Monday, July 21, 2014

Our Biggest Travel Mishaps (and Lessons Learned)

One of my (many) flaws as a blogger is only sharing the dreamy memories. I love to write about blissful strolls through markets. Endless afternoons on sunny beaches. Terrific resorts. Tantalizing food. You get the idea.

I tend to leave out the "and then the two-year-old had a meltdown" or "my five-year-old complained the entire time we were there" moments. Yes, they happen. We deal with them and move on, and try not to get hung up on it or let it ruin our experience. They're rarely what I remember most about our travels anyway. Maybe that's a survival mechanism?

Aside from those normal frustrations, though, we have had some interesting experiences of rotten luck during our year of traveling around Europe that are worth sharing. We've learned some valuable lessons from them, but my biggest takeaway from it all? My kids handle unfortunate situations much better than I do.

SICK IN SCANDINAVIA, Summer 2013. A week in Scandinavia was our first major voyage into Europe with the kids, having just moved to England the previous month. For the most part, things went really smoothly. And then my husband and I both got sick halfway through the week. Fortunately, it only lasted about 24 hours. We were both feverish, achy, and exhausted, but we were able to care for the boys which was my biggest concern.

What I learned?
  • Always pack some basic medicine. Once we had some ibuprofen in our system, we were much more functional.
  • Do something easy and let go of your planned itinerary. After staggering through Gothenburg the night before, we gave up on the idea of more sightseeing and just headed to a children's museum near our hotel the next day. Kids had a ball, and my husband and I moved from bench to bench, supervising them but also resting.
  • Research your medical options in advance. Where's the closest hospital or 24-hour medical center to where you are staying? This is especially important if you're staying in a rental property, where there isn't staff to ask like you'd have at a hotel. 
Universeum in Gothenburg, Sweden. A fun place for kids to play and parents to rest.

CANCELLED PARIS TRIP, Fall 2013. Again, sickness struck, only this time it was my kids and it happened before we departed for a planned trip to Paris (I wrote all about the yucky details here.) I still haven't emotionally recovered from the disappointment.

What I learned?
  • Always get trip insurance. This would have covered our apartment rental and pricey train tickets. As it were, we basically paid for a trip we never took. Le sigh.
CAR PROBLEMS IN PORTUGAL, Winter 2013. We rented a car to drive from Lisbon to the Martinhal resort in southwest Portugal. It's about a three hour drive. The car didn't seem quite right from the beginning, but I ignored the issue and kept driving. Long story short, we found ourselves stranded on a Portuguese highway. Eventually, we got to our resort, albeit 5 hours later than expected.

Not what you dream of when you imagine a Portugal vacation.

What I learned?
  • Ask when you pick up your car what to do in the event of an emergency. Our paperwork was in Portuguese, meaning we called about 5 numbers before we got the right one. Doing so while stuck on the side of the highway was not ideal. My friend Keryn at Walking on Travels wrote a really great post on what to do when you have an accident in your rental car.
CLOSED EUROTUNNEL, Spring 2014. We had planned to drive through the Eurotunnel on our way to Belgium over the Easter holiday. All seemed fine until we were parked in line to board the train (you actually drive your car onto a train, much like you would a ferry). Suddenly, delay signs flashed up on the screen and announcements started blaring from a loudspeaker across the parking area. All in all, we were stuck in a parked car for 4 hours before we were able to cross the Channel. Yikes.

Our view for four straight hours, with two kids in the backseat anxious to get on with the journey!
What I learned?
  • Always, always pack a few more snacks and diapers than you think you'll need (bottle feeding a baby? Ditto those supplies.) I was kicking myself that I didn't get up 5 minutes earlier in the morning to make a few PBJ sandwiches, as I had intended to. Luckily, we bought the last two hot dogs before the parking lot vendor sold out.
I share some of these, not to scare you away from your own adventures, but to show you that a) even when travel isn't picture perfect, it's still worth doing, and b) we can do things to be better prepared the next time around.

This post is a part of Travel Tips Tuesday at Suitcases and Sippy Cups and Walking on Travels.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Battle Proms: My July 4 Cure

Holidays are a challenging time when you're an expat. Living abroad means not spending those key days each year with your family and friends by your side, as you're likely accustomed to doing. And then there are those holidays unique to your specific country which slip by without any fanfare. For us, Thanksgiving and 4th of July will always be emotionally difficult, if for no other reason than it's just a normal day of the week all around us.

