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Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!): December 2010

Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!)

My goal here is to make your life easier, especially those who are in the unique situation of being a military spouse. Yes...I've been around...but in a good way...and hopefully can share those tips, tricks and shortcuts with you too. I've been on this military bus for over 40 years now. My goals in life are to have a well-run home, few money worries, well adjusted children, money socked away and whatever happiness I can scoop out of life.

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Location: United States

After life as an Army brat, being in the Army myself and marrying a soldier, I can honestly say I have a bucket full of life lessons I can share to help you make your everyday life easier and enlightening. Don't waste your time making unnecessary mistakes and benefit from others who have come before you on your journey through life.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pack up the kids and leave for a year

Many of you know that I choose a lot of the books I read, in the imperfect method of walking through the stacks at my local library, perusing the bookshelves and looking for the spine of some random book to catch my eye.  Here's one that caught my eye, and by the time I was done, I had let wet laundry sit in the washer for half a day, and I burned the night's pasta dinner...but I was determined to get to the end.  I like books that talk about peoples' experiences.....people who have done things I've never done....and probably won't get to do, because my life is at a different stage or path.  Who here hasn't at least fleetingly dreamed of selling everything and packing up the family, only to travel around the world for an ENTIRE year?  That's what this book is about.

We travel a lot.  We travel a lot with kids....up to now, kids from babies to I caught myself either laughing, commiserating or wanting to say "I told you so", throughout the book.  I also caught myself writing down the names of some of these fabulous locations, in hopes that someday, I can make it out to some of the ones I had never heard of before.

The gist of the book, is this guy and his wife sell almost all of their wordly possessions to include their house and car and trek across the globe to a variety of locations with kids in tow.  Now, we're not talking backpacker-style....we're talking a suitcase and backpack for each including the baby (a mistake he found out later as they had way too much stuff)....and staying at some flea-bitten out-of-the-way places with some luxurious five star worthy palaces in between.  What an experience!

At one point, a hippo almost overturns their boat and really, hippos you should be more afraid of than almost any other animal...they can become that territorial and aggressive.  His daughter has surgery in Thailand (thumbs up for Thai healthcare).  He almost loses his daughter in a riptide in Australia, and the mother is beside herself with white-knuckle fear along the rim of an active volcano, holding her toddler on a leash....yes, a leash which they ended up ditching later as they were consistently getting laughed at by non-Americans or just given THAT look.  They also eat some of the most amazing food....Sardinia, here I come!...and pet everything from an ostrich to a baby elephant.

But I think the neatest thing about this family's journey and the book is seeing  the similarities to my life....reactions of the children to things......mistakes made while traveling....all things we have experienced, as we've also been to many of his European destinations he wrote about for the book.

Is it a literary masterpiece?  No, and it doesn't profess to be.  The author isn't skilled enough to make you "feel and smell" like you are really there....but, that's beside the point...I don't think I evoke that either when I write, but it's a very nice read that tells a good story, and even though the author has a little tiny bit of a chip on his shoulder, I still liked reading it.  I closed the book more enlightened than when I started, and that should be your goal with most books I think.

I'm already anxious to go back to the library and start walking the aisles again.  Before I end here, let me put in a plug for the USAREUR library system, which is what we have overseas here in Europe.  All the military libraries are connected in Germany, Italy and Belgium to name the bulk of where the libraries are physically located.  Substantial money is spent keeping up the collections and attaining new material.  At least one library or the other will have a slew of all the bestsellers, and even if your library doesn't carry it, we can use inter-library loan (ILL) to request that book.  We also have access to our accounts online, along with other databases, reviews and many other useful things.  Believe it or not, the libraries even rent out DVDs...and here on SHAPE, they have DVDs on both systems (as Europe and the US code their DVDs, so unless you have a DVD player that plays all regions, you can only play DVDs for the US market if you bought your player in the US and vice versa if you bought it over here).  They also have Wii, Playstation and DS games to include the Wii add-ons, like the surfboard or whatever it's called....all can be checked out.  We are also lucky here at SHAPE because Chievres also has a library, and you can return items to either library...they work closely together.

