sensing saudi arabia

This is #6 of an on going dialog of our travel which included 4 countries and a 4 year old. Please check the prior archives for the previous sagas

We were living in Saudi Arabia for a month last year. Sometime between Non-Christmas and Non-New Year and right in the middle of the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, my daughter and I had an amazing cultural experience which only a rare few Americans get.

I had walked outside the gym I was in but quickly returned inside to gather my daughter, Olivia. It was important to me that she not just be in Saudi Arabia but instead to experience such an amazing country. Especially in this day and age were it seems so many people judge the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Muslims in negative way. I wanted her to be able to FEEL the difference in the air. I wanted her to sense it from her insides.

In that moment, at 6:15 pm in the evening, we both FELT something special in the air. We FELT what the difference was to be Saudi Arabian. The sun was going down and it was about 75 degrees. The sky was orange and darkening. And every mosque in the city of Jeddah was in prayer. Every mosque has loud speakers that project the prayer being said inside by a man. There are mosques everywhere, seemingly on every block in the city. And every mosque had a calm male voice chanting a prayer, almost singing. I said to my daughter “Olivia, what is that we hear?” And she replied, “they are praying.” I said “Isn’t it amazing! Nearly all the people in this city, the whole country for that matter, are all praying at the same time. They are ALL doing it. Isn’t it amazing? I really want you to listen and try hard to remember this for your whole life. This is very special.” Then I said to her “why aren’t we praying?” She replied very matter of factly “oh … that’s because we aren’t Mussie.”

Today, as I started to write this piece I stopped and sat down with my 5 year old snuggled on my lap. I talked to her about that experience. I asked her if she remembered Ghada’s gym and she said yes. I asked her if she remembered the special night when we went outside to hear all the prayers from the mosques. And she shook her head… no. My heart dropped. I wanted her to remember. I needed her to remember. I felt if she could remember and absorb this part of the whole Saudi experience it might give her a core of compassion for others who think and believe differently than she does. I needed her to remember so she would have respect for Muslims all over the world in a time where it is more than necessary. But she didn’t. So I told her the whole story, everything we said to each other on that warm Arab night. And when I told her the reply she gave “oh…that’s because we aren’t Mussie,” she said to me with her head slightly tilted and very serious….”Mom. They aren’t Mussie. They are MUSLIM.” My heart rose again and I now know she has the respect I wanted her to learn from it. She can’t remember the night but I know in my heart she absorbed the experience and the message.

a different kind of culture shock

It was early October. We had only recently arrived in Stockholm, but the days were already shorter than in the States. By half past six, the sun was officially gone. And every day sunset came three minutes earlier, not enough to notice right away, but quickly do and you know in 30 days we would lose an hour and a half of daylight.

By the time we “fell back” from Day Light Savings Time, sunset was right about when my kids would wake up from their afternoon nap. My kids would sleep until 3:30 or 4 p.m. and when they woke up, it was dark. Really dark. If you’ve been to Boston or Seattle, you can say you know dark, but this seemed different than anything I’ve experienced. It’s strange to see children walking to school in the dark at 8:30 a.m. and coming home from school at 2:30 p.m. in the same darkness.

Winter in northern countries means a change in lifestyle with, oh, six hours or so of daylight. While my Swedish neighbors would use this opportunity to bake and spend time together as a family, I found it strange to have it pitch dark at 3 p.m., and needed some life around me. I had two young children under the age of two. They were driven by schedule and light helped tell them determine when it was dinner or breakfast time.

We learned to adjust. They would wake up from their naps when other mothers of toddlers back here at home were setting out to do afternoon errands or playdates. I found it difficult to pack up the diaper bag and head out to grocery shop in the dark. But I did my best to reset my internal clock; or perhaps it was my mental clock. Perhaps I should have done the “when in Rome ” thing and retreated inside like the Swedes did, but I didn’t. The kids would wake up from their naps, and to help expose them (and me) to some kind of light, we’d head to the mall. Lots of fluorescent lights do wonders to help establish daylight. Why else do airports create this “hey-it’s-day-time-somewhere” feel at international hubs? We would zip to a grocery store, department store or indoor play area that was fully lit and full of life, even if only for a little while. I soon discovered we were not the only ones going this route. I actually made a few friends with this game. (Side note: I saw first hand why people centuries ago needed a winter solstice celebration in the darkest of dark days. I craved lights for six weeks.)

