Fun with Friends in Germany

Our trip to Germany last weekend went wonderfully — no major issues with travel, accommodations, or misbehaving children. Huzzah! That’s not to say the journey wasn’t difficult. We arrived in Hamburg at 9:30 PM, transferred Violet from the baby carrier to the car seat with wheels, then picked up our rental car, installed the car and booster seats, and started our three-hour drive at about 10:30. I brought my own GPS, and the road to Göttingen was pretty straightforward. I kept myself awake by blasting Michael Jackson (at Liam’s request) and slapping myself in the face a couple of times. And by 2 AM we made it! My friends Christie and Michael had our beds all made up, and after a quick change into jammies, we all completely passed out until the morning.

Interesting observation about the traffic lights in Germany: while they are all still placed on the asinine near side of the intersection, the light would flash yellow briefly before it turned green, thus alerting drivers to prepare to step on the gas. Genius!

Saturday morning my children were up bright and early, per usual. Seriously, you went to bed at 2AM and you’re still up at 7? My children have no concept of sleeping in.

At any rate, we had a lovely breakfast of pastries and donuts from the local bakery, and the kids met their new playmates, Maya and Felix. Maya, nearly 10, loved sitting with Violet and showing off her Monster High dolls, while Felix, age 5, loved dancing around the living room with Liam. They all made fast friends.

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The weather was a little colder than we’re accustomed to — we left Greece at 80 degrees, and arrived in Germany to a chilly 45. But we bundled up and headed out to see the little German university town of Göttingen. We took the kids to Thalia, a two-story bookstore with a little castle slide for the boys to play on. Violet snoozed away in the bike trailer/stroller while Michael graciously walked her around in circles outside. Christie and I caught up over hot drinks — mine a bit on the overflowy side.

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After picking up a few fresh fruits at the farmer’s market (called the Wochenmarkt), Christie suggested we try a fabulous German street food, Currywurst and pommes. We stood at a barrel and gobbled down all that sausagy and French fry deliciousness — so good!

Having lived in Germany for five years, Christie had completely immersed herself in the language. It was interesting to hear her conversations and find myself somewhat following along. Amazing how much German I can still understand after all of these years! Granted, I could barely speak a word myself, aside from hello, please, thanks, sorry, and the like. But I have a feeling if we ever ended up in Germany, I’d more easily be able to pick it up than I have with Greek. Course, if I actually put any effort into my Greek studies…

Sunday morning we had another fabulous breakfast, this time homemade pancakes with orange-vanilla syrup, expertly prepared by Christie. I remember she always liked to cook back in our college days. Michael’s not too shabby with a frying pan, either. His scrambled eggs and bacon were deemed amazingly edible by my pickiest progeny.

20170430_130411Then we were off to do the most German thing we could think of: Hike up a hill in the woods to a Beirgarten and have brats and beer. This is apparently how Germans most love to spend their Saturday afternoons, at least in Lower Saxony. Liam did remarkably well, especially once we got him a hiking stick…or two. Resembling a cross-country skier, he hiked up with relatively little complaining (for him…there was definitely some griping about the temperature as we started off through the Schillerwiesen, but he soon warmed up…and shut up). Violet slept on my back most of the way. After an hour or so, we arrived at the top for our much-deserved brats and beer. I ordered a huge Dunkel Hefewiessen, one of my favorites. Liam even ate a brat! After Michael painstakingly peeled off the skin. I owe this guy a beer!

When Violet finally roused herself and munched on some bread, we headed over to the nature preserve to see the native “wild” boars. The kids were fascinated…and the boars were loud! Many altercations led to loud squealing. They really do squeal like pigs!

On our way back home, we kept seeing this pretty green plant, and I was told I really must try the ice cream flavor that is made from this plant, Waldmeister. Challenge accepted! It wasn’t hard to talk the kids into stopping for ice cream before dinner. And indeed, Icelust had both vanilla and Waldmeister, so Liam and I were both happy. The flavor was fantastic…and sort of indescribable. It was green like pistachio, but not quite as sweet. Definitely worth trying next time you find yourself in Deutchland! Violet enjoyed her ice cream…and Maya’s. Her adorableness lends itself well to her thievery.

