know anyone who might be keen send them here.) She currently works in the Hague and pops over to Brussels every now and then. I've enviously watched everyone else who participated catching up around the world while I've been stuck far away in NZ, so it was great to meet up and talk. Then I ended up just wandering around and shopping before I headed home, I had plans but they fell apart and I was so tired.

I told myself that I was going to go to bed at a reasonable hour every night this week and run everyday. I achieved this on Saturday night, and left the kids with Khoi for an hour on Sunday while I ran. Then Arin got bitten by something, he reckons he was stung by a bee but he didn't cry or anything and I couldn't see anything there so I just whacked a bandaid on it to make him feel better. By dinner time his foot had swollen up, gotten really painful and caused him to cry, so I asked Khoi where her first aid kit was. She just looked at me blankly! Turns out they have nothing on hand incase one of the kids gets stung by a bee or has a minor allergic reaction to something. I asked if maybe it was a good idea to go and get something now, because no doubt it would get worse in the night and keep him up, but they seemed to think that they could run it under cold water and make it all better.

Koi and Alice
So Arin was up about every hour and a half throughout the night, crying because it hurt. And this is a kid that rarely ever cries because of pain, he's pretty staunch. So my Monday was thrown completely out, because I had such a terrible night's sleep and turns out it was a public holiday and Arin was home from school, and I took a nap in the middle of the day instead of running. Tuesday was a similar story, Alice woke up crying at 6am and it took me an hour to get her back to sleep, she's teething at the moment, so again I was too tired to run and took a nap instead. Tuesday night was interrupted by Arin with his sore foot again and mum calling me on Skype at 3am....so on Wednesday I admitted the week was a write-off on trying to sleep properly and run every day. This sleep thing is really getting to me, I haven't had a solid night's sleep in weeks. A night in Guantanamo listening to non-stop ACDC is beginning to sound appealing, crying children are a much more horrible means of sleep deprivation I reckon!

The whole insect bite thing makes me mad to be honest, who has kids and no first aid kit? Isn't that just asking for trouble? What happens if one of them gets burnt, or breaks their arm or something? And then, it would have been much easier to just go and get something on the Sunday afternoon like I said, I'm always giving them advise about medical problems but they seem to think that my first aid cert and years of pharmacy experience count for nothing. Even though he woke up crying all night and then again in the early morning, they just sent him downstairs to play with me, got up around lunchtime, went for a swim, and then went to the pharmacy. By which time of course, the poison had already spread around his foot and it took days to get better. I don't get it, it kills me listening to him crying in pain and he's not even my kid, shouldn't they have done something about it sooner? Poor little guy.

Mucky pup kid! I swear some of it did get in her mouth!
Searching for a new nanny job has also really cut into my sleep this week. It's a really horrible process, trying to juggle conversations with different families, who are also talking to different potential au pairs, worrying about leaving things too long or taking an offer before getting a better one the following day or not taking an offer and then getting nothing better! I really hate talking myself up to families and meeting them over Skype, especially when they introduce me to the kids, and then turning around and saying no to them. For anyone that's interested in doing the same the links are listed in the bar on the left. Finally, on Monday I spoke to two families in Luxembourg, one who wanted an au pair to work a couple of days a week for less money, and one who wanted more of a nanny, so five days a week for much more money. I spoke to the former family first, and it just clicked, they are the most amazing family. They had even found this blog and somehow not been convinced by it that I'm nuts! The other family were almost as amazing, if I hadn't of spoken to the other earlier than I'm sure I could have been perfectly happy there. So I had a difficult 24 hours of trying to decide between having financial security or following the feeling in my tummy and just hoping I can find some odd babysitting or english teaching jobs to make ends meet.

Arin excavating the dinosaur skeleton
In the end I went with the second option, and so at the end of July I move to Luxembourg to a Dutch family with two adorable boys, aged 1 1/2 and 3! I am really excited now, I loved Luxembourg when I visited in February, I love this family, and I am looking forward to starting German lessons finally. That leaves me with three weeks of nothing to do between finishing here in early July, but I will spend a week in Italy, some more time here in Belgium with AFS friends, and head over to Germany for a bit.

Found some bones!
Wednesday was pretty eventful here, I was left alone with the kids in the afternoon and we spent it 'excavating' a dinosaur skeleton and putting it together from a set that my parents set over. I set Arin up on the kitchen table and let Alice play with the plastic container drawer while I baked a cake, although the kit was really hard and messy and I ended up running between my cake, helping Arin and trying to keep the baby away from the table so she didn't get plaster powder in her eyes. Then Arin 'helped' me to cook dinner, this is a big thing for him at the moment, we give him a couple of random vegetables to cut up and he mixes them with various things he finds, like sugar and salt, and sets it out for us. Tonight he made salad with cucumber, celery leaves and sugar, and because he announced it was specially for me and I'm such an awesome nanny I actually ate most of it.

