How family travel can save the world

Our pod minus one. London, 2013.

Our pod minus one. London, 2013.

“Your scarf is so pretty and sparkly. Are you a princess?”

With these words, spoken on a bus in London back in 2013, my oldest daughter made a Muslim friend. It didn’t matter that the woman was in her 20s. It didn’t matter that it was rush hour and the bus was packed. It didn’t even matter that nobody else on the bus was talking. For L, who was an intense and precocious 4 at the time, the purple hijab bedazzled with rhinestones and tiny little mirror beads was EVERYTHING in the world.

Over the course of our short ride, my daughter peppered the new friend to her left with questions about the garment. Was it soft? Was it warm? Where did you get it? Do you wear it to bed?

The woman, sweet and kind and patient beyond belief, answered every question quietly, with a smile.

I watched quietly from my seat to L’s right, trying my hardest not to intervene. Every now and again I stroked my daughter’s knee, just to let her know I was sitting next to her, just to let her know I loved her.

Then came the question I was afraid she’d ask: Why are you wearing it?

I don’t know why I was so scared she’d ask this—after all, it’s a perfectly logical question, especially when you’re 4 and you’ve gotten answers to some of the other queries on your mind. I guess maybe I was concerned that my kid wasn’t ready to talk religion, wasn’t ready to think about other Gods and Jesus and the differences between them. Maybe I was scared her question might offend the new friend.

But it didn’t. In fact, it had the opposite effect. The young woman lit up, explaining on a very high level about her beliefs, the rules of her faith, and her commitment to upholding those rules. L listened closely, nodding and staring at the garment and smiling. She processed the woman’s response. Then she spoke.

“I think it’s really neat that you get to wear something so pretty because of what you believe,” she said. “You might not be a princess, but you look like one to me.”

This moment has stuck with me as one of the most vibrant memories of the five months we spent in London that year, one of the most vivid experiences of my life as a parent. I’ve thought of writing about it frequently, but never have thought the time was right. Today, however, as I’ve struggled to make sense of the prejudice-driven shootings and killings that have wracked our society here in the United States, I have found myself thinking of that interaction, over and over and over again.

What stands out to me about the exchange is how uncomplicated it was. There were no preconceived notions, no stereotypes, and no bigotry. Just innocent curiosity on the part of my kid. And kindness, compassion, and patience on the part of her friend.

I can’t help but think about how much we all could benefit from this approach, about how much easier it would be to coexist peacefully with foreign people and foreign cultures if we saw these “others” with a similar sense of wonder. Don’t understand differences? Ask about them and listen to the response. Don’t agree with an outside perspective? Respect it nevertheless. These concepts weren’t difficult for a 4-year-old. They shouldn’t be difficult for the rest of us.

Family travel has taught me heaps about myself, about fatherhood, and about the bonuses of slowing down to experience the world at a child’s pace. That day in London, during our bus ride with the princess in the sparkly hijab, traveling with my oldest daughter reminded me of something much more important: Above all else, the secret to knowing the unknown is, quite simply, an open mind.

Preparing for an ‘Expert Roundtable’

Sisters. North Lake Tahoe. Summer 2014.

Sisters. North Lake Tahoe. Summer 2014.

Over the course of my professional life, I’ve spoken in front of standing-room only crowds of journalists, packed lecture halls of marine biologists, and giant auditoriums of car salesmen (really; don’t ask). None of these gigs has given me as much pride as the engagement I’ve got lined up for Wednesday morning: I’m the featured speaker for the “Expert Roundtable” in L’s kindergarten class.

The gig is part of a monthly series during which parents come into the classroom and chat with students about what they do and the tools they use to do their jobs right.

The last speaker was a veterinarian. I’m chatting about being a journalist.

Because I can’t bring kittens (let’s face it: A vet is a tough act to follow), I’ll be bringing newspapers, magazines, keyboards and steno pads for the kids to touch and feel and share and (in the case of the pads) keep.

Beyond that, my plan is simple: I’ll chat a bit about what kinds of stories I tell, explain how I collect information for my stories, have the kids interview each other (for a sense of what that’s all about), then I’ll share the process through which I put the stories together. (HINT: The process involves bowls of pretzels and M&Ms.)

