Need vs. nostalgia: what do I really want to carry?

While the topic of downsizing, “right” sizing, or minimizing one’s possessions is a vast and multi-faceted one, it is also something that constantly surprises me by inserting itself into my life, unbidden. It isn’t always obvious where these questions will pop up.

I am not aiming for minimalism. I do recognize that I struggle with some types of possessions. Who owns whom? I also believe firmly in frequent self-reflection about assumptions, and modern consumer culture offers so many “necessary” items to question.

I examine my life. It keeps it worth living. (Apologies to Socrates. Sometimes I can’t resist the low hanging fruit.)

Today, we pulled the tent out of storage. We are prepping for upcoming camping trips, and I wanted a dry run, test-fitting the packing of some new equipment with the old. Don’t be surprised when I write about tents and sleeping comfort in coming weeks.

Amongst the random outdoors items on the camping shelf was a plastic shaving mirror with a hanging hook. Not tiny, but sized to view one’s face, I bought this mirror before my first overnight in a New England campground. If memory serves, DH and I were merely dating, and we went to a Connecticut state campground with some of my work friends. This would be about 20 years ago.

At that stage of my life, I owned a sleeping bag, but no other camping equipment. DH had a tent, I think, and we went to a liquidation/warehouse store to buy some outdoorsy odds and ends. We didn’t go with much more than a minimal structure (tent), sleeping pads and bags, and a scant few dishes and items for cooking meat directly over flame.

I didn’t want to have very much camping “stuff.” I had a notion that time outdoors could be spent with more joy and less unloading, and I wanted to do the experiment.

You see, I grew up going camping by my parents’ rules. Let’s just describe them as people who like their stuff. We went camping in our Volkswagen bus, and it would be stuffed to the roof with equipment for every eventuality. After my dad bought his boat, that, too, would be loaded to the gills.

Arriving at a campground meant being late (due to lengthy loading times), suffering whisper-yelling in the dark about holding the flashlight still while Dad attempted to erect a tent he couldn’t see, and discovering it is possible to put things in the “wrong” place on a tiny patch of land on which you’ve never before set foot. Setting up camp was stressful!

It seemed like there was probably a more enjoyable way to start an otherwise wonderful vacation, and I am happy to report that my way does work better for me.

Most of my simplifications involved ditching kitchen equipment, but, then, I don’t cook for pleasure. I didn’t even attempt to replicate most of the specialized equipment deemed vital for the camping trips of my childhood, but I did buy this plastic mirror. I’m not sure I’ve ever used it, but I’ve diligently hung it near the tent in every campsite since.

Today, I’m wondering why? Why the mirror, in particular?

Mirror camp - 1Because we always brought a certain plastic mirror on my childhood camping trips. It would be unthinkable to leave it behind (it would need to be replaced locally if it weren’t present.) That was (and is) my parents’ approach to their various habits of stuff. I think my dad used their mirror for shaving, but my husband has a beard, so no similar need exists.

Why did I buy a mirror, when I didn’t buy a small table, folding chairs, a Coleman stove, or so many other things? Why does the mirror still get packed, even appearing on my camping packing checklist? Why, holding it in my hands today, contemplating it long and hard enough to prompt the effort of a blog post, do I still think a mirror belongs in my camping kit?

I sincerely do not know, but, upon reflection (ahem!), it will probably continue to join us on all of our family car camping trips. It feels right, somehow, to include it, and I can’t see any harm in having it along.

When I approach minimalism, realize that I am coming from an upbringing better described as “maximalism.” There are some comforts gained by having everything at hand, just in case, and there are costs to that habit. I try to be aware of both, and weigh them appropriately for different situations.

Sometimes, some items are more accurately analyzed by feeling than thinking. That’s a problem when it leads to hoarding garbage and living amongst impassable piles of stuff, but it’s usually fine when it refers to a personal treasure providing a sense of abundance, or preparation, or even simple nostalgia for the beholder.

I’m going to claim my little mirror as the latter.

Do you have any “magical” items that you routinely pack for certain kinds of travel? I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s found such an unlikely talisman in their otherwise sensible packing list!

The ideal souvenir: evocative, a little frivolous, but not useless

Is a souvenir always a mass produced tchotchke made in China, probably being sold by a franchised gift shop sending its profits out of the community?

That’s common today, but it’s not the only form a memento can take.

Should I bring anything tangible home from my travels, or are memories sufficient?

I don’t have to; I don’t always!

Nevertheless, a well-chosen souvenir can whisk me from daily life back to vacation bliss in an instant, for an instant, if it’s something I wear or use.

Bring a piece of your travels home with you

The ideal souvenir for me is very probably different than yours. That’s okay—great, actually! I’m always ready to advocate for people to assess their own needs and wants and try to ignore cultural noise arguing for random consumption without self-reflection.

Know thyself, and consume accordingly.

I’m not a minimalist, however. I admire austere spaces with their stark beauty, but I revel in a home built up with layer after layer of color, texture, and conversation-provoking oddities around every corner.

I do strive to purge what I don’t need or love, but my heart is large and my love knows few bounds. My tolerance for stuff is high, so long as the resultant collection reads “joyful exuberance.”

But I travel often, and usually with my kids.

If you’ve ever been to a store with children, you’ve probably observed their magpie like attraction to anything for sale.

In a kitchen store, they want tongs for squeezing a sibling’s ear from across the room. In a pharmacy, requests roll in for pill boxes with bright colors or a folding cane because… how cool is that? You can pretend to be infirm, and then hit your sibling from even farther across the room!

My kids have lots of nice stuff, but I’m not a parent who regularly gives in to this kind of begging. We don’t impulse buy toys. If we like something, we make a note, go home to consider it, and return to make a purchase. I’m trying to help them ignore the modern siren call of instant gratification.

From their toddlerhood, I’ve made and enforced strict rules about how one behaves in stores. This includes the rule that we will abandon a shopping trip, immediately, if behavior crosses a line that negatively impacts others, no matter how inconvenient to me and my agenda. Asking once is allowed; begging is against the rules.

Still, they will sidle up and ask—usually politely, often bubbling with enthusiasm—at every shopping opportunity. Souvenir shops are places I try to avoid.