So that's my little plug for today....for this book and for our library system.  I'll see you all next year!  I'm taking a break to be with my family and hope to see and hear from you next year!  Wishing all my readers the best for 2011!.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Belgian Christmas Markets

Since our arrival here this past summer, I've heard at least a dozen times, "Christmas markets in Belgium are not like Christmas markets in Germany" or "to see a nice Christmas market, you gotta go to Cologne or Aachen".  Well, the season has finally arrived, and I L-O-V-E Christmas markets!  Of course we had to get our German fix and visited the wonderfully festive Cologne Christmas market, or should I say many of the Christmas markets scattered around the city.  But of course I had to visit our local markets as well.  I like to support home-grown, plus, I wanted to see how the Belgians celebrated.

All in all, Belgian markets are nice.....I'm still trying to figure out where or how exactly they fall short, because unfortunately, I keep comparing them to the German version.  For example, a large city like Mons only had about 50 booths downtown, mostly food and, there is nothing wrong with that, I was just hoping to find more handcrafted local items.  There was a nice skating rink though and the atmosphere was very festive with piped-in Christmas music and a beautiful tree with lights.  The downtown vendors had also decorated very nicely, so I would recommend visiting there as a nice family outing.

Another local Christmas market we really liked was the large tent with about 100 vendors in the old Havre moated chateau.  The destroyed chateau is more in line with Halloween-viewing, but they did try to spruce it up a bit for a Christmas atmosphere, and the mood inside the tent was definitely festive.  Entry was one euro per person, which did go to benefit charity.  This market was a little different in that we saw many locally produced foodwares, but again, not so many crafts...unfortunately, quite a few "Made in China" booths as well.  We could've loaded up on all kinds of sausage, cheese and wines!  The kids also had their fill of frites (fries) and escargot (we saw a lot of these express stands at  many of the markets) fact, I talked to one vendor, who raises a farm of snails for his business and will even deliver to your home.  It was also nice to sit in the renovated restaurant in front of the roaring fire and enjoy some of the local goodies.  I am a recentconvert to the benefits of smoked more regular garlic for me:-)

The other markets we visited have been a blur....nothing really stood out unfortunately....even the Brussels market is so-so, and the Belgians do a better job of showcasing some of their other festivals throughout the year.

But, with all that being said....get out there and enjoy the season!  Some of the markets continue through the end of December and even into January.  You can see some of the schedules here or read about the upcoming events in the Gazette (a magazine for the Brussels/Chievres garrisons), which also lists many of them.  Which market was your favorite?  Did anyone visit the Bruges or Antwerp markets?


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why in the world would I need TWO different passports??

As military dependents (and our spouses) being stationed overseas, we are required to have two US passports, that is if you are US citizens.  One is your official passport that the military pays for.  The other, is your tourist passport that you pay for.  They look exactly the same, except your official passport has a page in the back that quotes the SOFA statement.  So why are you supposed to carry both of them?  Let me explain.

I just recently got my tourist passport renewed overseas, and BTW it was $110 (yes, prices have gone up) .  Your post should have an office that processes both official/SOFA and tourist passports.  Turn around time off season is supposed to be two weeks.  In the summer, my childrens' tourist passports took two months to get back!  But don't worry, you don't have to give up your old one if you are overseas.  That is just if you are stateside and do not have a trip planned.  For peace of mind, I always start planning 6 months out in getting a new passport....especially if you like to cruise as some cruise lines "require" that your passport is still valid for six more months!

As for the rules of having a SOFA/official vs. tourist passport, you can blame the French on that one.  Travel restrictions used to be much more relaxed between the EU borders (and you're right, there are no border controls between EU countries)...BUT, if you get stopped and don't have the "correct" passport, you could get hassled.  The French had a tiff with the Americans a few years back, and they are the ones that started this "just tourist passport" thing in retaliation to something the Americans demanded from the French (and they didn't want to do)...or at least that is how the story goes.

In my last job as a tours manager and planner, we inevitably had a few problems and started requiring tourist passports for people who traveled with us...not many problems, but when it's you having the problem...then it's no longer statistics and is serious business!  Read this article for the specifics.  Technically, the SOFA/official passport is to show that you are allowed to stay in whatever country you are stationed in beyond the three month tourist timeframe (when no visa is required).  You can only stay three months in a country with a tourist passport.  I believe this is mandated by the host country, so it's possible that different countries may have different timeframes for staying without a visa.  So, yes, you may have no problem leaving a country, but it's the coming back that could be an issue.  Oh and for Russia, you definitely need to do visa paperwork in addition to your tourist passport, and it is worth it to go thru a reputable agency to get that done rather than to do it yourself.  I've gotten asked that question a few times as well so have thrown it out there.