I’ll conclude with some examples—a retrospective of some of the most fun stuff I’ve done over the years. Naturally, because I specialize in family travel (and because family travel comprises the bulk of what I’ve written since L was born), I’ll share a bunch of anecdotes about that.

Like that piece about the time L and I traveled to Beverly Hills so she could sketch haute couture. And the piece about the time we crossed the Thames River, in London, in an underwater tunnel. I’ll share a story from our family trip to Yosemite this past spring, and the piece from last month, about R’s birthday walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.

I’ll also share my favorite anecdotes from the month we spent living in Hawaii—the ones about the goats that jumped on the picnic table, and about the time when Blue the horse stuck her white fuzzy nose in through the car window and nuzzled my kids.

I might even show them some of the stuff I reported on our August trip to Walt Disney World Resort.

No, I’m not expecting more than half of the kids to pay attention. And I’ll be happy if one or two (beside L and her BFFs) even remember my name. But maybe, just maybe, one of those kids will hear my stories about my life telling stories and be inspired to become a journalist herself (or, I guess, himself). The mere chance of that is reason enough to do it. Which is precisely why I’m so stoked.

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?

Why You Should Travel with Preschoolers

Little R, enjoying downtime in London.

Little R, enjoying downtime in London.

It’s been a busy few weeks here at Wandering Pod headquarters. First we surfaced for another story on the “Have Family Will Travel” blog from Four Seasons. Then, earlier today, we hit the Google Alerts again, this time with a service piece for Scholastic Parent & Child magazine.

The latter story, titled, “Sanity-Saving Tips for Traveling with Preschoolers,” presents eight reasons why parents *should* travel with their kids when their kids are between the ages of 3-5. Some of my tips: Kids actually will remember it, flying with kids is easier than you think, luxury hotels are doing nice stuff for families, and public transportation is your friend.

Originally, the goal of the story was to give parents who are hesitant to travel with their preschoolers reasons to put their minds at ease.

Along the way, however, I learned a lot, too.

This was the story that led me to Michelle Blume, a child psychologist who blew my mind with some of the data she shared about how much 3- and 4-year-olds actually remember. It also was the piece that enabled me to meet Raquel Anderson, a behavioral health specialist affiliated with Bundoo, a great reference site for parents.

For both of these reasons, I’m excited to share the piece. Hope you enjoy!

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.

All about Peppa

Peppa, peeking out from her new playhouse.

Peppa, peeking out from her new playhouse.

Our girls brought back a number of souvenirs from our four-month stint in London: handmade fairy dresses, silly British accents, handfuls of two-pound coins and Nutella. They also returned with a completely maniacal obsession with an animated swine, Peppa Pig.

While the intensity of their interest in many of these British treasures has waned over time, their love for Peppa has not.

To be blunt: My kids are still just as hog-wild for the old gal and her pig peeps as they were over there.

At first, this passion was a problem; though Peppa is HUGE in England (heck, there’s even a Peppa Pig World) she wasn’t nearly as popular here in the U.S. Now, however, it appears Peppa has arrived: We’ve spotted Peppa cartoons on cable here in Northern California (Nick Jr., to be exact) and have started seeing Peppa books and merchandise everywhere.

Naturally, then, then the girls got their hands on the Peppa Pig Peek ‘n’ Surprise Playhouse, they practically snorted with delight. When they got the Peppa Hug ‘n’ Oink Talking Plush, they couldn’t put it down. And when we managed to score some Peppa books, the kids practically were ready to burn just about everything else on the shelves.

What is the appeal? I will admit: The damn pig is funny.

For starters, she loves rolling around in muddy puddles, which rules. Second, she always gets herself into “I Love Lucy” type scenarios. One particular episode, about a parrot named Polly who learns to snort, almost always gets me chuckling—a reality that, in turn, gets L giggling uncontrollably. Another episode, about a cuckoo clock, triggers laughter that has sparked asthma attacks. (Seriously.)

