Tag Archive for: London

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.

To School or Not To School

How dare we separate these two BFFs?

How dare we separate these two BFFs?

The big question in our flat this week pertains to enrolling L in school during our time here in London. Do we or don’t we? Powerwoman and I continue to go back and forth.

Some parts of the equation are simple. Yes, we took our 4-year-old out of her second year of preschool to be here for the fall. And, yes, we plan to send her back to the same preschool when we return (the folks who run her preschool have been kind enough to save her spot).

We also believe that L (like most kids) thrives in the school environment, and needs the age-appropriate social stimulation that environment provides.

Beyond these truths, however, we are truly flummoxed.

First is the issue of logistics. Last year, at home, L attended school twice a week for three hours a day. This year, when we return, she’ll attend school three times a week for three hours a day. Here, however, they do school differently. Most kids are in full-time school of some sort by age 2. It actually has been very difficult (and incredibly frustrating) to find a preschool equivalent that isn’t fewer than three full days (read: 8 hours a day) every week.

Then is the issue of philosophy. We relish the fact that we have the opportunity to live abroad with the girls while they’re so young. Because we are travelers by nature, we want to show them the city, take them around England, and explore Europe as frequently as possible.

I, in particular, am struggling with the decision, as I’ve taken it upon myself to create a “classroom” out of the everyday, supplementing journeys to different parts of the city with “lessons” before and after.

(Example: we’re attending a cricket match this weekend and I’ve started with stories about the rules.)

Still, the situation raises pretty serious questions. To what extent would L suffer from being out of school for four months? To what extent would enrolling her change the everyday, on-the-ground experience for her (and the rest of us)? How difficult—if at all—would it be for her to adjust to a new school in a new city in a new home? Finally: How might her enrollment impact our ability to travel while here?

Ultimately, I think Powerwoman and I probably will seek a compromise. My hunch is that this compromise likely will involve enrolling L in a full-week, half-day program, and insisting that the school allows us to keep her out one day a week (preferably a Monday or a Friday) to keep up our “curriculum” of exploring through travel.

Is this ideal? Not really. But at least the approach would incorporate both the traditional (school) and something new (travel).

At the end of the day, the school issue isn’t about what’s best for us at all; it’s about what’s best for L. That reality doesn’t change with a mailing address. And it’s a notion we try to embrace regarding both daughters wherever and whenever we can.

How have you handled schooling your kids during extended family trips?

Embracing Playgrounds of the Future

Coffee made this (fantastic) playground better.

Coffee made this (fantastic) playground better.

I have seen the playgrounds of the future on the streets of London, and they all have one thing in common: Cafes.

No, I’m not talking about tiny kiosks that sell nothing but candy bars and bags of chips. I’m talking full-on, honest-to-goodness cafes. With fresh food. Ice cream. And, best of all, espresso machines. That make strong coffee drinks. Quickly.


After two weeks on the ground here, three of our four favorite playgrounds have such snack bars. And I’m already spoiled rotten. Heck, the café at the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens even sells hot pizzas. Who in his or her right mind wouldn’t be all over something like that?

Specifically, I like the trend for a number of reasons.

First, for parents like me—humans who regularly operate at a sleep deficiency—knowing that you’re never more than a swingset away from a double Americano does wonders for the energy levels (and the patience levels while “negotiating” with cheeky kids).

Second, when you forget to bring snacks from home, the baristas/snack-keepers have you covered.

Finally, these on-site cafés offer a certain degree of flexibility to reward good behavior (or to splurge on lunch away from home). If the kids are being good and you don’t really feel like racing home to eat, you can dash into the café to buy relatively healthy sandwiches and fruit at the playground and chow down there.

I beg of our community leaders back home: HOOK US UP! As an expat who has appreciated the beauty of playground cafes here, I publicly cast my vote. Tens of thousands of parents across our nation would agree if they had the option to do so. Who says we grownups can’t have fun at playgrounds too?

To what extent would you patronize a café at your favorite playground?

Moments Mean Everything on Family Trips

A great moment from a recent day at Regent's Park.

A great moment from a recent day at Regent’s Park.

Just because an article is witty and well-written doesn’t mean it’s good. Case in point: a recent piece on Huff Post Parents that paints family travel in a playfully pejorative light.

