Travel Pairings: Literature & lodging in Catalunya, Spain

What to read before making a trip to Catalunya, Spain—the region that includes Barcelona.

When I begin planning to visit a new destination, my thoughts turn first to literature. Oh, I always skim a guidebook or two, and I do the now obligatory stroll through TripAdvisor and Google’s offerings, but I go places to try to understand them. I want to get a sense of the gestalt of the community.

Who are these people? How has the local culture evolved? Why does a visit here offer up its particular sounds, tastes, and experiences?

For a bookworm like me, the answers—or at least, the first teasing tastes of truth—come most readily via literature. Whether the perspective of a book is that of an insider or a sojourner in a foreign land, the contours of the place begin to take shape as I delve into its stories.

What I read before visiting Barcelona

Black Bread by Emili Teixidor

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas R. Hicks

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (skimmed)

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

Major Themes: Spanish Civil War and man’s relationship with food

I began my exploration of Catalan culture with one of the few novels I could find translated from that language: the award winning Black Bread. Here is a great work of literature, evocatively written, even in translation. It was a lovely read, and I enjoyed it immensely, but I do love a heavy novel bursting with symbolism, deeper meaning, and complex themes. I.e., this isn’t a beach read.

Spain Catalan book quote Black Bread - 1And here is some of what I noticed about the intersection of Spain and Travel: so very many people seem to think only of the hedonistic pleasures of warm sand and tapas when they contemplate a visit to the region. My visits have all been in late fall or winter, and my interests tend toward museums and history, so take my reckoning with that grain of salt. Continue reading

Barcelona 2017: B&B Wine & Cooking in El Pla del Penedès, Spain review

Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.

Foodie fantasy outside the city of Barcelona

Here’s a not-so-secret secret: I’ve avoided driving in any nation except my ownokay, I’m ignoring Canada. Forgive me, neighbor to the north! But your roads are so similar to my own, and I can bring my own trusted car. It doesn’t count.

On this, my most recent trip to Europe, I faced a conundrum. Hire a rental car, or give up a much anticipated trip?

Barcelona 2017 B and B Wine Cooking car Renault Espace - 1

Renault Espace, felt like the largest car in  Spain

I rented a car. I hated almost every minute of driving the lovely but oversized Renault Espace in even small cities like Vilafranca del Penedès and Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, but it did provide me with the means to reach a really sublime rural experience: a mother and son private cooking class with the owner at B&B Wine & Cooking in El Pla del Penedès, about 45 minutes outside of Barcelona.

Background: civil unrest in Catalunya & a nervous husband

Barcelona 2017 Vilafranca Catalan flag - 1

Monument in Vilafranca with Catalan flag flying proud, NOT the national flag of Spain

My husband, whom we might politely describe as “travel averse,” was trying to dissuade me from joining him in Barcelona with DS2 at all. DH was near to canceling his own appearance at a really interesting conference. Why? The Catalan independence movement, and media depictions of dissent and violence that were widespread in the months leading up to our trip.

Back in the spring, when I found a reasonable* coach airfare to join DH on this jaunt to Spain, I immediately invited my children to come along. Shocking no one, my little guy opted to miss a week of school and join us; to my chagrin, my punk teen decided he would rather stick to his usual academic routine at home and demurred.

Though I find myself pondering whether someone could have switched DS1 at birth** for my rightful child, I do sort of understand the teenager’s desire to assert his independence by doing something—anything!—different from what his parent suggests.

Beyond the city limits: choosing an experience

So there were three of us headed to Spain in the early winter of 2017. We would be staying in the heart of Barcelona for the four nights of the conference. After that, DH booked his ticket home at the earliest possible moment. To save over $1000 each, DS2 and I needed to stay over until Saturday.

Barcelona 2017 B and B Wine Cooking outside flowers

Spain flowers even in winter

Originally, I’d booked accommodations in the medieval center of Girona for the parent-child short break. Girona is about an hour north/northwest of Barcelona. Trains, while available, aren’t super convenient to that village, however. There is no city-traffic-avoiding route back to BCN Barcelona International Airport during morning rush hour without a private car. Parking in old Girona is also not known to be convenient.

