The Longest Birthday

As a rule we try not to travel over major holidays and birthdays. With six people in our family, we always seem to be carrying a lot of stuff with us, even though we have rules to keep our luggage light. Everyone gets one carry-on bag. Each child has their own, unique, rolling bag from the Disney Store. They are bright and colorful so there is less chance of mistaken luggage. Each adult has one travel backpack. We designed these family travel rules to maximize our mobility, and to teach our children responsibility for their own belongings while traveling.

It is in part because of our desire to travel light that we don’t want to travel over Christmas Day or one of the children’s birthdays. We don’t want to have to bring extra things with us for the holiday/birthday, only to take them back home again.

Last year, we decided to travel to France during the winter break. We left the day after Christmas, and returned on January 6th. Schedules both with school and my husband’s job dictated in part our travel dates. The only problem? January 6th is our oldest daughter’s birthday.

We came up with a plan that would uniquely celebrate her birthday and minimize how long we would have to carry a birthday present around. Flying to Europe, we take a long flight to Heathrow, and then a shorter flight to our final destination. Our flight flies into Terminal 5 in Heathrow, where there is a delightful toy store. Our children are always begging us to buy them toys from there. As we passed through Heathrow on our way to Paris, we told our daughter that since we would be flying home through Heathrow, on her birthday she could pick out a toy from this toy store. We tried to create extra enthusiasm for this plan by telling her how special this birthday was. Because we were traveling west, her birthday would be the longest birthday ever! We thought we were brilliant. And bonus, we combined a lesson about planetary motion with our birthday plan! All during our trip, we tried to build excitement for her. She would have the longest birthday ever!

She was excited to have the longest birthday ever. She still thinks it is cool and special that her birthday lasted for about 36 hours instead of the traditional 24. The rest of our plan, however, did not go so smoothly.

It is true that on the way to Paris we traveled through Terminal 5. Unlike previous trips, however, we did not return through Terminal 5. We returned through Terminal 3. Now, Terminal 3 is a very nice terminal. We ate a delicious brunch. We perused a branch of Harrod’s. There was a kids’ area for them to play and get their squiggles out. The problem? There was no toy store. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Our plan was ruined! What could we do?

As luck would have it, there was a book store with a decent children’s section. While in France, none of our hotels offered the Disney Channel with shows our children are used to watching while we travel. Instead, our children discovered Ninjago. The book store had a book about the characters of Ninjago. So our daughter chose this book to be her birthday present. And she loved it. She still loves Ninjago. In fact, we made a special trip to Legoland when Ninjago World opened.

These are the lessons I take away from this experience:

  • It is a good idea to avoid travel on birthdays
  • If you must travel on a birthday, bring a small, suitable present with you
  • Do NOT rely on airport shops to buy a present
  • Having a longer birthday because of time changes is really cool for children (and adults)
  • You can never prepare for every situation, so be adaptable
  • Teach your children to be adaptable

What are your experiences traveling on a birthday or holiday?

 

 

The Puppy the Children Loved

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Our children love puppies. We have two small, white fluffy balls of love at home named Sophia and Garibaldi. The children miss them terribly when we travel. We take them to a “doggy hotel” whenever we leave town. I think our children secretly wish they could come with us when we travel.

Outside of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao stands this 43 foot tall puppy with flowers in all colors of the rainbow sprouting out all over it. It turns out the children of Bilbao loved this puppy, and didn’t want the puppy to leave them. This sculpture by Jeff Koons was supposed to be a temporary exhibit installed for the opening of the Guggenheim in 1997. I don’t know how long it was supposed to remain, but it was saved from demolition by the schoolchildren of Bilbao. They mounted a letter-writing campaign to keep the giant flower-sprouting puppy at the Guggenheim. I’m glad. It stands as an example of the voices of children being heard and positively affecting the world around them. This is a story I share with my children so they can have an example of the power they can wield. And I find joy in the commonalities we share all around the world. In this case, the love of puppies.

Through the Memory of a Child

I was sitting in church next to my oldest daughter, now 8, when she leans over to me and says,”Mama, I want to go back to that one museum.” As a family, we visit a lot of museums. I had no idea which one she wanted to visit. So I asked her, “Where did we visit the museum you want to see again?” She said, “I think it was in Spain.” Great. That narrowed it down to about 10 different museums in about 5 different cities. I needed more information. “What was in that museum that you want to see again?”

She then went on to describe the experience of walking through something shaped kind of like a ship, where the walls moved in and out, and it made you feel a little dizzy and a little sick. I thought about it, racking my brain for some kind of connection to her description. And then suddenly it clicked.

