Friday, November 23, 2012

Relocation to Belgium?

The good thing about this blog is the fact that very few people know about it. I barely mentioned it to a few friends. If someone is really keen on finding it, they can and I don't mind. I just don't want to think about what so and so would be thinking if I post these or that. I purposely avoid talking about friends, family or kids and don't share much personal information. From what I see from the stats, it's mostly visited by people I don't know. Which is why I can actually talk about this subject.
Belgium that is.
The situation is as follows. Right in this moment there are two offers on the table and they are both very good. The question is which one would hubs (we) take. One is to stay in Cyprus/Moscow for another 1,5 year. The other is to move to Brussels for at least 3 years. It should be decided in the next few days, and frankly, I am eating my nails figuratively speaking.
Place de Bruckere, Brussels. View from the hotel
Since the Belgium offer came we went there to see how life there would be at a so-called orientation trip. In a week time we toured 7 schools, visited 10 rental homes all over the country, met the future boss and colleagues and over all did the "homework". Good visit, that's why the choice is so tough. Of course Belgium has a big advantage for reuniting us again, as if we stay in the current set up I am alone with the kids at least 4 days a week with hubs working in Moscow. Decisions, Decisions...
Since the country isn't and hubs job would be somewhere in the middle we could live pretty much anywhere.
First step schools.
With regards to private schools, our only choice since the kids education needs to be in English, it was quite an entertaining and rather useful experience.
School number one, St John's, is a typical well run American type of private school. Great facilities, state of the art technologies, big campus, yet nice and cosy atmosphere. One of our final choices, also for the fact that they have a dual language program English and French as of 3, something the other schools shy away from. Pleasant tour with the school rep, the only that asked a lot of questions about the kids and even took notes. Draw back one, location in the midst of the worse traffic jams. Draw back two, since they had a winter bazaar organized by the American Women's Club, we wanted to get acquainted and ended up in cafeteria. Food choice was as follows: fries, burgers, fatty turkey sandwich, even fattier con carne, what is this? Promotion of obesity. Not all things coming from America are good..
Next, International School of Brussels, ISB, promptly renamed the International Bullshit School. In the first two minutes of being given the introduction I already knew there is no chance we would get the kids in there. Without asking a single question, a female school rep gave is the standard lecture in a slightly patronizing manner, mentioning how they start in September but the first day the kids are there for an hour, then two hours and then slowly  in about a week they go to the "full time" which is until 15.30 and only until 12.30 on Wednesday, some Belgium oddity. Full time not for the working mothers, that's for sure. 
But the biggest thing was "easing them for a week". Easing who? The teachers. Children are not strawberries, there is no need to treat them like they will become marmalade, really. In fact it was more than clear that that lady didn't give a s.... about our kids or if you ask me, anyone else's, or if she does, she certainly hides it tremendously well. But pass the fact the "sales agent" was inadequate. We were given "the tour"by a pleasant young man, recent graduate. Very pleasant indeed, but obviously incapable of answering any pre-school related questions. The campus is great, but the facilities for the younger kids dark, unfriendly, cheaply looking. For what they charge you would expect a whole different level of service. Overall, a definite no go.
Next, another one we liked, was St Paul's British primary, the smaller, British version on St John's but without the French. One thing I have to say about the British though, they know how to keep track of progress. Each child had their place on a large board and there were notes taken in 7 areas of development. As we entered the first room there were 5 cute young boys, washing dishes and decorating cakes in a peaceful harmony. It's a whole new world built in right there. Draw back, small, darker rooms, small and not particularly inspiring sport facilities.
Saw few more schools that worth mentioning.

