How Italians Raise their Kids: An Italian Education by Tim Parks

16 February 2017

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I’ve been spending more time in Utrecht recently. Last time I was at the station, I was lured into the glass-fronted ‘Boekspot’ in the Hoog Catharijne mall. The boekspot is a free library swap-shop where visitors are welcome to pick up a book and leave behind ones they’ve finished. I found myself face to face with a book I’d intended to read years ago and had never got around to – An Italian Education by Tim Parks. It hopped into my bag.

While you might think Pamela Druckerman and Amy Chua invented the foreign-parenting memoir, you’d be wrong. Parks got there earlier, in 1996 to be exact. An Italian Education describes the way Italian families live and how they bring up their children, from the perspective of an English translator-writer married to a local and raising three kids. I found it interesting, enlightening and constantly entertaining. I’m also rather glad I read it after Rina and I had written our book, The Happiest Kids in the World. It sets the bar high, certainly in literary terms.  

Early in the book, Parks broaches an issue I struggled with myself when attempting to describe Dutch character: ‘I have always been suspicious of travel writing, of attempts to establish that elusive element which might or might not be national character, to say in sweeping and general terms, this place is like this, that place is like that.’  And yet he comes to realize that places are different: ‘Once one has discounted individual traits, class attitudes, generation gaps, and of course the myriad manifestations of different personalities, still a substrate of national character does exist. The French are French somehow, the German are predictably German, the Italians, as I was slowly discovering, indisputably Italian.’ Parks decides to describe only what he knows intimately, his surroundings and his own experiences.

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So how do the Italians bring up their children? Well, with ‘immense caution, inhibition and a suffocating awareness of everything, but everything, that can go wrong.’ Woe betide they catch a chill after a dip in the sea. Although protected and confined, children can be spoiled rotten and bribed without guilt. Babies are public property – everyone fusses over them. And nobody minds their own business in an Italian family with everyone arguing around a noisy dinner table. Naturally, Italians are food-obsessed: ‘spoon-feeding their children years after the English have stopped, just to make sure they have enough of everything. It’s almost the only issue over which they seem willing to stoop to physical coercion.’

A few more choice details: there is no word for ‘bedtime’ in Italian since children don’t have them. Parks bucks the trend by sending his to bed by 7pm, British style. Houses are to be kept pristine so playing is discouraged. Play in itself is tricky too. There aren’t many playgrounds and parks (or at least not in Park’s region) and schools don’t have playing fields. If kids want to play football, they have to join a local club. Dads are not considered trustworthy enough to look after children. There’s even a lullaby in which children sing their fathers to sleep rather than the other way round. Suffering from a desperate lack of sleep at the time of writing, the author describes this all with utter hilarity.

Italy’s cult of la mamma is probably its most famous parenting cliché. ‘But beyond diet and swaddling and coddling and funding, Mamma has something else to offer: a suffused eroticism.’ Parks mentions a grown man who still shares a bed with his! The obsession with mammas means that dads don’t need to feel guilty about time spent away from the home. Childcare is not their responsibility. ‘The whole mythology of Italian bourgeois life,’ the writer describes, ‘is the small-time artisan slaving (but creatively, in his own workshop) for the sake of his wife and children.’ Gender conditioning is rife. Little girls must stay safely in the shallows while boys are allowed to dive from the rocks. There is more, much more, in this book but I’m not going to summarize it all.

The funniest thing is his conclusion: children in Italy never grow up and become independent. Their parents continue to support them long after they have reached adulthood, subsidizing their rent and even looking after their children, so that now the situation has become absurd. ‘One only fears that if they (my generation) have to look after their grandchildren, they won’t be equipped for it, having had so little experience.’ And the book ends with an encore of the joke – no better place to grow up than Italy? No, no better place NOT to grow up.italian-parenting-3

Giethoorn The Fairytale Dutch Village of Your Dreams

9 August 2016

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Taking “inburgering” (Dutch cultural integration) to another level, I decided to take my family to a day out in Giethoorn. Apparently, according to Buzzfeed, Giethoorn is one of the most charming places in the world to see before you die. What is it about this obscure Dutch village of only 2,620 inhabitants that has garnered so much international attention? Why is it that around 200,000 Chinese tourists flock to this unassuming, quaint town every year?  


And what better way to see and experience Giethoorn than taking a two hour private boat tour with Smit Giethoorn. Plus, I hoped to get some insider information, pseudo journalism style. Our guide Jordy was more than happy to oblige.
So here are some reasons as to why I think Giethoorn is to be considered a place where you can live out your fairytale dreams:

 

A Village with No Roads

Who wouldn’t want to see a village that essentially has no roads and cars? Rather, the only way to access the village is by the preferred traditional method of boats, or by bicycle. And thanks to “whisper boats” (boats with a noiseless electric engine) reigning supreme on the canals, the peace and tranquility of the Dutch countryside of Giethoorn is maintained.

 

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Traditional Thatched-roof Homes with Perfectly Manicured Gardens

When you have a cluster of traditional thatched-roof homes with perfectly manicured gardens on their own separate islands only reachable by boats and bridges with bike paths, it’s easy to create a once in a lifetime, breathtaking experience. And what can never be replicated, not even by Disney, are the authentic 18th and 19th century Dutch farm houses filled with local families whose roots go way back. Giethoorn is not a museum or an amusement park. it is a thriving,close-knit community which takes pride in preserving its village and sharing it with the rest of the world.

