Sunday, April 20, 2014

Luggage, Camera & A Child In Tow

Summer is rapidly approaching and with that comes our long awaited vacation. We're still working on the details but it looks like this year we'll be spending a month back in the United States visiting family and friends, introducing Sidney to our old East Coast haunts and simply relaxing. Yes, relaxing. Because vacations are supposed to be stress free breaks from the every day. But as any parent knows the responsibilities of parenthood are with you whether you are at home, in a hotel, or on the road meaning vacations really aren't time off from work.

Sidney is a seasoned traveler, having racked up thousands of miles through train, plane, boat, and automobile travel since he was a newborn.  I know that we are extremely lucky since, with the exception of one (horribly) memorable transatlantic flight that I'd rather forget, he travels well. Buckle him into his seat on our selected mode of transportation and we are good to go. But the ease of travel doesn't just happen; it takes work. So how do I keep stress to a minimum when vacationing with a four year old? By involving the entire family in the planning process and by being realistic about all of our expectations. It isn't always easy but with a little bit of planning vacations really can be stress free and enjoyable for the entire family. So in anticipation of the upcoming travel season, here are some of my tried and true hints for having a stress free family vacation.

  • Involve the entire family in the preparations:  
When I hear about harried moms doing all of the packing for their entire family I just shudder. My husband is a grown man who knows how to dress himself so he can pack his own suitcase. I mean, when we are at home he picks out his own clothes each morning so why should being on vacation be any different? I pack my own clothes, Glenn packs his, and Sidney now packs his own little red suitcase (with adult supervision of course). This allows Sidney to be an active part of the planning process. He also chooses which clothing, toys, and entertainment he wants to bring. And he carries all of his own entertainment in his red backpack. Involving Sidney at this level means he is excited about the process of getting to our destination. And as any parent knows, a happy child on the airplane makes for more relaxed parents. Its a win-win!

  • Set realistic expectations:
It is easy to visit a new city and want to see everything. After all, when most of us are on vacation we have a limited amount of time and want to cram the most into our stay. Pre-child my idea of a vacation was cramming in as much sight seeing in any given location as possible. This also meant returning home exhausted and needing a vacation from my vacation. Now I take a different approach to trips. We pick a few key sites, museums, memorials, etc. we want to see in each city we travel to. We include a balance of indoor activities and more active pursuits and schedule in lots of down time whether it be back in the hotel room or lounging at a sidewalk cafe. Many of Europe's great cities have fantastic main squares and wide pedestrian zones that are sites unto themselves. They also have plenty of safe spaces for little legs to burn off energy. I've lost track of the number of hours we've spent simply roaming through one city after another. We may miss out on some famous sites (and sometimes we make new unexpected discoveries) but we are able to fully enjoy those that we do visit without being rushed.  (Besides, if we don't see everything we will just have to plan a return visit). 


  • Take a one day (or more) stay-cation at home before returning to work:
It may mean having one less day to spend at your vacation destination, but having a day to relax, unpack, and settle into your everyday routine improves the vacation experience. Returning home means suitcases needing to be unpacked, mountains of laundry needing to be washed, and a refrigerator to be restocked. If you return home late on a Sunday night and have to head off to work and school early the next morning, there simply isn't enough time to get re acclimated to home life. We now return home at least a day early meaning we have a full day to settle back into our routines. This means I can start off the new week with less stress and only fond memories of vacation.

So with summer just around the corner start making your plans now. Then each of you pack your own bags, grab your cameras and hit the road to see as little or as much as you feel like. Happy travels!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Easter Bunny, Santa Claus & Other Commericialized Childhood Propaganda

Call me a cynic but I just can't embrace the Easter Bunny. Or Santa Claus either for that matter. While both Easter and Christmas are rooted in Christian traditions somewhere along the line the original intent of these religious holidays got hijacked by mass consumerism making their focus gift giving. It isn't that I don't love celebrations and festivities; rather I have a hard time getting into the spirit of an event whose main focus seems to be buying and giving unnecessary items. And since most of these celebrations were originally centered around a Christian religion that I do not practice I feel even more removed from the celebrations. But I have a very aware little boy who sees his friends celebrating these annual events and naturally he wants to be a part of the fun. So what is a parent to do?

With Christian Easter being celebrated this weekend I've been struggling with just how we should recognize the holiday in our non-religious household. In past years we've simply ignored it and treated it as any other Sunday. (Well, under the auspices of my old job I was required to organize a community wide party around Easter which I did but the celebrations never crossed our doorstep). But this year Sidney is so aware of the Easter Bunny and has been talking about chocolate eggs and other sugary treats. He gravitates towards the pastel colored displays in the stores and asks when the bunny will bring goodies to him. He spies the chocolate crosses that are just as prevalent as the eggs, chicks, and bunnies but doesn't distinguish between them; to my four year old they are all just chocolate. And he loves chocolate.

