Tag Archive for: London

Wandering Pod on Four Seasons Blog, Again

Three pix from our trip to the Isle of Dogs.

Three pix from our trip to the Isle of Dogs.

Another month, another featured post for yours truly on Have Family Will Travel, the kick-ass family travel blog from Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts.

My latest piece spotlighted our pod’s three-day visit to the Four Seasons Hotel London at Canary Wharf. We stayed there for the first three days of our current London adventure; the story was published this past weekend.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize some of the pictures and anecdotes immediately; snippets from the story were published here first. Taken as a whole, however, the post represents the first comprehensive account of that portion of our visit. (The story also is the first formal article I’ve published about our stay in London, and the first time many of the photos have been published outside of my personal Facebook page.)

My next trip on behalf of Four Seasons begins later this week—we’re headed to the Four Seasons Hotel Dublin, then renting a cottage on the West Coast of Ireland for a week of quietude. We’ll be unplugged (seriously) for the latter part of the adventure, but stay tuned for updates from the Big City on the front and back ends.

In the meantime, please feel free to read some of my previous posts for the HFWT blog; you can find the local links to them here and here.

Family Travel Fun with Words

These ducks are joining us on Friday's trip to Bath.

These ducks are joining us on Friday’s trip to Bath.

I’m writing this post on the eve of our first official “field trip” here in London: On Friday the girls and I are joining Powerwoman and her students on an day-long educational excursion to the ancient city of Bath.

Personally, I’m excited to get a glimpse at history; the Romans established the city as a spa nearly 2,000 years ago, and it is now one of the best places in the world to see Georgian architecture.

The girls, of course, are stoked for another reason: They think we’re driving 2.5 hours to take a tubby.

No matter how many times their archaeologist mother attempts to explain the actual historical and cultural significance of Bath, L and R are convinced the place is a bath of a different kind. Earlier this week, they “packed” a bag full of tub toys. This afternoon, during lunch, L actually asked me if all of the buildings in Bath float. (Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up.)

The prelude got me thinking about how literal kids can be—a reality that is especially entertaining when you travel internationally and encounter a host of different words and/or expressions.

In nearly two months on the ground in London, my daughters have had a fair share of laughs about some kid-oriented British words and how they differ from stuff we might say back home. Some examples:

  • “Nappy” is the British word for “diaper,” and R loves joking about how she needs a “new nappy for my nappy” every afternoon.
  • “Mummy” is what most kids here say instead of “Mommy,” and L finds this hilarious because her “Mummy” studies mummies for a living. (Side note: The first time Powerwoman took us to the British Museum to see the ancient Egyptian mummies, L laughed for nearly an hour nonstop.)
  • “Lift” is synonymous with “elevator” here, and whenever we ascend in one of these devices, L and R have a field day.

The girls also get a kick out of pretty much all three British words for “stroller”: buggy, pram and pushchair. “Buggy” receives the most play, mostly because some of their favorite toys since establishing roots here are, in fact, plastic bugs. (Without too much trouble, you can figure out the little-person humor here; jokes often revolve around the idea of taking a buggy in the buggy.)

The bottom line: You don’t need a Ph.D. to appreciate that linguistics is a HUGE part of the travel experience, and exploring it in amateur fashion is an easy way for you to expose your kids to the eccentricities of a new culture.

My advice? Don’t just point out differences to your little ones; engage them to think about why languages diverge, and challenge them to embrace new expressions and phrases as part of the travel experience. It might feel unnatural at first, but I guarantee you’ll be surprised/amused/entertained by the responses.

Remember, you don’t have to be a wordsmith (like me) to have fun with words.

How do you introduce your kids to linguistic differences when you travel abroad?

Family Travel Public Enemy No. 1: Crowds

The craziness that is Portobello Road.

The craziness that is Portobello Road.

While I think traveling is the most important activity a parent can do with his/her kids, I’m also honest enough to admit that family travel is rarely unicorns and lollipops.

