Monday, June 30, 2008


Evan and I were sitting on a bus stop bench last week, talking -- as we often do these days -- about our impending move to the States.

"When we get to New Jersey, you and Daddy and Julia are going to have to show me everything," Evan reminded me for perhaps the eight dozenth time. His face was sweetly anxious, his high pitched voice decidedly British in its apprehension.

I wrapped my arm tightly around him and pulled him closer to my side. "We will, don't worry," I assured him, just as I've done so many other times in the past several weeks. "There are lots of wonderful things about New Jersey that you're going to love, and we're all really looking forward to sharing them with you."

Evan nodded solemnly. He'd heard this many times before and had clearly just wanted me to say it again. But this time, a new concern had occurred to him. "And if people there don't speak English, what will I say?" he asked as the worried look spread back across his features.

I tried to turn my amused smile into one of reassurance. "Oh, don't worry honey," I replied as gently as I could. "They speak English in America." The older English woman who was sitting beside Evan on the bench let out a snort. "Of a sort," she remarked dryly.

Evan looked confused. I automatically laughed, wondering guiltily as I did so whether I was being disloyal to my American roots in my amusement or whether my reaction was actually more American than anything else. And then we climbed about the big red bus and rode off up the left hand side of the street, Evan musing silently about the puzzling cipher that is America and me about the one that is England.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Brighton beach memoirs

There was a time when Paul and I went to Nantucket every summer with a group of friends. We would rent a big house for a week and putter around, spending our days on the beach or cycling around town and our evening gathered together over elaborate meals that everyone had pitched in to help prepare. We started making the trip pre-kids, then there was that memorable summer when we all waddled around town with burgeoning bellies and then in the 2 years that followed, you were as likely to find empty baby bottles on the table as you were to find empty wine bottles when you wandered downstairs in the morning.

Our Nantucket days were wonderful and I still think of them fondly, but we knew it was time to stop making the trip once the children were all a few years old. Nantucket was great for the adults, but kids, we realized, need kid-friendly vacations -- rental houses that don't have breakable tchotchkies and local restaurants that welcome children and maybe some mini golf and a boardwalk to keep them entertained.

I remember feeling strongly that family vacations needed to be geared toward the kids, remember arguing this point vehemently during a late evening debate on the subject on one of our last Nantucket nights. We have the rest of our lives to go to Nantucket, I insisted. But first, we have an obligation to give our kids proper childhood memories in the kinds of borderline tacky environs that children adore. The following year -- and the year after that -- we talked wistfully of Nantucket and then we loaded up the car with buckets and tricycles and headed off to the kid-paradise that is the Jersey Shore, confident that we were doing the right thing for our children.

All that lofty catering-to-the-children nonsense went out the window when we moved here, of course. We traded vacations built on boardwalks and ice cream stands for holidays filled with castles and cathedrals, shouting "once in a lifetime" over and over again as we dragged our children to see all that Europe has to offer. Along the way, as it became clear that I had severely underestimated my kids' ability to enjoy attractions and activities which are not expressly kid-focused, I started to think that maybe I had overestimated the importance of the child friendly vacation destination.

It turns out I hadn't.

We took the kids on a day trip to Brighton this weekend. Just an hour south of London by train, Brighton is perhaps the English equivalent of the Jersey Shore. It is broad expanses of beach fringed by an endless stream of souvenir shops and Fish and Chip stands. It is a giant pier with funfair and amusement arcades. It is families with small children begging for one more ice cream, young adults hanging around the beach during the day and crowding into the local nightclubs when night falls. It is flashing lights and win a prize here and please-can-I-have-some more-ride-tokens-Daddy. I had completely forgotten how much kids like places like this.

All told, we maybe spent a grand total of about 5 or 6 hours in Brighton. In that time, the kids hunted for shells on the rocky beach and collected giant piles of smelly seaweed for reasons known only to them. They dropped 10p coins into the kiddie version of a slot machine and gorged themselves on candy floss (otherwise known as cotton candy). They gleefully rode a 2-seater merry go round and giggled endlessly as they rammed their Dodgems cars (bumper cars, natch) into each other. Evan rode a kiddie coaster. Julia had her first log flume ride. And then they universally declared our handful of hours in Brighton the best trip we've ever taken. Four days in Paris? Meh. A little under a week in Barcelona? Just fine. But Brighton, they insisted joyously, was the best place EVER.

Paris wasn't meh, of course. My kids loved Paris. Ditto Barcelona and Stockholm and Edinburgh and Rome and... must I type out the whole extensive list? I totally underestimated my children that night in Nantucket when I made that broad sweeping blame-it-on-that-extra-glass-of-wine proclamation that you must take kids to kid-focused destinations in order to have a good family vacation. But watching them delight in Brighton this weekend, I realized that I hadn't been all wrong about those child-magnet places, either.

