The Tradition

There is something to be said for tradition when it comes to the family trip. As a child, most of my family’s summer vacations were spent either in New Braunfels, Texas or at the Coca Cola Camp on Lake Bruin in Louisiana.

Typically, we’d go with five or six other families to New Braunfels for the Fourth of July. We always stayed in a little area called The Other Place, an oval cul-de-sac of houses and condos surrounding a grassy median with playground equipment, picnic tables and barbecues. We’d float the river in inner tubes, cook out, play horseshoes, watch fireworks and the Wimbledon finals, nearly drown at the Schlitterbahn water slide and generally run barefoot and wild with hordes of other kids while our parents played tennis and drank wine coolers. It was great.

Coca Cola Camp was very similar, only we’d join my Dad’s four sisters and their families in a giant screened-in house for a week of family fun. Shout out to the Coodys! My Uncle Robert worked for Coke, and through some generous arrangement completely unbeknownst and beside the point to me, my sisters and I got to spend several glorious days with our aunts, uncles, 11 cousins and miscellaneous tagalongs. We’d hang out on the dock, waiting with fear and excitement for Uncle Robert to hurl us into the lake. We also fished for gar, made cheese dip, helped ourselves to an endless supply of Cokes and played Monopoly into the wee hours while our parents drank beer. It was great.

Being European and all, Jasper’s family trips were a little different from ours. Ski holidays in the Austrian Alps and “camping” vacations on the French Riviera were a far cry from La-Tex lakes and rivers, but my sense is their trips had many of the same components ours did. Really, white trash really isn’t so far removed from Euro trash, but that’s a post for a different day.

My little family is very lucky to have a generous friend who lets us use his condo in Crested Butte, Colorado, so our tradition happens to be in the most beautiful mountain town in the world. Seriously, I challenge you to find one that’s any lovelier. The first time we went to CB, it was summertime and Stella was two years old. We recently got back from our fourth winter trip, and I still love the whole package…Jasper’s infectious enthusiasm for skiing, spending hours in front of the fire, soaking in pristine landscapes and clean air, making memories with friends, and doing things that are slightly out of my comfort zone. There’s nothing like 12 degree temps and an accidental encounter with a scary slope to make you feel alive!

Most of all, though, it’s a thrill to watch Stella enjoy the mountains. I don’t know if it’s possible to feel nostalgic for the moment you are in, but the slightly tweaked deja vu sensation you feel watching your child experience the same thing year after year triggers something like it.

If you go to Crested Butte four years in a row…

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The Quickie: Car Camping With Your Faves

Not every family vacation can be to Paris, or even Mexico. But there’s plenty of fun to be had on trips far less grand and much closer to home, including the classic family camping trip. Though I didn’t grow up camping, my own little family was destined to seek the thrill of sleeping under the stars and eating cold beans straight from a can. My husband and I met in a youth hostel, but pitched a tent regularly once we started traveling together. It was cheap and efficient…and what 22-year-old girl wouldn’t want to sleep in a tent on Kangaroo Island with this guy?

Even if you’ve never been camping, if you have kids you probably know they love the idea of it. Pitch a tent anywhere from the living room to the backyard and it’s an instant party. And while I was lucky enough to get hooked on camping in Australia, any nearby state park will do for starting a family tradition. We took our first family camping trip last spring when our daughter was four, along with our fun friends, who also happen to be the parents of our daughter’s best friend. While it doesn’t boast koalas or 50 foot waterfalls, Tyler State Park does have beautiful pine trees, lovely hiking and biking trails and a small but picturesque lake. As an extra selling point, it’s an easy 1.5 hour drive straight up the interstate from our house.

If you go camping with two four-year-old girls and a one-year-old boy:

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*Many, many thanks to Jessie and James Greene for the majority of these photos!

It’s So Fly Flying With Kids

It may be an understatement to say flying has never been my greatest joy. At one point in my life I even sought therapy, which is kind of funny since my husband is from another continent AND an anxiety researcher. For the most part, I’ve always flown despite my fear, but my travels were tainted by a lack of anticipatory excitement as well as return flight dread that set in pretty much the moment the outbound flight touched down.