On our trip to Spain about a year and a half ago, we went to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. This museum is worth the trip just for the building itself, but installed on the main floor as a permanent exhibition is Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time”. Several giant metal structures with wavy walls, some based in elliptical shapes, dominate the massive space of the gallery. It was designed as an experiential exhibit, allowing patrons to walk through each of the sculptures. I had never heard of this exhibit before, and I was a little intrigued. There was a sign warning people that walking through the structures could cause nausea and disorientation. That made me skeptical. Really? I didn’t believe that part. But I like to try new things, and so we walked through each of the structures in the gallery.

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The Guggenheim of Bilbao

Guess what? The experience of walking through curving structures where the walls lie at angles, sometimes seeming to close in on you above, sometimes narrowing beneath, sometimes seeming to lie parallel along an angular plain, really does affect how we experience space and time. Even while trying to maintain a regular pace, at times it felt like I was walking faster and at times slower. Our babysitter started feeling nauseous (poor girl) and had to sit down for a while. My skepticism melted away, and I felt in awe of how this sculpture affected my experience of space and time.

But I didn’t realize that it had profoundly affected my child as well. Almost two years later and without any inquiry on my part, she begged to go back and experience this art again. Sometimes traveling with children there are days that are tiring and difficult. Sometimes I wonder what they are taking away from all of these museums and architectural wonders, food and historical places, that we drag them to. These moments when I realize that our travels shape the way our children and experience and understand the world around them, makes all of it worth it. Someday, my darling, we’ll go back and visit the Guggenheim again.

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Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time” courtesy of http://www.guggenheim.org 

When the Weather Doesn’t Cooperate

Our third and final beach day in Santander, the temperature dropped by at least 20 degrees. It was dismal and rainy, and much too cold to spend at the beach. We were all disappointed to miss out on a day playing in the surf and sand. We decided to take a taxi out to see one of the lighthouses.

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We asked our taxi drivers to drop us off, but it was so cold and rainy they insisted on waiting for us. They told us to go take a few pictures, and then they would take us somewhere else. The taxi drivers in Spain that we encountered are the nicest collective group of taxi drivers that I have ever encountered. They were friendly and helpful, which was a huge bonus when traveling around with so many little ones. I wish I spoke more Spanish. It would have been pleasant to speak with them a little more.

We got out of the taxi and took some pictures of the lighthouse and the coastline.

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The northern provinces of Spain are green and rainy. We met an Irish couple in the previous town who told us it looks just like Ireland. Celtic culture is a part of the history of northern Spain as well. We saw Celtic symbols in some of the old churches we saw. The people also play bagpipes.

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Even though I was cold, I was so glad we had a chance to see this cliffs overlooking the ocean. I love the ocean in stormy weather!

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After we were finished enjoying the view and taking some pictures, our taxi drivers kindly suggested that we go to El Corte Ingles. El Corte Ingles is a large department store in Spain, similar to Macy’s, but also like a mini mall. It was a great place to spend a rainy day. The children had a great time checking out the toys, and playing in the play area. We ate at Burger King, which had Lalaloopsy Toys as part of the kids meals. My girls learned to love Lalaloopsy on this trip. It’s a children’s show that has dolls with button eyes as the main characters. I found the Lalaloopsy characters to be somewhat creepy, and my kids thought that was hilarious. There was a grocery store where we picked up some needed snack items and toiletries. My husband was even able to go to the doctor while there. He had developed strep throat on our trip. Thank you, taxi drivers, for the excellent rainy day recommendation!

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We were sad that our last beach day was rained out, but it was nice to have a low key day to rest and recharge before heading to Bilbao the next day.

How do you handle wrinkles in your travel plans? What’s the best impromptu experience you’ve had with your family traveling?

The Altamira Caves Museum

I was taking an anthropology class in high school when I first heard of the Altamira Caves. In that class, I learned about many of the wonders of ancient peoples that exist in our world; the Nazca lines, Chichen-Itza, the cave dwellings at Mesa Verde, the most ancient of cave paintings ever discovered. “I must see them someday!” I was saddened to learn a few years later that the caves of Altamira and Lascaux were closed to visitors. It was a protective measure, but saddened me greatly. Knowing I couldn’t go inside and see the paintings in person, the Altamira caves fell off of my travel list.

