Remembering holidays abroad

Thanksgiving dinner. In England.

Thanksgiving dinner. In England.

As Thanksgiving 2016 approaches, I can’t help but think back to Thanksgiving 2013—when our family (then there were only four of us) was in England.

We took a long weekend from our apartment in London for Thanksgiving that year, vacationing at Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire while I completed an assignment there. We didn’t expect much of a traditional American Thanksgiving because we were abroad.

Then the chef at the on-site restaurant learned of our visit, and made us a feast with all the trimmings.

Turkey. Stuffing. Brussels Sprouts. Cranberry sauce. Dinner rolls. You name the Thanksgiving staple, we ate it then and there. Chef even made the girls a little marzipan turkey, and filled the rest of the plate with jelly beans. While the food wasn’t as good as it is when we cook it here at home, it *was* delicious. And it made us feel welcome in a way for which we were incredibly thankful (see what I did there?).

Remembering the wonderful Thanksgiving meal got me thinking about some of the other factors that contributed to a successful Thanksgiving-away-from-home celebration that year. Here, then, in no particular order, are three of them.

Decorations from home

When we left for London that summer, we remembered to bring with us decorations for all the holidays we’d be celebrating abroad. This meant bringing birthday decorations for our September and November birthdays. It meant bringing Halloween decorations. It also meant bringing construction-paper turkeys and pilgrim hats. (We also brought stockings and Xmas decorations, FWIW.)

For the girls, seeing the very same decorations they knew and loved from home helped make the holiday seem more “typical.” L went so far as to declare that her decorations made everything feel exactly the same.

Traditions

Most specifics of individual holidays don’t matter as much as the traditions. I’m not talking about the “tradition” of having turkey with all the fixings; instead I’m talking about traditions such as sharing what you’re thankful for, watching the live broadcast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from New York, engaging in a post-meal walkabout, and so on. For us, THESE were the activities that we strived to replicate abroad. We did a decent job. For the kids, that was more than good enough.

Family touchstones

Extended family is a big part of our annual Thanksgiving ritual when we’re home, and Powerwoman and I were worried about how we’d replicate that for the girls while we were away. Thanks to Skype, we didn’t have to worry at all. On the actual day of Thanksgiving (back in California), we Skyped over to my sister-in-law’s house and had a fabulous conversation with everybody who was there. The technology was nothing new at the time and it’s nothing new now. But it works. And it’s made a HUGE difference.

The bottom line: A little familiarity goes a long way, especially when you’re traveling with young kids. If you plan to be abroad—or just away from home—for a major holiday, go out of your way to make the kids feel like nothing is out of the ordinary. Even if they don’t seem appreciative in the moment, they’ll appreciate it. As parents, that’s all we can really ask for anyway.

What are the most far-flung places you’ve spent holidays?

Fresh take on multigenerational family travel

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Heather and her peeps.

As a board member for the Family Travel Association, I get to work regularly with some pretty incredible people. One of them: Heather Greenwood-Davis, one of the best family travel writers in the biz.

I’ve blogged previously about Heather’s prowess with the pen—her piece about canal boating around England with her husband and two kids was a tour de force (and a story I dreamed about writing when we lived in London back in 2013).

Last week, HGD was at it again, this time with a piece about multigenerational family travel.

The story first appeared in The (Toronto) Globe and Mail, but was reposted everywhere, including on the FTA website (hence the weird tiles you see when you click through that link above). IMHO the piece can’t be reposted enough; as it delivered one of the freshest and sincerest perspectives on multigenerational travel I’ve ever read.

I appreciated Heather’s tips regarding who will parent the kids on a multigenerational trip—the few times we’ve traveled with family members, this has been a source of tension for us as well. I also like her note about not over-planning.

But my absolute favorite part of the story is the section where she talks about using the generations against each other and to your advantage. Here’s a snip:

“Don’t ask your parents to babysit. Instead coach your kids in the exact words they can use on Grandma. Phrases like, ‘Granny, can we have some just-you-and-me time tonight?’ or, ‘Grandpa, I love the way you read me stories. Can I have a sleepover?’ are the types of things that evenings alone with your significant other are made of. Embrace it early and create opportunities for the generations to enjoy each other while you enjoy the quiet.”

Yes, this last bit from HGD is a different way of approaching a multigenerational trip. But it’s a great perspective. And one I intend to try the next chance I get.

