Ten LOOOONG minutes …

drving

“I’ve got it under control, mama!”
“Sure you do,” I say, ignoring the hesitation lining her voice. I gently pat her knee before stepping out of the car.

From the sidewalk I observe her. Her expression is a mix of fright and elation. Her long, slender fingers tightly grip the steering wheel while her gaze is transfixed on the parking lot, as if in an effort to block out the examiner’s presence.

Please be gentle with her, I silently pray. She’s still so young.

Ignoring the tiny drops of cold sweat slowly rolling down my sides, I watch our sturdy vehicle perform the elegant dances we practiced so often.

“Turn on your indicator,” I say under my breath. “Good, now straighten the car… Yes, you can do it.”

“She’s got it under control, I think.”
The kind voice belongs to the Asian man who looks just as nervous as I am. He is waiting for his teenage son to return.
I silently make a deal with him.
I won’t acknowledge your twitching eye, if you pretend not to see my sweat marks, my eyes say. He nods. We have an understanding. It also includes not noticing the tapping feet, the shaking hands, nor the red blotches forming on my neck, …

My daughter’s vessel leaves the parking lot. In the distance I see the indicator being turned on as the bulky car slows down at the stop sign.

Yeah, she’s got it under control, I think.

My eyes scan the road in the distance while I chitchat to the man next to me. I’m babbling, not even registering what I am saying. The man politely nods and babbles back.
I discretely check my watch. Only five minutes have gone by. They feel like eternity …

How did we get here? I wonder.
Barely one year ago, we were not thinking about our daughter driving.
We were not thinking about her independence.
We were not thinking about a boy’s house that would become our girl’s second home.
She was still so young.
We were still so clueless.

She IS still so young.
And we ARE still pretty clueless, establishing our ways as we move along.

And yet now, she needs to get this license.
What’s more, I need her to get this license.
Not only is this her ticket to freedom, it’s mine too!

Tomorrow I’ll start working again, after six long years of full time motherhood. My tall daughter needs to take over from me. She’ll be driving her little brother to soccer; she’ll be making him do his homework. She’ll run last-minute errands for milk and apples …
She needs that license!

Please be gentle with her, I pray, feeling the cold sweat stream down my sides.

One car comes back, the examiner behind its wheel, a disappointed teenage girl in the passenger seat. A father steps out of the shadows, shaking his head ever so slightly. He slides into the driver’s seat and off they go.

Another car returns. The man next to me steps up, all smiles. His handsome son is behind the wheel, beaming.
“He’s got it under control!” I tell the Asian man. He turns back and smiles, his eye no longer twitching, his foot no longer tapping.
Father and son float inside, holding on to their paperwork.

I feel lonely as I watch one more car turn into the parking lot, carrying a sad-looking woman next to the driving examiner. A disappointed husband walks to the car and gets behind the wheel. They slowly edge back to the road and get swallowed up by traffic…

Please be gentle, I pray again.

After ten long minutes our car turns into the lot. I spot a tall frame behind the wheel. Could it be? I squint my eyes, trying to remember how tall the examiner was.
As they approach I can make out my daughter’s features – behind the wheel! She’s is beaming. My heart makes a happy dance. My hands stop shaking. The cold sweat taps magically shut off.

Clutching our precious paperwork, we glide inside the white building, smiling as we both ignore the big puddles of stress that stain my shirt and the red blotches on my neck.

My little girl is not so little anymore!

She’s got in under control!

__________________________________

Hélène Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on : http://amzn.com/1493592548

My Family’s Decline into Valentine …

val 2 valentine 1

“Did you put your cards in your backpack?”
“Yes, mama!”
“Okay, then you’re ready to go! Have fun!!!”

Today is the last school day before St-Valentine’s day. Our fifth Valentine in the USA. By now we know this is a BIG deal in American elementary schools.

The first year I was rather clueless.
Luckily there had been Ruth, a kind American mom I’d met during a writer’s workshop. Ruth had lived in Europe for a while, where she had discovered that Europeans consider St-Valentine’s day to be a holiday celebrated by lovers – and only by them.
That’s the way we Europeans sometimes tend to be. When we have something others haven’t, we do on occasions tend to rub it in. No ‘Let’s-make-this-a-party-for-all!’-empathy to be discovered where I come from. Ours is much more a kind of a ‘You-don’t-have-a-lover?-Well-too-bad-for-you!’-attitude.