The writer, Steve Wiens, asserted in the piece that traveling with kids is more of a “trip” than a “vacation.” He alleged that family travel is never truly enjoyable because kids behave like, well…kids. Looking back on his experiences during a recent family excursion, he worte: “By far the best moment every day was when the kids were finally in bed, and the adults all gathered upstairs to laugh, moan about our sore, aging bodies, and relive every precious part of that day.”

And unless I’m missing some sort of tongue-in-cheek vibe, it seems the dude’s thesis is that most of us endure family travel because it’s what good parents do (and because, at some point in the future of our children’s lives, it will suck less).

Put simply, I could not disagree more.

To say that the “best moment of every day was when the kids were finally in bed” is to reject fundamentally the most basic premise of FAMILY TRAVEL. If Wiens actually means this—if he’s not just saying it for effect—why the hell does he bother traveling with children in the first place? Why doesn’t he just ditch the kids with their grandparents and take his spouse to Vegas?

In this family, we embrace those moments when the girls (unintentionally) remind us just how special they really are. Maybe one of them chases after a pigeon. Maybe one draws a flower. Maybe the two of them just hold hands as they walk down the sidewalk.

These are the best moments of our days together. Not the moments when they are unconscious in bed.

I won’t lie—from time to time Powerwoman and I have to work hard to find a good moment upon which to build. Heck, here in London we have had to skip a few days entirely. But when we are lucky enough to experience these wonderful snapshots of our zany and wacky and unpredictable children interacting with the world, nothing else really matters. And that’s what our family vacations are all about.

What are the “best moments” of your family’s getaways?

When New Is Scary on a Family Trip

This one likes the Tube; the other, not so much.

This one likes the Tube; the other, not so much.

Especially when kids are young, family travel forces them to see, smell, hear, taste and touch things they never have seen, smelled, tasted or touched before.

Most of the time, these new experiences go swimmingly and everybody oohs and aahs over how cute it all was. Sometimes, however, new stuff can trigger a DEFCON-1, global-thermonuclear-war type of meltdown. The kind that leads to silent crying. The kind that makes passersby think your child needs to be institutionalized. For life.

We’ve encountered both realities during our first 10 days here in London. Thankfully, the wins outnumber the losses. Among the victories: The stoop in front of our walk-up, river busses, old cathedrals. Among the losses: Bangers, crowds near Buckingham Palace.

For R, who freaks when she hears loud noises, the biggest debacle so far has been the Tube.

The mere mention of the subway sends the kid into hysterics. As we approach the station, she frantically clutches for dear life. When the trains enter the station, she covers her ears and screams. On the trains, she acts like a baby marsupial, burrowing her head into the nearest armpit until the horror ends.

Powerwoman and I have responded to these theatrics cautiously. On one hand, we don’t want the kid to freak. On the other hand, we don’t want to coddler her too much, especially since the child is going to have to get over it once my wife starts teaching (that’s why we’re here through Xmas; the fall semester starts Sept. 9) and I’ll be riding the trains with the girls solo.

I hope that the more we expose R to the Tube, the more comfortable with it she becomes. Of course this plan totally could backfire, and she could end up hating it even more because we won’t give up.

The conundrum raises an interesting point about the difference between comforting and dishing out tough love on a trip. How much do you bend before you break? How much are you willing to give your kids what they want before you start making them based upon what they need?

Obviously answers to these questions will be different for everyone.

The act of asking them, however, can be a good exercise—especially if you run through it before you’re in the moment trying to manage a maniacal kid.

My advice: Unless a new experience could physically harm your child, keep at it as long as it seems sensible (and kind) to do so. Put differently: Don’t let a little crying or standing on ceremony deter you from introducing your kids to new stuff away from home. Change can be scary. Disrupted routines can suck. But the more you expose your kids to these realities at an early age, the better equipped they will be to handle them as travelers later in life.

How do you handle it when your kids are spooked by new experiences on family trips?

Why Traveling with Kids Makes Me Fat

Please! Anything but fries!

Please! Anything but fries!

We’ve only been in London for a week at this point, but if I eat another French Fry (or “chip,” or whatever you want to call those crispy demons), you might have to roll me down the stairs to catch the Tube.

Yes, traveling with kids is wonderful for a host of reasons. How this dad eats while vacationing with those little people definitely isn’t one of them.

My first problem is the food.  Whether they’re munching on the aforementioned French Fries, chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks or tortilla chips, our little humans love consuming fried stuff. It’s the only thing they’ll devour every time. And when they’re “all done” (as R likes to say) with their dinners, the leftovers are just sitting there, staring at me, tormenting me, daring me to resist.

