“Like most people who have had one baby, I am an expert on everything and will tell you, unsolicited, how to raise your kid!” – Tina Fey
Life after birth often feels irreparably altered – mostly because it is. For example, I’m rarely allowed to bathe alone. I only swear in writing. Sleeping in finds itself sharing a category with slip and slides: things we remember enjoying when we were young. But one activity we’d presumed had gone the way of the lazy Sunday resurfaced recently. Travel! Not trekking to the park or sojourning to the fancy children’s museum in the suburbs, mind you. Actual, international travel, complete with looking at historical things, eating interesting foods, and absorbing local culture.
Forced by two dear friends’ wedding and the promise of dinner and dancing in an authentic French castle, we recently undertook a trip abroad with a toddler. We left Seattle early in the morning, flew to New York, and caught a red-eye from JFK to Barcelona. We spent four days exploring Barcelona, rented a car, checked out Costa Brava, spent a night in Aix-en-Provence, resided in a château in Aups for a week, and luxuriated in an afternoon and evening in Cannes. We then flew from Nice to Paris, Paris to Chicago, and Chicago back to Seattle. And we truly enjoyed ourselves. All three of us.
This is how we did it (warning: readers who aren’t currently raising children will probably find the remainder of this post less interesting than watching popcorn pop, those who have already devised their own system will likely recoil with annoyance, and even folks who specifically seek advice on this subject ought not try slogging through all my recommendations in one go):
– We talked about the airport in embarrassingly excited tones the day before leaving and en route. Ian and I feigned the enthusiasm we would feel for a full 24 hours alone in bed together with two extra-large, gluten-free pepperoni pizzas, a television, a New Yorker, three issues of US Weekly, an Economist, and a fantasy/sci-fi book written for twelve year-old girls. (I’ll leave it to you to figure out who reads what.) We maintained the facade even as one of us got slammed with a morning/motion sickness one-two punch on the train ride from Downtown Seattle to SeaTac Airport and stumbled off the train only to vomit off the side of the platform. We discussed boarding, pushing back, taxiing, and take off with similar ardor (e.g., “Oh my goodness! We’re going to walk down that long tunnel and then STEP ONTO THE AIRPLANE! Woooooooow!).
– Ian and I did not book adjoining seats. We requested an aisle and a window on domestic flights and the two center aisle seats on international flights. After reserving the seats online, I called the airline, explained that we would be traveling with a “lap child” (an infant under 2 who isn’t required to sit in her own seat) and asked “are you sure there’s nothing you can do to help us, Kathy?” I find that the average customer service representative responds well to a personal challenge that implicitly questions the extent of her authority. “I’ll show you, Mrs. Cornwall,” her rapid change in tone and newly efficient assistance shouted, “here’s exactly what you need! Didn’t think I could do it, did you?” After arriving at the airport, I told the same sob story to the ticketing agent while faux absent-mindedly rubbing ye olde pregnant belly and confirmed that the seat between ours would remain “frozen” on every leg of the trip. Translation: three seats for the price of two.
– In every airport along the way, we followed two rules. First, we encouraged Viv to walk, run, jump, and dance through the halls like a devout Roman Catholic would suck down a chocolate milkshake on the eve of Ash Wednesday. The play area in SeaTac and the Children’s Museum in O’Hare aided operation physical exhaustion immensely. Second, we paid the exorbitant airport food prices. After this trip, Viv has taken a whopping 31 flights (counting each leg separately). No matter how carefully we pack a mixture of her favorite snacks and novel ones, she always prefers recently purchased foodstuffs. Scrambled eggs from home? “No, day du.” Twelve dollar scrambled eggs from New York Deli? “Mmmmm.” A bag of previously untried chocolate chip animal crackers that I bought on sale last week? “No, day du.” An identical pouch at more than twice the price? “Hold dis? Hold dis? Hold dis? Peeeeeeeeeeas! Day du, Mama.” I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised; I feel exactly the same way.
– We politely declined the gate agent’s offer of bulkhead seats. The extra leg room does not outweigh the cost of enhanced visibility. Whenever we fly, we set out a few blankets on the floor, making sure to cover the metal bars. We march through Viv’s nap and bed time routines as per usual – complete with outfit change, three books, and “singies” – and then lay her down in the space intended for my legs. Viv sleeps almost as long as she would in her crib since she can roll and otherwise reposition herself. Lowering our trays both dims her little area and conceals this non-FAA approved behavior from hyper-vigilant flight attendants. The method earns massive extra credit points for keeping our hands and laps free so that we can read a book, fidget, and even use the restroom without disturbing her.
