Posts tagged ‘travel’

9 for ’09

I didn’t manage 9 categories, but here are my top 9’s in 6 (9 upside-down) categories for 2009:

Memorable Meals

Eli’s first meat, a meatball at the Pasta Pomodoro in San Rafael, of all places: “Mama, I know it’s meat, and I want it.”
Jewish Quarter falafel with Lilya
Tony’s 40th birthday party at Beretta – burrata on pizza, mmmm…
Dinner with Libby and her family at Jamie’s Italian in Oxford
One lukewarm bottle of water at Legoland in England (where it does get hot but they still don’t have ice): the difference between surviving the day and passing out from heat stroke
Picnics by the pool
Cocktails & dessert at Aziza, any Monday night we had babysitting
Birthday parties for stuffies, with bowls of unsalted peanuts and eucalyptus leaves, hosted by Eli
Dinner and Christmas carol mash-up/singalong, with my parents, led by the boys

Best books

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
My Life in France by Julia Child
The King (poems) by Rebecca Wolff
Boy Alone: A Brother’s Memoir by Karl Taro Greenfield
This Lovely Life by Vicki Forman
The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Lit by Mary Karr


Where the Wild Things Are – a terrific adaptation
Ponyo – Eli’s first movie theater movie since he graduated from the sling
Fantastic Mr. Fox – our first movie outing as a family
The Class (Entre Les Murs) – best new teaching movie
Who Does She Think She Is? – my favorite documentary of the year
Inglourious Basterds – actors, director, everyone at the top of their game
The Hurt Locker – the best war movie
(500) Days of Summer – best dance sequence of the year (and probably decade)
Sweet Land – my favorite love story of the year

2009 Memories and milestones

Eli and Mariah asleep, leaning their heads on each other, in the back of the car on the drive home from Pt. Reyes
Ben learning to ride his bike without training wheels
AWP in Chicago, meeting so many literary mamas, spending 4 days without the boys
Tony’s and my night away at Indian Springs Resort
Wine and snacks with Rob, Lilya, Liz and Ross while our boys played soccer in the courtyard of our Paris rental with one of the boys who lived in the building
An amazingly relaxing two night Big Basin camp-out (8 adults and 7 boys)
Eli learning to read
Ben playing soccer at school recess
Mama, PhD readings at Duke and the University of Richmond


Tate Modern + London Transit Museum
Andy Goldsworthy’s Spire in the Presidio
Musee de l’orangerie
Amish Abstrations quilt show at the De Young
Eli counting down to his weekly preschool art days
Seeing Maya Lin and Andy Goldsworthy installations at Storm King Art Center
Bidding on one of Tony’s dad‘s paintings in an online auction – and winning!
Ben learning how to weave


Eli: “I just want one more hug of you.”
Ben: “How is it that I am I?”
Eli: “I want some food.” Tony: “I’m making dinner.” Eli: “I want something more fastly.”
Ben imitating Yogi Bear: “Hey, Boo Boo!”
Eli rejecting a band-aid for his sore throat, “And anyway, the inside of my throat isn’t stickable!”
Ben: “I’m going to try something new!”
Eli: “Mama? Since you are two years older than Tony, why don’t you know more about LEGO?”
Ben to Eli, referring to us, “Ask one of the grown-ups.”
Eli to me: ” I love you cozier than my bed, curlier than your hair, and gooder than my oatmeal.”

May your 2010 be gooder than oatmeal, too.


When I was a junior in college, I spent a year studying at Oxford University. I read (and read, and read), produced two twenty-page essays every week which I then read aloud to my tutors, attended lectures, drank pints of Pimms, ate quantities of curry, rowed on my college crew team, and spent hours around the kitchen table with my four housemates, taste-testing the various grocery store brands of wheatmeal biscuits and chocolate hazelnut spreads.

When we decided to meet Libby and her family during their first week of her summer teaching program in Oxford, I tried to think about what I knew of Oxford which might suit the kids. Biscuits and chocolate: yes. River (though not in a four-person scull): certainly. But the libraries and the lectures and the curry and the Pimms not so much. Googling “Oxford + kids” led me to a link for a multimedia show called the Oxford Experience, which sounded pretty awful. So Tony bought a map (a 3-D pop-up map that Ben popped up and down so often before we arrived that it was starting to get too creased to read) and I figured we’d have a nice, four-day country idyll, punting on the river and wandering the gardens with family before heading home.