European school in Mol being one, which is part of the Europea school group which was created for the children of the people working for the European Union. Big drawbag is the fact that campus is in the middle of nowhere. But what a campus! It's set in a big old forest and the playground looked like a fairytale on a sunny autumn day. The girls class would pretty much be a mini EU, children from everywhere. Tuition is by far the cheapest, but would have meant us living in the Belgium countryside to fastest way to make the assignment not work.
Cafetaria in the European school in Mol, Belgium
Next, Da Vinci in Antwerp. The British know good share about evaluating, giving information on regular basis, keeping a diary about what the children learned each and every day! I thought that was brilliant. As we entered the room, the kids were having boxed lunch. Why would you not arrange warm lunch in a private school is beyond me, but that's a different story. So there was a japanese girl eating sushi, an african eating couscous salad, a Russian bland macaroni, Italian eating pasta with meatballs, American eating a ham and cheese sandwich etc... Draw back, it's a city school and the campus has only a small yard. Also, we had to live in Antwerp, and that's not my cup of tea really. It's  bit of a deja vu with Amsterdam, only not quite as cosmopolitan and fun.
Antwerp International School (AIS)was pretty much the same as the ISB experience. Same lousy rep, same attitude about not giving a damn about the children from her part. She even dared to tell us that we should not live in Brussels because it's "too much". Excuse me, how many places have you lived in? Only one, only here. Oh, I thought so. Most useless tour ever.
Another hilarious episode in that school. We met a teacher and I asked how do they keep track of what the children are learning. Her immediate answer was "No scoring. They are too young." Uhh, ok, nevermind. Quite a surprise also that she was not a native English speaker, in a self-proclaimed English curriculum school.
Other two, World International School and BEPS Brussels were a no go to. First one seemed a bit too much Middle Eastern-s favorite. BEPS visit was rushed for various reason, but even if I tried to see trough that fact, no chance my kids will spend a year studying in a basement without natural light.
Next thing, housing. Houses in Belgium are cheaper and generally bigger than in the rest of Europe. But space doesn't come together with quality. For some reason people pay little to no attention to some obvious things such as the importance of a good kitchen, or built in closets, or the fact that you need light in pretty much any space.
In front of one of the houses. Belgium looks great on a sunny day:)
For a city person, there is pain in the realization that there isn't much sense in living downtown. The parks, the beautiful houses with views and the schools, even the cafes and restaurants are all outside of the center which is congested, cold and not particularly pretty with the exception of couple of streets. In that sense Brussels very much reminded me of moving to Portland or to pretty much any big city in the states. But finding a good house did not seem too much of a concern.
One thing that's a definite plus about life in Belgium is the food. They know how to eat over there, no doubt about it. Even in the simplest smallest provincial cafe you would get beautifully presented, decent quality, faintly resembling French cuisine food. Belgium beer, even for a non-beer drinker like me, is another level of quality, and wines are naturally French, so no complaints there.
Tax system is more favorable that it is in the Netherlands which is another definite benefit. It also makes car driving far cheaper, which is great as it's very needed.
Traffic congestion around Brussels seemed comparable to a Moscow rush hour, a real shame for the unofficial capital of the EU.
Relocation to Belgium?
All in all, useful visit. Life in Belgium can definitely be good. But so is life in Cyprus.
We were sitting outside of the airport in Larnaca before departure and I got sunburned. On the other hand I opened the car door in front of the hotel in Brussels and I got a refreshing splash of wind, cold and rain in my face. Just like being back in the Netherlands, or Portland, OR, or even Moscow just double the cold.
Damn, I finally live in a place where the sun is shining, do I really need to run away already?
Btw, the local private school In Cyprus called the American Academy is really solid.
Let's see which direction will the wind blow

Friday, November 2, 2012

Venice marathon 2012

I might have gotten a bit carried away when I signed up for Venice after the Berlin, Siberian Ice and Paris marathons all within 8 months. For a person that only started running year and a half ago, I could not believe my motivation and energy and I wanted to take advantage of it it as much as I could. 
Gondolas in front of the Venice casino