You may well ask what “anticipatory excitement” is. Basically, it’s planning a trip based on the assumption that you will not arrive alive at your intended destination. Try taking a honeymoon without making a single hotel reservation and you’ll get a taste of my very special kind of crazy–a crazy you do not want your daughter to inherit.

Luckily, my daughter is a very happy little traveler so far. She looks forward to every trip and gets a little out of sorts if my husband or I get to fly somewhere without her. But even excited children can prove difficult to keep happy and comfortable when trapped in a cramped and stagnant tube where the crabby, hungry, bored and often sick masses are pressed together in an annoying heap of humanity.

Each age has its own challenges, which means we parents must remain vigilant; juking and jiving through childhood to keep our offspring, fellow passengers, and ourselves sane and law-abiding while en route.

I hope my experiences are enlightening to a few of you, but I should disclose up front that the following observations are completely anecdotal and have no basis in scientific evidence. So pay attention.

Baby’s First Year


As seen in the photo above, infancy is THE time to fly with children. Tickets are free, and you get those adorable little bassinet things in the bulkhead seat. No one wants to sit next to you, which means you can spread out, leisurely watch movies and drink free beer to your heart’s content while your nine-month-old snoozes her way across the Atlantic.

Seriously, on this flight to Holland, we took a late afternoon flight, fed her when the seat belt sign went off, tucked her in within an hour and a half of take-off, and had to wake her up when it was time to land. Since babies sleep so much anyway, there was very little adjustment with the seven hour time difference so jet lag was no problem at all. Awesome.

One to Two Years Old

My daughter is almost two in this photo. She’s sitting on a beautiful beach in the south of France doing her best Hervé Villechaize impression of “Da plane! Da plane!” Cute, right? Don’t let her fool you. I think she’s excited about a plane flying overhead because she’s gleefully remembering the hell she put us through on the flight over, and plotting her shenanigans for the return home.

In her entire childhood to date, the frustration I felt trying to get her to sleep on those two flights was matched only by the post-diaper, pre-poop-in-the-potty days. She slept for about three hours on the outbound flight, and not a single wink on the return. Ten hours is a long time to entertain a toddler who is not yet interested in television and incapable of sitting quietly. A really long time. The only positive thing I can say about traveling with a child this age is the ticket is free. The good news is, when you look back on the trip, you’ll mostly remember the fun time you had, and the whole flight fiasco will be a funny story you tell parents of toddlers.

Two to Three Years Old

Kids this age are beginning to be rational beings. They can be reasoned with, bribed, tricked and otherwise manipulated. Snacks, new toys (like creepy baby dolls), snacks, explorations of the tiny bathroom, snacks…these are the parent’s friend in flight. While we did not fly overseas with our daughter at this age, we took several trips in the three-four hour range. She was excited about going somewhere in general, and enjoyed the novelty of all the goings-on within the plane.

This is a tricky age for some, depending on when potty training occurs. Our daughter was in the midst of potty training on this flight, but I took the easy way out and put her in a diaper rather than going to the grosser-by-the minute toilet fifteen times. It worked for us, but I’m sure some would criticize. To them I would say: my five year old daughter hasn’t wet her pants in more than two years. Except for that week or two a few months back when she became transfixed by things like soccer and Legos. So there.

Three to Four Years Old

The most obvious thing you need in order to have an enjoyable family trip is excited (or at least resigned) kids. Our daughter gets super jazzed about going pretty much anywhere when I tell her it’s time to get her backpack ready to go. It’s small enough that it can’t get too heavy, but large enough that she can cram in the stuffed animals, books and art supplies that are most important to her at that moment. As an added bonus, I’ve never heard her complain about not having a particular prized possession.

As seen above, that whole backpack thing will be completely forgotten when your four year old discovers she has her very own television and access to literally hours of movies and shows. When it comes to lengthy flights, I’m all for ignoring the rules. If that means Peter Pan, followed by The Incredibles, followed by chicken strips, followed by Sponge Bob Squarepants, so be it. Judge if you will. My kid looks forward to 10-12 flights, and it’s the boob tube that makes that possible.