I do know some Americans that carry both around when they travel.  I typically just take our tourist passports, as they seem to be the ones that most countries are looking for, when you get stopped.  When you arrive in a country, they don't know that you spent more than three months in the country you just least this is how I see it.  The only time I personally ever had a problem was at the Frankfurt airport, coming back to Germany, after having left Germany back and forth a few times through the same airport in the weeks before.  I only had my tourist passport, and the customs agent was very curious and wanted to know everything about me, finally asking for my military ID card as "proof" of what I told him I was doing.  I think this would be the only time I would've needed my SOFA/official passport other than if the US ever had to do mass evacuations from Germany back to the US (such as in the case of world war), and they would obviously prioritize people with official passports over those just holding regular US tourist passports.

Do you carry both passports with you?


Sunday, December 19, 2010


My Opa
Do you remember back when you were a child and your grandma or grandpa used to have these sayings?  That they repeated over and over again to you?  So much so, that you find yourself able to repeat them from memory many years later?  My German opa used to have his theories and sayings, and in light of his birthday coming up, where he would've been 100, I thought I'd share some of them.  I think some of them are even true!

My favorites:

  • Whenever someone in my family talked about traveling, he would ALWAYS say, "why would you want to go there?  The houses there stand next to each other just like they do here!"  I guess in a way he was correct.  People are people wherever you go, and even though things may look a little bit different, you'd be surprised at how much things can be the same.  I took this to mean that I should also take the time to enjoy my home, wherever that was at the time, and now I take the time to really find the hidden gems in my local area instead of always longing to go somewhere else.
  • Always make sure your gas tank is half full.  You'll never, ever run out of true!  I don't think I've ever run out of gas in my life.
  • Don't drink cold stuff.  My opa used to heat up a pot of water and dunk his beer bottle into a warm water bath before drinking it.  He never drank anything cold in his life!  He always thought that all the stomach cancers and abundance of stomach problems of Americans were caused by cold drinks and ice, taking off the mucous layers in your digestive system, damaging it he used to say.  I have personally found no medical evidence of this....but you know, it does make sense.  I'll let you draw your own conclusion on this.  I guess this may explain why Europeans are not so fond of ice cubes and really cold drinks and have less instances of stomach issues and cancers?  Maybe?
  • Drafts coming in windows can make you sick, and if you have wet hair, you'll get really sick.  I still remember driving around Germany in the summertime....with ALL the windows closed! This was before cars had air conditioning in Germany!  I can't believe I survived that without dying of heat stroke....either I was much hardier back then or Germany was not so hot in the summer before global warming turned European weather upside-down.
  • Even though opa made the comment about traveling, it didn't stop him from being one of the first Germans to board a commercial flight to Italy, and just in time for his honeymoon in the era before WWII.  He was also the first man in his village to have a car after the war.  How did he do that when everyone else was broke?  He was always a master of wheeling and dealing.  He taught me (and mostly my mother) to always look two steps ahead in any business deal.  For example, he saw that after the war, everyone wanted...err...needed chocolate.  He saw the Jewish businessmen who were left in his part of Germany (with help from the Allies), had the supplies, so he struck a deal with them as a whole.  He knew they wanted tea, so he figured out how to collect and package it....sold it to them (because no one else was, and darn they wanted that tea)...bought the chocolate from them...and sold the chocolate at prices-to-make-a-profit to the average German.  The profits were so tidy over the long-run, that he was able to buy the first car in his little village after the war, and a Mercedes at that (he only mentioned later that the thing didn't have a floor...kind of like the Flinstones I'm thinking).  He got his business going again while everyone else was out of work and still scratching their heads!  His "two steps ahead" thinking also saved him from being killed on the Eastern Front....almost his entire unit was decimated, and he survived.  Obviously I'm not anywhere near that good in trying to always look ahead, but I like to think I at least TRY to do this myself in day-to-day life and make him a little bit proud!
Opa, I miss you and your humor too!  I miss how you used to reach up behind the doorframe and "find" a gumball for me.  My opa ran a candy &  liquor wholesaler (in other words, a little kid's dream), and my childhood visiting my grandparents was spent crawling up and down the big wooden shelves in the warehouse filled to capacity with cookies, candy, chocolate, coffee...and hard liquor, huh?  I guess the hard liquor was the "grown up candy" and used to sell REALLY well, hence the later addition of that.  I used to love feeling like a grown-up when you took me on your rounds, delivering and selling your wares to the local stores and the years before the superstore.   And every year, you made such a big deal of taking me to the fancy shoestore to get my new shoes....unfortunately, they were always the brown clunker Salamander brand and nothing fancy, but you made me feel special anyway in the process, as I was the center of attention (every child's second dream).

