Late summer brings with it the beginning of the Fest season for Germany. Though most are familiar with larger gatherings like Munich’s Oktoberfest and Bad Dürkheimer’s Wurstmarkt, it’s the smaller festivals that happen weekly throughout August, September and October that are great for kids. Across the country, there are dozens of festivals where you can avoid the crowds, learn more about local history and participate in more family-friendly celebrating. For example, every year in the small agricultural where we live, they have a weekend festival called Schmiedetag. The literal translation is “forge day,” and, historically, it was a village market day each August. On Schmiedetag, local farmers would congregate in town to sell berries and summer produce. They’d get together to organize and prepare for the coming harvest. And an important part of that organization was a trip to the forge, where horses could be shod en masse before fall’s hardest work began.
Today, Schmiedetag, is all that and more. It’s a market that sells local handicrafts and produce. It’s a forum for local artists to show their work. It’s a place to taste regional beers and wine. It’s a place where the local children perform a play about the town’s centuries-old traditions. And yes, it’s an excuse to have a big party. But mainly, it is a great opportunity for kids to learn about feudal Germany.
My son loved a visit to the old (and still operational) forge in town, where he sat rapt with attention as blacksmiths demonstrated not only how to shoe horses, but fashion metal tools and modern sculptures. A beekeeper brought not only fresh honey but a live hive. And for a three-year-old, we learned firsthand that my kid is a pretty good basket weaver. These fests offer the opportunity for kids to not only try their hand at the old crafts and skills that were necessary for survival hundreds of years ago but also puts them in their proper historical context in a really fun way.
Whether my son will still show prowess at basket weaving past the toddler years, I don’t know. But I do believe that the curiosity and the desire to try something hands-on that come with an event like Schmiedetag will stay with him for a long time to come.
Every day after naptime, my two-year-old and I made the short trek to the local spielplatz (playground). It was a popular time of day for the toddler set. As soon as the castle-like climbing structure came into view, we could see other kids running amok, their mothers holding court at one of the many picnic tables. One particular group of Moms was a constant, a Queen-Bee-type clique led by one of those tall, blonde, perfectly-put-together German mothers. She and I never exchanged more than a “Guten Tag,” my obvious American-ness making me feel too conspicuous to say more.
My son, Chet, had no problem ingratiating himself with the local children. Despite the language barrier, as soon as we stepped foot on the playground’s gravel, he’d find himself surrounded by other children, sharing their toys and games. But me? Despite my fledgling German, I always seemed to be on the outside looking in. The lone outsider.
Until the day after Fasching, the German equivalent of Mardi Gras.
On that day, as we approached the playground, I saw Mrs. Lead-Queen-Bee standing near the swings, holding her small daughter at bay. Once near, we saw the problem. Fasching’s partygoers had visited the playground the night before and left behind a mess of broken glass and party favors. Worse, they had done mischief, throwing dirt and water all over the slide and swinging the swings up out of reach. The other regulars must have seen the mess and turned tail back home. But Mrs. Lead-Queen-Bee and I had two children who would not be dissuaded. They wanted to swing.
What else could two mothers do? We cleaned up the glass as best as we could. But that didn’t solve the swing problem. Mrs. Lead-Queen-Bee handed me her daughter and then tried to jump up and dislodge it. But even at nearly 6 feet tall, she couldn’t quite reach. So instead, she turned to me and asked a question.
At first, I couldn’t quite make out what she wanted. At just over 5 feet, I had no shot of knocking it down on my own. What could she be asking? I looked at her quizzically and said, “Wie bitte?” She repeated the question, this time with hand motions. She wanted me to climb on to her shoulders. She said we’d have more luck zusammen (together).
Our children laughed at the sight of me climbing on to her shoulders. But that laughter soon changed to cheering as, together, we got both swings around and down.
As we spent the afternoon pushing our kids on the swings, listening to their attempts at communication. Going by their example, Mrs. Lead-Queen-Bee and I started our own talking. There were a lot of words we couldn’t explain around, a fair amount of topics shut down with a shrug and confused look. But we kept trying.
And the next day after nap time, Mrs. Lead-Queen-Bee waved me over to her table and introduced me to as her Amerikanische Freund (American Friend). I was never on the outside again.