While I was keen to visit this ancient town due to its beautifully preserved Jewish quarter and its being the setting for a great series of medieval mysteries, it turns out that the world has discovered Girona because Game of Thrones has filmed there. That’s a little too much pop popularity for me to visit El Call right now.

DH, fearing he would leave and then a transit strike—or worse, total civil unrest!—would leave his wife and child at the mercy of a rioting mass of Catalan separatists, wanted me to make a plan better suited to last minute changes and further removed from the politicized masses.

I booked a rental car from BCN for the morning of DH’s departure. This option provided us with freedom of movement in the face of taxi strikes or to flee more serious unrest in that unlikely event. I then found an intriguing bed and breakfast outside the city in which DS2 and I would spend our final two nights in Spain.

As an aside, I never felt unsafe in Barcelona or the surrounding region. Except possibly while negotiating the narrow, winding exit from the airport parking garage in an SUV the size of a semi, but you can’t blame that on politics.

Catalunya: experiencing hearth & home

One of the ideas I’d entertained for making the trip to Spain a pleasure for both myself and my younger son was a cooking class.

barcelona-2017-b-and-b-wine-cooking-class-mom-with-kid-e1517158098792.jpg

We (helped Marta while she) made that paella!

Yes, it’s true, any regular reader knows that I’m not typically an enthusiastic cook.

That said, I am an enthusiastic student of what makes other people—and other cultures—tick, and it is hard to place a finger on the pulse of Catalunya without discussing food. These are people who love to eat, who know how food really ought to be, and who seem to enjoy sharing all of the same.

I’d entertained the notion of this class in Barcelona, but the timing wasn’t working out quite right. Plus, if I’m honest, I would rather visit a nice, dusty history museum any day, whereas my son was hoping to stay in the hotel watching his favorite cartoons in various languages.

What did pop up when I started researching lodgings outside the city of Barcelona, but within a radius of about one hour, were farm- and winery- based experiences.

Penedès, if I’m getting this right, is the heart of the grape growing region that produces some the world’s best sparkling wines, or cava, as it’s known locally. At least one person with whom I spoke implied that champagne is basically just a French knock off of Catalan cava!

I won’t take a position in the subjective argument of “best” or the historical question of “first,” but I can tell you that it is easy for a non- aficionado to learn about and experience great sparkling wines in Penedès, even with a child in tow.

Barcelona 2017 B and B Wine Cooking street sign

Signpost guides the way. Take the narrow dirt track to the right around the cluster of houses.

So I booked the B&B Wine & Cooking in El Pla del Penedès and hoped for the best. It had good reviews on Trip Advisor, but was mostly an unknown. I chose to use Hotels.com for booking, just in case any of it was less than legit, but, in the end, have nothing but good experiences to report from Penedès.

BandB WineandCooking Cava welcome - 1If I return, next time I will book directly with the B&B. When you do, they guarantee you the lowest room rate and give you a free bottle of cava as a welcome gift.

B&B Wine & Cooking, El Pla del Penedès

This bed and breakfast is family friendly. I’ll start there, because so many B&Bs in the USA are fussy establishments that seek to insulate their guests from such inconveniences as children and telecommunications. This is not that. Continue reading

“Of Human Bondage” and its trove of… parenting wisdom?

One reads the classics because

Actually, I won’t presume to know why anyone else reads a classic novel.*

Having long since passed the stage of life wherein, to quote the Indigo Girls song “Closer to Fine:”

…I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
Got my paper and I was free

Very much in spite of much of the bureaucratic process we call schooling, but with deep regard for the great investment of time and energy—of inestimable value!—into the bettering of my mind by more than my fair share of gifted teachers, I remain a student, if not a scholar, and a committed autodidact.

