November 13, 2008

no toy for you! a lesson in cultural differences from japan

While I was living in Japan with my husband and two small children, I kept a running blog of our experiences. At one point, a friend asked me if there was anything about living there that really drove me crazy.

Honestly, there was very little about living in Japan that annoyed me, including some of the cultural differences that I understand drive many Americans crazy. For example, I knew a lot of Westerners who were constantly incensed while driving — muttering curses at pedestrians who didn’t yield to cars, etc. But since I was most often the pedestrian and not the driver, I tended not to see what’s so wrong about that. And I think many Americans in particular get annoyed at the whole “rules are rules, and they must be obeyed no matter what”-aspect of Japanese culture, but I didn’t run into many instances where I was truly irked by that. Bemused, perhaps, but not angry. If you lived in a country with so many people crammed into such small spaces, you would find that following the rules allows for a more peaceful coexistence than you might otherwise find. (Imagine riding the subway in New York City during rush hour and finding that it is almost totally silent – no one speaking to anyone else, no laughing, nothing. That’s the norm in Tokyo.)

However, one admittedly minor incident did get under my skin, both because it adversely affected my five-year-old daughter, and because it illustrated the downside of always following the rules and not recognizing the usefulness (and in this case, kindness) of making an exception. I took my daughter out to dinner at a local restaurant where she remembered getting a toy at the end of her meal when we’d been there in the past. This time, we sat down, ordered off the menu, and ate our dinner, but when we got to the checkout counter, there was no toy for my daughter. There *were* toys, right there in front of us, but the cashier told us they were only for kids who ordered off the children’s menu. We hadn’t been offered a kids menu, but that didn’t phase this woman. Neither did my daughter breaking into inconsolable sobs when she realized that she wasn’t getting the (crummy, cheap) toy that she so desperately wanted. Obviously, the woman was just following the rules. No kids menu, no toy, even if the kid had ordered a full-price adult meal

Needless to say, it soured my daughter on that restaurant from then on, but it did provide us with a lesson on one aspect of Japanese culture that we would encounter at other times during our stay in Japan. Recognizing that it was a cultural difference and not just rudeness on the part of the cashier helped both of us understand where the woman was coming from, and prepared us for similar experiences in the future.

November 7, 2008

holidays in tea

My 13-month-old daughter Zoe practically lives in Daily Tea and gets a lot of complements on her Daily Tea outfits. They are the perfect comfortable, resilient, and stylish play clothes and we love them. Even her Dad (who rarely notices baby clothes) gets excited for Daily Tea. But until recently we had yet to venture into Tea Collection.
With several events coming up –Thanksgiving, a new years party, a few birthday parties and a trip to see family and friends in Los Angeles, I was looking for some outfits that will really stand out. I fell in love with the Bryggen Stripe Sweater Dress, but decided that none of Zoe’s events were formal enough to warrant “twirl factor at a maximum” as promised in the description on the tea website.

When choosing clothes for Zoe I gravitate towards comfortable knits (thus my obsession with Daily Tea), and so I decided on the Rasmussen Floral Knit dress. I also purchased the matching Pointelle Leggings. I figured we can pair the dress with tights and Mary-Janes for parties, and then she can wear the dress with the more casual leggings this winter as a comfy yet gorgeous every day outfit. When the weather gets cooler we can pull out the coordinating bloomers that come with the dress. For activities such as dinners and brunches out with friends I chose the adorable Sno Flugen Hoodie and the Vindella Velvet Trousers in lavender. The velvet of these pants when paired with the otherwise casual hoodie makes the outfit just dressy enough. I also picked up the Daily Tea Chrysanthemum dress and another pair of bootcut leggings from the early Fall collection to mix and match with the Daily Tea Bird Dress which has been a favorite of ours this season. I can’t wait to put Zoe in all of her fabulous new Tea clothes!

adorable, affordable holiday outfits

Tea’s Elevester Blouse made a list of Adorable, Affordable Children’s Holiday Outfits for the coming holiday season. Earlier this fall, one of Tea’s designers, Laura Boes, explained the inspiration behind the Elevester Dress in her article about Norway. Hop on over to her post to learn more about the story behind Tea’s clothes this season. Her images of Norway are beautiful and may inspire you to take a trip there sometime soon!

October 30, 2008

kittens go political

Zoe loves cats. Her first word was “cat.” She loves to chase her cats and squeals with delight when she catches one (they don’t like this at all). She calls most animals “cat.” When my mom saw a “kittens for Obama” pin in a store she had to get it for us. We wear it proudly on our stroller. I love it for the Obama part. Zoe loves it for the picture of the kitten which she points to each time she gets into the stroller and says “Cat! Meow!”