(I know there are some moms and dads out there who won’t let their children go near fried stuff. Powerwoman and I are not those people. The reality: We encourage healthy options whenever viable, but turn to fried stuff in a pinch because we have found that during meals in unfamiliar restaurants, the goals are to order something a) we know they like, b) we know they’ll eat, and c) we assume will arrive relatively fast.)

The second problem is my own guilt.

If you’re like me, wasted food equals wasted money. This mindset comes in handy when we’re cooking at home—I reuse everything, including turkey carcasses on holidays. On the road, however, I can’t help but assign a value to every uneaten chicken strip and half-finished side of peas. Once this happens, the only way to feel like I’m getting my money’s worth is to eat the scraps—even if I’m no longer hungry.

Case in point: One dinner this week comprised a bowl of red curry, two pieces of fish from L’s fish ‘n’ chips, and two-thirds of R’s mashed potatoes. I’m not bragging here, folks; I felt gross when all was said and done. One thing I didn’t feel was wasteful.

(In other news, I know other moms and dads may not admit it, but lots of traveling parents suffer from this affliction. Maybe as a follow-up to my reality television show in which Dads compete to see who can schlep the most stuff through an airport, I can produce a show that pits pops in a contest to see who can eat the most kids’ meal leftovers. Joey Chestnut and Juan More Bite, you have been served.)

Thankfully, at least for me, both of these poor habits usually are offset by a good run (which I try to squeeze in every day). Still, I acknowledge that they’re not the best habits to have, for me or my waistline.

How do you manage to eat healthy food (in modest portions) when you travel with your kids?

Free Fun in London, Without the Queue

Baby's-eye view of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

Baby’s-eye view of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

Sure, we Villanos can appreciate the typical tourist stuff. But one of our favorite strategies when visiting a big city is to find the biggest crowds and head in the opposite direction.

This was our plan earlier in the week after arriving for four months in London.

Instead of spending hours upon hours in queues for attractions such as the London Eye, Buckingham Palace and the like (stuff I’m sure we’ll see at some point during our stay; preferably once the summer ends), we laced up our trainers and wandered east from the Four Seasons London at Canary Wharf onto the Isle of Dogs—and beyond.

Our first stop: Mudchute Park and Farm, a 32-acre plot of countryside, smack in the middle of East London. The place also happens to be one of the biggest city farms in Europe. And it’s free.

We knew we were someplace special immediately; as we rounded the corner of a back entrance trail, L spotted a horse grazing at the far end. Later, after feeding ourselves at the modest café (which serves surprisingly delicious food made mostly with produce grown on-site), we fed bunnies and chickens.

Then came the bigger animals. Goats. Llamas. Donkeys. And sheep.

Coming from a rural part of Sonoma County, California, these critters were nothing new for our girls. But seeing them against the backdrop of glimmering skyscrapers—now that was novel. For all of us.

As if the Mudchute experience wasn’t mind-bending enough, we left the farm and headed straight Greenwich, on the south side of the Thames. No, we didn’t take one of the many water busses that service the waterway. Instead, we walked. Under the river. In a 111-year-old tunnel.

That tunnel, formally dubbed the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, was built in 1902 to allow workers living on the south side of the river to get to work on the Isle of Dogs. Today, save for the Tube, it’s one of the easiest ways to get to Greenwich—home of the Royal Observatory, London’s only planetarium and, yep, the Prime Meridian (if you’re a geography geek like I am, this last one is a REALLY BIG DEAL).

Oh, the tunnel also is totally free.

I’m not sure what our girls enjoyed more: Listening to their own echoes as we walked the 1,215 feet across, or playing (and drenching themselves) in the shallow fountain on the Greenwich side. Either way, the traverse was a big hit, and a fantastic way to end a day of alternative sightseeing in our new home.

What are some of the most off-beat attractions you’ve encountered with the kids on recent trips?

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.


The Gift of Family Travel

Bon voyage cupcakes, from my 12-year-old niece.

Bon voyage cupcakes, from my 12-year-old niece.

Two cocktails into our final domestic Date Night of 2013, Powerwoman popped the question about our impending (we leave in two days) semester-long move to London.

“Are you nervous?” she asked.

At first, I didn’t know how to respond. I mean, I’ve spent the better part of the last eight months thinking about the epic family adventure we’re about to begin, but never—literally, not one time—have I stopped to consider the degree to which I am nervous about the idea of establishing a new life in a new place with two kids under the age of five.