Monday afternoon Christie and Michael suggested we drive over to the Gottingen Kiessee, a small lake and park area where you can rent paddle boats and the kids can play on a playground shaped like a pirate ship. “Sounds great!” I said, “But…we can’t all fit in my rental car, right?”

Apparently renting a car for the afternoon is as easy as checking an app, walking to a nearby car, and driving it to your house. It really is an amazing age we live in! Now I can see how easily they can get by without a car in Europe.  Not only can you easily rent a car for a few hours, but the town is incredibly bike-friendly, so most people get around on two wheels when they can. I’m not sure if I would survive as well without a car in Athens. Biking here is hazardous to your health, both because of traffic and pollution. I heart Germany.

The kids loved the paddle boats…though Violet was just a tad hard to handle. Liam did his best to help Michael paddle our boat, but he couldn’t quite reach the pedals. I jumped in there for a bit, until Violet squirmed out of my arms and got a little too close to the edge for my comfort. Seriously, I owe this guy two beers!

We had a lovely mid-day meal at the boathouse restaurant overlooking the water (or Bootshaus, as they call it in German). The kids feasted on schnitzel, pommes and garden peas…and I had the most amazing tomato soup and “schokolade kucken” (which is incidentally my favorite German word, meaning “chocolate cake”). Then they were off to the pirate ship. Ahoy, matey!

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Faced with an extremely early rise the next morning to catch our flight, I decided to drive up to Hamburg that evening and stay in a hotel near the airport. I am now an expert at international traveling with young children. No elevator, and our room is on the third floor? No problem! I got this. I can seriously conquer the world now. We arrived home on Tuesday without incident. (And we got to try Turkish ice cream during our layover in Istanbul. Very different from gelato and ice cream I’ve had in Europe — so thick and sticky!)

Thank you to Christie and Michael, and their amazing children Maya and Felix, for being such wonderful hosts and showing us around their lovely German city. Thanks to Michael for taking all of these great photos, ensuring that I’m actually in some for a change! We had a fantastic time.  I hope someday soon we can return the favor in Athens!

Oh, mein Gott in Himmel!

I have so much to say about our trip to Italy, I really do. I have a ton of pictures to share and amusing anecdotes, but I’ve been consumed with something else right now.

Back in March I had the brilliant idea to book tickets to Germany for me and the kids to visit my college friends who I haven’t seen for the better part of a decade. Can you believe I took three years of German in school and never once went to Germany? I’ve been wanting to visit for years now.

I wanted to book them before Violet turned two so she could still ride on my lap, and Liam has a long weekend for the May 1 holiday, so it worked out perfectly. I caught a fare sale to Hamburg, and while the times and layovers weren’t exactly ideal (It’s as if no one from Athens would ever consider going to Germany…), I figured I could handle it. I’m becoming an accomplished solo parent traveler.

But then…

With the whirlwind of planning and executing our elaborate spring break plans, I didn’t start to figure out the details of our trip to Germany until we got back from Venice. I hadn’t really considered how I was going to get from Hamburg to my friends in the Saxony countryside, my friends who don’t have a car, but surely there’d be a train, yes?

I opened up Google Maps and plugged in my friends’ address, which turned out to be a 2.5 hour train ride from Hamburg. Whoops. Well, that was something I should have figured out before I booked us a ticket that got in so late at night. Sheesh!

And, it turns out, the last train of the night to their town departs before I would even have time to catch it because my stupid flight gets in so late. So, ok, after some back and forth with my friends, we found a nice hotel by the airport, and a morning train that would get us there before noon the next day. All set.

But then…

I started to figure out my return trip. The airline decided to cancel the flight I had intentionally booked for the early-afternoon, and instead put me on a flight that left three hours earlier, in the very inconvenient mid-morning. The train times back either got us there super early or a little too close for comfort, and the return ticket was about three times the price, too.

