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: A Princess Palace for Aeryn

El Palacio Real, Madrid

El Palacio Real, Madrid

Princesses, fairies, mermaids, unicorns! If your little girls are anything like our little girls, they love to dress up and make up games using these personas. I love how vividly their imaginations work, and how creative they are in their stories. But for our little Aeryn, age two, it is more than just make believe. She truly believes that she is a princess.

We chose to visit the Royal Palace on our first full day in Madrid. Our children were still jet lagged, and we needed some interest on their part to motivate them to explore with us. They perked up noticeably at the prospect of visiting a palace. So we hopped on the subway and traveled up to Puerta del Sol. Then we walked down Calle del Arenal, past Teatro Real, to find the Royal Palace.

Beautiful gardens in the Plaza de Oriente decorate the approach to the palace. Statues of Gothic kings line the walkway that leads to the front entrance.

Plaza de Oriente, Madrid

The Palacio Real is one of the attractions you can visit using the Madrid card. The entrance in the front by the gardens is used exclusively by tour groups and Madrid card holders. There was no line when we got there, so we were able to go right in. There is some security, a metal detector and guards which will search your bags before entering the open courtyard.

The palace is beautiful. It was built in the 1700’s, to replace the old castle destroyed in a fire. The beauty of this palace was in part inspired by the beauty of the palace of Versailles. The weapons room is especially impressive. All of our children liked visiting the palace, but the most enthralled by it all was Aeryn.

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Here are Lexi, our babysitter, and our little Aeryn posing on the balcony overlooking Casa de Campo. This is one of Aeryn’s princess poses. The lifting of her heal and downcast eyes are very deliberate on her part. She will often clasp her hands together to complete the pose.

After enjoying the view, we went back into the main courtyard. Aeryn started talking about her palace. “It’s my princess castle, mama.” “I love my princess castle, mama.” Such beautiful, bubbly expressions poured out of her! Then, Abigail, who is 5 and has somehow decided that she is the enforcer, told her that it is not her palace, and she is not a princess! What came next? Tears and screaming. Aeryn, with her little fists clenched and tears streaming down her cheeks yelled at Abigail. “I am a princess! It’s my castle!” With Abigail yelling back, “No, you’re not! You’re not a princess!”

My husband and I have wondered about how long our children will remain in that magical state of make believe where fairies and magic are real. Our oldest daughter is seven, and she truly believes that fairies are real. She builds communities for them to visit in our backyard. She makes treasures for them. She blissfully gathers flowers for them. At some point all of our little ones will transition to skeptical teenagers and young adults, but for now, we want the magic to last for them.

So, with Abigail and Aeryn we talked about how they are not princesses of a country, but they are princesses in our family. We were visiting a palace that belonged to the King and Queen of Spain. Abigail and Aeryn both calmed down and seemed happy with that explanation. I guess Abigail had felt jealous and a little excluded. She really just wanted to be a princess, too.

If you liked this post, you might enjoy the following:

Hong Kong: A High Flying Box of Terror

Long Live the Doman Sun!

Spain: Modern and Medieval

Nostalgia in the Mundane

My children are all in bed, if not asleep, and the house for once is quiet. I was reading a story on the blog, Storyshucker, called “Birds of a Feather“. At one point, the author talks about how anything can make him feel sentimental, or nostalgic. Well, I was sitting on my bed reading, while nursing my little five month old son to sleep. I looked at him and thought about how tall he is getting, and how he still seems so little at the same time. When my babies were really little, I used a Boba Wrap to carry them while running errands, hiking, traveling……just about anytime I didn’t want to use a stroller because it was too bulky or unwieldy, or I just wanted to have my hands free while still experiencing the sweet sensation of snuggling such an amazing little person close to my body. Lately, my little boy has strained against the cocoon like sensation of being wrapped in the Boba.