One of the best ways to help your child become a true citizen of the world is to travel as often and far as you dare. It helps them learn to love adventure, open their mind to new ideas and cultures, and break out of routine.
Of course, traveling with children is not always easy. It’s dirty, filled with cumbersome gear and, for me, often involves wearing way too much of whatever my son had for dinner. Sometimes regurgitated.
But the secret is that those hardships are a small price to pay. In fact, I would argue that any discomfort or annoyances are, at the end of the day, completely and totally worth it. The advantages of traveling with my son — what he learns, what I learn — makes any angst about the process seem silly by the time we return home. And I’m not alone. There are plenty of other Moms out there who are traveling all over the world with their kids and blogging to tell the tale.
Looking for the best places to visit? Great hotels that won’t mind if your child stomps up and down the stairs while you check-in? Funny stories of just how much a four-year-old can barf on an airplane? Commiseration? Inspiration? Look no further than your browser. There are plenty of great Mama blogs that explore the where’s, why’s and how’s of traveling both near and far with young’uns with experience, poignancy and, most importantly, humor. Here are some of the best:
What about you? Know any great blogs that examine the good, bad and funny of traveling with kids? We’d love to hear about them.
At a baby shower last year, the hostess had all of the guests write down two pieces of important parenting advice to put in a beautiful, handmade book for the mother-to-be. I write down what I always do when asked to do these things:
- If it is a boy, always make sure the penis is pointing down before fastening the diaper.
- Show your child as much of the world as you are able.
The hostess chuckled when she read what passes as wisdom in my eyes and then said, “Oh, Kayt. If only it were that easy!”
I do understand that travel is a luxury and that, in these times, air fare to exotic locales may not be a priority. But I do believe that showing your child the world is easier than one might think. You just need to think outside the airport.
Here are some of the ways that when you can’t go out to meet the world, you can bring the world back home to you.
- Try a new tongue. Check out a Mommy and Me language class. Or see if a local school offers language instruction.
- Reach out. Contact a local International organization and see if there is a Mom of that nationality who would like to get together to share language and play dates. Lots of times, they are anxious to make American friends and improve their English. It’s a great way to learn about a country and culture firsthand.
- Go to a International Festival. There is a great calendar of festivals and events across the U.S. on the International Festivals and Events Association Web site.
- Check out a book. Pick out some Children’s books that explore other cultures. Some of our favorites are “The Musicians of Bremen” by Jane Yolen and “Three Samurai Cats” by Eric A. Kimmel.
- Play the postcard game. When I was young, my father sent me a postcard from everywhere he traveled. I still have every single one. Those two sentence blurbs describing the picture can inspire a lot of curiosity. Ask friends and family that are traveling to send your child his very own card.
- Do a project. When I was young, I called it “Whirl-a-World.” I would spin our family globe and let my finger stop on a country. I’d then do research in the encyclopedia or at the library to learn more about the culture and people there.
- Crack that cookbook. Is there a better way to learn about a culture than trying its food? Try a new international recipe and let your child help cook it.
That’s my basic list but I’m sure I missed other great ways to show your child the world. What are some other ways that have worked for you?
My husband tapped his foot impatiently as my son started to squirm in his stroller. It was time to move on — the morning was getting late and Cairo’s famous open-air bazaar, the Khan-al-Khalili, was becoming crowded. The alleys of the market were filling with tourists, fresh off the tour bus, and over-ambitious baksheesh men looking to take them to the “best” stalls for a small fee.
But I wasn’t quite ready to leave. No deal had been struck.
The shopkeeper, sensing my family’s irritation, looked at the small, ornate brass teapot in my hand and magnanimously said, “I can see your family is waiting. So I will give you a good price. Usually, this is 150 pounds. But for you, I can offer 100 pounds.”
It wasn’t a shocking sum. One hundred Egyptian pounds is less than $20 U.S. I would pay much more at the hotel gift shop or a store back home. And I could certainly afford to spend the money. But I knew I could get a lower price. I couldn’t walk away now. The competition had only just begun.
“Too much. But I can give you 20,” and then giddily waited for the expected outraged rebuttal.