I miss you Opa and happy birthday!  I know you and Oma are looking down and watching over us this holiday season, and thank-you for all the wonderful opa-isms which I am now teaching my children!


Friday, December 17, 2010

When are the German Stores Ever Open on Sundays?

I recently received an email from a confused American in Germany.  Now don't make a joke...this is serious, as it involves shopping.  This certain lady asked why sometimes, she can drive through her town on a Sunday and all the stores are open, and everyone seems to be "in the know" except for her.  The next Sunday, she decides to try it too...and everything is closed again with imaginary tumbleweeds going thru there it's so quiet.  So what's the scoop with that?  Why are some stores open sometimes, and why are other stores open other than sometimes?

Let me try to you may know, the Germans have been VERY resistant through the years to open stores, as a general rule, on Sundays.  Believe it or not, it was like that in the US...many, many years ago, before it became the land of always 24 hours.  The Germans always believed that their society would be "ruined" if they started allowing stores to break that last bit of sacredness, by opening on, not for religious reasons, although that does sound pretty good.  I think it has something to do with the labor laws and compensation or something in that direction...or at least that is the official party line, so yes, there is some valid reasoning behind it.

At some point in the government, someone decided there is much more revenue to be had on Sunday and darn it, those politicians wanted to be able to go get that bottle of wine or whatever last minute item on Sunday not to mention fresh rolls Sunday morning.  It started slowly at first with gas stations and stores near major transit hubs being allowed to open on Sundays and holidays.  Then it progressed a bit to include a few more, in particular some bakeries and such.  Then someone came up with this literally translated "sell open Sundays" or "Verkauksoffener Sonntags".

Many city governments and even smaller localities will get with retailers in their city center (or town center) to enable'll happen almost once a month.  And how do you find out about it?  You can either check your city newspaper or the municipality's or town's website (not the tourist one, but the one for residents).  Many stores will also announce it ahead of time in their own literature as well, so keep an eye out there.  There is also a German website that lists some of the dates by region and then by town.  I don't know how complete it is, but I do see plenty of listings there.

Now if I could only figure out the equivalent in French, cause I see many of the towns do it here, at least around the holidays!


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Unbelievable suitcase stuffing

Now that many of us are getting ready to head out for the holidays, we have to think like never before about how to pack our particular when flying....all those new restrictions!  I think my mom did a pretty good job of showing me how to stuff things in my shoes and to use every available space....she even taught me to roll stuff before it became mainstream.  But this world's ahead of the rest of and learn Kemosabe...


Monday, December 13, 2010

Swapping the kids' clothes

I consider myself blessed that the boys have a cousin who wears designer clothes whose mother regularly sends us a box of goodies. I almost never buy them new clothes except for underwear and socks! But, wouldn't it be great, I thought, if you could connect with others in a safe environment and swap nice kids' clothes with almost no strings attached? Apparently, this idea has already been realized!  I have a guest blog entry today from a mom who started out this site where you can do just that!


thredUP is where America’s busiest parents exchange boxes of clothes that no longer fit their kids for stylish ones that will. We coordinate swaps among a group of your closest friends AND connect you with thousands of families nationwide and on bases overseas. There’s no bidding, no auctions, no rifling through consignment racks, and no cranky kids to drag all over town. All swaps are done online, with scheduled home pick-up and delivery in CONUS, post office delivery service OCONUS.

Finding reasonably priced new or gently used kids clothes can be impossible when you are focused on more important aspects of your move. In honor of Veteran’s Day this year, we have opened up our domestic kids clothing swap to military families living OCONUS at APO/FPO addresses.

At thredUP, we know that coordinating clothing swaps is hard – especially when your closest friends live all over the world! Getting parents together and getting all the sizes right is always a challenge. Tag sales are a ton of work, often for very little payoff.

So what can I do on thredUP?

Pick. Pay. Prepare and Send.
Pick a box of gently used clothes you’d love to receive for your child.
Pay for shipping.
Prepare and list a box of clothes your child has outgrown.
When someone picks your box, send it free of charge (we even have the Postal Service pick-up the box at your house in CONUS).

