Rome Part I: Happiness in the Details

TreviHappiness is sucking cacio e pepe off your fingers and sipping a glass of house red from a tumbler glass over lunch with your daughter, listening to her favourite parts of the last three hours (drinking from the fontanella at Campo Fiore and the Four Rivers Fountain) articulated, of course, in her melodic newly-British accent, and retelling to her — now for the fourth time today — the fairy tale of Romulus and Remus, the brothers who founded Rome.

But to get there — to that delicious meal and those delicious memories — required a little preparatory work, as do all great expeditions. 

ColosseumBy now we all know how the acts of planning and anticipating a vacation actually increase the happiness you retain post-voyage. These rituals are doubly important when traveling with young children, because the durability of their memories is directly proportional to how colourful and interesting you can make their experiences, and how you reflect together on your special trip.

Kid-1 and I chose Rome for her half-term break because October portends the end of gelato season and it would be a a shame to wait another six months for the good stuff. Oh, plus there’s 2,000 years of history, tortellini, legendary art, cavatelli, oodles of stories, farfalle, scientific marvels, orecchiette and gnocchi here.

When in Rome, you must adventure. And all adventures come down to learning, living and retelling good stories. I had a lot to learn.

Rick StevesFor the weeks before our departure, I read Conde Nast Traveller, Ciao Bambino, Wikipedia, The Guardian and Rick Steves. I spent hours staring at Google Maps. You can see by this mix that I am neither an art nor history expert. But it didn’t matter because this was a trip to learn and not to conquer.  

Come on, Rick Steves? Aren’t you supposed to be British by now?! Rick Steves has been a personal (if virtual) travel buddy since college. He has a flair for pointing out the intrigue, deceit, science wonders and even touches of magic in history. Yes, carrying his books is an immediate Yankee tell. But so is that funny accent I’m sporting. So yes, I did cary his Rome guidebook throughout our travels.

After booking what I could in advance (Borghese Gallery, Vatican Museum, tour guide, Gladiator schools and dinners), I filled in the remainders with highly-ranked gelato shops and walking tours. The schedule looked like this:

Day 1:
Arrive

Lunch
Piazza Navona, Campo Fiore, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain & Spanish Steps
Gelato
Shower / bath
Dinner

Day 2:
Colosseum

Gladiator School!
Lunch & Nap
Piazza Navona, Campo Fiore (repetition is good for young minds)
Gelato & walk around Trastevere
Shower / bath
Dinner

Day 3:
Guided Tour starting at Spanish Steps, ending at Colosseum

Lunch
Vatican Museum
Climb St. Peter’s Basilica cupola
Gelato
Shower / Bath
Dinner

Day 4:
Coffee and Pastries

Borghese Gallery
Fly home

gelatoFour year-old Kid-1 and I made it through 90% of this, but I give us extra credit because we actually got two gelatos a day instead of one. What can I say, we’re overachievers.

One final note. The best travel hack I’ve learned is to discuss — and take notes on! — the best things you have learned and seen and done at each meal. Kid-1 and I did this three times a day, reinforcing all those juicy stories and exciting memories we had just created. It was from those scribbled notes on our hotel’s paper that I constructed the Adventure Letters I emailed to her each night. 

Here begins our Adventure Romana, filled with salacious stories of scandal, murder, betrayal, art masters and architect rivals, and too many gelato stops for me to count.

-SH

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Authentically English at The Pig

We are new still to this country, and I have an intense fear of missing out. This results in an awful lot of sightseeing, adventures about town, around the country and across the Channel.

DSC09964

to Brit or not to Brit. with all this mauve and floral, is there really any question?

This type of adventuring with children, I am learning, may be easy due to geography but is exceptionally un-English. Kid-1’s classmates spend half-term holidays in the country or at a beach. Why spend a week carrying two under-fives around historic sites and museums when you could tuck into the countryside for some quiet hikes and comfort food?