I love to haggle. Whether it is in the bazaars of the Mideast, the open markets of South America, or just the guys selling fake designer bags on Canal Street, I cannot resist the heated back-and-forth price negotiation that transforms shopping from leisure activity to sport. Ever since my father introduced me to bargaining as a little girl while traveling in western China, I’ve been enamored with any situation where I can negotiate my own price. I love the feeling of having some say over whether an item costs too much, to assign my own value to the things that I want to buy.
And yes, I am not too proud to admit that I also enjoy the fight — with all the tricks, guilt trips, and fast talking that come with it.
So now, as my husband looks on with annoyance — and quite often, embarrassment — I am all too willing to insult merchandise, ignore tales of woe and throw small tantrums for monetary discounts that, in the country’s home currency, usually amount to only a few dollars off asking price.
The shopkeeper twirled the end of his mustache thoughtfully. “I can see you drive a hard bargain. You are a mother. You must appreciate value. But only 20? I am a poor man. And look at the fine work of this teapot. You will not see such quality in another shop. But maybe I can give this to you for 80 pounds.” He opened his arms and smiled widely as if he were bestowing a great gift.
I raised my eyebrow. By Cairo standards — a poor city at best — the shop seemed fairly prosperous. But by mine? It is unquestionable that the few dollars I would save on the exchange would mean much more to him than to me. And despite knowing this, I still could not relent. At least, not by more than it would take to keep the game going for a bit longer.
“Twenty-five. And I can go no higher. My husband and son are waiting,” I said with little remorse as I put the teapot back on the display case.
“Not enough! 70 and no less! Do you think I am Ali Baba?” he asked, raising his arms in mock offense. This is a phrase I heard often as I traversed the market, an allusion to the story in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, an insinuation that the shopkeeper is a thief and can therefore let go of his merchandise for less than it’s worth. I smiled every time I heard it.
“No, no. But 70 is still too much,” and raised my offer to 30 pounds. He glared at me, tapping his fingers edgily on the counter, expecting me to become uncomfortable enough in his silence to increase my price. But I would do him one better. I nodded, thanked him for his time, and turned to walk out of the shop.
Before I reached the alley, he called after me, begrudgingly accepting my offer, his face fixed in a frown. I happily returned to receive my prize, trying not to look too smug in victory.
As I walked on to the next shop, ignoring my husband’s remonstrations so I might begin a new match over some papyrus and a small perfume bottle, I thought again of the shopkeeper’s reference to Ali Baba. Of course I didn’t think he was a thief.
But maybe, every now and again, I can see the attraction in thinking myself one.
While walking along Bryggen Wharf in Bergen, Norway, I ran my fingers across the boards of one building facade. The wood had started to soften, ravished by the saltwater air and harsh Nordic winters, but it still didn’t have the pliability I would have expected. It was only one of the little experiments I did during our stay in Bergen, testing to see if the relatively recently reconstructed UNESCO World Heritage site could be trusted to represent its actual history.
The wharf had been a busy thoroughfare in the city for hundreds of years. It existed before the Hanseatic League made Bergen one of their headquarter cities and was greatly improved upon during their tenure in the 1300’s. But the buildings of Bryggen, made of wood, could not resist the fires that plagued the city. Parts of the wharf were destroyed and rebuilt, time and time again, most recently in 1955.
Before we left on our trip to Norway, I had spoken with excitement about seeing the wharf with my own eyes. Between the postcard-worthy beauty of photographs and its inclusion in several period novels I’d enjoyed, I anticipated that the brightly painted buildings, refurbished or not, could hold the magic of the city’s magnificent history for me. A friend I shared my excitement with, however, was not quite so optimistic.
“Bah, I hate those reconstructions,” Robert said. “It’s like a theme park for adults. They’ve rebuilt it, sure, but only to put in a nice souvenir shop, a snack bar, and maybe even a photographer’s studio where you can pay $19.95 to dress up like a nineteenth century Norwegian sailor.”
I discounted his comments until my arrival. To my dismay, I saw that the wharf buildings, now separated from the harbor by a busy city street, were filled with tour operators, restaurants and the dreaded souvenir shops that he predicted. And to add insult to injury, most of the shops carried all shape, size and manner of troll figurines, prominently displayed in the windows.
It was my son who took me beyond this façade, to find something altogether different. Something caught his eye down a small alley. Faced with such curiosity from a toddler, what else could I do but follow?