For this reason—and because I suffer from an oscillation between stultifying malaise and desperate, yearning agitation when I don’t have a good book at hand, preferably with a few more queued upI read and re-read the classics.

book novel Of Human Bondage coverLast month, I embarked upon the reading of W. Somerset Maugham‘s hefty tome, Of Human Bondage.

The wholly inadequate summary of the novel in the library catalogue says:

“The story of a deformed youth whose handicap causes loneliness.”

I would laugh if such a shallow skimming over of the depth of this story didn’t leave me wanting to sob. It’s almost a caricature of the isolation and lack of understanding that torments Phillip, Of Human Bondage‘s orphaned protagonist, during his youth.

With little interest in literary criticism, let me come directly to what moved me so deeply as I worked my way—slowly, because it deserved thorough attention—through this weighty novel:

Phillip needed a caregiver.

He really could have used a mother. He flailed because being orphaned left him to learn for himself what most of us are taught by even mediocre parents.

He was born with a less than stellar internal compass for interpreting the giving and receiving of any kind of love. He wasn’t what we might call today a “people person.” He was one of those kids who most need explicit help to interpret the social world, and take a full role within it.

Reading Of Human Bondage made the importance of the part I can play in my sons’ lives more unequivocal to me than ever before. I should be mature enough not to doubt it; I remain insecure enough that I do.

I’m grateful that I didn’t read Maugham’s masterpiece as a student.

Continue reading

Barcelona 2017: One week family stay at Hotel Catalonia Ramblas

Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.

Home away from home: Hotel Catalonia Ramblas

We didn’t choose our Barcelona hotel. It was selected by the organizers of the conference where my husband was speaking. Sometimes, these choices are a disappointment, but something to put up with graciously. After all, I’m tagging along at little to no cost for lodging in an expensive city.

Hotel Catalonia Ramblas was not one of those disappointments. We were incredibly comfortable there as a family of three.*

Barcelona Ramblas hotel bed - 1Often, location is the single biggest factor in how a hotel stacks up. Hotel Catalonia Ramblas is in a prime location just two blocks from the heart of Barcelona, the Plaça de Catalunya. Leading downhill toward the Mediterranean from the Plaça is the famous La Rambla pedestrian thoroughfare.

It’s hard to beat a hotel location this close to two of the must visit sites in a city.

This is also a major shopping district. The grande dame of Spanish department stores, El Corte Inglés, is an imposing presence across the street. Which street? With more than one location near the Plaça, you can take your pick of all clothing to the south or housewares and toys, etc., to the northeast.

You’ll find anything you might need within an easy walk of Hotel Catalonia Ramblas, including access to public transportation and the starting point for popular tours.

I saw internationally recognizable brands as well as shops with a Catalan flavor everywhere along the Carrer de Pelai, home of Hotel Catalonia Ramblas.

My bank has an agreement to waive fees with a group of other large, international financial institutions, and the ATM I needed to avoid paying fees was mere blocks away.

Location? Check!

Two’s company; three’s a crowd?

We had what I believe was a standard room (i.e, not a suite), albeit perhaps an oversized one since it included a sofa bed for our son at one end. I know there are suites with private pools(!) available in this hotel, but I didn’t investigate any other room types.

Refer to the first paragraph: I was in residence as a beggar, not a chooser.

Barcelona hotel entrance corridor - 1One entered our room from the public hallway into a short corridor with doors at both ends; the bathroom entrance opened from this corridor to one side.

Barcelona hotel bathroom glass door - 1The bathroom employed a frosted glass door, but the presence of the additional wooden door between the private hallway and the sleeping space meant no early morning light pollution when one family member rose early to go to work while his spouse and child lazed about for hours’ more sleep!

I dare you. Just ask my opinion of glass walls in double hotel rooms. These rooms are designed to be shared by more than one person who might have very different schedules. My thoughts aren’t positive.

Entering the bedroom from the hall, the closet separated the bathroom from the sleeping space. This no doubt added some sound insulation. I found it easy to sleep through DH’s early morning routine.

