December 5, 2008

global gifts for the holidays

Gifts are a great way to teach kids to think with a global perspective. Two gifts really stand out to me as great globally oriented gifts –one that we gave and one that we received.

We recently went to the 2nd birthday party for a friend’s son. On the Evite invitation they asked that instead of gifts guests consider making a donation to an organization called Heifer. When I went onto the organization’s site I saw the great selection of gifts that could be purchased for this organization which aims to relieve hunger and poverty around the world. We chose a portion of a water-buffalo. While my daughter Zoe at 14 months is a little young to understand what she gave to her friend for his birthday over time she will start to understand. The birthday boy received a card with a picture of an animal that described our contribution. The organization describes this and other gifts as the “must-have gift of the year: self-reliance.” How great is that gift?

This gift inspired me: for Zoe’s next birthday and as she gets older and more aware I am going to request that some of her gifts be donations to help Ijot, a children’s library in rural India that I’ve been involved with for years. At some point I plan to bring her to the library to meet the children who use it. Children, libraries, and animals are all things that small children can relate to and for this reason they are great donation gifts for children.

On a lighter note, we have received some great board books about different cuisines by Amy Wilson Sanger. We have one about Indian snack food and one about sushi. These are two of our favorite cuisines and we always take the books with us to the restaurant. Zoe loves to look at the pictures and hear the rhymes about the food that she is going to eat.

November 26, 2008

what we bring to the table

This Thanksgiving we’re finally tossing out “tradition” and really making the holiday meal together, as a family, our own. For so long many families celebrate only how they’ve been taught from watching how it’s done on TV to the books about the Mayflower and Pilgrims and Native Americans. But one thing we’ve forgotten about that first Thanksgiving was the merging together of different cultures.

We’ve seemed to step away from that fusion and only do what’s comfortable or normal. And to be honest, it’s become quite boring. And not representative of the first Thanksgiving at all.

I don’t care for greenbean casserole but I can make a great hummus dip. It might not be a standard Thanksgiving menu item, but it’s what we like. That’s what I’m bringing, along with a cucumber salad. Who knows, this could end up our own signature dish to bring every year from now on.

Once we start departing from the cookie cutter pattern, everything tends to have a little bit more flavor. It celebrates our individuality and creativity- something very important that I hope to teach my children. And soon we realize that while turning away from a tradition that was never “ours” in the first place, we’re really creating one of our very own.

Stephanie blogs daily at Adventures In Babywearing.

sharing an american holiday

Thanksgiving is such an American holiday. And in my travels I have yet to find another celebration that’s really analogous. Interestingly enough, some of my favorite Thanksgivings were the ones spent in other countries with new friends and non Americans. I think Thanksgiving has such a wonderful history to it, and I love to introduce it to people from other places.

Our first Thanksgiving away from home was spent with a Russian family while living in the Middle East. We loved introducing them to the concept and the food. At the time, I was newly pregnant and barely able to stay awake for the feast. Good thing since they left as soon as their six-month old started to melt down. Finding turkeys in the Arabian Gulf can be tricky. They ship them in for the Americans who celebrate the holiday and if you don’t get them in time, they’re gone. I learned then one of the great things about traditional Thanksgiving food is that it can really be found almost anywhere. Stovetop Stuffing may be a bit hard to come by, but I always found the ingredients to make it from scratch. That’s one of the wonderful things about Thanksgiving food, it really is simple food.

The following year, I had a baby and was again newly pregnant. Luckily, I was only responsible for one dish–the turkey! We celebrated with a huge group of friends from the US, Scotland, Egypt and Australia. Everyone brought something from the traditional American Thanksgiving menu—even those unfamiliar with the food. I remember the Egyptian man asking about the origin of this American holiday. Those of us who were American talked about the American Indians and the pilgrims who were celebrating the harvest using our best third-grade Thanksgiving knowledge. Then the conversation transformed into more of the meaning of Thanksgiving for us–to be with those around us and give thanks for the many blessings we do have.

