Category Archives: Discovery and Exploration

August 13, 2008

dutch tulips

Our most recent family holiday was a long weekend in Holland to see the tulips in bloom.  We arrived a little too late in the season to see all the tulips in the fields, but we had a wonderful day at the Keukenhof gardens just southeast of Amsterdam. It’s a great place to visit with kids.  There are tulips from all over the world, as well as a wonderful petting zoo and fun playground for the kids.  Olivia loved taking photos of everything and both kids are pretty silly when we take photos of them!  Our favorite tulip was the ‘ice cream’ tulip.  We took our bikes along and went riding every day.  Holland is the perfect place to cycle, especially with young children.  It’s flat, easy riding and there are bike lanes and trails everywhere.  We stayed along the coast and were able to do some beautiful rides each day along with our daily ride into town to do our grocery shopping.  We even got to watch some gliders taking off and landing.  Olivia just received a new bike with gears for Easter and was really excited to be able to ride along next to us.  She declared she loved Holland because she got to ride her bike on the streets in town like an adult.  D and I ride our bikes through Brussels, but there are not as many bike lanes and it is too dangerous for us to let Olivia to the same.  When cycling in Brussels, I use my Dutch made “Bakfiets” which allows both kids to sit in a box in front of the bike.  It’s big and heavy, but very secure and I take the kids to school in it as long as it’s 10 degrees centigrade (about 50 degrees F) outside…and not raining!

We had a wonderful time in Holland and plan to return next year with all of D’s family.  We want to go at the time of the Tulip Parade which travels through the entire tulip producing region and is held when all the fields are in bloom.  And of course, we’ll take our bikes!

We’re off now for a two week camping trip to the Italian Dolomites.  It will be the first time we’ve taken the kids camping and they are so excited.  It’s already been an adventure getting all the gear and figuring out what to pack. But no more time to write about that now.  It will have to wait for our return!

August 12, 2008

inspiring greece

As an employee of Tea, it is evident how much emphasis is put on making the foreign familiar. I have seen the world through my Tea travel allowance in both the countries of Costa Rica (2007) and now Greece (2008). This program brings us all closer together as employees since we have the ability to venture to distant lands and experience the beauty of new people.

I decided to visit Greece in June as I was fascinated by the history as well as the seaside landscape and warm people. My first stop was in Athens where narrow roads and stone walkways winded throughout the urban sprawl. The Acropolis was a strong sight sitting upon a hill. The columns and ancient art were magical.

I then took a ferry to the island of Mykonos where I thoroughly enjoyed the beaches and white and blue buildings. The people were fun, fashionable and full of life. The pita sandwiches and olives were amazing.

The village of Oia in Santorini (my next stop pictured above) was truly dreamy. The Caldera was breathtaking. The steep cliffs and winding stairs were an architectural feat. My room was actually built into a cave, a sort of rustic paradise. The white and blue domed churches were numerous and incredible. The local art vendors were a real treat. I ended up purchasing some painted dinner plates in hues of blues, greens, whites, and yellows. The scrolled design will always remind me of my time there. I was lucky enough to meet a local man who grew up on the island. He was one with the sea and took me out on his boat to see the volcano and swim in the ocean hot springs. The black rock and red sulfur mud reminded me of the power of the earth….a memory I will not soon forget. The old ruins of a castle, the sunsets, and the wine country were truly incredible. I loved meeting the locals and sharing in their meal traditions. A restaurant owner shared about his life on the island as well as his distant relatives in America. We learned from each other and I shared my experiences too.

My final stop was Crete where the mountains intersect with valleys of olive trees and amazing coastline. I was amazed with the diverse landscape. I remember driving by an elderly man sitting at his family owned olive oil stop. It was evident that the olive trees were a way of life for him. I made a stop in Hania where I had an authentic lunch in a little restaurant tucked away in the pebble paved streets. When I walked into the place the floor was sunken low and tiled in a square shape. I learned that it used to be an ancient Turkish bath! What a cool place to have lunch!

