Sunday, April 3, 2016

To travel or not to travel (like crazies)

"Que LOQUITOS!" (pronounced: Low-KEE-toes and not Low-Kwee-toes) This, or some variation, is what we hear when we share our TRAVEL plans with family or friends. In Spanish, it means, "You little crazies!" It's a nice way of telling us we're brave, stupid, lucky or irresponsible for traveling the way we do: frequently, boldly and with two little ones. Whether it's a weekend getaway or a month-long stint in Ecuador, we like to go and go often.

The toughest consideration are the kids. Is this good for them? Or are we just fulfilling some egocentric void by doing this? We don't want to be those A-list, A-hole celebrities who give their kids awful names just to make themselves sound cool, like Jason Lee, for example. Pilot Inspektor? Really? I'm sure your kid will have a great time with that one in school. Anyway, we've done some research on this whole traveling with kids deal, but ultimately - like most things in the illogical, unscientific art of parenting - it's a judgment call. It has its pros, and other pros, and some cons.

Apart from giving our kids their rightful inheritance of being trilingual (English, Spanish and Turkish), we also want them to be citizens of the world. Hokey as it may sound, we figure, the more they can interact and experience different people, different cultures and different places, the more prepared they'll be for the ever-shrinking world that awaits them. In some way, it's also a mitigation strategy for those teenage years when they're supposed to hate us. "See all the awesome places we took you!" we'll surely tell 'em. That should help, right? Hopefully, we're right about some of this.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Europe 2015: Let's do this already

Ten years in the making and a year planning is finally here. In less than an hour, our young family of four will board a Turkish Airlines Flight to Brussels, where our two-month, six-country European vacation will begin. When you think about it, you get a small window to pull off a trip like this on your terms. Before kids, you can't afford it. When the kids are too small, what's the point? When kids start school, they're schedules dictate when and for how long you can go. When they graduate high school, two months with mom and dad don't sound too hot - for anyone. Of course, we also wanted to pull this thing off while we're still young-ish. We've had no shortage of signs this year - deaths, illness, really bad crap - to remind us: there are no guarantees. All of this is to say, our time is now. For added encouragement, Deniz and I, way back when we didn't know any better, made a promise to do something like this to celebrate our 10-year anniversary - it'll be 10 years on Sept. 10. Just look at us back then (this was the photo we used on the CD cover of our wedding favor):

So here we are. We're ready to do this. I'm psyched up even as the gentlemen at the terminal bathroom is rinsing and clacking his dentures in the sink next to me, as if to remind me: travel ain't always all that great, kid. "Sure," I think to myself, as I glance in the mirror smiling with my (still) real teeth.

Update 1:
Boarded and seated, we're ready.

Update 2:
Oh, and our primary mode of transportation during this trek: Death Chucks. Because nothing says style and comfort like these bad boys.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Europe 2015 - Belgium: Of Smurfs and rain (and beach)

We eased into it on our first full day in Belgium. Cousin Mario (we'll call him that since my dad's a Mario, I'm Mario... it can get confusing quickly) with Catherine and their two daughters, Laura and Luna, hosted us in their home in Wavre - 30 minutes southeast of Brussels. For lunch, he drove us to nearby Louvain La Neuve - a small college town open only to pedestrian traffic. A banner announcing an upcoming expo immediately educated me on one of Belgium's two great cartoon exports (the other being Hergé's Tintin). They're not the Smurfs. They're Les Schtroumpfs (SH-TROOMPH. See how much easier that rolls off the tongue? Belgian cartoonist Pierre Culliford, better known as Peyo, invented them in the '50s, so we'll go with what he called 'em. Les Schtroumpfs it is!

Cousin Mario then drove us to Wavre's historic city center, where they had filled in the central square with sand for a surreal beach scene at the foot of the 500-year-old St. John the Baptist church. The kids frolicked, and we all soaked in the sun, which I'm told is not a frequent visitor.

Back at their home later, Mario and Catherine opened a bottle of something bubbly to toast our arrival. Ching and thump, our glasses and sippy cups collided.

The next day we soaked in the persistent rain for the full Brussels experience. We fired off a few photos of the kids by the famous Manneken Pis statue and took a soggy family portrait in the impossibly ornate Grand Place.