We manage the quality control and review process and take care of all the details to make sure you get a quality exchange.

“As a military wife, I'm forever in transition. As a military-wife-mom, I'm forever moving and looking for reasonably priced clothes for my children,” says Sara Gibb, Chief Military Mom and thredUP’s newest executive. “thredUP lets me exchange clothes that no longer fit my kids for great items that will, from anywhere in the country. Not only is it affordable and convenient, but the service allows me to stay connected with friends and family wherever the Navy says I call home.”

Military families can upgrade their FREE basic membership to any level of PRO Membership at a 33% discount. In addition, military families are given at least one additional pick per month (without the need to swap out a box!).

We are open to ALL parents, not only military! Currently over 36,000 members strong, thanks to our 1400+ military families we are also trading on over 140 bases in 11 countries. All families can also swap boxes of gently used toys – happy swapping!


Friday, December 10, 2010

It's gifts from the heart...and not the wallet...that count!

Have you been struggling with gift ideas for family and friends?  Have you been staring at the store displays, trying to figure out what to get Aunt Sally or Nephew Timmy?  It takes the fun out of the season, doesn't it, as you scramble to try to find something suitable for everyone on your list.  Especially in light of today's economy, we just don't need more stress.  I hate to admit it myself, but even I have gotten into letting it drag me down a bit, and for the first time this year, my one big change will be not sending out paper Christmas cards, except  maybe to our older relatives who do not do email or do anything else computer-related.  It's the thought that counts and not the money spent, so here are some ideas of how to spread the holiday wealth and cheer this season without digging too much in your pocketbook.

  • Take the time to create a beautiful holiday family website, where you update your family and friends on what you have been up to all year.  Upload photos and even video to share.  You can even add some Christmas music.  You can do all this for FREE, as there are many free webhosting sites out there, as well as free Christmas music to download and play.  Most website editors have the ability to add music, and you don't need any real know-how to put it together.  In the interest of family security, I never use our addresses, work information, real names (use nicknames) or anything too identifying.  It can be done.  Also be sure to put a guestbook on the bottom to encourage entries.  We use the same web address every year, so family and friends always know where to find us!
  • Those homemade mixes.  My local library is full of books that show you how to make the layered mixes for cookies, cakes, brownies and soups.  You can easily dress them up with ribbons, homemade tags and raffia.  I absolutely love getting them for Christmas and always save the recipe for later. 
  • Homemade Christmas ornaments that are unique to the person or family you are giving it to.  Is the person a teacher?  How about a family that lives on a farm?  Get some ornament ideas here.
  • Food.  Food can be more inexpensive than junk.  That's the great thing about being overseas.  My family loves getting a box of the different kinds of snacks, cookies and other goodies from Belgium and Germany.  At least you'll know good use will be made out of food instead of yet another gadget or piece of junk.  I used to collect old baskets from my local Goodwill throughout the year while we were in the US, just to make food baskets during the holidays.  Look, anything looks fantastic wrapped up in gift plastic wrap tied with a bow!
  • Photos.  Do you have a great photo of the person you are gifting?  Perhaps a photo of them doing their favorite thing or with their favorite person or animal?  You can make your own picture frame to go with it or purchase a nice inexpensive one.  I saw some really unique ones at IKEA recently.
  • Do you sew?  I still treasure the quilts, napkins and table runners I've gotten from friends who sew...amazing!  One quilt even has an appropriate poem for the season written on the back....something I will surely continue to treasure.
  • Do you bake?  I love to get plates of Christmas cookies and goodies from neighbors.  I hope my neighbor is reading this.
  • Holiday centerpieces.  Look, before you skip over this idea....I am artistically challenged when it comes to making stuff, and my house WAS full of centerpieces until I gave some away cause guests just had to have them!  Yes, I gave some away.  Get the kids to go out in the woods with you and collect chestnuts, pinecones, acorns...any kind of nuts, evergreenery and hard red berries.  Get an inexpensive cheap vase from the local dollar store.  Fill it up with this add more color and smell, add dried sliced oranges and cinnamon sticks.  Fill it level and then put a tea light in the middle of it....just beautiful and festive!  If you can't find enough stuff to fill the glass vase, then put a drinking glass, upside-down in the middle to take up some of the space, and fill around it and on the one will ever know!  You can also try your hand at evergreen wreath making.  Again, many sites out there to google. I cheated this year and did not make my own (I have a wire form where you can just pile on the branches)...but bought a very nice and inexpensive one at our local yearly German Christmas market on SHAPE put on by the German spouses every year.  Almost every nationality hosts a Christmas market in December...yet another benefit to being stationed with NATO:-)
  • A unique Christmas ornament from one of the many Christmas markets in the area.  A great thing about being overseas is that you can get some wonderfully nice ornaments for 1 to 2 euros each...I can guarantee your friends and family won't find these wonderful examples in the US.  Put them in a nice pretty recycled gift box and tie with a pretty bow.
  • Buy expensive chocolates in bulk and divy them up into individual packages to give away.  I went to the Neuhaus Chocolate Factory outlet, one of the top chocolates produced in the world but typically very expensive.  Go to the outlet outside of Brussels and buy a few bulk boxes.  Since there is only one type of chocolate per box, you are going to have to mix them up later to get some variety.  I bought inexpensive giftbags, made my own Neuhaus sticker on the computer and mixed and matched the different kinds of chocolates into the bags tied with pretty ribbons.  Those little Chinese food containers work great too instead of the bags.  Be sure to wrap the giftbags very well in bubblewrap before sending them through the mail!  Also include some Neuhaus Chocolate brochures as well to complete authenticating the experience!  If you are not here where I am, check your own area.  There are many gourmet food factories and their stores scattered throughout the US.  
  • A service or booklet of services.  This is something great for kids to give out.  They can color their booklet or homemade gift coupons to their liking, enhancing them with glitter and bubble gluepens....yarn or about 1 hour of yard work?  Or a 20 minute massage for mom?  Kids, there are lots of ideas out there, and this is one of my favorite gifts...I'm telling you this as a mom.  You can even give this to an elderly neighbor and make her feel like she is not always expecting your help or asking for it.
Do you have any lowcost gift ideas to share?  Also be sure to read some of my previous gift ideas on this blog.

