Friday, November 16, 2018

Japan: impressions

We spent the last 3 weeks in Japan with our two daughters. As we adapt to our routines and the chilly weather that welcomed us, I wanted to take a moment to write about our trip, Mark's dream. He has been a fan of manga and anime for a very long time (still watches at any chance he gets) and that incited his curiosity for the country and its culture. On my end I have to admit I always felt a bit strongly towards their policies regarding whaling and overfishing in foreign waters and as such, though -the contradiction- I always loved the food, I had a certain reticence towards Japan.

Going to Japan was being in a constant state of fascination, everything was new, everything was different. It was like being a kid in a candy shop for the first time, or truly, like being inside one of those cartoons. It really is exactly as you see it depicted (and the food tastes just as good as it looks).

Contrary to what stereotypes may lead you to believe -we imagined the Japanese as quiet and reserved- the people were so open and welcoming it made us smile every time. Particularly in Osaka, which seemed a more family-centered city than Tokyo. We would walk around playgrounds or temples and it was palpable that the curiosity we felt towards them was mutual.

 I particularly remember a group of school-aged children sitting and playing some kind of card-game at a park , how they came towards my daughter, asked her her name, how old she was. Other mothers and old ladies in the train would constantly comment on how sweet our girls' were, exclaiming: "kawaii, kawaii". We thought the opposite, little boys and girls in uniforms with their matching hats and teenagers in sailor dresses were one of the main subjects I photographed.

Everything was cute. So overwhelmingly cute, from ads at the metro station, to milk and toothpaste packaging as well as billboards, there really is a cult of kawaii, cute innocence, according to some, as a reaction to the chaotic and often pessimistic state of life and the world, and the constant catastrophes (earthquakes, fires, wars) that Japan has had to endure. Basically kawaii would be the equivalent to that other k word, kitsch, as defined by Milan Kundera: "...the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being in a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch. … Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence."

And life really does seem hectic in Japan: we saw people, men and women alike, working long hours, sometimes leaving the office at 21:00 pm. However some things -like eating- are sacred and they really did take the time for a break. Scattered around the city there were eateries, high-end, low-cost and everything in between where people would eat sitting down in groups or alone (in little cabins).

But you would never see people walking around while eating.  Food is a pleasure and a moment of peace. Eating on the go is a big faux-pas, it is considered unpolite and just not done which is why even small shops of takeaway food had chairs and sometimes a couple of tables for that purpose.

We knew this but it still shocked us: the public transport system in Japan is large and complex.  It  is operated by several companies, train and subway lines, some that ride in circles. There are certain stations like Shinjuku where 2 million people circulate every day. Some of these stations had 8 levels underground and at each level you would find shops and restaurants. It was so easy to get lost, hard to find elevators or the nearest exit. Truly a labyrinth.  However what makes it somehow easier to navigate is the fact that each line has a letter and each station a number, it is easier to think in terms of "we're at C5 and going to C11" than trying to read Japanese. Also, if you have a good ear, each station is identifiable by its own melody. We did avoid to travel at peak hours, travelling with 2 small children, but the little that we saw was not more impressive than the subway of Mexico city.

The food really was delicious, exquisite, even from fast-food chains or takeaway convenience stores. It is exactly as you expect it from watching cartoon characters enjoying Udon or other delicacies. It is also rather affordable, fresh and high quality.  We could have a family picnic lunch made of Onigiri (filled rice-balls), Yakitori (marinated chicken skewers) and a sandwich for 7 EUR for the 4 of us. Fruit, however was extremely expensive. I remember trying to buy a small bunch of grapes for our girls for 15 EUR, which is crazy given that I buy double that amount for 3 EUR here in The Netherlands.  So we only got bananas and mandarins, which were still more expensive than what we are used to but not extremely so.

We loved going to parks and playgrounds, loved to see and interact with other families, and of course have our girls play and crawl a bit. Another remarkable thing is that most public toilets had this gadget where you could hang the baby while you used the facilities. There were separate nursing rooms complete with diaper changing stations at almost every shop and station.

An aspect of Japanese culture that fascinated me was a certain elegance that was almost spiritual, an importance of rituals and little details, of joy in tiny, little everyday things. We would see people at the end of their day picking up their bread at fancy bakeries, having it wrapped with the uttermost care.

 Or old ladies taking their time to pick cookies at a pastry shop, getting to try them while sipping a little cup of tea and then taking them home wrapped in beautiful paper and ribbon.

