October 23, 2008

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.

October 17, 2008

dear valerie

“Miss Valerie, I love you.” Mila dictates as I write on the back of one of the post cards she has picked out for her dearest little friend, who has recently moved away. The two girls were born within days of each other three years ago and have been nearly inseparable since. We saw her and her family off several weeks ago with some sadness but also with expectations of many more years of friendship ahead. Although Valerie and her family will be living in England, much too far for play dates, the two girls have already begun what I hope will be a long and cherished correspondence.

For the moment their correspondence consists of post cards from the zoo, descriptions of pets, colored drawings, and passionate declarations of affection such as only a toddler can muster. “I miss you! I made this card for you and it’s so lovely!” “I love you…Miss Valerie, I love you!” It’s endearing in the extreme.

Even now, however, I encourage Mila to consider describing in her letters some of the sights she’s just seen on her trip to the Windy City or to her grandma and grandpa’s Midwest farm, sharing with Valerie the experiences she’s having in the world that her little friend can no longer experience at her side. In turn, Mila can learn about life in another country through Valerie’s descriptions of the places she sees and the things she does as she settles into her new life across the ocean.

It dawns on me that this is an avenue of learning about the world that we’ve taken pitiably small advantage of until now. Valerie has been Mila’s dearest little companion and, of course, it is natural that they wish to be able to continue to share their small experiences and that we, as their parents, should wish to encourage it. What a great opportunity for developing as an early habit the lost art of correspondence. But what of the child we sponsor overseas, a child not many years older than Mila herself…might he not also be excited to receive letters and Mila in turn to learn about what life is like for a child whose home and situation are vastly different from her own? What about old college friends now living in other countries, friends with children who might enjoy a pen pal as well? Would Mila be able to develop friendships by mail, to forge connections through these children to Haiti, Croatia, India, China? Of course there would be less history involved than there is with Valerie, so there may be fewer passionate declarations of love and affection, but the potential for cultural exchange must surely be there.

I find myself making mental lists of all the young children we know on an international basis. It’s a bit much to expect that Mila will be interested or able to correspond with all of them, but she loves to send cards and she loves to receive them so, as I say, the potential must surely be there…and it occurs to me as an afterthought that I’m definitely going to need more stamps!

zoe does europe

Our friends and family are not surprised that at one-year-old our daughter has already traveled more than many adults. With a great-grandmother in London who was anxious to finally meet her first great-grandchild, a trip to England within Zoe’s first year was a given. We decided while we were over there why not make an adventure out of it. So, as a friend of mine put it, at nine-months-old Zoe “did Europe.”

Our first stop was London and of course introducing Zoe to her G.G. Nita for the first time was truly amazing. Of course all Zoe knew was that she was getting lots of attention from a lot of people in London who had been waiting to see her.

We moved on to Vienna where we visited an old friend of mine and her Austrian husband and their 22-month-old son. They live in a house with another family with two small kids and have a steady stream of friends with little children coming and going. Zoe had a blast playing with all of the “older” kids. Best of all we got to see Vienna not only with locals but with local babies. The Vienna zoo and the kiddie pool were not only highlights for Zoe but for us too. As New Yorkers with a baby it was great to see how Austrian babies spend their days.

In Prague we realized some of the limitations that go along with travel with baby. After a long lunch in the main square during which Zoe sat in her stroller for a little too long we attempted to take a tour of the Jewish quarters. I don’t know what we were thinking! No more than five minutes into the two hour tour Zoe made it clear that sitting in her stroller inside a temple with nothing to entertain her other than an old lady telling the history of the Jews in Prague was just not going to happen. We left and gave ourselves the abbreviated version of the tour –basically we walked in and out of a few of the temples and museums.

Considering how young she was, I don’t know how much Zoe got out of the trip. But for her mom and dad this trip was a major step in reclaiming our sense of adventure post-baby. The trip was the proof we were looking for that we can still get out and do the things we love to do –at least many of them. Not only is travel with a baby possible, it was even enjoyable. We plan to continue to take family adventures and know that each year Zoe will take a little bit more from the trip.

Friends with older kids have told us that we lucked out because Zoe was at an age where she happily sat in the stroller –that travel will only get harder (we’ll let you know if this is true later this month when we take her to Costa Rica). But the way I look at it travel was never about easy –staying home is easy. So why not grab the umbrella stroller, throw some diapers (and Daily Tea clothes) in a suitcase and get on that plane!

easy and essential safety measure for your child

Have you ever “lost” you kid? Maybe you haven’t admitted it publicly but it happens to many families. It happened to us at Disneyland last weekend. I was parking the stroller and asked our daughter to hop out and get in line with Dad. A cast member told me I would need to move my stroller to “stroller parking.” I followed a path to stroller parking far removed from the ride which we were waiting. I quickly parked the stroller and did a brisk walked back to the Astro Orbiter in Tomorrowland, almost a jog. I was unaware that my daughter had followed me. I returned to the ride with my husband in line. We looked at each other simultaneously saying, “Where is Olivia? I thought she was with you!” Quick expression of panic and we both take off running.

