The Gardens: A Feast for the Eyes

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We live in the desert. When we go to our botanical garden, we see cacti, succulents, and all sorts of interesting desert plants. In Madrid, the botanical garden is quite different. There are tall, shady trees. There are fountains and ponds. And of course, there is a wide variety of plant life that we just don’t get to see at home. It was a feast for our eyes, and a tranquil place to explore near the end of the day when our children were tired of museums and just wanted to run around enjoying the outdoors. Our two year old moved from spot to spot drawing interesting shapes in the dirt. The older two girls ran around, climbing on rocks and fountains, tenderly touching flower petals, and jumping off the benches. It was a great way to end a day of site seeing.

I really love the idea of gardens in the middle of busy cities like Madrid. In New York, Central Park is a haven to experience nature in the midst of a major metropolitan city. Boston’s Public Gardens are a beautiful juxtaposition to the gritty city outside its gates. Madrid’s Botanical Gardens offer the same respite from the busy city. Here are some of my favorite photographs of the gardens.

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DSC_0220What are your favorite public gardens? If you live in a city, where do you go to experience nature?

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Madrid: A Princess Palace for Aeryn

Travel Theme: Trees

Local Adventures and Family Fun

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.

Surprising Memories

Today I was cleaning out my guitar case, and I found a poem written on a loose leaf notebook paper. I have no memory of writing this, but it is in my handwriting. Rereading it, although some of the cadence is a little sticky, I really liked it. So here it is to share with you, revision free.

I’m sitting here and thinking of things
Decisions I’ve made in the past and how
Like clay they have molded me to be
The person you see just sitting here now

Where I have been and where I shall go
One is familiar, the other unknown
One shapes me and the other I shape
The future lies open, which path shall I take?

The past and the future surely meet
In the moment that I am sitting right here
The path I have trod and the path I shall take
Converge, and which way shall I veer?

The choices that I now shall make
Determine who I shall become
In a future moment when I shall
Be sitting there and thinking of things

When I’m sitting there and thinking of things
In the future made by the choice I make
I want to look at me and see
The person that I want to be

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.

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Spain: Modern and Medieval

Madrid: In Search of Kilometer Zero

While preparing for our trip to Spain, I learned about kilometer zero. Considered the geographic center of Spain, the six major radial roads originating from Madrid are measured by their distance from this one spot. Many countries have their own kilometer zero, but in Spain, it is located in Madrid. When we set off on this beautiful morning, I hoped that we would find kilometer zero in our wanderings.

We first took the metro from our hotel up to Puerta del Sol, a major plaza in the heart of Madrid. We emerged from the metro to find a beautiful open area with flowers, a fountain, and gorgeous buildings surrounding us. Puerta del Sol is a hot spot for interesting street performers. We were greeted by Mickey Mouse and other childhood favorites, all trying to sell us balloons and other treasures for children. This was one of the most interesting.

DSC_0042Truthfully, I rather detest Barney as a character. However, I couldn’t resist the irony of Barney smoking. If I had been ready with my camera just five seconds earlier, the picture would have showed Barney smoking with his head still on. It was a strange juxtaposition; a childhood icon engaging in destructive behavior.

After enjoying the sights of Puerta del Sol, we made our way to Plaza Mayor. There is a tourist office there where we planned to buy Madrid cards for access to many of the sights and museums in Madrid. We were also looking for information on where to find Kilometer Zero. Plus, it is a major plaza in Madrid. We wouldn’t miss seeing it even if we had no other business to take us there other than enjoying the sights of the city.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Plaza Mayor was built in the early 1600’s during the reign of Philip III. It was called by several different names during the centuries between Philip III and today. It was given the name of Plaza Mayor at the end of the Spanish Civil War. The plaza is beautiful, but more stoic than the piazzas in Italy. Most of the buildings around the plaza are built with the red brick, with one showcasing beautiful frescoes in a more pastel color. Beautiful archways ring the plaza, with larger archways leading out to pedestrian thoroughfares outside of Plaza Mayor. Our children were excited to chase pigeons in the big open space, but they were notoriously absent. There were a few here and there, called flying rats by waiters in the restaurants ringing the the plaza. There were, however, children kicking soccer balls back and forth, a sight we saw in many of the open plazas in Spain.

In the bottom right corner of this picture you can see a modern portable building that looks very out of place in the midst of the historic square. This is the tourist office. The tourist office can provide you with maps and information about the city. It is also one of the few places where you can purchase a Madrid card for access to many attractions, and a tourist card which gives you unlimited rides on Madrid’s metro and bus system. We purchased a three-day Madrid card, although you could spend weeks in Madrid and only see a small portion of all the sites available to you. We also learned that Kilometer Zero was back in Puerta del Sol. We would make our way back there that day, but we had a few other stops to make first.