Wondering whether the English knew something that I did not, and with a few empty days to start Kid-1’s half-term holiday, I tried my luck on the country. We got lucky with a late cancellation and a great deal at The Pig, and with that we were off for two days to Brockenhurst. 

The Pig is a hotel set on a farm that sources about 80% of your food. New Yorkers, imagine Blue Hill at Stone Barns, without the press, Presidential visits and prices. There are no tours of the chicken roost, pig grazing areas and horse farm, but if you ask the gentlemen who work here nicely they may take your little ones for a walk around the property. And if your daughter happens to fall into a patch of stinging nettle, they will whisk you off to the local pharmacy for some Benadryl.

DSC09975The Pig is English in the most unselfconsciously English of ways. Americans frequently observe that the British are not motivated by money, and you see that here. There is no Pig gear to purchase, no trendy tasting menus on holidays. There is just the menu, and it changes daily.

Of course, this being Hampshire, you will need Wellies, and you will find these in all sizes near the reception desk. Take off your shoes, grab a pair and head outside. On Friday my boots were pink floral. They didn’t really fit, and it didn’t really matter. Kid-2, whose feet are small like her Nana’s, did not even come close to fitting into the Size Ones. She spent the days waddling duck-like in her lime green Wellies and losing first one and then them both to the muddy lawn beneath.

There is nothing to do at The Pig, and that left us with plenty of time to do everything that otherwise we would not. If you are not particularly good at enjoying white space time, which adults in general and urban adults in particular typically are not, this is your antidote.

Out front is a wooden rope swing. We swung three times a day, and the highlights were discussing with Kid-1 in great detail the patterns she wanted to make with her purple, yellow and green highlighters.

DSC09986The English do lazy schedule-free days to near perfection. New Yorkers have to be re-trained on this skill; here we were. It is one thing to acknowledge the things that matter most and quite another to consciously and exclusively focus on those things for large chunks of time every day.  We spent a plurality of our time here on that great wooden swing out front. Wide enough for us all, we awkwardly tried to pump in our too-big and too-small Wellies.

In London I would have taken that opportunity to explain the physics of pumping and pulling yourself on the swings. There’s never a wrong time for a lesson in kinetics. I left that hyper-educational mind frame in London; at The Pig we just learned to swing. After all, Kid-1 never asked me why the pumping and pulling worked; she just wanted to have fun. And we did.   

A family out front, undoubtedly hearing our funny accents, asked “ah, where are you from?”

We live in London.

A raised eyebrow. “Very nice. But you are obviously not from there. Where are you from?

The States (no surprise).

As an expat, I realise now how slightly awkward the “where are you from” question can be. We were really never from New York anyway, both of us having grown up in multiple other cities. Where am I from? Lots of places; here now.

pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered

pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered

Staying at The Pig, wearing my floral Wellies two sizes too small, puttering about the law, feeding grass to the chickens, spending all day listening to and talking with the girls about those small and physical things that occupy a child’s mind — do cows talk to each other? is it raining in New Jersey? let’s make a painting with green and blue and yellow and then purple and purple again patterns. when can I get my ears pierced? 13? that’s too late I will be married by then. How about when I’m five. — that’s the good stuff, the best stuff, and after two days of that, we were ready to take our train back to London. Brockenhurst may have been the most unadventurous of our adventures, but it did make us all a little more English.

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Weekend Reading

Facebook and Apple Offer to Pay for Employees to Freeze Their Eggs. Comment to let me know what you think of this. On the one hand, bravo to companies for helping women level the biological clock playing field if they so choose. On the other, does this nudge women to delay childbearing until after a key promotion or career milestone? 

Do Princess Motifs and Themes Hurt Boys Too? The answer is yes, and this thoughtful essay ponders the why and the what.

How Exercise can Boost Young Brains

Speaking of brains, your bond with your child is more physical and intuitive than you thought. Scientists have discovered children’s cells living in their mother’s brains. Fascinating.