One section of the closet had shelves, including a pull out with electric kettle and instant coffee/tea things; the other two thirds offered standard hanging space. Three thick blankets and an extra pillow were at hand in the closet, proving themselves very useful as we experienced a rare run of freezing days during our week in Spain.

You might notice from my photos facing toward the closet that the pulls on the closet doors could serve as makeshift hooks; I kept our light and dark laundry bags there so my family knew where to put soiled clothes.

The main bed(s) were two oversized singles pushed together in the European fashion. I didn’t bring a tape measure, but I’d judge that each of these was closer to an American double/full size (54″ wide) than our twin (36“) beds.

Continue reading

New symptoms, however trivial, seem an insult with chronic illness

When you live with a chronic illness, you become accustomed to what might be a whole host of pains, inconveniences, and symptoms in general. No matter how difficult or debilitating, the ever so flexible human being adapts to the situation, and she carries on.

But, a new symptom? Each one strikes me as an insult. It might be the most trivial yet, with fewer obvious repercussions for my overall health in the long run, but I’m outraged.

Why?

Because I’ve gotten used to my symptoms, so this strange one must be… someone else’s? I don’t know. But it isn’t on my list.

Until it is. And then there is one more thing to add to the bundle that I’m carrying. Some days, I really, really wish I could just set that burden down.

This isn’t meant to as a complaint. I actually noticed this reaction in myself recently, and found it kind of funny. I thought I was overreacting to a tiny change.

Health eyes Systane drops - 1Dry eyes? Big deal! And they aren’t anything that can’t be dealt with using over the counter drops. Thus spake the ophthalmologist. It’s silly, really.

Amusing, anyway, until a trivial symptom gives way to a more troubling cousin, and then the immediate annoyance makes more sense.

Annoyance stands in for anxiety, or even fear, and there’s not much use in that when there’s no one to fight and nowhere to flee.

I’d rather be grumpy and in control of something, even if that something is my own foul mood.

Barcelona 2017: From Boston to Spain on SWISS… with a Business Class upgrade win

Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.

Travel day 1: Transatlantic red eye

Anyone who’s flown within a decade or so is aware that conditions in Economy Class are cramped and uncomfortable, even for short, daytime flights. Getting to Europe from the USA means losing hours as you jump ahead six to nine time zones, and most flights depart at bedtime with a morning arrival.

Full disclosure: I had never successfully employed the “correct” procedure of sleeping on the plane, toughing it out upon arrival, and staying awake all of the first day in Europe. Before this trip, I had always tumbled into a desperate sleep upon reaching my hotel.

Even as a teen—my first visit to London was led by my high school theatre teacher between 11th and 12th grade—I found jet lag really difficult, and staying awake after a night flight really, really hard.

Barcelona Ramblas hotel bed - 1

Heaven is a big, soft bed after an overnight flight in Economy

I’ve never been particularly good at sleeping in a seat. Now that I have a chronic condition that includes regularly experiencing fairly significant pain, I was downright worried about the seven hour flight to Zurich (ZRH), where we would change planes for our ultimate destination: Barcelona (BCN), Spain.

First, I was afraid my hip arthritis would go into overdrive from all the sitting,* like it did on two domestic cross country flights this summer. Second, I feared I would sleep poorly, if at all, and thus experience increased pain triggered by fatigue. A double whammy, and one that tripled my anxiety in the weeks leading up to the journey.

You can’t fly direct from Boston to Barcelona. I had the freedom to select** our flights, and I opted for a transfer in Zurich with SWISS International Airlines.

I’d read excellent reports about conditions in Zurich airport on FlyerTalk. I always go looking for the opinions of frequent flyers in the FlyerTalk forums when I book airline tickets that include an unfamiliar layover location.

Transfers can be beastly in the world’s largest, busiest airports. I will pay extra to have a quicker, cleaner, or smoother trip through customs and passport control.

My husband did not appreciate the fact that we flew outbound on SWISS with a return on parent airline Lufthansa. They are code share partners, but not the same airline. This made reserving seats more complicated. He had a little angst about having to view his flights on two different websites/airline apps.