    Please be sure to visit the Carnival of Personal Finance this week to read other great money-saving tips!


      Wednesday, December 8, 2010

      Cats and the Foil

      The stupid cat....sometimes I just want to strangle him.  I opened my wallocker today (yes, we get issued those ugly Army wallockers overseas), took out a shirt, and it was COVERED in litter.  Come to find out, the little rat has been sneaking in there...okay, so I left the door open a few times....and making himself a cozy nest!  Yuck!!!!!  It doesn't help that the litter box is only about 20 feet from there....I wondered why a few kernels of litter would always be on the floor just outside the I know why!!!!!!  After a week, I can now leave the door wide open, and he doesn't go in there at all....know how I trained him?

      First, a little about our cat.  He is messy.  He does his litterbox thing and goes out....there's the first tracking of litter....then he goes back in and scratches, scratches and then scratches some more....I swear sometimes he is in there for 3 or 4 minutes scratching!!!!  I notice he is doing this more and more often as he gets older...reminds me of an old man with bad, there goes the second track of litter, which is now so entrenched between his toes, that he leaves a longer-than-usual-trail.  Even though our special cat litter carpet catches a whole heckuva lot of's not enough, hence the trail.  You should see the obstacle course I set up, to make him walk the long way around the master bathtub...but that's fodder for another story.

      I have found that most cats detest aluminum foil.  Our cat will not go near it....and after some online research, neither will alot of other cats.  So, if your cat is misbehaving, or if you want to train him to stay off of something, put a layer of tinfoil down.  I had to do this in my kids' sock drawers, my husband's underwear drawer and on a little pretty endtable I didn't want him on.  Before long, with or without the foil, he stayed off, and I kind of forgot about it....til now.

      Now, my dad's a Siamese.  I think that says it all.  This loud and obnoxious cat (although sweet) will jump in a pan of water set out on a counter he is not supposed to jump onto.  Obviously, he jumps right on the aluminum foil too....and stare at you defiantly.  That may be a Siamese thing....I don't know.  So if you have a Siamese, this may not work.

      Give it a try, and let me know how it works out?  What other unusual products have you used to keep your pets away from something you don't want them on or in?