Having heard about many of my gaffes against American customs, Ruth had taken the time to send me an email, detailing St-Valentine’s celebrations in my adoptive country.
“Valentine has become a children’s holiday in the USA,” she explained. “And so as not to exclude anyone from the festivities, children are asked to write Valentine cards for all their classmates. Those cards will be exchanged during a Valentine celebration. And,” she had added, “since it’s an American children’s celebration, expect your children to come home on a sugar high, their backpacks loaded with enough candy to carry them through the year.”

Sweet Ruth. I was so grateful for her advise. At least this would be one event we’d celebrate the right way. Or so I thought.

I immediately drove to the pharmacy, annex mini-supermarket with a huge holiday cards collection, where I sent off my 11-year-old daughter in search of Valentine cards while I looked for some household essentials.
“Got them!” Eloise stated some fifteen minutes later. “Look at this one,” She flipped open a card, sending electronic giggling and ‘happy valentine’-screams through the ‘personal care’-isle.
“Don’t you love it?” she asked when the green and pink alien-looking creatures had stopped screaming. I could imagine pre-teens having fun with that card, but the $5.99 price tag somewhat put me off, however. Okay, there were only 14 children in her class, but still … Valentine promised to be an expensive celebration at this rate.

I dropped a tube of shower gel in my basket and walked with Eloise to the cards rack, helping her to locate some cheaper cards. At last we settled on two packages containing ten nondescript ‘notecards’ with envelopes. They didn’t boast any corky Valentine texts or red hearts, but at $6.99 per package they looked perfect to me.
Once home, my daughter immediately set to work, thinking hard to come up with a kind and personalized message for each of her class mates.
On D-day, Eloise left for school all excited about what her class mates would think about her cards and wondering what she would get in return.

That afternoon, when she came home after school, she was running, clearly on a sugar high, as predicted by Ruth.
“Valentine is the best!” she declared.
Really? Had this event at last opened the doors to some much-needed peer kindness for my daughter? Eloise had been struggling since September to make friends. Maybe her kind cards had opened their eyes at last and had made them discover that she was in fact a very sweet girl?
“So your friends were happy with your cards?” I inquired.
“Oh no!” Eloise replied, “I mean, I don’t know. They didn’t even look at them. I guess they’ll read them tonight … maybe…,” she seemed to ponder that, then added, “In fact I don’t think they will read them at all. You know mama, my cards kind of sucked.”
They did? Did those other kids buy those expensive cards then? And why was Eloise so happy if her cards ‘sucked’?
“Oh, so did you get nice cards from your friends?” I asked.
“Yessss!!” my daughter exclaimed, opening her back pack and retrieving a white paper bag on which she had drawn hearts and glued small foam shapes. Not bothering about her decorations, she tore it apart and shook out its contents.
“Look!” she said.
Out fell tiny cards, not larger than a clothes’ price tag, each showing a design of football or basketball players, glittery hearts or pop artists. Being so little, there was absolutely no room for some nice personalized message on them. Barely legible names had been scribbled on the lines labeled ‘to’ and ‘from’. ‘Nice’ was definitely not the word that came to my mind upon seeing those sorry excuses for cards. My card expectations in ‘Hallmark-country’ had clearly been too high.
What made the cards ‘nice’ in my daughter’s view however, were of course not the football players or pop artists. It was what was taped to the cards. For each card came with some pink or red candy.
Eloise greedily tore off all the candy, not even pausing to decipher the name of the child who had offered it to her.
“Too bad there are not more children in my class,” she concluded, looking at the small red-and-pink pile, while she stuffed a Twizzler in her mouth.
I had to agreed with her. Her class mates would probably think her cards ‘sucked’ …

A few years later, in a knee-jerk-reflex to be creative, I decided my son’s first grade Valentine cards would be home-made. The project turned out to be largely mine; given my son’s lack of motivation for crafting. Instead of candy, I opted for a healthy – and pedagogically correct – alternative, taping a pencil to each card. Thibaut couldn’t care less about the whole thing and was – just like his sister had been – only interested in the candy that came with his classmates’ cards.

Given my son’s lack of involvement the year before and my own limited enthusiasm for crafting, second grade Valentine saw me buying a cheap box of tiny Star Wars cards. Thibaut hurried to write his name on all cards, then disappeared as I taped pencils to them, which made the flimsy cards look ridiculously small.