 There are of course all the things the Japanese are famous for: origami (it was the sweetest to see old men and ladies making origami to pass time at temples or at the airplane on our flight back), bathing at hot springs, the ceremony of tea, and all the details moms put into preparing Bento (lunch) boxes, for which all kind of gadgets are available.

The Japanese are also incredibly stylish, you can tell they pay importance to every aspect, and though the lines are simple and the colors neutral it all goes together for a very clean look: the girls would wear long A- line skirts with tights , sneakers and oversized sweaters. I thought I would go all out shopping there, but most of the clothes we saw were quite expensive, even those for children.

We stayed in Osaka and Tokyo, and made short day trips to Kyoto and Nara. I hope I get the time soon to write about our daily itineraries and all the things we saw in each place. Have you been in Japan? What impressed you the most?

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Reading again: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Oh, reading how much I miss you. I am such a cliché of motherhood, always running like a headless chicken, leaving a million little chores halfway through because someone started crying or fell down or needed attention and that is how I spend my days. So when I have some actual time I am also dead tired and I just either fall asleep or space out.

Anyhow, the other day I actually won a giveaway! The American Book center kindly raffled a signed copy of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (thank you!)  and I was so curious about it: the stories and descriptions of motherhood, of subversion, of disregard of the status quo.

The book sucked me right in. It took me less than 2 weeks to finish it, I don't know how I managed, I stole every little moment available. It is so good. So good, so good, so good. First of all the story takes place sometime at the end of the 1990's, the main characters are kids who were all born between 1980-1986 (like me) and are high-school students at the time the story takes place. So all the cultural references to music and political events that frame the events in the book: the president's scandal with an intern; music groups like Boyz II men, Alanis Morisette, Aerosmith; hints to what was in fashion are all things I grew up with. I feel so old writing this. I also loved the fact that the parents were part of the generation of the late 1960's, so there are slight mentions to the protests and fights of the time. That is a subject that has always fascinated and appealed to me, maybe because I did not actually live those days. Perhaps I look at them with a certain naïveté, but it seems to me that the youth's ideals back then were so transparent and pure, that they really believed in change, that a better world was possible and they were out to make it happen... unlike the somehow cynical attitudes of the young of today:  lost and perplexed after having seen socialism fail and simultaneously experiencing the ravages of imperialism, capitalism, extreme neo-liberalism. Defeated? Resigned?

Then there is also one of the main themes of the book, so painful, so close:  motherhood and who deserves it and why. And is it even a matter of deserving?

So here are, at random, some of my favorite parts.

-When Elena Richardson describes her experiences of having a very early premature baby. It brought it all back in words I could never have put together myself:

"Despite these precautions, Izzy had arrived precipitously soon thereafter, making her appearance -eleven weeks early- an hour after her mother arrived at the hospital. Mrs. Richardson would remember the next few months only as a vague, terrifying haze. Of the logistical details, she remembered only a little. She remembered Izzy curled in a glass box, a net of purple veins under salmon-colored skin. She remembered watching her youngest through the portholes in the incubator, nearly pressing her nose to the glass to be sure Izzy was still breathing. She remembered shuttling back and forth between home and the hospital, whenever she could leave her oldest three in the capable hands of the housekeeper -nap time, lunchtime, an hour here and there- and when the nurses allowed it, cradling Izzy against her: first in her two cupped hands, then in the hollow between her breasts, and finally -as Izzy grew stronger and filled out and began to look more like a baby- in her arms.

For Izzy did grow, despite her early start, she displayed a tenacity of will that even the doctors remarked upon. She tugged at her IV; she uprooted her feeding tube. When the nurses came to change her, she kicked her thumb-sized feet and hollered so loudly the babies in nearby incubators woke and joined in. "Nothing wrong with her lungs", the doctors told the Richardsons, though they warned a host of other problems that might arise: jaundice, anemia, vision issues, hearing loss. Mental retardation. Heart defects. Seizures. Cerebral palsy. When Izzy finally came home -two weeks after her scheduled due date- this list would be one of the few things Mrs. Richardson would recall about her time in the hospital. A list of things she would scan Izzy for over the next decade: Did Izzy simply not notice things, or was she going blind? Was she ignoring her mother out of stubbornness, or was she going deaf? Was her skin looking a bit yellow? Was she looking a bit pale? If Izzy's hand, reaching to add a stacking ring to her toy, fumbled, Mrs Richardson found herself clutching the arms of her chair. Was it a tremor, or just a child learning the complicated business of managing her own fingers?