I picked Venice because it meant summer training, flat course, beautiful city, small race of around 8000 people. I still had the images of hot sunny days from my last visit. 
All good, only I didn’t have time to train. Work, family, travel, investing lots of time in paragliding, relocation to Cyprus. I simply didn’t have the 6 hours a week. I would miss a week here and there, then run 3 times the next, then miss a week, then go for a 20K, then again miss a week... But I signed up, not going to back out of course. 
So here I was at the start line, October 28, 2012 in the village of Stra just outside of Venice. Blistering rain storm, strong head winds and around 9 C, weather was so miserable that on any given Sunday I will just glance outside and doubtlessly decide to stay in with a cup of tea and the latest downloads of the Daily Show. 
But I was to run 42,2 km! My motivation was dropping by the minute while waiting for the bus to start line dressed in thin jacket and only knee-length running pants. The ratio man to women was again around 10 to 1 and everyone looked far more trained than at any other running event I have been to. It’s a small race and from I could see average age was higher and most runners were not first-timers. Nationality wise, probably more than 50% Italians understandably, and the rest French and small groups of all sorts of other Europeans, quite a few Americans. 
Finally we lined up, race started on time and here we go, running among beautiful old villas in small Italian villages where the rich Venetians had their summer houses. First 10 K went relatively easy with wind and rain not too bad. I was listening to music, feeling strong and having positive thoughts of all sorts. 
After that the weather nightmare unleashed. Suddenly the wind increased and heavy cold raindrops almost blinded me. I put on the sunglasses I optimistically have taken just to make sure I can see where I am going. Nose got stuffy and breathing became increasingly difficult. My hands which I forgot to cover on time got so cold and swollen that I couldn’t feel my fingers. Feet got wet with water pouring from those nice “breathing” technology holes so useful when sunny and such a mishap right there. Pure marathon joy. 
Finally there was the 21st K which is always psychologically a strong motivator for me as I am convincing myself that I am then “running back home”. It’s amazing what kind of bullshit your brain can produce and believe, isn’t it. 
I got freshen up with another running gel and I thought I just keep in going and see what happens. As already planned I decided to walk for a minute or so after each two km. 
I thought I already questioned my motivation enough, but at km 31... Ouch! There was the bridge from mainland to Venice old town. The weather was already bad enough, but there, with ocean on both sides, you can imagine the effect. I could barely make a step let alone run because the wind was beating me up from left and right in seriously angry swirls. In the same time it was so cold that I didn’t feel walking was an option because I would freeze. So I kept my lousy attempts to run with a pace that barely beats walking. Several times  the wind made me jump half a meter to the side, garbage flying everywhere, unforgettable images. Remember, I am there with no marathon training and as a matter of fact I hate cold. Hard not to wonder "Why on earth am I doing this?"
Finally there was a sign 38K. Thank you, God. The course moved between the buildings at the Venice port, it was a bit less windy and I could almost feel my fingers again. Finally we were in old Venice and I knew I was almost there. Km 41k, my energy risen and I pushed the last 1,2 km in great spirits despite the liters of water that were pouring down from my wet cloths. 
There is this feeling after finishing a marathon that no other endeavor ever brought me. It’s sense of accomplishment, joy, pain, relief, feeling of victory. I absolutely love it.
On the way home I was thinking as I was shivering my way trough Piazza San Marco that at any other marathon when I see people giving up I feel it’s a pity. But that day, anyone that had given up I would have absolutely understand. I still don’t know why I kept on going. Stubbornness I guess. I just visualized the end and I planned what I will do after and did not leave room for not finishing. In my mind I had finished, therefore my body had to comply. 
Another great thing about finishing is that urgent need to fill your body in with pretty much everything and the guiltless gorging that follows. Banana, apple, chocolate, pizza, pasta, salad, chicken, water, water, water, wine, water...I took a long bath and slept nice and deep. 
Now I am officially taking a break from running for a while. I will not run another marathon for at least a year or maybe more. I want to give my legs a rest and I want to focus on some other parts of my body. Good thing I still have few years to go to complete my goal of 10 marathons before turning 40 and am already ahead of schedule. 
view from the hallway of hotel Casa Dolce Venezia, great hotel in 12 century palazzo
Otherwise hard to say anything about Venice that hasn’t been already said. Venice is a living museum: old, gracious and magnificent, but also overrun by tourism and therefore lacking on service, food and bringing down the overall experience. I think the only place where you can actually have bad Italian food is Venice. There are pretty much no Italian people working in the restaurants and there are barely Italian people eating in them. I had good food only one evening, simple pasta in what was recommended to me as the best restaurant in town, Do Forni. It was really good, with a price to match the silver platters and the good service. During the day millions of MB of photos are taken at any given minute. You have to keep on leaning left and right to avoid appearing in someone’s shot. 
Venice floods October 2012
But having said all that. I arrived at sunset and as I took the Vaporetto (water bus) I was in absolute awe while looking around. There is image after image of pure beauty. Wherever you look it’s just amazingly beautiful. Ignore the cameras and the tourist, and you enter another world.I experienced one of the regular floods that happen this time of the year. Dutifully prepared the hotel handed over huge rainboots, without which I would be walking in 40 sm of water just to walk trough the lobby. But for some reason, maybe because it happens often over there, it was rather amusing. 
I woke up early to catch the train to Milan and as we were crossing the canals I felt the magic. There were almost no people around, slightly lit, the water translucently green, few boats crossing the canals, newspaper delivery boys running around, few locals going to work. The facades of the buildings looked almost surreal. I got this shivering feeling thinking about eternity. Venice is pure time traveling experience. It’s one of the landmarks of human civilization and what a great chance to be able to see it. I felt the world will be so much sadder, uglier place without its Venice. 
The train just stopped in Verona, home of Romeo and Juliette, how could you not love Italy?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

New life in Cyprus

It's Nov 1 and I just did twenty laps in the pool. That's right, in the pool. Our own. It's 28 C and sunny and it has been like that every day ever since the move. Life is good in Cyprus. In fact life is so good that I wonder why didn't I do this earlier. 
But let's get back to the start. This summer I was at some airport, don't remember which one, and I walked towards baggage claim. There was an automatic door with a sign "Point of no return". I got this taught in just a split second. That's what happened with me and Moscow. I reached the "Point of no return". I had admit to myself that I was about to walk trough that door and never come back. It was over, our Love-hate affair. Reasons are too many.
The question was where to go next and how to do it. 