 

A Nod to Dutch Tradition

Giethoorn was first established around 1230 by a group of fugitives from the Mediterranean. The village evolved when locals discovered a prized treasure: peat, a precursor to coal that can be used as an energy source when dried. The canals and surrounding lakes were actually formed inadvertently as the locals extracted the peat. Hence the canals are only about one meter deep and the surrounding lakes and waterways are not that much deeper. Giethoorn exemplifies the Dutch saying “God made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland”.

 

Good Old Fashion Gezelligheid

One can’t really escape describing anything Dutch without referring to gezelligheid, an untranslatable Dutch word that embodies the feelings of wellbeing, coziness, love, belonging, and warmth. Floating through the bucolic village on a boat with your nearest and dearest can make anyone a sentimental fool.

 

Nostalgia
Giethoorn and the surrounding lake area also brings lots of nostalgia. The well-preserved homes, canals and bridges really do transport you to another time. It’s also a place where generations of Dutch children and teens spend the summer at nearby sailing camps making memories with thirty or so of their newly acquainted BFFs (sailing classmates). And naturally, it’s also the setting of wistful recollections of puppy love, random hookups and romantic happily ever afters.  

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Enjoying the Chinese Tourists

The Chinese love Giethoorn so much that they are probably the reason why Giethoorn made it to the most recent international edition of Monopoly, alongside glamorous heavyweights Amsterdam, London, Tokyo, Madrid and Lisbon. Their enthusiasm for Giethoorn paparazzi style is infectious. They’ve traveled thousands of miles and across several time zones just to see this unassuming Dutch village (as part of their Euro tour package of course). If that isn’t heartwarming, I don’t know what is. (Brilliant business idea to throw out there: wouldn’t it be amazing if a dim sum restaurant opened up in Giethoorn catering to the enthusiastic tourists?)

 

Genius Marketing

Dutch villages, towns and cities should take some notes with the brilliant marketing campaigns of Giethoorn. While Giethoorn is definitely unique in regards to having no roads, the country is littered with other villages brimming with picturesque canals, wooden bridges and traditional thatched-roof homes with perfectly manicured gardens. There are other breathtaking places in the Netherlands – the star fortified village of Naarden, for example – that remain off the beaten path or are virtually ignored by tourists.

 

Added bonus material we learned thanks to our Dutch guide Jordy:

 

Family Trees

Each house in the village traditionally has a white tree above their front door. The tree symbolizes the family. The size of the tree depends on the size of the family. The Smit family is by far the largest family in the village – their tree is so large that it needs to be against the wall of the house.

 

Goat Coat of Arms

The coat of arms of Giethoorn are two goat horns. Though there are no longer any goats around, it’s still a nod to how it was way back when. It is also the origin of the name of the village: Geytenhorn (goat horn) became Giethoorn.

 

Setting of Fanfare

An absolute must-watch Dutch comedy classic (1958) Fanfare by master filmaker Bert Haanstra takes places in old Giethoorn, way before the tourists.

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And while you’re at it,  come join our Facebook page for more Dutch gezelligheid. Guaranteed to distract you at work and help you procrastinate.

Glamping at De Groene Hoeve (Feather Down Farm Holidays)

6 July 2015

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When BoerenBed (Feather Down Farm Stays) invited us to a “glamping” trip at the De Groene Hoeve in exchange for a review, we couldn’t resist. The premise was that we would be given a gentle introduction to the world of camping while getting a glimpse of authentic farm life.

My three year old was ecstatic, repeatedly exclaiming weeks ahead to anyone who would listen – “Kamperen op de boerderij” (Camping on the farm). His enthusiasm was reassuring. My Dutch husband, who has years of camping experience from his youth, was amused. As someone who grew up in the (sub)urban jungles of San Francisco, I was intrigued and a bit apprehensive. Not one to turn down an adventure, I went with an open-mind.

De Groene Hoeve is run by husband and wife Cees and Niki Groenendijk. They operate an organic goat farm comprised of eighty-six milking goats. Like any proper farm, there’s also plenty of other animals to keep the goats company – two dogs, a cat, a horse, a pony, two piglets, bunnies, chickens and the occasional shy fox. There are also friendly neighborly cows in the distance. By the looks of it, these goats and other animals were quite happy.

As soon as we arrived at the farm in the early evening, Niki seemed to magically appear to greet us. She speaks impeccable English with a charming British accent. We appreciate her hands-on, personal approach to giving us (and all the other guests) a crash course in the ins-and-outs of the camping grounds and the farm.

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Betere Boeren Bed Tent (Feather Down Farm Tent)

Each Betere Boeren Bed Tent offers all the benefits of camping – nostalgia for a simpler, imagined past and communing with nature – with several modern conveniences. Each large canvas tent is fully equipped like a miniature two-bedroom apartment (one with bunk beds and the other with a queen size bed), a fully equipped kitchen with cold running water, a living room with a dining area and sofa, and private bathroom facilities. And of course, decorative pieces scattered here and there, real hardwood floors and windows you can open and close that all add to the feeling of gezelligheid, a Dutch word that embodies coziness, warmth and love. And the highlight for many kids (and even adults) is cupboard type bed that can easily be shared by two children, or serve as a great reading nook.

