Move-In Day Eve

We’re in our fifth week of living in a studio loft hotel room (with a mostly frosted glass wall to the bathroom). We’ve been here long enough that it feels normal. The kids are comfortable navigating the busy breakfast bar. The staff knows us. I expect to see Bertie’s face plastered against the glass while I’m in the loo. My clothes haven’t seen the inside of a closet or dresser in 7 weeks but it doesn’t really bother me any more. I haven’t dirtied a pot in more than 30 days and I’m glad to not have the dishes to wash. (In fact, I just ate my 100th meal out.)

But the end is in sight: tomorrow we move into our Italian home!

The truth is, I’m in a blissful place. A twilight between reality and a dream. I fritter away the quiet dark time after Lights Out on Pinterest, looking for decor inspiration for our front porch, balconies, outdoor space and kids’ bedroom. I search for tips on gardening and drying herbs, contemplate raising chickens, daydream about turning the figs into jam for the insanely delicious cheese we’ll eat all the time. I study Italian for making small talk at the playground behind our house, introducing myself to the nearest baker, helping the kids make new friends. I keep a list of places to see in Italy and write down everywhere that looks interesting.

Where our life in Italy is right now is but possibility…

and to be real, I’ll add: and the potential for disappointment.

It’s an ugly thing I do. In my mid-20s I was trained to look critically at everything around me. That habit is a hard one to shake. Day after day I looked at each project that crossed my desk and each idea that crossed my mind and deconstructed it: how might it not work? What is this missing? How could it be better? Can I show this to the world and proclaim, “This is THE BEST!”? (It’s sometimes paralyzing as a blogger.)

Then there’s the uglier thing I do, when I convince myself that I can’t possibly be worthy of the best. MY life can’t be that great. I plant seeds of discontent before I have a place to sow them. It’s self-sabotage:  “Yes, we’re moving to Italy but it’s going to be HARD.”  “We get to see all these amazing places but we have the kids and they can be so much work.” “We’ll live in a big old house but it’s going to be too cold in the winter.”

But you know what? None of that has to be. My friend Heather recently wrote this guest post for Military Wife and Mom about choosing your attitude. I’ve been thinking about this a LOT lately, as I play whack-a-mole with those old habits, bashing them down as they rear their hideous heads. My attitude is the only obstacle between now and having an incredible time throughout this assignment.

And so I choose enthusiasm. This is going to be a great assignment!

Our First 25 Days in a Hotel Room

Hotel living could be charming if you’re a see-and-be-seen type. For us, living in a hotel with our two small children is more of a hurry-up-and-shovel-down-your-food-before-the-kids-cause-a-scene experience.

The restaurant and front desk staff no longer ask our room number. The boys are sure to say “ciao-ciao-ciaoy-ciao” to Andrea the Maintenance Guy daily now that he has fixed our AC. The worker at the pool next door doesn’t need us to explain that we’re staying at the hotel any more. We’re fixtures.

We have no kitchen. Not even a microwave to heat prepared foods from the grocery store. We eat out every. single. meal. I used to make every. single. meal. (Excluding the times my husband cooked breakfast; his fried eggs are the best.) Now I have all that time back.

This is not a good thing, not for me at at least.

Our routine is upended, though a new one is starting to flicker as we have fewer errands to run. The hardest part is that Bertie has been fighting naps so hard that he’s only napped in his bed twice since we arrived. My quiet time is now bought with screen time. One-on-one time with each kid just doesn’t happen.

My infrastructure for self-care has disappeared. Walden isn’t in school; we don’t have his bike or the jogging stroller to break up the day with a run. I don’t have my weekly babysitting swap. I haven’t established any group activities (which is hard to do in summer anyway). Because we’re staying in a studio loft, my husband and I don’t even get to talk with the lights on after the kids fall asleep (two hours later than their bedtime in the US).