The following year we found ourselves replaying this ritual with a Swedish family. We had just moved to Stockholm and had very few friends around but our neighbors seemed like good people to share this holiday with. I remember my neighbor remarking that Thanksgiving food was one of her favorites–fall comfort food really helped warm up a cold body on a dark Swedish day. In return, we had the chance a month later to experience the Swedish Julbord with them.

This is where I started realizing we should be sharing celebrations with each other–even if they didn’t celebrate it. Holidays and traditions are important to understanding cultures and this, particularly American one, has deep roots in our own history. It’s wonderful to be able to experience a holiday to its fullness when you’re with people who are not familiar with it. We share it with others, and in turn, it reignites the celebration spirit within us.

can thanksgiving go international?

I am really looking forward to Thanksgiving this year. Last year, we hosted the event for the first time, and while I was excited to take ownership of the “bird,” lay out the silver and china, and try some new dishes (I baked a chocolate and fig tart, and my husband experimented with a duck on the rotisserie), I am relieved to not have those responsibilities this year. Instead, my sister and her family (bless them) will be hosting. But I’m excited for the day for other reasons too.

As for a lot of people, this has been a really tough year for our family. Even with all of the struggles we experienced, I’m grateful that we will be able to come together and honor each other with a roof over our heads and warm food on the table. We’re also starting to get the formula right for how to make the event fun and less taxing. For example, gone are the days when one family member was on point for the entire meal, a stressful responsibility that, as I recall, left my aunt with a mile-long and food-stained spreadsheet one year—a spreadsheet for a family meal! That’s just madness. Instead, we’ll be taking a pot luck approach.

I am also hopeful that we can experiment a little more with what we are allowed to call “Thanksgiving Dinner.” For some people, it just isn’t Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie. Others wouldn’t touch canned cranberries with a ten-foot pole. And then I found there are people who just don’t like turkey. I was shocked when my husband revealed this fact. Needless to say, we get a ham for him now. I gave up meat at the beginning of this year, in large part because we hosted Thanksgiving last year and it totally undid me, so I will be joining my grandmother in line for tofu stuffing (it’s actually really good). In addition, I hope I can contribute something new and tasty to the pot luck that can stay “on brand” with the season. For example, I’d love to be able to copy Andronico’s amazing tortellini with sweet potato salad that it sells from its deli. But beyond my small attempts to diversify the Thanksgiving cornucopia and the usual dish suspects I’m sure are being planned out as we speak, I’m curious if my family—and yours—would be willing to take more risks on the last Thursday in November?

Specifically, I’m recalling last year’s Christmas Eve dinner at my sister’s house, when her Italian mother-in-law cooked up the simplest and most amazing dinner ever—cioppino. That’s right, instead of a pheasant or turkey or stuffing, we had an Italian-inspired, tomato-based seafood stew over a bed of perfectly-cooked vermicelli. There was also a beautiful endive salad with some cheese and fresh bread—torn, not sliced—in the center of the table. Add in some great wine and voila! Done. As you probably suspected, my sister’s mother-in-law is a wonderful lady, and she can cook like nobody’s business. And for dessert? That goddess gave us all home-made bottles of limoncello, a sweet lemon liqueur originated from Southern Italy. Oh yes, she did.

I do not know if my family is ready to trade in a juicy turkey, my dad’s amazing garlic and cream mashed potatoes, my sister’s French bread stuffing or my mom’s amazing salads for an international experiment. However, after last year’s home run on Christmas, I know we are all a lot more likely to be curious and adventurous even on the most American of holidays. Cheers to you and yours!

mapping the first years

Global growthThe longer I do this Mom thing, the more I realize that no two Moms do things exactly alike. For example, many Moms record their child’s first years in a baby book. Other Moms squirrel away their baby’s clothes, socks and shoes to help them remember just how small tiny really is. Others spend their child’s first years double-fisting it with a video camera in one hand and a trusty digital camera in the other. We captured our son’s first years with a map of the United States.