Arin's salad. Mmmmm.
Then Jan and Koi brought Jan's mother home for dinner and that ruined the awesome day we'd been having! I'd heard a lot about her, they all intensely dislike her because she's a really negative person and is really rude and puts everyone else in a bad mood. Normally they visit her a lot, but this is the first time she's come out and met me, and it was horribly awkward, she pretty much just ignored me the whole time, and also because she really wanted to cuddle Alice but Alice just cried desperately and reached out to me the whole time, and Arin refused to have anything to do with her either, I think in the past she rejected him as not actually being her grandson so he doesn't like her. Awkward.

Alice, me and Arin using Photobooth
Thursday was madness! They've been asking me to take the kids all day whenever I can, so I've been doing 13 hour days and getting up with Alice every night while she's teething. I really didn't need the kids all day today though because I've been rushing around trying to do a million things before I go to Germany, including leaving the house as clean as possible because no one else will do anything before I am back on Tuesday. I ran around with Alice in a harness all morning, which meant I could finish the cake and clean a lot, but man it killed my back! Arin was really good all day, and we spent ages taking funny photos with Photobooth on my computor.

But, its the end of the working week for me and tomorrow I am off to Mainz again for Hauke's birthday! Three nights of no baby monitor...murphy's law someone snores though!

Incase you didn't notice, my blog got a little bit more fancy, you can now check out my most popular posts, some of the blogs that I follow, and view pages I wrote about AFS, SWY and help on finding your own au pair job.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

In Flanders Fields...Ypres, Belgium

Gravestone in Ypres

Ypres, or Ieper in flemish, (and pronounced eee-per) is a city right across the other side of Belgium, towards the Western border. It was the location of huge battles between Germany and the Allies from 1914 until 1917, saw the first use of poison gas and mustard gas, and got absolutely flattened in the process. A lot of the historic town centre was rebuilt with German repatriation money to the original plans, and now its a huge tourist destination and place of memorial.

Cloth Hall
I went out there just for the day, I love how Belgium's train network makes it possible to get clean across the other side of the country in only a couple of hours (ok, the fact that the country is tiny help too!) and got there at 5pm to terrible weather. I quickly walked around the centre and glanced at the old buildings, and took some lousy photos in the rain. The Cloth Hall is amazing, it was originally built in the 13th Century and was one of the biggest commercial buildings during the Middle Ages. The rebuilt an exact replica after the war, made it a UNESCO site, and even now it seems pretty impressive! Inside there is normally the famous 'In Flanders Fields' museum, but its closed for refurbishment at the moment.

Ypres Reservoir Cemetery
There are 171 war cemeteries around Ypres, the train actually passes several on the way in, it's mind boggling. I headed to the Reservoir Cemetery, tucked away behind the ancient prison. The rain stopped, although the clouds didn't clear, and I was the only one in there at about 6pm on a Friday. It was the first war cemetery I've been in, and while it is pretty small compared to those throughout the European countryside, the small and identical headstones, all closely packed together, really makes it hit home, that there were hundreds and hundreds of young men dying every week out here. I can't really explain it, but it's a totally different experience to visiting a regular cemetery.

Street in Ypres
I had dinner at a typical Belgian Frituur, or fast food joint. Normally Belgium does the best fries, but this place was pretty gross and I quickly lost my appetite and headed back outside. The sun came out just as I started walking along the city ramparts. I walked around about half of the city, until the Menin Gate. It's a little disappointing if, like me, you picture really old ramparts like on castles. Instead, this is more than a path along the top of a retaining wall, but it was still a really nice walk, in the evening sun. I passed some of those things that guys hide in to shoot out of, and the foundations of a couple of old towers from when the Burgundians were around.

Tower. Does no one else see the potential for accidents?
It kinda freaks me out how they are like these 4m deep holes in the ground with no barriers or anything around, some poor guy could be out for a jog in the dark and fall right in. Or, you can walk around the top of them and fall straight into the water on the other side. But I'm beginning to realise that NZ is really safety conscious and the state makes a lot of laws, like bicycle helmets and swimming pool fences that people in other countries think are ridiculous and a infringement on their rights to decide things themselves. A lot of Belgians I've talked to about this get angry imagining a government making laws like that. I guess they forgot what having a government and new laws is like, now they're a year without one!