Then, when we were planning our trip to Spain, my husband insisted that we would love Santillana del Mar and we must stay there for a few days. Well, he was right! We did love Santillana del Mar. I’m so glad that we didn’t miss that charming little village. While I was reading through our guidebook to see what sites there are in Santillana, I came across a reference to the Altamira Cave Museum. I hadn’t realized our travel plans would take us so close to the Altamira Caves! The exact location of the caves is kept secret to preserve them, but in the museum they have created an exact replica with every bump, crack, and image from the original cave site. I was so excited! A replica is a little less exciting. But truthfully, with small children in tow who would probably be scared of going deep into some dark caves, an exact replica is probably a better idea anyway.

To get to Museo de Altamira, you must walk roughly a mile and a half through the Cantabrian countryside. It is mostly uphill from Santillana del Mar. My husband was my hero. He pushed our double stroller the whole way there. Our children started complaining as we began our hike. But it was so beautiful that they soon forgot to complain. This picture does not adequately convey the feeling of standing in the warm sun with a cool breeze from the Atlantic carrying a briny smell.

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Walking through the Cantabrian countryside was like moving through a bucolic dream. Red roofed houses and churches dotted the green landscape.

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Cows and horses munched sweet grass in their pastures as we passed along our way, while white, puffy clouds floated in a blue sky.

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At one point we had to walk down this rocky path with daisies and other wildflowers growing in abundance.

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My husband ran on ahead to make sure we were still heading the right direction, so I took the time to make some daisy chains for my little girls. Those who drive to the museum in a big tour bus really miss out on a beautiful experience.

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And finally we reached the museum! There are two portions of the museum, the cave replicas and the more traditional museum about the caves and their history. When you pay the entrance fee you are given time stamped cards for entrance to the cave replica. We were lucky that it was not very busy on the day we went. We were the only ones in the caves at our time.

As you enter the cave replica, there is a video showing what the people who lived there might have looked like, cooking and performing other tasks at the entrance to their cave. Then, it simulates an earthquake and cave-in, showing the entrance to the cave being closed off by falling debris. This scared my five year old, who continued to ask if there would be an earthquake the remainder of our visit to the museum.

Next, you move down some metal ramps into the area where the cave paintings are replicated. They were beautiful! The natural outcroppings, bumps and bulges of the cave were an integral part of the pictures themselves. The images are really three dimensional, and could be considered sculpture using the curves of the rock instead of merely paintings. There were a variety of pigments and techniques used to create the paintings. Handprints in black and red dot the ceiling. Negative space handprints were created with red pigment being blown around the hand in a sort of airbrush technique. Remembering that this is what the actual paintings looked like, it was an incredible experience.

The museum was very informative, and had many interactive displays that my children enjoyed. There was very little English used in the museum, so brush up on your Spanish or have a Spanish speaking companion with you if you really want to learn about the history of the caves.

There are some caves with ancient paintings in the area that you can still visit. With young children, we decided to forego those on this trip. Maybe next time. But still, if you are anywhere near Santillana del Mar, take a hike through the magical countryside and visit Museo de Altamira.

 

Santillana del Mar: a Spanish Brigadoon

Every once in a while in my travels, I come upon a place that seems arrested in time. If I look closely, I might find anachronistic details that verify I am still living in the 21st century. If I allow myself to be fully immersed in the charming beauty of a place, my mind filters out those pesky modern details, and I can imagine that I have stepped into the past. Or that a gem of a village has been hidden for centuries, and only the luckiest of travelers arrive in the right place in the right time to enjoy its beauty. Santillana del Mar is one of those cherished places.

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Hidden on the north coast of Spain, about a 20 minute bus ride from the ocean, Santillana del Mar has the combined charm of a small Spanish medieval village with the green landscape of an Irish coastline. One can easily imagine fairies and leprechauns hiding in the fields around the town, with an occasional curious creature exploring the village itself. Every picture you take, every corner you turn in Santillana yields beautiful and breathtaking sites. It is also an extremely restful and peaceful place. It is the kind of place where sitting and lingering over a two hour lunch, and blissfully strolling down the medieval streets, or watching your children play in the plaza, playing tag while weaving through archways and columns, is the best kind of day.

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It is the kind of place where magical things happen. We stayed in a hotel on this “main” street running through Santillana. Once upon a time, it was the house of the Marquis of Santillana del Mar, and it retains much of the charm of a 15th century manor. Our second night there, the restaurant across the street had a magnificent singer performing in the outdoor courtyard. The music tugged at our hearts. There was no resisting the pull of good music and good food to enjoy with those we love best in the world. We got our children dressed and went across the street to the restaurant for churros con chocolate, to be enjoyed as a light night treat. We ate together as a family, enjoying the music, but the magic of the evening could not just end there. We danced in the street with our children. It is a memory that they still recount, a magical moment that I hope they never forget. If only we could always find those magical moments in each day of our lives!

