Saturday, August 3, 2013

One Year Down...

It is hard to believe that we've already been here in Luxembourg for one year.  I don't think E or myself could have ever imagined what this experience would do to us personally as well as a family.  I don't think anyone really can going into something like this.  Tonight E and I sat down and just looked through all our pictures and blog posts from a year ago, and while we'd like to say it brought back good memories and feelings, it actually did quite the opposite. We both immediately were overwhelmed with the feelings of anxiety and fear that we had as we arrived in Luxembourg.

We both were never really sure what was "calling" us to Luxembourg, it was something that I had always wanted to do.  Living overseas with your family sounded very fun and glamorous, and when the opportunity arose, E was kind enough to say she'd follow me.  Having lived overseas on my church mission for 2 years I figured I would be the veteran/pro for the experience, and I would help E through all the problems (homesickness, language barriers, etc...), little did I know that she'd be helping me just as much as I'd be helping her.

When we first arrived in Luxembourg and walked off the plane, we were absolutely in a different world, while some people were able to speak English, as expected the majority were not able to.  Luckily the taxi driver that I found spoke Portuguese so that I could have him help us take our mountain of suitcases to the hotel with Elise in his car alone, while I took our rental car and kids to the hotel separately.  Those first few hours really made us question our decision, what were we thinking, why would we do this crazy thing, we had such a good life in Chicago, why did we need to now mess that all up and move to this strange land, that everyone, yes, everyone, intially thinks is a city in Germany... (that is until they Google it and see its a small country that is usually abbreviated on maps as Lux).

These feelings really did not subside for quite awhile.  The culture shock was overwhelming.  While western Europe is very similar to the United States, it is also extremely different.  Ultimately, we've grown accustomed to taking a number literally everywhere you go, or understanding that there is no grey areas in rules or policies here, a rule is a rule and if you didn't follow it exactly how it was written or meant to be understood, tough, your problem not theirs.  Also, probably the most difficult thing has been the language barrier.  While the majority of the professional class in Luxembourg speaks pretty decent English, the people you interact with on a regular basis (cashiers, customer service, etc...) usually don't speak English, and if you ask them if they do, don't be surprised if they either just walk away and ignore you, or hang-up the phone and don't answer it again when you try to call back.  Both of us have had experiences with the language barrier that have caused us to shed a few tears, or to want to bridge the language barrier by speaking a few universally understood english words :)

On top of our personal struggles, one of the main worries that we had once we got here was how our kids would respond to such a challenge.  We were constantly worried that we were going to be setting them up for failure.  I can't imagine being 4 & 6 and being thrown into a classroom surrounded by other kids who you can't talk to, and feeling OK about the overall situation.  Layer that on-top of cultural differences, and it seems like a disaster in the making.  On the first day of school, we both were just amazed at how different things were.  For example, the kids all come in take of their shoes and put on slippers before going into class. Well our kids didn't have slippers, so they immediately felt different than everyone else for the first day.

Finally the last big struggle was the church.  While its true that wherever you go in the world the Mormon church is very similar in how it functions and what it teaches, the one thing that we were not prepared for was the languages and cultures that are present in our ward.  It is not uncommon to have the opening prayer in English, a talk in Portuguese, another few talks in French and then the closing prayer in Spanish.  It is amazing, and yet also, overwhelming. Don't get us wrong, the church was such a comfort zone for us.  We immediately had a family and familiar faces to look forward to seeing each week, but it just felt and definitely sounded different than what we were used to.

So you may be starting to question why is this post that is supposed to be reflecting back over the past year is so negative.  Our overall views on this experience have been very positive.  What I want to demonstrate is that even with all this anxiety, pain, worry, stress and add on any other 5 emotions that could potentially drive you into a state of deep depression, we overcame this and we have had such a wonderful and life changing event.

Over the past year, I have seen my family grow in so many amazing ways.  I wanted to speak about each of them just a little because they have impressed me so much.