– My mom taught me my single most effective strategy: “presents.” Before we flew, I trolled Ross, Marshalls, Bartell (Northwest version of CVS/Duane Reade/RiteAid), the Japanese dollar store (where it turns out everything actually costs $1.50 unless marked up to $4.00), and toy store clearance bins for small, light, and intriguing items costing less than $5.00 apiece. Some of my most successful finds include: a tube of chapstick, a pack of five doggy figurines one of which appears distinctly rabid, several different wallets packed with business cards I collected around town, a wind-up toy, a bifurcated pouch-like object with a zippered top intended to be a storage unit for phone chargers, and a box of generic brand Kleenex. I then wrap each item in tissue paper. Correction: I entrap each item in tissue paper, swaddling it with layer after layer of scotch tape. On the plane, every thirty minutes or so Viv started to get fussy, was reminded that good girls who stay in their seats and use their inside voices get presents, politely asked for her “peasant” less than thirty seconds thereafter, gleefully shifted from bum cheek to bum cheek as one of us ceremoniously retrieved her backpack from under the seat, stuck her little paw into the atrociously princess-and-ruffle-encrusted $4.99 satchel, spent at least four minutes extracting her chosen present from the tissue paper wrapping, and played quietly with the new item for at least three additional minutes. We left home with about 30 “presents.” The night before we left Nice we realized that our supply had dwindled to dangerous levels. No panic, no problem. Hotel shower cap, plus shot glass and change purse from the airport souvenir shop, plus TSA-gifted latex gloves, plus chocolate coins from the gourmet chocolate kiosk equals one happy flier.
– When Viv started to become a real handful, we alternated focusing all our attention on her while the other slipped away in ten minute shifts. Parents, like fruit, are best fresh.
– Finally, we refused to let Viv touch anything she wouldn’t be permitted to play with the entire flight. That means the tray never came down when she was awake (despite her best efforts to be gentle, if permitted Viv would infuriate the person in front of her by shaking his chair with each little step her rabid doggy took). She didn’t get to touch the TV screen on the back of the chair (another seat manhandling hazard). No phones, Kindles, headphones, etc. that Mommy and Daddy might want back later. Leave the window shade alone, thank you very much. These rules go over like a lead balloon at first, but once firmly introduced and reinforced make for much smoother flights.
– Four years ago, Ian and I traveled to Spain and Rome for two weeks with one small carry-on roller board and a backpack. When we travel to New York, California, and Missouri to visit grandparents we still manage to carry-on most of the time thanks to the elder generation’s generous re-invitation of baby products into their homes (in other words, cribs, high chairs, and car seats grace the closets of Manhattan, Portola Valley, and St. Louis year round). Our strategy for international travel: pack heavy. We experienced the wonder of the ultra-light portable crib thanks to a loan from our friends Christine and Cedric (Bjorn brand). We easily fit Viv’s “special chair” (a Chicco Caddy Hook On High Chair) into a standard size reusable grocery bag and hung it on the handle bars of our excellent umbrella stroller (UPPAbaby G-lite) when venturing out for food. Speaking of food, we packed almost 10 pounds of it. Though we’ve tried to cut back on purees now that Viv chews solid fruit and veggies, in a pinch she still reliably eats from Peter Rabbit Organics pouches (these ingenious handheld bags of puree minimize mess, eliminate the need for parental assistance, and allow for feeding on the go; Plum Organics and Ella’s Kitchen also produce them) and Earth’s Best Organic Apple Butternut Squash jars. A week’s worth of these two plus a stockpile of graham crackers, Ritz, and healthy-ish cookies adds up quickly. Sure we had to check two enormous bags and Ian’s shoulders may never recover from lugging them between transportation hubs and hotels, but not once did we find ourselves fretting over Viv’s sleeping and eating preparedness.
