A World Without Oysters (Cards, not Molluscs)

It’s the second week of January, and let me guess, you’re already bored with your winter weekend routine. Darkness cuts off half the day, wind blows you right back to your house before your adventure has even begun, and football season is through. Pity.

ltmLast weekend, trying to jazz up our normal routine of Portobello Market gazing, Hyde Park visiting and holiday cookie baking, the girls and I headed to Covent Garden and the London Transport Museum

LTM houses to-scale versions of early horse and buggies, cars, single and double decker busses, trams and tube cars. The space tells a story about something we do every day: go from one place to another in London. If you have ever taken the tube, or a bus or cab in London, your trip was shaped by the history that is explained here.

DSC09448At the turn of the 19th century, London’s profile was small compared with its current expansive girth. This is because people could only go so far as they could walk, or pay someone to carry them. True story: people would hire men to carry them around town as they sat in a small wooden box called a sedan chair. The museum has replicas of these, which look uncomfortable for the rider and hired carriers both.

Enter the horse-drawn carriage, a more sophisticated version of the sedan chair. Your child will immediately notice, while perusing the replicas of the horses and their carriages, that these were not the variety of show pony that your child can ride in Hyde Park. Towering and strong, these horses could pull the weight of both a lower and an upper carriage.

This amazes me. By the late 1800s, before electricity and running water were commonplace in London homes, the city already had double decker public busses.

At that time, London’s streets were bumpy and unpaved, and to accommodate the increasing number of people seeking out horse-drawn carriages, engineers built a series of trams set on railroad-style tracks, significantly mitigating the effects of friction.

Of course the engineers forgot the other problem with using horses. The poop. One thousand tons a day. That’s two million pounds of horse poop on Monday, two million on Tuesday, two million on Wednesday. Need I go on? If ever there were an incentive to develop engines suitable for mass transportation, this was it.

DSC09463We paused to sit on some of the horse trams, which had tight, dangerous circular staircases leading to the upper level (obviously not designed by anyone familiar with American-style plaintiff’s litigators). And of course we visited the railway carriages and locomotive, the predecessor to today’s tube.

My four year-old is nudging me. “The stamps, Mommy. Write about the stamps!” How could I forget. This genius museum offers an Official Visitor Card with designated areas to collect each of 13 stamps at stations located all around the museum. Generally, I’m more of an audio guide person, but in this very tactile and visual museum, collecting stamps was better because it ensured that we visited every nook of exhibit and read each nugget of history. And what child doesn’t love stamps?

The thing about public transportation is that it constantly changes, gets more efficient and faster and cheaper. Have you ever wondered how to get the most out of a city you are visiting or living in? Buy a subway / metro / Oyster card and hitch yourself a ride to somewhere you have never been. It’s cheap, it’s fast, and if you set your compass to Covent Garden you can see the museum’s predictions for public transportation in the next 100 years.

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Ever Wonder Why All Dads Are History Buffs?

the Pantheon (the one in Rome)

the Pantheon (that’s the one in Rome)

Have you ever wished you knew exactly what the Pantheon was and why it was important (and whether it’s the one in Greece, or the other thing in Rome, and come to think of it didn’t the French build one too? Was this Pantheon phenomenon the first ever franchise?) Ever catch yourself wondering why exactly we celebrate Memorial Day, and how it is different from Veteran’s Day? How about all the choices and chances and chiefs of state that, together, gave us exactly the world we live in now?

Until recently, frankly I did not. My mind occupied itself with work, current events, friends and our growing family.

I was no history illiterate, for sure. Broadly, I knew about the Ancient Egyptians. They lived around the Nile, built some pyramids and didn’t one of their queens have snakes in her hair? Loosely, I knew some facts about the Romans. Beware the Ides of March! Of course I was familiar with modern US history. Europeans chastise Americans for knowing so little of the world around them. Maybe I was just fulfilling my global duty to stick within the stereotype.

In our family, my dad is the history buff. I interested myself more in the whys of the here and now as compared with the wheres and whats of the past.

In grade school, the curriculum theme changed annually. One in particular stands out because of its preposterous name: The Non-Western World. Why not just the Eastern world? Or why not focus on specific continents? The idea of Eastern and Western hemispheres always seemed a bit arbitrary, anyway, given the properties of a sphere. I learned what I needed to ace my exams, then promptly forgot it all.

History was for my dad, who of his own volition read the 600-page Gettysburg the Second Day and The Soldier Kings: the House of Hohenzoellern, a short read at under 450 pages.

The birth of our second daughter provided a key inflection point in my relationship with history because it offered these two critical ingredients: (1) a big ol’ maternity leave, in New York, in the spring and summer; and (2) a nearly three year-old who eagerly agreed that everything I taught her was “so cool, Mommy”.

I must admit to a prolonged case of nerd that, after a five year remission during which I met and married my husband, became even more pronounced after the second daughter popped out. Apparently my fascination with almost everything I could learn and explore started young. When I called my preschool teacher to ask her advice in selecting a suitable nursery for our first daughter, she not only remembered who I was — 25 years later — she said, “of course I remember you, Susan! You were interested in everything!” Then we talked for 45 minutes about the Montessori philosophy.

at the Intrepid, becoming astronauts

at the Intrepid, becoming astronauts

The two girls and I started little trips around New York. To make each museum and landmark a true adventure, I weaved in a bit of a history or science lesson appropriate for her little ears.