The wooden buildings were a mish-mash of planked walkways, stairwells and old-fashioned room outcroppings that had, over time, started to lean into each other. The alleys, with some buildings aged over 200 years, had been built upon and over, creating a somewhat surreal maze to navigate. My son thrilled himself by walking up, down and over, the weathered wood making a pleasant stomping noise under his feet.
Medieval lever systems poked out from just under the roof line just waiting for some rope and a load to heave. An abandoned wagon sat behind a stairwell, next to a large door that was probably once a stable. And back here, there were still shops. But they were hidden in nooks and crannies, visible only to the most stalwart explorer – like my son.
As I watched my son once again climb through this wooden labyrinth, I was startled by the footsteps of an oncoming traveler, made all too noticeable by the timber walkway.
“It’s something, isn’t it?” a young Australian man said to me, nodding a hello and giving my son a big smile.
“It is. Although I wonder what it would have been like back in its heyday,” I replied with a smile.
“Probably not too different from now. Up there would have been offices, sure, but down here for the masses? Places to find new berth on a ship, grab a glass of grog and a plate, maybe buy a few trinkets and find a warm bed for the night.”
He was right. As a bustling seaport, Bryggen probably always had an element of the theme park quality that Robert had mentioned. It was an intrinsic quality of the town, something vital and necessary to the success of the port. Though Bryggen’s current incarnation had adopted the more modern ice cream and plastic doll trade, it was not inherently different from what it had been all those hundreds of years ago.
As my fellow traveler snapped a few photos and moved on down the alley, I closed my eyes, breathed deep and allowed my son to draw me deeper into the jumble of staircases and alleys. It was all too easy to imagine a sailor in port for the day, meandering through the wharf to find a way to spend his earnings.
Now it was our turn. My son and I rambled, two pretend sailors on furlough, enjoying the feeling of being a little lost. We kept on until we came across a tiny shop in the shadows of a corner. Inside, we browsed the merchandise, compelled to spend the money burning a hole in my pocket.
I came away with the only thing I thought proper: two small troll dolls, their faces fixed in a comical grimace. One was for my son who had led me to this place and understanding. And the other? Inspired, I could think of nothing better to get as a memento for my friend, Robert.
I hung tightly to my husband as we entered the tent, petrified that if I loosened my grip I would lose him in the motley crowd. And so I was happy to follow where he led, too overcome with the smells and sounds of the party to navigate anywhere myself. But what I really wanted was for us to turn right around and head out.
The grand tent was filled to capacity with wooden tables, glorious ceilings and chandeliers and oh-so-many beer drinkers. The throngs of revelers pushed us so quickly towards the center of the building that I could no longer see the exit. All around us, people laughed and sang, raising large mugs high in the air. As we scuttled past, those seated would tip their glasses and exclaim, “Prost!” in our direction, seemingly wishing us both cheers and encouragement to find our own place to sit. But instead of priming me to party, the smell of their body odor and stale Maß beer became more than I could bear. I fought back nausea and tried to remain close to my husband. A waitress brushed by me, with liters of beer looped around her, sloshing some on my arm.
“I need to get me one of those!” my husband yelled over his shoulder at me, nodding approvingly at the waitress and her ability to part the crowd like the Red Sea. I knew that he meant he wanted some beer, but I would have greatly preferred her ability to cut so easily through the mob.
At some time in their lives, everyone should experience Munich’s Oktoberfest. It is a historic tradition of celebration. A great place to try some of Germany’s finest beers. And of course, it is the party to end all parties, attracting visitors from all over the world.
But at that moment, I strongly believed that visiting Oktoberfest only a few days after finding out I was pregnant might have been the worst idea ever.
Our tickets had been purchased, our hotel booked – no small feat for Munich at the end of September. And the trip was a dream come true for my husband. Though I wasn’t quite as excited, I have to admit I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to fully partake in all the event had to offer. I had planned to party like a rock star and now would be unable to have even a glass of beer. But there was no helping it. I figured, “How bad could it be?” and decided that there was no need to cancel on baby’s account. I could watch my husband have a good time. In fact, it might be better this way. I could keep my wits about me and make sure that no one ended up “in the bag” – the tent-like gurney contraption that the German Red Cross used to deal with the dangerously intoxicated attendees. But the little life inside my belly, fiddling with my hormones and senses, hadn’t been briefed on my brilliant plan.