After all was said and done, however, DH was pretty happy with the flights I selected. He has even declared Munich (MUC) his favorite world airport. He’d rather stay home, but, if he must have a layover, he’d like to have it in München. He loves the relaxation area with its chaise longues.

Booking airline tickets

Every time my husband has an international business trip, I check airfares to see if I can tag along. Usually, it is prohibitively expensive for an extra ticket, and the second one must be paid for on our own dime.

Sometimes, he’s booking too close to the dates of travel for the best price. DH also tends to make the shortest possible trip (no Saturday night stays, typically flying on peak weekdays) and is unwilling to adjust his schedule or take a less convenient flight to lower the fare into “bring the family” territory.

That’s his right: he’s a busy man, and he doesn’t enjoy travel. He’s going to go where the conference or university is, give his brilliant talk, eat room service, and get back ASAP to our family home and the people that he loves. I wouldn’t want him to change!

Admittedly, though, I’m sometimes a bit jealous when he makes several international trips in a year, complains about them, and doesn’t even get out of his hotel room to tell me what the city of Such&such was like. Or try the famous insert food here. Or see the renowned site right across the street from his hotel. Sigh.

This time, however, all the stars aligned. DH was invited to a great conference in Barcelona, a world class destination by any standard.

The dates fell just after Thanksgiving, so I knew I’d have family in town to watch my kids if I wanted to join him on an adults only trip.

It was a four day conference, a little longer than some, making the transatlantic flight worthwhile even for a jet lag lightweight like myself.

I booked his ticket, then checked prices for my own itinerary if I went with him. For myself, I looked at a return flight on the weekend instead of his preference, Thursday. It wasn’t pricing out in the thousands; the economy fare was under $500. I booked it immediately.

And then I started thinking… At this price, we can afford a family trip to Europe!

I’d paid for the kids’ passports to take them to Iceland years before, but we’ve hardly used them since. Apologies to Canada, but our passport cards are sufficient to visit you by land or sea.

Checking in with my teen, he shocked me by stating his preference to skip Spain. I nudged him a little, but, in the end, decided to respect his wish to stay at home. He’s kind of like his dad—a homebody—and he’s very much entered into the teen period of finding his own way by rejecting, sometimes reflexively, his parents’ priorities.

If he were studying Spanish, I might’ve insisted, but DS1 would remain with his grandparents post-Thanksgiving.

My little guy was a different story. When we travel, he is my most frequent social companion in the evening. On cruises, he’ll accompany me to formal dinners so his dad can enjoy room service in sweatpants. DS2 has danced in shipboard discos, and sipped virgin mocktails in swanky piano bars. He keeps a full wardrobe of bow ties for such occasions.

Son with mocktail in shipboard bar - 1

DS2 aboard our favorite ship, Crystal Serenity, at (rainy) sunset in Alaska.

When I described Spain’s culture of frequent socializing in bars and restaurants, with families dining together into what we consider the wee hours, he was all in. He didn’t object to missing a week of school, either, especially not in the land that introduced chocolate to Europe.

I had to call to book his ticket separately because DS2 is a minor. The website wouldn’t allow me to make the reservation as it looked like a case of a child traveling alone. We traveled with three different ticket locator numbers and e-tickets. This worked out to my advantage as our departure date neared.

SWISS Upgrade Bargain bid for Business Class

SWISS offers a program called “SWISS Upgrade Bargain” in which, if invited by the airline, one can place a bid in an amount of one’s choice within an airline-delimited range to be upgraded from Economy to Business Class. In my case, the price range allowed began at roughly CHF 780 up to an amount more than business class would’ve cost if purchased outright for my ticket. I always check the fare for a better seat, even when I doubt I can afford it!

This no doubt fills the Business Class cabin while providing some revenue for the airline as opposed to their offering those seats to frequent fliers as a courtesy.