I have never been to Cyprus before I thought it was  good idea to move there. I read an article in a magazine few months back about the fact that Russia bailed the island out and not the IMF and how easily accesible it is from Moscow. Obviously the weather was a big factor, and so as fact that being a former British colony English is widely spoken. It's meant to be just for a few months anyway, until the next job for hubs opens up. Then it was just a matter of organizing. I arrived in early September for 3 days and managed to find a house, great private English school for kiddies and all the other contacts for car, doctor etc. Three weeks later we moved in our new home near Larnaca and it has been a blast ever since. Sometimes I wake up in the morning, I open the window and I look at the Mediterranean and I think my life is a fairytale. 
What do I like about living in Cyprus you may ask. Everything. 
  1. Lifestyle. Slow pace Mediterranean mixed up with some British influences. For instance the stores close for siesta every day and also every Wednesday afternoon and the whole day Sunday. But every day at 8 am precisely they are open and fully stocked. It's a family culture where dinner takes a few hours, everything is served on the table and food is regarded very important. The quality of life is extremely high, poverty pretty much non-existant. 
  2. Weather. Dutch or NW summers are like winter in Cyprus. Enough said. 
  3. The great outdoors. Run on the beach, swim whenever you want, paragliding is possible though haven't been able to go yet. Trekking, kitesurfing, even snowboarding in the winter all within short distance drive from home.  
  4. People. I read somewhere that happiness is contagious. Well people here seem all infected. It's a soft macho culture, traditional and male-dominated but there is a lot of respect for the individual male or female. 
  5. History. The place is so rich on history that I can dedicate a whole blog just on that. From 3 BC until Recent history with the Turkish invasion, it has been mind-blowing to discover glorious bits of the island 
Salamis ruins near Famagusta in North Cyprus
I took the below picture risking dealings with a very angry Turkish guy with a machine gun. This is the city of Famagusta, the ghost town, completely deserted after the invasion in 1974. It's heavily guarded and visiting or even taking pictures is strictly forbidden. It was surreal to be able to look at a whole city decaying abundant. 
Ghost town Famagusta, desrted after the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus
6. Multiculturalism. The Greek Cypriots would no like me for saying this but there is something fascinating about two so different cultures existing on the same small island. Passing the border to the Turkish part was exsiting. It's heavily guarded with big military basis on both sides. In the Turkish part, it's pretty much like Turkey, maybe just a bit more modern as there are almost no women in veils and burkas. The most fascinating sites are there, so I have been already 3 times while the average Greek Cypriot haven't visited. I don't want to go into politics, but it's a pure military occupation and I still don't understand why the EU is being so complacent. With Turkey wanting to join especially 
7. Food. It changes the world when you can buy vegetables that had been picked up from 20 km away only yesterday. They taste, feel and look better and you become a more beautiful human being consuming food that actually spoils as it is supposed to. The era of genetically engineered food hasn't reached Cyprus yet and I am extremely happy about that. 
Sea caves near Cape Greco
8. Beaches.  From Ayia Napa's resorts perfection to the sea caves at Cape Greco and even "my beach", only 800 meters down the road, I just love them all. During the tourist season night-life is also pretty happening, first person account ;)
Nissi Beach, Ayia Napa

9. Easy access to everything. Traffic jams are virtually non-existant. I love driving here even though is on the "other" side of the road. 
10. Affordability. After Moscow you can responsibly say that Cyprus is actually very cheap. That's not entirely true as it is an island and everything that needs to be imported is obviously more expensive. But I spend roughly 30% less on food comparing to Moscow, average bill in a restaurant is 50% less. 

Down sides, there are a few:
  1. Seeing hubs only on the weekends and generally having the family split apart. But it's only temporary and it has been pretty ok so far. 
  2. Expensive to maintain two households
  3. It's a bit lonely, which is understandable since we just moved. 
  4. It's a bit far and not as easy to go places. It's 4,5 h from the Netherlands for instance
  5. The cities are not that pretty. Lots of badly build 80s style blocks covered with cheesy commercials. 
All in all, loving it here and now we created the opposite problem. It will be really hard to move back to the "real world". But then we can always come back on holidays, right?