But Peppa is genuinely good, too. She’s the perfect mix of sassy and proper, snobby but kind. Her baby brother, George, his hilarious in his affinity with dinosaurs (he says, “dine-sores”). And her parents, Mummy Pig and Daddy Pig, are brilliant in the way they caricature most of the British parents we met.

I’ll stop myself before this post becomes an essay on Peppa and the postmodern picaresque. Bottom line: The show is worth watching, and we’re stoked that it followed us home. SNORT.

What sorts of “souvenirs” do you like to bring home from a faraway family trip?

Family Travel Lessons from Life in London

The rest of the pod, running to another adventure.

The rest of the pod, running to another adventure.

By the time this post is published on Monday, our wandering pod will be somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, well on our way back to California after four months in London.

If you’ve read this blog during our visit, you know we’ve had some pretty spectacular experiences. If you haven’t read it, allow me to summarize: The last four months undoubtedly have changed our lives, and also have given us a new appreciation for a variety of aspects of traveling as a unit.

Here are some of the things we’ve learned:

Family travel isn’t always rainbows and unicorns
So many blogs like this one focus only on the positives. And there are thousands of positives to traveling with kids. That said, allow me to be the first to tell you: Sometimes, traveling with kids REALLY SUCKS. The kids get cranky. You get stressed. You fight with your spouse. The cycle starts again. We had our fair share of miserable moments during our stint overseas. My advice: Focus on the good stuff; keep perspective on the bad stuff and you’ll survive.

Discipline is hard on the road
All parents know that when kids act up, they need to be disciplined. The challenge? Disciplining them is harder when you’re away from home. How do you give a time-out without the time-out corner? How do you roll when the kid throws a temper tantrum in public? How constructive is it to deprive them of their favorite things in a new place? Answers to each of these questions will differ for each family. But the questions themselves prove there is no easy way to tackle these issues.

Sleep is relative
At home, each of our daughters has her own room. At our flat in London, the kids shared a room. This meant that at some point every night, R would cry and wake up her sister, who would come and sleep with us. We always were hesitant to send L back to her bed for fear of further disrupting R. The bottom line: All bets are off when it comes to kids’ sleep schedules on the road. It doesn’t really matter when they sleep or where they get their REM cycles. So long as they do.

‘Eating well’ is subjective
Powerwoman and I consider ourselves proponents of healthy eating. We push vegetables. We try to limit sweets. During our stint in London, where food options were limited and the kids were pickier than they are at home, we lowered our standards. Suddenly slices of raw pepper qualified as “vegetable,” and frankfurters qualified as “protein.” We rationalized these decisions by acknowledging that the moves were only temporary. Our reasoning: On the road, the No. 1 goal should be just making sure your kids eat.

Public transportation is your friend
Buses and trains did much more than shuttle our family from Point A to Point B; on days when one or both of the girls had trouble behaving, public transportation vehicles served as the ultimate distractors, quashing tantrums before they even began. L was mesmerized by the Tube, while R preferred the “double-bus.” In both cases, the girls reacted to the public vehicles as if they were rides at an amusement park. No, this won’t work for every kid. But it certainly is worth a shot.

Overplanning is for amateurs
There were days during our 4-month visit when I had lofty goals of hitting two or three different tourist destinations/attractions in an afternoon. Not surprisingly, I failed to meet my objectives every single time. The reality: Moving around a city with two children takes a lot longer than you think it will. They’re slow. They eat a lot. They like to go off-script and explore things you never suspected they’d want to explore. The best way to prepare for this dillydallying is to resist the urge to over-plan, and focus on one thing for each day.

The last lesson we learned in London pertained to how we parents judge ourselves. The gist: We need to cut ourselves some slack. Yes, there were days when our kids were the loudest kids on public transit. And, yes, there were other days when we were too tired after a week of schlepping to bring the kids to the local playground or museum. Neither case was cause for the suspension of our licenses as mom and dad. We learned that making ourselves crazy about apparent failures as parents only sapped our energy to parent the way we should. Furthermore, in the scheme of things (at least from our experiences), we weren’t failing as badly as we thought.

What practical lessons have you learned about family travel over the years?

‘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

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