This is the part that saved us. Every time we go to a public place like Disneyland, Del Mar fair, Legoland, Sea World, San Diego Zoo, San Francisco zoo or any of the other places we would never had been found 6 years ago….we take pictures of our daughter on our cell phones. Front, side and back view pictures AT the site. This would allow us to show a picture of her in the outfit she was wearing and the hairstyle she had on the same day if she got separated from us. We always figured if we had a current picture on our cell phones we could easily show it and forward it to others if needed.

And we needed. Within seconds of missing Olivia at Disneyland, I showed the picture to the man who made me move the stroller and he began pointing and saying “Ohhh the little girl with pigtails. She is right there with another cast member!”

Slump of relief.

She did all the right things, found a “manager” and stayed put once she felt she couldn’t find us. But having the picture expedited the situation. Once back at Astro Orbiter, another family asked us if would like our place back in line and confessed they had a stomach ache too from the sympathy pains. I told them how I found Olivia and they immediately took out their cameras and took a picture of their 7 year old. I am sure that will become part of their “public place” routine. I can now personally recommend it to all parents.

a chic state of mind

I never was one to obsess about my style of dress, or for that matter, care if I even matched. My perspective on clothing certainly changed after a trip to Greece. From the picturesque side-streets to the amphitheater, everyone seemed to have a certain air of elegance about them. From time to time I could imagine ancient Greece around me in the very way the Greeks used to simply drape fabric around the human frame. Those ancient garbs certainly had an impact on modern day Greek style. The dresses and skirts that women were wearing seemed to float upon their bodies; the very clothes themselves had a life of their own. It seemed to be infused in the very air. I even got a whiff of it!

While in Greece I purchased an item of a stylish quality that I shall always remember. There was this pair of shoes that distinctly reminded me of the stylish icon Audrey Hepburn. They were these black, ballet inspired, backless shoes with just a hint of heel to entice the wearer. When I wore them walking around the streets of Athens, I felt divine, empowered. They had a certain understated romance about them that I adored. Perhaps it reflects the hint of confidence in Greek clothing that I had observed in the locals, understated, without airs, but decidedly striking at the same time.

It was at this moment that I saw the connection between art and fashion. Just as a painting can have an impact on the viewer, so can a beautifully draped dress or a fabulous pair of shoes have an impact on the wearer. Fashion is a state of mind, reflecting the very thoughts and beliefs of the one who wears a particular style. To obtain clothing from diverse areas of the world is to begin to have an understanding of those areas. Dressing our children in clothing inspired by styles around the world is a wonderful conversation starter about diversity, breaking the stereotype that one particular group of people must dress in a uniform fashion. Perhaps I cannot afford to take my daughter to exotic locations as of yet, but I can certainly bring some of it back with me via Tea Collection.

incorporating diversity

We strive to incorporate diversity into our children’s daily lives. Our family is African-American and we know how easily others can make assumptions about people based upon cultural stereotypes. At the beginning of this year, our children started taking Tae Kwon Do. In addition to going to class twice a week, we teach them about Korean culture with food, books and cultural events. Our little citizens (ages 3 and 6) can now count in Korean and know some basic Korean phrases. They have even attended a traditional wedding.

The wedding included a ceremony during which the couple bowed down to their parents and grandparents to show their respect for their elders. The gesture was a powerful cross-cultural moment and one we explained to our kids. The continuity and value of family in Korean culture and the commitment of younger generations to take care of and respect their elders is an idea we are trying to incorporate into our own family, and where better to see it than in another culture’s ceremony.

The best part of our learning experience as a family so far, is the knowledge that our little citiznes now understand Asian culture is as diverse and varied as American culture and that there are things we can learn if we open our minds to those who appear different from us.

October 10, 2008

a weekend at my parents’ house

A weekend at home with the parents has definitely turned into an interesting concept. My dad is outside in our garden growing eggplant, string beans and bitter melon- the main ingredients for Pinakbet, a traditional Filipino dish. When we’re not eating Filipino food, my mom covers the table with Kimchi, rice, and seaweed- all necessary side dishes for a Korean feast. As a 7 year old, I remember complaining and wondering why we couldn’t have macaroni and cheese like other families? Who would have known that 17 years later I would finally appreciate this unique home my parents created?

As always, my parents add to this home, but this time, they’re adding in a new way. A couple of years ago, my parents opened their home to foster children. For the past 11 months, they have been caring for 7 year old Ben and his 2 year old sister Grace. It’s quite amazing to see how much a child can advance with a stable home and support. I spent this past Saturday listening to my mom and Ben review new words for school- spelling the words out and reading out loud to display comprehension. She tells me the Foster Agency expresses such gratitude- they notice an immense improvement in Ben’s education. My mom’s secret? “I spend three hours a day helping him with homework and then one day each weekend- he is finally starting to catch up where he needs to be… it takes time.”

What my parents are doing is not an easy thing… initially I also had such a difficult time with their decision to become foster parents. Now, it only seems natural. I am thankful for my parents- they have truly raised me to be a citizen of this world and now hopefully will be doing the same for others.