Month: September 2008

what if there were no christmas?

This is #5 of an ongoing dialog of our travel which included 4 countries and a 4 year old. Please check the prior archives for the previous sagas.

We live in San Francisco where tolerance and acceptance survives and thrives in a 7 x 7 mile area. Last December we traveled to a country in which we, Americans, are led to believe there is no tolerance and no acceptance. We found it to be different than we are conditioned to know.

We spent December in Saudi Arabia, which means there was no Christmas whatsoever. They used to sell trees and there was evidence of Christmas but in this current day, there is no sign of it. Saudi Arabia is a sacred country, birthplace of Muhammad, dedicated to their religion. We felt the non-existence of Christmas was appropriate and took advantage of the time to become more knowledgeable about the religion, Islam. Moreover, to expose our 4 year old daughter Olivia to a different culture and a way of life. We were amazed to find she did not mind missing “the presents” at all but she was a tad disappointed when it occurred to her in January that she missed the San Francisco Nutcracker Ballet.

One day around the 25th of December, a 65-year-old Saudi friend of ours bent down to Olivia and said “Merry Christmas!” We had been in Jeddah for 20 days by then and it felt the same as if someone said Merry Christmas in April. Very odd. We panicked. What would Olivia do now that someone brought up Christmas?

Neither of us said a word and we got into the car hoping the whole thing would be forgotten. 5 minutes down the road Olivia said “Hey, maybe we should have the taxi driver stop for us to get a tree for our hotel!” Actually, it was a chauffer and home we were staying in so we got a chuckle. I took the opportunity to explain this was the month of Hajj and it is different from Christmas. When she look confused, I reminded her how she celebrates yet another religion with her best friend and how he doesn’t have a tree either. This cleared it up for her and off we went, tree-less.

Our friends took us to dinner on December 25th. Though we’d beent to dinner with them many times while we were in Jeddah, this night was special. Two sisters, a brother and their adult children took us to an amazing Persian restaurant. We spent the evening talking about everything from politics, the lack of recycling in Saudi, stories from the qura’an and to our earliest childhood memories.

Our favorite part of the evening occurred when we were leaving the house to go to dinner. Half way down the beautiful marble steps our 4 year old turned around to the butler who was standing at the door and yelled to him “Goodnight, Merry Christmas, Merry Eid, Happy Hajj.” Mission accomplished! Cultural diversity was within her.

investigating international schools

After a trip to the local ice cream parlor one evening recently, our neighbors stopped by our house to share some ice cream sandwiches with us. Their oldest daughter Lila is in first grade, and their youngest Janie is in our son’s preschool class. The children immediately started playing together, and the adults got to talking. As it is the fall, the conversation turned to the new school year.

Lila is enrolled at a nearby international school, where she is studying French and seems to enjoy it. I asked the girls’ mother if she plans to enroll Janie at the same school as her sister when she is ready for kindergarten. She said yes, and that’s when she explained that the school has two immersion programs: French and Mandarin. “How did you choose French over Mandarin?” I asked her. Her answer was as interesting as it was thought-provoking.

“Well, we were initially most intrigued by Mandarin,” she said. “But when we visited the school, we experienced this very strict, regimented approach even with the little ones. There was a lot of pointing and direction, ‘you sit there! You sit over there! Ok, now we are going to count to ten!’ The French program, while academic, wasn’t nearly so structured. Also, both of us [pointing to her husband] speak French, so we felt we could help Lila if she ran into anything she didn’t understand. But with Mandarin, we’d be as lost as her. We felt that it was enough of a culture shock to enroll her in an immersion program, but then to offer no safety net at home seemed too much to ask of a 5 year old.”

All of that made sense to me, and frankly I could relate, since both my husband and I studied French too. My elementary school also introduced a foreign language in kindergarten (French), but it was a 30-minute class, certainly nothing close to an immersion program. That same school is now on our short list for when our son is ready for school. But, as their family said good-night and we thanked them for the ice cream, I was feeling ambivalent. How did I really feel about language immersion for our son?

On the one hand, I am definitely in favor of having him study a foreign language starting at an early age. My husband and I would certainly prefer a school that offered a class as part of the curriculum to one that didn’t. But somehow immersion feels a little bit “hard core.” How would we have felt about it when we were kids?

Currently, our son attends a play-based preschool that we love, but some might call it a little bit “crunchy.” Kids can’t run around naked…but almost. There is an organic garden growing in the play yard, which the children water and maintain. The philosophy of the school is one of enabling children, who are viewed as capable, competent, self-motivated learners. When my friend and neighbor mentioned culture shock, I wondered how our son would manage a transition from “crunchy” to “foreign.”