So, this last trip we went on, I used an Ergo for my baby carrier. Now, the Ergo is great. It’s comfortable. It allows the baby to look around with a good field of view even in a front facing in position. My little boy was much more comfortable in the Ergo than he has been lately in the Boba Wrap. But it doesn’t have quite the same snuggly feeling. It highlights the fact that my baby is no longer a newborn, or even a very young baby. He is rolling over. He is eating baby food. It is one step forward in my child growing up.

My oldest child also picked out new rolling luggage for this trip, an R2D2 shaped roller that beeps just like the robot. She gave up her Trunki, a suitcase she can pull and ride at the same time, because she is too big for it. The Trunki she gave to her two year old sister, who is now old enough  and coordinated enough to ride on it. Our little boy is our last baby. The Boba wrap I gave away this week to someone else who could use it. It felt like a bandaid being ripped off. Except, the sentimental pain has not really faded over the course of the week.

I keep remembering moments with one or another baby snuggled close to me in the Boba. I remember how excited Alyssa was when she first used her Trunki. Children grow up and leave these things behind. But even hints of these memories can send me into bittersweet nostalgia. I am both proud of how my children are learning and growing into wonderful people and want to simultaneously freeze each moment to be relived over and over.

Even though my children were in bed, my sentimentality urged me to go and say good night to them one more time. My two oldest were in bed talking about how they were going to sail that night to Neverland, to play with Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. They are growing up, but at least tonight they don’t seem to be in a hurry to do it. And that is just fine with me.

Destination Hong Kong: The Flight

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Without children, airline flights can be somewhat restful. You sit and watch a movie, or read a book. It can be tedious if it’s a long flight, but you are free to pass the time in pretty much any way you would like. With children, not so much. The flight itself becomes a long contest, a battle of wills, an exercise in creativity. Sometimes flights with children go well, and sometimes they don’t. The worst flight we ever had with our children was a flight from Athens to Paris when our oldest daughter was nine months old and teething. She was inconsolable and screamed pretty much the entire three hours. We could feel the hostility from everyone on that flight, except for an Argentinian couple sitting in front of us. The air was palpable with it.

Anyway, the flight to Hong Kong was not that bad, but it was a little bit of an adventure. We lived near NYC at the time, so we took a straight shot from JFK to Hong Kong, roughly 16 hours of flight time. We’ve found that flying with children is a much better experience if you prepare them, and have a plan in mind. And a back-up plan. We had two children at the time, a three year old and 18 month old. Luckily for us and traveling, our 18 month old loved watching movies. We prepped our children by telling them we would get to watch two movies, have dinner, and then it would be time to go to sleep. We would be on the plane almost all night. When they woke up, we could have breakfast, and watch another movie, or maybe two. At the time, the length of a movie was a measure of time our 3 year old could understand. We brought a portable dvd player, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and several Kai-lan movies.

Everything went very smoothly for most of the flight. Our 3 year old even tried beef for dinner, and didn’t complain about eating something new and somewhat exotic for her small taste buds. She even laid down and went to sleep when we told her it was time. (This in itself is a miracle. She hates going to sleep.) We didn’t even need to use our back-up plan. (It was benadryl, just in case you were wondering.) Indeed, it was almost magical for me as a mom that both girls were so well behaved. I started to breathe a sigh of relief as we came close to our destination.

One of the rules we have while traveling is that our children must use the bathroom before the plane starts descending. So accordingly, I took our three year old right before they announced the plane’s descent into Hong Kong. As the plane started its final approach, our three year old started to say she needed the bathroom. I knew she had just been, and probably didn’t actually need to use the bathroom. She was clearly uncomfortable, and started yelling that she needed to use the bathroom. At this point, we were really very close to landing. I told her to hang on. I would take her to the bathroom as soon as the plane landed and stopped moving. Her screaming grew louder and louder as the plane descended lower and lower. Then, just at the very moment the plane’s wheels touched the ground, she threw up.

