November 19, 2008

seeing the world with a traveling dad

A dedicated, long-term Army National Guard soldier, my husband loves the adventure and the challenges he’s found in the experience of serving his country. As his wife and the mother of two young children, I have been relegated to our home for much of this time as a single parent, accepting the vicarious window to the world he provides… but sometimes toting a baby and a backpack for a distant rendezvous with our soldier!
National Guard families do not live on military bases and, as a result, we don’t necessarily live in an environment where there is support or understanding of a lifestyle that regularly pulls families apart and throws them back together.

My main task in raising our little citizens of the world is to create this sense of community for them in the Midwestern college town in which we reside. At the same time, I try to extend this sense of community to the world and explain how, while their dad is not always able to be with us, he is representing us as Americans wherever he goes. His role as a soldier requires that he work closely with soldiers and civilians of other nations, that he is good at both teaching them what he knows and listening to their needs, in order to build a more peaceful world for all of us.

Our kids’ first impressions of the world come from us, their parents. And even when their own feet aren’t touching far-away soil, the impressions their dad shares with them help them understand both the similarities and the differences between people everywhere. Every time we find ourselves “left behind,” we are simultaneously given the opportunity to learn about another corner of the world to which our soldier is flung. Germany, England, Poland, Afghanistan… the list continues to grow.

The trinkets Daddy brings home, the photos, the stories of unique experiences (marching 100 miles with Polish soldiers on an annual pilgrimage, sharing a field breakfast with British soldiers, shopping at a bazaar, and even throwing sandbags along the banks of the Mississippi River in the USA) keeps our children’s eyes wide open. We are reminded constantly that while we all need food, shelter, and clothing, those things come in a huge variety of forms. And being reminded that so many of our counterparts around the world live with far less than we do begets gratitude for our home and simple, but comfortable, life.

At home, I find that there is nothing quite like being a single parent to force one’s wings to stretch. Leisure time may take a backseat for a while, but the qualities of independence, strength, and resourcefulness only grow. Staying close as a separated family takes extraordinary effort, but that pays off in resilience. I have a basket, manila envelope, or box on hand nearly all the time, in which artwork from the kids, mementos of their accomplishments, newspaper clippings, cards, and letters are deposited for Papa; in return, we receive email, phone calls, and occasional packages from him, through which we remember who he is, how much he loves us, and learn about what he’s encountering. We visit the library and attend diverse cultural events on our local university’s campus to learn more about the people and customs of places where Daddy is working. When we have the opportunity to meet somewhere as a family in the middle of a lengthy training or deployment, we are willing and ready to pack a few bags and snacks and print the driving directions or make the plane reservations to make memories for all involved.

When our daughter was nine months old, she and I met her dad in Frankfurt, Germany for a week spent traveling the Romantic Road. The first breads she nibbled were hearty European rolls, given to her at every restaurant (along with the German proclamation “Sie ist laut!”—“She is loud!”—in response to her happy squeals) and she woke with us under eider-downs to the tolling of church bells in small villages. We held her on our shoulders to walk cobbled streets, stopping to let her dip her hands in centuries-old fountains, and I nursed her on a hidden bench in a leafy public garden. The time changes were difficult, but reviving myself with strong, smooth German coffee was a pleasure. Best of all, I found my previous assumptions of Germany as a cold, industrial nation to be unfounded in the warm reception we received as a family vacationing in a place of Old World beauty and impressive efficiency and service.

That spirit of curiosity, openness, acceptance, and grace wherever it may be found provides a foundation for my husband, and for me with our children, to continue our travels, whether independently or together. Perhaps whatever place we find ourselves in will look especially bright when our company is found in its midst.

November 14, 2008

the fabulous traveling pink dress and a photography secret

Prior to leaving on a long travel adventure, I came across a great photography tip that I applied to nearly every picture. It is the Law of Thirds. When taking a picture divide the view finder into thirds, both horizontally and vertically so that you now have 9 imaginary boxes. Where the lines intersect are the four natural focus points when looking at a picture. Pick one of these points and this is where you want to put your subject. The bottom horizontal line is where you want to put the horizon. Or you can put it on the top horizontal line if you want more foreground, so that you have 1/3 sky and 2/3 landscape. If you want the focus to be on the sky, 2/3 sky and 1/3 landscape. The beautiful part of digital photography is that you can do both and decide later which you prefer. The picture to the left demonstrates the Law of Thirds pretty accurately with Olivia’s face placed at a focal point where the horizontal and vertical imaginary lines intersect.

 

Bottom line: do not put your subject in the middle. It will be a far more interesting picture with your pride and joy off-center. You are setting composition and telling a story when you apply the Law of Thirds and it becomes a natural response the more you take pictures.