The rest – such as building your own fire, living without electricity and being off the grid (no internet connection) – is part of the charm. It’s when the real camping begins.

For gourmands and camping enthusiasts, there’s a wood-oven stove right in the center of each tent (the beating heart) and an outdoor wood cooker. And never fear – there’s freshly chopped wood and a fire building starter kit right at your fingertips. There’s the option to dine indoors, or outside depending on your mood and the weather.

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Part of the highlight of the trip was on Saturday evening when Niki and Cees hosted a homemade pizza party for all the campers. It’s easy to fall in love with their rustic outdoor eating area with a large king size table and their wood-fired brick oven. The pizza was delicious and the homemade strawberry goat ice-cream was divine. It was also a great way to meet other families.

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It’s all about living to the rhythm of the land.” shares Niki.

I couldn’t help but reciprocate with an understanding smile. For starters, living off the grid (no internet connection and spotty cell phone reception) can do wonders for the soul. It guarantees families the time and space to do a lot of bonding with each other, free from the distractions of everyday modern life. Its quaintness and peacefulness lends to the atmosphere of slow living. The cozy campground, limited to only five tents and far away from the nearest road, is structured in a way to allow toddlers and young children to roam safely.

And no need to worry about planning activities – just starting the fires and keeping them going is an exercise in communication, patience and resourcefulness. Though it took us about two hours on our first try, we appreciated the sense of accomplishment of finally having a hot fire to cook food. There’s something quite refreshing and honest about making meals the old-school way.

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As assured by Niki before our arrival,  De Groene Hoeve really has everything that a family needs for a comfortable stay. All we needed was to bring ourselves and practical clothing for camping. There is a fully equipped store offering organic and locally grown products from other Dutch farmers, as well as basic necessities such as olive oils, soaps, etc.

As we were leaving, Niki offered our son a vintage toy truck. We accepted on the premise that it was merely a loan and that we would hopefully return it next year. De Groene Hoeve has definitely gotten this American-Dutch family hooked on glamping.

 

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Location

What’s also surreal is that the location of De Groene Hoeve. It’s conveniently located in the Northwestern part of the Netherlands between two historic Dutch fishing villages – Hoorn (8km) and Enkhuizen (13 km). Although it’s only a mere forty-five minutes away from Amsterdam, the bucolic surroundings transports you to another time.

Bonus Tips

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Take a cruise alongside the beautiful, historic city of Hoorn with Watertaxi Hoorn (ask for schipper Koen). Hoorn is definitely a hidden treasure off-the-beaten path.

Just a 15 minute drive away is Sprookjeswonderland (Fairytale Wonder Land) in Enkhuizen. It’s actually a wonderful getaway for families with children under the age of five.

Happiest Kids in the World Travel Guide: Paris

11 June 2014

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Only when I became a parent could I fully appreciate how wonderful Paris is for babies and toddlers – to see this glamorous city renowned for its history, food and artisanship through the eyes of a child. For many, Paris has a reputation for being a city exclusive to lovers, fashionistas and artsy types – the ultimate playground for adults with discerning taste.

Au contraire.

Experience from a recent trip has convinced me that Paris is city in love with babies and toddlers. I’ve compiled a “cheat sheet” for parents traveling with babies and toddlers. It is a list inspired by the traveling habits of Dutch families. After all, the Dutch who have the happiest kids in the world and are prolific travelers have some invaluable insight.

Here are seven tips to enjoying a trip to Paris with babies and toddlers from the happiest kids in the world:

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A Place to Call Home
For many Dutch (European) families traveling with babies and toddlers is the norm. An apartment offers several conveniences that parents would appreciate such as more room, a kitchen and washing and drying machines.  It is also a more affordable option for families looking to be centrally located.

If this is your first time in Paris and you would love to experience the quintessential Parisian neighborhood while hitting major sites, I highly recommend staying in the 7th Arrondissement. Also known as the Left Bank, the 7th arrondissement is home to the Musée d’Orsay and Rodin Museum, within walking distance to the Eiffel Tower and Seine, and has a much more relaxed pace than the rest of the city with its village-like charms.

However, keep in mind that renting an apartment can be a hassle and possibly a gamble. My personal pick is this AirBnB two-bedroom rental. The host is a lovely woman who is accommodating and flexible to the unique needs of families with young children. The apartment also includes free parking – an added bonus for those traveling by car.

Bring A Stroller
For parents who love to travel, almost everyone can agree that an absolute traveling essential is a light-weight, foldable stroller.  A toddler can only walk for so long – even for spirited little souls like our son who loves and insists on his freedom. And anyone visiting Paris will soon find out that experiencing the city involves a lot of walking. In fact, I’d argue that the best way to see Paris is on-foot at a leisurely pace. Traveling by metro sometimes takes just as long, if not longer than simply walking on the lovely, outdoor Parisian streets and along the Seine.

Our personal pick is the Maclaren Quest – the perfect stroller for traveling with a toddler. We were initially drawn to the Maclaren Quest because of its reputation for being a preferred traveling stroller among jetset parents, its lightweight aluminium frame, durability and generous weight limit of 55 lbs. Unlike other strollers that have narrower seats and only accommodates up to 30-40 lbs, the Maclaren Quest was a comfortable ride for our 30lb, two year old who is above average in height and weight among his Dutch peers (the Dutch being the tallest people in the world). It’s also surprisingly maneuverable along the Parisian cobblestone streets, grasses, pavements, and dirt paths. And for parents with adventurous and precocious toddlers like mine, I appreciated being able to run after my toddler with one hand while navigating the stroller with the other hand. An added bonus is that the Maclaren buggy hood has UPF 50+, the highest possible rating for sun protective fabrics.