We walked all around the spaceship aboard the Intrepid. So cool, Mommy.

We visited the Natural History Museum to learn how science and exploration can teach us about creatures that no human has ever seen in person. No photos, no video, no Instagram, and yet we still know that dinosaurs existed. So cool, Mommy.

We toured the Statue of Liberty, the one of the more delayed gifts in world history. Perhaps out of a mutual disdain for Britain, the French fancied offering a present to the US in the late 1800s. Then they got embroiled in a tiny thing called la Revolution, which essentially caused the Statue of Liberty to be put on permanent DSC09786back-order. France asked the US to help raise money for its own present. Can you even imagine if Santa asked for a deposit on gifts?! The countries collaborated on financing by putting the Statue’s disembodied head and arm on display in Philadelphia, and shipped the rest in crates to be assembled on a small island near Manhattan. So cool, Mommy!

Preparing adventures for my daughters has given me a whole new lease on learning. 

All of a sudden, the whats, wheres and whys of the past impact the things we see today. In a less intense sort of way, I became my dad.

yep, it's THOSE waterlilies

yep, it’s THOSE waterlilies

When your children are hungry for adventure, the greatest gifts become experiences instead of toys. For our older daughter’s fourth birthday, my parents gifted her a day trip to Giverny, to be claimed during a Mommy-daughter trip to Paris. No present has ever brought more joy, for both of us. For weeks before departing, we read Linnea in Monet’s Garden and learned the sometimes scandalous and always interesting story of Claude Monet’s life. We had already seen many of Monet’s paintings in New York museums, and of course on the internet. Better was seeing the master’s inspiration in person. 

The holidays have rich stories, every fact has a concomitant back question. Thanksgiving alone provided abundant lessons about the world before accurate internet maps, sea voyaging, religious liberties, relations with Native Americans and how a celebration becomes a holiday (in the case of Thanksgiving, it took a thirty-year writing campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale, the American editor and author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for the day to be declared a national holiday).

clowning around Windsor Castle

clowning around Windsor Castle

A simple question about what her American cousins were doing right now launch a weeks long discussion about time zones and the Earth’s rotation. What time is it in New Jersey? In Jersey? How about Rome? And Russia? What do you mean it’s several times at once in Russia?

I should have paid more attention in history class. When I was a curious, overly-confident and independent young thing, I remember asking teachers and family why we had to learn about history since, by definition, it’s already done and wouldn’t it be more useful to study political and social theory so we can understand things as they are now and as they will be?

History repeats itself; you must know history to understand our world now.

The teenage Susan ignored this advice. Sure, if you happen to like intra-War German history, I guess it could be cool. But I always thought my dad, who chose to read multiple books on this and other seemingly esoteric subjects, was a little weird in his penchant for the past.

Now I am just grateful that he knows. When Dad visits the UK, he offers our four year-old little gumdrops of history like “do you know why the London bridge fell down? The Norwegians pulled it down,” followed by an engaging story. I learned from him that history is only as educational as it is entertaining. As a moderately historically literate parent, I often find myself researching stories just hours before our adventures start. I find the interesting, funny, scandalous facts that make history’s story one worth retelling. How many naked people can you count on the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Did you know that Monet married his best friend’s wife? Want to know why it never rained in the Pantheon?

Dad teaching Kid-2 the history of Easter eggs

Dad teaching Kid-2 the history of Easter eggs

When you ask the questions that children ask, and wonder whether the Pantheon / Parthenon was history’s first franchise, you start to see the big themes, the stories, the crazy cool reasons why people still study history even thousands of years after the plot has played out.

My younger daughter and I participated in a Tiny Explorers class at Kensington Palace earlier this fall. The theme was Peter the Wild Boy, a child who, rumour has it, was discovered living among wolves in a German forest at age 12 and was brought to the Palace of King George of England. Before we saw the mural featuring Peter and King George at the Palace itself, before we became British residents, this story had no meaning to me. Inside Kensington Palace, with the gilded ornamentation and endless ballrooms, the story took on new meaning. Can you imagine moving from a forest without shelter, running water or a ready supply of food to this immaculate palace??

I can now, but only because my children taught me how.

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Pilgrims in England

from Marissa Hermer Instagram (btw I LOVE the series)

from Marissa Hermer Instagram (btw no one is a bigger fan of the show)

Despite what you might infer from the Instagram feeds of Bravo’s Ladies of London and from this article, which my friend forwarded me on the day after Thanksgiving, most expatriates living in London do not celebrate Thanksgiving. A few turkey dinners dot the social landscape, but largely they are for people who enjoy themed events.

Like the turkeys who since 1989 have been pardoned by the President of the United States, we Americans in London are excused from the holiday. Many if not most opt out.

Our older daughter attends a school that is heartily if not heavily populated with families containing at least one American parent. No one mentioned the T word. Thanksgiving paraphernalia was entirely absent on the shelves at local markets. Londoners were content to let this holiday arrive without so much as a section of themed Hallmark cards, as they should. Pilgrims fled England, first for Holland and then the United States. Only afterwards did they declare thanks.

Indulgently, I ignored Thanksgiving for most of the autumn.