Souvenirs for the kids

My approach to family souvenirs is to find something that we can enjoy now (during the trip) and continue to use at home. In Hilton Head, we bought a folding kite to fly on the wind-swept beach. Now, the kite lives in our beach bag.

Travel board games or small toys that meet my usual criteria for quality have been picked up on other vacations. Ideally, it will be something tied in to the location we’re visiting, but sometimes it’s enough to recall a trip when we take out a game to play:

“Remember, we got this on that rainy day in Seattle. We played in the hotel lobby by the fireplace and ordered the pizza with the spicy sauce…”

Even a Lego set or mass produced kit can evoke a special place or time. The Lego Space Needle set was purchased at… Seattle’s landmark building, the Space Needle. A Lego set with a camper was bought, and built, during our stay at a rustic fishing cabin.

More often than I would expect, my kids remember clearly when and where a toy came from. Taking this approach has worked pretty well for me thus far.

It’s not a given that a new toy will show up on a trip, but it isn’t out of the question if a rainy day or a need for quiet time presents itself in combination with a fascinating kit or object.

Souvenirs for myself

If I’m strictly honest, I’ll admit to the occasional toy bought for Mommy, too. We might have picked up another modular building to add to our family Lego display during our recent road trip. It’s entirely possible that I assembled a Parisian Restaurant as soon as the vacation laundry was done.

Lego Parisian Restaurant - 1

Much more often, I’m looking to avoid extra stuff to carry home from a trip. Usually, I acquire an inch or more of paper memories. Brochures, maps, and books are weaknesses I won’t deny. But, unless we’re on a road trip and there’s lots of room to store things in the back, I find shopping bags and bulky souvenirs stressful.

I plan what I carry on a trip. It feels wrong—even dangerous—to add items willy-nilly whilst en route.

My most successful strategy has been to purchase accessories as souvenirs, or, less often, items of clothing. These are things I can wear (i.e., use), and, when I do, I’m reminded of where they came from. It’s like a self-powered generator for joy.

A linen scarf, sewn by a bearded man

linen scarf from Ohio - 1Wear the scarf? Now my neck is warm, my outfit is complete, and my heart recalls a wonderful shop run by two bearded brothers who don’t offer wi-fi but do offer a hand-crafted, multi-level indoor tree fort in the back of their cafe to entertain the kids.

The Well Lancaster OH - 1

Lancaster, Ohio eatery, The Well

The brother with the shorter beard? He made the linen scarf himself. Oh yeah, and they serve a kale salad that my children agreed tasted good!

I think those guys are wizards…

A purple leather bag proudly bearing Roots Canada’s beaver logo

My purple handbag? Made in Canada, near the urban Toronto Roots location where I purchased it. I only own two nice leather bags. I’m not a purse junkie. This one, however, was the perfect dark purple color, just the right size, and had exactly the arrangement of pockets I’d been looking for.

I saw it in the window as I wandered around Toronto’s snazzy shopping district, finding my way to a theatre for a matinee. I paused. I yearned. I went to my show, but came back and entered the shop before returning to my hotel.

It felt like fate. My memory of the acquisition plays in my mind like a slow motion falling-in-love montage from a sappy film.

I’ve never regretted buying this bag.

I don’t shop recreationally in my everyday life, so purchases like these become vivid memories. The tangible results? They’re wearable triggers to enjoy them again.

If I find myself stopping by Target for clean socks while traveling, that’s a failure. I’ll need to plan better next time.

But, coming home with an accessory, or a hand-knit sweater, preferably locally made?

That’s my ideal souvenir.

Road Trip! New England to Minnesota Part II: a mom, four kids, 1633 miles, and two hotel rooms.

2.5 days, 26 hours, 1633 miles

If you missed my introduction to this road trip, click here for Part I

In a nutshell, I will be the lone driver bringing four children (my two sons and two friends) from New England to summer camp in Minnesota. School lets out Friday; our camp session begins Monday afternoon. This will be an efficient, not leisurely, journey.

I enjoy road trips, but I wish I could take one without beginning in the over-crowded American Northeast. I used to have a 7 mile commute that took 50 minutes because of traffic and poorly designed roads. Actually, I believe cows designed those roads, so maybe I should be less critical of their engineering prowess.

Road trip overview

Google still thinks we should fly. Or possibly make a run for the Canadian border? Google Maps clearly doesn’t appreciate a good old American summer road trip.

We have an advantage setting out on a Saturday. We shouldn’t meet rush hour traffic anywhere, unless Eau Claire, WI (Monday’s starting point) has an unexpectedly vicious traffic problem.

Day 1: Massachusetts to Avon, OH

Saturday. 10 hr 20 min, 687 miles.

The kids might be tired from their end of the year party the night before, but they can sleep while I drive. (Cue Melissa Etheridge: You Can Sleep While I Drive) As the only driver, it’s critical that I begin the trip well rested.

Our target departure time is 6:30 am. Loading the van Friday night means very little last minute prep work is required. I’ve even laid out the boys’ clothes so they will have no decisions to make.

Babushka (grandmother), who lives downstairs, asked if she could make the kids breakfast. This was an easy sell, leaving me free to get myself ready, grab the cold snacks from the fridge, then load everyone up and go. 

I become less sociable as I become more goal oriented. My husband likens my behavior during travel to that of a commanding general leading her army into battle. The niceties suffer.

We packed lunches to avoid eating too much overpriced junk food early in the trip. I thought having something packed by their mom might also ease the twins’ transition from her care to mine. We will make pit stops as needed, and will require one midday fuel stop, but intend not to make a long stop until our dinner time arrival at our hotel.

Massachusetts & New York


Driving the Mass Pike (I-90 toll road in Massachusetts) or the New York Thruway (I-90 toll road in New York State) offers an almost identical experience once you’re past any urban traffic close to Boston. The road is long and straight. Exits are few and far between, but service plazas are evenly spaced, have clear signage, and offer everything you need if nothing of special interest. These are efficient roads as long as traffic is moving.