My Beautiful Wife E

E never ceases to amaze me.  When I asked her dad if I could marry her, he said that she was his only perfect daughter (sorry S, but I think he told J the same thing about you :) )and that I better treat her right. He mentioned how resilient she was and how she was such an independent person.  Our time here has done more to prove to me all that he said.  E has grown and developed and helped me in so many ways.  For those of you who know E, you know she has a huge heart.  She is willing to help and serve anyone who needs it.  She also is very smart and dedicated to her family.  Even with all the challenges and obstacles that she has faced, these attributes and qualities have not faded.  She currently serves in the church in the young-women's presidency, and is constantly bombarded with the language barrier that exists between her and some of the girls in the program.  Even with this barrier, she has somehow figured out how to create meaningful relationships and more importantly build trust with all the girls in her program.

Anyone who does an expat experience will always talk about the "trailing spouse".  This is the spouse who is not moving overseas because of their job, but because of the job of their spouse.  Surprisingly, this is usually the spouse that takes on the majority of the burdens and culture shock that is associated with moving overseas.  Generally, they are the ones who don't immediately have a purpose and reason for being in a foreign country, and therefore, generally they are the ones who struggle the most.  Also, this spouse deals mainly with the day-to-day routine of life, and as such is faced with more of the interactions with the culture than the spouse who is working.

E struggled, but when I look at how she was able to look inside herself and figure out how to overcome the difficulties that she encountered, I am amazed.  She has adapted like I never could have imagined.  Probably the biggest evidence of this would be the fact that she was able to have a baby overseas without even flinching. Watching her figure out how the system here works, and making sure that she did everything exactly as the system asked (which once again is something that is absolutely required here), was amazing.  She spoke with different doctors, talked with different people at church, and ultimately found a situation and doctor with whom she was very comfortable with.

Ms. A

Ms. A has more than knocked our socks off when it comes to how she has grown.  A few months back E wrote a post about A and how much she has grown here.  In the 6 months following that post, the growth has only continued and A has completely adapted to a new environment.  Probably the most impressive example of this relates to her Luxembourgish.  If you didn't know that Luxembourg has its own language, well it does, and it is definitely something that sounds different.  Its sounds like German and French and Dutch got all together and made a baby!  At our final teacher conference for A this year, her teacher had nothing but positive things to report.  She said that out of all the non-native speakers that she has ever taught, A was the one who impressed her the most.  By the end of the year, they had started to put A into classes that were made for kids struggling to speak Luxembourgish, not because she needed it, but because they identified her as a very good speaker and one that could help the other kids with their vocabulary and pronounciation.  Our neighbor a few weeks ago mentioned that A speaks with a better accent than her own brother who was born in Luxembourg.  Here is a little clip of her singing one of the songs that they have taught her at school.

Finally, to top it all off, there is not a day that goes by that we're not walking down the street and a kid yells out "A...!".  She has sooo many friends here, and they all love playing with her.  It is awesome to see the confidence that she has gained in the last year.  Moving into first grade here she now switches from learning Luxembourgish over to learning German.  She isn't worried in the slightest, and actually made sure a couple weeks ago that we were infact going to be coming back from our vacation in the US, because she wanted to be sure that she could learn German in 1st grade.

Mr. L

Mr. L, well where do we start.  When we moved here, he was still our little guy.  He turned 3 within a few months of us moving here, and he was literally within a few days of being too young to miss the cut-off for school. Ultimately he was the youngest of his class and he was also the only one that did not have any peers who communicated in his mother-tongue.  Much like A he adapted and rose above the challenge.  In our final parent-teacher conference for him, his teachers mentioned how much he has grown over the past few months/year.

It is really cool how they do school work here.  They don't send home a lot of what the kids do in school, and instead they save it in chronological order in binders at the school so that when you have conferences they can show you the child's development and progress.  Seeing L's work at the beginning of the year and comparing it to the end of the year, was like a night and day difference.  On top of learning all the normal things that are expected of kids in school, he was also required to learn a completely new language and do all his work in this language.  Needless to say, he did that, and his teachers and us were very proud of him at the end of the year.

