February 11, 2009

detox your toys

Is your house being taken over by giant plastic toys that sing and squeak and talk? Are you worried about mysterious chemicals and potentially toxic paints? Are you curious what it may be like to live without them? Yes, it’s possible! We made a decision to buy only wooden toys made with non-toxic paints and lacquers for Moushumi before she was born. This was prompted by the scary news that even long-trusted companies such as Fisher-Price have had recalls due to lead in recent years.

We have let our friends and family know that we prefer these sorts of toys, sometimes by saying just that, and in other cases more subtly by saying “check out these great toy sites: oompa.com and moolka.com!” Those are great sites for non-toxic toys and there are others as well – you just have to research a bit. A particularly nice feature of these sites is that you can see where the product is made as well as the safety criteria it has met. In fact, both sites have ways for you to actually pick the country of origin. There are Haba and Kathe Kruse from Germany, Vilac from France and Green Toys from right here in the U.S. among lots of other unique brands from around the world.

We also feel like we are making some progress towards being more “green” by using toys made from environmentally friendly materials: wood rather than plastics. For example, one of our favorite companies, Plan Toys, uses only non-toxic materials, recycled and recyclable packaging with soybased inks for printing, synthetic free rubberwood, formaldahyde free glue, and so on.

The wooden toys from these companies address our safety concerns, but they also look great, and never seem to take over the way plastic ones seem to. They often come in modern, chic styles and win awards for design. It’s a far cry from the quaint craft-shop look (nice in its own way, of course) that you might ordinarily associate with wooden toys. Many of the toys are so cool that adults want to play with them, too!

While at the beginning we were a bit daunted by the thought of avoiding ubiquitous plastic toys, it has turned out to be quite easy, and rewarding to do so. We look forward to using these durable and healthy toys for our next child, and even perhaps passing them on to our grandchildren.

February 5, 2009

what’s in a name?

Sometimes we play a game with our daughter. “What if we named you…Stella?” we ask. She laughs and wrinkles her nose. “No, I’m Mila!” “Hmm. What if we named you…Ruby?” More giggles. “No, I’m not Ruby! I’m Mila!” And she is. She is Mila. I can’t imagine her as anything else. At least…I can’t now.

I wasn’t sure, at first, when my husband suggested the name Mila for our daughter whether it really met all my baby-naming criteria. Oh, it was old. A famous Croatian, Mila Gojsalic, considered by some to be a sort of Croatian Jeanne d’Arc for her role in saving the region from a Turkish invasion, bore the name in the 16th century. I had wanted an old name, something with a bit of history to it. Check!

I also wanted a name that would reflect our daughter’s ethnic heritage. And I wanted it to mean something good, something positive. Her father is half Croatian. And here was a Croatian name. The word itself actually means “dear.” Check! Check!

But, while I wanted a name that was uncommon, something she wouldn’t have to share with half her kindergarten class, I also wanted it to be recognizable, familiar enough that she wouldn’t have to be always explaining it, that she wouldn’t have to be always correcting mispronunciations. I had my doubts about the name in that regard.

As I say, my daughter is Mila now. I love the name and can’t imagine her with any other. And while we do, as I feared, deal with nurses at her pediatrician’s office calling her Myla (it’s pronounced Meela) or new acquaintances greeting her with the more common Mia, I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised by the conversations that have been sparked by Mila’s name with many people we’ve met beyond the boundaries of our Midwest suburb. While not so familiar in our own neighborhood, Mila is a name that has found use in many other countries and cultures. We’ve met, or met relatives of, Milas who are Filipina, Guatemalan, Bulgarian, Dutch…. Conversations that have started and might have ended with, “Oh, she’s so cute. What is her name?” have turned into explorations of family history, personal and historical events, even language and etymology.

“Mila!? That’s my name!” (Or, “my sister’s name!”) “It is short for Milagros. It means ‘miracle.'”

Or, “What a beautiful name. In Bulgarian, Mila means ‘darling.’ Please, may I give her a cookie?” This woman, gazing fondly and a little sadly at Mila, later shared how much she was reminded by her of her own little daughter, from whom she was separated by the Iron Curtain many years ago.