This was definitely a lesson in learning to adjust to what you are given–a different kind of culture shock for me. It was, perhaps, just an introduction to the next four months of snow that would cover our front yard. You can’t fight Mother Nature. I realized I had to just get in there and do what I could to make darkness fun for all of us. It gave me new appreciation for those who forged this path a century ago without electricity.

The good news is that daylight comes as quickly as it wanes. Once December 21 passes and each day gets lighter, it’s back to 6:30 sunsets sometime in March and a few months later you’re back to round-the-clock daylight. Which I have to say is even weirder than the darkness.

vermont b&b tailor-made for toddlers

If mixing a New England B&B and a toddler doesn’t strike you as a match made in heaven, you haven’t been to Lyndonville, Vermont’s Wildflower Inn yet.

Just picture it, agreeably worn-out kids, fresh from a day of fun activities on the farm, drinking apple juice from rocket-shaped sippy cups while their equally agreeable parents sip an “oaky” chardonnay and admire Vermont’s green countryside.

Located in Vermont’s rural Northeast Kingdom, the Wildflower Inn is just a twenty minute drive from St. Johnsbury, home of the Fairbanks Museum. In an hour, you can reach New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory or the Cabot cheese factory. If you want to save on gas, there’s plenty to do at the Inn — two hours of kids and teen activities daily, an outdoor pool, a petting barn with a charming miniature horse, wagon rides, a play room, access to bike trails and your choice of two modern play structures.

The Wildflower has a proven track record of doing whatever it can to make families comfortable and happy. Accommodations range from standard hotel rooms (all with great views) to private cottages. The restaurant caters to children but remains up-scale enough to make parents happy.

The Wildflower Inn is family owned and operated. The views from the Inn, especially during foliage season, and the personal, friendly service is a guaranteed to be worth the trip!

east coast whirlwind

We’re just back from a fantastically chaotic 5-week travel binge- Boston, Cape Cod, New York, Chicago, a lake in Wisconsin, home (with a double-case of RSV caught somewhere in the germ-swamp of OHare).

Cape Cod: a whirlwind of parents and grandparents and children and sandy feet and beach crabs. 9 grown-ups looking after 6 kids, all under 4. Milo taught Alastair how to eat shells. Eeek.

Which was all a far cry from New York City, where we spent two glorious weeks in that perfect end-of-summer balmy – but not baking-hot – weather. It was a fun routine of elevators (“Mino push the buddon please to go down down down?”); cheerful doormen (“Mino say heddo to friend man?”); stroller rides to Washington Square Park for its plaza where the men drink from paper bags and play chess; and lots and lots of taxis, policecars, firetrucks, and other vehicles of New York’s Finest, including a fine horsie with tickly whiskers who says Neigh.

The lake in Wisconsin was the pinnacle of kid craziness. We had 10:11, with no child over the age of 6, and only one other over the age of 3. We stayed in our friend’s great-grandmother’s chalet-style rambling lake house, with a massive lawn sloping down to the lake, a rowboat, sailboat & motorboat, on-site tennis, and a huge porch that afforded the adults some wine-drinking and politics-talking time (Sarah Palin…really???) while the kids careened around the yard. Milo learned about bumblebees and spiders, and why we should only look and not touch. Alastair learned how to say “guh, glerrrrramph” and whack at the other babies.