So I’m left with Being in Charge of the Kids as my Thing to Do. It’s really hard not to take it personally when I’ve asked five times, with no response, for Walden to come stand in line with me if he really wants grocery store sushi for lunch. Or when Bertie pushes over a chair. Or when they both run away from me to play hide and seek at a super store. Or when Bertie throws his food on the ground at a restaurant because it isn’t a f***ing peanut butter sandwich that’s cut just the right way. Or when they run off through the sprinklers before dinner arrives. Or when they play the “do that to ME!” game. And so on.

But. They have been really great with other children, at parks, around the hotel. The language barrier is tremendous, and my guys have been so very brave and considerate with other children as they struggle to understand each other. It has been a great learning experience, to have to stop and consider how to approach someone who doesn’t immediately understand. I am so proud of them.

Anyway. The hotel. I’m done. I’m ready to build a home again, to have a kitchen and couch and bedrooms. To have a bathroom with a solid door. Our household shipment will be weeks behind us, but I’m ready to settle into the community we’ll be living in for the next three years. To walk to the park, the bakery, the cafe; to make that mega trip to IKEA that’s inevitable with every European PCS.

Expo 2015 (with kids)

We’ve lived in a single hotel room in Italy without a microwave for more than two weeks now. Staying in is no longer an option. So we braved the heat last weekend and made a family trip to Expo 2015 in Milan.

Expo 2015 with Kids

If you’re not familiar with Expo, it’s the world’s fair. Perhaps you’ve seen the iconic remnants of previous world’s fairs, such as Seattle’s Space Needle, Atomium in Brussels, Hemisphere Park in San Antonio, and, uh, the Eiffel Tower. Every few years a city builds an impressive temporary village to host laudatory exhibits of inventions and contributions of countries around the world. (Random but relevant-to-my-life fact, Omaha hosted the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in 1898. You can view information about it at the Durham Museum.) This year’s theme is Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.

We didn’t learn all that much with our small kids in tow, but we did have a really great day.

Expo 2015

Israel, Brazil, China, South Korea, Belgium, Spain, Iran and, of course, USA all graced us with air conditioning at some point in the day. We did learn about the innovations in irrigation developed in Israel, fermentation in South Korea, aquaponic farming in Belgium. Brazil’s pavilion features a giant climbing net that was fun for everyone, though not particularly toddler friendly. We had to scootch the kids past the Czech Republic pavilion, which boasted a splash pool. (Had we known, we would have brought spare clothes!) Pavilion Zero was an excellent place to rest, with short films about food projected on a wall in a large, dark room.

Collecting rain

There is also a Children’s Park, which is a series of activities that engage each of the senses. At the first stop, a dome descends upon your child and sprays a scent, which they then match to an herb in a terrarium next to it. Not your usual fair fare! They loved collecting “rain”water in funnels to spray a wall of plants. Of course the big guy’s favorite was a bike that powered a fountain. A separate KinderSport area looked like a blast for kids 5 and up. Our guys were only allowed to try one activity: jumping on a post to shoot water in the air.

Expo Parade

We caught a parade of mascots. The kids loved it, and we were amused by its Mario Brothers-meets-Charlie’s Chocolate Factory homespun feel. A parade makes any event feel more special.

Expo Food

We ate brisket, fish tacos, fresh fruit punch, Belgian frites, Nutella crepes (at the Nutella concept bar, which is basically my whole motivation behind the visit), a tiny Pimm’s cup, gazpacho and sangria, ice cream, sushi… it was all necessary to fuel our 10 hours there!

The Expo website and app provide daily schedules of talks, demonstrations and interactive activities. We barely scratched the surface during our visit.

Had the weather been cooler, I would have tried hard to peel away to Vino, the Italian wine pavilion. I felt dehydrated and the thought of selecting just 3 of the 1300 wines that offered to taste was overwhelming. (By the way, there are water bottle refilling stations around, and they spout sparkling water.)

It was a long day, but there was something fun for each of us. Don’t miss it if you have the chance!

Buongiorno!

Ciao!