She threw up, for the first time in her life, all over herself and her seat the minute we reached Hong Kong. Knowing that cleaning her up would take some time, and wanting to quickly get her cleaned up so she would be comfortable and stop screaming, I stripped her clothes off of her, threw one of the airline blankets around her, and started wiping up the vomit with baby wipes. Baby wipes are lifesavers in these kind of situations. I might still carry them around with me even after all my children are potty trained. As soon as the plane stopped taxiing, my husband ran to get our carry on luggage. One of our other international traveling rules is that we only take carry on. In this situation, it was extremely helpful because we had a change of clothes at our immediate disposal. Meanwhile the plane had emptied of passengers, except for us. The flight attendants started to insist that we leave as well. It was a little bit harrowing, trying to get her cleaned up enough to put on clothes and get off the plane with several flight attendants ordering us to move. In what was probably record time we got her changed, gathered our belongings, and deplaned. At the first bathroom we saw I rinsed out her hair, and brushed her teeth. She felt much better after she had thrown up and been cleaned up. She sang a happy song as we moved through customs, excited to be in a new place.

Even though the beginning of our trip was a little bit explosive with the wrong kind of excitement, we really did have a great trip in Hong Kong. Stay tuned for more stories of our Hong Kong adventures.

Our Christmas Tree Travel Log: A Christmas Tradition

DSC_0196There are some family traditions that are created through a definitive decision, and intentionally implemented into family culture. There are other family traditions that grow organically through experiences and a multitude of smaller decisions made across a period of time. Our Christmas tree tradition is one of the latter. Here is our story.

When my husband and I were first married we lived in New York City. We were both students at the time, so money was pretty much not available in any kind of significant quantity. I love Christmas trees. Every year I would drag my poor husband through the icy cold of a windy, snowy New York winter to see the tree at Rockefeller Center with me. This particular Christmas, our first as a married couple, we went to Macy’s to look at the Christmas decorations. We went only to look at the Christmas decorations, with no intention to buy any.

On the top floor of the very large Macy’s at 34th Street and 8th Avenue, was a veritable Christmas wonderland with Santa’s workshop, fake snow, and a parade of Christmas trees full decorated with ornaments, angels and stars that you could purchase. One Christmas tree was fully decorated with symbols of New York, including the Statue of Liberty, taxi cabs, and……..pigeons. Yes, that’s right. Pigeons. It was NOT a tree that I liked very much, aside from reminding me of New York City, which I happen to love very much. My husband, however, decided that he really wanted one particular ornament on the tree. The pigeon. The gray pigeon with a bobbly head and I “heart” NY written on the side. I thought it was one of the most hideous things ever. But I loved my husband and so I consented to buying the pigeon, it being the only Christmas ornament we would purchase that year. But there was a deal involved. Next year, I would pick out an ornament to add to our collection.

That is how it started. The next year we had moved to another location, and decided it would be fitting to find a Christmas tree ornament that captured some of the essence of our new home.

DSC_0225We ended up with this little beauty. So instead of our Christmas tree tradition being a taking of turns to add a new ornament, each year we pick an ornament that symbolizes something momentous that happened that year. The general overall look of the tree also was developed to somewhat camouflage the pigeon, blue and silver with highlights of red. I still didn’t like the pigeon and somewhat resented having it on my beautiful Christmas tree.

DSC_0227When we had our first beautiful little baby, we of course had to have an ornament that celebrated her birth. Subsequently, each of our children have their own special ornament on the tree that they get to hang up each year. It celebrates the joyous occasion when they first joined our family. Each child knows which ornament is theirs and loves to find a special place for it on the tree.

In years that we are not moving or having a new baby join our family, we spend a lot more time traveling. We often go on a large international trip or to an exotic location. These family adventures are also all memorialized with their very own Christmas tree ornament. As we decorate our tree each year, each ornament rekindles memories of the various destinations and adventures we have experienced together. We have a lot of fun reminiscing and then discussing where we want to go for our next grand adventure. Here are some of our favorite travel ornaments.