Pennsylvania & Ohio

One passes through a tiny corner of Pennsylvania on this route. I think you spend less than an hour in the state. You get your first glimpse (westbound) of a Great Lake here. If I tell you that you pass through a city called Erie, PA, can you guess which Great Lake that is? 

There’s nothing else that sticks in my mind about driving through this state along I-90.

Ohio is memorable for having very clean, comfortable Rest Areas and more law-abiding, courteous drivers than most other eastern states in which I’ve driven. Beyond that, I’m usually fixated on getting to my next stop as I pass through here. 

It’s a stretch of road that is inoffensive enough that I have little to say about the experience.

Night one: Cambria Hotel & Suites, Avon, OH

Our estimated time of arrival is 6:30 pm. Taking 12 hours to drive for 10.5 sounds about right, factoring in rest, fuel, and meal breaks, but I’m not sure whether my usual estimates will apply with extra kids in our party and no second adult to wrangle them.

Our hotel for the first night in Avon, OH is the Cambria Hotel & Suites on Detroit Road. There appear to be many restaurants to choose from in the immediate vicinity, and we expect to enjoy a sit down dinner before settling in for the night. 

The Cambria brand is part of Choice Hotels group. Choice properties include EconoLodge, Comfort Inn, and Rodeway Inn, amongst others. I’ve stayed at a number of these, but I hadn’t even heard of the Cambria brand before booking this one based upon location and room availability. 

I have a Choice Privileges membership (rarely used), so I will earn points for this stay. Joining these programs is almost always free, and usually awards at least some minimal benefit in addition to the points, which may or may not add up themselves to a redeemable award before they expire. 

I believe Cambria is Choice’s top tier brand, but the price was competitive with a local Holiday Inn and other brands with which we have more experience.

This stop is placed to make our first day the longest travel day by a few minutes. I prefer to do a little extra driving on Day 1 to create a hedge against later delays.

I chose the Cambria Hotel & Suites over other Cleveland area lodgings in part because it is next door to a Costco with a gas station. They also had a suite available (sleeps 6) with 2 Queen beds plus a Queen sofa bed in a semi-private nook. (Remember, two of the kids I’m traveling with are teens who aren’t relatives.) 

I also prioritized hotel rooms with fridges for this trip since we carried perishable snacks and extra (frozen) water bottles in a cooler.


Access to Costco gas stations is restricted to members. Their prices are almost always amongst the very best in the area. I’m also confident in the quality of any product Costco sells. While their low prices often result in long lines, I expect we can avoid waiting by getting gas late Saturday or early Sunday when the Costco store itself is closed. This strategy is very successful at my local Costco location.

Day 2: Avon, OH to Eau Claire, WI

Sunday. 10 hr 10 min, 639 miles.

I’ve driven cross country from coast to coast at least four times before, and usually on the more northerly routes of I-90 and I-80. My least favorite stretches are almost always between Chicago and the Indiana-Ohio border. This is an area that often has heavy traffic. I’m not looking forward to this piece of the trip.

Since we’re crossing this area on a Sunday, I don’t need to time our arrival at major cities to avoid rush hours. If our first day felt very successful, and because we will experience a one hour time zone change that lengthens the day, I expect to allow the kids some extra time in the morning. I estimate we’ll depart from our hotel in Avon, Ohio by 8 am.

Indiana

Indiana, as far as I can tell, is always doing road work on their stretch of I-90/I-80. I find it really aggravating to pay for a toll road in poor condition. I have no recollection of facilities here, so they are either nonexistent or not very impressive. Perhaps they were just overshadowed by frustration from sitting in traffic due to road work lane closures.

Illinois

Illinois (at least in the Chicago area) doesn’t offer pleasant roadside Rest Areas. They are basically just gas stations with large convenience stores attached. Drivers there also tend to be aggressive and rude, and I’m saying that as a resident of the Boston metro area, where the term Masshole is considered a badge of honor to some. 

Tolls around Chicago still require frequent stops for payment of small amounts in cash–a system Massachusetts had twenty years ago when I arrived, but has since been replaced with a quicker, more convenient all-electronic system.

Speaking only for the experience of the long distance road tripper, I call this stretch of highway in Illinois the “land of lying liars” because of repeated bad experienced with posted signs indicating facilities that are impossible to find or closed. 

I like visiting Chicago by train. I’m unlikely to ever stop in the Windy City with my own vehicle.

Wisconsin

I believe this will be my first time driving in Wisconsin, though I’ve visited friends and family in Oconomowoc and Wisconsin Rapids in years past. 

My expectation is relatively pleasant and easy driving once we’re past the Chicago urban area. At least in the parts of Wisconsin I’ve visited, I saw decent roads, low population density, and polite people.

Night two: Holiday Inn Eau Claire South I-94 , Eau Claire, WI

Our estimated time of arrival is 7:00 pm. That’s 12 hours of driving time instead of 11 due to crossing zones from Eastern into Central time where Indiana gives way to Chicago. This allows about 1.75 hours for rest, fuel, and meal breaks.

We plan to eat a nice dinner after we arrive.

I usually don’t take long meal breaks during the day on road trips. After a heavy meal, I get sleepy. I eat lightly at midday while driving long distance.


Holiday Inn and other brands within the IHG group are my default choice when I think a predictable experience will make life less stressful for me or my kids. 

I prefer interesting boutique properties when I’m exploring a new area in a leisurely way. When I want to concentrate on other things, or when I believe the kids will be experiencing some form of travel stress, I appreciate the way a known environment reduces anxiety.

My favorite IHG properties are the Staybridge Suites with their apartment style full kitchens. These often offer two bedroom units (with two full bathrooms) which I strongly prefer to connected standard rooms as a family with kids. 

Connecting doors are designed to swing shut automatically; I want this door open night and day with my kids in the next room. The living room area gives me added space to keep larger luggage centrally located and ready to re-load the next day. 

Even if I don’t plan to cook in the full kitchen, having one gives me the option, and, somehow, the larger fridge makes it easier for me to remember to grab my cold items before we depart. I almost always make use of the dishwasher to give our reusable water bottles and utensils a good clean somewhere along the road on a multi-day trip.