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A Day for the Children: The Madrid Zoo

Part of the art of traveling with children is to balance more grown-up centered outings with those that cater directly to children. Our sixth day in Spain our children were showing signs of restlessness, so we took a day to visit the Madrid Zoo.

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The zoo was an longer, but manageable metro ride from where we were staying near the Prado. From the metro stop, a pedestrian pathway meandered through outlying areas of the beautiful Casa de Campo, to finally arrive at the gates of the zoo.

The Madrid zoo has very successful breeding programs. I saw more baby animals with their mothers on our trip to this zoo than I’ve seen anywhere else. It also seemed to be designed with human children in mind as well. There was a giant playground near the entrance, and the exhibits were structured in such a way that even our smallest children had an easy time seeing the animals.

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Several animals created with flowers on a metal frame decorated a field by the main entrance. It was a fun and fanciful introduction to a beautiful, relaxing day.

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The Madrid zoo contains a small aquarium within it. This dolphin show was a highlight of our day at the zoo. In addition to the dolphin show, they also have a sea lion show that is a bit more informative and bit less exciting. An indoor aquarium area showcases different species of ocean dwelling fish species. A large center tank has sharks, sea turtles, and sting rays.

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Before our trip to Spain, my husband told us about all the storks that build nests throughout Spain. Visiting a zoo in another country, one sees many familiar sights, but this one was new to me. The picture does not really capture the immense size of these birds and their nests.

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No matter where we are in the world, my children are always overjoyed to see playgrounds.  They would probably have been happy relaxing at any playground, at the zoo or in the neighborhood near our hotel. In our future travels, we should make a point to spend a few minutes a day at a playground. Everyone is happier after playing outside. The children sleep better and are happier to spend time with their parents exploring.

What ways do you balance children and travel?

Super Queso!

DSC_0068I always find it interesting what my children pick up while traveling in a foreign country. Last week we were grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s. My two year old was was merrily pushing her little shopping cart along, when all of a sudden she stopped. A large grin spread across her face. She jumped up and down shouting something that sounded like “super castle”, and ran and grabbed two packs of Babybel cheese. My five year old watched what she was doing, also became very excited. She, too, ran over and grabbed several packs of Babybel cheese. I wasn’t quite sure where all the excitement over Babybel cheese was coming from. We usually buy string cheese for our cheesy snacks. But they were so excited, that we ended up taking home about five packs of Babybel cheese. All throughout the rest of our trip through Trader Joe’s my two year old kept singing aloud to herself in a way that only two year olds can. It still sounded like “super castle”, “super castle”, “super castle”.

After we checked out and made it to the car, and everyone was safely strapped in and contained, I decided it was time to find out where all the excitement came from. So I asked my five year old why she was so excited about the Babybel cheese. She said it was from an advertisement that we saw while we were in Spain. Then I finally realized that little Aeryn was saying “super queso”!

So now, Babybel cheese at our house is “super queso”. I hear requests for “super queso” everyday for snack time. Apparently, it was a very effective advertisement campaign, even in a foreign language. It has even crept into play time. Here is my oldest daughter playing “super queso”.

DSC_0045Here is the newest super hero in town. It’s Super Queso! She eats a lot of Babybel cheese.

The Coolest Bathroom Ever!

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Our fourth day in Madrid, we decided to take a day trip to Toledo. There are two train stations in Madrid. Chamartin is in northern Madrid and handles all traffic heading to the north of Spain. Atocha is located closer to the south of Madrid, and handles all train traffic heading south. Toledo is located about 30 minutes south of Madrid by train, so we headed down to the Atocha train station to get our tickets and head on our way.

We were late for the train we wanted to make. We had a particularly difficult time waking up our children and getting them ready. Our hotel was about a ten minute walk from the train station, so we set out with our baby in our ergo, with my husband and our babysitter alternating running with and carrying several of the other children. Alas, we still did not make our intended train!

When we finally made it inside the train station, our five year old declared she needed the bathroom. So my husband and I split up. He went to find the ticket office and secure us tickets on a later train to Toledo. I, along with our babysitter and the rest of our children, set off to find the bathroom.

