Like a Virgin

Little R, loved every minute on the high-speed train.

Little R, loved every minute on the high-speed train.

We’ve relocated to Northern England for the better part of the next week. Some of the items on the agenda for the coming days include hiking, reconnecting with (some of my wife’s distant) relatives, and baaaa-ing at the sheep in the pasture out our door.

Of course our girls also will spend significant amounts of time talking (and, undoubtedly, drawing) about how we actually got here: One of the high-speed trains up from London.

We took the ride with Virgin Trains, from Euston Station up to Penrith, a city in the heart of England’s Lake District. Because we sat in First Class, we had reserved seats, a table, all-you-can-eat food (including a stellar breakfast service), and porter help with the bags. Because it’s Virgin, the girls also received “Kids Bags”—backpack-sized satchels full of games and puzzles to do while we were en route.

To say the girls made the most of the experience would be an understatement.

R was the bigger fan; she spent at least 90 minutes of the 3-hour trip peering out the window or asking about Thomas the Tank Engine (a natural association, given our activity).  L liked the train too, but was scared a bit by the rocking.

(Overall, we managed to survive just fine until about ten minutes before departure, when R threw a tantrum and knocked a full cup of tea into my crotch, and L threw a tantrum just go be like her sister.)

Still, the verdict is that train travel trumps airplane travel because a) you can walk around as much as you’d like during your ride b) you can look out the window and see more than simply clouds, and c) first class is something average families actually can afford (it cost us a grand total of about $300 for all four of us, round-trip).

Don’t get me wrong, traveling by train isn’t perfect.

In Europe, where railroads can go up to 125 mph, motion sickness can be a real issue; L felt sick pretty much every time she looked out the window. In the U.S., where we (inexcusably) lack the same sort of high-speed rail they have here, train travel can take a while.

From our perspective, after two consecutive excursions from London involving train travel, the rails provide a nice alternative to airplanes.

Beside, trips are always better when the getting-there is part of the fun.

From the perspective of a family traveler, what do you like best about train travel?

4 Family-Friendly Aspects of Life in London

R, at a London coffee shop, with some house toys.

R, at a London restaurant, with some house toys.

We’re nearing the end of our time here in London (we leave Dec. 23; I can’t believe it either), and I’ve spent the last few days reflecting on some of the most family-friendly aspects of life here.

Yes, I know the health care is free and higher education is dirt cheap (especially for residents). But I’m not talking about that kind of stuff. I’m talking about the family-friendly aspects of life that make visiting this great city with kids easy. Here, in no particular order, are my faves of the faves.

The playgrounds are awesome.
I’ve chronicled the awesomeness of the playgrounds here before, and I’ll do it again and again (probably until I sell a story about it to a major glossy newsstand magazine). Play areas are well-kept. Play structures are new. Ground surfaces are soft so kids don’t get badly hurt when they fall. And each playground boasts activities we simply don’t see at home: the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in Hyde Park has a pirate ship kids can play inside, while the one at St. Stephen’s Church Garden has a zipline. Of course my favorite aspect of London playgrounds is that many of them have on-site cafes. This means we moms and dads are never too far from a hot black Americano.

Coffee shops give kids free stuff.
Did somebody say coffee? One of my other favorite things about London is that almost every coffee shop in this fair city treats kids like royalty. So long as the grown-ups in your party buy drinks, the kids in your party receive a free drink of their choice. Most places—Pret a Manger and Caffe Nero among them—offer something called “babyccinos,” essentially warm milk with a splash of cocoa. Other places will go so far as to make the little ones pint-sized decaf cappuccinos. When I’m out and about with L and R, I usually opt for simplicity, and just request child-sized take away cups of cold milk. Whatever you order, these freebies are a nice touch.

Public transit treats parents with kids like rock stars.
The vibe toward families on buses and trains in other cities is simple: You’re on your own. Here, however, whenever I board the bus or the Tube with the girls, people are incredibly accommodating and eager to help. They give up their seats. They help carry the stroller up steps. They actually make eye contact with us, and they smile. Overall, I have found the bus system more child-friendly than the Tube; every bus has a separate area for buggies—a nice amenity, especially on those days when I’m schlepping all over town with both of my kids. (Of course when I’m traveling with only one of the girls, and I’ve left the buggy at home, double decker buses also offer the best attraction in town: Watching the city pass by from the front seats of the top level.)