We’ve arrived in Italy and the next chapter of our adventure begins! We haven’t seen much yet, other than the outskirts of Milan, distant Alpine foothills and a few vineyards as we drove the autostrade to the nearest American base yesterday. Our jet lagged preschoolers were in tow as we took a driving test, registered in the system, bought SIM cards for our phones, set up a bank account and so on and etc. To be honest, it seems we accomplished more in a day than we did in our first two weeks in England, and that made the kids’ delirious ravings so much easier to tolerate. Especially given our living arrangement.

Hotel stay

The Milan Expo 2015 has all of the local long stay-style accommodations booked up, so we’re sharing a studio loft. It’s a vastly different experience from when we arrived in England four years ago. We don’t have separate rooms (unless you count the mostly-frosted glass wall to the bathroom), there are no closets, there is no kitchen or microwave, and there certainly is no in-room washer & dryer. We do have a mini-fridge that didn’t work for our first two days. And we have a bidet and a mirrored ceiling in the loft above the master bed!

I read my book club’s last pick, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, on the plane ride over. It was a perfect choice for giving me perspective and taking away my right to complain.

Hotel collage 2
The hotel itself is a bit quirky. It claims to be part art gallery, and the kids love the cardboard furniture and gigantic plastic molded snails. The restaurant is good, though a pricey alternative to cooking at home (which I normally do at least 6 nights a week), and my youngest child doesn’t actually “sit” and “eat” proper meals these days.

Hotel collage

We do get free access to the “summer club” next door, which is a collection of pools, sunbathing sand pits, grassy lawns and play areas. It seems that 5pm is a great time to catch the DJ and do some group fitness dancing in the front pool. There’s at least one bar, snack stand and restaurant. We do have great pool weather right now. (You know, sunny and hot.) So, really, we’re winning here. Bonus points for free Wi-Fi!

We’re looking forward to overcoming the jet lag, finding a place to live and getting settled. The house hunt begins tomorrow. Here we are and here we go!

 

All I Have to Say About Military Spouses

I wasn’t the kind of girl to be impressed by a guy in uniform. When I married one, I reassured myself and my civilian friends that I had no intent of wrapping myself in the label of “military spouse.” I had two degrees and more than my share of defiance, and I refused to allow the military part of my marriage to define me.

I went to work. I quickly decided that spouse group meetings weren’t for me; not for young, childless professionals but for young stay-at-home moms. I wasn’t the first foolish 20-something to assume that a difference in preference of parenthood was a non-starter for deep friendship. I endured deployment after deployment with the support of a handful of very cool women who were married to my husband’s work buddies. I found my way into the Omaha community, through work, volunteering and participating in my faith. Then my biological clock chimed and the timer at the end of our interminable tour sounded. Then we had a son and moved to England.

This is where my grand plan unraveled.

So much that previously defined me vanished. (My job. My time. My family back home.)

All that was left was being a stay-at-home mom and military spouse. I felt lost. I scrambled to cling to something else but ultimately was consumed by both.

Four and a half years later I understand the privileges that come with these realities. I’ve emerged from the exhausted fog of new parenthood, a milestone which makes everything clearer and easier to balance. The rewards of being a stay-at-home mom to two preschoolers are leagues deeper than the brain-draining days and nights of babyhood. And in the past year, my net of new military spouse friends has changed my life.

M3X-back

Remember how easy it was to make friends in the dorms in college? How the simple fact of converging in the same space for a defined period of time served as a catalyst for life-long friendship? Now remember how that vanished when you tumbled out into the real world. This past year brought that feeling back. Hundreds of us filed into orientation in August, filled in forms with our interests and launched back out to our families with a few new names in our heads. We stalked the Facebook group and seized opportunities to connect before they vaporized. We had 10 months.

For me, those connections have proven that the label “military spouse” holds too much weight. Yes, we all share the experience of being married to someone in the military, but that’s the only universal. Some of us can come together to make an amazing book club. Others can meet up at the playground twice a week, year-round, for an intense workout while driving fully loaded jogging strollers and forging new friendships. Then there are those who graciously understand when you need extra support to do the things you must do for yourself.

