Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Luxamerican Halloween


Halloween is not my favorite holiday, not by a long shot.  It is not widely celebrated in Luxembourg, nor in many other parts of Europe.  As far as I'm concerned, I wouldn't be devastated if it disappeared from our lives altogether, left behind with the move.  Along with the election season madness we've largely avoided this time around, I count us lucky to be missing out on an American Halloween this year.


I did feel compelled to uphold some U.S. Halloween traditions for the sake of continuity for the kids.  Namely, we had the opportunity to go Trick-Or-Treating with the American Women's Club of Luxembourg, so I signed us up.  I figured we'd give this year a modest effort, and perhaps taper off our participation in Halloween-related festivities in subsequent years.

Many Luxembourg stores do carry a few Halloween decorations and costumes.  Unfortunately, most costumes are of the scary/demonic/bloody variety.  It's rare to see a princess, fireman, Disney character, superhero.  And I was in no mood to "craft."

I opted to spend 6 Euros on some sheer white fabric, reprising James' ghost from last year, with an added ghost sister.
So, way back on October 20th, two friendly ghosts and their parents bused out to the specially designated Trick-Or-Treating neighborhood.  Trick-Or-Treating authorized between 4-6pm at orange balloon-marked houses only!

Simply being in this neighborhood was surreal in itself.  Walking amongst the large, very new-looking detached homes and hearing English everywhere around us left us wondering if we'd mistakenly hopped on a plane back to a wealthy Portland suburb, or whether a neighborhood like this would even exist here if droves of Americans hadn't been showing up to work and live in Luxembourg in recent years.

Sure enough, 2 or 3 dozen homes handed out mostly American-brand fun-sized candy from their doorsteps.  (FYI - Pete and my favorite candy bars - Kit-Kat and Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, respectively - now taste suspiciously like cardboard after a steady diet of Belgian chocolate for the last 5 months.)  

some candy distributers went the extra mile

um, did these folks really have their "U.S. Mail" box shipped over???

A couple people even set out their own Trick-or-Treating stations on card-tables, creating more candy-collecting ops for the kids.

bonus trick-or-treat kiosk

another bonus spot.  and a couple of cows.
As families finished up the route, they gathered at a neighborhood playground and parking lot for American hot-dogs and socializing.   By the way, the weather that night was spectacular - warm, even!

Well, fast-forward:  It is Halloween night as I write this post.  We attended a Halloween party at the local Pizza Hut this afternoon, organized again by the AWCL.  No trick-or-treaters have come by our place tonight.  The kids each picked out a pumpkin at the grocery store awhile back, but we decided not to carve them since they'd begun to rot (even pumpkins go bad quickly here!).  There was a pumpkin festival in a nearby town back in September; that probably would have been the closest thing to a pumpkin patch experience here.  The kids have been out of school all week for mid-term break - no school Halloween parties or costume parades.  We didn't dress up to visit the retirement home and hand out cards with the MOMS Club.  I think that's the part I really did miss - we've done that since James was a baby.  Tomorrow, All Saints Day, is a national holiday and everyone has the day off.

So yeah, Halloween feels weird this year.  But then again, I always feel a bit weird on Halloween.  It's just a different sort of weird this year, I suppose.

Next-up: Thanksgiving.  Even less Luxembougish!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

German Schoolwork (Fall, 1st Grade)

What's it like to learn German in 1st grade?  (Or, Cycle 2.1, if you will.)

I'm glad you asked!

Before the demonstration, I'll quickly summarize some background in case you're just tuning in.  In the pre-primary years in Luxembourg (age-equivalent of American preschool, pre-k, and kindergarten), the curriculum involves some very basic work with letter sounds, writing letters and numbers, and other academics.  The main purpose of pre-primary is to pick up the local language (Luxembourgish), refine large and small motor skills, practice socialization, etc.  Actual "learning to read" is postponed until primary school, upon which instruction switches to German within the first few weeks.  Luxembourgish is primarily a spoken language, and remains the common "language of play" among the melting pot of nationalities/native languages represented at a Luxembourgish primary school.

I've taken some photos of the work Daphne's bringing home (click on any picture to enlarge).  In addition to learning to read and write, there is an unending stream of new German vocabulary to master at the same time.