Except it was so hot, we hardly wanted to leave our air conditioned apartment. And for the first time on our trip we had downstairs neighbors we needed to be mindful of and suddenly all the boys wanted to do is run, hard, up and down the hall. And wandering around lovely gardens is not really the boys’ cup of tea; for instance they chose to picnic here:

instead of here:

And were understandably more than a little put off by how many and how much of the gardens are just for looking:

Still, the boys loved Oxford because of the glittery linoleum floor in our bathroom (“Treasure!” said Eli); our apartment was equipped with a big kitchen (complete with china tea set!); some of the taxis illustrated the Periodic Table of the Elements (Ben’s new interest):

But most of all, they loved Oxford because they were reunited with their cousin Mariah, who lived with us through the winter and spring:
And despite the heat, an ice cream cone tragedy, the general whininess and travel-weariness, we enjoyed the river:

And a terrific playground:

And the amazing Pitt-Rivers Museum:

which is full of rocks and bones and other cool things, many of which the kids could touch:

And on the last night, I even got my Pimms.


The London Eye may be a huge tourist trap, but when you visit an unfamiliar city, there are two ways to get to know it: visit the grocery store, and then get up as high as you can: the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Empire State Building in New York. (In San Francisco you only need a good hill, though we walk our house guests over to the de Young museum’s tower). Here in London, we sail up high and back down again; the boys adore the ride. Our hotel room has a view of Big Ben, so the boys say good night and good morning to it every day, counting up the low-flying airplanes, jetting in and out of Heathrow, as they sit by the window.

Flying Solo

I was so looking forward to two long flights alone last week when I flew to Chicago for the AWP conference. I carried a good book, Revolutionary Road, which I’d read enough of to know I was hooked (I didn’t want to board the plane with a 500 page novel only to find it didn’t capture my attention). I had a manuscript on my laptop (my dad’s newest project) and I had the latest New Yorker and NYT magazine in case my attention span waned.

I claimed my spot – window seat on the wing—and sat ready with my story (“First flight in 7 years without kids; back off!”) in case a talkative passenger settled in next to me, but I was in luck. A young couple sat down. The man immediately put on his headphones and closed his eyes. His partner put on headphones, too, and got out two magazines, Maxim and Esquire. She laid them on her tray table and moved back and forth between them, not so much reading as studying, like a photo editor would. Periodically, she carefully folded them up and put them neatly away and took out her make-up case. She powdered her nose and chin, then took out a tube of black liquid eye liner and reapplied it, bottom and top. She didn’t look any different to me after these attentions, and her traveling companion never opened his eyes. After the make-up refresher, she’d get the magazines out again and study them until some internal clock signalled that it was time for more make up. So it went until Chicago.

My return flight was so delayed, I wound up flying stand by on a flight to a different local airport. I was 10th on the list of 12 stand-by passengers, and when I finally boarded, it looked like I had two choices: between two men so big that I couldn’t at first see the middle seat between them, and between a pair of grandparents already struggling with a tiny baby. I considered. I remembered this was my childless flight. I squeezed between the two men. They didn’t much care; they carried on their conversation as if I weren’t there. At one point, one of the men got out his computer, a dvd, and a pair of headphones. “Let’s watch that Dead concert!” he said to his friend. And so they did, the volume loud, the headphones ineffectual, the friends singing along happily together, me with my book smushed between them.

I thought of the time toddler Ben and I whiled away an hour of a plane flight taking the plastic lid off a cup and putting it back on. I thought of the time baby Eli and I spent 45 easy minutes on a plane tearing a piece of paper into tiny pieces, and counting each piece before putting it into the airsick bag. I thought of the time I sat on the floor of a plane, facing the two boys on their seats, and read them book after book after book. I thought of hours spent nursing them both, my arms aching, my legs falling asleep, through take-offs and landings and all the long hours of flight in between. And I returned to reading my book, and tuned out the Grateful Dead, and I missed them.

Countdown to AWP

Ten months of planning (thankfully quite intermittent)

Nine Literary Mama editors and Mama, PhD contributors I’m looking forward to meeting, talking to, sharing meals with, and getting to know much better

Eight panels I could attend each day, if I have the energy

Seven lunches and dinners without children

Six-plus years of mothering with only a couple nights away

Five writers on the Literary Mama panel: A Model of Grassroots Literary Community Building.