Another travel photography tip I can offer, I came across by accident. My 5 year old daughter has a fabulous pink Noor dress from a prior season of Tea Collection. I am now kicking myself for not getting it in every bigger size possible because it is the perfect dress for posing in pictures. The Stav Dress in the current fall collection is a great alternative. We call her pink dress “the traveling dress” because it has been to 5 different countries in its short life. It shows up great from a distance enhancing the picture and close-ups are not distracted because it is without any pattern. Specifically the pictures we have from Egypt, where everything is a nice camel color (except the camels which were white), really popped with the solid bright pink dress.

 

After our travel adventure we shared our pictures with our friends. The oft-dreaded travel pictures your friends are obligated to view politely. We were shocked at the responses. Our friends were “amazed at how great the pictures were” and most asked what type of camera we used. It was not the camera so much as it was the composition telling the story.

a multi-generational trip to costa rica

My father first proposed the idea for a family trip to celebrate his seventieth birthday when I was 3-months-pregnant with Zoe. We knew that at the time of the trip “the baby” would be a little over a year old. We went through several possible locations for the big trip –Japan, France, Morocco, the Caribbean. We decided on Costa Rica partially because it seemed like it would be a fun, interesting and relaxing trip to take with a young toddler, and it was.

One of the great highlights for all of us was seeing Zoe reach one of life’s great milestones during the first few days of the trip –she learned to walk. She had been taking steps for a few weeks but it was on the trip that she really took off and walked on her own. Of course she had a very excited fan club of parents and grandparents cheering her on.

Zoe was very different on this trip than on our summer trip to Europe. While she is still very young I did feel that she got more out of this trip than the last. She was giddy with excitement over the butterflies and giant cats in La Paz. She loved going in the hot springs at Arenol. She loved the beach at Papagayo and loved playing in the sand and swimming in the ocean. She loved all of the tropical fruit. Most of the people that we met were incredibly warm and friendly to her and she enjoyed making new friends. As she becomes more aware it becomes more and more fun for us to travel with her and to see her excitement at doing and seeing new things. The trip was such a success that we are taking another –next month we are going to California and Wyoming.

halloween visitors

For Halloween this year, our friends graciously hosted our family for a truly one-of-a-kind event: their annual neighborhood trick-or-treat extravaganza and “competition.” We didn’t believe Lana and Sean when they told us about the tradition last year. “We had over 800 trick-or-treaters come to our house—we counted, and so did our neighbors,” Sean said proudly over dinner last fall. “We have a friendly competition for which house gets the most,” said Lana. “We gave out 10 5-lb bags of candy,” she added. “Eight hundred trick-or-treaters?” my husband and I repeated in amazement, “how is that even possible?”

We were thrilled when we were given the chance to find out. And, since this year Halloween fell on a Friday, we pictured the streets around Lana and Sean’s house would be packed to the gills with giddy revelers, something like we had seen the one time we were in New York City on New Year’s Eve. I imagined a sea of kids walking shoulder to shoulder, a parade of parents toting flashlights, and a never-ending turn-style of door-bell ringing and shouts of “trick-or treat!” In short, I was very excited, and so was my preschooler. Even my husband, who never dresses up, got into the spirit. Because our son went as a football player, my husband donned his old referee uniform, and I dressed up as a cheerleader (for the record, my costume was a rental).

Our friends were just as motivated. Our son’s friend, Sara, went as a pink Supergirl. Her big sister was a witch, and her brother was Darth Vader. Lana had the best 1960’s outfit I’ve ever seen, with 3-inch white plastic go-go boots, big hair—the works. Sean didn’t dress up, but he was busy staffing the door and playing bartender. His gin and tonics are legendary in the neighborhood, and so Halloween “water” gets handed out to all of the parents who need a little something to get them in the spirit too.

When the night kicked off and our children were all dressed up and getting ready to hit the streets, everything started quite calmly, much like every other Halloween I have seen. At first, while the sun was still up, a few young parents with little tiny babies and toddlers rang the doorbell here and there. Gradually, as the sun set, traffic picked up, and we began to see just how it was possible to fill the streets with the number of people Lana and Sean had predicted.

When it was time for us to venture out with our children, the neighbors put on quite a show. The decorations were amazing. Hand-carved pumpkins by children, moms and dads were by far my favorite part. Scary ghosts hanging in trees, spooky sounds floating from outdoor speakers, and creatures and tombstones scattered on lawns were everywhere. One house went a step further. The parents set up an American Idol table with themselves and their adult friends as judges, asking trick-or-treaters to “audition” for their candy. It was great, and music (good and bad) filled the streets.

At one house, we ran into a couple that was all dressed up in Renaissance clothes. They looked amazing, and we soon learned that they were from Italy. The woman told me, “I have never experienced a Halloween before,” and she was as starry-eyed and happy as the 3-year-olds holding Lana’s and my hands. It was such a treat to see grownups as excited as children on a night that did not disappoint.

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.