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

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

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

Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-Up carry on bag keeps family travel organized

I’ve mentioned my Rolo hanging carry-on bag in a few contexts (Amtrak travel, summer camp.) I discovered it—and the Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-Up luggage that I’m reviewing now—during the same internet search for a new piece of kit that would help keep my family organized on a long trip.

Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-up Rolo hanging bag

Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-Up ($285) next to Rolo bag ($50), both empty

My summer road trip proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that this style of bag works really well for my family. DS1 stated that the Rolo made managing his things at summer camp easier. I appreciated the design at every brief overnight hotel stop.

Thus convinced, I bit the bullet and ordered the Red Oxx bag upon returning home. We’re going camping this summer, and I can definitely use a roll-it-out-and-see-it-all bag for each boy.

I got the Rolo bag first because it lists for $50 compared to the Big Bull Roll-Up’s $285 price. I could buy one Rolo bag for each family member (plus 1.7 extra) for the price of one Red Oxx Big Bull. But would I want to? Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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