In an interesting twist, of the three of us, only I received an email from SWISS offering me the option to bid for an upgrade. The program rules state that children under 18 aren’t eligible, so my son’s case makes sense, but I am less clear on why DH, with his more expensive ticket, didn’t get the offer. There’s some possibility, he admits, that an airline email went into his spam folder.

At any rate, we had to keep one parent in Economy with our minor child. I suggested we make a relatively low bid and see what happened. If we didn’t get it, we would fly in uncomfortable solidarity in Coach. If we won the bid, I would offer the seat to my husband if I boarded the plane feeling well, but take it myself if I already had pain before we left home.

I didn’t quite forget that I’d placed the bid—I think I offered CHF 810, or about 30 francs more than the minimum possible offer—but I considered it an extreme long shot. Theories online as to how the odds of acceptance are calculated include the notion that one’s initial fare added to the bid might be the determining factor, and my ticket was cheap.

Two or three days before our trip, I got the email: my bid was accepted. I couldn’t reserve a specific seat of my choice under this scheme, but had no qualms about taking whatever SWISS offered. I believed that any lie-flat, Business Class seat was going to be superior to my carefully researched thank you SeatGuru Economy Class window seat.

This should come as no surprise: it was wildly superior. Continue reading

Hanukkah family fun, night 8: Find the fun & SNAP, the job’s a game

Click here if you missed Night 7.

Mary Poppins* fans may have caught the quote in the title for this post. In the “Spoonful of Sugar” song from the movie, she makes the point that one can lighten a chore by adding a little fun.

Our boys aren’t working graveyard shifts in a factory, but we do see practical applications for teaching them about electronics. Tonight’s gifts come from the series of educational toys from Elenco, Snap Circuits

Hanukkah 8 gifts Snap Circuits 300Snap Circuits do great job of easing a task that some would categorize as work. They are packaged sets of pieces that allow kids“from 8 to 108” per the boxto do experiments with real, working circuits without any messy, skin-singeing soldering.

Go on: ask me why I’m concerned about singeing oneself with solder. No, don’t, because I’m clumsy and easily distracted, and burning flesh is gross. I loved my electrical engineering classes, but lived in fear of implementing what I learned. I would’ve enjoyed these Snap Circuit sets in college!

Instead of soldering wires, the connections are made with oversized snaps like you would find on common garments. They’re as easy to click together as Lego bricks. Unlike a simple Lego connection, however, one must develop an understanding of how electricity flows in order to create working circuits that make electronic projects work.

Never studied electronics? Don’t worry! There’s a very specific manual to walk kids through the different projects.

The boys have had a Snap Circuits starter set for years, and the SC-100 Junior Starter Set is a fine place to begin at any age. Once you have your kid has a grasp on the basic working of the components, you can add on additional kits that either continue with a general education in electronics, or follow a particular theme that might appeal to the user.

For the eighth night of Hanukkah, my older son and possible future game designer received the SCA-200 Snap Circuits Arcade kit. His brother opened up the UC-30 Upgrade Kit SC100 to SC300.

Hanukkah 8 gifts Snap Circuits AAs a parent, one of my favorite things about this company and these kits is the commitment to keeping the sets modular and re-combinable to extend their value. I really appreciate having the choice to buy just the additions I need to move from a beginner’s set to one with more advanced experiments and projects.

Unlike some other company’s products, I’m not forced to either:

  • pay extra for parts I don’t need, or
  • carefully work through lists in tiny print on the back of the box for multiple, similar sets to determine whether or not I’ve missing anything that sounds fun and/or important.

And it isn’t all work with no play! The kids genuinely enjoy fooling around with Snap Circuits kits because they can make real, working models that do stuff. Lights will light up and buzzers will sound, and they will do so more reliably than most kids can manage with regular electronic components even in an educator supported environment.

Naturally, the stuff my boys want to do usually includes “make a loud, obnoxious buzzer in Mom’s ear” or “try to launch the spinner into my brother’s face,” but Elenco isn’t selling magic beans or the promise of more perfect kids. With Snap Circuits, they are selling appealing sets that let children experiment with—and learn about—real electronics without too much muss or fuss.

