Monday, August 25, 2014

Photography Fail: Passport Photos

To apply for Stella's American citizenship (more on that soon!) one of the items we needed was an American-sized passport photo. This is no easy feat with a 4-week-old baby who can't sit up on her own and doesn't keep her eyes open for long.

It was no easier when we did it with Leo at three weeks, which I write about in hilarious (if I do say so myself) detail in Confessions of a Paris Potty Trainer.

Passport Photos: Leo
See the puppet strings holding Leo up? Thank you, Photoshop.
"Her eyes must be open," the photographer said, "so that she's recognizable."

Even though I think Stella's the prettiest baby in the world, I have to admit that at 4 weeks she still just looked like a baby. Is there really that much difference? And if so, is the difference really in the eyes? Furthermore, the passport is valid until she's five (not that I'm complaining - I certainly don't want to deal with renewing it any sooner than that). Don't you think there's more difference between a 1-month-old and a 5-year-old than a one-month-old with their eyes open and one with their eyes closed?

"Prop her head up, then shout her name to get her to open her eyes," the photographer suggested.

Passport Photo Shoot: Propping up the baby
Maybe if I wasn't doing The Robot I could help position my daughter better for the photo.
No dice. Sweat dripped from every pore as we tried every possible trick under the intense studio lights.

Passport Photo Shoot: I'm the photographer
I really should get paid for this.
In the end, the photographer held Stella and had me take the photos. "Snap the photo every time she opens her eyes," he shouted across the studio.

Passport Photos: Stella
You're cutting into my beauty sleep, guys. Can we speed this up?
We finally got the shot. Not too bad, huh?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Visa Renewal: A Timeline

Hello, my name is Vicki and I survived another yearly visa renewal. Barely.

Visa Renewal: A Timeline

November 14, 2013: Call to make visa appointment (3 months before expiration, as instructed). Given an appointment date of April 11, 2014 and told I should have made appointment 5 months in advance. What good does it do to tell me NOW?

January 31, 2014: Go into pre-term labor and get put on bed rest until baby is born. Due May 20th so either I'm going to miss my visa renewal appointment or my baby's going to be a preemie. Can't win.

February 3, 2014: Call to reschedule appointment, hedging my bets that the baby won't be born yet and wanting to get a new appointment date as soon as possible.

"Honey, we can't change it. Just call us the day after you miss your appointment and we'll reschedule."
"Even though I'm 99% sure I'm going to miss the appointment?"

February 14, 2014: Current visa expires. Secret fact: As long as you have a piece of paper showing your renewal appointment date, then your current visa is still valid. The French have a built-in back-up plan, quelle surprise.

April 14, 2014: Call to reschedule missed appointment. Get new appointment for June 5.

May 4, 2014: Give birth to a healthy baby girl. Bed rest paid off! But now I have to deal with all HER paperwork, too.

June 5, 2014: Go to appointment. Now that I'm changing my visa status to be based on my marriage status as opposed to my long-stay tourist visa (which I had for 5 years/suffered through 4 renewals) or my work visa (which I had for 3 years/suffered through 2 renewals), I get to go to the Special Room For People We Don't Hate, which has much better lighting and slightly less grumpy employees. Visa gets approved. Now just need to wait for processing.

August 6, 2014: Pick up visa. Walk out of the Prefecture with a smile on my face. Done for another year! Look down at card and see the blasted thing expires February 14, 2015.

September 14, 2014: I need to call to make my renewal appointment.

So that means for one glorious month out of the whole year I don't have to think about this stupid visa. Pop open the champagne.

I go into even more detail about this in my book, Confessions of a Paris Potty Trainer. If you haven't beaten your head against a wall reading this blog post, then you will after you read that chapter!

Who wants to commiserate? Have any bureaucratic horror stories of your own?

Monday, August 18, 2014

School Photos: France vs. US

You know how the French have a reputation for being chic, always managing to look just a little more put-together than Americans?

