The Perfect Palace for Kids

ImageThe first few days of a family trip are all about adjustment. Throw in a new country to get used to, and your transition time exponentially increases. While ours are hearty and resilient travelers, inevitably, there are the breakdowns, the quibbling, the tantrums, and the I-can’t-stand-to-be-stuck-in-this-car-one-more-minute—so I’ll smack my little sister to alleviate my stress moments.

This is where you have to start carefully weighing what you want to do as a tourist with children —versus what the children will be able to put up with, before throwing up in your car, or throwing a screaming fit in the middle of an austere English historical museum. In plain English: for once, it’s the parents trying to figure out what they can get away with.

We started out cautiously. After the success of Windsor castle (despite our youngest falling asleep from jet lag next to her lunch), we gave them a day of rest and then decided to gamble a bit. We drove thirty minutes down the road to a palace – Bleinem Palace, to be exact. This is a palace frequented in by none other than Winston Churchill.  And here is where many may ponder, “What the hell are you thinking, bringing the kids there?! They’ll hate it.”

Ordinarily, I would be hard-pressed to disagree. But thanks to online research, we found some handy and integral information before we even considered setting off. Someone at Bleinem must have understood children in a way that only tired travelling parents can: they built a series of kid-friendly areas that not only kept our restless ones (both under eigh) occupied, but they were no less than enthusiastically enthralled.

First of all – there is a train. And unlike America where they’d probably ask you to pay extra for a ride in addition to the money spent on museum passes – it was free! (It makes that whole tea tax seem less unfair now, doesn’t it?) Second, not only is there a maze the family can traverse through, but in the same area that can be watched by a parent lounging on a picnic blanket, there is also a life-size chess board, a mini-labrynth puzzle maze, and a kids’ play structure. Mind you, if it hadn’t been so drizzly in weeks previous, it would have been considerably less muddy. But from a kids perspective, I would hazard to say that all that mud was a bonus.

They also have adjacent adventure area with climbing walls, as well as an outdoor café, and a butterfly atrium. Somewhere on the grounds there was a palace with a boring tour that covered ladies and gentlemen of old and wars lost and won—but who cares what the parents were doing. Auntie took the kids to the fun part, and they soon forgot who had dragged whom to the Palace in the middle of “when-are-we-gonna-get-there”.

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Coming back down to earth

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Children are amazing and resilient. But I’m not convinced that as a parent, I’m included in that equation. Overnight flights are currently not recommended. While it seems like you might all catch some sleep, for us, with two small kids – it fast became a laughable concept. Ah, idealist that I am.

Overnight flights vary, but try to get one that arrives a little bit later than mid-morning at your destination. That way, you actually have a hope and a prayer of lasting through the day until evening before crumpling into a heap of tiredness. Mine managed to stay awake until 6:30 before completely passing out, despite multiple tenuous melt-down moments throughout the day.

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Up, Up, and Away …

Crazy thing travel – you always want to do it, and rarely make time for it. Especially when there are kids in the picture. By the time you think about packing their clothes, yours, snacks, cameras, and all the other odds and ends that cover the potential “what if”s of having multiple children in tow; your zeal for a trip dies before your credit card has time to be frightened.

But not this summer. This summer, we decided in our infinite wisdom not only to travel, but to travel overseas to England. With two children under the age of eight.

And it’s not like it’s hard, nowadays – we didn’t have to cross over on a three-week steam ship trip or paddle across. But you know you’ve done the “unusual” when you get the incredulous and wary stares as you walk down the aisle of the plane, and most people have a shudder as they think, “Not next to me, please!” We realized that Virgin Atlantic must have some sort of system down as we headed towards the back of the plane and were surrounded by children with already-weary and dazed parents. Perhaps that’s why they ask for ages online – so they can lump everyone under ten in one vicinity of screaming, crying, parental pit of anguish . Maybe that’s why they didn’t charge for drinks?

We were lucky this trip though, with only ten hours to Heathrow, we were off by late afternoon, arriving the next day in London. I was thinking, we’ll sleep on the plane, awake refreshed and ready to go when we land at 10AM (no seriously, stop laughing; it could have happened!)

What REALLY happened was we barely slept, my daughter stretched out over us, kicking my partner wildly in the legs every twenty minutes so he couldn’t sleep, while she snoozed for a whopping four hours. My growing son couldn’t get comfortable, doubled over in a seat that seemed small even for a ten-year-old, and ended up only sleeping two hours. I was so paranoid, I kept waking and checking instead of sleeping (silly mothering instincts). And for children that typically need 12 hours of sleep, not two, we were headed for a mess of cranky the day of arrival. As most parents know, there is no catch up on sleep for kids. There is just painful, and more painful, accompanied with whiney and bitchy for at least two days. Woot! Nothing like starting your trip in a new country with a wild ride to start. At least there was no turbulence on the plane. For now – we just have to contend with trying to be relaxed as we whiz wildly in tiny cars on the wrong side of narrow, twisty country roads. But seriously, at least there’s a pub at the end of each one!

Zoom, zoom mommy!