Four nights away, for the first time ever

Three guys I’m going to miss

Two flights alone

One big milestone


4:45 AM: Alarm goes off. Tony and I get up, dress in the dark (he realizes hours later that he’s wearing different pants than he’d intended), get the boys up and dressed. “Is this New York day?” asks Eli sleepily. A quiet “Yes” is all it takes to get the boys bounding down the stairs

5:06 AM: We’re in the car to the airport.

6:15 AM: We’re parked, through security, and waiting at our gate. Tony breaks out the new laminated “Plane Spotter” cards he got for the boys, and I read to them about the rules of aerodynamics while they look out the windows for planes.

7:15 AM: Boarding. The airline has screwed up our reservations, so we’re not all sitting near each other. Eli and I wind up next to a nice woman who, spotting the manuscript I’m commenting on, strikes up a conversation about mothering and writing. Before long, we’ve exchanged names and she’s written down the URLs of the various websites I work on. I can’t remember the last time I talked to a total stranger, and realize it’s kind of fun.

9:00 AM: Many nice people change their seats so that the four of us can sit in adjacent rows, thus simplifying the distribution of snacks and DVDs. Neither of the boys sleeps, so neither do Tony and I. Still, the 5 hours pass pretty easily with books, coloring, snacks and DVDs.

3:30 PM (Eastern Time): Landing. Eli falls asleep. We let the rest of the plane empty out so he can have a few minutes’ cat nap. When I eventually unbuckle him and start to lift him up, he stirs. “I’m awake! I want to walk!” He doesn’t want to miss a minute of New York. With no checked bags, we get through the airport quickly and are on our way into Manhattan.

5:00 PM: Hotel check-in. Our room offers a view of the Chrysler Building. The boys don’t want to leave the room so they can draw our view. We finally lure them outside.

6:00 PM: First stop, Grand Central Terminal. We ooh and aah at the starry ceiling, painted with constellations, buy a cookie, and watch a couple trains come and go. I enjoy being a tourist here, in this busy place where I was always so wary and busy, so many years ago. We take the shuttle to Times Square, paraphrasing How Little Lori Visited Times Square the whole way, and climb out into the bright lights. We are greeted by Mickey Mouse, Minnie, and Elmo, we don’t know why, but the boys are delighted and give them all high fives and knuckle bumps. We walk across and down to Bryant Park, where we find a lovely small carousel giving its last rides of the night. We buy the boys tickets, and when Ben gets off, he explains to us how he calculated the carousel’s speed by timing one revolution and multiplying by the number of circuits; his math is good. We walk around to roar at the library lions, then head back down 5th Avenue toward our hotel.

8:30 PM: The boys eat a dinner of salad and cereal picked up from the corner market. Tony walks back to Grand Central to get us some good pizza from Two Boots. Ben draws a picture of the Chrysler Building while Eli, spun, gallops back and forth, naked, across the hotel room.

10:00 PM: One reading of Sky Boys to prepare for tomorrow’s sightseeing, and the boys are asleep, their parents not far behind.

The Books We’re Carrying

The reading material we bring on a trip is always a good snapshot of the boys’ current interests. For our summer vacation, we brought a couple books in the DK Eyewitness series– Titanic and Flying Machines — plus The Seven Silly Eaters, and although I brought many other books for the boys to read, that’s really all they wanted. So this trip, I let them each choose two picture books, plus one chapter book:

Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building

This Is New York

Henry Huggins

The Secret of the Unicorn (Tintin)

The Daylight Limited

Meanwhile, I’ve just started Andrew Sean Greer’s beautiful The Story of a Marriage, which is set in our neighborhood of San Francisco in 1953; Tony is also getting some historical perspective on current events by reading The Panic of 1907: Lessons Learned from the Market’s Perfect Storm. If only his book were fiction, too…

image credit

Mission: Eiffel Tower

The first time we’d tried to visit the Eiffel Tower, we traveled via the batobus, which offers a scenic ride down the Seine.

Too scenic, as it turned out.

We arrived at 7pm and faced lines that snaked from the entrance back and forth all the way across the plaza. We were without sufficient food or line distractions to survive the wait, so we risked – and faced – the boys’ loud and bitter disappointment by turning back and regrouping.

The next day was stormy and windy and Eli didn’t nap. We debated: on the one hand, the weather might be keeping the crowds down; maybe a tired boy would be a docile and patient line stander…. But probably not, on both counts. We stayed home and cooked dinner.