Greece is full of life in both the present and the past. The art, music, food, warm people, architecture, and water were more than I could have dreamed about. There was truly so very much to be inspired by!

August 10, 2008

turkish carpets

We had been in Istanbul, Turkey, for only a few days and already knew that we stood out. When the carpet sellers who lined the streets of the Sultanahmet, the city’s ancient historic district, saw us from the back, they took note of my husband’s close-cropped hair and yelled out, “Soldier! Soldierman! Mr. Army, Mr. Navy! Come inside and see a carpet. Maybe your pretty wife will like one, you buy it for her! Maybe not. You don’t like, you need not buy, but come look!”

But when they got a good look at our fronts, with the small, wriggling bundle strapped to my husband’s chest, they changed tactics. As soon as they saw our infant son held fast in his baby carrier – his eyes open wide and bright, taking in the extraordinary and beautiful city surrounding him – they took a slightly less aggressive approach.

One man walked toward us with his arms open wide and asked, “Please, excuse me, may I kiss your baby?” Others pulled photos of children and grandchildren from their wallets and invited us into the shop to see still more. Yet another seller asked us to come into his shop to see some carpets that he was sure our son would adore.

“Your son,” the man said, giving us his best sales pitch, “he may not remember Turkey. I don’t think so. But you will help him remember. Maybe the carpet will help him remember. I think, maybe yes.”

Memory. This was a small point of contention with us. When we told friends and family of our plans to travel with our son to Turkey, our announcement was sometimes met with disapproval – and always with many questions: What will he eat? Where will he sleep? Won’t the plane bother his ears? And the most-asked question: Why go through the hassle of taking the baby at all, when he won’t remember the trip?

It was only this last question that we had some difficulty answering, wondering a bit about the answer ourselves.

On our last full day in the city, we went to explore the Aya Sofya basilica. The baby had thus far been fascinated by Istanbul and, on this day, was just as intrigued with the immense interior of this building.

Enchanted by the history and majesty of the former church/mosque, none of us saw the schoolchildren approach. But all of a sudden, there they were – 20 or more – swarming around my husband and son, reaching for my son’s hands and kissing his face.

At first, I was a little worried that the baby would be unable to handle the onslaught. As a typical 8-month-old, he is fairly accustomed to being adored. But not like this. Still, when I looked over at him, to see if I needed to intervene, he was laughing so hard his whole body shook. He reached out his hands to touch as many of the children as he could reach. His delight in seeing so many smiling faces looking up at him was palpable.

All of a sudden, a young boy in the crowd noticed me and asked in heavily accented English, “You are mother? Excuse me, thank you, what is the baby name?”

“His name is Chet.” I replied.

“Chet.” He repeated the name a few times, working it around his mouth as if trying a new, intense flavor. “My name is Kerem. Hello, Chet Mother.”

The other children took note of the introduction and followed suit. I soon heard shouts of other names.

“I am Nazim!”

“My name is Berol.”

“Hello, my name is Alev, thank you, goodbye.”

“Kadifah, hello, how are you?”

And then a little girl with gorgeous dark eyes looked up at me and mischievously said, “My name is … my name is Jennifer Lopez!” The children laughed wholeheartedly at the joke, and my son laughed with them, the echoes joyfully reverberating in the great dome of the building. I couldn’t help but smile, knowing that my son’s first trip to Istanbul had offered him more than many – and even we – had thought possible.

True, he may not remember the specifics of the mosaics in the Aya Sofya or the grounds of the Topkapi Palace. But I believe that the most important aspects of any journey like this stay with you whether you are 8 months or 80 years old.

This trip included children’s laughter, the same as at home and yet still able to make a powerful impression no matter where you happen to hear it. Add the sublime mystery of ancient buildings, full of colors and echoes that stir the heart and mind. And, most importantly, the spirit of adventure that wells up inside as you stare out on a new and fascinating landscape – perhaps even better when held aloft in a baby carrier – and anticipating the magic of whatever comes next.