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Keep to Nap Schedules
Enforcing a regular nap schedule for babies and toddlers like the one you have at home during traveling can make everyone involved a lot happier. A well-rested baby and toddler can do wonders to minimize tantrums and maintain relaxed temperaments.  You can either return back to the hotel/apartment for the nap or simply bring along a stroller. Personally, bringing along a stroller is a much more convenient option and a perfect time to take a leisurely walk to the next destination right after a big Parisian lunch. Consider bringing a fully-reclining stroller like the Maclaren Quest (which has four-different incline positions).

Re-Envision Landmarks Through the Eyes of A Child
The best way to still enjoy the famous landmarks of Paris, a happy, contented child, not lose your sanity and actually have a pleasant time? Utilize the nearby Parisian parks strategically located and dispersed throughout the compact city. One of the best kept secrets of Paris is the seemingly random little playgrounds and play areas scattered throughout the different neighborhoods and along the Seine. And it’s hard not to notice the city’s genuine adoration for carousels strategically placed close to various landmarks and tourist attractions. Parisians indoctrinate the importance of joie de vivre starting from the cradle, providing their youngest citizens hidden gems of carousels and playgrounds, providing momentarily but much appreciated relief for parents and children.

Rather than ambitiously (and arguably naively) trying to climb the Eiffel Tower with a toddler, consider heading over to Place du Trocadero. There is a beautiful double-decker antique carousel, sweeping panoramic views over the gardens and the Eiffel Tower. You’ll not only have the tourist obligatory pictures, but if you arrive there for the sunset, you and your little one will be delighted to see the Eiffel Tower lit and gain a deeper appreciation for La Ville-Lumiére.

Utilize the early morning wakeup calls and head over to the Louvre before the crowds come. Afterwards, head over to the Jardin des Tuileries (Tuileries Gardens), a haven for children offering a traditional carousel, playground, and pony rides to name a few child-orientated attractions. The 25 hectares Parisian garden also provides plenty of beautiful flowers, landscaping and sculptures that adults can appreciate.

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Jardin du Luxembourg and Parisian Playgrounds
The Jardin du Luxeumbourg is the definitive children’s paradise of Paris – a playground ripe with nostalgia of long forgotten Parisian childhoods of wooden toy sailboats, pony rides and children’s marionette show. The enclosed playground offers plenty of amusing entertainment for the four and under crowd- sandbox, slides, climbing contraptions, seesaws and twirling toys.  An added bonus are the toilets that accommodate to the needs of its smallest patrons.

At the heart of this children’s haven is the 135-year old carousel designed by Charles Garnier, the architect of the Opera de Paris. Built in 1879, the antique manége with its green-roof, well-worn wooden horses and dirt floor makes it a postcard worthy experience for both adults and little ones.

If you are visiting Paris with a toddler (or even older children), this is an absolute must. While the various activities are not free, the €12-15 euros spent for the half-day at the park are well worth the memories you’re making with your child.

Travel Off Season
Arguably one of the best aspects of traveling with toddlers and babies is not being restricted to school schedules. Traveling off season is also a great time to take advantage of lower prices and not having to deal with hoards of tourists suffocating the museums, landmarks and boulevards.  If you can get past the temperamental weather that Parisians have made a national pastime complaining about, Paris can be quite lovely. The more relaxed pace at the playgrounds will also make it easier for your little one to make a new Parisian friend or two.

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Come with No Expectations
As the Dutch national philosophy goes, “Doe maar gewoon, dat is al gek genoeg.” Arrive in Paris with your little one in tow with no grandiose expectations and simply do what the Parisians do – embrace being a flâneur (a passionate observer). Paris is best enjoyed at a slow, relaxed pace anyway. And what better way than to experience it with children who are naturally curious and full of wonder. Some of the inconveniences of being a parent to young children – such as early morning wakeup calls, nap times and bedtimes – can make a trip to Paris a memorable one. The leisurely pace will give you the chance to see and experience a more authentic, genuine Paris through the eyes of your child. Take the time to pause and see the world from their perspective –  discovering hidden treasures, experiencing new places and simply celebrating the here and now.

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Hope you and your family enjoy an unforgettable experience in Paris or inspired to take a trip to the City of Light!

 

P.S. If you’d like to connect with me, come join me on my Facebook page. Promise I’ll try to only post interesting updates about my Dutched reality and random stuff that inspire me to share.

 

(Photos taken courtesy of me and by my dearest friend Maria Chang. The Maclaren Quest was gifted to me by Maclaren for a review. All opinions are mine. Thank-you for reading.)

Traveling with the Happiest Kids in the World

27 May 2014

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Dutch kids are known to be the happiest kids in the world. And the Dutch are among the world’s most avid travelers. It wouldn’t be surprising if the two were somehow interrelated!

It’s no secret that one of the things I love most about Dutch culture is their love for traveling. There’s a saying among the Dutch that “You can find a Dutch person anywhere in the world.” It’s quite impressive given that the population of the Netherlands is only around 17 million people. Traveling is simply ingrained in the culture. It is part of the Dutch work-life balance equation rather than some alternative lifestyle for the jet-set, adventurous crowd. Whether it’s traveling within the Netherlands, heading over to neighboring countries or having more ambitious plans, the Dutch love to explore and learn about different places and cultures.