These points of connection, and others, have been a means to learning about other people, other languages, other life experiences. And these opportunities to learn have more than made up for the Mylas and Mias we’ve had to correct along the way. Aside from the fact that she just couldn’t be anything but Mila, our dear Mila, I’ve lost any doubts I once had about our daughter’s name in my appreciation for its cross-cultural appeal, for its ability to bridge borders by simply being a tiny little bit of common ground.

And anyway, just try to call her anything else – she’ll soon set you straight: “I’m Mila!”

cuban eats

You’d never know it to look at me but I am a Miami girl, born and raised. Often called the gateway to Latin America, Miami has much to offer. But one of my favorites is the food. I have fond memories of standing in a traditional Cuban cafeteria translating for my mother as we ordered South Florida’s version of Sunday dinner. With the fairest of skin, blonde hair and light eyes, I’d struggle through the order with my high school Spanish, only slightly better than my southern mother could have done. But we’d leave there with the delicious smells of pork, frijoles negros, and maduros filling the car. We could hardly wait to make it home to share the feast with the rest of the family.

Since moving away from South Florida, my husband and I don’t run into as many true Cuban restaurants. But we get by. I often cook my own version of arroz con pollo or slow roasted pork with black beans and rice. And every once in a while our Cuban friends here will take pity on me and bring over a flan or have us over for proper ropa vieja. So you can imagine my delight the first time we offered Cuban food to our year old daughter. She dug right in, and my heart swelled with pride at the sight of our little girl experiencing new tastes from a different culture. Since Annie began eating solids, I make a true effort to allow her to experience a wide variety of foods cooked in many different ways.

Although my world travels have taken pause since her birth, one of my greatest joys in leaving home is introducing my taste buds to a new place. My hope is that Annie sees even more of the world than I do, and that her love of black beans is just the beginning.

first birthday rituals

Kai’s first birthday will be approaching in a few months, and I’m already planning the party. I may pass on the Spiderman theme and opt for a birthday party full of cultural rituals.

A must-have ritual is thoi noi * which is from my own Vietnamese culture. While all the guests gather around, baby chooses from a variety of objects on a tray. The object Kai selects may predict his future passions or career.

Some common symbols used:

  • paint brushes for an artist
  • pen and paper for a writer
  • an instrument for a musician
  • something medical (e.g., medicine, bandage, thermometer) for a doctor or nurse
  • a computer mouse for a techie
  • piggy bank for banker
  • rice for a chef

Another ritual I admire is shaving baby’s head. The “first haircut” is a rite of passage for many cultures including India, Tibet, and Korea. Shaving off the old hair cleanses the head of bad energy and allows for new and fuller hair to grow in.

The last ritual which encourages guest participation is the wish tree. This is one of my favorite multicultural traditions because the wishes are timeless. Guests will write/draw a wish for Kai and hang them on a branch. I can already imagine reading Kai wishes at bedtime for several days following his birthday. There isn’t a better birthday gift than that.

If you have other cultural traditions to share with us, please do!

 

*thoi noi-translates to baby’s coming of age, departing from the basinette

February 2, 2009

yes, you can take a toddler on a road trip

Remember that carefree road trip you took with the top down, a map at your side, big white-rimmed sunglasses and that cute scarf tied around your head?

I’m willing to bet there wasn’t a two-year-old strapped to a car seat in the back blowing a toy whistle and laughing maniacally. Am I right?

Clearly our laissez-faire road trip days are a distant memory for at least sixteen or so years. However, I’m happy to report that in January, with a little carefully-timed park breaks, we took our first step to reclaim a small bit of the open road when we took our toddler along on one of our favorite road trips of all times — Los Angeles to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway.

We started the trip in Santa Monica where we based ourselves for a few days of sightseeing and hanging out at our favorite spots in and around Los Angeles — The Getty, Griffith Park and Palisades Park. On our way out of town we dropped by The Reagan Library in Simi Valley to take a look at the original Air Force One, which is now housed in a hanger with a beautiful view at the library. Our toddler loved strolling down the aisle of the airplane and standing under the original Marine One helicopter.