No carpet is needed to remind my son of that.

August 8, 2008

cultural roots and good tv

One recent Sunday morning, my son, husband and I were gathered around the breakfast table enjoying pancakes. The television was on across the room, and a new show came on called “Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe.” Wolfe, as I learned later, is an internationally acclaimed photographer, and of course the series host. The episode captured us immediately with its imagery of a country familiar to our family—India.

My husband’s father is originally from southwest India, a state called Kerala which is known for it’s lush greenery, tropical weather, beautiful backwaters, and—as locals love to boast—almost 100 percent literacy. My father-in-law Tom came to the U.S. in the mid-1960’s for his medical residency, where he met his future wife Linda, a Chicago native with German and Norwegian roots. Tom and Linda eventually settled in Texas, where they had four children. Their family traveled to India many times when the kids were young. Having made the trip once already with my husband (before we had our son), I have great respect for my in-laws trekking across the world with four young children!

As we watched the show from our table, my husband and I tried to make conversation with our son about the connection he had to the people on the screen. Some were bathing or washing their clothes in the Ganges river, others were riding bikes or driving rickshaws, and still others were engaged in deep prayer in honor of an annual Hindu pilgrimage. We said things like, “Grandpa is from that country; it’s called India.” My husband also told a story about how when he would visit as a child, his family had “helpers” who would wash their clothes just like we were seeing on the show—beating the clothes against the rocks, a rhythmic but effortful job. I was reminded of my trip there, where I felt so fortunate to meet my husband’s grandfather shortly before he died. He had been instrumental in India’s push for independence, a contemporary of Gandhi, and later a Congressman and vocal advocate for education in his home state.

And then something small but meaningful happened. While to me, these people on the screen were fabulously interesting, they looked nothing like me or the family I had grown up with, and so I felt content to know that my son might feel a connection even if I didn’t. But it occurred to me that my husband might feel very differently; so I turned to him and asked, “Do you feel connected to them?” His face grew quiet, serious and almost sad, and he said simply, “Yes.”

I don’t expect that my son will feel the same subtle sadness or internal conflict that my husband and his father feel – a sense of having a toe or a foot in one culture while the rest of his body is in another. However, sensing how important it is to expose our son to his history, his family, and the many inputs that combined to make him who is he is, I see now that raising him with regular reminders about his ancestors is more than just a fun or different exercise. It will be vitally important to the quiet places in our hearts that we don’t always know are there and a deserving tribute to the people who came before us.

daily conversations

I don’t go around thinking of ways to make sure my kids appreciate cultural differences while avoiding judgments and prejudice. I don’t have to – my daily conversations with them, or more importantly, what I overhear them saying to each other, reminds me that teaching my children to respect our differences is a daily process, something achieved in small steps during every aspect of our lives.
Parker asks: “Mommy, why am I pink and you’re brown?”
Owen observes: “That lady talks weird. Is she speaking Spanish?”
After Martin Luther King Day celebrations at school, they both want to know: “What does it mean to be black?”
The first one is the easiest. “Our family has people of all shades in it, and we love each other even though we don’t look the same. Families are about love, not skin color.” I list all the pink and brown aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents who love them. I tell them they’re lucky to have all different kinds of people in their family.
The second one would be easier if Owen wasn’t using his “outside” voice and the woman wasn’t standing next to us. I swallow down the embarrassment. “She’s just speaking differently than we do, but we shouldn’t call people ‘weird’ just because they’re different.” Now, I have to admit my ignorance, which I figure is better than getting it wrong. “I’m not sure what language she’s speaking, but people from different countries speak different languages. That’s why it’s important to learn more than one language,” I tell him, “so you can talk to all kinds of people.”
I have to think quickly on the third, and toughest, question. The problem is, I’m not even sure what it means to be black. I don’t think the kids, at 6 and 4, are ready for my discussion on race as a social construction that has little real-world value – even my college students peer at me in confusion when I bring this up. In fact, when I’m talking to the kids I try to avoid terms like “black” and “white” to describe people because kids take things so literally, I know they won’t understand that pink people are called white and brown people are called black. And what about medium brown people like Owen, or people like Parker who are pink in the winter, light brown in the summer, and always blonde?
I decide on the simplest version of the truth. “Being a black person just means that some of your family members have brown skin. But what’s most important is the kind of person you are, whether you’re nice to other people, whether you try to learn new things, whether you play and have fun and are happy.”
“Are you black, Mommy?” Yes.
“Is Daddy?” No.
“Are we?” Yes. (Kind of, I think but don’t say it – we’ll get into the complexities later. Also, I’ve learned that I should never answer a question that wasn’t asked, and they didn’t ask whether they were half-black. I knew all those episodes of Law & Order would come in handy).
They look at me in silence, and I’m worried that more questions are coming, that, like when we discussed God and death, one answer would only lead to three or four more unanswerable questions to which I don’t have answers.
After a long moment, Owen says, “Okay, mommy.” Parker echoes his big brother, and they move on to more pressing matters.
“Can we have mac-and-cheese for dinner?”