– I’ll allow myself one last product plug. Addicted to the massive storage space underneath my giant BOB stroller (if you’re looking to buy one, I recommend REI for the unparalleled customer service), Mommy Hook enabled diaper bag and purse hanging from the sturdy handlebar (long ago dubbed my “stroller scrotum”), and extra cup holders and zipper pocket on the BOB handlebar console; I responded to the idea of traveling with an umbrella stroller with the same horror others would reserve for the loss of a beloved drug dealer. Munchkin stroller organizer and cup holder to the rescue.
– I ordinarily do not drink caffeine. Since it works like a drug, turning me into a hungry squirrel on crystal meth, I treat it like a drug and use it as sparingly as possible. Our secret for beating jet lag on pre-Viv trips: Ian and I both drank coffee when we landed at 7:00 a.m. local time, did our best to stay awake into the early evening, and slept about 14 hours the first night. Done. Adjusted. Not so much this time. Probably because she slept only 45 minutes on the flight from JFK to Barcelona, by 10:00 a.m. local time Viv couldn’t take it anymore. Out. Then she didn’t want to wake up. We let her sleep for only three hours, selfish beasts that we are. We put her to bed at 7:30 p.m. that evening, patted each other on the back, and settled in for what we assumed would be our usual post-flight hibernation followed by breakfast at 9:30 or 10:00 a.m. I laugh in the face of my former self. Viv woke at 1:00 a.m. and didn’t go back to sleep for five hours. We roused her around noon, much to her chagrin and ours. We needn’t have fretted. Though we didn’t manage to get her onto her normal schedule (waking between 7:00 and 8:00, napping from 2:00ish to 4:00ish, going to bed at 8:30, and falling asleep between 9:00 and 10:00), we stumbled upon a solution that worked even better. After that first crazy night, she reliably woke at noon, leaving just enough time to get to restaurants as they opened (2:00 p.m. in Barcelona), napped from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., and went down at around midnight. We enjoyed late night strolls admiring the city’s twinkling lights and sizzling evening vibrancy (including a real life madam hanging out her window and whistling as a police car came into view, causing the women wearing colorful high heels and hungry looking men around us to scurry away in all directions). And thanks to hotel blackout shades, we too caught a full night’s sleep before rousing for lunch and play the following day.
– In order to interfere with her sleep cycle again in response to the more familiar restaurant hours in Provence, we simply skipped a nap. Moms everywhere gasp in horror. Okay, fine. The three moms who read my blog gasp in horror. It worked! I swear! She went down at 10:00 p.m. that night, woke up at 9:00 a.m. the following morning, and accepted the 3:00 p.m. nap time without protest. Voila!
Parenthood means sacrifice. In order to enjoy exploring a new city, we found it necessary to make two major adjustments.
– We swallowed our foodie pride and ate at second and third tier establishments fronting on plazas. Kids simply aren’t used to savoring their food and lingering over multi-course meals, let alone at European speed, two or three times a day. To have any hope of feeding the three of us without brandishing a cattle prod at the wait and kitchen staff, we had to choose meals accompanied by entertainment. On plazas a steady stream of capoeira dancers, cross-dressing opera singers, mariachi bands, and older men playing relatively unpopular instruments accompanied by an animal (e.g., accordion and monkey or sitar and cat), performed to Viv’s delight. No standing room only tapas bars or experimental kitchens tucked away behind alley entrances for us. No searching out the “real” culinary Barcelona. Fine. We survived. In fact, once we gave in and accepted the loss (a wild goose chase for a hip, authentic option located on a tourist-packed plaza caused some angst), we sat back and enjoyed the show.
– Second, we reigned in our sightseeing ambition. Sitting in her “special chair” for two long meals a day left Viv with little patience for stroller time. Whereas the ghosts of Ian and Gail past would tick three or four tourist attractions off the list each day, doting (read either “totally whipped” or “realistic”) us embraced destination modesty. We visited one exciting locale each day and spent the remaining hours playing in parks, wandering through street fairs, and perusing the wares in outdoor markets at Viv’s walking pace.
If I’d gotten a glimpse of this post in 2008 would I have scheduled a trip to Japan or even put off having kids a bit longer? Maybe. But despite the inconveniences, concessions, and expenditures described above, my primary emotion upon returning home was one of wonder. I’m absolutely amazed and exceedingly grateful that world travel and little ones are more like oil and vinegar than oil and water; shake it up a little and you’ve got a healthy, tasty treat for the whole family.