      Monday, December 6, 2010

      Cologne Christmas Markets do not disappoint (and other tips to visit)

      As I walked out the door of the main train station and looked up, the view of the Cathedral...just absolutely stops you in your tracks.  It has the distinction of having the largest facade of ANY cathedral in the world!  It is absolutely breathtaking!  It takes up your whole view!  Just beyond the steps, you can already see and smell the beginnings of the most famous and colorful Christmas market on the steps of the Dom (cathedral).  After I took in a huge whiff of roasted nuts, flammkuchen, glazed ham and even Brussels waffles, we made our way through the crowd, looking at all the booths of vendors, all neatly labeled with their wares lovingly displayed.  Only in Germany are things this organized!  We decided to do a one overnight trip to keep costs down and drove from Mons, Belgium, which is only 2-1/2 hours away in good weather.  Here's how we fared.

      I always use and in looking for lodging if I already don't have my own recommendations.  Even though I started looking two weeks out, the lodging close to downtown was overpriced (for my pocketbook), and I was also looking for a place where there would be cheap or free parking nearby...that narrowed the field considerably.  I decided to test out the four star Holiday Inn by Bonn/Koeln Airport.  I chose it because parking was included in the room rate, and the S-bahn (metro) station was only a 10 minute walk or 2 minute free shuttle ride from the hotel.  The hotel is right on the airport grounds and even offers special hotel rates where you can leave your car up to 15 days, so a great jumping-off point for your vacations that involve a flight.  Plus, there are lots of last minute and lowcost vacation packages leaving out of Cologne...and don't forget the lowcost carriers like German Wings.  Find these deals on or

      So, we arrived Saturday morning, just before lunch.  Since our room wouldn't be ready for another hour, I had already mapped out my favorite German superstore nearby, the REAL....allowing us to load up on German Christmas goodies and just great German shopping....can you tell I've been missing Germany?

      Once we settled into our room and changed into something warmer, we headed downtown.  One great thing about staying overnight, is that you get to really relax and enjoy the evening ambiance.  We made sure to do that, and I think we ate our way through at least every other stall at the Christmas markets, along with a visit to one of the more famous beer pubs in Cologne.  I say markets, because Cologne has SEVEN  Christmas markets.  We only made it to half of them in the two days....honestly, you do see a lot of repeats and the farther away you get from the Cathedral, the cheaper the items become.  But of course you knew that!  Same goes for souvenir shops and other such shopping.

      Also be sure to visit the tourist bureau, which you will see to your right, after exiting the train station on the cathedral side.  It is the modern building with the big red "i" on it.  All city and town tourist bureaus are marked the same way.  The advantage of going to the tourist bureau, is that you can find out about special events.  We picked up free brochures on special exhibits and museums, as well as one detailing the locations, hours and prices (a few were not free) of the Christmas markets.  City maps cost 20 Euro cents, but that was fine by was pretty detailed and also had the transit map included.  Tourist bureaus are also great for hotel reservations, IF you know ahead of time what price range you are willing to pay.  Some even track the local B&Bs.

      More on the hotel....the hotel restaurant was very fancy and expensive, so we didn't indulge, but the room service was very reasonable with the biggest burger I've EVER seen in my life and fries costing only 10 euro.

      All in all, a wonderful trip.  Since we were a few weeks early for the Cologne shopping Sundays, we window shopped on Sunday instead, enjoyed our morning in a local coffeehouse and then shopped at yet another Christmas market, which opened at noon.  I definitely recommend you take the time to head out to Cologne and enjoy.  FYI, if you are interested in crazy Karnival Season (like Mardi Gras in New Orleans and just as wild), make your lodging bookings NOW, before things fill up.  Of course, some of the lesser known Karneval events have already begun, but the BIG parade on Rose Monday is on 7 March 2011 this year.  Be sure to check out the latest Germany travel guide from your library and note the local must-see sights too before you go..the Chocolate Museum and Germanic-Roman Museum do come to mind.  Do you have any recommendations on Cologne?

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      Friday, December 3, 2010

      Supercheap Trainfares are BACK (Germany, Austria & Switzerland)!

      It looks like Lidl Germany is back at it again....supercheap train fares starting or ending in a German city for two adults (kids 14 and under go free, per adult)!  Now is your chance to take that train trip to Vienna or how about skiing in St. Moritz?  Or to see the beautiful Dresdener Frauenkirche (in Dresden of course) that was lovingly and painstakingly rebuilt just recently after its downfall from the fire bombing of many possibilities!  Even if you are not in Germany, you can still take advantage of this deal!  Read below for the scoop.