visiting tokyo and beijing

Hello, my name is Andrew and I am a husband and father of two boys, 7 and 10. My wife and I have been traveling with the boys since they were born. Since my wife was in grade school, she wanted to visit Japan and see Fuji-San, Mt. Fuji. So, when a business trip came up to Tokyo and Beijing recently, I took the whole family. The pictures of the boys in their Yukata robes were taken at a Ryokan in Kyoto. These Japanese B&B’s are extremely warm and friendly places. And, as an alternative to the skyscrapers of Tokyo, they offer a bit of the old Japan that is sorely missing in the big cities. This Ryokan had traditional cedar tubs that are filled, and overflowing, at all times. So, a tub before dinner was a must! The kids loved to learn about foods, the temples and even the architecture. Of course, the big excitement was for the Samurai swordsman!

Our trip continued to Beijing. After a day in China, our ten year old deftly noted, ‘Dad, China is the opposite of Japan’. The calm and contained was replaced with the frenetic and cacophonous. Noodles were replaced with shark fin soup and chicken feet. Clear blue warm skies turned to coal soot and down jackets. And, yet, the newness of the environment was the tread that ran through the trip. No doubt our kids experience was colored by their parents open hearts in Japan — and global concern and fear in China. We ended up leaving Beijing a day early and returning to Japan for a romping day and a half at Tokyo Disneyland. Yes, it looks just like Anaheim. Except instead of sugar everywhere, the Japanese eat rice cakes and bean paste (the Snickers marketing team simply hasn’t cracked the code on Japan!).

The last picture of our family next to an iceberg was taken a few weeks ago in Alaska. Just note: it’s summer — I don’t think I’d like to be in that same spot in November. More on Alaska (and the bear mace we had to carry in the bush) in my next post!

little italy in our kitchen

I have fond memories of cooking along-side my father. Perhaps I was the sous-chef, but I felt like I was a part of something significant. I can distinctly recall the smell of fresh tomatoes simmering in basil, olive oil, garlic and red wine. My father always told me to add just a touch of salt to bring out the garlic and just a bit of sugar to counter the acidity of the tomatoes. There is nothing quite like the taste of marinara sauce that has simmered away all day. There is such love in the dish. It is that kind of love for Italian cuisine that my father has taught me to pass on to my family as well. It is not just the Italian love for food; it is a love of all that is good in life. It is about savoring the moment whether that moment is a soft breeze that passes swiftly along your cheek, the smell of a newly blooming gardenia, the genuine smile of a child, or the pure taste of fresh pasta sauce.

My father did not simply bring Italy into our kitchen; he actually sent all of his children to experience Italy itself as well. My sisters and I studied abroad in Sienna during our years at Villanova, while my brother, mother and father are currently visiting Tuscany as I type. During my stay there I immersed myself in Italian culture. I read the renowned works of Dante. I studied Italian works of art from the Etruscans to the Renaissance Period. I walked along the picturesque streets of Rome, Florence and Venice. I painted watercolors of Sienna’s hillside, nearby valleys, as well as the quaint homes and side streets. And I learned enough of Italian to shop, dine, and of course, buy my favorite flavor of gelato. It was a time that I will always cherish.