Then came this year …
At the supermarket last week, I told Thibaut to check if he could find some nice Valentine cards. He came back with a ‘32-pack for $1.99’ of tiny ‘Skylanders’ cards.
“I didn’t know you were into ‘Skylanders’?” I asked.
“I’m not, but all the other cards are really too childish.”
“Do you want to go to another store to find something cooler?”
“No mama, I don’t care. Nobody looks at the cards anyway. Now, we need to find good candy. Not too large so we can easily tape it on the cards, but not too small, because then I’ll be the uncool kid who hands out tiny pieces of candy.”
“What about pencils?” I tried.
My son stared at me. “Not again, Mama! Nobody likes pencils. And besides, the class party planners usually give us some.”
Oh … okay.

Tonight, Thibaut’s friends might frown at the ‘Skylanders’ design for just a second. They will not notice his scribbling, hardly legible because of my son’s haste to get the card-writing out of the way. But they will probably be happy with the M&M-like, red-pink-and-white sugarcoated chocolates taped to the card.
“This is the best treat, mama!” Thibaut had declared upon purchase. “Chocolate and Belgians go together and everybody knows it!”
After giving in to the American Valentine routine, I wonder though how Belgian we can still claim to be?

I herewith declare our American Valentine integration to be complete!

Hélène Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on : http://amzn.com/1493592548

Boobs

Boobs

“Honey, you should really get a boob job!” The middle-aged, blonde woman in the red bathing suit is supporting her own generous bosom as she wads through the pool towards me. She’s all smiles.

I can’t believe what I just heard. Only five minutes ago, I felt like I owned the W Scottsdale pool. Okay, not exactly like I owned it. But I did think I fit in nicely with the crowd populating it, even though I am not tanned nor physically enhanced in any way. The cocktail I was nursing might have helped my self-confidence a tiny bit. So might the warm welcome of our friends into their pool cabana. They hadn’t looked shocked at all when I retrieved my cover-up to reveal my body clad in a new bikini with padded top. Following their example, I had lowered myself into the lukewarm pool, holding my mojito just above water level, right in front of my modest chest. As I had returned my husband’s encouraging smile, I had even rolled back my shoulders and straightened my back.

In a flash, my self-confidence disappears. As if they had a mind of their own, my shoulders roll forward, trying to hide my A-cup.

Blondie doesn’t seem to notice. She’s clearly on a mission, addressing my husband now, who’s seated on the pool border.
“You should really pay her a boob job. She’d be so much happier,” she tells him, flashing me a conspiratorial smile.
My husband looks surprised.
“I’m not sure if she wants to get a boob job,” he says apologetically.
I decide to come to his rescue. “No, I assure you, I don’t. My breasts might be small, but they serve me just fine,” I say, pushing back my shoulders again. I’m not going to let a not-so-young Barbie bring me down, right?
“Oh, but honey, you just don’t know how good it is to have big boobs,” Barbie grabs her own rack more firmly to mark her words. “My mom paid for these babies last year, after my divorce. Well, I tell you, I have never been so happy in my life. I should have done this much sooner!”
I smile now, understanding that Barbie only wants to spread her happiness. This whole conversation is in fact nothing but an altruistic move. That, and maybe a slight attempt at attracting some attention to the lady’s own, lonely womanhood. If the latter is the intent, it works.
“Oh, I love your boobs!” my friend Christine exclaims, cupping her own grapefruit-sized breasts, “I’ve had mine for four years now, courtesy of that guy there!” she winks at her husband, who raises his glass to her — or is it to her grapefruits?
“I must tell you a funny story though,” she continues, “One day, we were having fun in the bedroom, when suddenly Eric exclaimed, “Turn around, I don’t wanna see you like that!”. I glanced down and what do you know? One of my boobs had popped! Just like that!”
“Oh no,” Barbie says, “What did you do?” I’m interested to know too, so I step closer to the ladies, bravely fighting the urge to cross my arms in front of my chest.
“Well, I was so lucky! Turned out it was still under warranty, so I just got it fixed. But boy, was that a sore sight!” We all laugh. I briefly wonder about health issues ensuing from leaking breast implants, but decide not to voice my concerns. No need to put the focus back on me, is there?

At night, we go up to our room to change for the night. Christine and Eric have invited us to join them and a few of their friends for sushi, followed by some dancing. I’ve been made to understand that a slightly revealing dress would not be inappropriate.
I hoist my body into a short dress with a high neckline and deeply plunging back, feeling grateful to have packed the garment. A deeply cut-out neckline would have put me to shame in big-boob-Scottsdale, but nobody’s going to comment on my legs and back, I’m sure. I top off my outfit with black, patent-leather stilettos and off we go, down to the hotel restaurant.