Finally, we planned our ascent of the Eiffel Tower like mountaineers plan for Everest. In this case, Tony and I were the Tibetan sherpas, and the boys were Sandy Hill Pittman, who show up and have every desire met, needing only to put their bodies where they’re told and not use up too much oxygen. I was grateful they didn’t want cappuccino (although come to think of it, at the base of the Eiffel Tower, that would be easy to provide).

We’d been advised that the lines are shorter in the late afternoon, so we waited until after Eli’s nap, hoping that the boys would be well-rested, the lines a little easier, and that we’d get up to the top and out before it was way too late for dinner (or even bed). We brought Eli’s view master and discs, Ben’s journal, 2 cameras (since Ben’s a big photographer now), and windbreakers in case it was cold at the top. More importantly, I spent Eli’s naptime packing up food:

carrot sticks, water bottles, baby bell cheeses, 2 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, 2 nutella sandwiches (never underestimate the motivating power of chocolate), 2 Z bars, and a ziploc bag of almonds and raisins. We set off at 4, arriving at the base at 5pm. Tony grabbed a bench with the boys while I staked out our place on line.

We didn’t make it out without any tears (from Eli, when I started walking down a flight of stairs holding his hand rather than letting him hold the banister):

But, we made it up, we made it down, and we made it back home, our backpacks empty, four and a half hours later.

cross-posted at Learning to Eat

Reality Check

We don’t watch a whole lot of television around here. The boys are still happily watching episodes of Oswald that we recorded two years ago, or the occasional Dan Zanes concert video. They even watch Sesame Street sometimes, old copies on videotape, even though apparently the lessons they teach are suspect. And while I’ve been Tivo-ing lots of programs that friends recommend, or that I’ve read intriguing reviews of (shows like Mad Men and Pushing Daisies), I haven’t actually watched any of them. These days we watch Project Runway and the occasional final quarter of a basketball game and then get back to work.

So, flying on JetBlue, as we do several times a year to visit my family, is always eye-opening. On our recent trip east, Ben watched a Discovery Channel program about bridge engineers, and Eli watched a lot of cooking shows.

I don’t have the attention span for a movie on a plane, and on this trip, once Eli fell asleep on my lap, I couldn’t keep the light on to read my fabulous book. So I flipped back and forth between the reality shows on Bravo and The Learning Channel, which is apparently, late at night, Multiples TV. First I watched a program about a family with quintuplets. And I was glad it wasn’t my family. Then I watched a program about a family of 10: 6 year-old twins and 2 year-old sextuplets. In one episode, the mom tried to get her grocery shopping done in under two hours while the sextuplets napped at home under a neighbor’s supervision. In the second, which I watched because the first was so gripping (I’m not being sarcastic) the parents, with help from an uncle, spend a Sunday afternoon installing garage shelving. Let me just tell you that if the television writers’ strike never ends, we’ll all be fine, because this was high drama.

I spent a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend surrounded by family, and enjoyed being with my parents, all my siblings and siblings-in-law, my niece, nephew and a pair of big dogs, but I sat on the plane watching these enormous families and gave thanks, again. My tiny grandmother used to say that it’s not a family until you have more kids than you can hold with both hands (she had four, despite being told that one pregnancy might kill her), but I’m content with my two, relieved that I don’t have to plan grocery store runs like military campaigns, and grateful that I don’t have to store six strollers in my garage.

Cross the country and through the woods…

To Grandmother’s (and Granddad’s) house we go!

And in honor of our current favorite travel game, here’s what we’re packing:

Animal and alphabet books
Blanket (Eli)
Clothing for three days (knowing we can do laundry partway through the trip)
DVD player to get through 10 hours on airplanes (plus who knows how long in airports…)
Eli’s two stuffed doggies
Fanny at Chez Panisse (Ben’s bedtime reading of choice)
i-phones? ice-cream? no, none of these I items
Jamberry (Eli)
Monkey (Ben)
New Yorkers from the last month (I’m being optimistic)
O‘s cereal
The Places In Between (Caroline’s book)
a sketch for a Quilt I’m thinking of commissioning from Susan’s mom
Robert McCloskey books
The Spirit of St. Louis (Tony’s book)
Tofu jerkey (Tony)
Unlined drawing paper for the boys
Very many stickers for Eli
Warm sweaters
2 oz bottles of toiletries that will make it through the X-ray screening
Yellow, and green and blue and red and black markers
Z-bars (the kid Cliff bars)