Today, my two-year old daughter, Hope, is my little sous-chef. Although she is certainly limited by her age in the kitchen, that does not stop her curiosity. She does not know many words, but one of her favorites besides ‘mommy,’ ‘daddy,’ and ‘more,’ is ‘pasta.’ As I blanche the tomatoes one by one she screams, “Pasta!” When the tomatoes cook down and I begin to add the other ingredients she shouts, “See!” I then place her on a tiny stepping stool so she can view the luscious red mixture. Near dinner, when I begin to boil the spaghetti, she knows that a delicious meal will soon be hers. But before the pasta is nearly done, she walks toward me, gives me a hug and whispers, “Taste?” The image of her mouth covered in velvety red sauce is one of my favorite mental pictures. Someday I imagine her walking along the simple streets of Sienna, perhaps on her way to purchase a gelato or to paint a lovely picture of a quiet side-street, or maybe, just maybe, she simply wants to take in the scenery.

keeping your travel sanity

We are confirmed travel addicts.

As a couple, my husband and I traveled as much as possible and now that we have a daughter, we are pleased to announce she is one of us. Although we are troubled by the fact that she will not eat salsa, she indeed loves to travel and so we will, in turn, allow Olivia to remain in the family. Traveling is deeply seeded in her DNA. Okay, that was dramatic. The truth of it is that she thinks everyone does it and it is normal everyday life. We have had only one mild passive-aggressive objection from her and it was on her 1st birthday celebrated on the big island of Hawaii. She took her first steps there, which we thought was especially magical as her namesake is Hawaiian. However, during that week of her birthday (we celebrate “birthday weeks” at our house) we continued traveling and she continued walking in Hawaii, then California and then Chicago. This is when she went on strike and didn’t walk again for 2 weeks. We got the message, three states in one week is too much to ask of a one year old.

There are so many travel tricks that we have used over the years to make the air portion of our travel smooth. As she gets another year older we have to come up with new solutions for cohesive travel. We started her traveling as an infant using the obvious trick of breast-feeding on take-off and landing. Bottle, boob or pacifier is essential to make sure you do not have the screaming baby in row 4 that rows 5, 6 and 7 wished was not there. Seems obvious but I have witnessed many-a-parent traveling with their child screaming in pain upon the landing. The baby has to swallow to break the building pressure in the ear canal upon take-off and decent thereby keeping baby free from pain and allowing the parents to smile an elitist smile when all members of row 5 state “that is the best baby I have ever seen.” We flew today from San Francisco to San Diego and a box of soy milk with a straw and carrots were on the no-ear-pain menu now that she is 5. Although Olivia’s Berkeley/hippie pediatrician states I can breast feed until she is 6, I opt for carrots at this point.

There have been a multitude of travel secrets between her infancy and 5 years old. Some I am afraid to mention or should I say that I am too embarrassed to mention. Two of such involve the airplane bathroom. Our current all-important travel secret is… podcasts. Olivia has a Nano iPod filled with podcasts. While she prefers the podcasts I download which contain video, I have also loaded it up with stories sans video. Everything from French lessons to Sesame Street. We used to travel with the portable DVD player, which was both heavy and bulky. It was always running out of battery life but worse yet, her movie would be mid-point and she would hear the instructions to turn it of by the invisible pilot. Very frustrating for her. Podcasts are great for short flights with short humans with short attention spans. Great for driving around Saudi Arabia too but that is an entirely different story.

to be or not to be…

When my daughter was born, we hadn’t picked a name or had a monogram done, but I secretly knew that my daughter would have an Italian name somewhere even if I had to slip it in on the birth certificate when my husband wasn’t looking. Growing up, my very Italian family mimicked My Big Fat Greek Wedding. My grandmother would get up at the crack of dawn to make breakfast for everyone which consisted of hand-rolled sausages, pancakes, eggs five different ways and thick bacon. Once breakfast was over, she began lunch. And so it went for the rest of my life. Food, family, lots of cheap Chianti and loud voices. Sunday night was spaghetti supper night and everyone ate at the dinner table. Sunday dinners lasted hours as we all talked and reminisced about our most embarrassing moments and relished in each others’ humor.