Ms. H

Well Ms. H, she's just been our little firecracker.  Over the past year, she has learned to be miss independent and she loves the words, "No, I will do it by myself...".  She decided that she was ready to be potty trained when she turned 2, and now she is deciding that she wants to learn all the letters in the alphabet and is actually picking up some french along the way.  Its pretty funny, but if she does something she is proud of, she will do it and then say, "Mom, Dad, look, voila!", whenever I leave for work she always says goodbye in 3 languages, "Au revior, Tchau, √Ąddi".  We're looking into trying to find a program that will teach her Luxembourgish for the next year, so that she can keep up with A & L, I have no doubt that if we find one, she will excel.

Ms. E

Well, she is just cute, and she melts our hearts every time she smiles at us.

Overall, I have come to understand why were were "called" here.  We needed to grow.  Last week in church we were discussing several topics, and a member of the class said that the Lord doesn't want us in our comfort zones.  We don't grow when we're in our comfort zones, so he gives us challenges and opportunities that push us outside our comfort zones so that we can grow and develop into what he needs us to be.  Luxembourg has been that experience for our family.  I know that we are all better people than we would have been had we stayed in our life as it was in Chicago.  We have had experiences, seen places, and interacted with people that we would never have imagined.  Thank you everyone for being so supportive and sending us encouraging messages throughout the past year.  We're so blessed to have such a wonderful support system, and we can't wait to see what the next year has in store for us!

Some Changes Over the Year

We thought it would be fun to compare just a few pictures from a year ago, to a few pictures from this year. The changes are pretty crazy.  Enjoy!

Last Year's Family Photo in July

This Year's Family Photo in July

Last Year A & L at the Pirate Ship Park

This Year A at Pirate Ship Park

This Year L at Pirate Ship Park

Last Year H at Pirate Ship Park
This Year H at Pirate Ship Park,
she has no fears...

Our Yard Last Year in July

Our Yard This Year

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Little Miss E

This post is way overdue- my poor little Miss Baby E is already over two months old.  I guess that's the sort of thing you have to get used to when you're #4.  But, I want to get her story recorded before it gets too buried in my memory.

Little Miss E's due date was May 11.  All my other babies have come at 38 weeks.  Here in Luxembourg they are very cautious and (almost overly) careful in their prenatal care.  At every one of my doctor appointments in the third trimester I had an ultrasound, a cervical exam, and a 40 minute fetal  heart monitoring session.  It sure felt like a lot of hassle compared to my other experiences, but I kept assuring myself that it was all for the best, and thankfully, everything appeared to be completely normal.  At every appointment, though, my doctor kept telling me that this baby was in no hurry and he would be surprised if she came early.  I was having tons of Braxton Hicks contractions the last few months, some of them getting uncomfortable, but they just weren't doing much.  So, by the time I got to my 39 week appointment, I felt like I was getting close to my limit.  I know it sounds ridiculous- she still wasn't even due for at least a week, but I had never made it to 39 weeks before.  Also, by my 38 and 39 week appointments, the ultrasound was starting to show some abnormal calcifications in the placenta, which concerned me, but I tried to be calm about it.  Maybe these calcifications have happened in all my pregnancies, I've just never been monitored so closely.  Anyway, my dr. told me he didn't want me to go past my due date, so if baby hadn't shown up in the next week, we'd have to get serious about getting her here.  I really didn't want to be induced, so I left the office that day determined to find a way to get this baby moving.

My last pregnant photo- taken about a day and a half before she was born.

That weekend, I did some house cleaning, cleaned out the garage, mowed the lawn, and went on a couple long, hard walks.  By the time I went to bed Sunday night I was starting to feel some pretty strong contractions.  I'd had the same thing happen a few other nights, then they died down and nothing happened.  So, I was trying not to get my hopes up.  After laying in bed for about an hour, I decided to get up and see if anything changed.  I got in the bathtub to see if they would die down, but they didn't.  After about two hours of consistent contractions in the bathtub, the intensity was really picking up.  We started to get nervous because Miss H's delivery was so fast.  (Labor only lasted about 3 hours, I got to the hospital fully dilated, and delivered in triage)  K decided it was time to go to the hospital so that we didn't risk having this baby somewhere other than the hospital.  We called our friend, Christy, who came right over to stay with the kids.  She was such a good sport to rush to our house so quickly at 2:30 in the morning!