One reasonable answer is that starting a new school can be challenging for any child, and if we choose immersion or not, our son won’t know anything different. Choosing immersion, however, is not without its drawbacks. There is research (academic and anecdotal) to suggest that immersion programs often slow down children’s English language advancement. My friend and neighbor said herself that Lila’s rate of mastery of English vocabulary slowed measurably in her first year at the international school. After that initial year or so, though, I found very little to suggest that there are any long-term drawbacks to being bilingual. Quite the contrary, which of course largely explains the draw and why the waiting lists for public and private immersion programs in the Bay Area are as long as they are.

However, my husband and I do have a secret, nagging fear that if our son was so focused on learning a new language that he might not be able to devote equal attention to reading, math, science, etc. Will the immersion program be so all-consuming that other disciplines will get short-shrift?

So, really it comes down to our motivations as parents for considering such a track for our son. Is it to give him an advantage that other children might not have? Maybe, a little, sure. Is it to expose him and his brain to another way of thinking, speaking, conjugating, communicating and expressing himself? Absolutely. But, assuming the immersion program doesn’t shine in all subjects, is it worth it? And if we decide that it is, are we as parents prepared to pick up the slack at home? I’m glad our son still has a little time, because I haven’t made up my mind just yet.

think globally, travel locally

At a baby shower last year, the hostess had all of the guests write down two pieces of important parenting advice to put in a beautiful, handmade book for the mother-to-be. I write down what I always do when asked to do these things:

  • If it is a boy, always make sure the penis is pointing down before fastening the diaper.
  • Show your child as much of the world as you are able.

The hostess chuckled when she read what passes as wisdom in my eyes and then said, “Oh, Kayt. If only it were that easy!”

I do understand that travel is a luxury and that, in these times, air fare to exotic locales may not be a priority. But I do believe that showing your child the world is easier than one might think. You just need to think outside the airport.

Here are some of the ways that when you can’t go out to meet the world, you can bring the world back home to you.

  1. Try a new tongue. Check out a Mommy and Me language class. Or see if a local school offers language instruction.
  2. Reach out. Contact a local International organization and see if there is a Mom of that nationality who would like to get together to share language and play dates. Lots of times, they are anxious to make American friends and improve their English. It’s a great way to learn about a country and culture firsthand.
  3. Go to a International Festival. There is a great calendar of festivals and events across the U.S. on the International Festivals and Events Association Web site.
  4. Check out a book. Pick out some Children’s books that explore other cultures. Some of our favorites are “The Musicians of Bremen” by Jane Yolen and “Three Samurai Cats” by Eric A. Kimmel.
  5. Play the postcard game. When I was young, my father sent me a postcard from everywhere he traveled. I still have every single one. Those two sentence blurbs describing the picture can inspire a lot of curiosity. Ask friends and family that are traveling to send your child his very own card.
  6. Do a project. When I was young, I called it “Whirl-a-World.” I would spin our family globe and let my finger stop on a country. I’d then do research in the encyclopedia or at the library to learn more about the culture and people there.
  7. Crack that cookbook. Is there a better way to learn about a culture than trying its food? Try a new international recipe and let your child help cook it.

That’s my basic list but I’m sure I missed other great ways to show your child the world. What are some other ways that have worked for you?

damascus: middle east travel with a baby

Several years ago when my son was about a year old, and I was five months pregnant with my daughter, we were trying to find a place to take a last family vacation with our small family before we grew one more person. At the time, we were living in Qatar and looking for an escape from the boring city of Doha during the Eid al-Adha holiday. We desired a fairly short flight, but insisted on going somewhere with real culture (ruling out the Gulf). This essentially meant Cairo, Damascus, Amman, or any number of cities in India. I was not ready to brave India with my pregnant self. Flights to Cairo and Amman were booked so we were left with Damascus.

Turns out this crapshoot turned into a wonderful trip.

Despite the fact the cobble stone-lined streets were not designed for our $40-lightweight stroller; the kebabs from the street vendor did not sit well with my pregnant belly; the Damascene taxi drivers didn’t have seat belts in their cars; very little English was actually spoken outside the major downtown area — it was still one of the most memorable weeks.

My son didn’t seem to care about the bumpy roads. We put aside our fear of taxis not driving in their lanes. No seat belts = no car seats so we hung on for dear life and prayed. If you’ve ever been to Damascus, you know why.