Every parent has his or her bugaboos. For some it might be coaxing a son or daughter to pee in a public toilet. For others it might be the challenge of discipline in public places. Still other parents may struggle with the negotiations around eating.

For me, the issue is crowds.

It’s not that my girls are “runners.” It’s not that they wig out. Instead, whenever we take the girls into a crowded area, they become so completely and totally overwhelmed by distractions that their ears literally cease functioning at all. They will not listen. To anything. Under any circumstances (even if bribes of M&Ms are involved).

I was reminded of this phenomenon this weekend at the Portobello Road Market near our flat here in London. We had read that this was one of the best markets in the entire city. So I dragged the girls (and a friend visiting from the U.S.) to check it out.

Between the fresh produce, beautiful baked goods and amazing antiques, the market was indeed stellar. That said, the place was more packed than the mosh pit at a Dirty Rotten Imbeciles show.

At one point, near a stall peddling (delicious) bread products, we got stuck in a human traffic jam; literally, we id not move for two minutes. At another point, some random passerby bit into a falafel sandwich and spilled tahini on L in the stroller below.

Finally, when we were huddled up and snacking on strawberries on the side of the road, a man walked into one of our buggies and nearly sent R careening down the hill.

(I didn’t blame the baby for wanting to be carried for a while after that.)

By the end of the day, I had sweat through my t-shirt trying to navigate the madding crowds. Yes, we experienced the Portobello Road Market. And it was memorable. For all the wrong reasons. And ICYW, we won’t be back.

The lesson: Know your limits. While it’s always fun to check out new stuff with the kids, sanity is fun (and nice), too. Do some research before you schlep the kiddos to see something major. If your source of information (guidebook, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) suggests the experience might put you and the kids in an uncomfortable position, be prepared. And if the experience is far too overwhelming for you to handle, improvise.

To be clear, I’m NOT suggesting that fellow family travelers shy away from exploring certain stuff. Instead, I simply am suggesting that we identify those situations that comprise our personal travel hells (with or without our kids), and that we stay flexible when we find ourselves there.

How do you stomach your own personal family travel hells?

Why Free Museums Benefit Family Travelers

Making art at the Tate Modern.

Making art at the Tate Modern.

Most museums here in London are free, and this rules for at least two big reasons.

First: It makes sightseeing cheaper.

Second, during those inevitable moments when your kids act like kids and you need to pull anchor and abort the mission, you don’t have to worry about wasting money.

I’ve come to appreciate the first reason slowly over the 40 days we’ve been here.

As for the second lesson, let’s just say I had a crash-course in learning that one on Thursday, when I took the girls to the Tate Modern museum of contemporary art to celebrate L’s first “Exploration Day.” (For more on the back story that prompted these special weekly adventures, click here.)

The trip started fine. After an uneventful Tube ride to Southwark and a seemingly interminable walk to the museum, the kids climbed on a stair sculpture out front, then excitedly proceeded to the galleries. We hit the brand new Bloomberg Connects bar first, so the girls could ease into the experience with some interactive e-drawing (the units themselves mimicked drawing on a tablet computer, only the pictures posted to a giant wall).

Because the drawing went so well, I thought I might try to expose them to some of the actual art.

This, however, is where the day went south; as we walked through room after room of paintings and pieces in various media, the kids lost it. Big time. They started rebelling with yoga on the floor. Then they hopped around, belting a song from “Doc McStuffins.” In the middle of a crowded gallery.

Finally, when R quite literally ran over and climbed up on one of the art pieces, it was time to go. So we hit the café. Then we went home.

All told, we spent about 90 minutes at the Tate—40 minutes with the interactive e-drawing, 40 at lunch and about 10 minutes in the galleries. If I had paid full-price for that, I would have felt gipped. But because everything but our fish-and-chips lunch (natch) was free, it was no big deal.

I know the thinking behind free museums is to make them available for everyone, but I think the approach benefits (adventuresome) family travelers most. You know the saying about how to roll “if at first you don’t succeed,” right? Let’s just say I’m thankful that we have another three months to get back out there and try, try, try again.