Restaurants are prepared…and welcoming.
So what if kids aren’t allowed in most pubs after 7 p.m.? Most restaurants in this city are incredibly welcoming toward families with young kids, and just about all of them are prepared with kids’ menus and crayons or colored pencils to keep the little ones happy until their food comes. Heck, one of our favorite places in our neighborhood even has toys for kids to play with. Back in the U.S., I’m notorious for lugging a backpack full of paper and pencils everywhere, just to make sure we’re covered. Here, so many places have it covered that I’ve actually started leaving the art supplies at home. It’s nice to have one less thing to worry about. It’s also nice to know Powerwoman and I can count on enjoying at least a few moments of every restaurant meal in peace.

What sort of family-friendly features do you look for in a travel destination?

A Walk to Remember

My Big Girl, drinking tea before the hike

My Big Girl, drinking tea before the hike.

My wife and I are avid hikers, and we’ve raised our girls to embrace the outdoors as well. Back in California, no day is complete without a tromp in the woods near our house. Here in London, though experiencing “woods” requires more of an effort, we get the girls out and about to breathe fresh air as much as we can.

This is one of the reasons why all four of us were so excited about spending Thanksgiving in the country (at Four Seasons Hampshire). It’s also why I didn’t bat an eye when L requested a hike after sundown one evening last weekend.

Our goal for the evening journey was simple: Hike well-marked pathways as far as we could in 30 minutes, then turn around, return to the resort and have hot chocolates in the library bar.

To guide the way, L took her ladybug flashlight; I bugged the concierge for a “torch” (that’s what they call flashlights here) of my own.

The walk started quietly; as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, L was focusing intensely on watching her steps.

Once we were startled by a braying horse, however, the mood lightened considerably. We quizzed each other on whether certain twinkles were airplanes or satellites or stars. We reminisced about our favorite parts of the day we spent in nearby Farnham (hers: Watching Christmas carolers; mine: Lunching in a 500-year-old pub). We even shared our favorite stories about the Baby, a.k.a., her little sister.

After 30 minutes—probably 1.5 miles in all—we turned around as planned. With the manor house looming on the horizon, L realized we likely were the only people hiking in the field at that moment, so she shared a perfectly normal (for a 4-year-old) request:

“Dad, it won’t bother anybody else. Can we please listen to Taylor Swift?”

Normally I have a strong No-Artificial-Sounds-in-Nature rule. On this night, however, because we were the only people in the field (and, of course, because she asked so politely), I relented.

L was delighted. She skipped. She twirled. At one point, she screamed along with words I hope she doesn’t understand for a long while (I think the song was, “Dear John”). And about halfway back—I kid you not—we spotted fireworks exploding over the trees on the edge of the property.

In that moment, my daughter described the fireworks as “magical,” “unbelievable,” and “amazing.” We now have been home a week, and she still uses those same words when talking about the hike.

To be honest, I do, too.

Those 60 minutes were the best 60 minutes of my Thanksgiving, and arguably the best 60 minutes I’ve had in a long, long time. These are the moments we as parents live for.

Could we have had the same experience at home? Maybe something pretty close. But being in a faraway, foreign place enriches every aspect of moments like that one, and the richer those moments, the better.

A Family Travel Moment to Remember

So many dresses, so little time.

So many dresses, so little time.

I’ve always been a big believer that travel is nothing more than a series of moments in time. A select few of the moments are special and worth remembering; (most) others fade into oblivion.

When we travel individually, we relish these moments solo. When we travel with kids, however, two things happen: 1) we share the moments with them, and 2) we lay the important groundwork for our children to have moments of their own.

This is why I loved our trip to Mystical Fairies here in London this week.

Sure, the fairy-themed store in Hampstead had hundreds (literally, HUNDREDS) of fairy dresses for girls the age of my girls. And, yes, the place also sold wands and crystals and wings and pixie dust and amazing books and all sorts of other items that you would want if you were between the ages of 2 and, say, 9 and really liked fairies.

Heck, I even bought each daughter the dress of her choice (each girl was allowed to select one thing in the 30 minutes we spent inside).

But, really, the best part of the visit was the (pardon the pun, people) magic of simply being there, of seeing their faces light up with a glorious mixture of disbelief and delight when we walked through the door.