Friends would come to visit and my mother would insist they have something to eat – not a snack, but a full-on meal. My grandfather had a full on Italian accent and for some reason in my memories of him, he sounds just like Marlon Brando in “The Godfather”. His mixed language of Italian and English still seep out of my mouth on the rare occasion. I catch myself saying “capish” and “andiamo” to my daughter from time to time. All of these vibrant memories of my childhood rich with culture, tradition and pride are exactly what I want my daughter to experience.

My husband, on the other hand, is from an old-south family whose traditions and family dynamics are, for the lack of a better word, less vibrant than mine. So how do I strike the balance between the two? I don’t want to dominate my daughters’ identity, but I don’t want to deny her knowing who she is. I had to strike a balance and give her the tools to discover her own identity and cultivate a sense of pride about who she is and where she came from.

From the very beginning, I asked my mother-in-law to teach me special things she did for my husband and his siblings, songs they would sing, stories they would read and I weaved those into mine. Some nights I would sing my daughter an Italian lullaby my grandmother would sing me and some mornings I would wake her with a song my mother-in-law would sing to my husband. We do a family dinner every Sunday night, sometimes spaghetti with my family and sometimes take out with my husband’s family. My dad brought back from Italy two children’s books in Italian which I read to her every once in awhile and my mother-in-law gave me two story books that my husband loved as a child.

Finding the balance between our two very different cultures has been easier than I anticipated. I specifically looked for a Montessori program for our daughter that teaches foreign languages as well as has a diverse student body. Surprisingly, my husband really likes the fact that she is learning languages he doesn’t even know and even more impressed that she is starting to speak them.

For our family, our roots are an important part of who we are, but not the determinants of who we become. Our daughter will hopefully grow up with a strong appreciation for differences among others and be proud of being Italian and Texan. And if that turns out not to be the case, I still got my Italian name in there!

meandering through mandarin

Around the holidays last year, I thought it might be fun to try out a foreign language class with my then 2 and a half-year-old son. I briefly wrestled with which language, with my top choices being Spanish, French and Mandarin. Not surprisingly, those were the options that I found with the greatest frequency when I poked around for classes online.

I finally settled on Mandarin for a variety of reasons, which included: choosing a useful language for where we live in Northern California, wanting to learn something new along with my son, and giving him some early exposure to something he might not get later in school (i.e., we are hopeful that Spanish and French will be available options when the time comes for him to start elementary school, but Mandarin might not be offered). So, partly driven by curiosity, partly by the sheer foreignness of the language and alphabet, and partly by the bandwagon mentality of China-mania (booming economy, Olympic fever), I chose Mandarin.

I found a class that sounded perfect through Language at Play, which offered different courses for babies and early talkers in the three languages I had considered at a few locations in the San Francisco Bay Area. The closest one for us was held weekly at the Beresford Recreation Center in San Mateo.

The class exceeded my expectations, and I was really impressed with the quality of the teachers, the variety of instruction and activities to hold the children’s interest, and the usability of the lessons taught. Every class had a logical flow that made the hour long sessions predictable even though they flew by! We started and ended each class by sitting in a circle and singing a simple Mandarin greeting song to all of the children (about 8-10 in all): “ni hao” (hello) and “zai jian” (good-bye). The teachers wove in book reading, puppets, dancing, singing, snack, and other activities. It was really fun. Now, four months later, my son can still say a few key phrases, including “pai pai sho” (clap your hands) and “xie xie” (thank you). I am strongly considering enrolling us in another class, time permitting.