While you'll see snappily-dressed Americans and can occasionally spot a dumpy French person, I do find the stereotype to be true overall. A simple shirt and jeans is dressed up with a casually-strewn scarf that I would never be able to pull off.

Even the kids wear designer duds; a 2-year-old at the creche was wearing DKNY jeans the other day.

So I thought it'd be fun to show you some school photos as proof:

School Photos: Leo at the creche
"Hey, ladies," my French-American son says, as he leans back on the couch.
The long-stem roses and champagne on ice are off-camera, and Marvin Gaye is setting the mood from the kiddie CD player.

School Photos: Mika, Adeline, and the Jaunty French Beret
My husband, his sister, and a jaunty French beret.
No need to put a date on this photo, the sweaters are a dead giveaway. Even in France, the 80's were hard on the eyes.

School Photos: Stephen and the Electric Socket
My brother after sticking his finger in an electric socket.
School Photos: Vicki in 4th Grade
I didn't own a brush in 1989.
I loved this dress more than one should, not that you can tell by my smirky expression.

School Photos: Vicki in 6th Grade
These sleeves don't quit. Seriously, you'll have to fire them.
It's hard to say what I like best about this photo. The irony that I'm virtually swimming in my "DIVE: Bahamas" t-shirt? Shorts that should really be called "longs", considering they start at the belly button and end at the knee? The pose that says, "What? I always stand like this."

No, it's definitely the Columbus Day themed background. Who knew it was a photo-snapping holiday? "I want to remember Columbus Day 1991 forever. I know just the outfit. Fingers crossed it's Surprise School Photo Day!"

So, who came out on top? The French or the Americans? Hint: It's the Columbus Day photo for the win!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Say "Fromage", Bebe: Newborn Photos

Ever wonder how to get those awesome newborn photos you see on Pinterest? Well, you can hire someone to come to your house during your baby's first few weeks, because if there's one thing new parents have loads of, it's time and money.

Newborn Photo Tips: Tips for an easy newborn photo shoot

Or, more realistically, you can take them yourself! We missed out on that with Leo since he was in the NICU his first 11 days of life and by the time we got him home, a pro photo shoot was the last thing on our minds. In fact, "get more sleep" and "oh my god will my baby please stop crying" were just about the only things on my mind.

So we had newborn photos that looked like this:

Newborn Photos: Leo in the NICU
Our first snuggle

He will always be the cutest boy in the world to me, tubes and all. These photos represent the reality of our experience and those are the memories I want to have.

With Stella, I was hoping for those snazzy newborn photos. As I was stuck on bed rest until she was born, I had plenty of time to learn how to take quality newborn photos without ending up as a Pinterest fail. I found this awesome newborn photo tutorial and planned my shoot.

Newborn Photo Shoot Set Up

First, the set-up. At the end of my 8th month of pregnancy I was finally allowed to move around a bit. I devised this backdrop made of two dining room chairs, my son's play table, a neutral-colored blanket, and a Boppy underneath. It faced the window and I planned to take the photos in the early morning light, with the light behind me.

Newborn Photos: Set-up for a home photo shoot
Fancy, no?

I tried different poses with a stuffed animal, checked the backdrop, and made sure my camera was on the right settings. It was important to prepare because once you have a living, breathing, crying baby to work with, you only have a few minutes available for the actual shoot.

Newborn Photos: Practice poses with a stuffed animal
Almost as cute as my baby!

Newborn Photo Shoot

On the day of the shoot, I waited until Stella was fed and calm and dressed her in a neutral outfit. I snapped literally 100 photos so that at least one would turn out. Here's one of the best (unedited):

Newborn Photos: Unedited photo from photo shoot
Dreaming of eating and sleeping, her two favorites

Then of course her big brother wanted in on the action:

Newborn Photos: Her big brother wanted in on the photo fun
"Wanna grab a bottle when this is over?"