The curriculum appears to revolve around a caterpillar named Mila, and her school-children friends.  I showed a few pictures of the Mila textbook in a previous post (here).  Accordingly, the curriculum first focuses on recognizing and writing M/m, then I/i, and so forth.

You can stop searching for your glasses, it's just blurry

Simultaneously, they begin to learn German words that contain these letters/letter sounds:

which words contain the "i" sound (at either beginning, middle or end)?
now, where  is the "L" sound, beginning, middle, or end?
another way of getting at same concept, where does the "I" sound occur?
They are also learning simple words that can be made with the letters in M-I-L-A, such as...
im = in 
ist im = is in
Daphne has a binder of vocabulary words, with a picture and French translation for each word.  The list began with "M" words, then "I" words were added.  Again, these are words that contain these letters, not necessarily begin with them.  Today she has her first test - on the M and I words.  As far as I know she doesn't have to spell them, but she must match the spoken or written word to the picture, recognize where the different letter sounds occur as above, etc.

In English, we have just one definite article - "the."  In French there are three - le, la, and les.   I can't remember Spanish (currently on language overload here), but as I recall it's similar to French.  In German, there are more than three (maybe 5-ish?), but Daphne is beginning with die, das, and der, and must learn them along with each noun.  They use a handy little system of color-coding to help remember.

And finally, here's an example of reading practice.  You can see it's a mixture of pictures and simple words.  Fortunately, here the full sentences are included off to the side so we can check if she's close as she reads them aloud.  We're not always this lucky.


Are we learning German along with her?  The short answer: not really.  Sure, we're picking up a few words here and there - numbers, colors, some random nouns.  The reality is that since she's doing this hours upon hours a day and we're not, we'd never keep pace.  And frankly, I don't even know the difference between die, das, and der.  I'm still focusing on French.

Can we help with her homework?  It's still early on, but the answer is sort of, sometimes.  Math - yes.   Deciphering/translating instructions - yes.  Going over vocabulary - a little.  We put the vocabulary words into Google Translate and have it pronounce them aloud, but this doesn't always work well.  And sometimes the homework involves knowing the names for pictures of nouns or actions, and then we can't be sure which precise word they're looking for.  We're still on the hunt for an app that would allow us to make our own German/English flashcards with audio.   In all honesty, we know this whole homework experience will be a lesson in letting go.  As a parent you want to ensure your kids "get it right!" We'll do our best, but to quote a phrase one hears quite often in Luxembourg, "It's nuht puhssible" to micromanage everything.  Still, we may be knocking on our German neighbor's door more and more often.

How is Daphne doing with German?  Is she able to keep up?  As far as we know, quite well.  When corrected work is sent home, it seems mostly correct with some scattered mistakes.  We have not had a formal conference yet, but her main teacher has told us in passing a couple times that she's doing fine.  We know we have Oregon kindergarten to thank in large part, as they focused heavily on reading and writing in English.  As far as speaking and understanding goes, we can't really tell just yet.  We know she's picking up some vocabulary and simple phrases, but still believe she's quite mystified for most of the school day.  I've said it before:  EVERYONE says "Kids learn language so fast!" but it's important to remember that it's not instantaneous.  You hear this so often that I think it sets the expectation way too high.  It often feels very slow-going.

Anyway, I guess we'll see how she does on her first test today!!!!

*Update Nov 12: The test was sent home for the parents to look over and sign.  It was very similar to the homework from above.  Daphne did really well!  She said the teacher even pointed out how well she did to the rest of the class, and that she was pretty embarrassed.  Don' worry, we assured we'd love her the same even if she'd bombed it.  :)  But so far so good!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Apple Song, Take 2

Tonight James suddenly announced he wanted to sing the apple song again, so I quickly grabbed the camera.  One week later, you can see he is much more comfortable with the words.

You can see the first attempt here.

Friday, October 19, 2012

James Turns Fënnef

We have a fënnef-year-old.

Well, our James is 5.  My apologies to the future-James when he reads this post, as it will likely be as much or more about the experience of hosting a party in Luxembourg as it is about the birthday-boy.  Sorry you're being upstaged by a country on this one, buddy.  We love you very much!

