Thursday, April 27, 2006

happy travelers

We’re home from our trip. Ten days of lollygagging about the green meadows and narrow streets of Great Britain. Ten days without pushing a vacuum cleaner or folding laundry or going to the supermarket. Ten days free of the pressure to keep my children intellectually stimulated because, in a foreign land, just turning on the light, the faucet, or the radio can be a learning experience.

I realized before we left just how difficult it is for a child to grasp the concept of time. The day before we left for England I finally made it clear to Esther that we were leaving “tomorrow.” “Tomorrow?” she said. ”How old will I be then? Will I be five then?” “No Sweet. You’ll be one day older than you are today. You’ll go to bed tonight after you eat supper and when you wake up, that will be tomorrow,” I said, not sure I wasn’t making her more confused. Then she got it. Her eyes got big and she said, “Just one more sleep until we go to England?” Then she turned to her little baby sister and said, “Isla, you’re going to learn how to say vitamin.” (think vittles, that’s the way her daddy says it.)

I’m still amazed at how smooth the whole trip went. The prospect of a six-hour Transatlantic flight with a five-month old and a four-year old had been looming huge and scary over my world for months. I lay awake each night with Isla at my breast as all these twisted thoughts about the irresponsibility of taking small children so far from home, and so high in the sky, buzzed around in my head. There is no worse time to ruminate than in the middle of the night when you’re surrounded by the kind of endless darkness that sucks all rational thought right out of you.

Now here I am back home, staring at the mile high pile of dirty laundry and the parched houseplants, wondering where we can go next. Okay, it wasn’t stress free by any means --and the ultimately bad decision to surpass downtown London to see a few lions and a giraffe at the zoo will haunt us for months--but the whole car, taxi, airport, airplane, train routine wasn’t so daunting after all. In fact, I might even feel inclined to pat myself on the back for being such an adept traveling parent if it weren’t for the couple on our flight (significantly younger and calmer than us) who were traveling with four children. As with athletic prowess or artistic talent, it’s good to remember the art of parenting comes naturally to some people.

If I had to attribute the success of our trip to one thing, I would say………snacks. To narrow it down even further… string cheese.

Like magic, the plane pushed off from the gate just minutes after we settled in and we were in the air quickly. Esther was fascinated by all of it, especially the flight attendants shoes, and sensing her wide-eyed excitement helped me to focus on the wonder rather than the horror. She did fall apart briefly after dinner and started to exhale violently out of her nostrils, like a dog with a bee up its nose, in response to the dry air. This snorting is an annoying little quirk of hers that I would rather keep at home. Luckily most passengers were wearing headphones. She started whimpering for me so Ian and I switched seats and I got her to put her head on my lap and fall asleep. Just two hours into the transatlantic flight that had filled me with anxiety for weeks, we had two sleeping children, some trashy magazines to read and no turbulence. In short, bliss.

Three hours later Esther woke up refreshed and still excited. Most of the passengers were asleep and it felt like we were floating along in this quiet, slightly humming little bubble. “Why does it feel like we’re not flying?” she said. “ I have no idea,” I said. “But isn’t it cool.” “Are we in Londond?” she asked adding that extra “d” that she thinks belongs on all words ending with “n.”

The sky grew lighter and pinker as we hurled towards the rising sun. As we descended into London I saw Windsor Castle, the Eye, the neon lights of Picadilly Circus, and the river Thames winding its way like a dark ,glossy snake across the landscape. As we neared touchdown, Esther had her arms outstretched like wings as she watched the screen that showed a pixilated plane inching towards the land. The plane heaved and shook as we touched down and I checked Esther’s face to see if she felt even the slightest bit of apprehension. “That was the earth that made that noise,” she said. “That was us hitting the earth.” Nothing but sheer awe in that little four-year-old brain. As it should be.

Arriving in London after being in Boston is like going from nobody to royalty overnight. That is, of course, if you are traveling with small children. As soon as we got off the plane velvet ropes dropped, secret doors opened and official looking people waved us past the throngs to the front of lines. How simple this is, yet how novel. Obviously no one wants to hear screaming babies while waiting in long lines to go through customs so why not just let them all through first. Would they ever think of this in America? Not in the airports I have traveled through.

As soon as we got off the airplane and into the long corridors that led to the baggage claim I began searching for a place to change Isla. Just a few hundred steps later a sign appeared in front of me saying “Mother’s with Babies Room.” I opened the door to find a big clean, tiled room with a chair for nursing, and a long, clean changing table complete with clean pad, a clean roll of paper liner and a clean sink and garbage bin within arms reach. Ahhhh. Did I mention how clean it was? I soon learned that these mother havens are all over Great Britain. They even have family bathrooms so you don’t have to play the logistical children juggling game when trying to get everyone, and yourselves, to the toilet.

On the way to baggage claim, we passed the family with the four kids and saw a still sleeping four-year-old riding on top of a crying two- year -old in a one-child stroller.

Ian’s mother was delighted to finally meet little Isla and have her quiet house filled with noise and clutter for a while. Within ten minutes Isla was in Granny’s arms happily sucking her thumb and Esther was down on the rug playing make-believe just like she does at home. The only difference was how often she used the word “quite” and “rather”, words she apparently picked up in the short car ride from the airport with Ian’s sister Jenny. ‘The queen was quite angry and her horse was rather wild,” she said to no one in particular as she cantered her My Little Pony around the living room.

Would it sound bad if I said the best thing about the English, besides their respect for families, is pubs? There were two of them within walking distance from where we stayed. This meant that Ian and I had our first date since Isla came into our world and it was as easy as putting the children to bed, putting Granny on alert, walking out the door and down the brick footpath. I told Ian’s older sister about our date, the next day and she asked, “And did you find something to talk about?” Funny she should say that because it was a bit dicey in the beginning , coming face to face with my husband and feeling a strange awkwardness of not having children around to keep us from focusing on each other and not immediately having a lot to talk about because we are soooo out of practice. But we soon got onto the fruitful topic of the queen. God Save the Queen.


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