We rushed off to the hospital and found our way in to the labor and delivery area, which was no easy task.  It was not clearly marked and there was no one around to ask.  It was about 3:30 by the time we got there.  Contractions were still coming, but were definitely a little less regular and less intense than they had been.  After getting checked in at the hospital, I was disappointed to find out I was only at 3 cm.  I told my nurse that I was hoping to labor in water for awhile (which I had never done before).  She suggested I get up and walk for awhile first since they prefer women only stay in the water for about two hours.  We figured I still had quite a bit of time left.  The nurse (who is actually a midwife) was really wonderful.  Her English was pretty good.  We were able to communicate well, though there were a few times that I turned to K after she had left to see if he had understood what she'd said cause I sure hadn't.  I have to admit I'm glad that I didn't have this type of experience until we'd been here almost a year because now it doesn't bother me so much to not really know what's being said around me.  Earlier in this expat experience it might have bothered me a lot more to not be quite so in control of the situation.  Thankfully, though, a few weeks earlier, I'd had a registration appointment with another midwife at the hospital who had created a file for me that included all my wishes concerning my labor and delivery.  This hospital was very natural birth friendly.  Most of the things I've had to make serious requests for in the U.S. were just standard practice here, so I wasn't too worried.  Ok- back to the story- She left the room and things started to pick up pretty quickly after that.  Ultimately, due to some complications with the placenta, I wasn't able to get up and walk or get in the tub.  But, she was calling the doctor within about an hour.  He showed up to check on the situation.  He let me know it was okay to start pushing whenever I felt like I needed to.  I felt the need pretty quickly after that.  It was a unique experience for me to be delivering a baby while the nurse and doctor were chattering away in Luxembourgish.  I decided that it was probably good I didn't understand everything they were saying.  I think I was able to be more focused on my job and not so worried about trying to hear everything they were saying.

Our baby girl came at 5:25 am  on Monday, May 6, 2013 and weighed 3480 grams (which translates to 7 lbs. 10 oz) and was 54 cm long (21.5 inches).  

Here we are just a couple minutes after she was born.  Hospital gowns are only worn by sick patients- and childbirth is not an illness.  All the clothes I wore in the hospital were my own (or K's big t-shirts!)

I just think this little face is so cute!  Being born has got to be a pretty rude awakening!

We spent about two hours in the delivery room before being moved upstairs to our mother/baby room.  Here's a funny hormonal/annoying European story I'm willing to share- When we first moved to Europe, I struggled some with the food.  Most of it's fine, but I'm not very into the pastries, especially for breakfast.  I try to eat some protein and whole grains for breakfast most days.  Of course, I have since learned how divine the pastries can be, but that's beside the point :)  Anyway, so by the time we were moved to our room upstairs the breakfast trays had already been served.  Well I was starving, of course!  All I had been saying the last two hours was how hungry I was.  In the elevator on the way upstairs I had said to K that they better not try to serve me a European breakfast.  A nurse brought me in a tray of food that she had found, I got settled in, and K tried to take a little nap on the chair.  I lifted the lid to find a piece of white bread with butter, a croissant, and some coffee.  As I looked at the tray, the tears started coming.  I knew it was silly- and that it was the hormones crying- but I just couldn't stop.  I was so hungry at that point.  A few minutes later K opened his eyes, saw what was going on, and jumped up to go find some more food.  The cafeteria wasn't open yet so he came back with an apple and yogurt from a vending machine and a promise to find something better later.   I got over it quickly and actually really enjoyed the food during the rest of my stay.

That afternoon, when the kids got out of school, K brought everyone over to hospital to meet the new baby.

This was Mr. L's reaction the first time Little Miss E started crying at the hospital.  Don't worry- he's gotten over that pretty quickly!