How to raise a Not Picky Eater by Mark Bittman and by me!

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The Best Things In Life are Free (or £6)

There are a lot of things that I am barely British enough to know.

It’s trousers, not pants; 9-9-9 for emergencies; museums are free.

The free museums really threw me because there’s no such thing as a free lunch in New York.

chairsThe English expect free culture. They are also at peace with its costs: queues. An American friend who has become British-ish through osmosis told me about a class at Kensington Palace (!! I know) for Kid-2. It’s called Tiny Explorers. She had me at Palace. I prepared myself for the velocity with which I would need to navigate the online reservation system, and out-clicked most of the rest of London to get us a spot.

where's the palace in YOUR backyard?

what’s in your backyard?

The English appear bored with the lavish and historic palaces that dot the country every few hundred kilometres, but I am not.  Americans know royalty only through fantastical story books. Queens, palaces, moats and richly adorned guards are things of imagination, and are certainly not within spitting distance. Here we have actual palaces, Disney style, with ballrooms and tapestry (and rather very unattractive floral wall coverings) within scooting distance. This was a piece of British culture that I was not prepared to miss.

Not surprisingly, most of my friends were on the Tiny Explorer’s massive waiting list. So perplexed was I at the great discrepancy in class price and popularity that mid-way through the first class I asked about their pricing strategy. Didn’t they know they could make a killing and finally replace that Laura Ashley wallpaper in the non-state rooms?

No shocker: Tiny Explorers is not expected to turn a profit, or even break even really. Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity that runs the open areas of Kensington Palace, aims only to open up British culture and treasures for the quick clickers. This it accomplishes readily.

looks pretty tame to me, except for the hair

looks pretty tame to me

Tiny Explorers centres around the true tale of Peter the Wild Boy. Discovered at age 12 living among the animals in the woods, Peter was brought to live with King George I in Kensington Palace, until I suppose the King tired of him and sent him to a farm, where Peter was much more comfortable and lived a long life.

The two Kensington Palace representatives who follow us around (hoping to prevent any disasters with those priceless tapestries) have been the highlights of our classes, at least for me. They have humoured my questions about royal life, 17th century fashion and Queen Victoria’s marriage. They are wildly knowledgable about both the Wild Boy and English history.

Last class I learned that commoners often petitioned the King for money. Not infrequently, he would grant these requests, for example if the money seeker had a promising invention. Ah ha! So Kings were the first angel investors. King George might also oblige if he just liked the guy. With a good story and some quick thinking, turns out you can get a free lunch, at least in London’s palaces.

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Osmo: Math Blaster for a New Generation

If I am a Tiger Mom, it is only because I was raised that way. My mother famously bought me only educational toys until, before my twelfth Easter, I asked whether she could get me something “I can’t learn anything from.” 

The Easter Bunny brought me Nintendo.

seriously? is this a real product for an actual human child?

seriously? is this a real product for an actual human child?

Then I turned into my mother. Two daughters, living and working and obsessing over finding beautifully written books with challenging vocabulary and good moral lessons. When Kid-1 asks why it rains, we talk warm air cooling and condensing. (Thank goodness for the Google machine . . .) 

Until two weeks ago, our family was relatively low-tech, a la the Jobs family (I don’t mess around from amateurs). Cinderella style, our iPad turned from a pumpkin into a golden carriage after school on Fridays. And for precious blocks of time, our four year-old could surf YouTube or play noisy games at her leisure. Come Monday, the iPad would return to a pumpkin once more, in which state it would hibernate until the week’s end.  

You see, although some parents are satisfied with the educational nature of iPad games, I was not one of them. The games were overstimulating, loud and distracting. Compared with all the other incredible physical games we could play, why bother?

Do you remember Math Blaster, the original computer game and late 1980s icon? 