They vocalized these feelings well. At one point during our visit, L interrupted a staring contest with the wall of dresses to proclaim, “Daddy, this is the best store in the history of stores.” R followed suit shortly after she picked out her dress (a purple number with wings and butterflies all over it: “Daddy, I feel like a real fairy!”

As if it wasn’t clear enough in the moment, I knew we had struck family travel gold when the girls insisted on donning their dresses the very moment we got home. And again the next day. All day.

At some point in the future, both girls will outgrow their dresses and the dresses likely will end up as hand-me-downs or contributions to the local Goodwill. The girls, too, will move on—to sports or boys or nail art or whatever. One thing we’ll never lose is the moment, that special memory of that special time at that incredibly special place. For that, as a parent and a traveler, I am eternally grateful.

How do you commemorate and/or celebrate your favorite travel moments?

Taking Things Slow

slow

When we finally got to Starbucks, the kids chowed down.

The sun has been setting super-early here in recent weeks, which has forced the girls and me to devise new strategies for play sessions after R’s nap. Some days, the girls and I take a bus to someplace fun and explore by the lights of the city. On super-cold days, like today, we stay closer to home, often wandering around the neighborhood, just for the sake of getting out.

These excursions are less about where we’re headed and more about the journey itself. As we wander, the girls jump off stoops, inspect fallen leaves, sing Taylor Swift songs (yes, really) and point at helicopters flying overhead.

And, as you can imagine, with so many activities and distractions, we don’t move very quickly. In fact, we make slugs look speedy.

Tonight, for instance, a “simple” stroll to the local Starbucks, eight blocks from our flat, took 36 minutes. To put that into perspective, in the same amount of time, we could have watched an entire episode of Seinfeld AND made a grilled cheese. I also could have written this blog post.

Some might be bothered by this pace. As for me, I kind of love it. My job keeps me up late every night. I’m up early to get the girls ready and drop L at school. Every day—even weekends—has lots going on.

And that’s precisely why these ambles with the kiddos are so damn fun.

I’ve written posts that touch upon this notion before, posts about the benefit of nothing on a family trip. I can’t stress the importance of slowing down strongly enough. At a time when so many of us family travelers are rushing off to see this museum or that famous landmark, an era when so many of us moms and dads program ourselves to shuttle kids from school to football practice and ballet, having a few hours just to be with the kids is a wonderful gift.

Even if these walks force me to wait for my triple tall Americano, even if they make us human icicles by the time we get home, the aimless strolls I take with my girls are a critical component of bonding as a brood. I’ve got all the patience in the world to move at their pace. After all, who knows how much longer they’ll even want me to come?

 To what extent do you factor in “nothing time” with your family when you travel?

What a Pisser

Where does the urine go anyway?

Where does the urine go anyway?

We saw so many memorable sights this weekend in London: Families frolicking on an ice-skating rink near the Tower of London, little boys and girls marveling at holiday lights in Old Spitalfields Market, even “elves” working overtime at Hamley’s toy store.

Oh, we also saw a bunch of grown men urinating in public.

Sorry if that last sentence struck you as a bit of a shock. The reality is that it shocked the hell out of me and my wife, too. Especially since the urination was happening at a fiberglass urination station with four urinals, set up in the middle of the sidewalk across the street from a popular bar near Leicester Square.

Thankfully, we were sans kiddos when we witnessed this debacle. Still, the scene raises some questions:

1. What would we have said to our girls if we had seen the urinators with them?
2. Why was there a place for grown men to wee in public anyway?

I could go on and on with my outrage about these things. I also could write pages about my ire over the gender bias they represent. (Why don’t women get a place to wee on the street? I mean, when they drink beer they have to wee as well. Are their bladders not worthy of such convenience?) Heck, you could even argue that these public pissers are so improper that they actually are anti-British.

I’ve chronicled my complaints in a letter to the Westminster Council. I’d share it here, but, trust me when I tell you: The missive ain’t pretty.

Instead, because this is a family travel blog, in these pages I’ll stick to the bigger issue: When you’re traveling with the entire family, it can be *really* uncomfortable to explain certain sights and sounds to your kids. Even if you are the most quick-thinking human on Earth, there usually is no easy way to do it. Nor should you have to.

Powerwoman and I are big supporters of tackling issues head-on; if we had seen the urinals with our girls, we likely would have justified the scene as some sort of overflow bathroom.