We stayed at the hospital from early Monday morning until Thursday at lunchtime.  That's the longest I've ever stayed at the hospital, but it was a pretty short stay by Luxembourgish standards.  Everyone kept reminding me that this was my time to rest because it would be a lot harder once I went home.   My hospital experience was so different here because they were much more "hands off".  The nurses would come in at about 7 pm to check on us and ask if we needed anything, then they'd say, "Good night, see you in the morning!" and that was it.  I actually got to sleep pretty well there.  And nobody made me fill out any charts about how many minutes I spent nursing and how many diapers I changed, etc.  It was a really nice experience overall.  And you would have thought I was a celebrity in that hospital once everyone found out this was our fourth baby.  That many kids is pretty uncommon here.  A few days later, we were ready to go home- at least we hoped we were ready!

Everyone was very excited for our arrival home!  All the kids wanted to hold our sweet baby as much as possible.  Miss H still thinks that every time she holds the baby I'm supposed to take her picture.  Let's just say I have a lot of pictures that look something like the one above.

And now, two and a half months later, it's hard to believe how much Little Miss E has grown.  K's mom came to visit us when she was just a week old.  And then my parents came to visit when she was three weeks old.  She started really smiling at about 6 weeks and it still melts my heart every time she does it.

Since she was born, we have travelled to France, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden.  She is one well traveled kid!  And next month, she gets to make her debut in the good old US of A!  Good thing she got her passport paperwork going when she was just 8 days old.  The man at the shop where I went to have her photo taken thought I was crazy for trying to get a passport photo for an 8 day old baby.  He just shook his head and said, "Well, I guess it's never too early!".  Let's just say, we're ALL prepared for our visit home next month.

Little Miss E is a great eater, entertains everyone with smiles, coos, squeals, and an occasional laugh.  She sleeps all night and is such a happy baby, which makes for a VERY happy mommy :)  I think she's going to fit in just fine around here!!!  And I hope that someday she'll forgive me for taking two and a half months to write a blog post announcing her birth......

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Our Big European Road Trip (Part 2)

So after spending a couple of fun filled days in Amsterdam, we packed everything up and began the 8 hour drive up to Billund Denmark.  If you've never heard of Billund, don't worry we hadn't either until we decided we wanted to take the kiddos to Legoland.  Although Billund is a small town, it is the world headquarters for Lego.

We started the day off early and got to Legoland right before it opened at 10am.  One of the most frustrating parts of Denmark was definitely the currency and the taxes.  When we arrived we pulled out of an ATM what we felt was a reasonable amount of Danish Krones to get us through our time in Denmark, and we went along our merry way.  The only problem was, at the end of the first day we only had a third left of what we had originally pulled out.  One of the main reasons that things are so expensive is the VAT (Valued Added Tax).  Its basically a national sales tax and here in Denmark it is equal to 25% of the total price of any good purchased.  So essentially we had a 25% markup on everything that we were purchasing.  Yuck...

Cost of stuff aside, we had a really fun time.  The kids were absolutely wired and couldn't wait until we could get inside to see all the stuff.  They were pleasantly surprised when the parking lot had some lego people that were just their size.

We really like Ms. H's hair in this picture.  Needless to say
its windy in Denmark.

Once we got into Legoland Mr. L saw the Lego train and of course it was the very first thing that we had to do. We got on the train and took a ride around all of Legoland, it is very impressive to see all the sculptures and statues that they have created out of Legos.

Once we got off the train, the kids found park maps and took some time trying to figure out the best route to take in order to maximize their time at Legoland.  Needless to say in the end they just said that they wanted to do everything and that there was nothing that they wanted to miss.

So here are some of the pictures we took while we were doing all that we possibly could during the day.

Ms. H felt the need while driving the boat to wave at all the onlookers.
Such a diva.

The next three pictures definitely show off K in an interesting light.  Keep in mind that E is holding our nice camera trying to get some pictures of the kids on the pirate squirt boat.  K sees E and decides that the camera is not as important as showing off his manly squirt gun skills and begins to drench E while she is trying to be a good mom/wife and get some pictures.  His face in the first one cracks us up...