A supportive adult could be helpful for a total novice or a younger child, but no supervision is necessary to make these kits diverting for kids who like to take stuff apart and/or build things.

Our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts are generally things that we can enjoy as a family. These fit the bill because they give the kids something to play with that leads naturally to learning experiences we like sharing with our boys.

How does that project work? Why did it fail before? What else can you do with those elements? What does that inspire you to try next time? What’s the correlation between this toy and the circuits you can see in household electronics?

I worried a little about ending eight days of holiday giving with the “educational” present, but I shouldn’t have. Snap Circuits are too good. The boys were genuinely pleased to expand their collection.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 8 hanukkiah extinguishing itself - 1

חגחנוכהשמח

*If you’ve never read P.L. Travers’ novels about Mary Poppins, which served as inspiration for the popular 1964 Disney film, please consider doing so. The books were much darker and weirder than the film version, and I loved them as a little girl. This is a case where I think the film is a real classic, but almost a completely different creature from the original work.

Some people on GoodReads seem to find old-fashioned child rearing methods so inappropriate, they can’t even enjoy the books. All I can say is that none of it bothered me as a girl. I would gladly put up with an imperious guardian to enjoy magical adventures; why not let today’s children make that choice for themselves, too?

Hanukkah family fun, night 7: Making tracks with a small gift that has an outsized impact

Read about our celebration of Night 6, here.

I’ve learned over the years that more gifts can lead to less joy, at least for my little not so little boys. Spacing out the individual presents helps, and so does avoiding too many extravagant gifts at the same holiday.

This has been one of my hardest parenting lessons to internalize: don’t overwhelm the kids with gifts that attempt to quantify your infinite love.

  • It’s impossible.
  • You’ll spoil them.
  • Your house will overflow with stuff at a cost far exceeding its value.

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. I also try to alternate bigger impact gifts with simpler pleasures, and spread out amongst all eight nights the presents I believe will most please different members of the family.

Yes, that’s right: I had a plan all along. Could anyone who knows me think I just wrapped this stuff up and grabbed boxes at random to throw at my family? There’s a spreadsheet, of course. It’s all about the pacing.

Hanukkah 7 simple track on table - 1Night seven was one for simple pleasures, and enjoying what we’ve already got.

The boys opened two boxes of additional Lego train tracks (Flexible & Straight Set 7499 and Switching Tracks Set 7895) for our Winter Holiday Train and its Station. You’ll want to begin with Nights 1 and 2 to hear more about those.

We spent the rest of the evening building circuits and inventing ridiculous scenarios for the minifigs and trains on the table.

Hanukkah 7 minifig throwing switch - 1

What’s she up to? No good!

I thought about providing the track right after the train, but this seemed to be a better plan. For one thing, we often but not always get a set built in one evening. Why rush the extra track onto the scene if the train wasn’t ready to roll?

More importantly, my little guy has had several days of marveling over the Station’s details and pushing the train up to the platform on its simple loop of track. Each time he immersed himself in the scene, he became more aware of how much he would enjoy expanding it and connecting it to another part of his imaginary world.

He’s been musing to himself for a few evenings:

“Wouldn’t it be cool to have a track that led to…”

Now, he can make that happen, and he’s ready to put in the effort to make it happen with no other distractions for the evening. The boys even dug into our existing Lego sets and pulled out an older, motorized train Grandma bought for a Christmas past.

This led inexorably to the aggressive shunting of steam engine and holiday trucks by a Diesel locomotive. Shades of the Island of Sodor, anyone? If you don’t get the reference, commence reading the Reverend Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine immediately.

A few pieces of track don’t make an extravagant gifteven at Lego prices, but today it has an immediate value to my younger, somewhat more materialistic son.† He also receives the gift of a modest object that gratifies his imagination above all else.