Churros con Chocolate

Churros con Chocolate

My husband looked forward to the experience of eating churros con chocolate with me and his children for a long time before we traveled to Spain. Here, on our first day in Madrid, he found a delicious chocolateria close to Plaza Mayor for us to enjoy this quintessential Spanish dessert. The chocolate cake was delicious. The churros were wonderful. The setting was magical.

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Tucked away in a side street of Madrid, we ate outside feasting on the sights of Spanish architecture and decorative elements while being serenaded by an opera singer followed by an accordion player, both of who were skilled at their craft. After eating we followed the street down to a pedestrian walkway where a small bookstore sold beautiful watercolors of matadors battling the bull and flamenco dancers twisting and stomping with flourishes and flair.

Still in search of kilometer zero, we eventually made our way back to Puerta del Sol. It was later in the afternoon. It was crowded. My husband left the rest of us to battle the crowds and locate the kilometer marker we had come to find. In front of the clock tower on a building called “Real Casa de Correos”, which serves as the Spanish equivalent to the dropping of the ball in Time Square on New Year’s Eve, lies the marker of Kilometer Zero.

There were many tourists standing around waiting for the turn to take pictures of the famous zero kilometer marker. Our turn came, and my three beautiful daughters stood on the marker in their matching pink tennis shoes, solely to appease their mother. After we were finished taking the photo, I took a small moment to stand on the marker myself. I couldn’t come all this way and miss my chance to stand in the center of Spain, now could I?

Kilometer Zero, Madrid

Kilometer Zero, Madrid

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Madrid: Breakfast with the Locals

Why I am writing this blog….

Madrid: Breakfast with the Locals

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Our first morning in Madrid, jet lagged and so very tired, we slept through the breakfast offered by our hotel. When we finally emerged from the bliss of sleep after a long day of traveling, we ventured out to find some food. Tucked away on a small side street several blocks from our hotel was a small cafe. We decided to give it a shot.

It was a Saturday morning, and customers were leisurely eating their food and reading the morning paper. I love how customers brought their dogs into the cafe! There was one woman who sat at a table by the window drinking her coffee and reading the paper the entire time we were there. Her little beagle was curled up contentedly at her feet. They made such a picturesque site with the morning light streaming in through the window!

It came time to order our food. My children were smart and went with the “classico”, which turned out to be toast with jam, a pretty safe choice. I was feeling a little adventurous, and decided to try the “espagnol”. I also tried to use what little Spanish I know to order orange juice as well. My husband amusedly smiled at my attempts. When I asked him what was so funny, I learned that in Spain juice is zumo, not jugo like in some other Spanish speaking countries. At least my orange juice came without any problems, so the waiter still understood me, even if I used the incorrect version of “juice”.

And then the “espagnol” came. This culinary concoction was toast with diced tomatoes and jamon on it. Jamon is a Spanish ham that is cured, or cooked with chemicals instead of with heat. I was optimistic. I like ham and tomatoes. It turns out however, that jamon on a jet lagged and slightly queasy stomach is not a really good idea. I bravely took about three bites before deciding that to continue to eat my “espagnol” was a very bad idea. I ended up eating a croissant; a buttery, flaky, and completely safe croissant. Indeed, from that morning on, a croissant became a staple in my breakfast for our entire trip.

So, my first experience with Spanish food wasn’t as successful as I would have liked. But the cafe was quaint. Everyone was energized for a day of site seeing. And that first foreign taste of Spain just made us more excited for the travel adventures to come.

Spain: Modern and Medieval

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Our family recently returned from an amazing two and a half week adventure in Spain. Reading the guidebook prior to our trip, I was amused that many of the smaller towns were described as “medieval”. My husband had visited Spain before, while it was the first time for the rest of us. I mentioned to him that many towns in Spain are described as medieval, and asked him if that was true. My experience in Spain taught me that yes, many towns are gorgeous remnants of medieval art and architecture. Yet, the larger cities had a distinctly modern and cosmopolitan feel.

This is the route we took on our journey through Spain. We flew into the capitol city of Madrid. From there we journeyed north to a small town called Santillana del Mar, about a 30 minute bus ride from Santander. If you want medieval, Santillana del Mar is a beautiful village protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We then spent a few beach days in the coastal city of Santander. From Santander, we journeyed to Bilbao. Bilbao was once an industrial city, but is now a more modern and updated city, with the Guggenheim Museum showcasing modern art. From Bilbao, we took the train to Segovia. Isabella and Ferdinand reigned over a unified Spain and much of the new world from Segovia, before moving their capitol to Toledo. From Segovia, we headed back to Madrid for a day or two before flying home.