How do you determine when it’s time to abort a travel mission with your kids?

The Pros and Cons of ‘Buggy Boards’

Is it a blessing, or a curse?

Is it a blessing, or a curse?

Despite my love note to our umbroller at the start of this London trip, a few weeks ago we invested in a proper “buggy” that was a) sturdy enough to handle cobblestone streets, b) big enough for both of our girls and c) capable of using with a rainshade that would keep the seated child dry.

Because we also wanted the flexibility of being able to shuttle both girls around at once, we bought the used Quinny Zapp (for 70 pounds) with an aftermarket peripheral named a “Buggy Board” (for an additional 10 pounds).

The BB, as we call it, is a cross between a scooter and a go-kart. Essentially, it’s a platform with two arms designed to connect to the pushchair. The thing also has two wheels on the bottom to support the weight of whichever child is standing on it. (For a good visual, just check out the picture that accompanies this post.)

The benefits of using the BB are obvious: It makes it easier to shuttle both kids across town when they both are too tired to walk. It also facilitates adult-speed travel (as opposed to slower speeds, which are common among kids L’s age).

The downsides are a bit more obtuse.

For starters, balance can be tricky, especially if R is in the seat and L leans backward while she’s on the board.

Also, because the board sticks out 4-5 inches beyond the handles of the buggy itself, pushing the buggy with the Buggy Board attached requires a bit of a hunchback impression—a contortion that hurts after about five minutes.

Finally, since the BB’s wheels are independent of the wheels on the buggy itself, sometimes they just don’t turn in the direction you want them to turn.

The bottom line: We use the Buggy Board religiously, and I’m not sure whether I love it or hate it.

Don’t get me wrong; I’d rather incorporate the BB than push around a double-stroller. Still, more often than not, I find myself removing the thing before long treks because I just don’t want to bother with it. This back-and-forth raises important questions about the right kind of equipment for urban travel with young kids. Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers. Do you?

What are your favorite pieces of equipment to use when traveling in cities with young kids?

An Open Letter to the (Almost) 2-Year-Old

Parenthood doesn't get any better than this.

Parenthood doesn’t get any better than this.

Dear Little R:

Someday, years from now, you and I will sit back and talk about this fall in London, and we’ll smile. We’ll grin at all the pictures of you pointing to weather vanes. We’ll laugh at the GoPro video from the London Eye (the one where you are chanting, “London Eye” to the tune of Springsteen’s “Empty Sky”). We’ll chuckle while we reminisce about your obsession with Big Ben.

These are the Big Moments that have characterized our trip so far, the ones we tell your grandparents about in letters and on Skype. And, indeed, they are important.

But they’re not my favorites. Not by a long shot.

No, my baby, I prefer our mornings, the three hours you and I get to spend together every day, just the two of us. We drop your Big Sister off at school. We swing by Molly’s (or another café) for a coffee and chocolate croissants. Then we just hang.

Some days we head up the hill to the playground in St. John’s Wood. Other days we take the bus to Hyde Park. Then, of course, there are the days when we do REALLY crazy stuff, like take the Tube to see the Gherkin, or hop a canal boat tour into Camden to check out those amazing locks (you know how much I can geek out over modern engineering).

I love these “dates” because they’re fun. I love them because they’re relaxing. Most of all, I love them because I get you all to myself.

Nothing against your sister, of course; I had similar solo time with her when she was your age and you weren’t alive. But because you came second, and because she’s here too, alone time with you is rare. That means I’m that much more protective of it when I actually get some.

And so, on the eve of your second birthday, my baby, I say: Thank you. Thank you for making every morning so special. Thank you for willingly joining me on these jaunts around the city. Thank you for being cool about the whole daddy-has-to-stop-and-get-a-coffee thing. Most important, thanks for being such a fun and easy-going partner in crime.