Of note, the Grand Place's centerpiece, the Town Hall building, is noticeably asymmetrical. The main door, for example, is distinctly off center. Legend has it that the architect jumped to his death from the building when he figured out his miscalculation. Deniz suspects the Guildhouses perpendicular to Town Hall, with bars on the floor levels, may have had something to do with the miscalculation. If so, the moral of the story could be: don't drink and build.

We ended up at the Smur - I mean - Schtroumpfs store. Here's the context. During Passport D.C., when most embassies are open to the public, we visited the Embassy of Belgium, where a humongous Smurf greeted us at the door. Love at first site for Aylin. Turns out, somewhere between growing up and now, Les Schtroumpfs fell out of vogue. We couldn't find a Smurfette anywhere. And finding Smurf-themed birthday stuff for her upcoming birthday? A no go. Ever practical, Aylin turned one of her Smurf slippers, which she received a few years back, into her lovie. Deniz and I are not too self conscious about too many things, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that my daughter hugging and walking around with something that should be on her foot wasn't a little embarrassing. Needless to say, Aylin getting her Smurfette was a relief for all of us. And the wet excursion, totally worth it.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Europe 2015 - France: Scoring our wheels

So, technically, we were in France today. Okay, it was only me and only for an hour, picking up our leased car from Calais. Still, it's an important part of our trip and, perhaps, it was the most complex to plan (more on this later when I don't have to thumb type).

Here's me doing what you shouldn't: taking a quick snap crossing back into Belgium in our brand-spankin' new Peugeot while cruising at 108. Relax, that's kilometers per hour. The blue "mood lighting" dashboard gives a glimpse of our ride's posh-but-affordable sleekness.

Booking our U.S. - Turkey plane tickets with a month and a half "stop over" in Europe? No problem. Lining up AirBnB locations throughout Europe? A cinch. Renting a car for 37 days? Not so easy. The details and fine print would make most people's head spin, so here are the cliff notes. If you ever need to rent a car for more than 21 days in Europe (15 days minimum during special promotions), seriously consider Auto Europe's "Buy Back" program. It's a short-term lease program that gives you a new car right out of the factory with full, zero-deductible auto insurance; no extra driver fees; and a few other perks.

The only catch: you have to book the car at least a month out, and once you're within 30 days, there's no turning back - not without incurring a 1000-Euro fee. But when you consider getting full coverage - including collision and theft - through even a reputable car rental place is very expensive, the commitment seems worth it. For example, we priced 37 days with a comparable insurance package, and the cost was about $1,000 more, nearly doubling the cost of leasing through Auto Europe. The other option is to rent the car using a credit card that offers additional insurance - many cards offer this. This wasn't an option for us because they only cover for 30 days.

There is one other catch: If you pick up your Auto Europe car from one of the several locations in France, you're good to go. But if you need the car delivered to another city outside of France - say Brussels, like us - there's a $400 fee associated with picking up and dropping off. So we had to get creative: we booked a car to go pick up the car from Calais and a second car to go drop off the car, ultimately saving us $300 (instead of paying the $400, we would pay the $50 for each of the additional rentals).

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Europe 2015 - Belgium (Still): Not always sunny on travel

Conventional wisdom and the omen of the old man rinsing his dentures in the terminal bathroom told me: the allure of travel sometimes gets dulled by reality. The last few days have been a bit of a kick in the... stomach.

First, Aylin and Emilio picked up a stomach bug that had 'em salvo pukin' non-stop for about a day. Our consolation: there are worse places to get stuck than our Cousin Irina's and her husband David's lovely beachfront apartment in De Pannes, Belgium. Deniz and I took turns watching the kids, so we didn't completely miss out.

Second, we got dealt a you-just-can't-win day. The day after picking up our car in Calais, and once the kids were feeling 100 percent better, we decided to venture into downtown Brussels and attempt to revisit the Grand Place and the Manneken Pis - hold the rain this time, s'il vous plait. The sky looked clear as we sat in some traffic and looked for parking. As if on cue, the drizzle began the second we got out of the car. Google Maps decided to lock up on my iPhone. I knew we were so close to the Grand Place, but without knowing which direction to go, and in the rain, it seemed so far. Our rain plan of hitting the Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles (the Museum of the City of Brussels), where the kids enjoyed seeing the Manneken Pis's wardrobe, including an Ecuadorian outfit, would have been perfect until we walked out.

After carefully carrying the stroller down the few stairs from the museum entrance, I proceeded to take what must have been a spectacular, cartoon-like, slip-on-a-banana-peel, ass plant. With stroller in hands. With Emilio in stroller. Not pretty. I lost enough cool points to make it mathematically impossible to recover. Ever.