It just goes to show you first impressions can be deceiving. This poor smog-filled city proved to be a very family-friendly one. Even with our limited Arabic language, we had no trouble interpreting kisses the Syrian women planted on my son’s blond head. We even figured out bargaining at the souqs. They are master negotiators, but not necessarily great at math. We scored five Damascene tablecloths for less than $100. We hit all the major sites, Straight Street, the Umayyed mosque, and the Souq Hamidiyeh. Part of why my husband and I loveto travel is to see things from the other side. So during our trip, we spent the vast majority of the time in Damascus walking through regular city streets, sitting in local, non-touristy restaurants, and observing how Damascenes live their lives.

We were relieved that we could still do this, even with a young child. The trick is to revamp your traveling expectations. Kids still may need naps so plan for shorter outings and stay close to the attractions. Eating at nice fancy restaurants never works out with little ones. There are always great eats off the beaten path that will be just as yummy and cater to kids. Spending time in lines to see “sights” just for the sake of saying you were there, may not make the most sense. A trip to a neighborhood playground might give you all the insight you need into the local culture. Which was exactly what we did one day. Turns out next to it, you could get a small cup of Arabic coffee and smoke a shisha pipe while the kids played. Excellent!

Food and lodging are two of the major hurdles when traveling with kiddos. Our philosophy is to splurge as much as you can afford on the hotel and eat cheap.

Our hotel was the Cham Palace, classified by them as “one of the Leading Hotels in the World.” It was pretty weak for an ostensible five star, but it sufficed. One decision we made early on was that, if at all possible, we’d either spring for a suite or two rooms. Our son at the time slept for 12 hours at night, and another two to three during the day. So spending six waking hours in our hotel room every day walking on eggshells while he slept would, essentially, suck. The separate, connecting room turned out to be a fantastic investment. It meant we could put him to sleep, and then I could run out and get takeout from a restaurant, and we could have a good conversation over dinner, keep the lights on and read, etc. And by investment, I mean we managed the “embassy rate” for $85 a night, which came with two rooms smelling a bit like sewage and probably a wire-tapped room. But it was a cheap, clean and came with free yogurt one evening when my son wouldn’t eat anything else. Fortunately, the hotel was in the heart of everything (less than a 10-minute walk or death-defying $2-cab ride away) so made it easier to pop back and crash for nap each day.

When it comes to food, fortunately for us, our kids eat just about anything as long as ketchup is offered as a condiment. The Al-Kamal restaurant turned out to be our best bet. They had everything my son would eat: hummus, yogurt, cucumbers, lamb and french fries. We ate there at least everyday, sometimes just to get take out. Their family-friendly atmosphere allowed us to sit alongside several tables full of locals with strollers. The one day we decided to splurge on a fancy feast near the Umayyed mosque it was just as good, but twice the price and we had to keep our son contained as high chairs were not offered since you sat on the floor.

While I know my son will never remember this trip, I like to think these worldly experiences make us better parents. And if not, I’m sure it explains why both my kids love hummus.

saving the world, one kid at a time

We at Tea believe that traveling with kids is a fundamental part of raising a generation of little citizens. Seeing foreign places opens shows them that we are all connected, a thread running through many of our stories over in TRAVEL. As the season of plane trips abroad slows down, though, why not continue engaging in citizenship by thinking locally?

Cool Moms Care is a great site to check out for thoughts on how little citizenship can be inspired on a local level. From lunches to pack and dinners to cook, to how to volunteer or donate to charity with your kids, Cool Moms Care is a rich source of references for engaging your little citizen right in your own neighborhood. You can even sign up for their “5 minutes of caring” email to receive a daily tip on how you and your kids can make a difference.

haggling by the pound

My husband tapped his foot impatiently as my son started to squirm in his stroller. It was time to move on — the morning was getting late and Cairo’s famous open-air bazaar, the Khan-al-Khalili, was becoming crowded. The alleys of the market were filling with tourists, fresh off the tour bus, and over-ambitious baksheesh men looking to take them to the “best” stalls for a small fee.

But I wasn’t quite ready to leave. No deal had been struck.

The shopkeeper, sensing my family’s irritation, looked at the small, ornate brass teapot in my hand and magnanimously said, “I can see your family is waiting. So I will give you a good price. Usually, this is 150 pounds. But for you, I can offer 100 pounds.”

It wasn’t a shocking sum. One hundred Egyptian pounds is less than $20 U.S. I would pay much more at the hotel gift shop or a store back home. And I could certainly afford to spend the money. But I knew I could get a lower price. I couldn’t walk away now. The competition had only just begun.

“Too much. But I can give you 20,” and then giddily waited for the expected outraged rebuttal.

I love to haggle. Whether it is in the bazaars of the Mideast, the open markets of South America, or just the guys selling fake designer bags on Canal Street, I cannot resist the heated back-and-forth price negotiation that transforms shopping from leisure activity to sport. Ever since my father introduced me to bargaining as a little girl while traveling in western China, I’ve been enamored with any situation where I can negotiate my own price. I love the feeling of having some say over whether an item costs too much, to assign my own value to the things that I want to buy.