Five Years Old

Five years old is really not so different from four in terms of making it through a long-haul flight. Snacks, books, movies and games got us through most of our most recent vacation. My daughter didn’t sleep nearly enough on either leg of our last trip. It’s tough to try and squeeze in any healthy amount of rest between the coughs, conversation, meals, turbulence, toilet flushes and bangs on the seat. Still, she was a trooper on the plane, but five minutes after landing…just long enough for everyone to move into the aisle and block our path to the bathroom…my poor little peanut hurled all over a poor teenager’s cute carry-on bag.

I’m not sure who I felt sorrier for, but as you’ll see in this photo taken about 30 minutes after “the incident,” my girl was pretty darn pitiful.

A note on jet lag: kids this age are very resilient. Our entire family had an afternoon nap upon arrival and slept like babies the first night. On nights two and three, we had a party from about 1:30 to 3:30 a.m. and then got right on track.

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Resorting to a Resort

I’ve never really been a “resort person,” preferring to stay where real people live and do their thing. You get a stronger taste of a culture and atmosphere that way, and it’s fun to be reminded that the world is full of food, music, experiences and people you’ve never encountered. Stepping out of ordinary life for a while makes going back home that much more enjoyable.

I do, however, understand the appeal of an all inclusive kind of place if your main vacation goal is simply to get away from everyday drudgeries and relax. There’s nothing like a gnarly pile of dishes or standing in a long line for mass transit to remind you of the real world, and there’s something to be said for whiling away the hours, sunning yourself with a glass of wine and page-turner in hand.

It was in that spirit that we decided to go to Mexico for a four-day weekend when our daughter was two. You can read more about that “controversial” decision here, but we were primarily after some gadget-free family togetherness somewhere we’d never been. Since we didn’t have enough time to travel far or decipher the logistics of an unfamiliar place, we decided to keep it simple by staying at a resort. I did a little research and chose the Yucatan resort closest to Tulum, thinking we’d be able to slip into the real world easily if we tired of all the free food, swim-up bars and bachelorette parties.

As it turned out, the decision to stay in an all-inclusive place was good and bad. It served its purpose as an easy getaway with a toddler, and we spent a lot of time enjoying each other without everyday responsibilities and distractions. But we definitely missed out on having an authentic experience, and when we eventually go back to Mexico, I don’t think we’ll do it the same way, especially now that our daughter is older.

If you resort to a Mexico resort vacation with a two year old:

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Puffers in Paris: The Association Game

Puffers in Love

Every vacation has its own “thing” that unintentionally becomes a memorable part of the whole experience. It can be a song, catchphrase, food, recurring pitfall…anything that just sticks with you.

For example, on my post-college Clark W. Griswold tour through Europe, friends nicknamed me “Jill of Many Things” because of the accumulation of souvenirs, bath towels, books etc. that dangled inefficiently from my backpack. My friend Tom, who couldn’t resist drooling over the cookies, tartlets and pastries found on every European corner, will always be “Dessert Man” to me. And I still get nostalgic for youthful misadventures when I hear Sting’s “Fields of Gold” because its ubiquitous play on Euro radio became the soundtrack to our lives that summer.

It’s no different with family trips, and there are many things we will always associate with our recent trip to Paris. For one, our daughter hummed the Pink Panther theme over and over and over. And over and over and over. Also, I’m pretty sure we’ll always think of Paris if “Puss in Boots” is mentioned because of the repetitive “Le Chat Potté” Metro ads that became the object of an almost daily “I Spy…” game. On that 1993 trip to Europe with friends, the Metro hard sell was focused on Bridget Fonda’s “The Assassin,” a Hollywood remake of a 1990 French movie called “La Femme Nikita.” If I was a Parisian movie buff, I would at least call that redundant, and may even go as far as cheeky.

We will also forever link Paris with the puffer jacket. I like puffer jackets as much as the next person, but when I say puffers were prevalent in Paris, it’s an understatement. As you’ll see in this silly little photo album, puffers abounded in all shapes and sizes, and my husband and I had fun pretending to be Bill Cunningham. Only these photos will never run in the New York Times, or have any kind of impact. Other than that, we felt very much like Bill Cunningham.

