red butterfly

I am reading Red Butterfly (by Deborah Noyes) to my daughter, Mila. The book tells the story of a Chinese princess who smuggles the secret of silk out of China. Mila is interested in the pictures, of course: the girl’s long black hair, her red slippers, the sparrows pecking mud along the road to the summer palace, the court musician plucking her pipa, the graceful coppery fish in the garden pool. But the story is about silk and about the little girl who wants to take a piece of home away with her on her bridal journey, even though it is forbidden. Much of this is beyond my own little girl’s comprehension…what does arranged marriage mean to a preschooler in the American Midwest, after all? But I want her to understand at least a little of what the story is about. I want her to understand why the girl speaks of silk as a splendor, as woven wind, why she longs to take its secret away with her on her long road from home.

I put the book down and tell Mila to wait for just a moment. In my closet I have a silk skirt. It’s not really Chinese, but it is silk. And it possesses just enough of that splendor, that woven windiness the princess describes, to do the trick. I set it in Mila’s lap and she oohs and ahs as she fingers the soft fabric. She has been curled up on the couch with a polyester fleece blanket that, for some reason, she’d become inseparable from earlier in the day. She goes from fingering the silk to rubbing it across her arms. Clearly, she is enjoying the sensation. Her expression is beatific. All at once she pulls away the fleece blanket, disdain evident in her gesture, “can you take this off, please?!” And, when the offending polyester has been removed, she spreads the silk over her bare legs, burying her hands in its whisper soft folds. Serenely, almost royally, she asks to continue reading the story. And I do. And I think, this time, “woven wind” and “swirls of silk” and “windy silken promises” actually mean something to her. I think she understands that little Chinese princess better than she did before.

After all, I cannot understand the world myself simply by reading about it. I must taste and see and feel and listen. As we all must. Mila is no different. It is not enough to simply tell her a story or teach her a lesson. I must share with her the warm spices at our favorite Indian restaurant, dance with her to the lilting traditional French songs on her favorite CD. I must let her find illumination in the woven whisper of silk against her own bare skin. If I want her to learn and to love, I must help her to experience. As we read to the end of Red Butterfly, I am already storing away ideas in the back of my mind, thinking about the books we’ve read and the conversations we’ve had and about how I might bring bits of those ideas to life for her in a whole new way.

polar bears in paris? travel to paris in december can be wonderful for kids!

Have I mentioned we are crazy about traveling? Generally we look for an island with surf, sun and Mai Tais and that is our destination. However, our most recent travels took us on quite a journey. We started in San Francisco and traveled to Paris, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, back to Paris and then returned to San Francisco. Not your average destinations of choice for a husband, wife and 4-year-old daughter. Paris in December…the dead of winter, Saudi Arabia..a country you can’t even get into without sponsorship, Egypt….don’t only AARPs go there?, and back to Paris in January…hard to believe it was even colder than December. It was the most fantastic trip of a lifetime.

This will be the start to a series of posts about our travels, tricks we found to making it smooth and easy with a 4 year old, travel disasters you might like to avoid, cultural experiences and how we are trying to make it all stick in her long term memory.

One thing Olivia won’t forget is the polar bear in Paris….

Paris was fantastic in December. We knew we would be experiencing all the seasons of the year in the next 6 weeks and we had to pack the appropriate items in just a few suitcases. We packed nearly correctly for winter in France. The key to our warmth lied in scarves and hats. Although Olivia looked tres chic in her Tea Collection denim and a pair of pink suede boots, her parents screamed “silly Americans tourists” in their white running shoes. The French DO NOT wear white running shoes.

We had only a brief stop in France before flying to Saudi Arabia where there would be no holiday season whatsoever. We were quite looking forward to that. Until Paris. In Paris we were fortunate to get a different view of the consumer season. The merchants in Paris gave a very different feel to the holidays.

All the store windows in Les Galeries Lafayette (a shopping area that is several blocks) are decorated each year for the Christmas holidays. They are not trying to advertise or sell you what is in the window rather it is a huge competition between the mall shops to have the most awe inspiring sidewalk window scene. The window displays are so popular that the sidewalks can become overcrowded to the point of not being able to see…except for the children. Kids are treated to a stair-stepped platform in front of the windows especially for their viewing. Kids do not miss a glorious thing.

After viewing all the amazing windows, from floating babies to dancing penguins, we went inside to find the elevator to the roof. On the roof of Les Galeries Lafayette during winter is the most fabulous ice maze that wanders here and there, ultimately ending at an igloo with a surprise inside… a polar bear. A 6-foot tall stuffed polar bear. Kids are running around laughing and hiding while adults are amazed by the 360-degree views of all of Paris. It was a real unexpected treat in Paris. While we will remember the amazing magnitude of the Eiffel Tower, Olivia will remember the polar bear in Paris.

take a trek from home

Is your little citizen dreaming of a trip abroad? Do you wish you could take them to China’s Great Wall or Costa Rica’s rainforest but have to savor a “staycation” instead this year? If so, we’ve found another way to get traveling: an amazing site that will take you and your little citizen trekking across the globe.