I imagine the Grinch thinking a variation of this theme as he peered down at Whoville below: if this day of the holiday arrives without all the pomp and trimmings, surely the holiday itself will all but disappear? Our children will not know the festivities that transpire in the States, and I can avoid the fuss of finding and cooking a 20 pound bird in my tiny oven (which I have never done before) and making merry without my extended family, friends, and all my kitchen gadgets, which do not plug into UK outlets. If I, the Grinch of Thanksgiving, could closet this holiday, I would avoid a whole lot of hassle.

Then my four year-old daughter’s class asked me to present a Thanksgiving lesson in school.

Our family ultimately decided to bring Thanksgiving out of the closet because we wanted our daughters to understand the meaning of the holiday: sitting at a table with your nearest and dearest, expressing thanks for your rich friendships, loving family and plentiful blessings. It’s not about getting the day off from school or work, and it’s not about the number of people simultaneously eating turkey and watching American football in your neighbourhood. Thanksgiving is about expressing gratitude for and with the people around your table, in whichever time zone that table is located.

IMG_4650Just as importantly, we wanted our daughters to understand the importance of tradition. Every American has a trove of family recipes for yams and pineapple, green bean casserole with fried onions, stuffing and cranberry sauce. The repetition of foods is important, even if they are all sort of mushy and yucky if eaten on any other day of the year. It would be foolish to let a small thing like our place of residence interfere.

Without my mother to cook, my extended family and friends to fill the table and squabble over the wishbone, and American commerce to sell me bread crumbs, baking apples for pies and a bird, this holiday would be a solo family effort. Was I up to being the Virgin Mary of Thanksgiving?

Thankfully, I didn’t have to be, because WholeFoods had a bird fresh from the farm. I scoured YouTube for videos on brining and roasting a turkey. I bought a hand mixer to make mashed potatoes. Then I emailed my mother for her secret stuffing recipe.

ProgressoOn Thursday morning the recipe arrived, encrypted with a retina password and with one ingredient bolded. 12 Cups Progresso Italian Bread Crumbs. As if it needed more emphasis, she added, “must be Progresso and must be Italian.” Or what? Or the stuffing will deflate? Has the Pepperidge Farm-eating world been malnourished all these years? I did not want to find out. This Thanksgiving was on my shoulders.

After the morning school run on Thursday (which, to be clear, is just a normal school and work day in London), I popped back into WholeFoods. As might be expected, there was only a gluten free “stuffing mix,” which I picked up just in case. The big chain supermarkets that stock American fare like Cheerios and peanut butter sold only Paxo “golden bread crumbs.” No Progresso. No Italian.

No problem, there were more stores. Still, I bought a Paxo at each place, just in case.

I struck out at Sainsbury’s, but picked up a stuffing mix anyway.

I tried my luck at Waitrose, the LK Bennett of food, less sexy than Marks & Spencer’s prepared food section, less hipster American than Whole Foods and more refined than Tesco. A clerk pointed me straight to the bread crumb section, which was a quarter-shelf of Paxo.

Where would I find this fabled Progresso Italian? Did I say that out loud?

Sweet Potatoes from Taste of Home

photo: Taste of Home

“You know there’s an American Food Store just a few blocks down,” said an American accent next to me. I re-shelved the “natural flavour” box, and quickly offered thanks and a Happy Thanksgiving. The American laughed. “I’m not doing Thanksgiving. Too much work. But good luck.” I looked in her shopping cart: bagged lettuce, tomatoes and mini sausage rolls. She most definitely was not preparing for Thanksgiving.

If a national holiday falls while you live in a different country, does it make a sound? Now I knew.

I struck out again at the American Food Store, but did happen to find Betty Crocker chocolate chip cookie mix and Toll House semi-sweet morsels, which obviously was a Thanksgiving omen to stop searching for the darned Progresso Italian, buy the four kinds of bread crumbs the store did offer, and finish cooking.

pilgrim thanksgivingJust after noon I arrived at my daughter’s school for the Thanksgiving presentation. The four year-olds and I talked about the first Europeans (Leif Ericsson and his Norwegian crew) to reach the New World. We talked about Christopher Columbus, who without the benefit of Google Maps sailed the wrong way to India and found the West Indies instead. We discussed the Pilgrims decamping to Holland and then setting sail for America.

The children guessed at how long it took the Mayflower to sail from England to the United States: 7 hours, 60 hours, 60 years. My daughter ambled across the floor to demonstrate the ship’s two miles per hour speed. The trans-Atlantic journey took 60 days.

To understand why the Pilgrims so readily and heartily gave thanks, we discussed the cold, sickness and lack of nourishing food on the Mayflower. We discussed how the Pilgrims slept on the ship through the whole winter while they built their houses on land during the day. I introduced Thanksgiving’s hero Squanto, who taught the settlers to catch eel and plant corn. And we talked about the bumper crop of 1621, whose arrival ensured that there would be plenty of food and less disease in the next year. After so much hardship, the Pilgrims had ample reason to be grateful. That is how the First Thanksgiving came to be.

Then the class made a tree of gratitude, where we wrote on leaves what each child was thankful for. My daughter expressed thanks for her cousins. First I felt joy that she understood how lucky we are to have family. Then I felt sadness in missing our family, all in the States. Finally I felt terror: this had better be an awesome Thanksgiving to compensate for being away from our extended family.