Even during travel with takeout meals, we try to avoid using disposable cups and utensils. Silicone “ice pop” molds keep small utensils clean and are themselves dishwasher safe and reusable.

For this stop, however, we went with a Holiday Inn property. I was using IHG Rewards Club points to pay for one of our two rooms, plus the location on Owen Ayres Court in Eau Claire, WI was in a very convenient spot along I-94. 

I did call ahead and make sure hotel management knew my request for connecting rooms was to accommodate a pair of teenagers. Any decent hotel will work overtime to keep teens near their supervising adults!

Booking a hotel with a full restaurant on site also allows for easy dining if we experience delays or I arrive too exhausted to take the boys out. There are many restaurants very close to this location, however, without needing to get back on the freeway or navigate unfamiliar city streets.

Day 3: Eau Claire, WI to Bemidji, MN

Monday. 5 hr 12 min, 307 miles.

Hopefully, Eau Claire, WI doesn’t have a significant rush hour since we will be here on a Monday morning. Allowing for six hours of driving time today, we plan to depart at 8 am.

Our plan is the head north first and then cut west at Duluth. This puts us on Hwy 53 northbound, then Hwy 2 west instead of continuing on I-94 to Hwy 10. These two options show very similar travel times on Google maps.


My assumption is that going through Minneapolis/Saint Paul on the Interstate freeway carries a greater risk of weekday traffic vs. taking the state highway to Duluth. If I were driving alone, or at night, I would probably take the more populous route because I would feel safer. 

I’m comfortable opting for less heavily traveled roads for daytime driving with several fit teens in my party. I doubt I could loosen the nuts to change a tire by myself these days, but I’m pretty sure the boys could help me do it if the need arose.

I would call AAA first if I had a roadside emergency, but even my backup plans have backup plans. That’s how I roll. Read this if you missed my thoughts on preparing your vehicle for a road trip.

I’m looking forward to this segment of our trip. I’ll be seeing areas of the country I’ve never visited before. I expect much of it will be scenic, and most will be uncrowded. As a transplant from the less populous Northwest region to suburban New England, I positively crave wide open spaces.

Arrival in Bemidji, MN

Monday afternoon, 2-4:30 pm arrival time for camp.

Because the camp allows a 2.5 hour window for arrival, we aren’t allowing much (if any) extra driving time today. We would like to check in as early as possible so we get first dibs on bunks, etc., but not enough to wake up extra early at this stage of a long, intense road trip.

On our first trip to this camp, we opted for airport pickup via charter bus, so I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the roads into the property. I do remember that it wasn’t too far from the Bemidji airport (BJI), and it didn’t seem like a challenging surface to negotiate (for a camp in the woods.)

I also took note of the parking situation for families, considering my options for future trips. This shouldn’t present any obstacle that requires extra time upon arrival.

Road Trip! New England to Minnesota Part I: a minivan, a mom, and four kids.

Why am I rushing from New England to Minnesota the day after school lets out for summer? (Cue Alice Cooper: School’s Out!)

And how does one rush to Minnesota from here, anyway? Why, by minivan, of course.

MinivanRegular readers may have noticed another oddity already: the title of this post says there are four kids in my minivan. Two of them are mine. Where did the other two joyriders come from?

I’ve posted before about the rare domestic opportunity for immersive study of foreign languages that exists in Bemidji, MN. I read about it for years before taking the plunge and attending Family Week with DS1 at Concordia Language Village‘s German language site, Waldsee. That was two years ago.

We’re heading back to Family Week at Waldsee this summer. Due to an abundance (some might say surfeit) of enthusiasm on my part, I wasn’t content to return with just DS1. He is a middle schooler who has been learning German since 1st grade.

His younger brother, DS2—who keeps reminding me that they don’t study German at his school, they do Spanish!—has also been drafted into our party. I remain convinced that DS2 will be a full convert to the joys of Waldsee after his first bite of Kuchen from the Café. He also loves to sing and dance and generally make a spectacle of himself. He’s going to fit in just fine.

Our party is completed by the addition of a pair of friends—brothers, and, in fact, twins. They are making the transition from school to home education for next year, and German is one of their areas of interest.

The seed of this idea was planted when I discussed with the twins’ mother the difficulty in finding local home school classes in less popular languages. It clearly grew into her acceptance of my offer to act in loco parentis for the twins during Family Week.

OSV 2 yellow flowersIf CLV is willing to define a family as any group of at least one adult and at least one child who wish to be counted as family, so, apparently, am I. Let’s see if my crazy idea flowers.

I’ve known the twins for several years, and, by all available evidence, they are very nice boys. Ask me in July if I’ve revised my opinion.

Our route from New England to Bemidji, MN will take two and a half days (25 road hours) of driving. God bless America, but it sure takes an effort to cross it.

The plan is to complete two ∼10-hour days on the weekend, then complete the final five hour stretch on Monday morning, arriving in Bemidji around check-in time for camp. That’s 2:30-4 pm.

If I survive, I then immediately begin an intensive language learning program while supervising my four charges.

Or maybe I will smile beatifically, let it all roll over me, and eat lots of Kuchen. We’ll see how my energy holds up.

We’ve got our Pimsleur German lessons loaded in the car‘s hard drive, headphones for all the kids, and enough distracting electronic devices for a small army. I’ve packed water bottles, snacks, and a Tupperware bowl with tight-fitting lid in case motion sickness* strikes.

Embarking on an epic road trip a few hours after school ends with no alternate driver and a van full of kids might be counted as one of my more… optimistic endeavors.

Remember, that which does not kill us, or any of the children, makes us stronger. (So we can kill them better at a later time?)

I’ll accept any prayers, well-wishes, or cones of silence from whomever cares to offer. Ah, those carefree summer days… (Cue Beach Boys: I Get Around)

Continued in Road Trip! New England to Minnesota Part II.
*Add ginger candies, mints, Sea Bands, and an eye mask to the list of offerings to the god of seasickness. DS2 is a risk. No screens allowed for him during motion. He’s got hours of audio books on his iPad.

An introvert cruises with Carnival & finds room for everyone’s idea of a good time

Carnival: fun for all, all for fun?