Following our presidential pit stop we continued north for some outdoor playtime and a picnic lunch at Santa Barbara’s Alameda Park. After an hour and a half of hard-core swinging and running around, we settled back in to the car and enjoyed our son’s nap all the way to Cambria where we enjoyed a little late afternoon play time at Shamel Park — adjacent to Moonstone Beach.

Refreshed with a full night’s sleep and a nice steak dinner (included in our room rate at Cambria Pines Lodge), we drove a few miles up the road to start our day with San Simeon’s famous elephant seals. The late Fall / early Winter months are pup season so we were treated to some very cute Moms seals cuddling with their babies. Lucky for us, elephant seals cause drowziness in toddlers, so we made our way along the jaw-droppingly beautiful drive to Big Sur with relatively little comment from the back seat.

After almost 400 miles of parks, beaches and stunning ocean vistas we arrived at our last stop before arriving in San Francisco, the innovative, award-winning Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium was the perfect way to end our two0day trip up the Pacific Coast Highway, trip on the open road. My husband and I marveled at the enormous ocean tanks and the creative kid exhibits while our son seemed equally entranced by the escalator. Kids. Perhaps our next road trip will be to one of our own local shopping malls here in New Jersey!

January 28, 2009

sweet lullabies

The other day I realized Radiohead is great for babies. I think it’s the combination of Thom Yorke’s distorted lyrics, dreamy melodies, and the white noise that accompanies the music often. Kai fell asleep instantly to “Hail to the Thief

J got his hands on these two great finds that will also help your baby fall asleep:

1) Lullabies for a Small World (compilation by Ellipses Arts):

Great for the baby and you. My favorite track is number 3- Flor E Estrela – Teresa Ines. This song is so magical and puts the whole family in a deep slumber.

2) While roaming around at the Ecology Center in Berkeley, he stumbled upon this children’s book: Talking Walls Written by Margy Burns Knight and Illustrated by Anne Sibley O’Brien.

It’s the perfect multi-cultural book that illustrates how walls around the world may unite or divide communities around the world. I guarantee that you’ll learn some history as well.

introducing a world of winter sports

My husband and I love to ski and ever since our 16-month-old daughter Zoe was born we have been anxious to get her on skis. We first brought her to Jackson Hole, WY when she was 3 months old but of course she spent most of her time indoors on that trip. This year, at 15 months we brought her back to Jackson Hole and she actually did get an introduction to snow and winter sports.
The first time that we took her out in the snow we just let her walk around and get a feel for it. She didn’t like the fact that it was slippery and difficult to walk. I guess when you’ve only learned to walk a few months ago it’s probably pretty annoying when something like snow interferes with this new freedom. She also got cold very quickly because she refused to keep her mittens on. A passer-by suggested duct tape and that worked wonders!
After this initial time out in the snow we decided it was time for her to try skiing. We bought little skis that are made specifically for the under-two set and strap on to regular snow boots. When we first put them on her she was not happy at all, but once we got her sliding down the mountain (well it was technically just a pile of snow in the driveway) she was having the time of her life. Afterwards we built a snowman which she was intrigued by and pulled her around on a makeshift sled which she loved.
Zoe’s least favorite snow activity was definitely the horse-drawn sled through the Elk Reserve. We thought she would love this because she loves animals. As it turned out the snow was coming down in her face and she was cold and so she hardly even noticed the horses or the elk even when we pointed them out. I don’t think anyone on the sled was too happy with us! Maybe we’ll try it again someday but not until she’s at least 6 or 7!

friluftsliv – scandinavian spirit for outdoor life

It has been an especially cold winter here in the Midwestern United States. Weeks have passed without the temperature rising above 20 degrees, electricity has failed for hours or days at a time, some schools have surpassed their allotted number of snow days… and we’d best wait three more months before we send our parkas to the drycleaners! Adding to the chill are our worries about the economy and outbreaks of violence around the globe.

