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).

A7425156-8514-45F0-9B4C-DA71F43B7516

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

Mommy

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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.

DSC00068

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.

Ulfhgar

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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Rome Part III: Food, Glorious Food

gnocchiIn Italy, we ate like queens. After all, we were in the (disputed) home of pasta, pizza and gelato. I love a good adventure and history lesson, but we could not be in the birthplace of finger-licking delizioso! without savouring indulgent food at every turn.

by ptpotts.wordpress.com

by ptpotts.wordpress.com

The savouring is an important part: Italians do not just eat, they linger. The ceremony of lunching at our trattoria for an hour and a half with my four year-old daughter, both of  us physically and emotionally craving a nap but having such a fun time recounting the morning’s expeditions and making each other laugh that we stayed, for just ten more minutes, then half an hour — that was Italy seeping into these American pores.

You may — and we did — end up asking for the check five times before anyone bothers to bring it. The servers aren’t lazy, it’s just indulgent, relaxed Rome. 

5 lessons learned from eating in Italy with a four year-old.

  1. Start Small
    An Italian breakfast is coffee and maybe a small pastry. Lunch here is both national treasure and past time. You will not want to stumble upon the very-best-pizza-youve-ever-had-in-your-life-it-melts-in-your-mouth-its-so-good when you can still taste the three egg and cheese omelette from the morning. Besides, a mid-morning gelato (which I highly recommend) is a much better use of stomach space.
     
  2. You Are Not in France
    Speaking of stomach space, that bread basket is for the desperately impatient (and soon to be disappointed) eaters. Italians excel at pasta and pizza. If you’re craving bread, order bruschetta.gelato2
     
  3. Regional Specialties
    Rome is known for the cacio e pepe, which is basically spaghetti with melted parmesan and black pepper. Fried stuffed zucchini flowers are also a local favourite, as are spaghetti alla carbonara, artichokes of any kind, and (oddly) tripe.
    Choose your server’s favourite dish, or do what I do and play Food Spy on the tables nearby you.
     
  4. You Can Never Have Too Much Gelato
    Maybe it’s something about the milk content, or the eggs in the recipe. Maybe the cones are just a little smaller than I’m used to. Kid-1 and I played by the 2-gelato-a-day rules. It’s fresh, it’s good, and you don’t get a tummy hangover from a double scoop the way you do with ice cream. Heaven on a sugar cone.
  5. All In the Family
    The simplest way to encourage children to try new foods is to order together and share. Kid-1 can only read menus with much difficulty, so I read a curated version of what was available and she picked one dish. I chose the remainder, and together we devoured everything on our table.
cacio e pepe

cacio e pepe

If you have picky eaters, you are in luck. Rome has no kids menus, so your little ones are forced to try something new and tasty. And seriously, who doesn’t like pasta?

Traveling with a four year-old can make elegant dinner dining difficult. In the UK, bedtime is 7pm. In Italy, good restaurant don’t open until 7:30. Fortunately, Kid-1’s energy levels on vacation nights are directly proportional to the amount of fun we have had during the day. In Rome, she survived our five-mile adventures each day while soaking up Ancient Roman, Renaissance, Baroque and contemporary Italian history and still made it to the end of dinner around 9pm. Full disclosure: the one-two sugar kick punches of our twice daily gelato probably helped. 

When we return to Rome for Round Two, we will revisit these, our very favourites:

  • zucchini blossomsRistorante Life: Delicious, inventive food fairly close to the Spanish Steps, on a beautiful street with the opportunity for (heated) outdoor seating. The tonnarelli with anchovies, burrata and squash blossoms was quite possibly the best pasta combination I’ve ever had.
  • Taverna dei Quaranta: Think you can’t eat like a local right next to the Colosseum? Ok, so it’s not right next to the Colosseum, and after a five mile urban hike those extra hundred metres can feel exhausting, but it’s worth it. Kid-1 and I checked into this hospitable taverna for a mid-day meal after our marathon walking tour and before heading to the Vatican. For a blissful hour, we heard precious little English, ate like queens and didn’t give a thought to anything else in the world besides each other and the food on our plates. Try the fried zucchini flowers, the cacio e pepe and the pasta with zucchini flowers and gorgonzola.
  • Il Gabriello: So. Darn. Good. Kid-1 and I arrived right at opening and ordered the most crispy and juicy bruschetta I’ve ever had, pasta with clams and red sauce, a squid dish and the chocolate cake. The whole meal was perfection. Our table neighbours ordered an assortment of different pastas, plus a beef dish and lobster. Everything looked beautiful, and everyone ate happily. Set on a narrow cobblestone street, il Gabriello is in the perfect neighbourhood for strolling before or after your meal. And since there are few cars, you can let your children run (almost) wild.
  • DSC00015Gelateria del Teatro: Had I to do again, we would have eaten here every day. We wanted to spread the gelato love and find our favourite. This was it. So creamy and light, you can eat four scoops (which I did after Kid-1 dropped her first cone and we had to return).
so-so food, delicious morning together

so-so food, delicious morning together

We also had a few misses. Antiqua Caffe Greco, the famed bar and pastry shop and second oldest bar in Italy was a breakfast flop. Kid-1 and I rose our eyebrows in unison at our sticky sweet croissants. The building is interesting and absolutely historic (you might sit down for a cappuccino or pre-dinner drink), but next time we will save our stomach space for other pastries. 

And after Gelato Teatro, heaven in a sugar cone, all the other gelato stops were a little disappointing.

But at the end of the day, we have a favourite gelato spot in Rome(!). 

For a four year-old, and frankly for this 33 year-old, that is the most tasty take-away of all. 

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Weekend Reading

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling. Written for professionals and organisations, these principles can be applied equally well in parenting.

Learning New Words Activates the Same Brain Regions as Sex and Drugs.

What’s your skincare regime? Here’s an article about the increasing popularity of South Korean elaborate skin regimens. And here’s my interview with a dermatologist that advocates 3 steps only (1) sunscreen; (2) moisturiser; (3) retinoid.

 

 

 

 

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Rome Part II: Trick or Treat

trick or treatIt’s always Halloween when you travel with children. Watching your child explore the world’s wonders is a treat for sure, but kids always know the punchline: somewhere, there’s a trick in store.

Heading to Rome just the two of us, Kid-1 got “scared” and insisted that we walk through the airport security metal detector together. This set of all sorts of alarms in Heathrow, resulting in a full stop-and-frisk for my four year-old, just in case she was packing something other than her trusty Goldiblox doll.

We had two goals on this trip: (1) adventure, adventure, adventure!; and (2) pizza, pasta, gelato!

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