Years from now, many birthdays down the road, you may not remember much of our morning dates here in London, and that’s totally fine by me. I’ll fill you in. Because I will cherish them forever. And I’ll never forget.

Love always,

Staving off Germs on Public Transport with Kids

This is the filth on a good day.

This is the filth on a good day.

They might as well name a garbage/rubbish incinerator after us Villanos before we clear out of London at the end of this year. How else would the locals commemorate (or, um, publicly shame) the inordinate number of wipes we have been using every time we take the Tube?

No exaggeration: On most trips we break into double-digits. The reason: Bannisters.

You see, L has a tendency to tell stories wherever she goes. And when she’s telling stories, she’s not exactly paying attention to where she’s going. Over the course of her life, the child has fallen down more flights of stairs than just about any of us can imagine. So in an effort to keep her from tumbling down staircases in the Tube (many of which have about 200 stairs), we’ve implored her to use the bannister.

The good news is that she has listened (and has not fallen…yet). The bad news is that the bannisters here in London’s subway system are some of the filthiest surfaces 0n earth.

Every single time we take the subway, the kid’s hand turns sooty black in a matter of seconds. This past weekend, while simply heading down from street level to the ticket booths at our local stop, the situation got so bad it looked like she had wiped her hands in tar. Or coal dust. Or sludge.

When this sort of thing happens, my gut reaction is to ignore it until she realizes she is the one who controls how dirty things get. Then my neuroses kick in. What if she puts that filth in her mouth or wipes it on her face? What if it leads to some obscure strain of sores? What if the sores spread all over her body?

I’m not Donald Trump when it comes to germs, but I have been known to spaz a bit on the subject. And what we’re calling “Tube Hands” syndrome has triggered a few sweat-through-your-shirt moments (for me), which is why we’ve been overusing those wipes.

Lest you think I hate the environment, we’ve tried more eco-friendly methods such as hand sanitizer and Witch Hazel. Quite frankly, these don’t remove the black.

We also have tried the old-fashioned strategy of negotiating with L to wash her hands more frequently, but if you’ve ever dealt with a 4-year-old, you understand that we’re lucky if the kid actually washes her hands after she pees.

We even have proposed that L wears gloves when we ride the Tube, though L seems adamantly opposed to that approach. (In many ways, this is a blessing; when coupled with my staunch “no face photos” philosophy, the notion of forcing gloves on the kids really would make me feel like Michael Jackson.)

And so, until something better comes along, wipes are our way to go. I apologize in advance to the British government for contributing to the garbage problem. The VINCINERATOR has a nice ring.

How do you keep your kids’ hands clean on public transportation during family trips?


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?

‘Getting Wet’ on Family Trips



We were playing in the playground at a local park when a new addition to the expat scene started the interrogation.

He grilled me about local schools. He asked for my favorite local restaurants. He went so far as to inquire about my favorite Tube stop, my favorite bus line and my preferred neighborhood bodega. Then he dropped the ultimate bomb.

“What do you do with the kids when it rains?” the guy asked in a panicked tone that conveyed total bewilderment.

“Well,” I replied quickly, “We get wet.”

This answer was significant for two reasons. First, of course, it indicated that we have lived in London long enough to do as Londoners do—that is, though the rain initially deterred us from going out and about, it no longer fazes us at all. Second, it revealed to me something bigger, bolder and more bad-ass about the way our family approaches travel in general: We don’t let anything slow us down.

No, I’m not admitting to a Griswoldian strategy of running my kids into the ground (though, before I became a father, my friends used to accuse me of “Clarking” them on guys’ trips). I’m simply stating that we usually don’t let harmless but unforeseen elements get in the way of experiencing a new place.

No matter how much our girls might want to stay inside.

We’ve forced the kids outside (and outside of their comfort zones) a number of times this past week. One day we got stuck in a squall on our walk back from the Tube (in case you, like the inquisitor, are wondering, our favorite stop is Warwick Avenue).  Another day, at a park up in St. John’s Wood, we waited out a downpour while trying to catch raindrops in an empty coffee cup.