It takes great character and fortitude to carry on in the face of challenges and to establish new patterns of behavior or thought. Tackling whatever special challenges you face-solo parenting, job loss, diminishing investments, getting a grip on your personal health-takes a positive attitude and the courage to name and pursue your goals every day.

One of the first places where we in climates of such extreme weather can build these characteristics of strength is right outside our doors, where we can learn to experience and enjoy outdoor life no matter what the weather. Sunshine, fresh air, and exercise are imperative for good health, and the benefits of nature do not wane in winter. Outdoor enthusiasts will tell us that there’s no such thing as bad weather-just bad clothing.

For inspiration, we can look to the Scandinavians-no strangers to the adversity inherent in a part of the world that sees such harsh cold and little light during its long winters. Their term Friluftsliv, defined as “free time outdoor life” and the spirit for partaking of such in all weather, is especially celebrated in Scandinavian countries and is credited with being the source of the well-being enjoyed by much of the region’s citizens, young and old.

In fact, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden ranked among the top five countries of the world’s twenty-one richest countries for children’s well-being, according to UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Center. Aspects considered included material wellbeing, health and safety, education, peer and family relationships, behaviors and risks, and young people’s own subjective sense of well-being (see unicef.org).

Julie Catterson Lindahl, author of the 2005 book On My Swedish Island: Discovering the Secrets of Scandinavian Well-being and the mother of school-age twins, provides great inspiration for living a healthy lifestyle through her book and her continued writing at Nordicwellbeing.com and JulieLindahl.com. She encourages us to seek the outdoors as a new life habit (to promote our own health and that of the environment), as a setting for social activities, as a way to be a good role model for our children, and as a wellspring for creativity and productivity.

Just as travel sends us to distant lands and shakes up the thought patterns we’ve settled into, Friluftsliv also takes us “out of our everyday lives [and] gives us the space and perspective to develop our identities,” according to Swedish historians that Lindahl references. The curiosity and sense of wonder that both travel and the experience of nature stir in us can be found at any time in life, nurtured, and grown.

In this rough economy that we’re experiencing, when plans for travel may be placed on a back burner, nature and its gifts can be both a balm for the soul and new terrain (literally!) for us and our children to explore.

I encourage you to read On My Swedish Island for further inspiration, bundle up, and venture out! Your kids are just waiting to be invited to go sledding, build a snowman, skate on a frozen pond, or simply snap some pictures of the winter scenery. Cups of cocoa all around afterward… Cheers!

my daughter is the mona lisa

This is #9 of an on going dialog of our travel, which includes 5 countries and a 4 year old. Please check the prior archives for the previous sagas.

On a cold Sunday winter day last January, 2008, my husband Mike and 4 year old daughter Olivia walked with me along Rue de Marignan between the Champs-Elyees the fashionable Avenue Montaigne on our way back to our hotel. We had walked along this sidewalk many times but this time I happened to look up and notice a marble plaque on the building situated next to our hotel. In gold stamped writing, the plaques said:

MARY CASSAT

American Impressionist Painter

Friend & Colleague of Edgar Degas

Lived in this Apartment from 1887

Until her death in 1926

THE AMERICAN CLUB OF PARIS

We felt obligated to take a few pictures of Olivia and I with respect to Mary Cassat who painted so many pictures of Mommies and Babies. There we stood in the drizzling rain of Paris snapping pictures and hoping to get a good one. A French couple strolled up and stood behind Mike watching with interest. After a few more shots we finished and they asked why we were taking a photo there. This was a perfect exit time for Mike to duck into the hotel with Olivia following after him hop-scotching on the sidewalk while counting her hops une, duex, trois…ocho, nueve, DIES! So I stood in the rain telling them that my daughter loves the mommy/baby paintings of Mary Cassat and that we were excited to find this hidden treat on our walk home. I went on to tell them that we were also in search of the Mona Lisa and that we would be going to the Louvre in the following week. They told me their favorite museum (Musee de l’Orangerie) to visit and then they both got the look of “aha!” on their faces at the same time. “Zee Louvre ez FREE t’day. All zee museums are free on zee first Sunday of zee month. You must go RIGHT NOW! Eet will close in a few hours.” I merci beaucoup-ed them and went to quickly gather my family to hustle over to the museum.