Photo Finishing

Now that I'd taken the photos, time for editing (I used PicMonkey). Here's what I did:
1. Cropped so that Stella was large and in charge
2. Enhanced the exposure using the auto-adjust feature
3. Focal soften, with a circle the size of her head, making the rest of the photo blurry

Here's the result:

Newborn photos: The finished photo

And now my pretty baby hangs above the couch with the rest of the family:

Newborn Photos: Final photo hanging on our wall

I ordered the canvas from since I live in France, but you can find equally awesome customizable canvases from Shutterfly. I get compliments on these prints all the time but the best part is how much my kids love them. Leo constantly points at them and names each person, and even baby Stella seems in awe of the pretty babies on the wall. My kids are clearly narcissists. I wonder where they get that from.

So there you have it. If you want an inexpensive way to take nice photos of your bundle of joy without having to leave the house, it's more doable than you think. If you try it, let me know!

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Itsy Bitsy Bar Fight

For some crazy reason, we decided to go on a family vacation to Belgium with a 2-year-old and a 3-month-old and the grandparents. Oh yeah, I know the reason - the grandparents paid. So I should be grateful (and I am) but holy smokeballs it was the furthest thing from relaxing.

Trip to Belgium: Leo the troublemaker
This guy looks innocent but he's only worn out from causing so much trouble on the drive up.
Us city-dwellers don't often drive so we didn't even think about our toddler opening the door on the highway. So when he OPENED THE DOOR ON THE HIGHWAY we were like "Holy crap, he just opened the door on the highway!"

I managed to close said door from the front seat, then held the handle as I frantically flipped through the 5,000 page manual (still shorter than a Game of Thrones novel, natch) to figure out a) why the locks didn't work and b) how to set up the child safety locks.

Apparently the locks only work from the outside. Useful in preventing car jackings along dangerous Flemish highways. Except... newsflash: the only dangerous thing on Flemish highways is us and our car door.

When I finally found the child lock info, I memorized it before Mika pulled over to a dangerously narrow shoulder. I put the child lock in place and tested one, two, three times, then we were on our way.

Leo continued to pull the handle the rest of the trip.

We eventually arrived in the cute little town of Jabbeke, where we were staying. Well, actually, we stayed at a campsite just past the town. But I'm no camper so we stayed in the ritzy district of the campground, in a 3-bedroom mobile home with running water, a kitchen, and crappy wifi.

Trip to Belgium: Mobile home at our campsite
Home Sweet Mobile Home
And spiders. A whole lot of spiders. I only spotted three inside the mobile home but I lost count at eleventy billion just outside. You'd throw open the curtains in the morning, singing "What a beautiful morning!" and stop short when you saw a spider peering at you through the glass.

Trip to Belgium: Spiders at our campsite
To help you visualize the scene, I've marked where all the spiders were. I might have missed one.
"Oh, don't mind me!" the spider would say. "I'm just sitting here with EIGHT legs in my creepy ass web that I spun last night while you were sleeping. You're not actually afraid of me, are you, wimp? What if I move this leg right here a little bit? Like this? *wiggle, wiggle* Does that do it? MWAHAHAHAHA!"

We checked out the beach towns of Knokke, De Haan, and Oostende. Knokke is known for their storks. Thankfully we didn't see any because I don't need any more kids - I have my hands full enough with my two poop machines, thankyouverymuch.

Trip to Belgium: Family photo on the beach
Me, Mika, Poop Machine #1, and the top of Poop Machine #2's head
It was just my kind of beach vacation - slightly overcast and a tad too chilly to actually swim. Which means no swimsuits and minimal sunscreen (as in, only putting sunscreen on twice per day instead of 47 times). Par-TAY!

Trip to Belgium: Beach library
How cool is this - they have a free library on the beach!
I want to live in this library. Not only is it in a prime location but it's about twice the size of my apartment.

Trip to Belgium: Leo loved "La Mer"
Leo, the French romantic, bidding adieu to "la mer".