What are your tips for surviving multigenerational family travel?

Celebrating the best family travel year ever

One year ago tonight, in London.

One year ago tonight, in London.

One year ago today—August 20, 2013—our wandering pod embarked on the greatest adventure of our lives: a five-month relocation to London.

Our stay in the U.K. kicked off what has been the greatest stretch of travel in our lives. Over the course of the last 12 months, we Villanos have logged nearly 400,000 (air and car) travel miles as a unit, touching down in England, Ireland, Canada, Hawaii, Florida (specifically, Walt Disney World), Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and more.

The best part: We’ve done it all together.

I’ve had fun over the last few nights going back and looking at posts and pix from this time last year. There’s this post, from two nights before we departed. And the photo that accompanies the entry you’re reading now; the pic was taken at 3 a.m. London time on the night we arrived—after both girls woke up for the day (damn you, jet lag!). Then, of course, there is this piece, from two days after we arrived.

(Interestingly, we ditched the pram in that post for a sturdier one we bought in London. We still use the “London buggy” every time we fly.)

It’s also been fun to remember the highs and lows of a year of family travel. My favorite high: A week of dodging raindrops and chasing geese in the Lake District, toward the end of our run in England. My least favorite low: The night Little R kicked me out of bed at The Ahwahnee (inside Yosemite) and insisted that I sleep on the floor—making it the most expensive campsite of all time.

Throughout these adventures, I have deepened my appreciation for the world, for embracing new things, for the privilege to leave home for a while. I’d like to think the girls have experienced similar growth.

Even if all this travel hasn’t changed my kids, exposure to it certainly has sensitized their little brains to the notion of exploration. Will I be disappointed if they grow up to be homebodies? Not at all. But something tells me that after a year like the one we’ve just had, curiosity will come naturally to them.

What will the next year bring? From a practical perspective, the next 12 months of travel likely will look very different; with both girls in school (and L in Kindergarten five days a week), our opportunities to escape as a foursome may dwindle. Rest assured, we’ll find ways to get out and about. There are places to go! There are people to see! Most important, this travel thing is what we Villanos do best. Here’s to another great year.

Five funniest family travel moments

The human pretzel-napper, a.k.a., Little R.

The human pretzel-napper, a.k.a., Little R.

Spend enough time traveling with youngsters and (in between those inevitable meltdowns) you’re bound to accumulate a handful of hilarious anecdotes. I scored a new No. 1 with Little R this week. It involved an F-bomb. That she uttered. In a crowded locker room.

We were on a daytrip here in the San Francisco Bay Area. The baby—who has become quite a water kid—wanted to go swimming, so I obliged her by tracking down a family-friendly gym with a pool we could use for a few hours one day. We showed up at the gym and she was super-excited to get in the water. As I led her into the men’s locker room, she decided to blurt out a new word.

“Fuck!” she yelled out in her 2-year-old voice. A bunch of (half-naked) men turned around. Then she yelled it again.

By the third time—the only time she yelled, “Fuck me!”—most of the guys were razzing me about the things kids learn these days, etc. Sure, I was mortified. But considering that she almost certainly picked up that language from me (after all, people, I *am* a transplanted New Yorker living and driving in California), all I could do was laugh (on the inside; thankfully I did not reinforce her comment positively by letting her see me laugh about it).

The incident got me thinking about some of the other incidents on my funniest family travel list.

No. 2 would have to be back in London this fall. The girls and I were on the 187 bus coming back from St. John’s Wood, and the two of them had just pigged out on their favorite frozen yogurt. They were happy. They were hyper. And they were in the mood to sing.

Simultaneously, the sisters broke out into a rollicking version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” They belted it at the top of their lungs. And when they were done, all of the passengers applauded.

No. 3: The time L found a stash of “Gold Squares” (that’s my oh-no-gotta-think-of-something-quick nickname for foil-wrapped condoms) in my bag and used them to build a fort for a plastic dinosaur—at the dinner table in a hotel restaurant. (Pretty sure I don’t need to elaborate on this one.)

No. 4 takes us back to Maui, during the summer of 2012. We had gotten up early and left our hotel in Kaanapali to drive the Hana Highway. By the time we checked into our room at Travaasa Hana, the kids were zonked. L face-planted on her bed and passed out instantaneously. R, on the other hand, fought the nap valiantly for about 35 minutes.