Life in the mommy zone is never easy. One of the biggest challenges is that the minute you feel like you’ve got everything under control, and you just might make it through your week with no kids standing in an empty parking lot at school, wondering if you’ve been abducted by aliens—one of the other moms leans in and says something like, “You know, you really should try putting your kid in little league; he’d just love it!” And you look at your son who is as sports-like as a blind-raccoon and you think, “Am I’m denying him a possibility to prove himself?”

Sure, just like why Tiger Woods doesn’t knit; his mom denied him the opportunity.

There comes a point when you really have to look at all the activities and social events your kids are culling, and ask yourself: when is it too much?

The sad thing is that now, they’re holding seminars in my hood about over-booking kids, and what we can we do to stop it?

I’m not sure, but I know that if I didn’t schedule my son in something—he’d never even see other kids. Our block is a great neighborhood, but if you ever saw a child unattended, or playing in the street, I might suspect the parents were inside having some sort of mental break down. Because kids don’t play outside anymore. And that’s just sad.

So the time in our kids’ lives where they’re supposed to be outside, playing kick-ball and making their own life-long friendships isn’t happening. So what do we do? Desperately hunt online looking for “opportunities” for them to meet other kids, in the hopes that they’ll make friends, so that you can schedule play-times with other worn-out-from-driving-all-over moms. So don’t even think about shopping ever again (other than for groceries)—you’ve got to drive me to Timmy’s house or to soccer practice or to little league.

Of course, I’m a bad mommy. So I bought my son an X-Box and saved me some gas. Because I’m green like that.

Taking A Time Out

Today was a little different from most days: the alarm didn’t go off, the kids didn’t come flying into the bedroom, asking for cartoons on a weekday (only to be “awwwwwed” out of the room), and no one even seemed to move until well past 8 AM. To think how quickly times change—that used to be an early morning somewhere, way back in my twenties. Now anything past it is officially a “lie in day”. The sun must agree: it’s been grey and dark all day, keeping everyone in that sleep-in state of mind. Even after a mellow jaunt to the Aviation Museum, it’s relatively quiet in the house with half of our family down for a nap.

This muted afternoon just gets me to thinking to how seldom in this valley we really take the “time out” from our horrifyingly over-scheduled calendars to just be with our kids. This is the first day in months we’ve not had a birthday planned, a list to fetch from a cluster of shops, and a playdate or a sports event on schedule. And HELLYES—what a relief it is, to simply enjoy meandering through the day with your kids and the only agenda is: what do we all feel like doing together right now?

In this space where there is so much going on and so many opportunities “to do” amazing things, to enrich your child’s development, or offer them better opportunities; isn’t it amazing that sometimes we forget that the most cherished part of being with your kids is simply that? Just being there. It’s nearly 90 percent of the job at times. And it is so important to them. How many “Mommy, watch this!” have I responded to distractedly, “Yes, dear, I’m watching,” (and I’m folding laundry, cooking dinner, or glued to an email). Sad, really, how easily distractable we can get in this zone of productivity.

Today was an excellent reminder for me and my kids—sometimes it’s enough enrichment to hang out with the family, with no agenda, no timetable—to simply enjoy the quiet and ease of the people you’re with.

Vacation Planning Overzealous Overload

When you realize you’re actually making time to get away from real life to take a vacation, it’s a surge of joy and “OMG I get to plan something for fun”  electric jolt of Wheeee! You discover the world is round again and doesn’t necessarily end at the dry cleaners. So you settle into dreaming of paradise while clicking through inbox travel emails …  when the details begin to bombard you like an over-eager toddler.

Just starting out with the airline tickets, the Web search floods in a myriad of bargain travel sites. There are almost too many to choose from; that in itself leads to analysis paralysis: do I start with the coupons from Southwest? From Virgin America? From TravelZoo or Yahoo Travel? Travelocity? Too many, and everyone has their favorite. And why do I find Captain Kirk branding so strangely enticing? Dammit, Priceline!

Oddly enough, I often find (after hours of poring over travel sites and intermittent FB ADD moments), that going straight to the airlines is my best bet. Sorry, Captain! (*Feel free to give me feedback on your favorite travel site, please. I’m always checking …)

And as exhausting as this three-hour tour was, it occured to me that flights are only the beginning. Next up on my agenda: rental cars vs. trains vs. squeezing into an old Chevy with in-laws.

At this point, things seemed more cloudy and overwhelming, than calming and exciting. Where is my beach; can I not simply beam there? I wasn’t sure which was going to be longer – my trip or the adventure of planning it. Not to mention, the closest thing to tropical scheduled on our mid-western voyage was high humidity in Kalamazoo.

Fascism takes many forms: today, public school

Don’t get me wrong, I knew there were going to be challenges involved with sending my kids to public school, but far be it from me to introduce them into the world of pomp and circumstance before they can spell it. I mean, my oldest is only five: I don’t need to pay 20K a year for him to learn how to write his letters.

So I picked a “magnet” public school. I see it as a compromise of sorts: unique, interactive learning techniques in a less-pressured environment, with the requirement of parent participation (the private schools use well-paid teacher assistants).