Some of us go to work in an office, some of us telecommute to a job we left behind, some of us now do the work of Life as we wait for the right time to find work outside our homes.

We are artists, writers, lawyers, activists, educators, engineers. Nurses, accountants, managers, business owners. Professionals. Dreamers. Organizers.

We are, some of us, also moms.

We are also wives.

And under all that, there is one thread that ties us together. It’s one thread that the “military spouse” label overshadows, diminishes. It’s that we are great friends, to whichever friends we make. We know that good-bye doesn’t always (but may) mean forever. Together we cast a wide net, connecting someone else’s friends with ours, sharing information on the best neighborhoods and the food you can’t miss, offering places to stay when one of us is nowhere. We are willing to help someone we barely know because sometimes we are the new person in town, alone and in need.

We aren’t just military spouses. We are regular and eccentric and kind and well-traveled people who don’t get to stay in one place too long… who just so happen to be married to someone in the military.

Yes, I DO Want Something for Mother’s Day

Mother's Day

Has your Facebook feed filled up with links to articles about what moms actually want for Mother’s Day? Gift guides? Or that moms want nothing except for lots of little not-somethings?

I haven’t asked specifically for anything this year. My husband already encouraged me to pick out a locally crafted necklace at Southern Makers last weekend. I don’t feel desperate for a day away from my kids. I’m not exhausted. I’m not stressed. I have plans to be out of town over the next two weekends, after all. I have a really good life.

But I do still want something. Perhaps you want this, too:

I want one day of whole-family happiness. One peaceful day. A day without whining. No shouting, no crying. No grumpiness allowed. I want to be relaxed and joyful with my family for an entire day, because those kinds of days are the best gift in life.

Perhaps there will be a time when the boys are a bit older that the whining and crying cease. I’m not wishing this time away. I just want us all to enjoy each other just the way we are right now. Surely that’s not too much to ask of my 2 and 4 year old boys, right?

I’m chilling some wine anyway.

Boulogne-Sur-Mer, France (If You Will)

Before we hopped the pond, I convinced a friend to join me on an extended day-long bus trip to the fishing village of Boulogne-sur-Mer in France. This was big; it was her first whole day away from her kids for fun in 10 years. Thankfully our husbands were able to work out a work schedule that freed them up for kid duty in a very hectic, busy time. I knew nothing of this town, and started to entertain ideas of regret as our bus approached Boulogne-sur-Mer along the waterfront. We were greeted by weary sea-blasted, worn buildings – all seemingly closed.

Boulogne Sur Mer Harbor

We stepped off the bus at the fish market. I made a mental note to cook more fish. What an impressive selection! In minutes I understood that the locals weren’t used to English visitors and, particularly, speaking English.

Boulogne Sur Mer Fish Market

Crab Claws

We wandered in the general direction of the bus driver’s pointed finger, on the hunt for breakfast. There was a coffee shop I bookmarked on Trip Advisor. We couldn’t find it in real life.  (Silly us, we thought that the driver, as our tour guide, would have provided maps.) Up the hill we went, dodging dog shit and vomit slicks past nightclubs that exhausted thirty-something moms would hardly have any interest visiting. We snaked side streets back down the hill in hopes of finding a decent croissant and perhaps the brilliant market that was promised. We found a market. It was far from bustling, though in a certain way vibrant. We also found chocolate croissants, which made us feel much better about the day, even if the worker at the bakery was startled by our pronunciation of the word. And then… we wandered our way to the proper market. The lovely town center around a sturdy stone church.

Boulogne Sur Mer Market

Does anyone else instinctively drool around rows and rows of beautiful produce? Fresh eggs and butter? French cheese? Ooooo, I want to go back! Tomatoes

Table of Berries

Tart Vendor

Having oriented ourselves, we found the city’s most noted cathedral and  its moated castle, amidst a proper tourist area that felt much more like the destination we had expected.