      Go to Lidl Germany's website for the details.  Be sure to use Google Translate to read the fine print, but in summary:

      • For two adults, one way, it costs a 79 euro flat rate (so if you are going back and forth, just double that)
      • Travel must be between 3 Jan and 31 Mar 2011
      • Children up to 14 can travel free, and not just parents but grandparents are covered too; just make sure you annotate them on your ticket
      • You can book these tickets on line through Lidl's website SHORTLY (the link is not up yet) or you can call the phone # on their website
      • You'll also get two seat reservation certificates
      Even if you are NOT in Germany, you can still take advantage.  For example, my Benelux readers, how about driving to Cologne (about 2-1/2 hours from SHAPE) and staying a night at the Holiday Inn at the Bonn/Cologne Airport with instant train connections?  They have these special 100 euro Park & Go rooms that allow you free use of their shuttle and the ability to leave your car there while you travel.  Be creative!  Look under my travel links for hotel deals or check this link which I use all the time for my travels.  Be sure to come back soon, as I am working on more European travel deals and advice, as well as a "behind the scenes" interview with a European tourguide.  I might as well pass on what I have learned, considering this may be our last overseas tour for awhile:-(


      Get your heartstrings tugged on NBC tonight

      I cannot attest to the quality of this TV movie, but if you feel like having a tug at your heartstrings this holiday season regarding a military family, be sure to check it out.

      Here is the blurb:

      On Friday, December 3, P&G and Walmart will release “A Walk in My Shoes,” the third collaboration in their Family Movie Night series.

      “A Walk in My Shoes” (airing on NBC) follows a military family who lost their Marine father/husband in Fallujah. Through the story, the audience is given a glimpse into the family’s life and learns that while extremely difficult, it’s their struggles and adversity that ultimately bring them closer together.

      The Family Movie Night concept are the direct result of P&G and Walmart listening to parents – particularly moms – who said they said they wanted more entertainment that the whole family can enjoy together.

      Here are the details:

      Title - “A Walk in My Shoes”
      Friday, December 3 at 8/7c on NBC

      Thanks, and if anyone wants to provide feedback after the show, please post it below!


      Wednesday, December 1, 2010

      Never say, "I'm Bored".....

      I used to entertain myself with a rock when I was little....and I'm not that old either.  Remember back in the 1970s and 1980s when we were kids (if applicable) when we played with whatever we could find and stayed out for hours running around in the neighborhood?  Then came Atari's Pong, and I still remember the delight in my eyes as my best friend and eye pinged and ponged back and forth on her black and white TV screen.  I think that was the beginning of the end in a way.  And now my kids tell me they're here's what I told them (and myself).

      I can honestly not remember myself being bored as a child....okay maybe as a teenager but not before.  So I asked myself why?  And why is it my kids were frequently plopping down wherever, releasing a big sigh...and here it comes out of their mouth....."I'm bored".  Why?  This is what I came up with...

    • Because we overschedule our kids so much these days with a few sports, music lessons, church groups, pottery class and everything in between.

    • Kids have all these activities handed to them on a platter that they never have to come up with anything on their own.

    • Here we are thinking we are encouraging creativity by all these wonderful things, when we are in fact hindering it to an extent.

    • We continue to feed this barrage of "instant activity" to our kids every year, like clockwork, all through their formative years.

    •  So what's my new strategy these days?

    • I say, "Good, be bored" and walk away and back to whatever I was doing.  Do this enough times, and they will stop saying "I'm bored" to you.

    • Another alternative, is to give them a chore to do whenever they say they're bored.  "Wonderful son, you asked just in time!  Please carry this laundry basket upstairs for me!"  After a few iterations of this, see how quickly can then find some activity on their own that will keep them entertained.

    • I also like to tell stories of what I did when I was little...the kids actually ask for this stuff at bedtime.  I am hoping that gives them ideas that will eventually blossom on their own.  That was confirmed last week when my 11 year old built a fortress for his Army men in the garden...made out of readily-available chestnuts and

    • Try it sometime (actually, more than need to make it repetitive and habit-forming) and see what happens.  Decide to drop at least one activity this year.  You'll also be amazed at the positive change in your child.  Please don't post below, and tell me what a genius your kid is now because you have developed their left or right brain....I am not saying to NOT expose them to different activities or with anything else, I am saying that life needs to be balanced.

      Do you have any thoughts on the subject?  Do you think you agree or disagree?  Or do you have another interesting idea?