IMG_4648That afternoon, we translated fahrenheit baking temperatures to celsius; we chopped, sautéed and basted. The girls helped add ingredients to and mix the dough for dessert. They watched the pans, moved around the caramelising onions in the pan and took the turkey’s temperature. Our younger daughter fell off a kids chair while watching me fry pancetta, so I held her on my hip for the next two hours while I cooked. We invited a few friends, none of whom had celebrated the holiday before, and the children helped set the table.

The evening arrived with our guests. All French, none had ever seen stuffing. I thought one of them might vomit. Thank goodness I didn’t make the yam and pineapple casserole!  Then, as we all sat down to the deliciously decorated table, someone did. Our older daughter announced she was sick, stood up and threw up all over the floor. It’s not a holiday without some projectile vomit, right?

Floor cleaned, daughter safely asleep and fever-free upstairs, we ate. My husband told the story of the leftover mash that my father makes every morning after the holiday, which is essentially a fry up of gravy, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. IMG_4645It is disgustingly good, but only if you are American. Once you have grown up with this holiday, you understand that part of Thanksgiving is eating all these foods that are not necessarily delicious but that help you re-remember delicious memories savoured while you ate those elaborate if not tasty casseroles and mashes and gravies.

Which is not to say that my mother’s stuffing is not delicious, or that it is not worth five hours of shopping to nearly recreate. Quite the contrary. Getting the Progresso Italian part right matters because the memory of that taste matters. This year, I am thankful that my parents are bringing two canisters with them when they visit over Christmas.

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The English Mr. Claus

Who’s a fan of Santa?

He creates magic and mystery and story, three of everyone’s most favourite things. And let’s be honest . . . who else can eat cookies, deliver packages and squeeze himself down and up the chimneys of every single of the world’s several billion households in one night?

Santa Claus

This guy.

Santa is Santa the whole world through, but there are some cultural differences when he visits different countries. If you have children, you probably pilgrimage to Santa every holiday season. When he visits the States, where we lived until earlier this year, you will find Santa frequenting shopping centres, which always seemed an odd tradition to me since Mr. Claus obviously has no need for pre-fabricated goods.

photo: AP. We've all been there . . .

photo: AP. We’ve all been there . . .

Americans sit Santa on a king’s throne, surrounded by elves, a photographer and some wintery backdrop. By the time you reach the front of the line, you have been staring at him for hours. Close up, he just looks as tired as your child now does. But Santa is magic and the elves are some of the nicest people you may ever meet.

With a smile and snap of a camera, your child is pulled off Santa’s lap. Wait, I forgot to tell you about the bike and crayons and Minnie Mouse cashier that I want!

Of course we return. Because he is Santa and we are deeply in awe of his magic, even though we desperately want more time with him.

photo: http://www.mattmacgregorglen.co.uk/

photo: http://www.mattmacgregorglen.co.uk/

When I learned that Santa would be in London before starting his American mall tour this year, I booked Kids 1 and 2 in for the very first time slot available at Chelsea’s Duke of York Square.

I bundled the girls up, well aware that we might be waiting for hours outside until it we reached the front of the queue and had our forty-five seconds with St. Nick.

photo: http://www.mattmacgregorglen.co.uk/

photo: http://www.mattmacgregorglen.co.uk/ (seriously! this is the grotto!)

Visiting Santa in England was a surprising and very different experience. Not only was there no line — we had booked our slots online weeks prior — Santa was chatty, jovial and happy to pause for multiple pictures, which his elves will email to you free of charge (I know. The American in me wanted to let them know just how much parents will pay for those photos . . . but I kept a lid on it).

He looked different too, dapper. Still a hefty man, Santa wore a well-tailored suit, and there was no lycra / polyester lustre that his outfit often takes on when exposed to American shopping centre lighting. Santa, Britain looks good on you. Even his beard looked better, and when some children stared at it he offered for them to “touch it; I promise it’s real!”

Maybe the North Pole is on the GMT time zone so he’s less groggy here; maybe he is just on his best behaviour in case Prince George shows up.

More likely, Santa prefers the UK because the English give Santa his own grotto. That’s right, Santa has a private suite. Americans, listen up, and this can be your experience next year.

When you visit Santa in Britain, you will find him retreated in his own personal lair, shrouded from the crowds of queuing children by mostly sound-proof doors.

photo: http://www.mattmacgregorglen.co.uk/

photo: http://www.mattmacgregorglen.co.uk/ Knock Knock!

No one sees Father Christmas until she enters the magical grotto. Inside, there are elves who usher you toward the big guy. Take a seat, make yourself comfortable. Santa sits on a velvet chair. A decorated evergreen nearby reminds him of home, and a plate of cookies sits half-eaten next to him.

In the grotto, you have Santa’s complete attention, and for a few precious minutes you can talk with him about Christmas logistics (first France, then England, next Scotland, Iceland and then off to the United States). You can ask him about his reindeer, touch his beard. 

IMG_4485He will ask you where you will be for the holidays, and whether there will be a chimney. He will ask that you remember to blow out the fire before going to bed, since last year he burned his bum when someone forgot to put out the flames. He will also tell you that his reindeer loved the carrots you left last year, and please leave them again. Mr. Claus himself prefers cookies, but he will gladly nibble on whatever you offer. After all, it’s a long night for him.