Boulogne Sur Mer Notre Dame

The castle held a museum with an eclectic collection of art, from Greek urns and Egyptian artifacts from the Louvre to modern paintings. Admission includes a tour of the catacombs, too.

The Notre-Dame Basilica isn’t a particularly old cathedral, having been built in the mid 1800’s atop of ruins from a previous cathedral that was destroyed in the revolution. Nonetheless the interior is beautiful.

Notre Dame Boulogne

Notre Dame Boulogne

To be honest, I was most excited to eat. If you don’t have small children, you may not appreciate how magnificent it is to sit and eat a meal FOR YOURSELF. Fresh fish for lunch. Crepes. Another stop at the bakery. At your own pace, without interruption, with adult conversation. It’s one of life’s finest pleasure. I enjoyed it so much that I didn’t even bother to take pictures.

We capped off our day with a half-hearted perusal of the shopping district. Then back to the bus for the journey home. Many families with small children took this trip, too, to see the town’s aquarium, so the ride back was less than restful. But the crying kids weren’t ours.

We should all be so lucky to have the opportunity to spend a day in a new place with a friend. Getting to know her, sharing stories and learning from her about things I normally don’t think to wonder were a wonderful bonus to our day away.

My Secret Love Affair With Omaha

Vintage Door Knob

Today I turned on The Flaming Lips’ At War With the Mystics for the kids. (Ya ya ya ya ya ya.) It took a nanosecond for my brain to whip-pan to my 20’s.

The Flaming Lips at Stir Cove. Conor Oberst. Jenny Lewis at Slowdown. Andrew Bird. Feist at Memorial Park. Howl at Film Streams. Belgians and frites at Dario’s. Scotch at Dundee Dell. Dancing at The Max. Midnight curry fries from New Amsterdam. Pitchers of champagne at The Homy.

Deliciously fried breakfast at Radial Cafe. (A moment of silence for the grease-coated Cecil’s.) Creme brulee french toast from Wheatfields. The chime of the starting bell at the farmer’s market. Jazz and dark roasted coffee at Blue Line. Pain au raisin and an Americano from The Bread Oven (may you rest in peace). Birthday dinner at Boiler Room. And lord help me, what I wouldn’t do for a whiskey filet from The Drover right now.

The Taco Ride. The Community Bike Project. Flying down the Keystone Trail on my pretty Lemond. Earth Day in Elmwood Park. (You should definitely go this year; park your bike in the bike parking lot!)

Semi-failing at latkes, crepes, an Indian feast for a crowd.

A giant portion of these memories… I don’t share them with my husband, though we lived there together for nearly six years. He deployed frequently enough that I created a life of my own, outside of (and also within) the Air Force community, outside of my work. It was a full, rich life, and I find myself missing it very much. Some of it is simply the result of now being a parent of two small children, and missing the freedom of the child-free years. Who wouldn’t? Back then, I would explain that my husband and I were single, as a unit of course, because we didn’t have kids and could do as we pleased.

While returning to Omaha in the future (should it happen) will certainly place me there in a different stage of life – with kids – I can’t say I’d be disappointed to go back. It feels in some ways as much my home as, well, home. It also happens that some of my favorite people in the world have lived there at one point in time or another or still.

For anyone heading to Offutt: it’s what you make of it. Omaha can be great; embrace it. And don’t you dare forget to visit Dundee. You won’t want to miss eCreamery.

Next Stop

Map

With the blossoming of spring comes the influx of orders for Permanent Changes of Station (which we call PCS-ing). This means that now is when many Air Force families who are expecting to move to a new duty station find out their next destination.

Globe

We found out we’re moving to Italy in June!

This is very exciting – and surprising – news. My mind had settled on thoughts of the DC/NOVA area; Italy had never entered my mind as a possibility. It’s an incredible opportunity for us to go back to Europe, to spend more time exploring the continent, to have a chance to really immerse ourselves in another culture.

Our children will attend Italian school. We’ll have many opportunities to travel. At face value, this is a storybook path we’re heading down. The possibilities for adventure that await us are boundless. That we have this assignment is still surreal.