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Bad Parents Risk Toddler’s Life for Beach Vacation

Until recently, I’d lived most of my life in Texas but never been to Mexico. Given the proximity, that’s no easy trick. Most people I know rave about Cuerna Vaca, tell tales of their college semester in Oaxaca, or at least vaguely remember crossing the border into Matamoros during a debaucherous Padre Island spring break. But not me. A few years ago, we decided it was time to break that seal, and planned a trip to the Yucatan. Not long after booking our trip, swine flu broke out and we faced a dilemma about whether or not to follow through on our plans. The essay below details our unpopular decision to take our daughter to Tulum, and the ramifications of that choice. For a hint on how things turn out, see the photo of our family in fear below.

In case it entices you to read…this essay has NEVER BEEN SEEN IN PRINT BEFORE (meaning it got turned down by several magazines). I’m curious to know whether others would have made the same decision. If you’d like to see a slideshow of our trip, take a look at Resorting to a Resort.

Destination Danger Zone
Passports, bathing suits and sunscreen? Check.

Facemask, flu medication and bulletproof vest? Check.

We were packing for our family trip to Mexico, despite the double whammy pummeling the country’s tourist industry: swine flu and drug-related violence. After all, my husband and I reasoned, the flu had reached pandemic proportions and could be contracted almost anywhere in the world; the violence referenced in the U.S. government’s travel advisory seemed far-removed from the quiet Yucatan beach town we were planning to visit.

Some friends and family disagreed, believing the potential risks were too great. In their minds, the slim chance of catching and dying from a brand new killer virus or getting kidnapped by drug lords far outweighed beautiful sea views, ancient ruins and no cell phone service on the list of pros and cons. Some even suggested we were being frivolous with our daughter’s health and safety for a few days on the beach, and encouraged us to cancel our trip in favor of a backyard staycation.

Though I was intensely irritated by the criticism, it did cause me to consider our motives and decision-making process. My daughter was only two, and many toddlers manage to become productive human adults without a preschool field trip to the Caribbean. Did we really need to hit the Yucatan playa at this particular time in our lives, and at this particular juncture in world history? Upon reflection, I concluded that, in fact, now was the perfect time for this particular vacation, and I was largely unconcerned that current events unfolding in Mexico would impact the health and safety of my family.

When swine flu first brought Mexico to a screeching halt, we were prepared to cancel our plans if the global cataclysm predicted on the evening news came to fruition. But in early May, Mexico lowered the flu alert and the U.S. government followed suit, lifting its recommendation to avoid nonessential travel to the country on May 15.

At about the same time, swine flu was hitting our hometown, and a large area school district shut down for two weeks because of a few affected students. There is still great debate over whether that move was prudent or hysterical, but it bolstered my own decision. If swine flu was a deal breaker, I wondered, why weren’t people fleeing our city? Heck, given its northward trajectory, maybe we’d actually be safer from the flu in Mexico.

The threat of violence was of even less concern. Living in Texas, I am well aware of drug-related problems in Mexican border towns, and would think at least twice before going on holiday to Juarez. But we were going to Tulum, a touristy town 90 miles south of Cancun. I had read nothing that led me to believe it would be any more dangerous than my own urban neighborhood, where a woman was recently carjacked with her children onboard.

Even the advisory on the US Department of State web site gave me some comfort about traveling to Mexico. Though it goes into greater detail about particular regions of the country, the following paragraph sums up the general situation:

While millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year (including tens of thousands who cross the land border every day for study, tourism or business), violence in the country has increased. It is imperative that travelers understand the risks of travel to Mexico, how best to avoid dangerous situations, and who to contact if one becomes a crime victim. Common-sense precautions such as visiting only legitimate business and tourist areas during daylight hours, and avoiding areas where prostitution and drug dealing might occur, can help ensure that travel to Mexico is safe and enjoyable.”