That’s the kind of computer game I wanted my girls to play.Mac2

Math Blaster was my first — ok, only — computer game. In 1985, my parents bought an Apple Mac II, which we kept until the early 1990s when we upgraded to something less beige.  

The original Math Blaster was genius. Getting virtual points for answering math questions on a !!computer!!? Mission accomplished: I was hooked on math for life.

OsmoWhy wasn’t there anything so simultaneously addictive, engaging and educational? Where was this generation’s Math Blaster??

I found it.

It’s Osmo.

[Read more...]

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The Lazy Parent’s Guide to Raising Not Picky Eaters – Sugarlaws Guest Post!

yep, that's squid ink risotto

yep, that’s squid ink risotto

My friend Katy Atlas, who has been blogging before blogging was a thing and is now one of those fashionistas you see in photo reels of Fashion Week bloggers or in the pages of Cosmo (true, and it’s pretty cool), features my post on how to raise not picky eaters on her blog Sugarlaws today. 

Check it out here! And if you don’t already read Sugarlaws, you definitely should.

xxSusan

 

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Guest Post on Cribsters: Declutter Your Handbag

is this you?

is this you?

I have yet to meet a mother who enjoys clutter. Personally, I eschew it all, freely tossing worn toys, spare parts and generally refraining from purchasing more than one toy per month between the two kids. 

My minimalism may seem extreme, but here’s today’s challenge: toss three things you don’t need from your bag. Mine are 4 receipts, a spare plastic piece from a trinket toy and a loose Tic Tac. Done!

Feeling ambitious? Totally revamp your diaper bag routine. 

This is the subject of my guest post on Cribsters.

Have you heard of Cribsters? It’s sort of an amazing concept — listings and reviews for childcare, preschool and summer programs. Genius, no? Currently it’s only available in the US, but my fingers are crossed that those smart parents who conceived and designed it open a sister site up in the UK soon.

 

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Mid-Week Reading

Just because it’s Thursday doesn’t mean you can’t indulge in some delicious reading.

Teach your five year-old to code! For realz. With this app. Wonder if it works for thirty-somethings . . .

Women on corporate boards: we’re still having this debate? Yes. Check out a graph illuminating why the proportion of women on boards of directors is so frustratingly sticky.

Crazy incredible playground. You may be tempted to visit it in Abu Dhabi after comparing it against your local park. Can we get more of these please?

From Sugarlaws: Thinking of delaying vaccination? Please don’t. Listen to the science, your doctor’s medical expertise and the data.

Europe may have a lock on family-friend policies no longer. US awards grant to explore paid maternity leave. 

Is your state good working women? Hint: if you’re a female recent college grad, head to the Northeast except Rhode Island, to Minnesota or Colorado.

 

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Rosie Revere & the Invisibility Cloak

On the school run this morning. our four year-old asked me to “help me make an invention like Rosie Revere.” Specifically, we will be designing a trampoline flyer so that her stuffed puppies can soar. Kid-1 is contemplating materials; I’m working on tools.

Rosie RevereHave you met Rosie Revere? The best children’s character on the market now is the brain child of Andrea Beaty, who also created Iggy Peck, Architect. Rosie is a shy, curious and creative child who “dreams of becoming a great engineer.” 

Rosie Revere, Engineer, a frequent Bedtime Book Club choice in our house, has young Rosie building flying contraptions for her favourite uncle Zookeeper Fred and her great-great-aunt Rose (“a true dynamo / who worked building airplanes a long time ago”). Rosie’s tale is one of trial, failure and unbridled imagination. You can see why we adore her (and why Ms. Beaty is a personal SHE-ro).

Tonight Kid-1 and I start our grand invention. Like Rosie’s, our first trial may be a flop. But also like Rosie, we will build on our fails until her puppies can fly.

true words RRFancy constructing something incredible with your kids this weekend? How about your very own invisibility cloak?! I know, this is almost too cool for words.

Looks complicated, but for older kids this is an incredible DIY. Maybe as good as a trampoline flyer.

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