Between the unruly crowd, the obscene quantities of alcohol, and the traditional Bavarian sausages, I felt queasy as soon as we arrived on die Wiesen. And our attempts to find unreserved seats in the beer tents only heightened that feeling. There was no way I could stay inside. I told my husband that we needed to leave at once. And lucky for him, he immediately started fighting the multitudes in the opposite direction to get us out.
Once outside, my husband gave me his best doggy look and said, “Maybe we can sit out here.” The outside of the tent had decks built around it with communal tables for those who were unable to get inside. Gulping in a few breaths of the clean night air, I was all too happy to oblige him.
As we walked towards the tables, a group of Italians immediately moved over to allow us to join them. They were all laughing and having a good time, happy to let us join their fun. And when the waitress arrived a few minutes later, they ordered the table some beer. My polite refusal garnered strange looks and more than a few gentle protests from our new friends. “You must have at least one! How can you come to Oktoberfest and have not even one beer?”
“Thank you, but I can’t. I’m pregnant, errr, schwanger.”
“Schwanger?” they asked with confusion and then briefly conferred among themselves. “Ahhh, incinto! You mean you have bambino, yes?” I nodded in assent.
They turned to the waitress and instead ordered me an alcohol-free liter of Maß. Perhaps not the cola I would have preferred but lovely all the same. At least now I could say I had tried a beer!
When our waitress returned with no less than thirteen full glass liter mugs adorning her arms – including my alcohol-free one – the Italians took no time in toasting to my and my baby’s health. As the evening progressed, I found that I was having a grand time, even without the help of alcohol. Conversation flowed over the full glasses all around me but I understood that those beers weren’t necessary to experience the real Oktoberfest. I had been right all along – being here was better sober.
I was able to see the glorious tradition of a festival centuries old. The true warmth of Bavarian hospitality as the citizens opened their city to thousands of partygoers. The beauty and workmanship of those astounding beer tents. And of course, the camaraderie and friendship that could grow out of simple luck and proximity. It was an amazing thing to behold. The experience couldn’t have been any fuller.
As I rubbed my belly, listening to the laughter surrounding me, I raised my glass of alcohol-free Maß and tenderly whispered down to the baby inside me, “Prost.”
The twelve-year-old and his brother spent the last vestiges of that first afternoon searching for snails. Tirelessly searching along the vineyard’s floor, feeling along the cracks of an ancient stone wall, my nephews collected a dozen of the creatures for closer examination. Blossoming scientists, they both embraced and recoiled from the touch of the slick creatures, laughing with amazement as they expelled their toxic-yellow discharge after prodding.
This behavior I could understand. They were snails. Part of their charm is their inherent ickiness. But eating them? Ew. No way.
Sixteen years earlier, I had taken my own first journey to France. I was the same age as Tyler. I was thrilled to try red wine, cheeses that could outsmell dirty feet and a variety of root vegetables that were cooked in butter and cream. But the mere mention of l’escargot triggered my gag reflex. No matter how succulent, how delicious the advertisements, there was no getting over the fact they were snails. Slimy, oozing, disgusting snails.
But even as my nephew held a particularly large garden variety snail in hand, he emphatically told me, “Aunt Kayt, I want to try snails.” My sister told me he had admitted as much before they even crossed the Atlantic. When I asked why, Tyler only shrugged. “I want to see what they taste like. French people must like them for a reason.”
Indeed. But still – they were snails. I have consumed all manner of crazy things – grasshoppers, meal worms, large red ants. But I’ve always stopped short at snails. After all, a girl has to have some standards. As such, I imagined that Tyler’s desire for l’escargot was no more than just a boyhood fancy. That perhaps he would have the moxie to order them but when it came down to it, he would be unable to take a single bite.
The next day, as we sat in a charming outdoor café in Saint Emilion, the moment of truth came. When the garçon came by, my nephew ordered himself half a dozen snails with a s’il vous plait. I broke out the video camera, expecting to soon see defeat.
When the snails arrived, I anticipated some hesitation, followed by some protestations and perhaps even a little vomit. But after some initial trouble with the specific utensils, my nephew took a big bite and pronounced the escargot as delicious. His appraisal was even enthusiastic enough to get his 6-year-old brother to give the snails a go. He also declared them good.