And then you sit on his lap, and he takes photos, and you can tell him about the bike with stabilisers that you are coveting. You can hug him, and he will give you some candy, which despite what your mother threatens you know you will finish before you arrive home.

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Rome Part VII: Rest, Gelato, and Thanks

RomeDear Kid-1,

We are on the plane now returning to London after our Roman adventure.

You have become an expert local, delighting in drinking from the fontanella, which we did multiple times throughout our trip. 

Me? I just love adventuring with you.

Not all four year-olds are up to the challenge of an adventure like this. It is a big responsibility to commit to learning about and actively exploring the history and legends and sights and flavours of a new place. When you’re lucky enough to take a trip like this, you have to learn as much, smile as much and remember as much as you can, because you never know when you’ll get an opportunity like this again. 

It’s true, adventures are demanding. I am so proud that you can manage being a real life explorer, that you vividly recall and retell what your favourite places were (Piazza Navona, the Colosseum), your favourite stories (Romulus and Remus) and just why it is that Bernini the elder had to design that bizarre sunken ship fountain at the base of the Spanish Steps. You joke that the only thing you don’t like about Rome is that there’s no Eiffel Tower. At just four, your appetite for appreciating new things amazes me; you are an A+ travel buddy.

This morning, however, after three days bursting with activities, we both were exhausted. It didn’t help that we’ve been sharing the same bed, which is soporific for only one of us (I’ll let you guess who).


travel buddies

Still glowing with the luxury of being in this grand city, and still a little sugar high from last night’s chocolate cake, and you asked to skip our museum tour at the Borghese Gallery this morning. I thought of protesting, then figured when in Rome . . . we might as well stroll around without an agenda. 

We tried our luck at Cafe al Greco, the oldest cafe in Rome (and second oldest in Italy). How could we miss the opportunity to dine where Hans Christian Andersen, Byron, Franz Listz and Casanova did?!

We walked to Campo de Fiore through your favourite Piazza Navona for a drink from the fontanella. Did you want to walk around a bit? “No, Mommy, let’s just sit by this sculpture and chat.” My thoughts exactly.

clowning around

clowning around

At just a hair shy of eleven o’clock, we found gelato.

“Mommy, I miss my sister.” It was time to go home.

We are halfway to London now. Straddling exhaustion from the trip and delight that you are permitted iPad time on planes, you are singing “Hard Knock Life,” of the musical Annie fame, over of your headphones.

I go to school with the hard knock, uh huh
let the guys play with our blocks, the blocks
spit up the world and split it fifty-fifty, uh huh
da da da duh and dah jiggy jiggy

I should probably mention that you prefer the Jay-Z Ghetto Anthem version to the musical one, and that you heave your whole upper body up and down when you rap, and that you haven’t figured out the lyrics yet. Thank goodness, because I don’t buy the clean versions.

After this delicious trip, you are deliriously tired. You also have a huge chocolate face from all the candy we bought at duty free. Once back in London, we will detox. No gelato for at least a few meals, and no pizza or pasta for a day or so.

But when in Rome . . . it is so good.

Your eternally proud, ever grateful


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Rome Part VI: Serendipity, Second Winds and the Sistine Chapel

The afternoon following our epic tour from the Spanish Steps to the Colosseum was an adventure of serendipity, second winds, divine artistic genius, and a little touch of magic.

DSC00117But first, the fatigue.

Having already walked through five miles of streets and thousands of years of history, even the 1-2-3 punch of gelato, cannoli and pasta seemed a weak prescription to make it to Michelangelo’s masterpiece: the Sistine Chapel. The initial hurdle that it was miles away from our cozy lunch spot was importantly overshadowed by the looming realities that (1) it was nearing 3pm on a no-naps day, and (2) the Sistine Chapel sits at the end of the beautiful but behemoth Vatican Museum.

Then, by magic, Kid-1 got a second wind.

by ronploof

by ronploof

A child’s second wind is nothing like an adult’s. There can be an edge of near-mania to it, and sometimes I have wondered whether, in her newly-found post-exhaustion energy, Kid-1 would drop into a peaceful sleep right there was we stood, or whether instead she would start crying or singing or perhaps flying. My efforts to negotiate peace through sugar inevitably backfire in screaming and crying.

Since children in general (and Kid-1 absolutely) want nothing but sugar for the entirety of any second wind, your best course of action may just be to locate a labyrinthine museum in a country whose language you cannot understand. Lucky us!

IMG_4615We followed the kids audio guide route through the fifty-four galleries in the Vatican Museum. I have long been an admirer of Madonna and Child paintings. After five rooms of these, however, I ran out of stories and cool facts; Kid-1 asked whether we were lost. For ninety minutes we admired relics, rooms of tapestries, a stunning courtyard, historically important altar pieces, statues, and finally . . . nope, no Sistine Chapel yet. More relics.

Kid-1 claimed she was saturated with art and had room only for gelato. She threatened to cry, or sing, or fly. We made a few illegal left turns; a child-friendly guard magically un-roped a passageway. Kid-1 was riding the crest of her second wind, ever threatening to tumble over into crankiness. But instead, we arrived at the Sistine Chapel, and it was magnificent. With that, she was back on the calm side.

