Posted in Keeping your sanity, Parenting, Uncategorized

International Travel with Kids

When my husband and I moved back to the United States from living in England, we vowed that we would be back one day. That “one day” turned out to take a lot longer than we had anticipated. (Funny how having 3 babies within 46 months will do that!) But, we finally made it back just over a year ago, with all three kids in-tow. Never thought about taking kids overseas? If your children are in elementary school or older, it’s easier than you might think, and the educational value of the trip (not to mention all the eye-popping wonder and excitement) makes it so worth it. I’ll break down how we made it all work.

1. Flight miles. The very first step is to get a good flight miles card — one that earns at least 1.5x miles, but preferably 2x miles. The best flight-miles cards will come with annual fees, but your first free flight more than pays for that instantly. Don’t forget to pay in-full every month, so you don’t incur interest charges! We took our time collecting our miles, so we were able to fly our family of 5 out for not much out-of-pocket.

2. Backpack it. Yes, you read that correctly: backpack it. Why? Portability. We travelled all throughout England, from the southern coast up to the north using trains. There is a lot of walking involved, too, and there is nothing worse than lugging huge suitcases on and off trains and down old streets with uneven brick or pavement. Each person was responsible for his or her own backpack, and it was simple. We had each child bring their school backpacks, and we packed them with 3 changes of clothes only. Don’t fret, we had a way to wash our clothes (more on that below). The front pocket of each backpack held some mechanical pencils and their journal. Bringing journals was a great way to have them chronicle their experience while we were on a train or back at the flat, plus they liked to use them to draw in or play games. The grown-up backpacks carried our own clothes, of course, but they also carried our documents (only when we needed them) and a portable phone charger. The portable charger was essential, since I was using Google Maps and other GPS apps on my phone, along with my camera, all of which ate my battery. I kept my phone plugged into my charger in my backpack, which has a USB port, so I was never low on battery; I recharged the portable charger at night. Save buying your toiletries for when you get to your destination, and carry them in your shopping bag back to where you are staying. Just like at home!

3. Airbnb. If you want to keep costs down, I highly recommend using Airbnb, or another similar site. (We actually used HomeAway for most of our stay, which was a mistake, so I can’t recommend them for international travel.) I totally understand if you are skittish, and want to stay at hotels: they are predictable, offer loads of services, and you can always talk to a live person. But, if you want to keep costs down, I have to recommend arranging your lodging in a flat online. You usually can get the entire flat or apartment to yourself, so there is more privacy, you can feel like a local, you can cook your meals (saves a lot of money!), it can give you and your kids a feeling of having a home-away-from-home, and you can do your laundry at night. That last one was key for us! We specifically booked places that had en-suite laundry facilities, so we just did our laundry when we were in for the night. That helped to keep our packing light and portable.

4. Do your research at home, and try to buy as many of your experiences and train tickets online as possible before you leave. For example, we knew that while we were in London, we wanted to visit certain sites and take a ride on the London Eye. It is a giant time-saver to just sort out your trip itinerary and then book your experiences online before you leave. This helps you avoid long lines and frustration once you are there, and saves your kids from getting too cranky and frustrated themselves. Another thing to remember is that many museums are free or free-with-donation, so definitely seek those out, and be sure to plan for museums designed specifically for kids, which are great fun and educational! Also, if you are moving from city to city or country to country using trains, many offer ticket sales online. I would highly recommend you take advantage of this and order your tickets before you leave. Once you have your itinerary set, complete with your transportation and experiences details, save those on all of the devices you are taking with you (as a backup), and save all of your sales confirmation emails, and back those up as well. Finally, don’t forget to purchase a SIM card for your phone, if needed, so you can make local calls.

5. Locate playgrounds and take time for breaks. This was another biggie for us! I dubbed our trip to the UK a “Tour of Her Majesty’s Playgrounds.” Kids are kids no matter the circumstances, and they want to play. They need unstructured play to help them unwind and be themselves. So, you will do everyone a giant favor by using a maps app or Siri or Google to help you locate playgrounds near where you are. Even just 10-15 minutes of play will go a long way towards keeping your kids happy during your trip and less fussy. Another helpful tip is to make sure you take some breaks, too. We usually stopped for afternoon tea in a café and let them have juice and a snack. This gave everyone a chance to slow down, take in the experience, and recharge. Honestly, trying out all of the different cafés became one of the highlights of the trip for our kids!