Powerwoman and I listened to the entire episode from the lanai. Finally, when we heard silence, we went into the room to see what was up. We found the baby hunched over her own legs like a pretzel, fast asleep (see the image above). She slept like that for nearly 90 minutes.

It’s tough to settle on a fifth-funniest item for my list. Maybe it’s the time the Big Girl started talking to Bruce Willis (yes, THAT Bruce Willis) about flowers while in an elevator. Or the time she escaped the changing table at the California Academy of Sciences and went running around an aquarium naked. Whichever anecdote we decide to put in the No. 5 slot, one thing is certain: With our girls, we’ll never be wanting for new material.

What are some of your funniest family travel moments of all time?

Another Sighting on HFWT

Little R, watching carolers in Farnham.

Little R, watching carolers in Farnham.

Regular readers of this blog might remember a post I wrote late last year about our amazing Thanksgiving stay at Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire, England. It was one of the best trips we’ve ever taken. And now, I’ve written about the experience again—this time for “Have Family Will Travel,” the family travel blog from Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.

The more recent article, titled “Hampshire, England Resort Family Holiday,” published today. It spotlights six of our favorite things about the resort. On the list: the kids’ club, the playground, our afternoon tea, and, of course, Oliver, the resident dog.

(Not on the public list: The hotel’s proximity to Farnham, a market town which we visited by taxi.)

Personally, my favorite part of the HFWT post is the artwork—for the first time in a long while, they published a TON of my photos, including a bunch of L and R.

From a family travel perspective, neither of these blog posts suffers from hyperbole; the Hampshire property really is THAT cool. Considering that you can get there in less than one hour by train from London, definitely consider it for a weekend getaway from the Big City the next time you find yourself in southeast England.

‘Smartening Up’ the Family Trip

One great poet; one great vacation

One great poet; one great vacation

It would have been easy for us to play off last week’s trip to Grasmere, in England’s Lake District, as an extended goodie run.

After all, one of the reasons we traveled there from our vacation rental outside of Penrith was to visit the Grasmere Gingerbread Shop, a tiny little bakery that has used the same recipe for the better part of the last 200 years.

But the town also is the final resting place of poet William Wordsworth, and both Powerwoman and I really wanted to pay respects and see his grave. So we did what any travel- and poetry-obsessed set of parents would do: We whipped out the Wordsworth in an attempt to get the girls excited for our true modus operandi.

At first, they resisted. Then, following a reading (parts) of “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” and some of the “Lucy Poems” (including “Strange fits of passion I have known”), they softened a bit, and actually started having fun.

By the time we actually made it to downtown Grasmere, both kids had been exposed to a healthy dose of Romanticism (I’m talking about the approach to poetry, not the notion of Mom and Dad being all lovey-dovey). And they thoroughly got into it.

As we walked through the cemetery toward Wordsworth’s grave, L whipped off some poems of her own, referring to herself as “Tennyson,” another poet we mentioned during the lesson.

R, of course, mimicked her sister, celebrating her accomplishments by chanting the word, “poem.”

For the rest of the trip (three more days at that point), the girls created dozens of their own poems—engaging in a sort of toddler rap. Every time they came up with one they liked, they mentioned Wordsworth and other poets about whom we had taught them. Some of the biggest winners were recited 40 or 50 times.

We certainly didn’t expect the trip to become such a celebration of words; we were just sharing some history.

Still, for us, the lesson was simple: Even if you think the kids might be “too young” for something, you never know when new information might strike their fancy, when a little knowledge might take them a long way. Powerwoman and I liken this to “smartening up” a vacation. In our experience, it can enhance even the quickest and seemingly boring vacations.

Sure, there’s a chance this new information will go straight over their heads. But by not sharing it, you risk the kids learning less about the new experiences they have. And in our family, that simply isn’t a risk we wish to take.

What sorts of knowledge/information do you attempt to pass down to your kids while traveling?

If Pants Could Talk

Moments before the "Rose Incident"

Moments before the “Rose Incident”

Hey, you two little twerps, now you listen here:

We might be old. And we might be made of corduroy, one of the most durable materials in recent history. But we are tired—TIRED, we say!—of the way you two treat us when the Villanos hit the road as a family.