Everything Mrs. Richardson had put out of her mind from the hospital stay -everything she thought she'd forgotten- her body remembered on a cellular level: the rush of anxiety, the fear that permeated her thoughts of Izzy. The microscopic focus on each thing Izzy did, turning it this way and that, scrutinizing it for signs of weakness of disaster. Was she just a poor speller, or was this a sign of mental impairment? Was her handwriting just messy, was she just bad at arithmetic, were her temper tantrums normal, or was it something worse? As time went on, the concern unhooked itself from the fear and took on a life of its own. She had learned, with Izzy's birth, how your life could trudle along on its safe little track and then, with no warning, skid spectacularly off course." ANGER IS FEAR'S BODYGUARD, a poster in the hospital had read, nut MRs Richardson had never noticed it".

-Also, this description of parenthood:

"To a parent, your child wasn't just a person: your child was a place,a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. You could see it every time you looked at her: layered in her face was the baby she'd been and the child she'd become and the adult she would grow up to be, and you saw them all simultaneously, like a 3-D image. It made your head spin. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it,each time  your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be ale to return to that place again."

-Then this part:

"But three generations of Shaker reverence for order and rules and decorum would stay with Elena, too, and she would never quite be able to bring those two ideas into balance. In 1968, at fifteen, she turned on the television and watched chaos flaring up across the country like brush fires. Martin Luther King, Jr., then Bobby Kennedy. Students in revolt at Columbia. Riots in Chicago, Memphis, Baltimore, D.C. -everywhere, everywhere, things were falling apart. Deep inside her a spark kindled, a spark that would flare in Izzy years later. Of course she understood why this was happening: they were fighting to right injustices. But part of her shuddered at the scenes on the television screen. Grainy scenes, but no less terrifying: grocery stores ablaze, smoke billowing from their rooftops, walls gnawed to studs by flame. The jagged edges of smashed windows like fangs in the night. Soldiers marching with rifles past drugstores and Laundromats. Jeeps blocking intersections under dead traffic lights. Did you have to burn down the old to make way for the new? The carpet at her feet was soft. The sofa beneath her was patterned with roses. Outside, a mourning dove cooed from the bird feeder and a Cadillac glided to a dignified stop at the corner. She wondered which was the real world. 

The following spring, when antiwar protests broke out, she did not get in her car and drive to join them. She wrote impassioned letters to the editor; she signed petitions to end the draft. She stitched a peace sign onto her knapsack. She wove flowers into her hair. 

It was not that she was afraid. It was simply that Shaker Heights, despite its idealism, was a pragmatic place, and she did not know how to be anything else. A lifetime of practical and comfortable considerations settled atop the spark inside her like a thick, heavy blanket. If she ran off to Washington to join the protests, where would she sleep? How would she stay safe? What would become of her classes, would she be expelled, could she still graduate and go to college? The spring of their senior year, Jamie Reynolds had pulled her aside after history class one day. "I'm dropping out", he said. "Going to California. Come with me." She had adored Jamie since the seventh grade, when he had admired a sonnet she'd written for English. Now, at almost eighteen, he had long hair and a shaggy beard, a dislike for authority, a VW van in which, he said, they could live. "Like camping out", he'd said, "except we can go anywhere," and she had wanted so badly to go with him, anywhere, to kiss that crooked, bashful smile. But how would they pay for food, where would they do their laundry, where would they bathe? What would her parents say? The neighbors, her teachers, her friends? She'd kissed Jamie on the cheek and cried when, at last, he was out of sight.  (...)She had no regrets, she told herself. She'd been crazy to have considered it even for a moment. (...) All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame:; a reminder of light and goodness that would never -could never- set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. This philosophy had carried her through life. Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn't you might burn the world to the ground."

And this excerpt in Mia and Mrs. Richardsons final conversation:

"It bothers you doesn't it?"  Mia said suddenly. " I think you can't imagine. Why anyone would choose a different life from the one you've got. Why anyone might want something other than a big house with a big lawn, a fancy car, a job in an office. Why anyone would choose anything different than what you'd choose": Mow it was her turn to study Mrs. Richardson, as if the key to understanding her were coded into her face. "It terrifies you. That you missed out on something. That you gave up something you didn't know you wanted". A sharp, pitying smile pinched up the corners of her lips. "What was it? Was it a boy? Was it a vocation? Or was it a whole life?"

Have you read the book, did you like it? Which were your favorite parts?

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Breastfeeding clothes I love

I breastfed my first daughter but our start was so hectic and chaotic with her premature birth that I did not even have my breastfeeding bras ready when she was born. I started using triangle bikini tops and slowly I got used to breastfeeding in public by wearing a tank top and whatever blouse I wanted to wear on top. I did the same tank top trick with regular dresses by wearing shorts underneath. It never even occurred to me to stop and look for specific clothes for breastfeeding eventhough I breastfed her for almost 2 years (the last months  mostly at night).