For some people, traveling with babies, toddlers and kids would be the last thing they would want to do. Many people assume that once you cross over parent territory, passports and wanderlust would have to be put away. Not for the Dutch.  They just get creative, modify their plans by traveling locally or simply baptize their little ones straight into international travel.

Every Tuesday (Travel Tuesday), I plan on sharing some things I’ve learned about traveling with my little one as a baby and as a toddler. I’ll be writing about some insider travel tips for families visiting the Netherlands, or expat families wanting to learn more about all the wonderful family-friendly stuff available in the Low Countries.  And I will also be including travel essentials – what to bring and what not to bring depending on where you plan on going to. The tips will be inspired partly from the Dutch culture, but also from my own experiences.

What better way to officially start than to share a few of our favorite things and “tricks” to entertain Bram while we’re en-route (plane, car, train, bus), at a restaurant or having to do some waiting time. And as parents of babies and toddlers know, having an “activity kit” to entertain their short attention spans can both be a sanity saver and make the experience a lot more pleasant.

 

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Here is Bram Junior’s “activity bag” that we’ve prepared for our upcoming trip to Paris (clockwise):

Back-pack
Any small bag would just do. Or even what ever diaper bag you are using. Since we are traveling, I choose the Skip Hop Zoo backpack he already has – it’s the perfect size and has amazing storage capacity.

 

Something to Eat
Toddlers are often notorious for being “hungry” at inopportune times. It’s always handy to be carrying along snacks. Bram loves the stuff from Ella’s Kitchen (100% Organic Baby Food) which can now be bought at Etos. And since he only gets it when he’s traveling, it becomes an extra special treat.

 

Something to Read
Carrying around a tiny mini-library of some sorts can do wonders to keep a baby and toddler preoccupied. Since we’re absolute fans of The Very Hungry Caterpillar (who isn’t?), we’re bringing along this ultra compact mini-library which he got as a gift from his fabulous aunt.


Something to Create
Having crayons (Wasco Playon Crayon Primary), an activity book with stickers (Leukste Doe Book Voor Jongens) and a pad with paper and an attached pen (Paddenstoel Notitiehouder) can really entertain a baby and a toddler. It’s why most family restaurants have some sort of crayons and coloring sheet! And what better way to have it in your bag just in case you may need it.


Something to Play With

An awesome trick I’ve learned is to wrap small presents for Bram to unpack. Whether it’s a new toy or an old one he’s forgotten about, it doesn’t matter. I am a bit convinced though that’s the novelty of the wrapping paper and process of unwrapping that babies are most fond of. I’m partial to lovely wooden toys and couldn’t resist getting him a little red mouse compass (muis compass), a clown top (blauw tol, clown met trektouwtje), and a pirate tic-tac-toe game (Spelletje, boter, kaas & eieren, piraten).

Travel With Your Child

20 May 2014

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Travel with your child to give him roots and wings.
Show him the immense joy one gets
When connecting with other people and places,
Instead of materialistic things.

 

Demonstrate that no matter how far, or near you’re going
And where you two have already gone,
Embracing curiosity and childlike wonder
Will make life tons more fun.

 

Travel with your child to help him understand
that everyone is really one and the same
We’re all just looking for
a sense of belonging,
And need to listen more carefully to our
heart’s true calling.

 

Travel with your child to instill a bit of “grit”.
Journeys always present new and interesting challenges
where he will have to utilize his wit.

He will also learn that patience, persistence and a friendly smile,
Regardless of where ever he is in the world,
Will definitely be worth his while.

 

Don’t listen to naysayers who say that he will be
too young to remember.
Follow your mommy intuition; you mustn’t surrender.

For in your heart, you already know
Like cradling him close, reading books, and singing songs
Travel will help his soul grow.

 

So travel with your child.
And help him get started
To collect those memorable moments one by one,
It’s how a deeper appreciation of
different cultures and ways of living is won.

 

 

 

Dedicated to my Dutch husband who is from a culture that embraces traveling – near and far.

*”he” refers to the child, our son, but it’s universal for both boys and girls
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When in Rome

28 November 2013

November for a lot of Americans is the time to reflect on life’s blessings and to take a moment together on the fourth Thursday of the month with friends and family to give thanks. As an American expat living in the Netherlands, I’ve had to readjust my expectations of this beloved, controversial holiday.

Nonetheless, November will always hold a significant moment in our life for a very personal reason. It marks the anniversary date of a very special, once-in-a-lifetime moment where my Dutch husband swept me off my feet. When I first came to the Netherlands,  my husband’s friends were quick to joke that I fell in love with the wrong Dutch guy. For one, he is short (5’10”) in comparison to the stereotypical gigantic Dutch bloke. He has black wavy hair, olive skin tone and dark brown eyes. He also doesn’t abide by the rules of going Dutch – the Dutch etiquette of paying for your own dinner when you go out on date. But they were all utterly wrong – I fell in love with just the right Dutch guy for me.