Global Trek sponsored by Scholastic is your little citizen’s passport to the world. Older kids can wander the site on their own and younger ones can mosey around the globe with your help. The site features a background, guided tour, and information about the people of each country. It even has a space for your citizen to journal about what they learn as they trek. This is a great site for making the foreign a little more familiar for your little citizens, especially the older ones!

oktoberfest in the family way

Inside OktoberfestI 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.”

international baby of cuteness

We were living in Germany when I became pregnant. I knew it would be a challenge having a baby in the land of fine sausage, tasty beer and stylish eyeglasses, because of the language barrier and because of a thousand tiny and not-so-tiny cultural differences. But my experience ended up being extremely positive, because, of course, the whole world loves babies, and everyone offers to help – no matter where you are. I remember one day, walking past a coffee shop, when I had one of those sudden, unexplained pregnancy pains, and people from the café rushed to bring me a chair and make sure I was okay. Shopkeepers were solicitous, and I established a great rapport with the pharmacists at my neighborhood pharmacy; it’s where everybody knew my name. From interviewing midwives in German, to taking a prenatal yoga class, to trying to communicate with the doctor about our unborn child’s body parts during the sonograms – all of these stretched and improved my German, and contributed to an incredible experience that I will always cherish. My daughter was finally born last August with the help of a wonderful midwife, who drove us to the hospital at 2 a.m. in her Mercedes!

We spent another 4 months in Germany before finally moving back to the States, which made a total of 4 and a half years for my husband and me. We still miss many things about Germany, like the Fußgängerzone (pedestrian zone), which is basically the whole downtown where everyone walks around shopping, sitting at cafes, riding bikes, playing in the fountains. It’s very relaxing compared to driving everywhere! Our experience in Germany has enriched our lives, and also lead us to discover some great baby things – schlafsacks (sleep sacks), woolen onesies which are great for winter, beautiful organic woolen clothes, and also wonderful wooden toys, made with non-toxic paints and lacquers, which is important since absolutely everything ends up in our daughter’s mouth.

In addition to being an international traveler, my daughter is also of international heritage. I am Indian from Kolkata and my husband is of mixed European descent. I am excited that I can pass on my language and culture to her. Fortunately, my parents will also be a big help as they live very close by. In fact, her first words have been Bengali ones – “eta” which means this; “Baba” which means father; now her favorite word is “bass” which means something like “there – that’s done!” She uses “bass” when she’s done with something, or more commonly when she throws something down! My husband and I are always so amazed that she’s already bilingual – pointing to her nose, teeth, hair, bellybutton – when asked in English or Bengali. It’s amazing how our brain incorporates languages. I know she will want to learn other languages as well one day. Maybe German will be one of them. She loves the word “Gesundheit” – it always makes her laugh!

I am so pleased that my family is as international as it is. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love that our world feels big – like there are so many possibilities, so many ways to communicate, so many friends, so many different things to eat and, sometimes to my husband’s dismay, so many places to shop! Our next big trip will be either visiting Germany or going to India, where my family there awaits with baited breath to see my “shada” (white) husband and our wonderful daughter.

one reason we travel: the kindness of strangers

With few exceptions, in our travel experiences locals are kind and helpful to us travelers. Having a child along seems to only augment locals’ desire to help disoriented foreigners as well as their desire to provide you with helpful child-rearing information.

Take a recent foray into an Argentine supermercado as an example. I was looking for plain, unsweetened, yogurt for my daughter Grace. It seemed like a very basic staple, especially in the large Western-style grocery store where I was shopping. To my dismay I faced a refrigerator case full of countless packaged yogurts, all of which boasted interesting fruity (and highly sugared) flavors. No supermarket staff was in sight so I turned to the other lone shopper in that aisle, a smartly dressed woman in her mid-40s, and in my most helpless tone struck up the following conversation. Bear in mind the entire conversation took place in two levels of Spanish – poorly (me) and fluently rapid-fire (smartly dressed woman). I have taken the liberty of translating my Spanish as if it were perfect and her Spanish as I understood it, not necessarily as she actually said it.

Me: Excuse me, I am looking for plain yogurt for my baby. Do you know where I can find that?

Woman: Oh of course, let’s see it must be here somewhere. (Proceeds to wander up and down refrigerated case peering carefully at each variety. She finally pulls one down and hands it to me). This one is good for babies.

Me: (After reading container) Oh I see, but this one contains sugar. Do you know if I can find one without sugar or without flavoring? Plain yogurt?

Woman: Oh but your baby needs sugar. She will like this flavor. (some kind of mixed fruit) Babies love this flavor.

Me: (Placing tutti-frutti, high-fructose corn syrup-laden yogurt in cart) Thank you, I will try it. But do you know if there is also any yogurt that is plain?

Woman: (Not at all flustered by my persistence) Yes, I think so. (Wanders again up and down the entire refrigerated case, finally pulling down a small carton which she hands to me). This one is plain. But I don’t think your baby will like it. Babies like sweet yogurt.

Me: (Trying to be as diplomatic as possible in bad Spanish) Thank you. We’ll try both of them.

The kind but insistent woman and I parted ways and I left the grocery store with a carton each of tutti-frutti yogurt and plain yogurt. To my delight Grace preferred the plain yogurt. It’s nice to be right but it’s even nicer to have a warm encounter with a kind stranger in a new place.

travel sites that make traveling with little citizens easier

The team at Tea has found the stories here about travel so inspiring. From photos of little citizens in Paris to memories of children’s laughter in Turkey, parents are showing us all that travel is a real possibility with kids of all ages and a perfect way to make the foreign more familiar.

Making these trips happen, though, is another story. The world’s huge, the incredible options of places to go vast, and the online information about traveling with kids, well, quite overwhelming. While you may dream of swimming in the oceans of Bali maybe you’re wondering if your kids will fit into a trip there. When you were a kid you loved visiting the Sistine Chapel, but is this still a good place for a family adventure?

If you’re dreaming of globe hopping with your little citizens and are as inspired by the stories here as we are, why not check out these sites to begin planning your next kid friendly trip? We hope they make planning travel a little easier for you and your growing world explorers:

Baby Friendly Boltholes
Ciao Bambino
Family Travel Forum
Travel for Kids