Last year, July 4 was particularly depressing. My facebook feed was full of updates and photos of celebrations, cookouts, pool parties and fireworks. Having only been here a month, we basically knew no one, and I sat around most of the day in a funk. I vowed next year would be different. So when some friends mentioned going to the Battle Proms concert, scheduled for July 5, I thought it sounded like the perfect solution to beat my homesickness.

What's Battle Proms, you ask? I wrote a description for Anglotopia here, but essentially it's an outdoor classical music concert with a military twist. They're held in several locations around the UK, and we were fortunate to have one hosted at Burghley House, the famous Elizabethan home right here in Stamford.

We started with a picnic dinner, impressive stately home as our backdrop. (It's hard to take me seriously when I say that being an expat is hard, and then I drop a photo like this, right?)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Family Memories in Biarritz

There's a line in our family's favorite children's book, The Gruffalo, that keeps coming to mind whenever I think of our time in Biarritz in May.

"You lead the way, and I'll follow after."

My kids are oblivious about the nuances of travel. As long as their bellies are full and they can run around a bit, they're relatively content. That's true whether they're at a highway service station on a road trip or a gorgeous, five star resort on the beach. Makes no difference to them. Whereas we adults sometimes get so caught up in whether or not our hotel lives up to its TripAdvisor reviews or if the service at the restaurant was too slow.

Our only full day exploring Biarritz was a great example. Here we were, in one of the poshest cities in Europe. Passing by stores with names like Herve Leger and Hermes (thanks to excessive watching of the Rachel Zoe Project when Little Arrow was a newborn, I at least recognize these names!) People sitting in cafes, wearing sunglasses worth more than my entire wardrobe, sipping fancy drinks. Surfers, with their six-pack abs, clutching their boards ready for a day hanging ten. My kids didn't pick up on any of this. They simply knew this place had a beach, and therefore it MUST be amazing.

So they happily pranced out to the Virgin Rock in their dusty, hand-me-down crocs, as if they were running to catch that perfect wave.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Bordeaux by Bus: The Visiotour

There are so many reasons I love traveling with my kids. I could probably list one each day and never run out. But by far the best reason is the quality time you spend together. Away from all the distractions of "real life."

I had just such a moment on our recent trip to Bordeaux aboard the Visiotour. This is a 70-minute tour around the city, aboard an open top, double decker bus. We did something we rarely do as a family on vacation... we split up, and Big Arrow and I went on the bus tour, while my husband and Little Arrow took naps back at the hotel.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Morning at Chartrons Market in Bordeaux

Our morning at the Sunday market in the Chartrons area along the Garonne River in Bordeaux was the stuff dreams are made of. Full of special moments that I want to remember down to the smallest details. What's more amazing than a true French market?

But it didn't start out that way. Big Arrow whined and complained the entire walk and tram ride to the market. Little Arrow refused to sit in his stroller or hold on to anything on the tram. I was beginning to think the morning was going to be a disaster and involve juggling two grumpy kids.

And then, as we departed the tram at the Chartrons stop, I spotted a playground. Instantly, moods did a 180 and the vision in my mind for how the day might transpire began to materialize. Instead of scowls, there were smiles all around.


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Moments in France: Waiting for the Rain in Bordeaux


We thought it might rain for our entire two-day visit to Bordeaux. That's what the forecast was predicting, that's what the sky was suggesting. But other than a brief, light shower on our walk to the tram stop near our hotel our second day there, it never actually did. We're so thankful, as we spent the bulk of our time outdoors. (Although I love the shiny look of the streets in this photo, not to mention the green dino rain coat.) You can read all about our time in Bordeaux and Biarritz at Ciao Bambino.

This wraps up my Moments in France postcard series. (See my previous posts here and here.) You can expect a few more thorough posts about our time there here and at Ciao Bambino over the next few weeks, including reviews of where we stayed.

This post is a part of Friday Postcards at Walking on Travels.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Moments in France: Beach Bumming in Biarritz

This post continues my series of snapshots of my favorite moments from our recent trip to the Aquitaine region of southwest France. (See my first post from Bordeaux here.)

All day long we dangled the promise of a late afternoon trip to the beach in Biarritz over Big Arrow's head. We spent a busy morning sightseeing around the city, which involved a lot of walking on his part. (Not his favorite activity.) He had fun at the various stops we made, but must have asked us at least a dozen times when he could finally go to the beach. If you have young children, you know these were not polite questions, but more the slow burn of the dreaded whiney voice.

So after naps, off we went. And barely had our feet hit the sand when he dropped to the ground and said, "Mom, let's sunbathe."