Rome epics 1photo courtesy of Jennifer Skog, styling by Maria Chang

Four Novembers ago, my ultra-romantic then fiancée decided to plan a romantic surprise for me. This was before the current trend of surprise, epic flash mob proposals going viral on the internet these days. He planned a surprise engagement session in Rome with San Francisco-based photographer Jennifer Skog and stylist Maria Chang.

From what I recall, one November morning, my fiancée told me to pack my bags and told me that he was going to take me away for a romantic getaway. I distinctly remember being excited – after all, I would find any excuse to get away from the depressing cold Dutch winter and I loved exploring more of Europe. En route to the airport, he handed me a present letting me know where we were headed – Lonely Planet’s Rome. He wanted to take me on my very own Roman Holiday. Waiting for us at the airport in Rome was a formal limousine driver holding a sign with my husband’s last name on it. He drove us straight to a hotel literally at the steps of the Pantheon.

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photo courtesy of Jennifer Skog, styling by Maria Chang

The following evening, after a beautiful day roaming around the Vatican, he told me that we had a very special dinner date. I casually ignored his subtle hints and simply looked forward to the fancy dinner ahead. It was there at the restaurant that he revealed his secret with a his classic mischievous boyish grin, saying only that he flew in two people just for me. I was breathless, thinking that he had flown in my untraveled parents and had expected them to find the restaurant alone.

A couple of moments later, in walked Jennifer and Maria. It was the biggest surprise of my life (pre-baby) and I just couldn’t believe it. Even Jennifer and Maria were perplexed that my fiancée was able to pull it off without me knowing, or having any suspicion at all with what was going on behind the scenes. He literally flew them from San Francisco to Rome to make me feel like a princess for the day. And of course, they also brought along a special outfit for me just for the photoshoot.

(For a glimpse of that magical moment, you can watch the video below.)

ROME COUTURE SHOOT | Rina & Bram from Maria Chang on Vimeo.

What Jennifer Skog and Maria Chang didn’t know when they met me that beautiful November evening was that I was really not at a good place in my life. I was utterly in love with the man of my dreams, but I was drowning in culture shock and suffering from lapses of regret, disillusionment, and anger. I was thrown into the deep end, the kind where I had to be around alleen maar nette mensen. If I were to be completely honest, I was probably also suffering from depression. I was, after all, doing what most self-absorbed twenty something women tended to do – have a delusional myopic, narcissistic perspective rather seeing the bigger picture. For someone too caught up in her own insecurities about living in the Netherlands, it wasn’t too hard to plan something right underneath her nose and catch her in utter surprise.

It takes a lot of bravado to choose love, to follow someone across the world and to take a blind leap of faith that this was the man that God had in mind for you. The rest of the world, especially the status conscious world where I came from, isn’t too forgiving to those who chose a different life. I grew up believing wholeheartedly that I wasn’t a princess and I only had my brains and sheer grit to earn myself a better life. Life, as I was somehow deluded into believing, was supposed to be a straight trajectory to a certain standard of success, where the idea of self-worth was inextricably linked to visible accomplishments.

Rome epic 2photo courtesy of Jennifer Skog, styling by Maria Chang

But…meeting my husband profoundly changed me and I hungered for more than wandering around life wearing paychecks like necklaces and bracelets. I longed to live a more authentic, genuine life with someone who took my breath away and inspires me to be a better person. Wanting and actually being are two different mindsets and it took me a lot longer to fully transition to a liberating paradigm shift of a more authentic self.

We still look fondly at that special November day in Rome. What made it also magical was Jennifer and Maria were just as excited as we were. These talented ladies also share a spark that my husband has – the kind that’s passionate, crazy about life and who wear their hearts on their sleeves. What makes them amazing (aside from  talent and creativity) and stand-out from the crowd is their openness, their unabashed honesty and their willingness to simply love. Their hearts were into making that day special for us and they unknowingly helped me find my inner confidence. While it did take four years for me to finally express my sincerest gratitude to Maria and Jen, I hope that they’re reading this and know how much these two ladies mean to me. If you’re a bride-to-be looking for a photographer and stylist, I would recommend these two in a heartbeat. And yes, they’re worth every penny being flown anywhere you happen to be getting married or proposed to.

Epic 2photo courtesy of Jennifer Skog, styling by Maria Chang

Life is messy and filled with lots of ups, downs and curve-balls.  Somewhere along the way, I really did loose my voice. Or more accurately, I stopped giving myself permission to use my voice. My husband taught me how to really live life, of not being afraid to embrace all of it – the sorrows, disappointments, heartaches, laughter, joy and the love.

Happily ever after consists of the mundane, daily grind of real daily life. It’s about finding a partner in your life that calls you gorgeous even though you feel like a hot mess.  It’s about being able to sleep in almost every morning while he happily spends time with his son, the sacred hour(s) when it’s just him and his boy. It’s about saying yes to his wildly ambitious dreams of success and having the courage to take a backseat to a career to take care of the family. It’s about embracing life in Dutch suburbia, of not letting the social isolation wear me down and accepting that right now, at this moment, this is the place where we need to be. It’s about finding the joy in what ever life has set out for us and finding fulfillment of motherhood and being an entrepreneur’s wife.

 

rome engagement shoot

photo courtesy of Jennifer Skog, styling by Maria Chang

And sometimes in life, there’s a time when a special someone takes you on a Roman holiday and takes your breath away.

p.s. If you’re interested in seeing more photos from our Rome engagement shoot, you can view them on Jennifer Skog’s website.