We quickly find our crowd, nursing martinis at the bar. The straps of Christine’s silk top seem to be under heavy strain to hold up her bosom. As she readjusts her breasts, Christine leans forward to whisper something to us, the ladies.
“This top hardly covers my nipples. If you notice one of them peeking out, please let me know,” she says.
I nod, always happy to oblige. Shirley nods too, her own gigantic hooters moving up and down in her black stretch top.

“How is Donna doing?” Christine asks once we’re seated. I am installed at the corner of the table, surrounded by three women.
“Well, she’s doing pretty well. Considering …,” Amanda replies. She turns to me, “Donna just had a breast reduction. She’d gone up to an F-cup, but found it a bit too heavy. So she had them reduced to a double D-cup.”
“Oh,” I say, refraining from saying I’ve never heard of a double D-cup.
“Double D is nice,” Christine says, “Do you think I should have mine upped to a double D too?” she eyes us, three women. I’m not sure if she expects me to give any advice. Christine’s pair looks pretty large to me. Bigger would be inconvenient I’d think. Then again, who am I to tell?
“Yours are nice.” Shirley turns to Amanda. “What size are they?” I glance at Amanda’s assets. They looks nice, indeed. Slightly smaller than Christine’s. I bet Amanda is a natural C-cup.
“I chose to have a C,” Amanda replies. I congratulate myself on my guessing work. I had the size right, even though I was wrong about the natural aspect.
“Only a C?” Shirley exclaims, “They look bigger. Must be because you’re so tiny.”
I longingly look over at the male side of the table, wondering what topics are being discussed there … I’m glad at least the women have the decency not to question me about my breast size. They probably think I’m one of those health freaks who wants to keep everything natural. And they might be right … Not even a bra enhances my little A-cup tonight, since bra straps would show in the back of my dress. Not that anyone would notice. Focus in Scottsdale is clearly not on backs. Breasts is what life is all about!

“Aureole alert!” Shirley calls out, just as a waiter hovers over Christine’s shoulder to refill her water glass.
“What?” Christine, slightly dazed, doesn’t get it. I try to gesture discreetly that it’s time to readjust one of her babies, but she doesn’t get the hint. The waiter does however. The young boy’s cheeks turn dark red as he quickly abandons the process of refilling Christine’s glass and returns to the bar.
“I said aureole alert!” Shirley calls out louder, making the four guests seated at the table next to us turn around. I smile apologetically, while Christine pushes the rebellious breast back into its silk pocket.

The remaining of the dinner is spent discussing various women’s chest enhancements or reductions. I decide to focus on the delicious sushi, trying to nod and to laugh at the right time. Until suddenly a young woman wearing a short skirt and a revealing top stops at our table. Her crowd, consisting of about ten people, all stop behind her.
“Can I ask you something?” She’s addressing me.
“Sure,” I say, slightly surprised. I just hope she’s not going to suggest I get a boob job.
“Could you please get up and turn around? I saw you come in and was telling my friends about your lovely dress, but we can’t see the back while you’re seated.”
Me?” I ask, “You want me to get up and turn around?”
“Yes, you look so lovely in that dress! I would love to show it to my friends.” Her friends all nod encouragingly.
“Oh, okay,” I say as I get up and make a little pirouette.
“Oh, wow!” someone in my audience exclaims. “Nice,” says another. “That is so sexy!” I hear a third voice.
“I told you, right?” the young brunette turns to her group. “Thank you so much. You really look gorgeous.” Upon that, she leaves, followed by her crowd.
Slightly dazzled and blushing heavily, I sit down again. My table companions — and about half of the other restaurant patrons — stare at me. That’s right. At small-breasted me! After a brief moment of silence, I hear Shirley say, a hint of jealousy lining her voice,
“Well, that must have made your evening.”

Shirley’s right. It did make my evening. In fact, it made my whole day!
Who needs a boob job when she’s got a sexy back?
I square my shoulders as we get up to move on to the dance club.
Watch out, dancing Scottsdalers; here I come!

Helene Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on Amazon : http://amzn.com/1493592548

Happy New … House?