God in creationIt took Michelangelo four years to complete this masterpiece, each day painting emotions, stories and rich histories onto wet plaster to create the frescoes that now line the ceiling. As we sat, Kid-1 and I pieced together the stories collected from guide books, the internet and of course our Rick Steves podcast.

The largest of the Papal Chapels at the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel was commissioned by Pope Julius II and named after Pope Sixtus IV. Following its construction in the late 15th century, some pretty famous guys like Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino collaborated on the art adorning its walls. Not bad, right? Pope Julius II was pleased but not satisfied. He wanted something spectacular for the ceiling, and he knew just whom he should ask: the famed sculptor Michelangelo.

Sculptor? Why would he ask a sculptor to paint the most famous and religiously significant ceiling in the world?? Well, apparently the Pope was a huge fan of Mr. di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. (With a last name like that, can you blame Michelangelo for sticking just with his first?)

does it get any more Renaissance than this? painter, sculptor, architect, poet, negotiator extraordinaire

The artist fortunately not known as Mr. di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni responded “sincere apologies but no.  I am a sculptor and by the way, Pope Julius II, I am busy sculpting your own tomb!” In a presumptuous manner that only a true artistic genius could take with a Pope, he surmised that that was the end of their negotiation.

For a while, it was. The Pope turned his attention to a few wars and Michelangelo busied himself with his sculpting in Rome. In 1508, the Pope (Rick Steves calls him the “pushy Pope”) summoned him to the Vatican to start work on that ceiling.

Michelangelo was pushy too. An artistic genius and spectacular overachiever, he envisioned something bigger, grander, and far more complex than the original design proposed by the Pontiff. So he negotiated (this guy had guts!), and ultimately was allowed to “do as I liked,” as legend has it.

Michelangelo did this.

ceilingHe painted three hundred forty-three figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This is why it took him four years to complete this masterpiece.

Kid-1 and I talked about the stories represented on the main central panels. We talked about the paintings of the prophets who came before Jesus. We marvelled at how Michelangelo had changed his mind about the proportions of his figures mid-way through the chapel’s completion. He was disappointed that the first figures he painted — those far from the altar — looked smaller when viewed from the floor than he would have liked. So he scaled up the images in the panels closer to the altar, which produced the effect of making each figure supernatural in his or her splendour.

last judgmentAnd of course, us being punch drunk with our second winds and Kid-1 being four, we had to count all those people and angels who forgot their pants! Kid-1 stopped at fourteen, laughing all the way. She was delirious with delight, full to her noggin with spectacular art and so warm with appreciation with this wonderful day. It was five o’clock. We needed gelato.

And dinner.

And sleep.

Which we got, in the slow time that it takes to get things done in Rome. By nine o’clock, bellies full from delicious bruschetta, pasta with cherry tomatoes and garlic, squid and arugula and chocolate cake, all from il Gabriello, we headed back to the hotel and to bed.

Second winds are fortuitous things. You cannot plan for them and you cannot control their duration. But sometimes the swirl of anticipation of a particularly splendiferous adventure sparks just a little magic, which after all is the perfect complement to the magnificent wonder of the most famous masterpiece of them all.

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Rome Part V: Five Hours Afoot, With a Pasta Chaser

Today in RomeI am physically and mentally exhausted, and we have not yet arrived at our afternoon gelato spot, which incidentally is the most important stop of our entire day because it will give us enough sugar to head back across Rome for a quick bath, change and dinner. I order three scoops. This day deserves a reward.

If only there were a prize for adventuring skills; Kid-1 would be a champion for sure. This morning we took a professional guided tour around the heart of Rome, then a trip — guided by me — to the Vatican Museum. Our day journeyed from the Spanish Steps westward toward the Tiber, then southeast to the Colosseum, and finally all over Vatican City and south to Trastevere for a reputed “best of” gelato in Rome.

Besides being exhausted physically (you don’t think Kid-1 actually walked that whole way?), I am mentally depleted from reading and listening to history from 100 BC to the 1500s, distilling it into stories for Kid-1, and discussing these throughout the day with a child who loves nothing more than to talk.

I will not finish this post until much later, on the plane heading home to London. And I will not even bother with the second half of our day right now because the first was . . . well, it was epic. Each minute has been athletically, deliciously exhausting. Here is the full story. 

DSC00060Local guides provide great insight into the politics, social cultures, daily life and eccentricities of your adventure city. I wanted someone who would give some personality to the city’s history. Paolo Lenzi, a forty-ish Roman with a degree in archeology, had a flair for just that. To Kid-1 and me, Rome was and is a historical marvel; to Paolo it is home. That difference makes all the difference, and it is why taking a tour can so dramatically improve your trip.

At the base of the Spanish Steps is a fountain designed by the father of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (of Piazza Navona fame). Pop quiz: how do you design a flowing fountain in an area with exceedingly low water pressure? Bernini the elder solved the riddle with his overflowing “sunken ship” construction. Kid-1 still really this clever fix weeks later.

DSC00077From the Spanish Steps, we headed to Piazza Navona (again) because it was Kid-1’s favourite spot. We walked on, exploring the alleys in the low-lying areas where the Roman soldiers trained.

We cut south to the monument to Vittorio Emanuelle II, which was built in 1911 to commemorate 50 years of a unified Italian state. Contrasted with the faded glory that is much of Rome’s ruins, this monument is unapologetic in its gleaming grandeur, a peacock amid the more subtle Forum ruins just a kilometre away.