Apparently my 13-month-old isn’t the only baby in lower Manhattan with a political view. Two blond boys have a sticker on their double stroller that reads “I’m an Obama kid.” A two-year-old whose mom runs a monogram business has “Go Obama” stitched in oversized letters onto the back of his Bugaboo. Other babies wear clothes that show their political preferences. My friend’s son is often seen wearing an Obama t-shirt. The other day I saw a little girl eating lunch at Whole Foods wearing a pink bib with a picture of Obama’s face. While I haven’t seen any babies for McCain around these parts there are a large selection of McCain baby shirts for sale online.

I liked these shirts and started to shop for one for Zoe. But then I stopped to think about how parents project political views onto their children. Is this appropriate? I asked some friends for their view on the subject. One friend told me that she doesn’t like when people project their political views on their baby because a) the baby didn’t choose this view, and b) it commercializes an innocent baby. I understand her opinion, but as another friend put it, as parents, we are constantly teaching our child about our family culture, which defines us as a family, and our political beliefs (along with religious beliefs, heritage, history, interests, sporting affiliations, etc.) are a part of what make up our culture. It is our job to teach all of this to our children. She also told me that she wanted her son to be a participant in this historic election which is also the first election of his lifetime, and to have something to prove that he was “there.”

I felt that both of my friends had very valid points. In the end I did buy Zoe a political shirt. It says “My Mama’s for Obama.” I hope it comes in time for Zoe to wear it on election day.

October 23, 2008

“traveling” with dad to exotic places

“Where is Daddy today, mommy?” I walk to the refrigerator where the itinerary is posted. “Today, Daddy is in Morocco.” Yesterday it was Spain and the day before it was France. As a seasoned traveler myself, this particular itinerary makes me a bit green with envy as I’m here at home parenting the kids.

I think travel is extremely valuable for children. Not because a three-year old needs to see the Great Wall of China, but because they need to experience a world outside their own—new food, new sounds, new smells and new encounters outside their comfort zone.

After my second child was born, less than two years after my first, we discovered traveling with two very young children was nearly impossible since we could barely keep it together at home, let alone in another place. And once my children were old enough to travel—which is right now—we’re simply strapped for the cash to do it.

However, my husband has the opportunity to travel the world—almost monthly—for work. Not to just the normal “businessy” places, but to locations many of us only dream of ever seeing and other places we don’t. So while he hops from place to place (leaving me and the kids behind wishing we could be there), I find the best thing for us is to learn about where he goes and try to “travel” along with him.

The first thing we do is get out the maps—the puzzle maps. Melissa and Doug have a wonderful line of floor puzzles and our two favorite are Children of the World and the World Map. We do the puzzles together and find where daddy is traveling to and talk a little bit about the country.

Depending on where he’s going, we try to check out books from the library with stories from that culture. Even if it’s just “generally” about that area, I like to have things we can talk about while reading to a four and three year old. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Spain: The Story Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
  • France: Madeline (The entire series) by Ludwig Bemelmans
  • The Netherlands: Boxes for Katje by Candace Fleming
  • Egypt: We’re Sailing Down the Nile by Laurie Krebs and Anne Wilson
  • Russia: Clever Katya: A Fairy Tale from Old Russia by Mary Hoffman and Marie Cameron
  • Japan: The Funny Little Woman by Arlene Mosel and Blair Lent
  • China: Tiki Tiki Tembo by Arlene Mosel
  • India: Mama’s Saris by by Pooja Makhijani
  • Africa: Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears: A West African Tale by Verna Aardema
  • Busy Busy World by Richard Scarry

After we’ve identified where he is and read a little more about the place, sometimes we even take it one step further and try to eat something from that region of the world. I can’t say I’m making Russian Borscht regularly, but we do try to manage a trip to a nearby ethnic restaurant–even if it just means picking up Chinese food, pad thai or some kebabs.

My love of travel will have to be put on pause for a bit, but for now I’ll do the best to give my children a little taste of some places around the world. And I hope by doing this, we’re able to instill a desire for them to travel as well.

what to do in buenos aires with kids

Buenos Aires is an excellent destination to visit with children of all ages. The city is full of interesting things to do, see and eat including parks, world class museums, historical sites, zoos, restaurants, shops and sidewalk cafes. There’s a decidedly European flair to the city but the prices are about a third or less to what you would pay in Europe or North America for everything from food and lodging to transportation and admission to sights. It’s relatively clean (apart from the dog-poo-on-the-sidewalk problem), quite safe and easy to get around using taxis, busses and subway. We enjoyed strolling through some of the prettier neighborhoods such as Recoleta and the gigantic green parks like Parque 3 de Febrero as much as the tourist destinations. Here’s our list of top places we visited with our 16-month old daughter.

