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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?

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?