But our experience with our move to England has us a bit grounded, as we understand that the challenges we face in moving and setting up a new home in Italy will likely be far greater. Throw in the language difference, too. The settling in period won’t be easy, but I feel prepared to accept the challenge. The hardest part then will be missing our family. Having them within a day’s drive has been a real treat.

I would love to know if you’ve lived in Italy. What are your favorite spots? Where in Italy have you always dreamed of going? How would you feel about moving to another country?

Blue Stars: A Book Review

blue stars

Earlier this month my book club met to discuss the book Blue Stars by Emily Gray Tedrowe.

Let me first explain that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill book club. All of us are married (or almost) to military officers (simply because the group was organized through the school in which our spouses are currently enrolled). Many of us are American, though some of us who aren’t Indian or English or Australian or Norwegian or German or Canadian have lived in Japan or Germany or Oman or Korea or, well, England. And by some divine brilliance we all really enjoy each other and are willing to get a little whacky for the sake of this book club, in the short school-term blaze of glory that is its existence. I love my book club. More about it later.

We actually do talk about the books we read and were intrigued by an opportunity to discuss a novel about military families.

Tedrowe’s novel features two main characters, easily described as “flawed,” with non-traditional ties to the military. One, Ellen, is a widowed Midwestern, liberal, literary scholar and professor (and mother of two) who took guardianship of an “other side of the tracks” teenager not long before he graduated high school and joined the Marines. The other, Lacey, is a New York-tough and self-conscious-in-the-wrong-ways single mother who married an officer in the Reserves. Their paths cross at Walter Reed military medical center, where they develop an unlikely friendship.

As a group of military spouses we wanted to connect to the experiences of the characters. We sought familiarity in their experience with deployment, and didn’t really find it. The truth is, we mostly agreed that the glimpse of  life with a wounded soldier was eye-opening. Never had we imagined ourselves in the position of either of these characters, sacrificing the lives we built professionally or as parents to care for a wounded soldier. We hadn’t considered the details of the process, or what it must be like to have our service member returned to us in a completely altered state from when he departed. We were certainly shocked to read the state of squalor in which some wounded soldiers and families lived while at Walter Reed. (Hence the scandal. Remember that?)

We wondered if the book would have had the same impact if the characters were “traditional” military spouses, who aren’t strangers to regular deployments or the inefficiencies of the system. (There was strong agreement that a particular scene involving Ellen in the lobby of Walter Reed was the best, most resonant part of the book. Often it takes an outsider looking in to call out some BS in a bureaucracy.) As active duty families, we’re probably better equipped to withstand the challenges of deployment. The support systems are a bit more integral to our lives, versus the lives of Reservists, who live their day-to-day in the civilian world then give it all up to deploy. Again Tedrowe enlightens us to another perspective we rarely consider.

While some of us were bothered by inconsistencies throughout the book, others were stumped by some of the military lingo. We questioned if it’s simply a difference between branches or if it’s Tedrowe’s short removal from the inner circle of life in the military (as a sibling rather than a spouse of a Marine) that makes the narrative seem a bit…researched. Perhaps this distance is why she chose these characters for the story; our world is complicated enough to navigate from the inside. At best this novel bridges the gap between the 99% of the US population whose lives aren’t directly touched by the military. It’s a peek at what it might be like to be unsuspectingly thrust into its tangled bureaucracy, what it might be like for families who are caring for disabled veterans. Overall consensus was that were glad to have been given the opportunity to consider a world we don’t know. Which, isn’t that the point of reading fiction in the first place?

On behalf of my book club, I’d like to thank St. Martin’s Press for providing us with advance reader copies of the book for this review. Blue Stars is now available on Amazon in hardback, Kindle and audible editions.

For additional reading to understand life in the military, consider Closing the Gap by Yvonne Jones. I also recommend For Love of Country by Howard Schultz for inspiring, real-life stories of veterans and military families who have used their experience to make a difference in the world.