Naturally, the query prompted me to chase my Manhattan with some shots of serious self-examination.

Yes, I am nervous about the logistics behind towncarring from Heathrow to our first stop on the adventure, the Four Seasons London at Canary Wharf (I’ve got an assignment there). And, yes, I’m nervous about getting from Canary Wharf to our new flat on the day we move in (which is Aug. 24, for those of you scoring at home).

Honestly, though, that’s it.

The remainder of my emotions would fall into categories such as EXCITED, THANKFUL, and HONORED. For me, our next adventure is nothing short of the best gift ever.

How is it a gift? For starters, we get to bond as a unit—a rarity in today’s era of school schedules and working parents and daycare. Second, we get to experience faraway countries and foreign cultures through the eyes of our daughters, for whom everything is new. Finally, we get to do it all on a temporary basis, knowing that, come Christmas time, we can return to our lives here in Wine Country and start planning the next trip.

I know there are people who think it’s senseless to travel with young kids because they likely won’t remember much of what they see and do. In my book, however, Powerwoman and I aren’t doing this so the kids remember it. We’re doing it because it simply is what we do.

(Though, of course, if they remember any of it, that’s a bonus which we gladly will accept.)

We Villanos aren’t sitters. Whatever we’re doing, we don’t stay still for long. One of the reasons Powerwoman and I work well together is because we share a sense of adventure and an indomitable need to explore. As parents we have tried to lead by example and pass along these credos to our girls.

I’ll be “nervous” if anyone in this family ever approaches life differently. Until then, I say, bring it on.

To what extent do you think kids remember family travel? To what extent does it matter?

12 Days to London

These flower-pickers are ready for the Big Time.

These flower-pickers are ready for the Big Time.

Twelve days. That’s all that stands between our family and an overnight plane ride from San Francisco to London, which will be our home from Aug. 21 through Christmas.

For months, the Big Move has seemed like a mirage, something that sounded great but wasn’t actually happening, a family-focused fantasy akin to my daydream of winning the Main Event at the World Series of Poker.

But it’s real, people. And it’s happening SOON.

Powerwoman and I have spent ample energy this month scratching stuff off our respective pre-trip to-do lists.

She has gotten most of the fun stuff, like buying the girls new winter clothes and researching playgrounds in our new neighborhood (it’s Maida Vale, for those of you scoring at home). I have been left with the inglorious tasks: Freezing the gym membership, temporarily suspending our cellular service, and requesting a Capital One credit card (with no foreign transaction fees) in Powerwoman’s name.

Of course we’ve also spun wheels trying to tie up loose ends here at home—thankfully, my parents will be seizing the opportunity to house-sit and lay claim to a “vacation” home in Wine Country for the fall.

Still, if I had to guess, I’d say my wife and I have spent the greatest amount of time focusing on easing the transition for L and R.

On the most basic level, this has translated into reading them books about our new home (the favorite has been “The Tiger Who Came to Tea”; “This is London” ranks as No. 2) and studying maps of the city to give them a sense of what landmarks are where. On a more nuanced level, it has meant making sure we’re bringing enough from home to make the new flat feel familiar.

With this in mind—and after much deliberation—it appears that we’re taking the (ridiculous) kittens calendar from the fridge in the kitchen. It also likely means we’re carrying-on an entire suitcase of stuffed animals. And R’s (new) purple inflatable alien.

We’ve taken other steps toward smoothing the transition. Like teaching my parents how to Skype so the girls can have video check-ins with the cat (and, I guess, their grandparents). And procuring postcards for L to fill out and send to her friends at preschool back here at home. Heck, we’ve even packed Halloween decorations so the girls can feel like they’re not missing out (sadly, the Brits don’t really do the whole costume-and-trick-or-treating thing).

For a two- or three-week trip, I’d say this type of preparation would be a bit much. But for four months on another continent, I think it’s spot-on.

Our rationale behind this obsessive planning is simple: We want the move to be an adventure, not an exercise in missing stuff from home. One could argue that we’re rejecting spontaneity (to a point); instead, we like to think we’re trying to incorporate enough touchstones so the girls are comfortable and willing to explore on a whim.

For better or for worse, these comfort levels are critical to the next few months in our world. They play an important role during every long-term family trip; how you choose to support/indulge/address them is up to you.

To what extent have you bent over backward to make your kids comfortable in a new place? How much is too much?