Parks – There seemed to be a small park and good playground around every corner in BA. We enjoyed the playground close to our Palermo apartment where our daughter could swing. We also took long strolls through different parts of Parque 3 de Febrero (includes a boating pond and Japanese gardens) and Parque Las Heras (where the dog-walkers gather, which is great fun for kids to watch).

Recoleta Cemetery (see image above)- We were skeptics when this historical site was recommended as a “must-see.” How much fun could a cemetery be? Recoleta is more like a small city of mausoleums of every shape, size and architectural style. It’s full of big trees and is well-maintained. There’s nothing creepy about it, just a fun place for kids and adults alike to explore and discover. The church (Basilica de Nuestra Senor del Pilar) just behind the cemetery is especially beautiful as well. On weekends and some weekdays there’s quite a nice handicraft market set up on the square just outside the cemetery.

El Ateneo Bookstore – El Ateneo has several branches around BA but the one not to miss is in a sparkling converted movie theater on Avenida Santa Fe in Recoleta. The old movie theater style balconies and cafe on the stage are a lot of fun. There’s a great kids area in the basement and, if mom and dad are in need of something to read in English, there’s a small English literature section.

San Telmo Sunday Market – While decidedly touristy, this was still a lot of fun for us and our daughter. Locals flock to this antiques and handicraft market as much as tourists, so it’s well worth it. There are excellent street musicians, marionettes and tango dancers to watch as you pass by plus beautiful handicrafts and interesting antiques. Hint: The cafes around the market are few and packed. We were thrilled to discover the delicious Italian restaurant, Amici Miei at 1072 Defensa, just across the street from the Plaza Dorrego, the main plaza for the market. You enter this cafe through a narrow doorway at street level and the cafe is on the second floor, so only locals know about it (except you now!). The food was excellent and they even fresh-squeezed some orange juice for our daughter. Impeccably clean bathrooms too!

Temaiken Biopark – Temaiken is actually an hour and fifteen minute bus ride from the center of Buenos Aires but we consider it a must-see for anyone visiting Buenos Aires, with kids or without. The beautiful park design, the natural-like habitats and the wide variety of interesting animals we would never see in North America made it a highlight of our trip. Adult admission is 22 pesos ($US 7) as of May 2008 but we went on Tuesday when admission is half price so only paid 11 pesos. To get to Temaiken by bus (5 pesos one way or $US 1.50) take bus 60 from Plaza Italia in Palermo. Make sure you get on the semi-rapido bus just north of Avenida Sarmiento. There’s a little booth where you buy a ticket before you get on the bus. If you’re not sure just ask the driver before you get on if the bus goes to Temaiken. You’ll know when you’ve arrived at Temaiken. It’s the end of the line and the bus literally drops you off at the main entrance so you can’t miss it. The bus runs often every hour during the day.

Tigre- This beautiful day trip destination from BA could also be an overnight trip if you wanted it to be. We did it easily in a day by taking a taxi from Palermo to the Tren de la Costa station in Olivos for less than $US 20. From there we took the Tren de la Costa to Tigre, with a brief stop in the cute town of San Isidro. Their weekend market and cafes are recommended if you have time for a stop. Their church is very pretty as well. In Tigre there are delicious dining options with river views along the Paseo Victorica. We ate on the terrace at La Terraza and loved it. There are a wide variety of length of boat trips you can take through the delta and the tourist office can tell you about them. We opted for the basic one-hour boat trip, not sure how long our daughter would enjoy being on a boat, and that turned out to be a wise choice. We’ve also heard there’s a great fruit and handicraft market in Tigre but we’ll have to catch that on a future trip. You can take the Tren de la Costa home but we took the regular commuter train instead. While the views were nothing special, the hawkers and musicians on the train were much more entertaining for us and our daughter than the crowds of tourists on the coastal train.

Eat ice cream – The ice cream in BA is as good as the gelato in Italy. It’s fresh, homemade and delicious. Once we discovered the Persicco ice cream chain we had to go back almost every day, even though we were there during fairly cold weather. They offer dozens and dozens of interesting flavors like dulce de leche (yum!). They’ll even deliver by motorbike if you want (you can get just about anything delivered in BA if you want). Other good chains are Freddo and Altra Volta.

For more information on these and other activities in Buenos Aires, we highly recommend The Rough Guide to Buenos Aires (May 2008 edition).

barefoot books

Last week a wonderful thing happened—our local representative from Barefoot Books (www.barefoot-books.com ) visited our son’s preschool. The entire lobby was canvassed with the most beautiful, diverse and intriguing books, music CDs, artwork and toys. It was all I could do to control my retail impulses. But that’s the great thing about buying books—no guilt!

