Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sail Away

Sail Away - Sister Hazel

Venice, Italy
  It’s been a whirl-wind of a month, which, perhaps, may explain my seemingly-radio static on the blog.  After my best friend visited for a week, we celebrated Little Man’s 1st birthday, Texas-style, at least, as close as we could via The Netherlands.  It was a futile attempt, overshadowed by my mother’s haunting words from my childhood, “I treated all my children the same.  I had 1st year baby books for each of you, etc. etc.”  After attempting to order similar Zazzle invitations, only to realize the shipping rates/time just weren’t going to make it worth it/on time for the party, I began to feel defeated in my equalization attempts. With no Party City in sight and nothing but gender-neutral, celebration-neutral, stripes or floral options available at the Hema, we ordered party decorations from
Little Man's Homemade Birthday Cake
While Baby Girl’s 1st bday cake was baked and decorated by a fantastically talented and expensive baker in Plano, Little Man’s was handmade by me, with love.  Duncan Hines cake mix from the Jumbo grocery and a fantastically ugly, but heartfelt attempt at an orange fondant cowboy boot cake topper by yours truly.  Oh well, at least the fajitas, grilled in the rain, turned out wonderfully tasty and we had multiple friends to celebrate with us, which, to be honest, is the most important and biggest, happy accomplishment.  After the huge celebration, Little Man started sleeping through the night and has been pretty successful at doing so since then.  I could not be a prouder Mama.  Year One was our benchmark to happiness and V and I had decided months ago that our family was going to celebrate.  We booked a Mediterranean Cruise back in February. 
  The first moments of our visit to Venice resulted in multiple excruciating humbling experiences.  I think that is the hardest part of being an Expat: on a daily basis, everything you thought you knew, understood, and had accomplished is taken out at the knees.  Your vulnerability is a target.  Oh, so you just thought you had lived in Europe for nearly a year.  You think you know what you’re doing by now, each country border mocks you with an evil sneer.  After tromping around Zurich with a baby on our backs for days while pushing the other in the stroller, V and I decided, while our leg and back muscles recovered from the strain, to invest our funds into a European-style double stroller.  Sure, we had imported one from the US, but with its 6-cup holders, weight of 2 tons, and width of a SUV, it just was not suited for our everyday-pedestrian lives in Europe.  I was excited.  Yes.  We had found the answer.  Our new European-style double stroller was a modestly sleeker version of our old one.  And 17 pounds lighter.  The sucker practically walks itself.  Yes, this is what we need to make our trip to Italy successful, we thought to ourselves.  Our taxi driver in Venice knew better.  We had booked our apartment with 3 bedrooms in the middle of the city.  “It’s probably a 5-10 minute walk from the taxi drop-off point,” V warned me after looking at Google maps.  “Oh Honey, that’s cake!” I responded, confidently.  “Give me a 20 minute walk with 3 suitcases, a double stroller, and a travel crib and then we’ll talk about stressful.  We’ve got this one.”  Venice, like everything you’ve read and vaguely understood through watching Only You with Marissa Tomei and Robert Downy Jr., is a pedestrian only city, complete with multiple canals.  As the taxi driver eyed our luggage and lifted Baby Girl affectionately out of his taxi and into her stroller, he instructed us in his choppy Italian-English: “cross one bridge right, two bridge left, and you be there.”  Still oblivious and translating ‘bridges’ in my mind to the ones I’m familiar with in the Netherlands terms, I thanked him for his instructions and asked “bridges, right?  No stairs?” These questions, did not translate.  He nodded sympathetically, and I brushed his pained expression off as a misunderstanding.  “I live in Europe! I’m not a dumb American, dude!  I’ve got this.” I attempted to assure him telepathically.  We momentarily noticed the beauty of the Grand Canal while I expertly rolled a carry-on suitcase full of Dutch baby formula, toys, and baby clothes in one hand and guided the double-stroller and two children with the other hand (One hand, Mom!  I love this stroller!).  V was following behind like the experienced-pro-he-is-by-now with two full-sized suitcases and travel crib.  As we neared the first bridge, a highly entertaining, overweight, mid-50s, American tourist complete with fanny pack approached us.  She sarcastically clapped her hands and said, “I applaud you!” smiled, and walked past us.  “How did she know. . .” I thought to myself, the compete sentence lingering like the humidity in the air “. . .to speak English to us??”
Then, I saw it.  Bridges in Venice are unlike bridges in The Netherlands, where everyone cycles
One of the many Venice bridges
everywhere and therefore each overpass is steep but smooth enough to efficiently pedal a bike or push strollers over.  I quickly realized the quandary we were in.  Stairs.  Stairs.  Stairs.  Stairs lined the bridge going up and going down.  We started to panic. . . surely this wasn’t how people got around this city. . . but as we searched and found alternative routes, only to be met with more stairs, we quickly realized that Venice, Italy was not a stroller-friendly city.  Okay.  No sweat.  We are strong, we have trained for this.  We’ll just take the pieces up one at a time.  In the 11-months I’ve lived in The Netherlands, I have never, ever felt unsafe.  The handful of times I’ve traveled with the strollers on the trains, I have had honest people give me unsolicited help lifting my stroller or suitcases in and out of the train.  Each has been a surprising, helpful, wonderful, and dismissive act of generosity by a stranger.  As we neared our first bridge, an older man eagerly volunteered his help with our suitcases.  Amidst my flustered panic, it wasn’t until we were on the other side of the bridge that I realized this man had alcohol on his breath and was dirty.  