As per our family tradition, we like to host small birthday parties at home, as opposed to large "destination" events that accommodate a class-full of kids - increasingly common in the U.S.  Thus, we had James choose 4 friends from his class at school to invite to our apartment the afternoon of his birthday.

We decided together on an Angry Birds party.  I knew there would be plenty of ideas on the internet (Pinterest) and James loves video games.

As this was our first time hosting birthday party in a foreign country (and we haven't attended any yet either), there were many unknowns.  How does the Luxembourgish culture celebrate birthdays?  Do they typically have cake, presents, sing Happy Birthday?  What else do they do or not do?  Where will we get our supplies?  What do the parents do?  How will we handle the language barriers during the party?  Will they know what Angry Birds are? (answer to that one: no)

Not knowing which stores had what, I went on a bit of a bus-tour to find what we needed, with moderate to above-average success.  I planned to decorate brown paper lunch bags as "goody bags" but I'm now fairly certain that paper lunch sacks are literally a foreign concept here.  But you just never know about these things until you embark on an exhaustive hunt.  (Really, expat/immigrant life is largely defined by a gazillion such exhaustive hunts).  As I don't like to bake from scratch on top of hosting an event if I can avoid it (it ups the stress-level for me), I was hoping to find a cake mix.  Fortunately, I found a box mix called simply "Cake" at the grocery store, translated the French instructions, and whipped up some frosting on my own.  Threw some M&MS on top (readily available) for bird eggs and called it good.  Frosting is not really a European thing, by the way.  It's more about glazings and dustings here.  (Post-party cake report: delicious.  I can officially recommend the box marked "Cake" for those who happen to be looking for one in Lux).

Anyhow, Daphne was excited as always to decorate for the party.

birthday card from Daphne
Daphne and I made these window decals

thank you, Pinterest and free printables
"real-life" Angry Birds game
I gave the parents the option of staying for the party or picking up the kids later.  One mom ended up staying, and we were extremely grateful, as she was able to translate some of our instructions into Luxembourgish.

I'm not gonna lie, it was a pretty loud and crazy 2 hours in our one-story apartment with little carpet to absorb the noise of 6 kids running rampant.  We finally got them settled down enough to play a couple games:
pin the bird on the pig
craft time
We even had some special guests stop by for a bit....
around 7am PST

around 7:30 PST
It's the new normal, eh?

I asked the mom who stayed if this was similar to a Luxembourgish birthday party.  She said indeed it was.  True enough, the kids even all know the Happy Birthday song in English.  I also asked her how to say Happy Birthday in Luxembourgish.  All I can tell you is it's really long.

Well, James, we're proud of you and couldn't love you more.  It's been a good fënnef years.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Luxembourgish songs

Well, we are 4 weeks into this school year.

I thought it might be fun to start taking more videos of the kids speaking the language(s), to reflect on their progress over time.

Daphne is of course learning German, but the teachers are still speaking to the kids primarily in Luxembourgish unless they are teaching a German word (with some English translation on the side for Daphne).  She also has Luxembourgish as a subject for an hour each week.

There seems to be an emphasis on singing at school.  I think this is a great approach, and our kids love to sing, especially Daphne.  Here's a song from Luxembourgish class.

(Disclaimer:  She doesn't know what it means.  We don't know what it means.  We're assuming many of the pronunciations aren't quite accurate as well.  But maybe someday we'll come back to it here again and she'll explain everything to us.  We do know the part that sounds like "esh-en-esh" means something like "I am me.")

And this seems like an autumn song about apple picking, doesn't it?  Clearly, not all the words are there yet, but he's getting close!

I don't know how much longer I'll be able to convince them (well....James) to do this sort of thing on camera, so I'm enjoying it while it lasts!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Saying Hi: It's Harder Than You'd Think

How do we greet one another?

In the US, what do we do - with people other than family?  Well, Americans most often shake hands or hug.  I'm told Europeans don't really "get" our high-fives, but are slightly better at dealing with our fist-bumps.  It depends on the region, but the classic French greeting is two "air kisses," one on each cheek.  I was told by a German that they shake hands.  This isn't really surprising.  I'm pretty sure Brits are similar to Americans.

But what do the Luxembourgish do?

Three, count 'em, THREE air kisses!

(There's a chance I might not have moved here if I knew this ahead of time.)