Too many toys are too easily forgotten in the chaos of more, more, more. The right accessory on Night 7 served to reignite all the excitement from those first, bigger gifts.

At least, that was my nefarious plan, which will be discovered if my kids start reading my blog.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 7 hanukkiah lighting - 1

חגחנוכהשמח

Stay tuned for the final night of Hanukkah, Night 8.

The big kid just loves to build. He always sees the value in a gift of parts to expand on a modular set. The trick with him—and, it must be noted, with Mommy—is to remind him to graciously allow the younger child to assemble some tracks and learn for himself why symmetry and careful planning are so important when it comes to engineering a system of moving parts.

We didn’t mean to make the little guy cry! Sigh. And, eventually, he did get to play, too.

Hanukkah family fun, night 6: Volumes for our library

Revisit Night 5, here.

Whether you’ve read my posts or visited my house, it should be fairly obvious that I love to read.

Books are a vital ingredient in my happiness, and I think I’ve successfully passed that addiction preference along to my children with plenty of assistance from my equally bibliophilic husband and both of our families.

I doubt that a single gift-giving occasion has passed in our household without someone giving or receiving a new book.

For the sixth night of Hanukkah, I gave each of my boys something interesting to read.

The younger one got an audiobook about his latest obsession: D&D*.

Hanukkah 6 gift graphic novel - 1For the older one, there was one book of comedic philosophy by a pair of authors we’d enjoyed together in audio form, and one graphic novel set in a video game universe he likes that was on his wish list. It hardly seemed fair to make a gift of something to which I’d introduced him as schoolwork, though the philosophy book was a really fun read/listen.

Both had a book that tied in to the game night theme from night five, and all volumes were graciously received, even the educational one.

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. We still read together, though even our youngest child is himself now admirably literate.

I think it’s a shame when parents believe ability to read means the kids no longer benefit from reading aloud together. Language was meant for communication, and stories were created to be told and shared.

Audiobooks make a great shortcut when Mom and Dad are tired; having a kid with young eyes become the nighttime storyteller works great, too.

Wishing everyone a sweet bedtime story on this winter’s evening.

Happy Hanukkah!

חגחנוכהשמח

Hanukkah 6 hanukkiah lighting - 1

Click on for night seven.

*The role playing game Dungeons & Dragons.

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, whose other books include Heidegger and a Hippo Walk through those Pearly Gates: Using philosophy (and jokes!) to explain life, death, the afterlife, and everything in betweenand Aristotle and an Aardvark go to Washington: Understanding political doublespeak through philosophy and jokes.

Hanukkah family fun, night 5: Game night!

Go back to Night 4, here.

Board games. Card games. Role playing games. Heck, even video games. I’m open to almost any game, as long as we can play as a family.

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy together. Games are an obvious choice.

Personally, I like any game better when I have a good chance to win. That rules out quick action games with a lot of hitting like Slamwich, but leaves plenty of great options for agile minds that can outrun nimble fingers: Syzygy (my favorite letter tile word game, released in 1997, but similar to widely available 2007 knockoff Bananagrams), Settlers of Catan, and Robo Rally are popular with me.

Hanukkah 5 gift game - 1Yeah, that’s right. I’m not one of those moms who throws a game for her kids’ self esteem. I like to win! Here’s hoping there’s some evidence somewhere that says my kids will turn out okay in spite of that.

After yesterday’s electronic extravaganza, and with some heavy metal tunes percolating in the background, tonight, the kids opened two small gifts before we turned our attention from Hanukkah to the celebration of a family birthday.

Hanukkah 5 gift game D&D Monster Manual - 1There was a D&D Monster Manual for the little boy whom I imagine sweeping the world’s competition to become the ultimate dungeon master someday, and a card game from Think Fun entitled “The Last Letter opened by DS1.

With a house full of company, we didn’t play any of our new games tonight, but some of us took care to spend a little time learning their rules. After all, how else is Mommy supposed to maintain her winning streak?

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 5 - 1

חגחנוכהשמח

Watch this space for Night 6.