I will be sharing our trip with you in more detail, but here are some general impressions that I had while in Spain.

The Spanish people are friendly and inviting. Traveling with four children can be a bit stressful and difficult at times. People were always volunteering to help carry strollers in and out of the metro, hold open doors, and helping in any way they saw possible. Madrid was especially refreshing. We lived in New York City and then the surrounding area for quite a few years. I love New York, but it is not especially friendly to children. Madrid had many of the qualities that I love about New York; the wide boulevards, the museums, the parks, great restaurants, but was welcoming to children everywhere we went. In Spain, children are included in all aspects of daily life. That aspect of Spanish culture mirrors closely how my husband and I raise our children, which made for a very comfortable atmosphere. Madrid is also relatively inexpensive and has better weather than New York. We plan on spending more time there in the future.

If traveling in Spain, it is a very good idea to speak some Spanish. My husband warned me before we went, but I was still surprised that many people did not speak any English. Even in Madrid, there was very little English spoken. My husband speaks Spanish, which made our trip go a lot more smoothly. At the very least, bring a good phrasebook with you to use during your trip.

Spanish food can be quite amazing. It can also be quite different than what you might be used to. I admit, I do not have a very adventurous palate. I only recently in the past few years started eating any seafood at all. And I like my meat to be well cooked. Some of the areas of Spain were challenging for me. If you order a hamburger, there’s a good chance that it will still be bleeding in the center. If you order seafood, it will be easily recognizable as fish (most likely the head will be attached) or as octopus (the tentacles will still have suction cups on it). If you follow a vegetarian diet, there are very few options for you at most restaurants. If you follow a vegan diet, you might have to subsist on bread the entire time you are in Spain. My general impression of Spanish food is that Spaniards like meat. They like it raw, with maybe a few vegetables in tow. Our children survived by eating a lot of cereal and ice cream. And churros con chocolate.

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Still, with all the challenges of guiding our family across the ocean and through a new country, we had an amazing experience learning about modern Spain and its medieval past. It felt at times that we had taken a time machine back 600 years. We saw Roman ruins more impressive than those we saw in Rome itself. We saw amazing works of art that spanned thousands of years. History came alive for our children. And the warm welcome we received is sure to lure us back to Spain again.

Puppy Love

I am excited by today’s Daily Prompt, Menagerie. I was just playing with a photograph of my two puppies. Well, strictly speaking they aren’t puppies. Sophia is 9 and Garibaldi is 5, but I will always think of them as puppies.

Puppy Love

Puppy Love

They are not very obedient. They like to bark. A lot. But they are also sweet and loving with our little children. We love them, too.

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Travel Theme: Trees

This week’s travel theme on Where’s My Backpack is all about trees in honor of Arbor Day. I grew up cold northern areas with lots of rainfall, and tall lush trees. Some areas were lowland deciduous forest. Some were filled with towering evergreens. Moving to a desert landscape was quite a shock. For one thing, you have to worry about irrigation. Irrigation? I’ve always lived in areas where the rain falls often enough you barely think about watering the grass.

DSC_0104 Now, I live not just in the desert, but in an area with citrus trees. Citrus trees are watered through an irrigation system where the area is flooded. It is almost magical to look out over a citrus grove and see a small lake where there were just pebbles before. Especially in the desert, where water is a symbol of wealth. When my husband and I first moved the desert, we noticed that every upscale place had fountains, as a symbol of their status and prosperity.

Also, the citrus trees have such interesting branches and shapes to them. A perfectly healthy tree might have a dark and gnarly branch reaching out from lush and green boughs. And in March, their fragrant blossoms fill the air for weeks with a delectable perfume. I love that day when I step outside and every breath holds invigorating scents.DSC_0108 On this particular day, not only was there irrigation, but rain as well. Hard downpours alternated with sprinkling drops, creating ripples on an otherwise serene reflective pool. I loved seeing two different sources of water interacting to create such a beautiful, peaceful picture.

DSC_0110Happy Arbor Day!

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Toilet Training and Travel

DSC_0083 There are lots of situations that can be difficult and trying as a parent. My least favorite part of being a parent so far? Teaching our little ones to use the toilet, aka potty training. It is a relentless task requiring endless patience and perseverance. My days are planned around when I think my child will need to use the toilet, when they have already used the toilet, and most definitely around the time that they will do more than just pee. Constant vigilance is required, along with use of iPhone timers (most handy because it is portable and it’s not as easy to forget your phone when leaving the house) and a portable toilet that travels with you whenever you leave your house. And part of the frustration is, you never know how long it will be before your child decides that using the toilet, instead of a pull-up or underwear or the floor, is a better option after all! We are now on working with child number 3 on toilet training. And with summer looming on the horizon with travels a-plenty, I need this one to have reached some vital steps in her independent toilet use.