I knew going in that I was not a good fit for the typical Carnival Cruise Line demographic. Carnival bills itself as sailing “the fun ships.” Frankly, I’m not sure I’m an easy match for any commercial demographic slot, but easygoing party animal perhaps least of all.

I am an unabashed introvert. I don’t like crowds, and I don’t like noisy environments. I don’t listen to popular music, I hardly watch TV, and I’m not “fun” in an obvious way. I don’t participate in most of the activities I see online listed as features of Carnival itineraries.

So I came to my first cruise, aboard the Carnival Glory, fully aware of all this, but willing, for several reasons, to go along for the ride.

Childhood fantasy of The Love Boat

First and foremost, I’ve wanted to experience an ocean cruise since I was a very young child watching The Love Boat with my mother. I yearned to travel even then.

Oh, how romantic cruising seemed, hearkening back to the halcyon days of ocean liners plying the seven seas. Glamorous evening wear? Officers in uniform? Exotic ports? Yes, please! Thirty years later, I finally made it to sea with my own little one in tow.2012-carnival-cruise-saint-john-nb-canada-1.jpg

Low prices and good value

Another simple reason I opted for a Carnival cruise, in spite of reading descriptions that made it sound like the least appropriate line for me, was simple economics. Carnival Cruise Lines sells a mass market product at a value price.

After taxes, I paid $83 per person per night, and that was for an ocean view stateroom, not the cheapest inside cabin. This departure left from a city near my home, making it all of $3.50 in tolls to get us to the port, plus 10 miles’ worth of gas, wear, and tear on the car. A four night voyage from my home port was a very inexpensive way to try cruising.

Testing the waters

Finally, I wanted to take a short, inexpensive voyage with my youngest son because I have big plans for grand, trans-Atlantic adventures… but my little guy has been known to get motion sick.

My husband suffers greatly from seasickness, and I feared our son would follow in his vomitorious footsteps. This was an ideal way to test the waters, so to speak. We actually stayed close enough to home that I could have gotten him home via land if he had been constantly and/or violently ill. Thankfully, that didn’t prove necessary.

2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 2

Good times were enjoyed by all

I realized something interesting on this brief journey.

For all my disinterest in the contents of the daily Fun Times newsletter, I found myself more open to appreciating the enjoyment of others than I thought I might be. The overall vibe of the ship was happy and positive, and the revelers were generally inoffensive, even to my different and rather delicate sensibilities.

It was good for me to sail in this particular environment; it expanded my tolerance for living and letting live. It wasn’t even painful.

Early morning solitude

As an example, I am an early riser. It was patently obvious that most aboard the ship stayed up late, and the itinerary reflected that. I enjoyed the quiet and solitude of the early morning upper decks. I found the normally roisterous Lido cafe practically empty when I went searching for my first cup of tea of the day.

The gym didn’t even open until 7 am on our first day at sea. I exercised while it was sparsely populated, taking care of my physical needs and simultaneously recharging my emotional batteries, which are depleted by casual socializing.

The flip side to this was hearing some hallway noise at night, long after I’d retired for the evening. I was wise enough to bring earplugs, however, mitigating the intrusion. I also noticed that, while noisy, the tone of the late night noise remained happy, playful, and relaxed.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 3

Family friendly atmosphere

These were not the boisterous drunks I feared, at least on 2-aft, even-side, this particular voyage. I never heard angry or raised voices on the trip. I never found myself uncomfortably surrounded by people who seemed out of control, which was my major concern before setting sail.

Aside from a few minutes waiting in line to re-board the Glory after our port day in Saint John, NB, Canada, I heard less crude language and profanity than I have on the MBTA (subway) in Boston. People seemed to enjoy their good times in an overtly inoffensive, family-friendly way.

I’m not a heavy drinker, and it was obvious that there was some serious social drinking going on around us. In spite of that, I didn’t need to shield my young son from much of anything—again, excepting the drunk young men re-boarding in Canada. Beer, it appears, is no good for washing out a potty mouth.

Discovering new interests

I took my little guy to All Ages Karaoke and discovered that he loves to dance. He developed his now signature break dancing inspired style by imitating an enthusiastic young man on this trip.

We sat together in a lounge next to a crowd of happy, celebratory, middle-aged ladies with a table full of empty glasses, and everyone smiled at her neighbor, enjoyed herself, and kept up the friendly vibe so we could all enjoy the space together.

I learned a lot about my youngest son on this trip. He was born the most gregarious member of our family, but, until I saw him blossom in Glory‘s atmosphere of non-stop conviviality, I didn’t fully appreciate that his need for socializing was at least as great as my need for solitude. It was a teachable moment for me.

This itinerary on the Glory was a nice cultural melting pot as well. I think my child saw more racial mixing—at dining tables, in the pools, in the bars—than he normally does in our predominantly white neighborhood and school. On this trip, he played simultaneously with children from multiple countries. That was great, and not something I’d expected.

More cruising in my future

I hope to do more cruising in the future, and I suspect I will end up preferring a different cruise line. I’m looking forward to trying a smaller ship with a quieter, more traditional vibe. But, I would no longer automatically discount Carnival as “the least attractive” option for my family.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 4

If I sail Carnival again, I’ll book a larger suite or a pair of staterooms for my family. Three of the four of us would be inclined to spend a fairly high proportion of our time in the privacy of the cabin. We simply need more “peace and quiet” than the Glory’s public spaces provide. I think we could afford to do so on this line, because the prices are relatively low.

If I ever convince my husband to try cruising, it could be aboard a Carnival ship, and I wouldn’t consider it “settling” if it was. I also believe that an inexpensive Carnival sailing can make a good test voyage for novice cruise vacationers who are considering a more expensive trip but reluctant to commit for fear of seasickness or claustrophobia.

You may find, as I did, that you are pleasantly surprised by Carnival Cruise Line.

Adapted and updated from a post I originally wrote on Cruise Critic forums

When a parent who doesn’t speak German takes the kids to camp at Waldsee family week

I’m sure there are no dummies at Waldsee*, but I can guarantee you I felt like one upon arrival at German family week. Showing up at language immersion camp for the first time is no joke!