Taking kids with you on international trips can be an amazing adventure and a sure way to create special moments they will never forget. By taking your time with saving flight miles, doing careful research, and doing a lot of planning ahead of time, you can have a great trip that is packed with fun, and have some restful moments, too! We already have another international trip in the works, and I can’t wait! What kind of exciting travel adventures would you love to give to your children?

**This is an update!** While we were at the airport, it really helped us to find play places where the kids could play a bit while waiting on our boarding. Not all airports have these, but I think more and more are starting to add places where kids can play a bit. I know the award-winning Indianapolis International Airport has a kids spot! Walking around as much as it is possible is helpful, since it helps to keep them busy and active, and when you do have to be near your gate, games and word searches are fantastic ways to help them keep busy. Finally, try not to board immediately if you can help it. Your kiddos already have to sit for a long time on the plane as it is, so adding an additional 20 or 30 minutes when they have to be in their seat is tough for them (although do make sure you take some laps in the aisle from time-to-time when it is safe to do so). Happy travelling!

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Going Green with Christmas Trees

We’re nearly halfway through December, so I know I’m a little late with this blog, but I’m still excited about sharing this! I love all of the wonderful green possibilities that present themselves with having a real Christmas tree, not to mention the fun memories you create along the way. One of my favorite Christmas memories growing up is decorating our live tree and enjoying the amazing scent wafting from its branches. I know that pine trees do trigger allergies for many people, but if you are someone who can tolerate having live trees in your house, check out why it’s worth the extra time and extra bit of money to cut your own tree.

1. Tree farms, well, grow trees! We all know how vital trees are to our ecosystem. They absorb carbon dioxide and provide us with oxygen. Trees also help reduce air pollution. We depend on trees to survive, and by supporting tree farms, we contribute to the continuation of growing more trees than maybe we otherwise would. It’s also another way to support your local small farms, which we all know is important. A quick google search for your area will show you where the closest Christmas tree farms are located. These tree farmers do work all year long to maintain the quality of the trees, plant new trees, and maintain that signature shape of the tree. You help support their year-long effort when you buy your tree from them.

2. Turn your tree into mulch. Check with your city and see if this is an option where you live, but in many places, the city will collect your tree after Christmas and use it turn it into useable mulch. You can then pick it up and use for your garden, or the city may use for its own landscaping. You are really going full circle here, and nothing gets wasted or ends up in a landfill.

3. Create fun family memories! We love driving out to our local Christmas tree farm and choosing that perfect tree. It’s fun watching the children run around, playing a quick game of hide-and-seek, or marching around the other trees while my husband and I work on cutting down the tree. We sing Christmas carols on the way home, and it’s just a really great time all around! It’s so much fun sharing our favorite memories from the day.

There are so many great reasons to get your own tree! It does take a little bit more effort all around, but we have always felt that it is well worth it. I love watching Christmas movies and taking in the tree’s scent. It’s such a great feeling, and knowing that I’m helping small local business and our environment at the same time is even better!

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Teaching Gratitude

We’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving. In my family, it’s not only a time when we celebrate being together and gathering around a giant meal that we have all helped to create, but it’s also a time when we celebrate being thankful for the blessings we have been given. As we begin eating, we go around the table one-by-one discussing the things, events, or people for which we are thankful. It’s a beautiful reminder that few things are guaranteed in life and how dependent we are on each other, even if it’s not always obvious in the busyness of life.

While Thanksgiving doesn’t happen every day, sadly, I still strive to continue this practice at home when I can. It’s one of many ways in which I work to teach gratitude to my children. When the kids are having a particularly bad day — maybe they are sad because their friends or classmates treated them unfairly, or they are jealous that a friend got a new gaming system — I find that having them list 3 or 4 things for which they are grateful (only when they are calm and not flooded with emotion) really does help to bring a smile back onto their sweet faces. This exercise also has the side benefit of teaching them how to help themselves see the bright side to things. I especially enjoy talking about things they are grateful for when they are in a particularly good mood. I tend to get a longer list that gets sillier as they go along, and it usually ends with a lot of laughter!