Between the hotel and expensive train tickets, I figured for same price I could simply rent a car for the long weekend. I don’t relish having to check the car seat and booster seat while traveling alone with two children, but renting two seats from the car rental place was stupidly expensive.

And as much as I love mass transit, our recent ride from Rome to Venice wasn’t so fun with a squirmy, hard-to-entertain toddler. At least when she’s confined to a car seat with a few books and toys, I don’t have to sit and entertain her. And the kids will likely sleep the whole way down.

The way back will be even less enjoyable. We’ll have to leave by 5AM to catch our early flight, then sit around for four hours to wait for the second leg. And, of course, changing flights costs almost as much as I paid for the stupid tickets.

But, I refuse to let the journey diminish my excitement. I get to drink German beer in Germany! I get to drive on the Autobahn! (Not at the same time, of course.) And my friends have kids the same age as Liam, so I’m sure we’ll have a great time catching up while the kids play. I love these guys, and I can’t wait to see their kiddos. I haven’t seen their oldest daughter since she was 11 months old. She’s almost 10! A restful weekend in a small German town will be wonderful.

Wish us luck. We’re gonna need it. Next up, Italy photos, I promise!

 

Home for the Holidays

We had a whirl-wind three weeks back in the States over the holidays — we stayed with my in-laws in Kentucky, plus my parents drove up from Missouri, and we drove to Indianapolis to see my grandma, aunts and uncles. We saw just about everyone, opened tons of gifts (Liam gets double for Christmas and his birthday), ate so much junk food (cookies and pies, plus all the fast food we’d been craving that we can’t get in Greece) and now we’re finally back home. On the plane ride over, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Athens being home. Almost one year in, and it still feels like a foreign country. It probably always will. But while the city still feels like a place we don’t quite belong, our house does feel like home. The kids missed their toys (Santa brought a bunch of new ones while we were away!) and we all missed sleeping in our own beds. I also missed our heated floors.

This was our first trip back home at Christmas time, and it will likely be our last. Thankfully we didn’t hit any bumps in our travel, but winter is a notoriously terribly time of year to fly. Add to that all of the extra luggage we had to bring for bulky winter clothes, then the two new suitcases we bought just to accommodate all the presents, and we still had to mail back a sizeable package of things that wouldn’t fit. Carrying coats and taking out all our new tablets through three sets of security screenings…yeah, I’m still not sure why it’s necessary to LEAVE the terminal and go back in if you’ve got an international layover in Chicago and Vienna. We also discovered there are no direct flights to the States from Athens in the winter, hence the two layovers both coming here last winter and going back this winter. We’ve got two more trips back to the States planned in the next three years, and both will be in the summer.

Halloween in Transylvania

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A well-timed business trip to Romania turned into a perfect long-weekend getaway for our family. Just in time for Halloween, we booked a private tour of Bran Castle, famed residence of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Peles Castle in Transylvania. We’d be staying in Bucharest for a few days, and I managed to find what turned out to be the perfect hotel for our family. The Orhideea Health & Spa offers spacious two-bedroom apartments for about 100 Euros a night. A large Carrefour down the street and numerous take-away restaurant options meant we could focus on fun family sight-seeing without worrying about what to do for dinner. Breakfast was included, which made me and the kids happy. They also serve dinner in a restaurant on the top floor, though we didn’t think the food was very good. We ended up not using the spa or the indoor pool, but it was nice to know those options were available.

Our flights were all kind of wonky this trip. James had to fly in from Timisoara in the afternoon while the kids and I flew Tarom Airlines (Romania’s premier, ahem, only airline) from Athens in the middle of the night. We didn’t make it to the hotel until 2 AM. Uncharacteristically, I’d not done a lot of vacation planning for this trip, so we hurriedly scoured Trip Advisor for some kid-friendly sight-seeing options.