I know what you’re thinking, kids. YOU’RE the daughters and we’re the pants. You’re sentient; we are not. You’ve got hearts, brains, free will and all sorts of organs, while we consist of nothing more than fabric, thread, some zippers and a pocket or two. Well, we might be simple, but here’s a news flash for you: WE HAVE FEELINGS, TOO.

L, this means we’re tired of you spilling your milk all over us. Three times in the last three weeks, you’ve failed to grab your cup with two hands and carelessly knocked it over onto us. Sure, you’ve been stoked when you’ve realized the spills haven’t ruined the precious pictures you have colored during meals.

But, princess, those spills have gotten us SOAKED.

R, you are more of a solid-spiller. Mushy lemon cake, yogurt, cheesy (scrambled) eggs and tomato guts from Mommy’s salad are among the items you’ve dropped on us over the last few weeks. Then, of course, there was the incident earlier today, when, aboard a train (from England’s Lake District back to London), you knocked over a whole glass of rose wine onto our crotch.

The rose was the last straw. Especially considering how the wine seeped down the crotch and around the back, making it look as if your father had wet AND soiled his pants, we had to take a stand.

Which is precisely why we’re writing this note.

For whatever reason (perhaps it’s our good looks? Or maybe our versatility?), your father likes wearing us on travel days. He counts on us. And if you girls keep dumping and spilling stuff on us, he might opt for another pair. Because the one thing we don’t do is dry quickly.

And so, kids, we are begging you: SHOW US SOME RESPECT! We’re not rags! We’re pants, and your daddy’s favorite pair at that. We look forward to having the opportunities to ride horses in the Sahara, watch whales in the South Pacific and circumambulate Manhattan Island. Please don’t spoil our chances by ruining us first.

Sincerely,
Dad’s green cords

How to Find Amazing Family-Friendly Vacation Rentals

Our backyard at Riverain, in England's Lake District.

Our backyard at Riverain, in England’s Lake District.

We’re near the end of an epic week in England’s Lake District. A big part of what has made this visit unforgettable: Where we’re staying.

On paper, we’ve rented a 3-bedroom “cottage” in the tiny town of Blencowe, about five miles outside of Penrith, on the northern edge of Lake District National Park. In reality, however, we are staying in part of a restored and renovated circa-1700 carriage house, one of the structures that flanks a castle-like manor house that dates back to the 1500s itself.

Our rental has heated floors, an incredible wood-burning fireplace and those tiny windows that you find in pretty much all castles and stone buildings from hundreds of years ago. On the grounds: A rushing stream, hundreds of sheep and acres upon acres of rolling hills.

Did I mention the place is costing us less than $225 per night?

In celebration of our find, Powerwoman and I put our heads together last night and came up with a list of tips for how to find killer family-friendly vacation rentals. Here are the highlights.

Tip 1: Book with Experts
In today’s age, many family travelers book on AirBnB and call it a night. If you’re lucky, the place is nice. The problem, of course, is that you might not be so lucky. Instead of winging it, we almost always opt for a vacation rental service. These services require property owners to keep places to a high standard of quality. They also are more than willing to help out if something goes wrong. For this trip—and for other trips to rural England—we used Rural Retreats, which is based in the Cotswolds. When we went to Ireland earlier this year, we went with Elegant Ireland. OneFineStay is another service about which I’ve heard great things.

Tip 2: Confirm there’ll be kid-friendly stuff
Some rental entities prattle on about how their properties are “kid-friendly.” What this means, however, can vary widely depending on where you go. We always like to call or email in advance and make sure the place we’re going has access to a) a crib b) stair gates and c) a high chair. If the place doesn’t offer this stuff—or if they can’t guarantee they’ll get it for us—we look elsewhere.

Tip 3: Follow the hampers
It’s standard operating procedure among the best vacation rental services to provide visitors with food hampers to supplement grocery items they’ll buy for the duration of their stay. The worst of these baskets amount to nothing more than snacks. The best of them provide the ingredients for multiple meals. In our experiences, baskets from Rural Retreats have supplied us with ingredients for the first dinner in the house, as well as a number of days of snacking. The best basket we’ve ever had: The one from Elegant Ireland, which contained freshly-baked bread, and all of the ingredients for multiple Irish breakfasts.