Home via Milwaukee, where we stopped by Calatrava’s amazing bird-ship-like art museum sailing out over Lake Michigan for some play in the lobby. A magical white, windowy, watery open place with shocks of sculpture color, perfect for running and gazing and wearing out kids before our long (delayed) flight home.

chopstick kids

I like to eat with chopsticks when we dine out at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant or when we cook Chinese food at home…it really does taste better with chopsticks, doesn’t it? Of course, my daughter doesn’t like to be left out. She quickly fell in love with the idea of chopsticks (what kid wouldn’t?) and she simply will not accept a fork or a spoon if there are chopsticks available. But chopsticks can be tricky, even for many adults, and my daughter’s first attempts resulted in tears of frustration.

Enter Chopstick Kids by Fred & Friends. A cheerful little boy or girl in red or pink silicone sits atop the chopsticks (it will work with almost any pair) and keeps them in line, making them much easier for small hands to manage. Now my daughter can participate happily in the meal, chopsticks and all. Someday she’ll learn to use chopsticks on her own, but in the meantime Chopstick Kids is a great training tool and a wonderful way for us all to enjoy our dinner together!

straight from the blogger’s mouth

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:

Wanderlust and Lipstick

Traveling Mamas

Travel Savvy Mom

Backpack to Buggy

Mother of All Trips

MinneMom’s Travels With Children

Delicious Baby

Kids Go Global

SoulTravelers3

Two and a Half Travelers

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.

exploring global cuisine…with food allergies

“When I grow up, I want to have butter. And cheese!” This is my daughter Mila’s answer almost every time she is asked what she’d like to be when she grows up. She used to say she wanted to be an astronaut, and then it was a character from one of her favorite movies, but lately…all she wants is to consume dairy products. Like a growing number of children in America, Mila has multiple food allergies. Macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets? She can’t eat that. Goldfish crackers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Nope. Actually, very few menu items typical to mainstream toddler cuisine in America are safe for her to eat. At restaurants the entire children’s menu is usually off limits. Now, I love food – lots of different kinds – and at first it was difficult for me to accept that my own child might be unable to share that love of food with me.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household where we sampled a wide variety of ethnic cuisines. My grandmother took Chinese cooking lessons from the Benedictine Sisters of Peking and I remember my own mother cooking us dinners from that little cook book in turn – spring rolls and Taiwanese Special. I remember Bangladesh chicken curry over rice, a recipe my mother received from some missionary friends. How I loved the way those wonderful spices seeped into the rice and turned it bright yellow! A family from Cuba lived in our home for a while and fed us sopa de frijoles negros (Cuban style black beans) and fricasé du pollo (Cuban chicken fricassee) and guava paste on crackers. Later on, as a college student in Chicago, I discovered a love for Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian cuisines.

When we began to face the challenge of feeding a child with food allergies, I became frustrated with the difficulties of providing variety in my daughter’s diet. Then I discovered that many of my favorite ethnic foods were already naturally safe for Mila to eat – no disappointing substitutes required! I discovered a wonderful alternative food source in the local Asian supermarket and in the inspiring dishes at my favorite ethnic restaurants. It’s easy to avoid wheat, dairy, and soy in Thai cuisine, for example, and Indian cuisine offers many vegetarian options, which makes it easy to stay away from eggs. As it turns out, these foods that I’ve loved and had previously considered something of a luxury or a special treat are the things that Mila can eat on a regular basis. Masala dal (Indian lentils), pho bo (Vietnamese beef noodle soup)? Yes, she can eat that!

I do hope she can grow up to eat butter and cheese (and if she’s an astronaut, I guess that would be fine too), but even if she doesn’t, I’m confident now that there are many varieties of foods and flavors she’ll be able to enjoy anyway. I want her to feel lucky for the opportunity at such a young age to explore the culinary traditions of so many different cultures. Because, really, those food allergies, when they might have meant a boring and restricted diet, have actually inspired our family to enjoy ethnic cuisines on a more regular basis and to explore the wonderful international supermarkets in our area. Maybe next time she’s asked, she’ll forget about butter and cheese and say, “when I grow up I want to have pud makua yow (Thai basil eggplant) and vindaloo (spicy Goan curry).” In the meantime I’m happily satisfied with her excited smile as she exclaims “mmm, this is spicy, right?!” and shovels in another bite….