Another way I try to teach my children gratitude is by having them help around the house, so they can see the value what others do for them and to not take that for granted. Because of their school activities and sports schedules I have a hard time establishing a set schedule, but during the school week I do have them help put away their clean laundry and help bring up dishes from the table. I always have them clean up food or drink messes they make. On weekends I have them help in bigger ways, since we have a bit more time. Obviously, I’m not asking a lot from them, but I do want to teach them about being helpful and contributing to the work that must be done around the house. They see the value in this and, in turn, are far more grateful for when someone else comes along and helps them.

Raising grateful kids can be a journey with some bumps along the way, but it’s always worth that extra effort. Grateful people are happier people, and of course we want that for our children. If you aren’t in the habit of thinking about what you are grateful for, start today. List 3-5 things you are grateful for on your own every day, and have your kids join in when they are calm, like maybe during dinner. You can watch their little faces light up as they think about their favorite things and know that you are teaching them so much more than any textbook ever could.

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Measuring Success

I’ve been reading a lot of hype online about Idina Menzel’s “poor” (not my words) live, outdoor performance in NYC on New Year’s Eve. I watched it. There were maybe two times that I could hear some imperfections in an otherwise solid, enthusiastic, and meaningful performance. Did I mention that it was live and outside in NYC?! She was singing a range-testing, vocal-chord busting song in probably 20-degree (F) weather (I’m guessing at the temp — I didn’t see the forecast, but it was nighttime in NYC and cold). That temp alone is hard to even talk in, let alone belt out such a huge piece of music, and she did it admirably! She later mentioned on social media that she doesn’t get every single note right in every single number she ever sings, but that’s not how she measures success. I love her honesty. I can’t, obviously, speak for her, but I measure success in part by my own satisfaction and by the ability to communicate and create “magic” in the eyes (ears) of my listeners. When someone comes up to me after a recital excited by the performance or some aspect of the performance that moved them, touched them, or “wow-ed” them, then I’ve done my job. I gave them a musical experience – even a “mini-vacation,” if you will. I’ve succeeded. Did I get every note correct? Unlikely. But who cares? Does that make me any less a musician? Does that make me any less a person? I’m human. Idina is human. We are all human. We are all perfectly imperfect. Is any professional musician ever 110% happy with a performance? We are all perfectionists trying to achieve something that’s not even possible: perfection. But, take the perfectly imperfect human element out of music, well, then, it’s not real. It’s simply not real. If you look at the faces of the people in the crowd as she was singing, it’s obvious they were moved. It’s obvious they were touched by her performance in some way. She did her job. She succeeded as a musician. Let’s drop the overly critical, imperfection microscope and just relax and let music move you. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and touched by music.

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Relying on Other Disciplines

So, I have this recital coming up, quickly, and I’ve found that I’ve become more tense everywhere, which obviously adversely affects my flute playing and, well, everything. Believe me, I found that it really could permeate every aspect of my day. I have been focusing intently on staying relaxed through my playing, even taking tiny breaks fairly often to soften my muscles and regroup mentally. That process is good, but it’s really only part of the solution, I’ve discovered. I noticed that even though my face consistently stayed relaxed and ready to play, my arms and especially my fingers ached and hurt after only a few hours of practice. By my third or fourth day in a row of taking a lot of ibuprofen (nuprophen in the UK, if I remember correctly) I thought to myself that something is definitely wrong here.

I messaged my friend Lynne ( http://flyingflutistas.com/ ) who is a skilled Andover Educator ( http://bodymap.org/main/ ) and talented flutist. She recommended some positions for me that allowed me to relax my spine, which, in turn, relaxed my entire body and mind. I’ve not had to take any medication today for pain, and practicing was fun and felt easy. Since my conversation with her a few days ago, I’ve also added yoga back into my routine and have started running on a more regular basis — not just on Saturdays after the farmers market with the promise of blueberry and dark chocolate pancakes at the end!

In order to be a more well-rounded musician, or parent, or anything, we need to rely on other disciplines to help keep us focused, balanced, and grounded. Even lying flat on the floor with our knees up for 5-10 minutes a few times a day helps a great deal and is a fabulous place to start. I certainly know how busy we can get trying to juggle work, parenting, etc., but we can only do our best when our bodies and minds are at their best. I use several means to make me the best flutist and parent I can be: I run to keep up my stamina and improve my lung function for playing; I now lie flat on the floor a few times a day to allow my spine to lengthen and spinal fluid to reposition; I’ve added yoga back in for concentration and body control; I pray a lot; and I use “mental practice” (imagining myself playing a particularly hard passage) to help with my flute playing. I know without all of these different disciplines working together I would consistently be run-down, frantic, and feeling out of control. I’m certainly not saying that every day is perfect — it’s not! — but I can have more good days and more healthy days when I take the time to do the above for my body, mind, and, in turn, for my flute playing and FAMILY.