Still, I must admit: This is NOT the kind of thing I wish to have to explain to my little girls. Ever.

To my knowledge, these public urinals haven’t made their way to the U.S. yet, and that’s a good thing. If and when they do, we’ll be ready to fight them and keep urinals where they belong: In the men’s room.

How do you explain uncomfortable and inappropriate sights and scenes to kids while traveling?

Nappy-Changing Nirvana

harrods

When I die, I want to change diapers here.

As a kid, I spent family vacations dreaming about a guidebook in which I’d rate men’s rooms on categories such as cleanliness, spaciousness and comfort of toilet seats. Now, as a father, I see things a little differently: I still think The Bathroom Guide would be a fun book to write, but now I think I’d want to focus it almost exclusively on baby-changing facilities.

Naturally, then, I was thrilled to experience the 4th-floor baby-changing facilities today at Harrods, arguably the most famous department store in the world.

Put simply, it was the most luxurious place in which I have changed R’s diaper. Ever. In her life.

To describe the room as “palatial” would be an understatement. It was like a swanky salon. With a mix of communal changing berths and private changing/nursing rooms. There were armchairs, mirrors and lots of fancy and swirly lights. Also, there were complimentary diapers (in case you forgot your own).

After surveying the scene (and not wanting to intrude upon the mothers nursing their children in some of the private rooms), I opted to change R’s nappy in one of the communal berths. Sensing a messy change was imminent, I opted for a “pad” right next to the garbage pad. When I placed her down, I realized the pad really was an ovular pillow that was softer than the one I use at night.

R immediately acknowledged this was no ordinary changing experience. She looked around, commented about the mirrors, then actually said, “This place nice, Daddy.”

I agreed. I agreed again moments later, when I ran out of wipes and was given extras by an attendant.

When the deed was done, when my baby daughter was at least two pounds lighter, R played quietly on one of the armchairs as I washed my hands with designer soap in a marble sink. On the way out, the aforementioned attendant wished us a good day.

After the awesomeness we had just experienced in the nappy-changing room, how could the day be bad?

4 Things to Love About Intergenerational Travel

Grandma and L hit the park.

Grandma and L hit the park.

My parents have joined us here in London, essentially transforming the next 11 days of our experience into an intergenerational family trip.

At first, both my wife and I were concerned about the length of their stay: Eleven days is a long time for a visit from anyone. After the first 48 hours, however, those concerns have disappeared completely. We are delighted to have my folks in town, and we have identified a number of benefits to the notion of traveling with grandparents.

Benefit 1: Extra hands
If two hands are better than one, it stands to reason that eight hands are better than four. Translation: Adventures with the extended family are much easier because we’ve got two extra humans to pitch in.

From a logistical perspective, this means we’ve got four extra arms to carry children, push buggies, lug bags and/or help getting on and off the Tube. From a practical perspective, it means Powerwoman and I can breathe a little easier when we’re out and about and tired of schlepping around a bunch of crap.

It also means negotiating buggy time isn’t nearly as difficult as it usually is. Normally, when the girls are tired, we give each daughter ten minutes in the one-seat stroller before making the two of them switch. With two extra humans, however, there are three times as many options for carrying tired girls (and, subsequently, three times as many options for resting tired arms). That keeps everybody happier.

Benefit 2: Additional perspective
Our elders have been around a while, which means they’ve had plenty of time to get pretty smart. On a family trip, the addition of this perspective helps couch everything in a different light—a reality that usually enhances the experience for the kids.

During our first few days as a family of six, Grandma and Grandpa have pointed out stuff that Powerwoman and I never would have noticed. Animal statues! Men dressed in gold! M&M’s in footguard costumes! Dancing flautists!

It’s been a treat watching the girls see new stuff around London at the behest of such fresh perspective. It’s also helped Powerwoman and me recalibrate our own respective radars to be more aware of sights and sounds we otherwise might have overlooked.

Benefit 3: New dynamic
Normally, the dynamic in our tiny family involves four; when my folks (or my wife’s folks, for that matter) are around, that number increases by two. Extra humans in the mix mean a multiplicity of additional potential interpersonal interactions. Put differently, having grandparents in the mix simply changes up the vibe.

Admittedly, sometimes (especially when the kids are tired) these extra bodies can make things stressful. But most of the time, life as a party of six is more unpredictable, more lively, and—as a result—more fun.