I find this to be excellent advice, and wholeheartedly commit to following it – in any locale I may find myself. Common sense, in general, is a useful tool to employ when making decisions. For example, I would use common sense if contemplating a family vacation to any of the following destinations currently saddled with government-issued advisories:

  • Honduras (unstable political and security situation)
  • China (unsavory swine flu quarantine measures)
  • Gabon (dead president/pending elections/risk of violent uprising)
  • Argentina (swine flu outbreak)
  • “Hurricane Season” (bad weather could result in an unpleasant vacation…or worse)

My carefully considered reaction regarding travel to these other scarlet A-lerted destinations is a mixed bag. At the risk of sounding provincial, I admit I have never researched China or Gabon as a potential vacation spot, though perhaps I will do so in the future. I know many families who have traveled to Honduras, but concede it may be best to wait out the coup before towing your toddler to Tegucigalpa. Similarly, I will do everything within my power to avoid vacationing in the midst of a hurricane.

Argentina is a different story. If we are to be discouraged from traveling to a country simply because flu season is upon it, we should all pack our bags now. On Aug. 24, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology reported that swine flu could cause 90,000 US deaths this fall. If avoidance is the key to survival, maybe the answer is emigration to a country with no confirmed swine flu deaths. Bermuda, for example, may be a prime location to expatriate – if not for the unfortunate problem of “Hurricane Season.”

And so, selfishly, irresponsibly and with great excitement we flew to Mexico in June, straight into the epicenter of danger and disease – Cancun International Airport. After enduring a cursory cough check and lengthy customs line, we emerged into the sunny sea air and shuttled ourselves down the Yucatan Peninsula, through Playa del Carmen and into Tulum. As we marveled at the amazingly blue Caribbean, we managed not to worry about the drug deals and shoot outs that may or may not have been taking place along a different stretch of highway in some other part of the world.

For the next five cell phone- and e-mail-free days, we splashed in the surf, built sand castles and gave our daughter hours of pool time to reinforce her recently acquired swimming skills. We ate together, played together, left routine behind together and immersed ourselves in the culture together. Toddlers, perhaps more than anyone, can appreciate an impressive pile of blocks, and with her first glimpse of the Mayan ruins our awestruck daughter said, “Look, Mommy, somebody build that.”

There is a fine line between parenting responsibly and parenting fearfully. Unfortunately, we are so often bombarded by frightening news and information that we over predict the real threat of a situation and fail to make rational decisions. I am not suggesting it’s wise to wander through parenthood wearing a Pollyanna pantsuit, but neither should unfounded fears cause knee-jerk decisions that make life less rewarding.

In the end, my daughter’s fall out of bed was the worst thing that happened on our family vacation to Mexico. Of all the things that might have gone wrong, I’m afraid it was the one thing I had not even considered.

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Pins in Our Map

My husband and I are both fortunate to have work situations that give us more vacation time than the average American. At times, we also have the flexibility to work from somewhere other than a traditional office. Those two factors, along with Jasper’s Dutchness, have given us the opportunity to take our work and our daughter on the road. As a result, our five year old has been living the life of Riley the past few years. This map shows where we’ve traveled for big and small adventures, and the places I’ll be writing about in this blog. Our travels amount to more than some, and far less than others. Here’s hoping we can drop many more pins in our map!

Paris With a Five Year Old

My husband is from The Netherlands, which means we have to budget in travel to Europe if we want to see his family. And because we do want to see his family, we have “vacationed” in Molenhoek, a small village just outside Nijmegen near the Dutch-German border, about once a year since Jasper moved to the U.S. back in the mid-90s. While it’s always fun to go to Holland, in many ways it’s not so different from visiting my own family in East Texas, so whenever possible we schedule side trips to bring an element of adventure to our family visit. This year, we were lucky enough to spend a week over Christmas with the Familie Smits then travel with our five-year-old daughter to Paris for New Year’s Eve. We had a blast and found Paris to be very family friendly. We just got back a week ago today, and it’s already hard to believe we actually had so many incredible experiences.

If you travel to Paris with a five year old…

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Puffers in Paris

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© Blue Seed Communications, 2012

 

Just Go

Traveling with children is exactly like traveling alone or with friends: it’s fun. As long as you are mentally prepared to approach your trip with a small person’s wants and needs in mind, you’ll all have a great time. Otherwise, you should probably just stay home, and how boring would that be? Truly, when fairly warned and optimally primed, kids have a remarkable ability to appreciate new people and places, and you will benefit from that openness.