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First stop, the train museum! Because…Liam. The Muzeul CFR is housed in the Gara de Nord train station, sort of the grand central station of Budapest. After admiring the big trains and watching a couple of them pull out of the station, we mosied over to the museum at the end of one of the platforms. Inside we found all sorts of artifacts, maps, and models of trains throughout history. But the most impressive of all was a huge model train that was an actual scale model of real areas throughout Romania. We met a wonderful docent who delighted Liam (and us!) with fun facts about the model and about trains in general. I asked if I could take photos, but he said we would have had to pay a fee when we bought our ticket. (We learned later this is common at all of the museums.) We had the place pretty much to ourselves, and because the museum was so small, I think Liam took his time really looking around.

Next, we decided to give the subway system a go. We find it so interesting how different cities and countries manage their transportation systems. While Athens works on an honor system, with simple ticket validation and a hefty fine if you’re caught without a proper ticket, Budapest uses a scanner and turnstile. The train cars were quite nice, with benches running along the walls, and the cars were wider than in Athens. The space between cars was completely open, so as the train made a turn you could see the bend in the cars all the way down the track. Quite a sight to see!

We spent the rest of the cold, dreary afternoon looking for a good museum. Liam spotted a huge Triceratops skull in front of the Muzeul National de Geologie, so we ended up going there. The skull was a bit misleading — there were a few dino models inside, but mostly it housed a vast collection of rocks. As you can imagine, that only took about 30 minutes for Liam to breeze right through. Just as well — we had a big day ahead of us in Transylvania the next day, so best to pace ourselves.

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By the end of our first day we were marveling at how affordable everything is in Romania. Museum tickets were all less than 5 Euros, we got a HUGE two-bedroom apartment for the cost of a single hotel room, and groceries cost half of what they would in Athens. Perhaps this is because Romania opted to keep its currency, the Lei, instead of switching to the Euro. Interestingly, Romanian leis are made of plastic instead of paper, and each bill has a small, transparent shape, like a little window (that’s what Liam called it).

Cristi, our private tour guide, met us bright and early Friday morning in our hotel lobby. The service we booked through Viator actually contacted us to suggest we switch to a private tour because we had a small child, and it was definitely worth the extra 50 Euros. They provided a car seat free of charge, and our guide was fantastic. As we drove out of the city, Cristi told us all sorts of facts about Budapest, some history about Romania, and we talked at length about his experiences as a child living under the Communist regime. He was only about nine when the wall fell, but he remembers his parents and grandparents having to stand in long lines for food. And he remembers how excited he was to try McDonald’s for the first time! He said he dreams to one day visit New York City, and he was thrilled to hear that we’d lived there once. I guess it’s very difficult for Romanians to get a US Visa these days. He hopes that will change soon. He also told us Romanians love almost anything American, especially the holidays, like Halloween. No trick-or-treating there, but lots of decorations up around town!

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As we approached our first stop, Peles Castle, we were told about its grand history and even grander rooms. It’s really more like a palace, with 170 ornately decorated rooms,  30 of which are bathrooms. James and I would have thoroughly enjoyed the guided tour if we could have ditched the kids. First off, it was still quite dreary and cold, even colder in the mountains, and Liam was NOT HAPPY about this situation. Then, Liam was under the mistaken impression that we’d be getting a private tour of the castle, so he threw a fit when we had to crowd in with a huge group of strangers for the English-language guided tour. He finally calmed down a bit when I exasperatedly handed him the camera and told him to start taking photos. But then Violet decided she wanted to nurse RIGHT NOW. Thankfully there was a female docent who overheard Violet’s pleas and motioned me to come around a curtain where there was a chair and a little bit of privacy. I say “little bit” because from the tour group’s vantage point, I probably looked like part of the exhibit. Sheesh. When we finally made it out and met Cristi in the courtyard, he asked if we’d like to tour the grounds. We opted for hot chocolate at the café instead.

Refreshed and in slightly better spirits, we stopped for lunch at Halewood Winery in Prahova Valley. Cristi recommended a few Romanian delicacies on the menu — the tripe soup (we opted for the less, um, intestiny option, beef soup), the “skinless sausages” called Mititei, and a Romanian dessert which was like a large, round donut covered in cream and blueberries. Romanian food is soooo good!