Tip 4: Go off-peak
Busy times at most vacation rentals are like busy times at hotels—if you’re able to find availability, the price points likely are astronomical. Instead, try building your vacation around off-peak times. Over the years (especially in Hawaii), we have saved big bucks scheduling trips around only one weekend instead of two. Another strategy we’ve used: Traveling from Tuesday or Wednesday to the following Tuesday or Wednesday (this was how we rolled this time around). Time of year is huge, too: Check websites for peak seasons, then book around them. Finally, be open to sacrificing location; a few miles away from the tourist hotspots could save you hundreds—if not thousands—down the road.

What are your secrets for finding great family-friendly vacation rentals?

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Kids’ Passports (But Were Afraid To Ask)

Don't mess around.

Don’t mess around.

My debut article in Scholastic Parent & Child magazine hit newsstands this week. The subject: Kids’ passports, and everything you ought to know to prepare for taking your little ones abroad.

The story, titled, “A Parent’s Guide to Passports for Kids,” offers advice on everything from custody issues to renewal timing. It hinges on the expertise and insights of Brenda Sprague, the U.S. State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for passport services. It also includes a few anecdotes from some family travelers I know (and respect).

The story even includes a bunch of helpful links.

If you never have traveled abroad with your baby or toddler, consider the piece a must-read; if you travel regularly with the youngsters, please use the piece as a CliffsNotes-style refresher course.

Also, if you feel I’ve left out anything important, feel free to add tips in the comment field below.

Most important, please don’t think this is advice you can ignore or follow selectively. Few international travel stresses are more acute than those involving your kids. Take it from someone who has learned a few of these lessons the hard way.

An Open Letter to a Trusted Pram

Our stuff (and a girl), with Old Faithful

Our stuff (and a girl), with Old Faithful

Dear Mr. Umbroller:

I might as well come out and just say it: When we received you as a gift at my wife’s first baby shower, I was not impressed. Your fraying nylon seat made you seem flimsy and cheap. Your plastic wheels made you feel disposable.

Also, you came from Wal-Mart, and for some reason, back then, my wife and I were hoity-toity about only getting baby products at Target.

You and I didn’t get off to such a great start. The first time we used you—on our first family vacation to Hawaii—I caught my pinky in your locking mechanism and (after a string of expletives) wanted to smash you against a wall. Then there was the trip to Denver, during which L, the older daughter, got her foot stuck in that plastic strap your manufacturer likes to call a footrest. (Lucky for you, she wriggled it out when she did; I had an Exacto knife ready to roll.)

There was more drama after that. During the first trip England, during which we nearly left you behind in the overhead bin (in case you’ve forced yourself to forget, the gate agent didn’t think you were “substantial” enough to warrant a gate check).

And on the third trip to Hawaii, when we wheeled you to the beach, a surging tide nearly took you out to sea.

To be fair, our tumultuous relationship has normalized a bit since R, the baby, joined the pod. She digs the way you ride close to the ground, and enjoys pushing you when you’re empty. Yes, she generally is more agreeable than her sister. But I think she just genuinely likes you.

Because of this, over the course of her 2 years on Earth, R has insisted we take you everywhere, from the mall to the farmers market to the city and on hikes. R lobbied hard to get us to bring you with us this week to London. Initially, however, she lost the battle; and her mother declared it would be better to take the fancier, studier and more practical double-pram.

Then a funny thing happened: That big-ass double-stroller didn’t fit in the truck. In a rush to get out of the house and head to the airport, we grabbed you, assuming you wouldn’t last a week.

Once again, we were wrong.

Not only did you survive the check-in line at SFO, but you survived the Heathrow Hike, too—rolling nearly 1.3 miles from our gate to the arrivals show. Since then, you’ve strutted around London proper in the rain and sun, jumping from high-speed river bus to the sidewalks in front of Parliament, the paved walks of Tower Bridge to the cobblestones of East London.

In short, Mr. Umbroller, you have been a lifesaver, and I am truly sorry for ever doubting you at all.

The truth is that you have been as much a part of our family’s travel as washable crayons and goldfish crackers. We’ve relied on you time and time again. And every one of those times, you’ve come through. At a time when many strollers retail for upward of $400 (or more), the $29.99 our friends spent on you has proven to be a stellar investment. We’ll continue to get their money’s worth, as long as you’ll allow us to do so.

Someday, when you you finally do go to that Umbroller Heaven in the sky, I vow to have you gilded and hung in our garage. In this state, you will serve as a constant reminder that ordinary can be wonderful, and that one never should judge a stroller by the name on its cover.

Sincerely,
MJV

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