 

“Are you sure that you want to make an offer so close to the holidays? Aren’t you leaving for a road trip to Florida tomorrow? Maybe you’d like to wait until you get back?”

“Susan’s words,” I will tell Hubbie a few days from now, “really should have warned us.” Only right now, even though her questions slightly surprise us, they do not alarm us in the least. Because, let’s face it. Approaching holiday travels have nothing to do with making an offer on a house, do they? It’s not as if we’re buying the place. Chances are the seller won’t even bother to reply to our offer.

“Well,” Hubbie tells Susan over the speaker phone, “we are indeed leaving tomorrow, but we’d just like to get the whole process started before.”
“Okay,” Susan replies, “There are two ways we can do this; the written way, but that might be hard to follow up on during your trip. Or we can do it electronically.”
What about doing it over the phone? It’s just an offer we’re talking about. Hubbie looks at me. I shrug my shoulders.
“Let’s do it electronically,” he says at last.
“Okay. Just send me an e-mail containing your and your wife’s full names, your current address and the amount you’d like to offer.”
“Will do that in a minute,” my husband replies.
“Oh, also add the date you’d like to settle the sale, will you? And the coordinates of the bank that’s lending you money. And a scan of a check for 5% of the bidding amount. And are you going to take a loan for the full amount minus 10% or minus 20%? Also, please mention the interest rate. And …”
What? Why does she need all that information?
“Wow …,” Hubbie suddenly sounds much less relaxed and cheerful than just five minutes ago, when he lazily suggested the offer-making to me. “You need all that now?”
“I do. Once I have it all, I can prepare the paperwork and send it to you.”
The paperwork? What is she talking about?
“You mean you’re not just going to send an e-mail to the seller to inform him about our offer?” Hubbie asks.
“Oh no, we need official trace of this. Know what? To make it easier on you, you can call the bank and ask them to forward the loan information to me directly.”
“Okay,” Hubbie says, sounding a bit wary, “I’ll do that now. Talk to you later Susan.” He sighs as he hangs up.
I understand why. Just listening to the conversation made me tired.

Where we come from, when you like a house, you just pick up the phone and tell the owner how much you’re willing to pay for it. He thinks it over for a few days, then usually comes back with a counter-offer, which you usually counter-offer again and so on. Sometimes a real estate agent is involved in the game, but only as the oral relayer of all offers. After a week — or maybe even two — everyone agrees on a price. That’s when the potential buyer realizes he’d better start looking for some money to hand over when the ‘compromis’ or the contract is signed. A few days later, in the cosiness of the house that is the object of the buyer’s desire, a certified bank check covering a 10% downpayment gets exchanged. Rather ceremoniously — and often using a nice and heavy pen — each party signs a contract of some three pages, committing the seller not to accept any other offer and the buyer to finding a loan within three months. More often than not a bottle of bubbles is produced and both parties toast to a successful business deal, stoically ignoring the clause that states that should the buyer fail to find a loan, the 10% down payment will be returned to him and the sale will be cancelled.
It is a rather slow process as you can see. Hence why we want to get our offer out  before leaving for Florida.

In America however, things seem to be done differently. Luckily my husband already contacted the bank last week, just to get an idea of our purchasing capacity. He promptly calls Sandra at the bank, who works Saturdays and Sundays, as if that is the most natural thing in the world. No single Belgian bank would even think of assigning an employee for weekend loan negotiations. Sandra kindly agrees to send all necessary information to Susan within the next hour. We look into our finances to find ways to get enough money in our checking account for the 5% down payment, knowing that writing an uncovered check is a big felony in the US. Then we prepare a mail for Susan containing our offer amount and preferred closing date, four months from now. As I am putting on my coat to leave for some last-minute errands with Eloise, the phone rings.
“About that settlement date,” Susan says, “April is really far away. There’s no way the seller will accept that.”
“Oh, so you think we’d better propose the end of March?” I hear Hubbie ask.
Susan chuckles, as if in response to a joke. “I’d rather go for mid-February,” she says, “at the latest.”
Wow, that’s less than two months from now!

When I get back home two hours later, I find Hubbie concentrated on his computer screen.
“I just got the offer documents from Susan,” he says, turning the laptop to me. “We need to initialize each page electronically and then sign the whole thing.”
I look over his shoulder and scroll down the first page of the document, then wait for the second page to materialize — which takes forever — then slowly move on to the third, then to the … Wait a minute;
“How many pages are there exactly?” I ask.
“Fifty-four,” Hubbie sighs.
Oh dear, this is going to take forever…
An hour and a half later we submit our signed offer to Susan who promises to get in touch with us as soon as she gets feedback from the seller.
“Merry Christmas in the meantime,” Hubbie says.
“Yes, well, I suppose we’ll talk before that,” she replies.
That soon? Christmas is only three days away. Surely the seller will need more time to think this over?