Then, of course, was the afternoon I dressed up the girls in their “Welly boots” and led them around the corner for the sole purpose of splashing in a giant puddle.

At first the girls almost didn’t get it; both of them looked at me with expressions that said, “You mean this is what we’re doing out here?” Slowly, however, they suspended disbelief. They started jumping. Then they started giggling. At one point, L accidentally kicked off a boot and landed in the puddle with her bare sock. I wasn’t sure how she’d handle the development; to my surprise, she loved every second of it.

By the end of our little puddle-jumping session, both L and R were soaked and happy; neither of them wanted to return to the flat. Over dinner, the girls kept bugging me about when we could go puddle-jumping again. Again and again, my answer was the same: Probably tomorrow. (And it was.)

The bottom line: Whether you’re traveling with or without your kids, you’re not really traveling unless you’re “getting wet.” Get out. Don’t let unforeseen circumstances throw you off your game. And remember that even with the greatest guidebook, the only way to experience a new destination is to explore.

How do you improvise when unforeseen circumstances force you to change plans on a family trip?

Experiencing the House that Thomas Lord Built

Surveying the scene at Lord's.

Surveying the scene at Lord’s.

Considering that I come from a long line of New York Yankees fans, I geek out pretty dramatically about (legitimately) storied sports franchises. I’m also a big believer in checking out the home stadiums of these teams—sometimes even if there’s no game being played—just to glimpse the hallowed ground.

As a parent, I’ve tried to incorporate these passions into many of our family trips. Even if the girls don’t “get” why we’re visiting these places, I like to expose them to my interests by bringing them along.

This all explains why one of the girls and I went to a cricket match this weekend.

Our flat, in the Maida Vale neighborhood of London, is a short walk from Lord’s Cricket Ground, one of the most celebrated cricket arenas in all of England. The arena is in St. John’s Wood (where The Beatles recorded “Abbey Road”). The earliest known match played there was in 1814. That means that pitch has seen a lot of history.

I admit it: I don’t know much about cricket beyond what I’ve learned from the Lord’s website over the last few days. I do, however, know that many locals are mad about the sport, and I figured that a stadium that’s been around since the early 1800s has got to be a pretty special place.

(It turns out Lord’s is known as “The Home of Cricket.” Go Figure.)

So I checked it out for the one-day price of 5 pounds. With R, the baby (who got in free). In the middle of a lazy, rainy Saturday.

Our visit required some serious patience. When we arrived the first time, right around noon, the ticket-taker informed us the teams were “having a luncheon,” and that play would resume in a bit (to kill time, we headed to a nearby playground around the corner). Later, after a “luncheon” of our own (lesson learned: salt beef > pastrami), we returned, only to find that play was in a brief rain delay.

Finally, around 1:15, play resumed, and we went in.

Because it was the fourth day of a 4-day match (in cricket, teams play for multiple days at a time), and because the aforementioned weather was horrendous, the place was deserted. R and I took advantage of the empty seats by standing right near the sidelines, as close to the action as we could get.

As we watched the home team (Middlesex) pummel visiting Nottinghamshire, I tried to explain to R what was happening on the field. My “lesson” included details on bowlers, batsmen, wickets and other strange phrases I’m not sure I completely understand (such as “innings,” which means exactly what innings do in baseball, but apparently always has an “s” on the end, even when the word is singular).

The kid’s favorite part: Watching the bowlers wind up to deliver the ball. She also really liked the giant weather vane on the east side of the stadium and a giant clock across the pitch.

We lingered to watch a dozen points—45 minutes in all. Then we had to get home for nap time.

I spent much of the night wondering how much of our day at Lord’s R would remember. I got my answer this morning when she woke up. As I picked her up out of her crib, she spit out her pacifier and asked me, “Daddy, go see cricket today?” That alone was worth the price of admission. And then some.

What kinds of sports experiences do you seek out when traveling with kids?