I shoved a couple Euros in his pocket and thanked him earnestly for his help and tried to wave him away.  He pretended to decline the money from me, a woman, and instead decided to threaten my husband in Italian to take our suitcases back across the bridge when V refused to pay him more.  The scene escalated rapidly as my husband started to negotiate and protest with him.  I was shocked and horrified that my children were witness to the threats this crazed man was making.  He was in my husband’s face and next thing I knew, V had whipped out his cell phone and was waving it between them, anxiously repeating “Police, Police!” in English and what he thought sounded like Italian.  My mama bear instinct was kicking in – Protect children and husband - and without warning, I heard my own voice starting to shrilly scream, “No!  Go away!  We will not pay you any more money!  Go away!” No man, no matter how drunk or high he is, wants to hear a woman screaming.  My piercing shrieks attracted the attention of multiple people around us and he slunked away, defeated like an injured animal, with 4 Euros in his pocket, more than enough payment for his feeble attempts of chivalry.   The next bridge was no better and the pleather-jacketed, putty-selling man went so far as to take photos with his iPhone as we attempted to haul our double-stroller down the stairs and then followed us all the way to our apartment.  I’m not sure if I committed a hugely insensitive cultural faux-paux by loudly asking this man to simply leave us alone, again, attracting the attention of a plethora of tourists within a 50-yard radius, but by this point, physically and emotionally exhausted, I didn’t care.  I wanted to be inside the house and lock the door.   We met the owner of the house, a lovely French lady, and after the tour, we cautiously asked her about the locals and specifically about the stalking-encounter we had recently experienced and she looked at us in shock.  “Venice is very safe!” she explained.  I don’t know if her dark hair and lack of double-stroller had protected her from the scene we had just experienced twice, but V and I nodded obediently and quickly decided for the remained of the weekend, we’d leave the cumbersome and seemingly American-tourist-billboard-of-a-stroller parked in the foyer. 
  The next few days and nights were a more comforting and romantic version of the first experience.  We wandered the alleyways of Venice with our children, ate nothing but pizza, pasta, and pastries in the comfort of our own backyard garden.  We took tons of photos and a few afternoon naps.  We encouraged Baby Girl to put Euros into the violin cases of the Italian street performers and after the kids had fallen asleep for the evening, V and I, in our TV-less rented apartment, enjoyed a bottle or two of Italian wine under the stars.     
  Venice was the departure-point of the Royal Caribbean cruise we had booked and by Saturday morning, we had devised a plan.  We were going to take the double-stroller, luggage, and kids in two rounds, as close as we could, to the cruise people-mover station.  It worked out.  After luggage drop-off, check-in, complimentary water, security clearance, we were on the Splendor of The Seas.   
  V had booked the Splendor of The Seas on Royal Caribbean for a couple of reasons.  A. It had a nursery on board, and B. Your children had to be 1 year old to stay in the nursery.  With Little Man a mere 1 year and 4 days old at the time of departure, we met the minimal requirements.  The trip was the most successful one we’ve had with the kids.  Cruising is a lazy-man’s way of seeing the world, and I enjoyed every minute of being coddled.  The breakfast buffet was stocked with every type of American breakfast food imaginable, including 20 different types of cereal, even Cheerios.  While I think the choice of 700 types of cereal in any typical American grocery store is a bit over-kill, our local Jumbo grocery proudly boasts approximately four options.   I did back flips after seeing the bright yellow glorious box that represents everything patriotic and youthful.  I have not seen that box in 10 months. I grabbed two one-serving boxes of Cheerios with glee.  I glared at the other dining patrons with a secret knowledge. . . you. . . you fellow American tourists. . . have NO idea how rare these little non-sugar coated loops are on this continent. . . you simply expect them to be here, along side the fruit loops and mini wheats, and they are here.  But yet, I can appreciate this simple act for the beat-down that it really took to get these little rarities to this place.  I grabbed another box for my purse.  These will be perfect for snack time, I reasoned.
  The weather was fabulous.  Baby Girl and I sported sundresses left over from August while V and Little Man wore shorts and short-sleeves.  The food on board the ship was plentiful and always ridiculously tasty.  We had signed up for the 6:00 dinner-time and were seated with a lovely couple and mother and son from the UK at dinner.  Baby Girl called the man “Papa” and I’m not sure if this was simply an affectionate term or if she really thought the man was my Dad (while physically similar, I don’t think Baby Girl is able to differentiate between British and West Texas accents, yet.)  My why-do-we-even-try-to-go-on-vacation-with-two-kids-moment began just a few hours before our 2nd formal night on Thursday.  Luckily, by this time, I can honestly say we had made friends with our table mates and after getting up in the middle of dinner twice with my daughter and once with my son, the grandparents and mother-of-an-8-year-old-son just smiled at us sympathetically and offered encouraging words as my tears of frustration tempted to spill over my eyelids.  Papa, not only a Grandpa but a child physiologist, correctly gauged my aggravation at the situation and excitedly took Baby Girl to meet the captain of the ship, so I could finish my dinner.  The mother shared her son’s paper and colored pencils with Baby Girl.  Not only were my dinner mates understanding of my children, but they unconditionally accepted the community effort to help keep them entertained each night during the 3-course meal.  I could not have been more thankful for being seated with these loving people.      