Travel has always equaled memories for us so one of the first things we did when our son was born nearly two years ago was to hang a map of the US on our fridge. Each time we visit a new state with him, we color it in on the map. Visits to family and friends quickly took care of most of the Maine to Florida route. And a planned Winter trip to California will soon balance out the brightly-colored East coast. We also have plans to expand the map to reflect future international travels and the trip we took last Fall to London, Dublin and Belfast.

Although packing up our almost two-year-old toddler and heading out on the road sometimes makes us wonder about our own sanity, we wouldn’t trade the memories for anything in the world.

November 19, 2008

celebrating diwali in new york

This past weekend we celebrated Diwali (the Indian new year) in a restaurant in New York with about 50 other adults and numerous children –some Indian, some not. We are not Indian, but I have spent a lot of time in India and speak Hindi and always like to find ways to encourage my daughter Zoe to learn about this amazing part of the world. We often celebrate Indian holidays with our Indian friends, make frequent trips to Queens or uptown for the best Indian food, and we look forward to taking our daughter to India at the first chance that we get.

Diwali is a Hindu festival which is known as the festival of lights and is celebrated with four days of burning lanterns. Diwali celebrates the marriage of the Hindu deities Lakshmi and Vishnu (though there are theories which dispute this origin). In India and Nepal Diwali is a national holiday.

I remember celebrating my first Diwali in India. In the South Indian town that I was living in it was tradition to decorate everything inside and outside of the house –computers, cows, living spaces. Tea lights were set up throughout the home and fireworks went off in the sky for four very noisy days (and nights) as a thank you to the deities for things on earth. Everyone wore new clothes for the holiday and took a bath in the morning before putting on these new clothes.

Today Zoe was dressed in an Indian outfit and ate Indian food while Bollywood music played in the background. She scribbled on coloring books of Hindu deities and lanterns. She loved the food and had a great time playing with the other kids. My hope is that as Zoe grows up Diwali, as well as other Indian holidays and customs, will be something that she recognizes as a familiar and fun celebration that we do every year.

recommendations: bilingual dolls

I just came across Language Littles dolls today. What a great idea for raising your little citizens! The dolls say 25 to 30 kid friendly phrases in ten languages. You can buy your little one a Spanish, French, Italian, Russian or even a Greek speaker. If you want to introduce your kid to Spanish, Lizzie can help you out. When you press her right hand she says a series of greetings. Her left hand holds the words for numbers and animals and her knee says “Te Amo.” What a great way to introduce new languages to your little citizens!

flavors of france

My husband and I honeymooned in Paris, France and even then- before we’d even started our family- we knew we’d love to take our children there someday. The sights, the history, the fashion, the art… all of it is incredible to take in and is something that will never leave my heart and mind. Of course I can’t wait to share that with my family.

I had the opportunity to visit France a year before I got married and will never forget my first view from the Eiffel Tower. The first time I stepped into the Louvre. The taste of a crepes sucre! I met my husband soon after that European vacation and we quickly fell in love and were planning our wedding. Naturally I dreamed of honeymooning in Paris. What a dream come true to actually be able to do it!

I might have left my heart there… possibly in the gardens of Versailles. Maybe it was among the street markets. Or on the Champs-Élysées. Oh how I’d love to share that with our four children!

I recently discovered Adventures By Disney, a family friendly guided vacation program that spans the globe. Each vacation includes VIP experiences, exclusive moments and unique itineraries specifically designed for families. I’m wishing for the London & Paris trip which includes Buckingham Palace, taking in a show (The Lion King!), and then crossing the English Channel to Paris where the kids will go on an exciting scavenger hunt in the Louvre while Mom & Dad have a tour of their own. A family bike ride through Versailles and dinner at the Eiffel Tower are just a couple other great treats included in the package.

The Disney-trained Adventure Guides engage the whole family in fun activities and allow the family to relax and enjoy their trip- whether you’re just visiting throughout the United States or abroad. It could be a Wild West fantasy, or Hollywood glamour, or even ancient Irish castles- whatever adventure fits your family. Just imagine the stories you’ll hear… and the memories you’ll create.

Bon Voyage!

Stephanie Precourt blogs daily at Adventures In Babywearing.

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.