So how do we not make our little boy feel like his is missing out on something that everyone else is experiencing. Without a deep religious faith it feels hypocritical to be celebrating Easter. (And I still don't see the connection between the resurrection of Christ and an adult sized rabbit). We want Sidney to decide for himself what he believes and I don't want commercialized costume characters to influence this. After much deliberation our answer is to hold our own small egg hunt in the backyard. We'll fill eggs with small treats and toys and let Sidney burn off some energy trying to find them. Rather than putting the focus on a Christian event (sorry son but you won't be finding any chocolate crosses in those eggs) we'll call it a celebration of spring. Hopefully the predicted rain will hold off and perhaps the sun might even shine for a bit in Belgium. I know that eventually we will have to explain the real meaning behind the holiday to Sidney but for this year I think we will be getting a pass on that conversation.

And in closing, this pretty much sums up how I really feel:

Friday, April 18, 2014

People Watching

Airports are the ultimate melting pot; where else do people from every continent and segment of society converge into a single location at the same time? I've said this before and was reminded of this during a recent lengthy stay in the Istanbul (Turkey) Airport. As a meeting point for flights heading north, south, east and west this airport is nothing short of huge with 45 million travelers passing through its concourses in 2012 alone. Perched on the cusp of Europe and Asia, flights connecting to all parts of the world pass through this busy airport that, in many respects, is a city unto itself. Because of all of this, the airport is also great places to observe people and the world sound us and that is just what I found myself doing.

With a single glance you can see traditional and modern, old and new, high end luxury and discount materialism co-mingling in a way that can only happen in an airport. First there are the people. Women shrouded in burkas and hijabs walk alongside those sporting skinny jeans and Lycra tank tops. Men in three piece business suits stand alongside those with low slung athletic pants and logo tee shirts. Business travelers with blackberries latched to their ears share the concourse with frazzled looking families and novice travelers who appear to be out of their element. Is it possible that all of these people are boarding the same flight? And then there are all of the other trappings. Louis Vuitton luggage shares conveyor belt space with plastic wrapped cardboard boxes. If shopping is your thing you can pick up a one dollar magnet or a thousand dollar (or more) handbag. Or you can spend your money on overpriced bottled water or surprisingly tasty gourmet food.

As any regular flyer knows, layovers are not necessarily fun but they are a part of the deal. So do what I do and make the best of it. Eat, drink, and be merry while you watch the world pass you by. After all, people watching makes for great entertainment and best of all, it is free.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ah... Ah... Choo.....

Spring has definitely sprung here in Belgium. Flowers and trees are blooming all around me and with the brightly colored foliage comes all of the pollen. And at least for me, pollen triggers allergies. The sneezing, congestion, and watery eyes of my allergies are like the perpetual cold that just won't quit. And frankly, since it has been going on for months now, it stinks.

I know many people suffer from allergies much worse than mine so I am grateful for the fact that my allergies are seasonal rather than year around. In the concrete jungle that was our neighborhood in Albania, trees and grass were few and far between. I bemoaned the lack of green at the time but  in hindsight I realize that the dearth of foliage kept my allergies at bay. (Now if I had dust or mold allergies I would have been singing a totally different tune). But Belgium is lush. Very lush. I love all of the green grass, trees, and flowers that are around me but I am now suffering because of their beauty.

Despite the most potent of allergy medicines I've been taking the symptoms just won't go away. I didn't realize just how much I was suffering until I spent time in Istanbul last week. The flight was miserable and I thought my head was going to explode but within a few hours of landing I could magically breathe again and the sinus pressure that had been plaguing me for over a month had disappeared. Who knew that I would have to travel to a sprawling city with a population of close to 14 million people to be able to breathe freely again. But apparently the lack of green space and the maze of car filled streets agreed with me.

But I am now back in my green world. When my eyes stop hurting long enough to see I am enjoying the lushness of a Belgian spring. The flowers Sidney picks for me grace the table but I only sniff them when he insists. He wants to plant a flower garden and I'm trying to figure out how to do it while keeping my allergies at bay. I'm popping my allergy medicines again and wondering when the pollen will subside. Soon I hope. But despite all of my suffering it could be worse. I have friends back in the U.S. who are dealing with late spring snows. Given the choice I'll take my sneezing any day!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What Lies Beneath

Looking down a length of marble columns
Architecturally, Istanbul is an amazing city. This is the place that East meets West, old meets new, and religions intertwine producing an amazing skyline. Modern skyscrapers cast shadows over ancient hamams, historic buildings have simultaneously been painstakingly preserved and allowed to fall to ruin, and buildings have been re-purposed into uses I'm sure their builders never even dreamed about. Yes, the city is amazing above ground but by far, my favorite Istanbul site is one that lies below the surface. The Yerebatan or Basilica Cistern, is an amazing architectural feat that Glenn and I literally stumbled upon during our first trip to Istanbul and I knew I wanted to introduce Sidney to this subterranean water wonderland during our return trip.