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Bellies full, we continued our trek through the Carpathian Mountains to Bran Castle. The clouds cleared out and the temperature rose. Beautiful fall foliage followed us up, down and around the curves, while craggy, white rocky outcrops rose impossibly high up ahead.

Now, clear your minds of all that spooky Dracula stuff. Bram Stoker set his infamous vampire tale at Bran Castle, but he’d never actually been here. And subsequent renovations by Queen Marie have transformed it into an almost quaint neo-classical cottage. But no bother — it’s still way up on a hill, and the tourists love it. No tour groups — we were free to roam around ourselves, and Cristi served as our private tour guide, pointing out various rooms and telling us of the history of the place. Liam loved walking through the narrow halls and peeking into the tidy rooms. dsc_0112 He especially loved the secret staircase through the walls discovered behind the fireplace. At the base of the castle stood a huge collection of souvenir booths. Cristi said that until the movies, Romanians hadn’t even heard of Dracula. This tourist industry sort of cropped up when people started showing up wanting to see the place. It was all a bit kitchy, but we couldn’t leave without getting a magnet, a statue of the castle for our mantel, and couple of T-shirts. Liam picked out a bell with Vlad the Impaler’s picture on it. We explained to him all about Vlad and the Dracula myth. He seemed to get the gist.

dsc_0153 On our final day we went to the Natural History Museum, which was VERY COOL! Better than I’d imagined it would be. Very modern, like a museum you’d see in the States. From there we took the subway to beautiful Herastrau Park. After riding the little choo-choo train (seems like we’ve always got to do that wherever we go!) we discovered the best Romanian street food ever: spiral potatoes. Actually, who knows if these are really Romanian, but who cares? They totally hit the spot. And of course we had to try the Kurtos Kalacs, fried bread molded around a thick rod, then coated in sugar. Sweet crunchy deliciousness!

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Lunch and done. Let’s look at some little houses! Next we took a lovely stroll through the Village Museum, an outdoor display of quaint little houses they moved from the countryside dating from 18th-early 20th century. You couldn’t go into most of them because they were too fragile. But with the falling leaves, lovely lake, and traditional music, we really felt transported in time. I spotted a sign for hot wine. Wine…for a cold fall day, you say? Sure, let’s give it a whirl. It smelled great, like cinnamon apple cider with a hint of tannins. But it tasted kind of revolting. I thought as it cooled it would taste better. It didn’t.

Our trip ended too soon. I wish we could have had just one more day. Cristi highly recommended seeing the Parliament Palace, reputedly the second largest building in the world behind the Pentagon. But we were worried the kids wouldn’t do well on another lengthy guided tour. We also missed seeing the Old Town, a few blocks of medieval buildings in the heart of the city. Perhaps when we return to Budapest someday we’ll be able to see them. Maybe we can leave the kids at home, ha!

We’re actually thinking of making a return trip to Romania in the spring, this time staying in Timisoara and seeing some of the more medieval castles associated with Vlad the Impaler. Perhaps they’ll scratch that spooky Dracula itch that Bran Castle didn’t. Budapest, Hungary is a relatively short train ride from there, too. This trip went so much better than Malta, I have high hopes that our family will be able to survive more travel!

A transatlantic flight: Canadian edition

And so it was with a heavy heart that we left our friends and family in Kansas City to board a plane back to Athens. We were sad to say goodbye, but happy to get to see daddy again after three long weeks. Look how happy we were:

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Little did we know what we had in store.

You’d think with the mishaps from our trip to the US three weeks ago that things would go better. And they did…but just slightly. The first leg from Kansas City to Toronto went pretty smoothly. In fact, the passenger load was so light, I’d almost venture to say it was pleasant. Freezing…but pleasant. We arrived in Toronto to discover our flight was on time as scheduled, woo hoo! We had time for some duty free shopping (mmmm…ice wine) and a meal before we had to board.