I'll never forget or regret any of the trips we've taken here. But I'm looking forward to next summer and the promise of some time spent "down the Shore" all the same. We've given our kids endless European memories and now I want to give them some of those proper childhood memories in borderline tacky environs. Not because it's our only vacation option or because it's our "obligation" as I believed a few short years ago. Just because it's fun.

Monday, June 16, 2008


The scene: Julia is on a Skype teleconference with her grandparents, catching up on the events of the week.

Grandma: So Julia, what did you do in school this week?

Julia: A lot of math. We're adding numbers in columns by tens and units. Oh, and I know my 2s time table up to TEN!

Grandma: Wow... that's great!

Grandpa: What's 2 x 8?

Julia: 18

Grandpa: Close, but not exactly. Want to try again?

There is a short pause, during which we all presume that Julia is re-calculating to make sure her next answer will be correct. This turns out to be exactly what she is doing, but not at all in the way we had anticipated.

Julia: I know my 2s times table up to SEVEN!

She may have a way to go where rote memorization of math facts is concerned, but something tells me that when she gets to the problem solving section of the math curriculum, the kid's going to do just fine...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

So you're thinking of traveling with your small children in tow

The first time I took my kids (then aged 3 and 1) to visit their grandmother in Arizona, I actually shipped an entire case of soy milk to her house a week before we left. Mind you, neither of my kids are actually lactose intolerant. They just preferred soy milk at that age -- a specific brand of soy milk -- and I wasn't taking any chances that anyone would not have their preferred beverage and therefore not get enough hydration and therefore not be on their best behavior and therefore make the entire week a living hell for everyone.

Needless to say, I've loosened up just a bit in the past few years.

I don't pre-ship soy milk any more. I don't even bother to buy fun surprises to pack in the kids' backpacks so that they'll be entertained on the airplane. (Here, kid, have a barf bag. Make it into a puppet or something. We'll be there in about an hour.) But I do continue to very carefully plan ahead to make sure that our trips will be successful, and this planning has paid off in the form of quite a few fabulous trips in the past few years. So for those of you about to embark on your own adventures with children, as well as for the armchair travelers out there living vicariously right now, I humbly offer the single most important thing that I have learned about planning vacations for our young family:

Where you stay is far more important than where you go.

When traveling with small children, a hotel room is not just a place where you lay your head. It's also the place you escape to when your kids are just too wound up or worn down to do any more sightseeing. It's the place you'll need to entertain said children when they awaken at bizarre hours because of the time change and the place you'll need to keep yourselves entertained after you tuck your little travelers into bed at a decent hour. Staying too far away from the action is a mistake when you're dragging kids back and forth to the city center, but staying in the "best hotel" in the heart of it all can be just as fatal if that hotel is too attached to its breakable accessories and starched white tablecloths. Grunge is bad. Glam is equally bad. And a concierge and wait staff who don't much care for children are the kiss of death.

This may sound ridiculous to non-parents, but I suspect that anyone with young children will understand and appreciate my wisdom here when I confess that I have booked entire holidays in locations I hadn't even previously considered visiting simply because I stumbled across great family-friendly acommodations there. Slight overkill? Perhaps. But the world is a big place and there are wonderful things to explore and discover in nearly any locale. There aren't always good places for families to stay. You do the math.

So where are these great acommodations? They're out there, I promise! We've personally found short-term holiday apartments to be preferable to regular hotels in many European cities, but we've also had luck with aparthotels, suite hotels and hotels which offer "family room" setups on occasion. The key to finding the best properties is inevitably word of mouth. If you have friends who travel, they can be a great resource, but I often find Internet reviews to be an equally reliable source.

I've recently been doing a bit of writing for Travel Savvy Mom, a new site designed to be a resource for family-friendly acommodations worldwide. My obviously biased opinion is that this is a great place to start when looking for acommodations; the property reviews are not only very funny, they're also honest and real and exceedingly helpful. The site is still in its infancy, though, so if you're not looking to stay in a treehouse in Oregon or a children's castle in Tokyo, you may temporarily have to look further for a good recommendation.

TripAdvisor is the best of the major hotel review sites in this instance; several of them let you specifically filter family-friendly properties when searching their list of reviews, but TripAdvisor seems to get it right the most frequently. Kid-specific travel sites like Travel For Kids, Take The Family and Baby Goes 2 will often turn up some good suggestions. Occasionally, I'll hit the jackpot simply typing something like "family friendly hotel London" into a search engine. And then I cross-reference. One positive review could be a fluke. A couple of different ones on different sites are a good sign.

No matter how good the reviews elsewhere, however, I always go directly to the property's website for a quick look around before I make a booking. You can learn a lot about a place simply from the tone of its marketing materials. I don't need 6 pages of description about the ways that they cater to children or a big furry mascot who will make our stay "non-stop fun for the little ones." But if soft violin music accompanies a montage of couples-only photographs and seven different "romance package" offerings, I get a bit suspicious about how welcome my children will actually be upon our arrival. At a minimum, I want to see the word "families" appear a few times in the web copy. If they don't want us enough to market to us, we probably don't want them either.