When we arrived at Musee du Louvre, there was the very long line, which one would expect to see on a Free Musee day. Depressed, we got into line and began the long wait. Olivia was in her usual seat on Mike’s shoulders…luckily. A man tending the front of the line saw her, left his post to collect us and point us through the special children’s entrance. Two lucky breaks in one day! Free Musee and head of the line. This must be our lucky day.

Once inside we found the map (see previous blog post) and headed for the Mona Lisa. There is a lot to see on the way to the Mona Lisa, let me tell you. Side tracked over and over. Wrong turn again and again. Stopping for explanation of painting of the dark bloody dying man….and then…we saw it. A room directly off of the corridor we were in. The room seemed to have glow emanating out of it. Was that angels we heard? Laaaaaa! It must be her. Could it be we at last found The Mona Lisa?

We entered the room and the painting was hanging on the backside of a small divisional wall. We went around the corner and to our amazement there it was……a huge crowd in front of the Mona Lisa

The museum was obviously expecting this as they had velvet-roped off a perimeter to keep adults behind. Then we noticed the most wonderful velvet rope. There was an inner velvet rope to allow children an unobstructed close-up view of the art piece. We asked the rope wrangler if Olivia could go in and she was allowed but not with an adult. Off she went, alone, to stand right in front of the Mona Lisa. I was feeling a bit disappointed in not being able to talk to her and give her information about the artist and the painting as we often do. I wondered if she would even look at it more than a brief second. I wondered if she would be too scared to be one of two children in the special area with a horde of a crowd standing behind her seemingly looking right at her. Neurotic Mom.

When she was done looking, she returned to us and Mike immediately suggested we take a picture with the Mona Lisa behind us. I swooped her up in my arms and we took our photo. Only when we returned home and uploaded the pictures did I notice that Olivia was posed EXACTLY in the same pose as the Mona Lisa. The ½ smile, the slight turn of the head, and the arm placement were identical. I guess she did just fine on her own with such an important piece of art.

So in the end, if you were traveling to Paris with a child, I would HIGHLY recommend the following:

Hôtel Marignan Champs-Elysées: http://www.hotelmarignan.fr/

Looking up while walking down the rue in the rain.

Le Louvre on the 1st Sunday of the Month: children’s entrance, children’s velvet rope.

And lastly, allowing your child to experience art without supervision!

 

 

January 17, 2009

bilingual baby

The Banker (my husband) and I are of hispanic decent. Not only were we blessed with our baby, Baby Blue, but also blessed that he is of hispanic decent as well (blue eyes and all). We had always said we would teach our child Spanish. We would NOT take a page from my parents book which was to NOT teach me Spanish, but rather use Spanish as a “secret” language in order to have conversations about Santa and surprise birthday parties. {rolling eyes} The Banker though, having been born close to Mexico grew up only speaking Spanish. It wasn’t until Kindergarten that he actively used English as his language.

So what we have decided to do is I will speak only English to Baby Blue and the Banker will speak only Spanish. Hopefully creating a Bilingual Baby!

Our routine at night has been Bath, Jammies, Story, Bed. So what we have included now is Spanish Board books. They have a wonderful selection of Bilingual traditional stories in all sorts of languages. As a former teacher I know language development starts early and the more reading the better. So I was pleasantly surprised to find such selections as these in Spanish: Blue Hat, Green Had, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Quiet/Loud.

Even for those who don’t speak Spanish, you can purchase a book such as this that has both English and Spanish. Though if they are only in Spanish attempt it anyway! Some stories such as Good Night Moon (Buenas Noches Luna) are an easy Spanish read. Maybe you’ll learn a little yourself!

Some great resources to find out about Spanish Stories are:
Spanish Material

Spanish Story Ideas
Bilingual Story List
Read That Again List (Spanish)