As we made our way down the aisle, I noticed there were no TVs in the backs of the headrests like on our last flight (and every international flight I’ve taken in the last two years). Liam noticed, too. Here we go again.

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The friendly flight attendant informed me that I was welcome to use the CanadaAir app to watch an array of programing on the device of my choice, except there wasn’t actually any wifi I could use or headphones I could borrow, so really he was inviting me to go back in time, download the app, pack my headphones and the iPad charger in my carry-on luggage, then board the plane with a happy child. Instead Liam sullenly informed me, “You know, mom, I can be angry for 11 hours.” Don’t I know it.

Amazingly, this wasn’t even close to the worst thing that happened that night. We boarded around 4:30, and after awhile they decided to inform us there was a problem with the plane and maintenance was coming to fix it. THREE HOURS LATER, they announced that (yay!) the problem was fixed…but (boo!) there appeared to be water leaking on some electronics somewhere. “The plane is broke…everybody off!” Actually, this was Canada, so they were very chipper and polite…but that’s basically what they said. Eight hours into my second trip flying solo with two kids, and this pretty much sums up my reaction.

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But my children, my sweet unassailable children, got off that plane and delightedly ran around the terminal with laughter and smiles. Watching them, I couldn’t help but dry my tears and realize how lucky I am.

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Liam took his big brother duties very seriously, chasing his sister as she went and making sure they both stayed where I could see them. Many of the passengers already knew Violet — she’d mosied up and down the aisles to say hello to everyone while we sat on the tarmac. One woman, who said she was a dance instructor, remarked that Violet had very good coordination for her age, and I should consider signing her up for dance. They start as young as 18 months. Wow!

We boarded the new plane at 10, then sat around for ANOTHER HOUR after the pilot apologetically announced they were having ANOTHER problem with the new plane. You have got to be kidding me. Thankfully this problem was fixable, and no new problems were discovered, so by 11:30 we were off! By this time Liam didn’t care to watch TV. In fact, he passed out before they even served dinner. He slept well…Violet and I not so much. Violet finally settled down when I resolved to just constantly nurse her, which meant I didn’t really get to sleep.

We finally got home, six hours delayed, an exhausted heap. Everyone went to bed early. Except the baby, who woke up at 1 AM and didn’t settle down again until 4 AM. James went to work, and the next time I looked at the clock it was 3 in the afternoon! Tonight Liam went to bed at 1:30 AM, Violet went to bed at 3, and I’m still wide awake at 4:15. I was thinking the jet lag going from Europe to the US was worse, but it appears I had that backwards. We’ve got until Monday to get our nights and days straight again: Liam starts summer camp at 9 AM.

 

A transatlantic flight…with children

If you find yourself with the misfortune of flying on your own with your children, take heart! I have just been through a doozy of a travel experience, and I have some wisdom to impart. I was traveling solo with my seven-year-old son and 14-month-old daughter from Athens, Greece, to Kansas City. Please note that if your kids are older that five, you will read this with nostalgic amusement. This will all be schadenfreude for you. And if you’re only traveling on a plane for a few hours, your job is seriously cake in comparison (trust me, I just did that and it was so much easier). The rest of you, please take notes. Learn from my mistakes. And if you’re smart, you’ll follow my first bit of advice: Don’t even attempt it. I probably wouldn’t have if my oldest weren’t such a good little traveler. But if you must…here’s what I have to say about the matter.

For the love of Pete, buy your baby a seat. Ten hours entertaining a baby is no picnic, but doing it while she sat in my lap the whole time would have been nigh on impossible. The meal service alone is unthinkable. Buying a seat for your toddler is expensive, especially when she can ride in your lap for free until she’s two. But on a transatlantic flight, I would hardly call that “free.” I’ve seen people use these inflight bassinets with their lap-sitting babies, but you still have to take them out and hold them during takeoff, landing, and turbulence. And while Violet fell asleep in my arms a couple of times, she also spent a good chunk of time snoozing in her car seat. I even managed to get through three quarters of a movie! In ten hours! But that was more because of my next point…

Do not rely on the inflight entertainment options. I’ve often pondered if I should bother bringing along activities for my oldest because he can just watch TV on the flight. But I always do, and I’m so glad I did. Halfway through our flight our entire row of back-of-the-seat monitors shorted out, so we couldn’t get any movies to play or get the map of our progress to display. Liam took it a little like this:

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Actually, we’ve been working on his anger issues, so it was more like barely contained seething rage. But after plying him with Nesquick cereal and a book of mazes, he was back to sitting quietly.