 

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Best Romantic Hotel: Anastasis Apartments, Santorini

10 September 2013

As requested by a dear friend of mine for romantic travel destinations, I’m going to share about the unforgettable time I had at the best romantic hotel in the world, Anastasis Apartments, Imerovigli. Perhaps after reading it, he can get some ideas of where to take his lovely wife.

Anyone who’s ever opened a travel magazine (Conde Nast Traveler) sooner, or later will see one of ubiquitous Santorni postcard pictures. It’s basically some sort of variation of Oia, the famous cliff top, mosaic village of white houses and blue domes that boasts the most amazing sunsets in the world.

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(photo taken by me!)

 

Santorini, referred to as Thira in Greek, is an island in the Agean Sea. The island, often attributed to the mythological lost city of Atlantis, is one of Greece’s brightest treasures, epitomizing the ultimate, jet-setters’ vacation. The shining crown of Santorini is the caldera located basically on the west side of the island.

Part of the magic of my unforgettable time at Anastasis Apartments was the actual anticipation of vacationing there.I was in the midst of finishing my master’s thesis and I couldn’t help but indulge in my favorite procrastination pastime – perusing through Trip Advisor’s Traveler’s Choice List. What better way than utilizing real people’s experiences than reading a travel website based on genuine recommendations?

I wanted to reward myself and summer was fast approaching without a holiday booked, or destination in sight. My heart was set a romantic holiday so I went straight to Trip Advisor’s Best Hotels for Romance category (in the world) and Anastasis Apartments was at the very top. I also thought that the time couldn’t be more perfect, coinciding with our impending 1st year anniversary. What better way to spend it than on the ultra romantic island of Santorini?

My Dutch husband, bless his heart, has learned from experience that I often get ahead of myself (I’m an eternal optimist) and casually warned me that perhaps I was a bit too late. If Anastasis was really that fabulous,  renowned for world class service, AND quite affordable (read = less than €500 per night), our chances for a reservation for the summer would be next to none. Rather than wasting time with an email, I decided to call them directly instead.

The worst that could happen would be that my Santorini dreams would be crushed, but at least I tried. I also thought that my charm might just help me. Low and behold, we were able to maneuver a booking via a possible last-minute cancellation.

I really wish I could tell you and show you more about the fascinating anthropological sites on the island, or the dramatic coastline with various red, white and black beaches scattered throughout the island.

Except I really can’t because……

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we barely left the hotel…

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We basically stayed at Anastasis for an entire week, seven nights and eight days. The three times we did venture out it was to make short, but sweet nearby trips to Oia, Fira and Imerovigli, the quintessential touristic stopping grounds of Santorini.

I had a sneaking suspicion that Anastasis Apartments was going to be a nice place to stay. However, I never expected it to be as exceptional as it turned out to be. The moment I arrived at the hotel and stared out into the caldera, I had this strange feeling of…walking on clouds. The utter stillness and immaculateness of the place added to the illusion. It was unbelievably…perfect.

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Anastasis is also a hotel after a true foodie’s heart.

Each morning we woke up to a delightful breakfast of homemade baked breads, croissants, orange juice, Greek yoghurt, hard boiled eggs and fresh fruits.
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Then there were the complimentary snacks at 2:00pm and at around 5:00pm.

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Despina, the owner of the hotel, is one of the most inspirational woman I’ve ever met in my life. She expects nothing but absolute professionalism from her staff. And if perfect was attainable, Despina would have managed to excel in it. Best of all, one can see that everyone that works there is just cheerfulNot only did the really love their jobs, but they also had this talent for making guests feel wonderful.

We were spoiled beyond belief. They’ve managed to excel in the art of providing a lot of privacy while also appearing out of no where. Serious ninja skills my friends. It was at first a bit awkward for me since I’ve grown up being independent and not having things done for me. Let’s just say that it didn’t take long for me to acclimate to the idea of having a pool boy (or three) around.

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Stay tuned for next Tuesday! I am going to post pictures of the places that we visited and the two excursions we managed to squeeze in!

 

Insider Tips

1. Catch a 30 minute flight from Athens International Airport (Elefterios Venizelos Airport) to Santorni.

Unless you are feeling quite adventurous, have plenty of time on your hands and need some excitement in your life, do not take the ferry. I am grateful for this tip my Greek friends willingly shared with me. I’ve read and heard countless horror stories from others who had quite an uncomfortable time. Repeat, DO NOT take the ferry.

You can catch a direct flight to Santorini from Amsteradam on Transavia with services at the start of April and at the end of October.

2. Book early or be very flexible
Booking for the next season starts in the beginning of October. However, if you remain flexible and polite, you may be able to squeeze in.

Warning: If you have your heart set on lying on a sun lounger all day long and comfortably dipping into the infinity pool, you might set yourself up for disappointment if you book in October. It is the start of the Fall season and the winds might not be in your favor.

3. Let Despina and her staff guide you.

Arguably the best travel experiences we’ve had were the ones where locals gave us their advice. Despina and her staff have got it covered. Utilize their tacit knowledge for a guaranteed unforgettable time.

 

 

 

Best European Country to Vacation with Baby – Italy

5 September 2013

 

Question: What is the best European country to vacation with a baby?

 

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 Answer: Italy!

If you’re a family with a baby, toddler or young kids flirting with the idea of doing a bit of vacationing, please seriously consider taking a trip to Italy.