The cistern itself is one of hundred that lie beneath the city dates to the 6th Century (another really cool  but now dry cistern has been re-purposed into the Sarnic Restaurant, which is well worth visiting while in Istanbul). Records claim that 7,000 slaves were used to construct the cistern under the site of   what was originally a large public square. At over 100,000 square feet the cistern can hold 2,800,000 cubic feet of water which was piped into the cistern from a water distribution system twelve miles away. The cistern provided filtered water for the Topkapi Palace and the Great Palace of Constantinople from the mid 1400s up until modern times. Three hundred and thirty six marble columns set in twelve rows of twenty eight support the cistern's ceiling. Of particular interest are the columns whose bases are carved with the images of Medusa.

Even if you have never visited the cistern it may still look familiar to you thanks to the 1963 James Bond film From Russia With Love, 2009's The International or in Dan Brown's Inferno. But if possible, seeing it in person is a must, and as I said earlier, my favorite place in Istanbul.

Visitors enter the cistern through a modest brick building then wind their way down a narrow set of fifty-two stone steps before entering the dimly lit chamber. Although much of the cistern has been rebuilt or restored--most recently in the mid 1980s when silt was removed and wooden walkways replaced the boats that had moved visitors through the cistern-- its construction is testimony to the amazing engineering skills that date back to the Byzantine Empire. To think that all of this was created by hand (yes, the hands of slaves but by hand none the less) is truly awe inspiring. The cistern chamber itself is cool and damp with the audible sound of dripping water echoing through the space. I've visited on two occasions and both times, despite the crowds, noise levels are minimal with people whispering. Once your eyes adjust to the dim lighting you can wandering the length of the cistern along wooden planked walkways. Today the water is shallow and filled with an array of well fed fish. Somehow the fish only add to the serene and almost eerie feeling that permeates the area. The Medusa heads are located in the far corner of the cistern making trekking all the way to the end well worth the effort. They are just that cool.

But then again whole cistern is cool. So if you find yourself in Istanbul, go visit the cistern. You will be able to briefly escape the heat and discover a piece of what is going on under your feet. I promise that you won't be disappointed.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Give Me Light

A room with a view...of a concrete wall
I love light. Whether it be the long hours of daylight that fill the summer months or simply a brightly lit room, give me light and I immediately feel better. Take away that light and I am simply sad. Our old house in Albania had a lot of small windows which should have let in plenty of light yet I felt as though I spent two and a half years living in the dark because I fought, and lost, a never ending battle with my housekeeper about keeping the shutters open. I would open them and she would immediately close them saying the sun faded rugs, open shutters let in the heat, or the neighbors could look at us if the shutters weren't tightly closed. After a while I gave up and just resorted to buying light bulbs with stronger wattage and spending time outside on the balconies (where yes, the neighbors could see me). Perhaps that is why I was immediately taken with our current house in Belgium. The large windows opening onto both our back yard and the front street are what sold me on the house. Granted, we might not get a lot of sunny days in Belgium but when we do the house is as bright as can be. And even on cloudy days, natural daylight still means the house is still filled with light.

We've been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit over the past few years and I'm discovering that one of my travel pet peeves are rooms without adequate lighting. Granted, rooms with views would be preferable and with a couple of minor exceptions we have had natural light flowing into our rooms. But the exceptions, where light was at a premium, were especially bad. Up until recently, our worst room was one at the Marriott in Waikiki, Hawaii where our room over looked the parking deck. If I sat in a chair and peered up and out the window I could see a glimmer of sunlight. Or I could wait for a car to turn on their headlights and then our room would be flooded with bright light. I thought that was bad but on our recent trip to Istanbul, I found out that what we had in Waikiki was heaven. In Istanbul our room had a great window but it opened onto the concrete wall of the adjacent building. Yup, no natural light at all. (Which is a shame because other than the lack of light, the hotel was quite nice). And that brings me to my next point........

Why oh why can't hotels have adequate lighting? More often than not even the nicest of hotels have too few lights with low wattage light bulbs. A room with a single overhead light really doesn't cut it. I understand the concept of mood lighting but when I can't even see my face in the mirror it just might be too dark in the room. If the room has a desk or workstation I would except there to at least be a brighter light there but I have found that to rarely be the case. Now if you add in a lack of natural light-such as was the case in our Istanbul hotel- and I feel like I'm staying in a cave. Blue tinted lights do little to actually brighten the room. If the bedside lamps were equipped with brighter light bulbs I could really appreciate the colorful cut glass details (and see the pages of my book). Is my eyesight really getting that bad?

Now before booking hotels I usually do my research on a variety travel websites checking out room reviews. (However, the two hotel rooms mentioned above were selected for us courtesy of the military). In all of my research I can't remember a single instance where any reviewer has commented on a room's lighting. Am I the only one who is bothered by this? I need to start writing my own reviews so others can be warned. But perhaps the solution is that I need to start traveling with my own light bulbs!