The Atocha train station is a little bit of a maze. It reminds me a little bit of Penn Station in NYC, but with more sunlight and less shopping. There are different areas for the local trains and express trains. There is also more security at Atocha due to terrorist attacks a few years ago. So, it took us a little while to find the bathroom. And when we got there, “Oh, no!!!” You had to pay to use it.

The last time I had to pay to use bathrooms in a public space like this was when my husband and I traveled to Peru about ten years ago. We were taking a bus from Lima to Huacachina to see the sand dunes. I drank way too much Inca cola before heading to the bus station. I ran for the bathroom only to be stopped from entering and asked for money. I didn’t have any with me, so I had to go back and find my husband to get some coins before using the bathroom.

You think I would have learned to always be prepared with some coins just in case there was a fee for the bathrooms! But no. I didn’t. My husband had taken the bag with our i.d.’s with him to get the tickets, which also had my cash supply in it. What was worse is that it was my little daughter who needed to use the bathroom. Because Atocha felt like such a maze of a train station, we decided that we would just have to wait for him to come back and find us.

Every few seconds I would look towards the bathroom, wondering if I should have my daughter hop over the turnstile and just pay for the bathroom use when my husband arrived. The pitiful amount of .60 euros was all that stood between my daughter and the bathroom. But, she didn’t want to go into the bathroom without me, and I didn’t really want to teach my children that it was okay to not pay for things, so we waited. I started to add up in my head just how much it would cost to use the bathroom if we all had to pay. There were seven people in our party altogether. I was pretty sure that our baby and two year old would be exempt from the bathroom fee. That still meant that it would cost 3 euros for all of us to use the bathroom. I must admit I was starting to feel a little outraged that we would have to pay that kind of cash for a bathroom visit. Then I noticed a door to the right of the main bathroom entrance. On the door it said “family bathroom”. Well, it said it in Spanish, but you know what I mean. And the best part is that the family bathroom only cost .60 euro for everyone! It turns out Spain is a very friendly country for families to travel in. And not just because of the bathrooms.

As soon as my husband found us, I grabbed the needed coins, paid the attendant, and ushered all my children into the family bathroom. We opened the door, and what we saw was the coolest bathroom ever! A disco ball twirled from the ceiling in the middle of the room, showering us with moving slivers of light. Soft music played lullabies to soothe even the most distressed and crying of babies. There was not one, but two, child-sized toilets for the children to use. A soft glider in pastel colors perfect for a nursing mother and baby stood off to the side of the room. A soft, cushy diaper changing area was next to the nursing chair. The lighting was soft and gentle, not harsh like in most bathrooms. It was clean and smelled of flowers. What a wonderful haven for a tired and frazzled family to find!

And that disco ball! All the rest of the amenities were lovely and inviting, but my children could not get over that disco ball! They felt like they were at the coolest party ever. It didn’t matter that it was in a bathroom.

Madrid: The Prado, Medieval Art

I must admit, in the past I have not really enjoyed medieval art. In the Met in New York, the medieval section was just an area to walk through as quickly as possible. Never did I feel the urge to linger and gaze upon medieval art there. It always felt too dark, too sombre. The human figure was not as exact as in later Renaissance art. Medieval art seemed to be very expressionless to me.

The Prado in Madrid was a completely different experience. Maybe it is because Spain was the world power during medieval times. Maybe medieval artists working in Spain were more skilled at their craft. Maybe it’s because I am a different person now. The medieval art in the Prado was my favorite section of the museum.

Beautiful canvas after beautiful canvas in deep, rich colors celebrated the life of Christ and other religious figures. The paintings provided an opportunity for me to speak to my children about scripture stories, the story of Christmas, and the importance religion played in the history of Spain. The rich visual material piqued their interest. While I’m glad that the scriptures are now available for all to read, I appreciate how these vivid depictions of scriptural content sparked conversations and learning opportunities.

What really spoke to me personally in the medieval art, were the many paintings of Mary nursing baby Jesus. Since I am currently nursing a baby boy, it makes sense that I would have a more personal connection with the subject matter. What really impressed me was the gentleness and tenderness that was portrayed in the relationship between mother and child.

Painting after beautiful painting showed the loving bond shared by mother and child. I have always thought of medieval times as somewhat austere and stern. In some ways, they probably were. But the natural relationship of mother and small baby was regarded as natural and beautiful. It drew me in and touched me. What a beautiful thing it is to care for and nurture a child! It can be daunting, frustrating, tiring, and sometimes monotonous. But tender moments bring joy greater than any of the negative feelings that sometimes come.

So hooray for medieval art and the Prado! If you don’t go, you will be missing out on a beautiful visual treasure.