There were a lot of rides that we did, and Ms. A was tall enough, just barely, to do her first big kid roller coasters.  K and her made a special trip over to the roller coasters while Ms. H & Mr. L played in Duplo land with E.  Ms. A came back absolutely pumped and way excited about the fact that she was scared, but not too scared.

After a long day at LegoLand we of course had to buy the kids a set of Legos from the place where they're made, and then we headed off back to the tent.  E had the idea to make tie-dye shirts for all the kids before we left so that we could easily identify them whenever they ran off.  It worked out really well, and the kids loved the fact that they all matched.

Once we got back to our camp site, the kids were still high on life, and wanted to play with their newly bought legos.  So instead of fighting them in going to bed, we cracked open the boxes and had some fun for an hour or so, just playing and enjoying being together as a family.

After finally settling down and getting a decent night's sleep, we headed out the next day to explore the rest of Denmark.  We wanted to try and head out to find some beaches along the Baltic Sea, so we headed that direction.  Along the way we found a few fjords (we had to think way back to geology class to remember what the heck a fjord was...), and finally we found a decent beach for everyone to play on.

Ms. H was not cooperating with the fjord family foto (what alliteration!)

Overall the west-side of Denmark was very beautiful and picturesque.  After playing on the beach for awhile we decided we should find some food and we ended up in a town called Fredericia.  It was a very pretty town and had a ton of stores and restaurants.  In the middle of the streets were these little streams that the local kids were playing in, so we let our kids play in them as well.

The only problem arose when Mr. L didn't see a broken glass bottle in the middle of the stream and proceeded to cut open his big and little toe.  There was blood everywhere, if sharks lived in the stream they would have been eating Mr. L alive.  K ran and grabbed L from the water and was instantly covered in blood.  Everyone around us was just staring and then suddenly people started to throw bandaid, wet wipes, and anything that could help at us.  It was very helpful and such a nice gesture that you normally wouldn't see from the typical person in Europe.  Usually they'd be looking at you like, "Idiot why did you let your kid play in the stream that is meant for kids to play in...".  After some minor first aid, we were able to get everything band aided up and we were off again.

After exploring western Denmark for the day, we headed back to our campsite and slept in a tent for one last night.  The next morning we packed everything up AGAIN, and headed off to see Copenhagen and Sweden.

We were amazed at the number and length of the bridges in Denmark.  The two main bridges that we used, took us over 10 minutes to cross completely and were huge.  It was definitely cool to see the engineering brainpower that must have gone into creating such major expanses.

We didn't spend a lot of time in Sweden, mainly because we wanted to check out Copenhagen, but we did drive over the bridge from Copenhagen to Malm√∂ Sweden and checked out that town for about an hour.  We also found an Ikea that is actually located in Sweden, imagine that!

Once we got into Copenhagen, we checked into our hotel, and began to explore the city.  We have to say that it was just ok.  At least the parts that we saw were mainly shopping areas, and once again EVERYTHING was extremely expensive.  We walked around and looked at a lot of things, had a good dinner, and ultimately just had a very chill evening together as a family.

The good thing is that where ever you are in the world, there is always ice cream to help end a long day, and we found just that in Copenhagen, some good old ice cream for dessert.

The kids insisted on sleeping in these teeny chairs in our hotel room. We were talking about how there is no way an adult would be able to accomplish such a contortionist feat, at least not without paying for it over the next month...

The next morning we got up, checked out of our hotel, and made a quick stop over to check out the statue The Little Mermaid.  This statue is quite the controversial statue.  Check out Wikipedia and you will see what we mean.  She is celebrating her 100 year anniversary this year, and was made by a man to memorialize the Hans Christian Andersen story, "The Little Mermaid".  There were hundreds of people all around taking pictures and climbing all over her, so we just looked, took a couple of distant photos and ran away.

Overall, the trip was a huge success.  We got to spend such a great amount of time together talking, playing around, and just being a family.  We're grateful for the opportunity that we have to be here in Europe and to be able to see such an amazing amount of things together with our kids.  Our hope is that in 10 years they can look back and read this blog and see just how much we enjoyed spending time with them.