„Ich habe vor 20 Jahren deutsch gelernt“

More than twenty years ago, I took one academic year of German in college. I was hardly showing up without a clue, but neither am I a fluent speaker of Deutsch. Even straight out of an A grade in German 102, I wouldn’t have been ready for this. For a few minutes, it feels like running into an intellectual brick wall.

Then again, Waldsee is a celebration of one’s potential to learn a language as much as it is a shrine to language at its most pristine. These camps exist because students want to learn, and people want to communicate with each other.

„Wir sprechen jetzt Deutsch und… we’re going to like it!

The most challenging part of a six day immersion program in a language I’d merely dabbled with decades before was day one, hours one to three. Walking up to the registration table to present our camp “passports“ and check in brought me up short. I’m a smart cookie, but I felt like an idiot. What was anyone talking about? Exactly how far was I going to be carrying my enormous bag full of bedding and bug spray? Why was I here with these fiendish Teutophiles and how could I be expected to parent under these conditions?

By the time we made it to our bunkhouse, we’d carried our overstuffed suitcase up the wrong steps, finally found the right door, then the right floor, but I’d angry-whisper-yelled at my poor child more than once long before the bags were dumped on the bed. If you’d asked my opinion in that first hour, I’d have told a very different story about Waldsee in particular and language immersion in general than the one I’ll give you now. There might have been colorful language, in English, but I kept it under my breath so as not to spoil the immersion environment for others.

A lot of people wonder how much they could possibly learn in one week (six days, really) at Concordia Language Village’s family week, especially if the child is learning a language the parent never studied. Parents who hear about our trip to Waldsee are usually fascinated, but clearly hesitant to imagine themselves “back in school” learning a foreign language of all things.

Here’s my take for the parent who’s eager for their child to learn (or the parent of the eager child desperate to attend camp, but reluctant to go without parental support.)

Even if you don’t know one word of the target language, the staff will get you through the week and your kids will learn a lot. You will also have fun! If you are happy to be there, the experience will be joyful, regardless of German learned.

How much you actually learn is probably dependent upon your facility for languages (do you learn them easily?), the amount of effort you care to put in, and maybe the amount of parenting your own situation requires. If you bring a toddler or all six of your kids, you might nap more and study less! Either way, you can have a good time with your family and rest assured you are contributing to your child’s education. They will learn more—and more easily—than you do. You don’t have to know anything about your target language to make CLV family week worthwhile.

If you know you are heading to Waldsee, though, you will probably enjoy it a lot more if you take a stab at some self-study materials before camp. There are free language learning apps like Duolingo, free language learning software programs like Mango available from most public libraries, and lots of great recorded options like Pimsleur and Living Language to listen to in your car. (Both of these audio CD systems were also free from my local library.) Most of us won’t achieve fluency with these study aids, but even a brief grounding in the target language should reduce the shock and awe stage of immersion camp.

My experience, with modest background in German, a reasonably good ear for languages, and some preparation in the weeks before camp can best be expressed thusly:

We left camp, rode the bus to Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, and embarrassed ourselves for the next several hours by continually addressing befuddled airport workers in German.

The effect lasted about a week in our home. Both of us were defaulting to beginning sentences in German, in spite of our relatively low level of speaking ability. From my perspective, that’s a learning success, for my child, and for the lifelong learner in me.

*Concordia Language Village (CLV) foreign language immersion summer camp for German in Bemidji, MN

Waldsee family week for parents: what to expect, with pictures!

This post will avoid almost everything that makes Waldsee really special (i.e., the German immersion experience) and instead focus on little details about the practicalities of daily life for a family in a summer camp environment. Knowing this stuff up front would have helped me plan and pack for my first Concordia Language Villages stay. I wrote more about my top concerns before first attending family week at Waldsee here.

Please excuse me for pictures recorded on an old iPad by an unskilled photographer. Hopefully a little bit of pictorial advice, however amateurish, will go a long way toward showing a newcomer what to expect.

Concordia Language Villages transportation

It’s about 215 miles, or 3 ½ hours of driving time, from Bemidji, MN to MSP (Minneapolis St.Paul International Airport.) Will you—or your child camper—be making this trek on an old yellow school bus?

Not in my experience! We rode in a comfortable, air conditioned charter bus from BJI (Bemidji Regional Airport) to camp, and again from camp to MSP. There was a staff member aboard responsible for paperwork and supervising the kids traveling alone, distinct from the professional driver. The bus even had seatbelts.

Where will we sleep?

As an adult with a health issues that sometimes affects my mobility, I was a little nervous about the sleeping arrangements. I went to summer camp, and some of the beds were  iffy even for a kid. I knew I wouldn’t have to climb into an upper bunk because I could insist my son do that if we were sharing one bunk bed, but everything else was a potentially miserable question mark.

CSV Waldsee bunkbed nook

Two sets of bunk beds in each of two walled nooks in Schwarzwaldhaus

The beds were fine. The mattresses were about six inches thick and covered in utilitarian but hygienic vinyl, and they were supported by solid wooden bunks that didn’t squeak, sway, or sag. I wouldn’t have said no to an egg crate topper, but the firm, simple bed didn’t cause me any pain. The provision of a reading lamp above every bunk was an unexpected luxury we sure didn’t enjoy at my childhood camps.

Privacy was provided, in our case, with a set of bed-sheet curtains hung to partition a set of four bunk beds in a walled nook. This space was entirely ours as a family of two, mother and son. There was another mom with two kids (one boy, one girl) staying upstairs in the same room. I felt I had total visual privacy for changing, and sufficient privacy overall for sleeping, but I do wear earplugs when I travel. We went to bed earlier than the family upstairs, and I hardly even knew they were there.

CSV Waldsee Schwarzwaldhaus sleeping room

Schwarzwaldhaus two story bunk room, shared by two small families

These arrangements will vary a lot based upon how many members are in your family and their genders. I didn’t go inside anyone else’s sleeping room, but I saw peeks of very different set-ups through open doors around camp. Definitely, some families had private rooms with doors, so inquire with CLV about your own situation if you have questions.

Will we have to bathe in the lake?