Tyler offered me one, too. But despite his and his brother’s encouragement, I still couldn’t manage a bite. The repulsion was just too strong.
It’s funny, so often with children we think we are there to teach them, to encourage them to try new things. But for all of my supposed worldliness, when push came to snails, I found myself showed up by a twelve-year-old and his six-year-old brother.
We had been in Istanbul, Turkey, for only a few days and already knew that we stood out. When the carpet sellers who lined the streets of the Sultanahmet, the city’s ancient historic district, saw us from the back, they took note of my husband’s close-cropped hair and yelled out, “Soldier! Soldierman! Mr. Army, Mr. Navy! Come inside and see a carpet. Maybe your pretty wife will like one, you buy it for her! Maybe not. You don’t like, you need not buy, but come look!”
But when they got a good look at our fronts, with the small, wriggling bundle strapped to my husband’s chest, they changed tactics. As soon as they saw our infant son held fast in his baby carrier – his eyes open wide and bright, taking in the extraordinary and beautiful city surrounding him – they took a slightly less aggressive approach.
One man walked toward us with his arms open wide and asked, “Please, excuse me, may I kiss your baby?” Others pulled photos of children and grandchildren from their wallets and invited us into the shop to see still more. Yet another seller asked us to come into his shop to see some carpets that he was sure our son would adore.
“Your son,” the man said, giving us his best sales pitch, “he may not remember Turkey. I don’t think so. But you will help him remember. Maybe the carpet will help him remember. I think, maybe yes.”
Memory. This was a small point of contention with us. When we told friends and family of our plans to travel with our son to Turkey, our announcement was sometimes met with disapproval – and always with many questions: What will he eat? Where will he sleep? Won’t the plane bother his ears? And the most-asked question: Why go through the hassle of taking the baby at all, when he won’t remember the trip?
It was only this last question that we had some difficulty answering, wondering a bit about the answer ourselves.
On our last full day in the city, we went to explore the Aya Sofya basilica. The baby had thus far been fascinated by Istanbul and, on this day, was just as intrigued with the immense interior of this building.
Enchanted by the history and majesty of the former church/mosque, none of us saw the schoolchildren approach. But all of a sudden, there they were – 20 or more – swarming around my husband and son, reaching for my son’s hands and kissing his face.
At first, I was a little worried that the baby would be unable to handle the onslaught. As a typical 8-month-old, he is fairly accustomed to being adored. But not like this. Still, when I looked over at him, to see if I needed to intervene, he was laughing so hard his whole body shook. He reached out his hands to touch as many of the children as he could reach. His delight in seeing so many smiling faces looking up at him was palpable.
All of a sudden, a young boy in the crowd noticed me and asked in heavily accented English, “You are mother? Excuse me, thank you, what is the baby name?”
“His name is Chet.” I replied.
“Chet.” He repeated the name a few times, working it around his mouth as if trying a new, intense flavor. “My name is Kerem. Hello, Chet Mother.”
The other children took note of the introduction and followed suit. I soon heard shouts of other names.
“I am Nazim!”
“My name is Berol.”
“Hello, my name is Alev, thank you, goodbye.”
“Kadifah, hello, how are you?”
And then a little girl with gorgeous dark eyes looked up at me and mischievously said, “My name is … my name is Jennifer Lopez!” The children laughed wholeheartedly at the joke, and my son laughed with them, the echoes joyfully reverberating in the great dome of the building. I couldn’t help but smile, knowing that my son’s first trip to Istanbul had offered him more than many – and even we – had thought possible.
True, he may not remember the specifics of the mosaics in the Aya Sofya or the grounds of the Topkapi Palace. But I believe that the most important aspects of any journey like this stay with you whether you are 8 months or 80 years old.
This trip included children’s laughter, the same as at home and yet still able to make a powerful impression no matter where you happen to hear it. Add the sublime mystery of ancient buildings, full of colors and echoes that stir the heart and mind. And, most importantly, the spirit of adventure that wells up inside as you stare out on a new and fascinating landscape – perhaps even better when held aloft in a baby carrier – and anticipating the magic of whatever comes next.
No carpet is needed to remind my son of that.