And then there are the forms. And only two months in, the fundraisers, and the multiple items that need to be remembered each day. Hey – my kids is only five, so please don’t give me more than five things to remember a week (or me!); otherwise, we’re just pushing the limits of mommy-reality. And no, I cannot simply conjure up requested documents in under 24-hours from a HMO, simply because you don’t ask for items until the last second. But I’m not bitter, surely.

What it doesn’t cost in cash, it ultimately may cost in time. But it’s good to know they’re learning. Today, I visited, and was questioned by another cute five-year-old: what continent is this? He handed me the red, puzzle piece with curiosity. “Oh, that looks like South America.” OOps. No, he corrected me, that’s Africa. DOH! Mommy ego, down! Mommyego, down! Mayday! Mayday! 

Perhaps these kids are in pretty good hands after all. Mommy, on the other hand, may need a geography refresher. Perhaps that’ll be my secondary goal while volunteering in the classroom I wonder how my math is doing …

Mommy karmic debt

It’s been catch-up time at the corral since I returned from shooting earlier this month in the exotic FL “jungles”, surrounded by primates. Chi-chi (who, by the way is older than me, but apparently not as socially mature *ahem*), let me know it was time to go home, by pulling out a huge chunk of my hair and eating it while snickering at me. Suckah, mommy! Have sneaky children taught me nothing?! Well, at least I don’t have any bald spots … yet.

So now I’m back in the swing and making up my “working vacation” time for the movie to the kids. As the mommy-karmic ledger goes, there are a few things that I owed the kids (i.e., extra hugs, and a few “snuck in” treats here and there that would usually be “no-no”s). It kind of goes like this: 

“I missed you while you were with the monkey’s mommy!”
“I’m sorry, honey. I missed you too!”
“Yeah. Next time you play with us, not the monkeys. OK mommy?”
“OK honey, I’m sorry. Here … have another cookie.”

And thus, balance is restored easily enough with an extra batch or two of homemade chocolate chip cookies. Partners, on the other hand, are not as easy to please. This time, I get to take the kids for five days by myself, on what would be an otherwise dual-parented and partnered trip to the specialhellforparents that is Disneyland, six hours each way in a car trip.  Alone.

Dear God, please help me now. I know I haven’t been to church in a while, but I’ll make you some cookies if you get me through this.

So while I’m happy to be back in the swing with the gang, as September closes – it’s apparent that this is going to be a busy, busy year coming up. I’m hoping for the best, but just to be sure, I’m gonna start making more cookie dough on the sly.

Monkey business

Invited to film on a set is an amazing adventure for any work-at-home mommy, but to be able to do it on a movie about primates; to meet them and greet them is unbelievable. Thrust out of my everyday preschool reality on a jet plane headed towards religious zealots, I couldn’t help but wonder what had I gotten in to? There are people rioting all over the world about some wacko seven miles from here and I’m next  door to this nutter; and only interested in monkey business! 

Leaving  one set of toddlers at home, to film in a monkey sanctuary, Jungle Friends, filled with varied species of primates (nearly like rambunctious toddlers, but with teeth!). And personalities galore. Who knew that Ms. Buddy likes her coffee dregs in the morning? That Jimmy Senior likes to throw things at men, and when they pretend to “play dead” – he jumps up and down with glee. Victorious! And that little Puchi with little hair remaining and only one eye, would whisk his way into my heart sighing with love as I held his hand? So much to learn, film, and do on this adventure.

Surely, life has its own everyday adventures, but sometimes; you have to break out of the ordinary. I feel lucky to have the possibility of this extraordinary.

Enter color-coded scheduling; exit sane mommy

I sat at the computer far too long today, creating a schedule in multiple arrays of the rainbow, demystifying my life of supposed spontaneity; creating color-coded blocks of time for all of our activities during the day. Reality check: I will not be awaking at dawn for that “early morning run with the dog” to cover two bases, if not one slightly saggin’ booty (that’d be the dog’s, people). However, the skinny jeans are still in the closet – until I can grab more color chunks for gym time.

It’s fascinating to me that all these “time saving” techniques in my life (computer), seem to add more things to do (calendar, FB, IM), and more details that I need to arrange in a row like balancing skittles on paper, before I can effectively remember where I’m supposed to be, and what I “should be” doing at any given moment. Half the time, I need a reference sheet to know where I am; is that wrong? What day is it today? That, my friends: that is a mommy. It secretly stands for Making Offspring Makes Moreworkfor You. (Yes, it’s really one word now.  ‘Cause I said so.)

Luckily, the crack-berries and iLeashes help us remember what we are supposed to do and where at any given second. And with reminders, to boot. I call it my mommy leash. It’s a matter of keeping it together, staying on top of your schedule skittles (without eating too many of them) and remembering that by the end of the day, you’ll need to let a lot of it go.

Of course, at the end of the day, that’s why the universe and/or God gave us wine. Oh yeah, and reality TV; ’cause at least you have someone to feel better than half-way through mommy’s night-time bottle.