If you have a toddler, buy these two indispensable items right now. After much research, we purchased this car seat, which is one of the narrowest on the market. We use it for both our car and for travel, and it has served us well. So far it has fit in every airline seat we’ve tried – and you can usually put the arm rests up if it doesn’t quite fit. I also lucked out finding one of these car seat travelmate at a garage sale, and it has been a life-saver. I can either roll her around in it like a stroller, or I can carry her in the Bjorn when she’s going through that I-want-to-be-so-close-to-mommy-I’m-a-part-of-her phase.

Snacks, snacks, and more snacks. Inflight meals almost never appeal to my picky eaters, so having a cache of snacks was essential. I can’t say they were the healthiest snacks – goldfish crackers, cereal, rice cakes, and those Gerber Graduates snack foods. Again, picky eaters. But they saved the day on numerous occasions.

When all else fails, go for a stroll. Violet just learned to walk, so a stroll up and down the aisles was just the thing she needed to get out her wiggles. It also endeared her to the other passengers and crew so they might forgive us when she started getting fussy. She stopped to say “hi” to anyone who would make eye contact, all with an adorable ear-to-ear smile.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I can’t tell you how many times I relied on the kindness of strangers. They helped me with my bulky luggage. They helped me put things in the overhead bins and take them out. They helped me keep my toddler smiling. They looked after Liam while I ran to the restroom. I even had the co-pilot on our last flight help me take out the car seat. Mostly people offered, but I did ask a few times, as well. It truly does take a village, and I’m grateful to everyone who gave me a helping hand.

Prepare for the worst. When we landed in Newark, my kids had completely passed out. And as if a 10-hour-flight followed by the ushering of two pint-sized zombies through customs wasn’t enough, we got to the gate just in time to discover our flight had been cancelled due to weather. I hadn’t packed any extra clothes in our carry-on bags (Where to fit that, I ask you?), I had a European phone that didn’t work in the US, and the airport WiFi, much like everything I’ve experienced in the greater NYC area, didn’t work as promised. Thankfully I was able to use the airport courtesy phone to alert my parents to my situation, and I was able to recover my checked suitcase.

After waiting in the “Travel Assistance” line for almost an hour, the agent informed me that the airline would comp me for a new ticket (booked the next afternoon) leaving from a different NYC airport (annoying…), an overnight stay in Newark’s finest establishment (riiiight), and all of our meals and transportation costs. Except….all the rooms at the nearby hotels were booked up. This was my reaction:

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Actually, I was so jet lagged, this was all going on in my head while I stared in dazed disbelief. But he gave me detailed instructions on how to call for a hotel room and find the hotel shuttles.

Your adorably pathetic children are your secret weapon. Use their cuteness to your advantage. Maria, my savior at the baggage claim desk, took one look at my offspring,


then pulled a few strings to get me a room at the Ramada. I am eternally grateful. She also loaded us down with snacks, water and diapers before sending us to collect our bag. Little did we know we’d be waiting for over an hour for it to spit out of the baggage carousel. But at least we didn’t have to worry about getting a room.

And finally, after no sleep for 24 hours (Murphy’s Law, Violet got me up at 5AM the day we left), and 19 hours of waiting in airports, sitting on planes, and waiting in lines, we made it to our hotel around 11 PM. Aaaand then the next morning the children and I woke up at 4AM, bright eyed and ready for breakfast that didn’t start until…7 AM. Ugh. My one consolation is that on our cab ride from Newark to LaGuardia, the kids got to see New York City for the first time, and I was seeing it for the first time in over a decade. I’ve talked to Liam at great length about the year that James and I lived there before he was born, so he was very curious. Particularly about how it would smell, and of course everything about the subway.