There is hot running water at Waldsee, and the facilities were adequate for parental hygiene. There were even electrical outlets near the sinks for those dependent upon electric hair-styling appliances or toothbrushes.

The showers are about as primitive as modern plumbing in America gets, but they are separate curtained enclosures. I recommend bringing shower shoes, though the facilities were quite clean for a summer camp.

CSV Waldsee bathroom4CSV Waldsee bathroom3

Where can I get my morning coffee?

This was a particularly terrifying unknown for me. Summer camp villagers don’t have access to the staff coffee corner in the dining hall, but family week parents do. I believe coffee was available at every meal, not just breakfast, but I’m a once a day drinker, so follow up with CLV if you need reassurance. Tea things were here, too, but they ran out of English Breakfast during our week, so bring your own if you’re tea dependent like me.

CSV Waldsee dining hall coffee1

In the dining hall, close enough to sneak back for another cup during announcements, if necessary

Another great perk unique to family week was an early riser’s cafe with fresh baked pastries available before breakfast. I do wake up early, and I prefer to have a cup of tea right away, though I’m comfortable waiting for breakfast proper. Rising at five o’clock then waiting several hours before caffeination to share Frühstück with hoards of Villagers bellowing cheerful songs would be painful. Thankfully, there was no need. Parents of young children who get up with the birds should also hear this with glad hearts. There were even German cartoons playing on a laptop at the cafe to distract the little ones.

CSV Waldsee morning cafe

Cafe seating is outdoors so bring a sweater. That’s the coffee machine by the wall and those red things on the counter are mugs, ready and waiting. No photos of the pastries because we were too busy eating them!

Is there anything else you really want to know before you register for—or attend—Waldsee for the first time? Let me know in the comments and I’ll try to help!

Take your children to Iceland

…and bring your rain gear

Iceland reinvented itself as a hot tourist destination after the financial meltdown of the late aughts left their economy a mess. It’s so cool to visit Iceland that you might hesitate to go as a family. How can a hipster paradise be a good fit for kids? I was surprised by what a perfect match it was.

Traveling to Iceland for ten days in 2014 on my own with my early elementary aged kids was actually inadvertent. Suffice to say we’d purchased affordable, non-refundable, tourist class tickets with Icelandair via Keflavík to join DH on a European business trip. His schedule changed leaving him unable to travel on our dates. Rather than cancel altogether and lose the money spent on plane tickets, we persuaded Icelandair to drop the connecting flight to Europe without voiding our Boston – Keflavík legs and I put together a last-minute vacation for three in the land of fire and ice.

Even though I love to travel and am confident enough to go it alone internationally , I hesitated before I made this trip. Aside from Canada—which is awesome but comfortably similar to home—this was the boys’ first voyage abroad. I was taking on a new country about which I knew little and in a language I’d never heard spoken. It was a much bigger stretch, culturally and linguistically, than our 12 day trek across Canada from Pacific to Atlantic two years before, and DH was with us for part of that trip.

You will find better travelogues and more stunning photos elsewhere on the internet, but here are some ways Iceland was a uniquely perfect introduction to global travel for our family.

Children were graciously welcomed everywhere we went

Admittedly, I didn’t attempt to go bar crawling with the kids, but we did alternate between museums, group tours, and wandering around on our own. I felt welcomed everywhere we went, and was amazed by the ready provision of family friendly amenities in public places. A museum had a little potty standing ready in the WC, presumably trusting users to clean it properly after use. (Frankly unimaginable in the US.) Children’s areas in museums were comprehensive and present in both the smallest and the most rarefied establishments. Not only were there accommodations made to entertain and educate children in most establishments, but they also had English language versions of kids’ materials. Families were never made to feel like afterthoughts, even families of tourists.

Iceland potty in Museum Reykjavik 871

Little red potty, there in the museum if you need it

Icelandair goes so far as to feed children—gratis!—on their flights while adults in Economy class buy their food à la carte. I believe this extends to other extras like headphones and blankets, too. These are little things that are very supportive to traveling families, and likely make for a quieter, more pleasant trip for all passengers. That kind of thinking is everywhere in Iceland.

Icelandair kid meal

Icelandair child’s meal

Our favorite site in the country was Ásmundarsafn, one of three buildings that comprise the Reykjavík Art Museum. This former live-work space of pioneering artist Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982) is a beautiful building full of amazing works of art surrounded by an outdoor sculpture park. A museum guide told us that the artist himself specified that a sculpture of a famous lady troll from Icelandic folklore should be accessible for children to climb upon. I think that sums up the regard given to the value of children in Iceland.

Iceland statue Ásmundur1

If you sculpt it, they will climb…

I saw little groups of kids, maybe seven or eight years old, taking the city bus short distances together or playing on a playground conveniently placed outside of a large supermarket. It was clear that no adult was actively supervising these kids. I commented about this to our favorite tour guide, Steinthor, and he readily agreed.

“Of course,” he said, “because everyone is looking out for them. No adult would let these kids get into trouble.”

The prevailing attitude in Iceland, perhaps due to the small population and citizens’ high degree of inter-relatedness, is one of community support. It’s a really nice feeling for any visitor, but an outstanding one for a parent.

Children’s discounts abound, and they are significant

Yes, Iceland is expensive. Isn’t it crazy to bring the kids to one of the more expensive places you might ever visit?

Surprisingly, the kids were something of a bargain.

Make no mistake, you will feel physical pain from the size of the bill every time you feed the kids in an Icelandic restaurant, but that’s mostly a result of servers earning a living wage. Supermarket prices are also high, but nowhere near as stratospheric as the cost of a sit down meal. If you stay in a rented apartment or have a kitchenette in your hotel, you can keep these costs comparable to “nice vacation” costs back home. We ate breakfast for free at our hotel, ate out for lunch, and made sandwiches or add-hot-water soup for dinner in our room. Easy, healthy, portable snacks like baby carrots and cherry tomatoes could be found even in convenience stores.