With the same urgency one might help a fallen senior citizen, onlookers rushed to my aid, as I lay flat on my back with the stroller on top of me in a small pool of rain and shame. With my backside soaked from my waist to my ankles, my immediate thought: Emilio! Apart from being a little rattled, he was fine. Somehow I managed to maintain positive control throughout the tumble.

Beyond Emilio being good to go, the weather held up enough for us to get a family portrait with a backdrop featuring the photographically elusive, 310-foot steeple of the Town Hall Building in the Grand Place. If anyone cares to point out that we missed the five-foot archangel Michael slaying the devil at the very top of the steeple... Following the day we had, we'd like to politely say, "Oh, shut up."

We also got a better shot of the kids with the Manneken Pis.

Third, I had my own maladies to contend with - beyond licking my emotional wounds from the embarrassing fall, of course. I picked up a bug that took me out of service for a day and a half, forcing us to cancel a day trip to Antwerp. This bug featured some great sneezing episodes, one of which rattled my frame just enough to pull my lower back something fierce.

There was one big epiphany (or selective, self-serving rationalization) for me in all of this: If I'm having these health issues and mobility challenges now at 41, can you imagine me at 60? What a mess! Better to scratch this travel business off the bucket list now while I'm still, literally, able to.

Of note: this epiphany applies only to me, as I know some 60 year olds that would run circles around me.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Europe 2015 - Last Day in Belgium: Bruges in one (perfect) day

After a few rough days of sickness and falls, we had a good feeling about Bruges. Almost as soon as we got out of our car, it stopped raining. 
Without a doubt, Bruges is one of the best cities we've ever visited. Its cobblestone roads and water canals winding through well-preserved buildings dating back hundreds of years fools the senses into thinking you're back in the feudal age. Horse-drawn carriages and the town's cleanliness almost make you feel like your walking down Main Street at Disney. Almost. 

If a picture tells a thousand words, here are about 10,000.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Europe 2015 - Leaving Belgium with new cousins

Belgium far exceeded our expectations. We knew Brussels and Bruges would not disappoint, but we didn't anticipate the genuine affection we received from essentially perfect strangers - Cousins Mario, Sonia and Irina, and their respective families. They're actually my dad's first cousins - children of my dad's uncle and hero, Tio Pepe - my grandma's younger brother. Apart from one quick brush with Cousin Mario in 2000, I simply knew them by fame: Tio Pepe's successful kids - the pilot, cardiologist, and lawyer - from Belgium. In other words, I didn't know them at all.

They each hosted us for a few days and made us feel immediately at home, as though we've known each other forever. Family unity is a badge of honor in our family, so I suppose I shouldn't have been that surprised. Even so, we never felt even the slightest, expected awkward moment. Beyond that, their respective better halves - Catherine, Georges and David - had no excuse for being so kind to us. In their own way, they each demonstrated their warmth. Catherine's thoughtful gesture of toasting our arrival. Georges going way out of his way to grab a small bag we'd left behind. David offering to have us stay at their beach apartment, so we can pick up our car from nearby Calais. You can tell a lot about a person from those small gestures of kindness.

With this context, it's easy to see how some of my favorite moments in Belgium were low-key, subdued, but memorable, family affairs. Playing a little guitar with Cousin Mario with our daughters Aylin and Laura looking on. Cousin Sonia's enthusiasm to host us in their new pool. We made it to her place just in time to enjoy a poolside beer before the rain came in. She texted us this photo, inviting us over:

Our drive to the beach with Cousin Irina, where she shared the miracle birth of her beautiful, "Petit Sara," and David's hopes of taking his family where the sun shines a little more. And perhaps one of my favorite, favorite little moments was exchanging music recommendations with Cousin Mario and David. Sitting around the computer, pulling up YouTube videos, Mario shared Georges Brassens, David gave us some Leó Ferré, while I countered with Tom Waits - "A Sight for Sore Eyes," if you must know. Our mutual passion for the power of music transcended any language barriers (David speaks mostly French).

In each of my cousins, I also witnessed a hunger - similar to mine - to live in the now. It's never too late to learn a new musical instrument or never too soon to put in the pool before the kids run off to be grown ups or never too crazy to give serious consideration to a wild dream that may set you free. In the end, perfect strangers with similar bloodlines turned out to be kindred spirits.