Many of us expats have our Mediterranean favorites. Mine has long been Italy the first time I laid my eyes on her six years ago. Italy has ingeniously mastered the art of living la dolce vita, embracing beauty through everyday life, art, culture, music and food. Best of all, Italians are ABSOLUTELY CRAZY about BABIES.

IMG_1576_Snapseed(Bram Junior making friends in Milan)

For our first real vacation as a family there was no question where we would go – Cinque Terre, Liguria. Being new parents, we wanted to have an amazing vacation that was the least stressful as possible, that would leave us feeling rejuvenated and able to really embrace la vita e bella. Why not then head over to a place we knew that would be baby friendly, have amazing food, breathtakingly unforgettable sights, and irresistible charm?

 

Where To Stay: Hotel Villa Steno 

 

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There’s a reason why Hotel Villa Steno is the number one hotel in Cinque Terre according to TripAdvisor.

It’s because Hotel Villa Steno is simply the best.

Hotel Villa Steno is run by husband and wife team Mateo and Carla who are possibly the most dedicated hotel owners that we’ve ever come across. They are unbelievably accommodating to families, especially those with babies and very young children (they’re parents themselves!). They’ve mastered the art of customer service and hospitality from every detail imaginable:  impeccable cleanliness, promptness, affordability, approachability, warmness..the list goes on and on.

I’m a firm believer that where you stay during your holiday can really make a difference on your lasting impressions of the place, long after you’ve gone home and the euphoria of the most recent vacation has long settled into a more distant place in your everyday reality. Staying at Hotel Villa Steno can make a world of a difference, almost guaranteeing you a fabulous vacation with your baby.

Insider tip 1 : Hotel Villa Steno is one of the very few hotels in the Cinque Terre region that actually has its very own parking lot. Every single travel guide will attest to how parking is a precious commodity in the five villages. Contact them ahead of time to guarantee a spot!

Insider tip 2: Die-hard enthusiasts of Cinque Terre often lament about the commercialization of Monterosso al Mare (where Hotel Villa Steno is located), a village that according to their criticism has strayed away from the authentic village experience. I would actually beg to differ. Lying in the heart of Monterroso al Mare is a community of villagers who love, care and support one another. It’s a place where you will see Nona’s (grandmothers) take their grandchildren to the local playground, the locals attend mass, and everyone knows each other. If you’re traveling with a baby, or young children, it is also the most convenient village to stay in because of it’s readily accessible beaches, plethora of eating options, grocery stores, local

 

Where to Eat: Trattoria dal Billy Manarola

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Billy’s is one of my absolute favorite restaurants in the world. It is a restaurant after a true foodie’s heart. If you are a lover of seafood and/or would love to appreciate fresh homemade pasta, you definitely cannot miss out on Billy’s. It’s authentic Ligurian cuisine and the seafood is caught fresh each day from the local fishermen.

 

Where To People Watch (and Enjoy A Glass of Wine) : Enoteca da Eliseo

 

IMG_4159_Snapseed(Bram Junior with Mary, co-owner of Enoteca da Eliseo)

 

The perfect place to go during that special hour right before dinner and after heading back from a long day of hiking, sightseeing and living life to the fullest under the Ligurian sun is none other than Enoteca da Eliseo. Obviously it’s not the place to linger with a baby, but there’s something absolutely enjoyable about drinking local wine, chatting with the locals and having a nibble before heading off to dinner (or going back to the place after dinner). If you aren’t on parental duty, you should definitely go!

 

Best time to visit:  Every single local in Cinque Terre we asked gave the resounding answer “May” as their absolute favorite time of the year. It coincides with their lemon festival (Sagra dei Limoni) and there are tons of wild flowers everywhere. The beginning of September came a close second.

Unfortunately, the weather gods were not so kind to us during our last visit in May. It was the worst May that any of the locals could ever recall. To be fair, it was a very craptastic Spring 2013 all throughout Europe with snow even making a guest appearance in May in the Netherlands. Perhaps global warming is upon us after all.

Personally, I would actually still give May another chance especially if I was traveling with a baby or very young kids. The hiking trails and villages were littered in flowers and there was a soft, warm breeze. I also love eating outside and would want to avoid those nasty wasps interfering with my much sought after Ligurian delicacies and possibly my baby. Wasps are the most prevalent in September, coinciding right in time with the harvesting of the grapes.

 

How To Get There: Flight and Train

The most convenient way to get to Cinque Terre (from Amsterdam) is to hop on a flight from Amsterdam Schipol Airport to Pisa. We would fly into Milan to visit our son’s godparents and then take a three hour train ride from there.

 

Insider’s tip: Book first class train tickets. The price of a first class, round-trip train ticket is actually quite affordable. Babies are free!

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(Bram Junior with the random Train Conductor who absolutely adored him)

 

The train conductor loved Bram Jr. so much that he actually went back twice just to spend some time with him. We were left open-mouthed when upon seeing our baby he literally couldn’t help himself and beg to hold our bundle of joy. The second time around he brought along a female colleague beaming with pride as if Bram Jr. was one of his own. What parents wouldn’t be flattered?

 

All of these people that we met during our trip were essentially strangers. They opened up their hearts to us the moment they saw our baby. And that’s what makes Italy, the best European country to vacation with a baby – a place that genuinely embraces family.