With Halloween coming up quickly and the Holidays right around the corner, it’s fun for me to get in the gift-giving mood now. Like everyone else, our family has been impacted by the economy, so it feels smart to zero in on presents that help us celebrate our loved ones without going broke. Plus, there is something magical about buying and giving books to children. When I find a great story, I feel just as great about sharing it. Books are cost-effective, provide endless entertainment, and often generate opportunities for children and parents to discuss new topics that were inspired by the stories in greater depth.

I was doubly excited about Barefoot Books when I saw an entire table of titles with an international theme. Some were fables and legends lifted directly from other cultures, like Russia, Japan, India, France, Senegal and Polynesia. Others were focused more on teaching American children about foreign geographies, histories, cultures and languages. Some of my favorites combined multiple short stories into single volumes, such as “Grandmothers’ Stories: Wise Woman Tales from Many Cultures,” which included a read-along CD narrated by Olympia Dukakis. Another colorful book, called “Elephant Dance,” is a perfect fit for our family, because it is about a little boy “interviewing” his grandfather who comes from India.

There are so many ways to introduce little ones to other cultures: food, movies, music, museums, and of course travel. From my perspective, all of those efforts are worthwhile and complemented perfectly by a bookshelf full of fun and interesting stories. I hope we’re fostering a curiosity about the world in our son as well as a love for reading. I also hope that both become lifelong passions that inspire him to run barefoot whenever he can.

tips for traveling to buenos aires with kids

Our daughter was 16 months old when we took her for two weeks to Buenos Aires. She absolutely loved it (as did we). Here are a few things we are glad we did and/ or wish we had known:

Avoid red-eye flights – All flights from the U.S. to Buenos Aires are red-eye flights. We had the time and didn’t think our daughter would do well on a red-eye, so instead we flew Mexicana airlines to Mexico City during the day. We stayed at the airport Ramada hotel (recommended) and continued on the next day to Buenos Aires. This worked well for all of us, especially for Grace as she only had to nap on the plane, not try to get a full night’s sleep. This plan backfired on us on the return though when Mexicana canceled our return flight and we ended up on a red-eye anyway. Some parents say their kids do well on red-eyes by sleeping all the way through, so do what you think will work best for you and your child(ren).

Rent an apartment – Apartments for rent are widely available in Buenos Aires because of a hotel room shortage and because of investment real estate. Many of them are cheaper than comparable hotels. We paid $120/ night for a very nice 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment in Palermo, a great neighborhood to stay in with a child. We rented through ApartmentsBA and found them professional and, apart from a few minor hiccups, easy to work with.

Keep your child on the time at home – If you’re from the West Coast that is. If you’re from the east coast the time difference is only 1 or 2 hours (depending on time of year), from the west coast it’s 4 or 5 hours. We kept our daughter on Oregon time by still feeding her dinner an hour before bedtime but at 8 or 9pm instead of 5 or 6pm. This way we were able to stay out until 9 or 10pm and sleep in until at least 8am. Argentines don’t even think about dinner until 9pm so by keeping her on a later schedule we could actually eat when locals eat.

Bring a portable booster seat – While most restaurants in Argentina have high chairs, some don’t. Of those that do have them, every single one we saw was actually just a tall chair with no straps or even bar to keep the child in. This might work with an older child but our daughter would have simply slid right out. Thankfully we had brought The First Years On The Go Booster Seat which fit nicely into the restaurant high chairs and kept our daughter in place.
Don’t bring diapers and wipes – We had heard diapers and wipes would be expensive but they really weren’t. Major U.S. brands (Pampers, Huggies) were available in every grocery store and pharmacy, so we were never without a place to buy them.

Do bring baby food - If your child is still eating pureed baby food you’ll need to bring it with you or bring a hand grinder to make your own. We had heard jarred baby food would be available but we checked in multiple large grocery stores and it never was. Our daughter was old enough that she was also eating table food, so it wasn’t a problem for us but could be a big headache for someone with a smaller baby. Our daughter drinks whole milk which was easy to find but formula also seemed easy to come by.

Bring a baby carrier – We highly recommend the Ergo baby carrier, no matter where you are traveling. See our list of essential travel gear for more information. We used it daily in Buenos Aires.

Bring a plastic changing pad. Diaper changing stations were very rare in public bathrooms. We either changed Grace’s diaper on the floor on a changing pad or just waited until we returned to the apartment. Since we returned at least once a day for naps this worked most days but there were a few emergencies where the bathroom floor had to do. We were told all McDonald’s have changing stations and McDonald’s are everywhere.