Like when Baby R got silly during a diaper change and had her grandmother crying with laughter. Or when L forced her grandfather to watch her favorite episode of “Peppa Pig” and he spent ten minutes snorting like a swine. Long after my folks fly home, these are some of the moments I’ll remember most. So far, they are my favorite moments of this extended visit.

Benefit 4: Built-in babysitters
Finally, one of the best things about having my folks here is that we’ve got built-in babysitters—babysitters with whom the girls are completely and totally comfortable.

This will come in handy in the early part of this coming week, when I will call upon Mom and Dad to watch the girls on a few afternoons while I furiously wrap up a huge guidebook project. Later in the week, as Powerwoman and I celebrate our birthdays (which fall six days apart) with a romantic three days/two nights of solo time, the girls’ grandparents will come to our flat for some live-in help.

Could I/we survive without my folks watching the kids? Somehow, yes, I’m sure we could. That said, it sure is nice to know they’ve got our backs. And it sure will be wonderful to savor some Mommy & Daddy time for a change.

What are your favorite things about intergenerational family travel?

Feeling Our Way in the Dark

Sisters. At St. Luke's Garden Playground. In the light.

Sisters. At St. Luke’s Garden Playground. In the light.

The conversion to Standard Time from Daylight Savings Time always is a dicey one for parents with young kids. Little ones wake up earlier. They’re crankier before dinner. Midday naps can go horribly awry.

Thankfully, here in London, we’ve experienced none of these usual problems. Instead, we find ourselves faced with another challenge: Exploring in the dark.

It’s a matter of logistics. R naps from about 130 p.m. local time to 330 p.m. local time every day. Once she wakes up, the process of changing her diaper, feeding her snack, getting her dressed to go out and actually clambering down three flights of stairs generally takes about 45 minutes. This means we’re headed out for our afternoon/evening adventures around 415 p.m.

Which gives us less than one hour of post-nap sunlight to do stuff every day.

On Monday, for instance, we arrived at a local park just as the sun was setting, and proceeded to stick around until it was so dark we couldn’t see the ball we were trying to kick. One day last week (we set clocks back Oct. 27 here), a simple errand to the local pharmacy required the extra purchase of a flashlight to see the way home.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment has been with playground time; because most playgrounds here are run by the city, they close before the sun even begins its descent—at 3:45 p.m.

Of course we learned about the playgrounds the hard way. That fateful day, as I tried to hide my disappointment from the girls, a mom walking by smiled and cheerily offered, “Welcome to London in winter!” I was not pleased.

So far, our solution has been to create a new schedule. On days when the girls want/need playground time, we push back R’s nap to get in an hour while it’s still light. On days when R goes down at regular time, we have what I’ve started calling, “Walkabout,” which consists of nothing more than putting on hats and jackets, taking the flashlight and wandering on foot.

As the temperatures drop, I imagine we’ll transform these evening strolls into evening bus rides or something like that. Nothing like feeling your way in the dark.

How has the time change impacted your travel experiences?

The Importance of Being Unplugged

Little R, exploring a castle in Trim, Ireland.

Little R, exploring a castle in Trim, Ireland.

Between this blog, my website, and my overactive Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles, it’s pretty obvious that technology is a big part of my life. Considering how often my family and I are on the road, that means technology is a pretty big part of their lives, too.

For most of the year, we embrace the constant presence of Smartphone cameras and WiFi signals. Every once in a while, however, we like to unplug for a while, and just be.

We embark on one of those trips Sunday morning, when we head to the West Coast of Ireland. We’ve rented a beach house in Connemara for the week. Aside from day trips to Cong (where they filmed “The Quiet Man,” one of my wife’s favorite old-time movies) and the Cliffs of Moher, we plan to do a whole lot of nothing. The old-fashioned, Luddite kind.

Sure, I’ll catch y’all up on our adventures when we’re back. I’ll also share some stories from our time here in Dublin (and the incredible Four Seasons Hotel Dublin, where I’ve been on assignment since Thursday).

Until then, for the next few days, know that the four of us are out there on the edge of the world, telling stories, dodging raindrops, eating French fries, beachcombing and singing Doc McStuffins tunes.

I can’t think of a better way to spend a week.

To what extent do you prioritize unplugging with your family when you travel?

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