Iceland hotel breakfast buffet

Breakfast might be included at your hotel, but kids may experience culinary culture shock at the buffet when they see fish instead of Cheerios

Low children’s admissions prices at public institutions such as museums weren’t surprising, but even commercial tickets, like seats on group tours, were half price. On one popular airport shuttle, adults cost around $40, teens get a 75% discount, and kids ride free. City bus tickets for youth (12-17) are 36% of adult fare; kids aged 6-11 pay 16%. Compared to our family trip to similarly remote, expensive, tourist-centric coastal Alaska in 2016, these price breaks added up to huge savings and they didn’t take any extra work like clipping coupons or booking ahead. Affordable prices for families seem to be part and parcel of Icelandic culture.

Products sold in Iceland are often made… in Iceland!

The high cost of imports to a remote island nation means you see a lot more products on Icelandic shelves that are actually made in Iceland. Where else have you gone as a tourist and seen that? Consistently, when my kid nagged me to buy a wooden sword or a game in the gift shop, I found the item to be of good quality and locally made. I’m usually a tough sell for souvenirs because, unless I’m in China, I don’t want a Chinese bauble, but I found it harder to use that excuse in Iceland. For once, the souvenirs felt like real pieces of the culture we were visiting. While not inexpensive, most items did seem to be a good value considering their quality.

Iceland Viking Hotel outside

Viking Cottages at Hotel Viking, Hafnarfjordur

Against my usual type, I opted for a hotel with a theme for our trip, and I didn’t have very high expectations. I did some TripAdvisor research, found a good area for us, and the price was right, so I figured I would give the kids a thrill and choose a cottage at the Hotel Viking in Hafnarfjordur, about midway between the airport in Keflavík and the capital, Reykjavík. The decor was a bit over the top, and the theming extends almost everywhere, but the “Viking Cottage” interiors were full of natural, hand carved wood and whimsical touches based upon Nordic folklore. It felt the opposite of Disney-esque. It felt authentically something, if not exactly full on Viking. The kids loved it, and, actually, so did I. It was also a really comfortable space for a family with sleeping loft, bunk beds, and a dining table. We made excellent use of the electric kettle for our modest, in-room dinners every evening.

Nature’s playground for the whole family

When I mentioned earlier that you should bring your rain gear, I wasn’t kidding. We visited Iceland in March, and we experienced snow, rain, fog, sun, sleet, mist, rainbows, warmth, bitter cold… all in the same day! Dressing appropriately will make or break your enjoyment of a long day touring this gorgeous country. Once you’ve got wet jeans, you’re going to be uncomfortable back on the bus, so wear technical clothing or layer inexpensive rain pants over your everyday trousers.Iceland weather cold wet walk

I would actually recommend visiting during the less crowded off season, like we did. Tourists outnumber native Icelanders now, at least at peak times. That’s not what I want to see when I go somewhere new. Less crowded tours and attractions make me happier, and they are better for families. We enjoyed our small group tours even more because only one of them was fully booked.

In Iceland and everywhere else, I would always recommend taking a minibus tour (or smaller) instead of the big bus lines. Getting a dozen or so people in and out of a minibus is pretty manageable and costs a lot less than a private tour, but waiting for 50 tourists to unload at every site wastes too much precious vacation time.

I’ve heard that car rentals are a good option in Iceland. Certainly, roads were in good condition and traffic seemed manageable compared to the gridlock of major American cities I’ve navigated. As a mom alone with a pair of kids in early spring, however, I felt more comfortable sticking with a group and a guide. We took three tours during our ten day visit: the Golden Circle, the South Coast, and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

Even in March with poor weather, the Golden Circle sites were pretty crowded. Gullfoss was almost completely obscured by fog, and Geysir was interesting, but mobbed. Thingvellir National Park was the highlight for me, and I will definitely go back there when I return to Iceland someday. Walking through the literal gap between two tectonic plates is awesome.

Iceland weather sun waterfall rainbow1The South Coast tour gave us our day of wildest weather, but was a great overview of some different elements of the Icelandic landscape. It was a long day, but with plenty of stops with lots of room to roam and run by glaciers, rivers and the sea. Throwing rocks was really popular with my boys, and there was plenty of room to do so without hitting any other tourists.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula presents more variety and makes a nice complement to the South Coast tour, though it was a day with even more driving time. This can work out well when your younger one naps in car! Snaefellsnes seemed to show us more birds and fishing villages and yet more interesting geological features. The long tunnel beneath a fjord was fun in and of itself for my engineering-oriented kid.

We alternated busy days with quieter ones.We found plenty to see in Hafnarfjordur, including its small museum, culture center, and the Elf Walk tour in Hellisgerdi Lava Park. We visited the local library twice (they have books in English as well as Icelandic and several other languages) and found time to select a favorite bakery. A short city bus ride into Reykjavík let us access two out of three branches of the really excellent art museum I mentioned earlier, Reykjavík 871±2 Settlement (archeological) Exhibition, National Museum of Iceland, the sculpture court of the Einar Jónsson Museum, and the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church. Aside from a little bit of shopping and rather more bakery-induced nibbling, we spent very little on excursions outside of the costly—but worth it—group tours.

Looking back, what stands out about this vacation was how extraordinarily good everything was. I say that as a mom who routinely blows her top when things go wrong, who dwells upon her own oversights, and who often gets more out of planning a vacation than actually taking it. While, yes, there was the incident where DS1 left his iPad behind at the Hafnarfjordur library and my heart stopped until we ran all the way back several blocks and retrieved it, safe and sound, from a librarian who seemed surprised I was so worried, and, of course, there’s the funny (now!) story of how the FlyBus whooshed right past us and I thought we would miss our flight home until the Hotel Viking receptionist saved the day by calling a taxi and arranging for the FlyBus company to cover the expense because we had a reservation and we were standing by the road in plain sight…

These little hiccups—which always happen when we travel, which can be the germ for great stories later or the strain that spoils a trip—are also the very key to why this adventure was so amazing. The people I met in Iceland seemed almost uniformly inclined to help, and welcoming to a stranger. There was a sense of people “all in this together” that pervaded situations as mundane as riding the bus and grocery shopping, but has been more eloquently displayed in times of trouble during Icelandic natural disasters at home or when they sent the first search and rescue team to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there.

Iceland is a place you want to visit for its natural beauty and unique culture; it’s a place you’ll be glad you brought your family because of its people.