Mykonos, Greece
  We saw bits of Italy and Greece I never thought I’d ever see.  We ported in Mykonos, Greece and the white-washed walls of the town were just as beautiful at the movies.  (Think, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants?)  We had a real Greek dinner as stray cats wondered around the floor, looking for a nibble like our dogs, Tyler and Dash do everyday.  (Animals must have a 6th –sense about children and their sloppy eating styles).  I asked Baby Girl what she wanted to name the grey cat wondering under her hanging feet and she said, “Jump High”.  Which, when she said it, in her 2 ½ year old dialect, sounded more Japanese than Greek, but I liked it.  
Acropolis in Athens, Greece
We climbed to the top of the Acropolis in Athens with Baby Girl alternating between walking herself and being carried by V while I wore Little Man in his carrier on the front of my body.  Hoards of tourists shuffled through the ancient ruins like a cattle drive, but yet, I couldn’t help but feel the significance of the event.  The nursery on board the ship was nice, but there were only a few times in which the opening times corresponded with docking times.  (So our hopes of doing an excursion without the kids were quickly dashed upon boarding the ship), but we were able to put the kids in the nursery during our casual visit to Dubrovnik, Croatia.  V and I wondered through the Old Town and I was mesmerized by the beauty.  After passing through the fortress that surrounded the city, we found the streets were made of marble.  I know people who would kill to have these floors in their house.  And yet, here they are, in the street!  Who knew Croatia would be so beautiful?  Who even knows where Croatia is?  V and I split an exotic pizza and Caesar salad for lunch, over-looking the Adriatic Sea before boarding the ship, headed back to Venice

Marble streets in Dubrovnik, Croatia
  The trip home was an extremely stressful one, mainly as a result of a 5:30 p.m. flight back to Amsterdam, 9:00 a.m. required vacate time via ship, and a 2-hour limit of baggage check prior to flight departure time.  The details of hanging out at the pre-security portion of the Marco Polo Venice airport with two children under 3 for 8 hours are too tedious to get into, but close your eyes and you can imagine the disaster to which the equation results.  But overall, bookends in Venice excluded, the trip was wonderful, memorable, and an event of a lifetime.  I’m so happy for the places we’ve seen, the photos we’ve taken, and the people we’ve met.  I thoroughly enjoyed taking naps with Baby Girl while V and Little Man viewed the Belly Flop contest on the Lido Deck.  The pleasures of life, simple or extreme, Acropolis or the sight of your child dancing to live music, are great and rewarding.  It was the perfect way to celebrate Little Man’s first year.                               

1 comment:

  1. What a great trip!! Cruising is so low maintenance, which is one of the reasons we love it.