  1. She must want to use the toilet instead of a pull-up.
  2. She must be able to hold it until she actually is sitting on the toilet.
  3. She needs to be able to communicate to me when she needs to go, with enough time to find a toilet! That is definitely key.
  4. She cannot be afraid of using a variety of public bathrooms.
  5. She needs to be comfortable using a big toilet, instead of her little training toilet.

I’m totally fine with helping her pull her underwear up and down, especially if it needs to be done in a hurry. I’m totally fine with helping her wipe and wash hands. I am not okay with leaving a trail of little puddles as we travel, a sort of “we were here” sign. Believe me, I’ve experienced it before and don’t really want a repeat. The funny thing about toilet training is that even if you have done it before, it feels like the first time. Every child responds differently to a reward/punishment system. You have to figure out what will motivate your child to want to use the toilet. Our first daughter earned points for accomplishing different toileting tasks, along with points for staying clean and dry for a certain amount of time. Our second daughter hated cleaning up her messes. She was the easiest to train. She also much preferred the feeling of underwear to diapers, and was especially sensitive to feeling wet and dirty. Our third? Right now what seems to work is a verbal cue that “princesses always use the toilet”, with the additional bonus of a chocolate coin when she uses the toilet appropriately. She wants to be a princess, and something about the chocolate coins really works with her. We tried marshmallows and mini oreos, but they didn’t have the same effect. Right now, I need to be brave and plan mini outings with her only in underwear, so she can be ready when we are traveling about. With a baby in tow, I feel a bit chicken about taking this step. The more children you have with you, the more difficult it can be to respond quickly to a toilet emergency. However, if I don’t and she is not ready when we start our travels, she most likely will regress back to using pull-ups all the time, and then not caring about using the toilet at all. Coming back from a major regression can be more difficult than the initial training phase. With all that said, I like to think of toilet training as a multi-step process. Everyone has their own way of going about it. And there are lots of resources to help when you decide to take the plunge. This is what I personally have found to be helpful.

  1. Preparation. Before you even begin to set your child upon a toilet for the first time, it is helpful to give them an idea of what it is all about. Let them view you or older siblings using the toilet, with a verbal explanation of what is happening, before you ask them to do anything. I do like to say something like, “You are getting so big! Soon you will learn to use the toilet, too, just like so-and-so.” I incorporate stories about using the toilet into our reading time. The two books I use are “The Potty Book for Girls” and “My Big Girl Potty”. I find them useful to reference when actually beginning the training. I also like to set out little toilets in the bathrooms so that they are not such a surprise and mystery when it is time to actually use them.
  2. There are many different methods for the actual “potty training” process. My advice is to research different methods, and then pick one and stick with. Make your expectations clear from the beginning. Try to remain calm. Positive reinforcement is much more helpful to the process than negative repercussions. Breathe. Remember it is difficult for the little ones, and expect it to take much longer than you expect. I have heard tales of children who go from untrained to no accidents in a single day. They are like mythical stories about unicorns. I hope to see one someday. I hope you see one someday, too.
  3. Stay vigilant and keep going. Never assume that they are “done” needing your help, especially when traveling. We have a rule while traveling that everyone has to try the toilet when anyone needs to use it. It cuts down on the number of bathroom trips, and the number of emergency bathroom trips.

DSC_0074When we are actually traveling with a recently toilet trained child, I’ve discovered that having several items with you makes it less of a hassle. Preparation, if just for your sanity’s sake, is essential to enjoying your trip.

  1. Always have at least a change of underwear and a plastic bag.
  2. Use pull-ups at night, even if your child is a potty star. Especially when there is a major time difference, little bodies don’t adjust quickly to an opposite schedule.
  3. Be aware that if you are traveling to a different climate, this will affect the frequency of when they need to go. For example, if traveling from a cool and humid temperate climate to a hot, dry desert, they will need the toilet less frequently.
  4. My new go to piece of traveling equipment, waterproof underwear. Even when my child is doing a great job of using the toilet when they need to, the waterproof underwear lessens my stress level. Sure, they might have an accident and have wet underwear, but they won’t be leaving a puddle behind at the Natural History Museum.

What tips do you have for traveling with a toilet training toddler? Good luck everyone (including me)! Happy summer traveling!