Trip to Belgium: Selfies at the bar
My daughter and I love selfies.
We snapped this purdy portrait on the bar patio, which was not only my favorite spot on vacation but the site of a bar fight. Because nothing says classy like getting in a bar fight at a campground.

The best part? The fight was between two ladies! Or I guess I should say "women" because there was nothing ladylike about them.

After the fight got broken up, the smaller, scrappier of the two headed to the bathroom, which was just past where we were sitting. She saw Stella and just had to stop and tell her how cute she was. At least I'm pretty sure that's what she said. I'm rusty on my drunken Flemish, but it went a little something like "Flurgety burgety floogen flop" while she pinched Stella's cheeks. Unless she said "I know a chipmunk who looks just like you!"

Trip to Belgium: Day trip to Gent
The gorgeous city of Gent.
Next stop: Gent. You might notice the old buildings and their beautiful reflection in the water. Or if you're my son, you'll notice the trash truck. He is OBSESSED with trash trucks. His eyes lit up when he saw this one, in an expression that said "They have trash trucks HERE too? Best vacation ever!"

Trip to Belgium: Castle in Gent
Note to self: don't let hubby take a picture of me in front of the castle from the ground - makes me look as tall as the fortress and three times as wide. I'm really only twice as wide.
By the end of the week, the wifi was still crappy but I'd finally gotten in the groove of feeding, bathing, and putting my children to sleep in a place other than our own house. Just in time to head back home.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Very Hungry Zombie vs. The Very Hungry Caterpillar

I love zombies like zombies love brains. (Side note: that sentence is almost a palindrome!) Knowing this, my loving husband bought me The Very Hungry Zombie: A Parody as a Valentine's Day gift. Major points to him, especially since it means he reads my blog (he went off-list but still stuck with the theme, bless him).

The book is as great as I expected it to be, but not quite as great as the original it parodies, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Check out my Zombie vs. Caterpillar face-off over at The Steadfast Reader. Then stick around on her blog to read more of her book reviews, musings, and hilarious guest posts.

(And if you still need a zombie fix after all that, check out these posts.)

Update: Jon Apple, illustrator for The Very Hungry Zombie, and Mike Teitelbaum, author, left a comment on my review on The Steadfast Reader with THE WORLD'S BEST ILLUSTRATION OF A FRENCH ZOMBIE. Sorry for shouting, I'm just so excited! I'm printing it and framing it and putting it on my desk. Check it out:

Monday, August 4, 2014

Life Lessons at the Laundromat

In college, I held at least two jobs at pretty much any given time. How else would I finance my trips to Europe?

At one point I worked as a substitute teacher (that's a topic for several other posts), a grader for Math 101, and at the local laundromat. I would often double up and grade math papers while I was working at the laundromat, leaving more time for drinking studying.

When I wasn't putting gold stars and "Way to go, Tiger" (our mascot was the tiger, and I'm REALLY cool) on students' papers, I was learning some very important life lessons at the laundromat.

1. If someone has a hook for a hand, don't act like you recognize them because of the hook.

This guy with a hook would come in every Sunday and I'd politely greet him and we'd maybe chat a bit, or he'd read a magazine at the bar while I served him stale coffee. We were definitely not friends or even aquaintances but we were friendly. When I ran into him at the gas station I was like "Hey, how are you?" and then realized I'd only recognized him because of his hook. To him, I was just another college girl so he couldn't place me at first.

Long. Awkward. Pause.

Avoiding looking at the hook, I tried to act casual. "Um, yeah, so I guess I'll see you Sunday at the laundromat?" I said, my face turning bright red.

His face lit up with recognition. "Oh yeah! Sure."

Crisis averted. But in the future, I remembered to never recognize someone by their hook. It's come in handy (ha, see what I did there?) exactly zero times since. Still, I'm prepared.

2-8. Not so quick there, killa! Head over to BLUNTmoms to read the rest of this fabulous post! Because believe it or not, there are SEVEN more things I learned from my days at the laundromat...

Article on BLUNTmoms

What about you? What laundry-related words of wisdom do you have to share?