A huge thank you to Lynne for reminding me of the importance of the above! ( http://flyingflutistas.com/ )

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I’ve Been Spoiled! Back to the Basics.

So, my second child started school, full-time, a few weeks ago. I now have two children in school, and it’s just my happy toddler and me at home for 6 [mostly] quiet hours. Heaven! Don’t get me wrong; I love my children so very much, but when the older two get bored they get loud and cranky and start arguments just to start arguments. That doesn’t make for good and focused practicing. I started to get frustrated today, but then I stepped back, and thought: Well, that’s what my blog is supposed to be about, right? How do I balance having 3 children at home and a performing career. What have I been telling my readers who pop on my site? Wow, have I been spoiled these past few weeks — so much so that I forgot how I used to manage it 7 days a week for the 13 or so hours per day they are awake.

I found that separation worked incredibly well today. My toddler doesn’t understand sharing quite yet. He’s only two years old, and the reasoning part of the brain hasn’t been fully developed yet (at least, that’s what I remember reading). We’re working on it, but it’s obviously going to take a bit of time. My four year old, who fully understands sharing but doesn’t like it, has a fairly hot temper and will explode at smallest look my toddler gives him and his toys. They broke into a lot of arguing and yelling over toys almost first thing this morning (I think I had exactly one note out of my flute). I explained to my four year old why his hoarding of the toy cars was wrong, and when he wouldn’t hand just one over to the toddler after my second or third request, he got a time-out then sent downstairs. That worked really well for about an hour. I have a baby gate at the top of the stairs, so they were definitely separated. I had to repeat the process after lunch when the toddler kept wrecking my four year old’s block building. Again, it worked incredibly well.

Another trick that worked well today, when they got tired of being in one part of the house or the other, was an educational video (again, PBS Kids Video http://www.pbskids.org/video ). They forgot all about being upset over whatever and focused on a couple of spelling/reading shows. The video was the one thing today that the 2 boys could handle together, but I’ll take it.

I think the lesson for me (and maybe for other parents) here is to try completely separating the children if they can’t manage to get along together — I mean, be honest, we all need a little break sometimes — and to try other diversions once the separation fails. I had to learn today to be patient, do my job as a parent, and find a solution (or at least a temporary fix) to problems that came up so I could do my job as a flutist. I’ve really been on my own, completely, this week, and I think that’s what has made this particular weekend so challenging for me, but taking a step back to analyze the actual problem so I could make some attempt at fixing it helped us all this time.

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Weekend Wickedness

I love the weekend…mostly. The “me” time that happens on Saturday mornings is so necessary and relaxing, the endless pancakes coming off the griddle greeted by smiling faces, and that freedom from schedules and the daily grind all make the weekend so wonderful! Unfortunately, sometimes, the weekend can almost be more stressful for a performing musician gearing up for a recital (like I am doing now) or a week of rehearsals and concerts (fast approaching). Yes, it’s necessary for everyone to step back and take a break from life’s work or even one’s passion, but reality seems to dictate what actually needs to get done: notes learned, passages memorized, stamina strengthened. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it happens with daily, routine work — hard work. Even as I write this, that nagging voice in the back of my head is saying, “yes, but you need to allow your muscles time to rebuild and repair after the work.” Suddenly, I relax and acknowledge that I’m not a machine. As soon as the relaxation sets in, my other nagging voice pipes up, “you had better get on that flute or you are going to forget how to play that darn thing!” I feel a headache setting in.

Yes, I do love the weekend, but I find myself during my busy time craving the productive practice time that I get during the week. (I’m so weird! Who wishes for the weekend to end?!?!) Don’t get me wrong; I do take advantage of the weekend to spend a little extra time with my children and family. I need it. We all need it! But, I hate those voices chiming in about what I “should” be doing. This reminds me of a saying from one of my friends: don’t “should” on yourself. So perhaps the lesson here is to be happy doing whatever you are doing in that particular moment. Be in the moment. Yes, I have to practice — that is the reality — but enjoying being in the moment free of nagging voices is so much more healthy and productive than getting through that phrase just one more time.