Lessons Learned After One Month in London

Another lesson: London parks kick ass.

A major lesson: London parks kick ass.

Hard to believe it, but today is our one-month anniversary on the road here in London. This means tomorrow will mark the longest amount of time our kids have been away from home (last summer, we spent 30 consecutive days traveling in Hawaii). It also means that three months remain in this grand adventure.

Since I’m a big fan of self-reflection, I figured this milestone would be a natural time to look back and “synopsize” (Powerwoman’s word) some of the lessons (and Villano family tendencies on the road) we’ve learned so far.

Public transportation is the ultimate distraction tool
It doesn’t matter if we’re riding a bus, train, or (river or canal) boat—my kids *love* taking public transportation. The passion is so deep that that as soon as we climb aboard one of these vehicles, the girls forget that they’re tired/hungry/cranky/insert other problem here, chill out and, quite literally, simply enjoy the ride.

To put it differently, my Oyster Card is the key to vanquishing tantrums when we’re out and about.

For L, the obsession was born on her very first ride; for R, it was a more gradual process (if you recall, she hated the Tube at first).

Overall, both girls prefer the bus (the “double-bus, as R says”), and like sitting up top. That said, the Tube is OK by them as well, especially if we get to change trains so they can watch (and wave to) trains entering and leaving the station. The bottom line: Public Transportation is our friend.

You can never schlep too many snacks
Back in the 1990s, when my family had season tickets at Yankee Stadium, my Dad would stuff his backpack full of snacks and harass us all game long to eat. I nicknamed him “Bodega Man,” because he often offered a selection that was more varied than the stuff you’d find at the local bodega. He took the ribbing quietly, almost knowing that someday, the tables would turn.

That day is now. Here in London. Every time we go out and about, I’m the dad with the backpack of random snacks. And it always—ALWAYS—comes in handy.

What I’ve learned about being Bodega Man 2.0 is that incorporating a diverse array of snack options actually improves the success rate tenfold.  Put differently: The more stuff you schlep, the more likely you’ll have something the kids will eat.

(Dad, I get it now. Sorry I didn’t learn the lesson sooner.)

Routines rule
One of the most exciting things about traveling and living abroad is the notion that every new day brings new experiences, new people and new points of view. Especially when you’re traveling with young kids, however, there can be great comfort in a predictable schedule from day to day.

Basically, I’m saying that everyone breathes more easily with a bit of a routine.

It was a struggle for me to embrace this approach, but we’ve learned this routine doesn’t have to be elaborate. Aside from L’s school (which she attends weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon), our daily schedule is simple: Wake-up by 7:30 a.m., naptime for R (and downtime for L) around 1:30 p.m., park time around 4:30 p.m., tubs at 7 p.m.

The girls don’t come out and say they appreciate these predictable patterns, but on those rare days when we deviate from the plan—including the one day a week when we pull L out of school to explore London—the free-style schedule triggers a greater number of tired spells and associated meltdowns (as sophisticated as L is, she still is only 4).

Not all playgrounds are created equal
Back home, we can count on one hand the number of playgrounds our kids would rate as “awesome” or “super awesome.” Here, however, it seems there’s a kick-ass playground in every single park.

All of these playgrounds boast crazy wooden play structures, old-school metal slides, and spinny carousel type things (none of which you’d find in the U.S., where child play areas are made to be uber-safe and minimize lawsuits). Most of the playgrounds here also have bigger and boxier “baby” swings, which enable me to get R and L side-by-side and push them both at the same time (this comes in handy when I’m solo with the girls). Some even have huge sand pits. And a separate area for kids over the age of five.

The best thing about London playgrounds, of course, are the cafes; at play time, I’m never more than 200 feet from a hot Americano or a fresh-baked scone.

In short, this family can’t go wrong with a trip to one of London’s parks. (Also: we Americans have a LOT to learn from how they roll with playground development over here.)

I’ll end each month with a similar look-back (thanks, Kara Williams, for the idea). I’ll also use these pieces as an opportunity to mention what lies ahead. On the docket for the next four weeks: R’s birthday celebration at The London Eye, a trip to Bath, a visit from one set of grandparents and a 10-day (half-term) jaunt to Ireland. Stay tuned!

What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned through family travel?

A Little Help from Some Friends

Three of the four musketeers, in a common pose.

Three of the four musketeers, in a common pose.

As much as I despise the word, “staycation,” we’re big fans of family travel to destinations within a 1- or 2-hour drive of our home.

Partly this is because we live in Sonoma County, California, IMHO one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It’s also because Powerwoman and I believe strongly that you don’t have to go far to experience the wonder of something new.

We put this philosophy into practice over the holiday weekend, when good friends from Central California—a family of four with two daughters, ages 5 and 3—came to visit. They arrived Wednesday night. And from that point until late Saturday, we had a Peter Pan-like panoply of adventures without ever leaving the county.

The activities themselves were fun—especially on Friday, when the eight of us took a private tour of Safari West, a private animal park with giraffes, zebras and hundreds of other animals, just down the freeway in Santa Rosa.

But what was even better was watching the girls play and laugh and bond by just being girls.

They shared cookies at a French bakery. They waved flags at a Fourth of July parade. They splished and splashed in an inflatable kiddie pool. They danced to a ragtag folk band at a local farmers’ market.

Sure, my kids had done most of this stuff before. But they’d never done the stuff with friends, and that factor enhanced each experience acutely.

This reality has been true for me, as well.

My fondest memories of that trip in high school to Acadia National Park revolve around hiking solo with a buddy who tagged along for the adventure. And as a younger child, the best parts of summer trips to Cape Cod were the lazy days with a childhood pal (and her brood).

Last night, a few hours after we parted ways, my Big Girl looked at me with sullen eyes and stated, “Doing stuff was more fun with [my buddy’s daughters] around.” In that moment, I was reminded of something we all should remember: Traveling with family can be transcendent, but traveling with family and family friends can be even better.

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