We had a few hiccups at LaGuardia – an hour at the ticket counter and a three-hour thunderstorm delay on the tarmac — but we finally made it to Kansas City…23 hours after we were supposed to. And in a few weeks we get to fly all the way back to Athens again.

God help us.

The Journey

Let me first say that my kids are amazing. Travelling internationally is incredibly difficult even without children, and they behaved very well. They each had only one “incident” worth noting. Poor little Violet screamed her head off until we hit cruising altitude on the first leg from Wichita to Chicago. But otherwise she either slept on me or slept in her car seat, and she was happy to sit on my lap and look around, grinning at strangers and winning the love and praise of everyone lucky enough to sit by us. One lady even asked to hold her, and Vi was happy to oblige. Liam was likewise on his best behavior. His only incident was in line to get on the 747 from Chicago to Frankfurt, when he lost his patience standing around and started yelling that this line “better get moving or else!” There was some feet stomping and fist clenching, but he managed to hold it together for most of our 24-hour journey.

The kids both slept pretty well on the trans-Atlantic flight. I even got to watch a couple of movies (Spy and Mad Max: Fury Road — I’m realizing what a hilarious juxtaposition those movies make!) We lucked out in Chicago and our connection was just at the other end of the terminal. Usually our connections at O’Hare are miles from each other, or so it seems. Little did we know that the airport in Frankfurt is even bigger and more spread out. We walked and walked and walked and walked. James and I were functioning on zero sleep (despite our well-behaved, snoozing kids, neither of us can actually sleep on planes), so the walk was even more exhausting. At least customs was a breeze: hardly any line, and unlike the last time we flew through Frankfurt, we didn’t have to go through a security line.

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Liam entertains Vi in Frankfurt. These kids are amazing!

We had a couple of hours to kill at our gate, and our kids, still in good spirits amazingly, played on the floor and people-watched. I saw half a dozen airport employees ride down the corridor on bicycles. Apparently a necessity for making it around the huge place. Before we knew it, they called for everyone to stand in line and get ready to board. And off we went…or so we thought. We went through a door…then down some stairs (no easy feat with all the luggage we were carrying), then out to a bus. Wait, what? Liam leaned up and asked, “Are we taking a bus to Athens, then?” Dear, God, I hope not. Then we drove around in circles on the tarmac until we arrived at our plane.

You MUST be joking. Seriously?! An old-school stairway on wheels? What is this, the 1960s? No sweat when you’re a jet-setting couple, but for a family of four travelling with a car seat and two huge carry on bags a piece? Not. Fun. Picture a car seat on suitcase wheels being dragged up a set of bleachers. I was so delirious from jet-lag and lack of sleep, I couldn’t help but laugh hysterically at every step.

Finally aboard and buckled in (which, BTW, installing a car seat on a plane four times — we had to move it once — is also Not. Fun.), we were on our way. Violet slept the entire time, and Liam did math and writing workbooks, making me feel a little less guilty for taking him out of school for a week.

Then, feeling like an extra on The Walking Dead, we managed to collect our massive amount of luggage and wheel it out of the airport. The rest is a blur — one of James colleagues picked us up with the motorpool and got us to our hotel. With bleary eyes I soaked in all the sights and sounds: massive hills, vistas overlooking the city, motorcycles zipping between cars. He said the biggest complaints about Athens are the traffic and the smoking. He also said Greeks love children, and not to be surprised if some stranger asks to hold Violet. He said some other things…words…words…nothing important I hope. By 3 o’clock (or 15:00, as they say here. That’s going to take some getting used to), the whole family had completely passed out in our beds.

I’m sure in a few days we’ll be feeling more like ourselves again. In the meantime, no rest for the weary! We must get this kid enrolled in school!