As far as I can tell, to air kiss, at least in this country, you typically do touch cheeks, while making an audible kissing noise into the air with your lips.  You start with your right cheeks and it's right-left-right.  I imagine that a degree of difficulty is added if you're a lefty with lefty instincts.

But forget about lefties and righties for a minute, because that's the least of your worries when you're in Luxembourg, where nearly half the population is immigrants or expats from all over the world.

In Luxembourg, we have the perfect storm of greeting awkwardness.

Imagine two people in Luxembourg about to greet each other, Person A and Person B.  Here are some factors to consider:

  1. Where A is from 
  2. Where B is from
  3. If A already knows where B is from, because someone else told person A ahead of time, but person B doesn't know that.  Or vice versa.
  4. How well they know each other, or if this is the first introduction, or anything in between. 
  5. If A and B are a male-male, female-female, or male-female
  6. How generally friendly or comfortable with invasions of personal space either A or B are.
  7. Who initiates the greeting and the exact timing of the response (I'll expand on that in a second).
  8. Whether it's hi or goodbye
  9. Remembering what on Earth the two of you did the last time.
One major snag we Americans encounter is that when someone leans in for the three-kiss thing, our instinct is that they're going in for a hug, so we instinctively move forward to hug back.  The problem is, the air kiss requires some physical distance to work; it's just a lean-in-from-where-you're-standing sort of operation.  So, if you've followed your American instincts and gone in for a hug-back by mistake, suddenly you find yourself way too close and practically making out.  This becomes particularly awkward if it's a male-female combo and your spouse is standing right there.

Anyway, imagine all the permutations and combinations of these greetings, and I think I've already done them all.  It's comical what any given greeting session can morph into.  There's nothing quite like being caught in a weird simultaneous side-hug + air-kiss + handshake with another American you barely know, merely because you both find yourselves on Luxembourgish soil at the moment, and it all just kinda happened before you knew what was going on or how to stop it.

I have to say, it's hard to imagine ever getting used to touching my checks multiple times with the face of guy-who-I-just-met-and-can-now-smell-his-lunch-and-alcoholic-beverage-and-cigarette-and-know-when-he-last-shaved.  But then again, I'm on the low end of the tolerance-of-invasions-of-personal-space spectrum.  (And now you know why I over-think and blog about such a topic in the first place.)

So, I see two approaches I could take going forward, because what I'm doing now is clearly not working:

1) Always try to make the first move by proactively sticking out my hand for a handshake, or
2) Always stand perfectly still, wait, and dutifully accept and reciprocate whatever happens.

Approach 1 might make me seem like an obnoxious and culturally-insensitive American, but it's safe at least.  Approach 2 is risky and could also come across as cold and unfriendly.  But I think it's the in-between response that makes for the most awkwardness and leads to the inevitable odd mishmash of greetings all happening at the same time.

My French friend (female) and I just sort of stare at each other and say hi, then quickly move on.  I think we're both cool with this.

Maybe some other travelers or expats or Luxembourgish folks will have some insight for me.  Meanwhile, I'm just waving at you all from behind my computer screen.  Hi!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A visit from Kelly Gardner

Hi everyone, it's an über-rare blog post from me (Pete) this week.  Enjoy it while it lasts!

We were thrilled to have my good friend from MBA school, Mr. Kelly Gardner, visit us this week!  His wife works for an airline, and in part due to the amazing spouse flight benefits, Kelly has become quite the world traveller.  During business school, Kelly became one of my best friends, and we always worked with this other guy... Matt.  Yep, the Matt who was my Lux connection, and now lives a block away from me.  Between the two of us Kelly couldn't resist a visit to "the most luxurious of all burgs" as I like to call it.

Looking back on my phone now, I'm disappointed with my poor documentation of his visit - I was able to take some time off and show Kelly around the city, check out the bock casemates, get a Choco-spoon (I'm getting the Lux tourist thing down pretty well these days), and in the process get caught up on the latest tech-news from the US (Kelly is my lifeline to all things gadget-y and tech-culture).

On Friday, Matt was able to get some time off as well, and after extensive research (ok, a 90 second conversation) we more or less randomly decided to take a guys-only day trip to Brussels on Friday, hoping to see sprouts, waffles and the Euro-crisis.

here they are!  We decided to take the train instead of driving.