On Sunday, our car packed to the brim for our 2,000 mile trip, we hit the road. Traffic is smooth. We’re almost in North Carolina when my phone rings.
“Hi Helene, Susan here. I just heard back from the seller’s agent. He’s making a counter-offer.”
Wow, that’s quick! I write down the seller’s price and promise Susan to get back to her.

Hubbie seems as surprised as me with the quick reaction. While his gaze fixes on the road, we discuss the counter-offer, quickly agreeing it’s too high. Fifteen-year-old Eloise, whose focus on the tablet does not seem to impact her capabilities to listen in on our conversation, quickly interjects,
“You’re not going to let the house get away, are you? I really like it. I can see us living there.”
Seven-year-old Thibaut, his eyes trained on his swaying tablet, immediately chimes in,
“Me too, I love the house.”
An hour later I return Susan’s call. “We’ll meet the seller halfway, but that is our final offer,” I announce.
“Okay,” Susan says, “I’ll get you the new paperwork. Do you have internet access?”
New paperwork? Not again!
“We’re in the car right now. I’m not sure when we’ll stop for the night. Given that signing the paperwork on my computer took ages, I’m not sure how it’s going to work on the I-phone.” With this reply, I hope Susan will offer to just orally relay our new offer. No such luck.
“Let’s just give it a try,” she says, “You won’t have to sign as many pages now. Only about, let’s see, fourteen.” Fourteen?

“What if he doesn’t accept our final offer?” Eloise asks, looking up from her tablet for a few seconds.
“Then the house was not meant to be for us,” I reply.
“You don’t even sound as if you’d care.” She sounds shocked.
“We do, but not desperately. We’re pretty sure there are other good houses,” Hubbie replies while I slowly upload and sign one page after another on the I-phone.

Monday morning we wake up to a bright blue Savannah sky. I check my e-mail before hitting the road for the second stretch that will take us to an Orlando hotel close to Hubbie’s grandparents. A message from Susan awaits me.
‘The seller says that at that ridiculous price, he’d rather take the house off the market,’ it reads.
‘Too bad,’ I reply, relieved that I didn’t get myself too emotionally involved in all this. It’s sad we put all this time and effort in it, but at least we now know what to expect if we bid for another house. If anything, we have learned that it’s better not to ‘just start the process’ right before leaving on a trip.

The kids look disappointed as they climb into the backseat.
Once we’re on the road, Hubbie and I briefly discuss the fallen-through deal and jointly decide that we’re not sad it didn’t work out. We really liked the house, but it was all getting too serious too fast. Besides, we’re still contractually bound for eight more months to the rental house we live in now. It’s all for the best. We switch our focus on the holidays ahead and on the quality time we will enjoy with Grandma and Grandpa.

After checking into our hotel, Hubbie and I get installed on loungers while the kids jump into the pool. I fire up my laptop and check my email, only to find another mail from Susan.
‘The seller wonders why you omitted initializing page 13,‘ it reads. ‘Since he’s a lawyer, that makes him very suspicious. I will forward that page right away so you can sign it.’
What? Why would the guy read through a boring 54-page contract if he thinks our offer is ridiculous? Looks like he still does consider it!

That evening, while we seemingly leisurely stroll through the Downtown Disney area — home to our hotel — I hyperventilate at the thought of our pending purchase. What happened to our stance of ‘just making an offer and see where things lead’? Somewhere along the past two days things got pretty serious.
Trying to relax me, Eloise sums up the positives about the house and Hubbie reassures me that we are financially all set to take the plunge. I try to convince myself that I am totally okay with buying a house in the US; that I am ready to take this step that brings us closer to permanent US residency. Meanwhile, Thibaut is blissfully ignorant of my little panic attack. He’s just happy; to be at the Downtown Disney Lego store, to be close to Grandma and Grandpa, to be part of this family that might soon move into a new house where he just knows he will be happy too. Oh, the bliss of a confident and stress-free childhood!

By the time we get to the hotel room I am relaxed enough to fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow — or maybe I am just too exhausted by the long drive.