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I have come to love this family tradition, which is a log of our traveling adventures and how we have grown as a family. I have even developed some fondness for the pigeon, which somehow started it all.

How do you remember your traveling adventures? What are some of your family’s Christmas traditions?

Travel for Christmas, Do You or Don’t You?

Ready, Set, Done!

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We don’t. Travel for Christmas. When my husband and I were married we literally lived across the country from both sets of parents. I decided that I wanted Christmas to be a joyous celebration within our own home. I wanted to have our own Christmas tree and open presents in our apartment on Christmas morning. This had less to do with avoiding the hassle of traveling at Christmas and more to do with establishing our own family with our own traditions. Now that we have four children, I’m glad we established Christmas as a celebration in our own home with our own family. Partially because transporting Christmas presents for the entire family to and from a location where driving for a trip of short duration is out of the question, is out of the question. And I’m not sure how you could even make that happen with air travel. As a family, we like to travel as lightly as possible. Sometimes I feel a little bad for depriving the grandparents of the joy of seeing their small grandchildren light up with joy and excitement on Christmas morning, bare little feet running down the hall to see what Santa has brought. They could come to us, but we are the only ones living in this area of the country. Every single one of my brothers and sisters (there are 5 of us) live within a 2 hour travel time of my parents. My husbands family is not as geographically condensed, but still a lot closer than we are. So, it doesn’t make sense to ask them to travel during such a hectic travel season, leaving behind the majority of their family. Of course it is much warmer here, so that could be an added incentive for making the trip. Which means, it is much colder there. That is a definite deterrent. So for now, we will maintain our tradition of enjoying Christmas morning with just our own beautiful little children. I’m not going to feel too bad for the grandparents, at least for this year. At the end of January, we’ll be meeting them all in Disneyworld.

All Aboard for Christmas Fun

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I love trains. There is something so freeing about leaving behind a car and allowing a train to transport you from one location to another. When traveling internationally, we depend on trains and buses for transportation almost exclusively. I think the one time we rented a car in another country was when we traveled to Trinidad and Tobago. On Tobago, a car is a necessity if you want to leave the resort areas by the airport and explore the rest of the island.

But, I digress. The movie “The Polar Express” was very popular a few years ago. My mother-in-law sent the movie to my girls as a present. Now, while it is not my favorite movie, my daughters became entranced with the idea of riding a train to the North Pole to see Santa Claus. Sometimes, what seems kind of cheesy and unbelievable to adults, is pure magic to our children.

My husband and I decided to take our girls on the North Pole Express, an event train experience provided by the Essex Steam Train in Essex, CT. We dressed our girls in their pajamas and headed up to the train. The train is pulled by a steam powered engine. How is that for drawing your mind to a different era?

An elf greeted the travelers in each car. While en route to the North Pole, passengers were treated to a musical rendition of “The Night Before Christmas”. Sleepy elves traveled through the train cars providing hot chocolate and cookies made by Mrs. Claus herself. The magic and excitement grew as the train travels closer and closer to the North Pole. Lighted Christmas figures are placed outside the train car en route to the North Pole. Once at the North Pole, Santa and Mrs. Claus climbed aboard the train for the return journey.

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They greeted each child, and gave a special gift, a bell from Santa’s sleigh. Our children’s excitement was so endearing as we made this magical excursion together! On the way home to the train depot the passengers sang Christmas carols together.

Riding the Essex Steam Train North Pole Express has been one of my favorite Christmas experiences with my children. Short of going to the North Pole itself to meet Santa Claus, this is much preferable to seeing Santa at the Mall or other more commercial settings. I love how the gift itself is so simple, and a symbol of the power of a child’s belief. The bells our girls received on this magical Christmas ride have outlasted many of the more expensive Christmas gifts that they have received. Experiences are far more enduring than things. That is one of the reasons our family loves to travel together. We build amazing memories together. Memories last a lifetime.

http://essexsteamtrain.com