Matt taught us to play "13" on the way.

 Brussels main city-square.  Kelly informed me that a tourist taking a picture of a tourist taking a picture was very "meta."

Some fairly nasty weather drove us into the semi-famous "Delirium" bar.  Matt and I had a few beers while waiting for the rain to clear.  This may or may not have contributed to the events that followed.

After the rain died down, we decided to walk across town and check out the Musical Instrument Museum, which is supposed to be a pretty cool collection of historical instruments (I'm not sure how interested the other guys were, actually, I think they were humoring me...) but on the way we were distracted by....

wait for it.....


It turned out that this park (Parc de Bruxelles) had all kinds of stereotypical Belgian items as modern art:  For example this "Beer of Souls"


By the time we got through the park, the rain was coming down pretty hard, and we were still a good 20-30 minute walk from the museum.  So, when we saw a giant friendly looking glass/steel building called the "EU Planetarium" we thought we ought to stop and stay for a while, maybe grab a cup of coffee and get dry.  We were pretty pleased to see that visitors were free!

You could possibly blame the beers (they were large, and it turns out that they were 7+%, though I'm not sure what Kelly's excuse is!) but it slowly dawned on us as got to the first exhibit.... there seemed to be a lot of information about the EU beaureaucratic infrastructure and not so much about planets.   

Yeah, we ended up in the Parlimintarium not the Planetarium.  As in, the visitors center for learning about the EU parliment.

Well, it was dry anyway.  And Matt had a delightful time hassling the employees about their lack of respect for Luxembourgish culture, including the following exchange with one of the workers standing next to the multi-lingual rack of brochures:

Matt:  Do you have this in Luxembourgish?
Confused and Affronted Employee:  No.
M:  Why not?
CAE: Sir, luxembourgish is not a language.
M: (increasingly animated) What!  It's one of the three official languages of Luxembourg!
CAE: (now flustered as well as confused and affronted) Well, it's not one of the 24 recognized languages of the EU, which is why we don't have it here.
M: But Luxembourg is one of the EU capitals!  How can this be?
CAE: (now in near panic) Sir, I can give you the email of my boss if you'd like to file a complaint.
M:  That's fine, but does your boss read Luxembourgish?
CAE: no...
M:  Then how will he understand what I write!?

He was in rare form :)

We actually had a pretty good time, once we got used to the idea that there wasn't going to be a laser light show about distant stars, and learned to enjoy the "parliament at work" video presented in the majesty of 360 degrees high-def.  Ok, I fell asleep, but right before that, it was getting really intense!

One last story from Brussels.  On the way back to the train station, a random guy struck up a conversation with me.  He asked where I was from, and I told him with a totally straight face - "Luxembourg."  Turns out that was the best move I made all day, because when Kelly told him "California" he gained a stalker (the guy with the hat and the backpack).

This joker hounded Kelly the whole way back, with a story of something to do with John McCain, a missing passport, some sort of broad conspiracy involving "humans," and a mysterious 20 digit phone number that Kelly was supposed to call once he landed in SFO.  I wish I had the paper he gave us - it was pure crazy.

There are no Starbucks in Luxembourg (yet!  Come on Starbucks!) so I stopped by the one in the Brussels train station for a quick hit of Americana (and caffeine) and we decided to get in a quick picture -

 when out of no-where comes our conspiracy-threory friend!  With a full sized American Flag!  I can't believe this actually happened, but it did:

Kelly called this "the ultimate photo-bomb."  Yep.

Ok, that's enough blog post for me.  I'm happy to turn this forum back over to my much more eloquent and documentation-saavy wife.

I hope Kelly had as good a time in Lux as we did hosting him.  And I hope that last picture never surfaces as evidence in some future trial, proving that we were associated with Belgian extremists.

Bye Kelly!  Sorry I didn't take more pictures!


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Yogurt Test

Humor me for a second.  Scan your eyes down to the picture of the yogurt, looking only for the fruit pictured, trying your best not to read the label.  Then tell me, what flavor of yogurt is this?



You've looked at the label by now for sure.   Anyway, I was in a hurry and thought I was getting raspberry.  But no.  Aloe Vera-Lychee.

As you might expect, it tasted like lotion.  We decided to rub it all over our bodies instead.  Sticky, but effective.