I awake at nine, brew a cup of coffee and settle with my laptop in the sunshine on our deck. Another mail from Susan awaits me.
‘Good news,’ it reads. ‘Your offer has been accepted. We have a ratified contract.’
Wow … That means I’ll soon be an American homeowner. Contrary to my state of mind yesterday, this information instantly relaxes me. My new home is in America and that feels just fine. I owe myself a few more minutes of solitude to fully absorb this new feeling, then walk into the hotel room where I find my awakening family members.
“We’ve got the house,” I announce.
“Wow! I’m so happy!” Eloise jumps up to hug me. Thibaut follows her cue. Hubbie seems to need a few seconds to fully register the news. Then he walks up to us to complete the group hug.
“Susan needs a scan of the new check we will use to pay the deposit. She also needs us to fill out ….” While I sum up everything we need to do, Hubbie gets dressed, ready to take over the hotel business center for a few hours.

Only later that afternoon, as we are seated on Grandma and Grandpa’s couch, toasting to our new home with beer and Pepsi, do I realize what an extraordinary thing just happened. We bought a house on Christmas Eve’s day, while on the road, using a smartphone! What happened to heavy, luxury-brand pens that trace elegant signatures on the bottom of important documents? Or to champagne toasts on a new milestone?

What ensues are hectic days, shaping our vacation in quite a different way than planned.  Every morning we wake up to a new mail from the bank or from Susan — God bless her for guiding us through this — containing a new mission for the day. Can we please send proof of where those funds we wired from Belgium came from? Did we think about scheduling a visit with a home inspector before January 5? Can we please send our three last tax return sheets? Haven’t we forgotten to send a registered mail containing a notarized letter to our current landlord to end the lease, four days before the end of the month?

How often during those days do I think back about Susan’s words, the day before we left. “Are you sure you want to do this now, so close to the holidays?” Now I understand what holiday travels – or any other travels for that matter –  have to do with making an offer. Nothing! The two just don’t go together!

Then again, a new house for Christmas is a gift you can’t beat, can you?

Happy New Year!
Hélène Toye is the author of Go West, available on : http://amzn.com/1493592548

Santa Clause comes to American children. We have Sinterklaas!

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    “I’ve circled what I want Sinterklaas to bring this year,” my seven-year-old son declares as he hands me the ‘Toys“R’”us’ catalogue.
I scan his selection and nearly have a heart attack. As expected, his choices are all marked on the Lego Star Wars pages. But Thibaut strategically ignored the cheaper sets, exclusively circling four sets in the $100 to $200 range, far exceeding the $50 budget we usually grant Sinterklaas for his purchases.
“You know, those sets are expensive. I don’t think Sinterklaas has that much money,” I tell my son.
“But that’s why I chose them. Sinterklaas doesn’t need money. He makes the toys!”
“No, he doesn’t,” I reply, grateful that I decided four years ago to hang on to our Belgian version of Santa Claus, instead of adjusting to the American ways.
“Santa Claus only comes for the American children,” I had declared at the time. “Belgian children have Sinterklaas.”

A word of explanation for those who don’t know Sinterklaas is in order, I realize.

Starting out as a bishop long ago in faraway Turkey, Saint-Nicholas (or Sinterklaas) was a good man who cared for the poor, motivating the rich people to share with the less-fortunate.
Somehow over the centuries, Sinterklaas’ personality seems to have split in two.

One of his halves moved to the North Pole and started visiting the United States on a yearly basis in a sled pulled by a bunch of flying reindeer. Just like everyone who spends a lot of time in the States, Sinterklaas gained a few pounds and shed his stern aura. The man scored himself a wife and recruited a small army of little people who happily set off to work in a toy factory that would have made Henry Ford jealous. Through all those reforms, the skinny, intimidating and severe-looking  alter-ego of Sinterklaas has transformed into a chubby and cheerful Santa, whose dark eyes — almost completely hidden by his round, red cheeks — seem to light up as he utters countless ‘Ho-ho-ho’s’.