This time around a very close friend told me -when I was about 36 weeks pregnant- she had a bag full of pregnancy summer dresses and breastfeeding tops she could give me. It was like a whole world of magic opened up in that plastic bag.

 Turns out you can breastfeed discreetly and pretty  much hassle-free with cute and properly designed clothes (that basically have a small opening for the breast and nothing else, so people can barely even notice you are breastfeeding). With this information and knowing I would be breastfeeding for a while I decided to research and invest in some blouses (and a dress or two) and it has totally been worth it. I thought I would share my finds

I really like the selection from ASOS nursing. It is not crazy expensive and they have some pretty fun and modern models, particularly for tops and t-shirts.

 Seraphine also has a nursing selection. They are pretty pricey, but the clothes have very good design, high quality and last a long time. For me it has been worth it and my absolutely favorite top (this coral blouse that I want to get to everyone as soon as they have a baby) is made by them, I am just slightly sad that the blue and white print they used to have it in is sold out.

 I got a red and white striped pregnancy/nursing summer dress (that turned out to be too short for me, but I am tall) and a white and navy dress that I used for Lai's baptism and I will be reusing for a wedding later this year.

BOOB design has a more casual and sporty vibe. I got a sky blue sweatshirt, it has a very soft flannel inside at the chest level. It is perfect for travel and comfy days at home. They also have sweaters and dresses that I still want to try!

Another brand that I like is Milker nursing, I really like their dresses, maybe I will be getting another one soon. I have not tried Latched mama but I also like their clothes and they seem to be properly made. Last but not least I have 2 or 3 basic nursing tops from H&M, the classic navy striped ones. They are ok, I have been wearing them a lot for everyday use.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Brussels: my favorite shops

We've been going to Brussels for day trips almost every year for the last 4 or 5 years. It is the perfect destination for a short day outside of The Netherlands and the instant feeling that you are on a holiday at a different country. From walking the city over and over again we have a few spots that we keep coming back to as well as some others that are new finds. So I thought I'd make a list of my favorite little shops in Brussels:

- Let's start with the most important thing, namely, chocolate! We found the quaintest little shop, with boxes reminiscent of the time of Marie Antoinette. The chocolate is still made in an artisanal way. You will find them right in front of Manneken Pis. It's called "Mary". My favorite is their dark chocolate infused in Earl Grey Tea, I think it's called a Windsor. (28b Rue du Lombard, 1000 Brussels)

-Another favorite is "The Grasshoper". This is a dream of a toyshop. It is a two-story beautiful building and you can find every type of toy for all ages: puzzles, play kitchens, wooden toys, scientific toys and so much more. They also have a small section on clothes, disguises and cutlery / water bottles / lunchboxes. (Grasmarkt 39-43, 1000 Brussels)

- My personal heaven though is "Le Wolf", a children-bookshop with a café and cultural center. It is the cutest place ever, you can even have tea at little red riding hood's kitchen. They have a jukebox or children illustrated stories . It is a little house, perfect for children, where an off voice narrates the story. I wrote a whole post on them in Serendipity  (a new space where I write in Spanish about children's books). You will find them right around the Grand Place 18/20 rue de la Violette, 1000 Brussels.

- Then, my most recent find: "Mofelito Paperito"a shop entirely dedicated to paper goods, cards and stationery, with a couple of books as well. They had cards, cardstock, papers, pencils. We got a fill-in calendar made of recycled poster material and I am still dreaming of an illustrated edition of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales that I saw and didn't get. (Spoormakersstraat - Rue des Eperonniers 19, 1000 Brussels)

-Last but not least, "Aux merveilleux de Fred". A merveilleux is basically a giant sandwich made of meringue, filled with whipped cream and topped in chocolate or other toppings (like crushed cherries, pistacchio nuts, etc). We first encountered a merveilleux in Lille, they are the boy's favorite. Now at least they make them in small bite sizes. (Grasmarkt Straat 7, 1000 Brussel, België)

-We also love to go to the shopping mall City 2 (Nieuwstraat 123, 1000 Brussel). They used to have a Mothercare, the only one in the continent,  but I am not quite sure it is still there. If so, you will find everything related to babies at good prices and great quality. There is also a FNAC. We always go and wander inside for fun, so many books, gadgets, a place where you can still listen to music. In the shopping streets around there are other shops I love Du pareil au même and Kickers.

Are there any shops that you like to visit when you travel?
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