"Your children have been so well behaved that it's been a pleasure to have them," a B&B owner once told us when we checked out of her lovely property in the English countryside. We had selected the place in large part because it was advertised as family-friendly, so her next sentence threw us a bit. "If all kids were like yours, we'd actually want to have them stay here." We pretended not to notice this odd slip, thanked her politely and ushered the kids quickly out of the house before someone screamed or touched something or otherwise blew our well-behaved cover. And then in the car on the way out, I carefully drew a black line through the words "family friendly" in our library-borrowed guidebook. If you recently checked that book out of London's Swiss Cottage library, you're welcome.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Up, up and away

There's a new display up on the main bulletin board at the entrance to Evan's school this week, a travel-themed project put together by his class. Each child created and decorated a paper mache hot air balloon and a little woven paper basket to go beneath it. A small stuffed bear (selected because his class is called the Bears, of course) sits in each basket, alongside a cloud which says where the bear is headed.

Darling, no? This is a classic example of the cute, creative art projects his teachers dream up; just one of about a gazillion things I'll miss about this school next year. The display was adorable and probably enough, given my current fragile state, to make me prematurely nostalgic in and of itself. But it was what Evan had chosen to write on his cloud that actually made me suspiciously misty eyed:

Damn straight, kiddo. But perhaps the journey would be a bit less onerous if we just took a plane?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The loaves and the fishes

"Hey, Evan, want to know another great thing about New Jersey? In your New Jersey school, you'll get to celebrate Shabbat every Friday. Sometimes I'll even get to be the Shabbat Mom, which means I'll bring your favorite book and snack in to share with the class and then we'll all go to the sanctuary to sing songs and say prayers and eat challah and celebrate Shabbat together."

"Wow, really? That's great... Friday's already my favorite day because of the fish!"

"The fish?"

"Yeah... fish on Fridays. Fish and chips and challah on the same day will be great!"

Paul and Julia and I may be moving home, but I am beginning to suspect that Evan is going to find himself in a foreign country come August...

Sunday, June 01, 2008


The weary travelers have returned again, this time from Spain, where we have just spent the week of our final school Half Term break of the year exploring Segovia, Madrid and Toledo. (Oh my God, did I honestly just say the weary travelers have returned? I've written so many of these trip recaps by now that I'm resorting to overused cliches. But if ever an overused cliche has summed our experience up so succinctly that it just screamed to be used, it is that of the weary traveler right now. Because people, we. are. weary.)

I personally am so weary that I hardly have the energy to give this trip the enthusiastic review that it surely deserves. It was, after all, a great vacation when viewed in isolation. We loved Segovia, liked Toledo and tolerated Madrid. We visited the most amazing castle we've seen in all of Europe, enjoyed some stupendous scenery and took great pride in our horrendously abysmal attempts to sound like locals. We stayed in just the right places, ate in many of the right places, visited as many of the right places as we could realistically pull off with the kids in tow. We enjoyed it all. It was a well planned trip. It ought to have been -- I've planned over a dozen like it in the past two years.

OK, gang, you know the drill... smile like maniacs while some stranger snaps our photo.

And that's my problem, I think. I viewed this trip not in isolation but in the context of the dozen-or-so trips that came before it, and from that vantage point it was all a little but unsettlingly ho hum. In the face of all of those pack-it-up-and-move-it-out adventures stacked one on top of the other, my wanderlust is beginning to make way for something else, stability-lust, maybe. I'm beginning to think that in our haste to see and do it all before our time here is up that we've seen and done too many things, to the point that our travels have begun to lose some of their lustre and charm. This was yet another good trip for us. We've got this travel business down to a science. And that, I think, is kind of sad. Because travel should take you out of your ordinary and give you experiences that you would never get to enjoy in your regular day to day life. When it becomes the ordinary and the day to day, an essential piece of what makes travel so exciting disappears.

Do I sound like a spoiled brat here? Oh poor me, I've just dragged my kids to too many fabulous places in the past two years. That's not it, of course. I'm incredibly grateful for this opportunity and well aware of how fortunate I am to find myself among the cliched travel weary of the world. But I'm also grateful that our jet setting days are drawing to a close this summer. As hard as it will be to say goodbye to our life here, I'm ready to say goodbye to this lifestyle. I'm ready for roots and routine and a same-old-same-old that's supposed to be a same-old-same-old. I ache for a calendar filled with soccer practices and playdates rather than one which reads like the index of a Lonely Planet guide. I look forward to settling into real life again, to unpacking the layers of tissue that protect my old familiar things and dusting off my old notions of normalcy. And maybe it's too much to ask for, but I'm hoping that I might just find my wanderlust there again too.