Rampart Cemetery
Anyway, back to the ramparts. A lot of the city has a pretty epic moat, now filled with birds and willows and all, and then I noticed the Rampart Cemetery, perched on a bank above the lake/moat/river. It was really beautiful, an amazingly serene location. Finally, I continued around to the Menin gate just before 8pm. The Menin Gate was built in the 1920s to commemorate soldiers who died in the area but whose gravesites are unknown. The gate surprized me, I expected it to be less deep I guess is the word, it is a lot deeper than it is tall or wide, it almost seems like a building. It is really impressive, so huge and covered with the names of almost 55 000 men from the Commonwealth. It's amazing to think that so many bodies disappeared into the mud in Ypres. New Zealand soldiers aren't listed on the memorial. Those of Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa and India are, but I can't find the reason why the New Zealanders aren't included.

Back view of the Menin Gate
At 8pm every night since 1927, the town of Ypres has expressed their gratitude towards those who gave their lives by holding a Last Post ceremony. The traffic that runs under the bridge is stopped, buglers from the local fire brigade play the last post, and then the ceremony differs each night according to who has requested to take part. Someone reads 'For the Fallen' and wreaths are laid, normally by school groups or visiting associations, and often other musicans or groups will play as well. This night, a man played Amazing Grace on the bagpipes. This has happened every night since 1927, apart from when Germans occupied the city in WWII. Even then, they performed the Last Post in England and the day that Ypres was liberated they resumed the Last Post at Menin Gate, even though they were still fighting in the other side of the city

Last Post
It was intensely moving. I am one of those people that get teary at ANZAC ceremonies back in NZ anyway, but there was something special about being at a ceremony on the other side of the world. It makes you realise that we're not just an island doing our own thing independent of other countries, we really do have a shared history. For me, the occasion also had a lot of feeling because it reminded me that I am so far away from home, seeing things that I read about when I was a small girl growing up in a community where traveling to Australia was a big deal. I told myself then that I wanted to get out and see the world, and every now and then I have one of those moments where it hits home how far I've come and how lucky I am to be here, having all of these incredible experiences on a trip that many could never make themselves.

People gathered under the gate for the Post
The train ride back was pretty uneventful, just a nice chance to enjoy the scenery at that time of night. For me, riding on trains is still something magical and I wish there was some way I could share that with everyone, I think my explanations of the Belgian countryside don't do it justice. It just amazes me how different their concept of 'countryside' is, as here you don't go more than a couple of hundred metres without clusters of houses, and there are shops and schools everywhere, it's totally different to NZ where there is such a huge distance between farm houses and some kids spend an hour every day just getting to school!

So, it was an amazing experience and I'm glad I dragged myself out of bed to go!

More photos are here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Like what you've read? Have a similar experience!

My host brother Sylvain and I up the top of the Eifel Tower
If you've read the posts about my travels around Europe, you will know that this trip would not have been possible without the friends I made through AFS Exchange Programmes. I went on exchange to Costa Rica in 2005, and have been a volunteer ever since, and my parents have hosted twice. I first met my French host brother when I stayed with his family in Paris, an awesome experience.

Louis from France needs a family
Besides giving me the confidence to do a trip like this, AFS introduced me to all of these wonderful people who took me into their homes, shared their way of life with me and took me out and about for some wonderful experiences, like learning to ski in Austria, seeing a show at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, and taking a huge gondala up to the top of the Swiss Alps. I've stayed with 14 former AFS exchange students, caught up with even more, and there is a long list of people I still want to visit before I leave the continent!

There are more of these great students coming to New Zealand for just two months, from mid July to mid September. They will live with host families and attend the local high school. They don't need their own room, families don't need to have children the same age, or even children at all, and they don't need two parents, or same-sex parents, or middle aged parents. They don't need to be shown all around the country, just a home that cares about them and is enthusiastic about sharing our New Zealand culture and way of life with them and learning a little about theirs.

Paloma from Spain needs a family
If you, your family or someone you know is interested in getting involved in the lifechanging experience that is AFS, then let me know, or contact the national hosting guy, Michael on michael.vandyk@afs.org. You can see the profiles of the students needing host families on the website here, just note that for the two month programme we only host students from France, Spain and Italy and profiles will disappear each day as families pick students. There are some students also arriving in July from Italy for the year programme, and there will be a lot more students arriving from a bigger variety of countries in the New Year, for six month or year exchanges. If you're still not convinced or what to know how else you can get involved, there is also more about AFS on my blog page here.

Also, for those of you that are in Christchurch, I've had a few comments about it not being nice for a student to be hosted while there are aftershocks - None of the AFS students that were hosted in Christchurch during the September or February earthquake took up an offer to move out of the area, they have all been viewing it as a new experience and a good chance to bond with their host families, so we have no concerns about placing further students in the Christchurch area and will make sure they have extra support just incase.