DSC00108The city of Rome is a collection of piazzas, with the Forum being the most famous. It was central market and meeting point through the ascent and fall of the Roman Empire. Incredibly, this space quite literally is built on top of its own history. A palimpsest is a parchment that has been erased and re-written over many times, so that you can sort of still see the original writings. That is how the Forum looks. You can see vestigial ruins, ill-preserved, remnants of bath houses or aqueduct towers directly underneath the newer structures, here and throughout the city. It is evident from looking at a few of the oldest unearthed ruins in the Forum very low the original Rome was, and why it flooded so easily.

DSC00115Onward to the Colosseum! By this point, even though we had stopped for cannoli and gelato, it was 12:30 Kid-1 was exhausted. I had been carrying her for an hour and was ready to call in for a back transplant.

After visiting Gladiator School yesterday, Kid-1 was mesmerised by the magnificence of the Colosseum. Aren’t we all? And here’s the incredible part: years ago it was even more splendid with elaborate paintings throughout.

Paolo taught us about how slaves constructed the Colosseum within ten years — all without electricity or modern machinery. We learned about the schedule for the gladiator days (first the “hunting” with animals versus prisoners; second a battle with women or dwarves during lunchtime; finally the main event of man — always a man — versus man). Kid-1 has become a football fan during our time in London, but Sanford Bridge doesn’t hold a candle to this place.


drinking from the Roman water fountains

Exhausted if not hungry, we headed to a local spot about ten minutes away for some rest, wine (for me) and pasta (for us both). One waiter spoke English; we ordered a special that seemed to be a thick, short pasta with gorgonzola and zucchini. and assorted bruschetta, caprese salad and some bresaola. Too tired to talk much, we flipped on a Rick Steve podcast about the Vatican Museum, where we would be in an hour.

That adventure? Until next time.. 

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Rome Part IV: In Which We Become Gladiators, As One Does

I promised salacious stories of murder, mystery, rivalries and deceit from our Roman adventure.

ColosseumMy top to-do on this trip with Kid-1 was attend a Gladiator School. What better way to do as the Romans do than do as they did two thousand years ago?

Of course you cannot learn about Gladiators without learning about Julius Caesar and the emperors who delighted in their combat.

Nor could we miss stories about the Colosseum, where after its construction the largest and most celebrated of Gladiator matches took place.

Did you know that the Colosseum remains the biggest ever outdoor theatre in the world! and yet it was built within 10 years using slave labour before there were electric cranes, lifts and construction machines? It took New York almost as long to restore our hot water and heat after Hurricane Sandy, even with well-paid engineering experts and high-tech machinery.

Naturally, since Kid-1 is still just four, I glossed over the bizarre Roman penchant for bloodsport, the slavery and the death, in favour of the athletically intricate swordsmanship skills. Why? Because we had an appointment to become Gladiators for a day.

gladiatorsYou may see men dressed up in clownish Gladiator costumes roaming Rome’s tourists spots, but they do not teach at Scuola Gladiatori Roma. That school and its instructors take the history of Roman soldiers and Gladiators seriously. 

Just like Popes and pop stars, Gladiators acquire new names once they become official combatants. That is how our instructor, endowed at birth with the cherubic-sounding name Emanuele, became a more imposing Ulfhgar.



Here he is in an official photo. Look familiar? Yep, he was on the Amazing Race training participants for combat, and he is a minor movie celebrity in Romania and Bulgaria.

I do not exaggerate when I report that his arms were the exact circumference of Kid-1’s waist. But the real shock of the morning was not the stature of our instructor but the frankness with which he covered the Roman slavery and bloodsport issues.

You probably know something about Gladiators from that movie with Russell Crowe, or if you’re a Kirk Douglas fan, Spartacus. You probably already know that these men — although not always men — fought to the death, cheered by thousands of fans. Here is the full, real, story, as told by Ulfhgar.

DSC00032There were three groupings of Gladiators, based on their circumstance in life: slaves, prisoners or professionals.

Slaves were signed to five-year contracts. If they won 10 matches, the slave Gladiator could be freed. This was the Maximus (sorry, Russell Crowe) model. Freedom was unlikely, but not strictly impossible.

Prisoners were less “fortunate” and had little possibility of living.

Then there were the professionals. Event producers had incentives to keep the professionals healthy. You see, we learned, these men undertook lengthy training and had “expensive habits; wine, meat, women.” So in a tough match, the promoter would typically call an end before a professional died. A professional who lived to fight again could earn his promoter a tidy profit.

IMG_4510I cannot say enough positive things about Ulfhgar as an instructor. He really made Kid-1 feel that she had become a Gladiator for the day. Ulfhgar crouched for uncomfortable minutes answering all Kid-1’s questions about the weight of various helmets and armour. 

Being a not irresponsible mother, I tried to jump in, FCC-style, to curtail some of the discussions about the effects of particular combat techniques, plus the slave branding process. She is just four, became my mantra. Without the benefit of a six-second TV delay, however, my success rate was pretty lousy.

For example, I was too slow to avoid discussions of slave branding, “amusement matches” where nearly naked women were forced into combat, slashing the jugular vein, and the “bad doctor” dressed in a veiled black robe who would “smash the skulls of an injured gladiator like a watermelon.” 