And yes, I am not too proud to admit that I also enjoy the fight — with all the tricks, guilt trips, and fast talking that come with it.

So now, as my husband looks on with annoyance — and quite often, embarrassment — I am all too willing to insult merchandise, ignore tales of woe and throw small tantrums for monetary discounts that, in the country’s home currency, usually amount to only a few dollars off asking price.

The shopkeeper twirled the end of his mustache thoughtfully. “I can see you drive a hard bargain. You are a mother. You must appreciate value. But only 20? I am a poor man. And look at the fine work of this teapot. You will not see such quality in another shop. But maybe I can give this to you for 80 pounds.” He opened his arms and smiled widely as if he were bestowing a great gift.

I raised my eyebrow. By Cairo standards — a poor city at best — the shop seemed fairly prosperous. But by mine? It is unquestionable that the few dollars I would save on the exchange would mean much more to him than to me. And despite knowing this, I still could not relent. At least, not by more than it would take to keep the game going for a bit longer.

“Twenty-five. And I can go no higher. My husband and son are waiting,” I said with little remorse as I put the teapot back on the display case.

“Not enough! 70 and no less! Do you think I am Ali Baba?” he asked, raising his arms in mock offense. This is a phrase I heard often as I traversed the market, an allusion to the story in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, an insinuation that the shopkeeper is a thief and can therefore let go of his merchandise for less than it’s worth. I smiled every time I heard it.

“No, no. But 70 is still too much,” and raised my offer to 30 pounds. He glared at me, tapping his fingers edgily on the counter, expecting me to become uncomfortable enough in his silence to increase my price. But I would do him one better. I nodded, thanked him for his time, and turned to walk out of the shop.

Before I reached the alley, he called after me, begrudgingly accepting my offer, his face fixed in a frown. I happily returned to receive my prize, trying not to look too smug in victory.

As I walked on to the next shop, ignoring my husband’s remonstrations so I might begin a new match over some papyrus and a small perfume bottle, I thought again of the shopkeeper’s reference to Ali Baba. Of course I didn’t think he was a thief.

But maybe, every now and again, I can see the attraction in thinking myself one.

francoise and the haiti house

“I love Francoise. She’s such a special, pretty girl!” Mila tilts her head and squeezes her eyes shut, her own little body language for conveying love or approval.

Francoise is a rag doll purchased from a market in Haiti. My mother brought her home years ago after several trips we made to Haiti together, and she gave her to Mila when she started to show an interest in dolls. She’s really a craft item made for tourists and was not necessarily constructed to withstand much actual play. Some of her stitches are coming loose and her dress is missing a few pieces. I’ve set them aside somewhere to be sewn back on but…well, you know how it is!

Flaws aside, Francoise is an integral part of the social scene in Mila’s bedroom. Tea party? She’s there. Play food cooking lesson? She wouldn’t miss it. Slumber party in the doll cradle? If she’s not in bed with Mila, she’s tucked in tight with the rest of the dolls, carefully burped beforehand. And when Mila wants to role play with her dolls, she asks me to “talk Rosalie” and tells me that she will “talk Francoise” (they are dear friends, those two rag dolls).

When we decide to make a little house out of a cardboard box and paint it (thanks to a dear friend of my own for the idea!), Francoise is chosen as the lucky recipient of said house. We have been discussing how to decorate the house and this gives me an idea. I pull out an old photo album, and Mila and I flip through it together. “This is Haiti,” I tell Mila, “this is where Francoise comes from.” I show her some of the little houses my mother and I visited on our trips. They are brightly colored: some are pink, some are blue, some are the sea-green color of the Caribbean. Naturally, they hold great appeal to my three year old daughter. And why not? They are happy colors. I have to admit that the color of our own home, one of a thousand shades of beige to be found in this town, certainly seems rather lackluster in comparison. Mila wants the little cardboard box house to be pink and, inspired by the brightly colored homes of Francoise’s native country, decides that the shutters and the front door will be a lovely sea-green.

Later, I am applying painter’s tape to the wall in preparation for my own painting project, finally applying the finishing touches to the front door and baseboards in our entryway after a little redecorating project we began last summer. I’ve been meaning to get it done all year but…well, you know how it is! Mila is delighted. Her eyes light up at the prospect of another painting endeavor. “Are you going to paint the door blue?! Like the Haiti house?!” She is positively glowing at the thought. It’s not what I had planned but…hmmm. I suppose it is something to consider!