Meanwhile, Sinterklaas’ other half also packed his stuff and moved from Turkey to Spain, where he started focusing on children. Before some of your dirty minds go into overdrive, a word of warning. Sinterklaas’ fascination with kids is not in the least perverted, even though he initially did enjoy the occasional spanking of badly-behaved boys. Nor is the man obsessed with children all the time either. Tradition has him living in sunny Spain all year, in the company of his mischievous servant, Zwarte Piet (literally ‘Black Pete’) and a white horse. Nobody really knows what Sinterklaas, Piet and his horse do all year. They certainly don’t keep busy making toys, the ways Santa’s elves do. The general assumption seems to be that they just lazily hang around, enjoying the warm weather and eating good food. But comes the end of November, Sinterklaas and his sidekicks start rolling. The three of them embark on a steamboat and set off for Belgium (don’t ever believe the Dutch when they say Sinterklaas is headed for Amsterdam. Antwerp is his destination, as all Belgians know). Once there, Sinterklaas moves from throne to throne, posing for pictures with children at department stores, corporate parties and youth clubs.
Then comes the night of December 5, the eve before Sinterklaas’ very own birthday. Instead of granting the poor, skinny, old man a much needed night’s rest, he is forced to mount his white horse. Now, this horse proceeds to exhibit some sudden magical powers by gracefully elevating itself onto the rooftops, where it’s hooves find perfect grip on the ice-covered tiles. Zwarte Piet — Sinterklaas’ faithful helper — walks next to the horse, carrying a big bag filled with toys. He is the one who descends down every chimney — hence his black face — artfully arranging the toys around countless Belgian fireplaces.. Grabbing the carrots that grateful children have left in their shoes to reward the magic horse, Zwarte Piet swiftly replaces them with unwrapped chocolate and candy, which Belgian kids will eat the next day — completely oblivious to any potentially funky shoe odors. In the olden days, Zwarte Piet’s sack also contained a whip which he would use on the ‘lucky’ bad kids. Their less fortunate bad peers would be unmercifully stuffed into Zwarte Piet’s sack and be delivered to Sinterklaas for a proper punishment, whatever that might have been.
Nowadays however, Europe got more civilized. Even we think using whips on kids and stuffing them into sacks might potentially be traumatic. As a result the whipping and sack-stuffing have been deleted from Zwarte Piet’s job description, considerably improving the man’s popularity among children.

My decision four years ago to adhere to our Sinterklaas tradition and to ignore Santa, was not borne out of a stubborn refusal to adjust to the American way of life. I just figured that our winters were spiced with enough presents as it was. What with both our children’s winter birthdays, Sinterklaas, our family’s Christmas gift exchanges, plus New Year? Besides, we had initially planned to move back to Belgium in a mere two years time, so why add new tradition we’d soon be dropping ?

“Where does Sinterklaas get his presents if he doesn’t make them?” Thibaut wants to know.
Now that’s a good question. Nowhere in the Sinterklaas stories, can one learn where the man gets his toys. Were they purchased at the store down the street? Does the bishop have an underground superstore in his Spanish Castle? Or does he use magic to fill Piet’s sack? It’s all very vague.
“I think he buys them,” I reply.
“That’s not possible!” Thibaut exlaims. “Everyone would recognize him if he went to the store.”
“Well,” I say, stalling while I think. “Maybe he sends Zwarte Piet to the store. He wouldn’t stand out as much.”
“With his flashy clothes and his silly hat with the feather? Mama, everyone would stare at him!”
“Well, … , I guess they just order everything from Amazon then,” I say, proud of my reply.
“For all those kids? That would take forever! Besides, Sinterklaas would have to give his password to Zwarte Piet. He’d never trust him to order stuff on Amazon!”
“Okay, …, well, …, I really don’t know where he gets the presents, but he certainly does not make them. You’d better choose some cheaper Lego sets for him to bring. He’ll never have enough money for the ones you selected.”

Slightly disappointed, Thibaut sets to work again, leafing through the catalogue in search of cheap presents. Suddenly his face lights up.
“I know what I’ll do!” he announces. “Soon I will become American, right?”
“Well, not very soon, but you will, eventually,” I reply, wondering where this is leading.
“Well, I’ll write an email to Santa, asking if he can come to our house this year already. Santa doesn’t need money to make Lego sets. He’ll bring me the ‘Death Star’ or the ‘Millenium Falcon’ for sure!”
Oh …
“What about Sinterklaas then?”
“That’s the good thing!” Thibaut jumps to his feet, all smiles. “You said we would be American AND Belgian. So Sinterklaas will still bring the good chocolate, the candy and the cheap presents and Santa will bring the cool toys!”

Oh, I guess we’d better start saving then …

Want to read more? Helene Toye’s book : “Go West: A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood” is available on http://amzn.com/1493592548