DSC00033After the smashed watermelon episode, Ulfhgar and I agreed to disagree on our “but it’s history” versus “but she’s four” debate, and we headed for our training. Now we would not just learn about Gladiators; we would become fighters in the forum.

We warmed up with calisthenic and agility exercises, finished off with a somersault.  

Then we got our (wooden) swords. Ulfhgar taught us to attack and defend the head, neck, leg, second neck (other side) and stomach. Kid-1 studied the moves and replicated them as best she could. Apparently some young participants can get fairly aggressive with the instructors, but Kid-1 had to be prompted repeatedly, “just hit me right here, I promise you won’t hurt me. I promise.” 

You cannot visit Scuola Gladiatori Roma without “fighting” a proper match. We obliged with gusto.

Since fighting to the death probably would have ruined the rest of our holiday, we settled on the rights to pick our early afternoon adventure. I voted for climbing St. Peters; Kid-1, eyes gleaming, said, “Mommy I saw a Disney Store!”

DSC00038The first to ten points would prevail. Ulfhgar drew a circular boundary in the sand and started the music. Step outside the line and you lose a point. Score a jab and win one.

Kid-1’s laugh during this competition was the best part of my entire trip. We battled for while, which generally consisted of me missing shots and standing still saying “put the sword there.” She won 10 to 2, many many breaths of giggles later. Let’s go to the Disney Store, Mommy!

After a good nap, it was off to claim her prize. And what do you know: after a day of learning to fight and about the relative benefits to different weaponry and armour, she chose a pink and purple doctor’s bag. Just in case she saw anyone out there who needed a good doctor.

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Who is Guy Fawkes?

In the British Commonwealth, 5 November is Guy Fawkes Day, complete with fireworks, bonfires and parties. There was no question that Kid-1 and I would partake in the fireworks festivities. Who doesn’t love a good light show?

But, of course, before we celebrate tonight, we have to find out just who is this guy Guy Fawkes, and what’s with the bonfires?

King James I

King James I

The Fifth of November does not celebrate Mr. Fawkes himself. It celebrates the triumph of the (Protestant) constitutional monarchy and democratic Parliament over (Catholic) would-be insurgents. As for the extremist Catholic conspirator Mr. Fawkes? He was arrested, tortured, and then hanged, drawn and quartered. So no, we do not celebrate him today in England.

What exactly happened?

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries (roughly 100 Kid-1s ago), English Catholics felt a little miffed. Everywhere else in Europe, theirs was the dominant religion and Catholics held key positions of power. In England, however, Queen Elizabeth I maintained England’s Protestant ties and enforced heavy fines on Catholics who wished to remain practising.

GF ConspiratorsCatholics hoped they would fare better under the reign of King James I, who acceded the throne in 1603. The English Catholics were soon disappointed, and several extremists hatched a plot to overthrow the Protestant rule and institute a more Catholic-friendly monarch. They would blow up the House of Lords, killing members of Parliament and the King. To be clear, Mr. Fawkes et al were not entirely opposed to the ruling family; they apparently intended for King James’s daughter to become Queen and to be advised by Catholic sympathisers.

As an aside, I am totally enthralled with King James I’s family tree. He was heir to the throne from both sides and actually was King of Scotland before becoming King of the unified England, Ireland and Scotland. Even more interestingly, he became King at thirteen months when his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was forced to abdicate.

Guy FawkesIn 1605, twelve conspirators including Guy Fawkes filled a rented basement room under the House of Lords with gunpowder. Then one of them — not Mr. Fawkes — felt a pang of remorse. He tipped off a Catholic sympathiser in Parliament to steer clear of the building on November 5, and shortly thereafter the police found Guy Fawkes in the basement, guarding his gunpowder and, as legend has it, “holding a match”. After four days of torture, he divulged the identities of his co-conspirators. The plot was officially foiled.

King James I was so delighted to have avoided this assassination attempt that he authorised his countrymen to celebrate with bonfires all around the kingdom. The first Bonfire Night, what is now known as Guy Fawkes Day, was celebrated that very same year.

For the next hundred years, animosity between Catholics and Protestants still was strong, and the day was observed to commemorate the triumph of Protestant England over Catholic would-be over-throwers. More recently, the day has become a symbol of the triumph of Parliamentary democracy and the constitutional monarchy. Triumph over what? Well, that’s a historical puzzle, in particular because early 17th century democracy wasn’t exactly like the representative-style democracy we have now, and because Mr. Fawkes and his posse intended only religious change.

Anyway, on with the fireworks!

No holiday is complete without its own rhyming song. So here you have it:

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.

I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, guy, t’was his intent
To blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England’s overthrow.

By God’s mercy he was cached
With a darkened lantern and burning match.

So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.

And what shall we do with him?
Burn him!

History lessons learned, Kid-1 and I will head out shortly to see these grand festivities. 

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Victory for Parents

Whether you are crying or cheering at last night’s US Congressional election results, parents have good reason to celebrate: the election of Alma Adams in North Carolina means that there are, for the first time ever, 100 women in Congress. And because it was a special election, the 100 figure is effective today.

The gender equity work is not done, but American parents can now point to the legislative branch and tell their children that having women and men from both parties in powerful political seats is just something that’s done in America. Well done, and congratulations to Congresswoman Adams.





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