Saturday, July 25, 2015

Sicily Part 1

Well, it wasn't all that bad (see here and here for what I mean by bad), so I thought I'd share some of the lovely things we discovered together on our family trip to Sicily.

Our first night, we just relaxed at this Airbnb outside of Palermo, which I highly recommend. Arianna, the hostess, and her family are just wonderful. The property includes the guest house (where we stayed) plus two other houses (one house for her parents and one house for her own family), a donkey corral, citrus groves, and a chicken coop. Arianna left us a big bowl of citrus fruits as well as fresh milk and a homemade cake. We were so exhausted from traveling that she even offered to make us a simple pasta dish for dinner, which we gladly accepted. With three little ones of her own, there were plenty of toys in the apartment and around the property to keep Hunter busy.

The next morning, we were off quite early to begin exploring. We drove south to the archeological site at Selinunte. Although this site is a little more rugged and less frequented (so less manicured) than the Valle dei Templi in Agrigento, we had a great time. Of all the temples, only one has been re-erected (Temple of Hera) and it was under renovation, but there was still plenty to see including the urban plan at the acropolis. It was fun to walk up and down the streets and imagine what life was like back in the 4th century BCE.

That evening we arrived for a late dinner at Ciuci's Manor (our accommodations for 2 nights), where we enjoyed a feast that included olives and pistachios grown on the property as well as a traditional Sicilian cake known as Cassata. Ginevra (our hostess) explained that the whole history of Sicily can be found in this cake. Her explanation had to be my favorite part of the evening, and by the way, it was delicious! Marzipan, sponge cake, chocolate, ricotta... YUM! 

Tip #1: Visit Sicily during Easter! Both Arianna and Ginevra said we were visiting at the best time of year because of all the special events going on in the villages as well as the special foods available only during that time of year.

We woke up to a delicious breakfast spread and then headed down with a bowl of day-old bread to feed the ducks. Hunter got to see ostriches, geese, goats, and donkeys. Ciuci's Manor, located outside of Agrigento, is a really great place for children, and I also highly recommend staying at this property. After a liesurely morning, we headed down to the Valle dei Templi to see the temples in Agrigento, which I also wrote about here when we lived in Switzerland. 

Tip #2: There are two places to park and buy tickets -- at the bottom on the hill across the street from the Temple of the Dioscuri or at the top of the hill near the Temple of Juno. For time saving, or if you are with a travel companion who may not have enough energy to hike up to the archaeological site and back down to the parking lot or vice versa, do this: park at the bottom, take a taxi "shuttle" up to the other lot, start your visit there, and end up back at the parking lot. One more thing, there is a bar/cafe on site, but it's nothing spectacular. Plan accordingly.

After our visit, we went to see the Scala dei Turchi, went to dinner in Favara, and headed back to Ciuci's Manor. The next day, we enjoyed another great breakfast and attempted to get Hunter to ride one of the donkeys, but that did not go over very well. We said our goodbyes (seriously felt like we were staying with family both at Ciuci's and at Arianna's place), and then headed off to the Roman Villa of Casale in Piazza Armerina, which I wrote about here. It's changed a lot since then: more viewing platforms, access to more rooms, a (crappy) dining area, and audio guides. I didn't take any photos because I was busy chasing after Hunter. Stay tuned for Part 2...

Monday, July 13, 2015

Why I Will Always Buy Travel Insurance

Unfortunately, I am kind of a Debbie Downer when it comes to the what-ifs in life. I always think of the worst-case scenario. When we were planning our trip to Sicily, I knew for sure that I wanted to purchase trip protection/travel insurance. It crossed my mind that something bad could possibly happen during our trip, but the main reason I purchased it was for the trip cancellation benefit. Our health insurance covers accidents abroad, so I didn't need the medical coverage, but if for some reason something bad happened to one of us before our trip, I wanted to be able to cancel the trip without feeling too much of a blow to our pocketbook. 

Although nothing terrible happened prior to our trip (I briefly thought about cancelling the trip because just a few weeks before we left, I found out I was expecting, and with the way morning sickness was going, I was none too thrilled about traveling during the tail end of my first trimester), on the eighth day of our trip, something very, very bad happened. My mother-in-law suffered a brain hemorrhage. Only a couple of hours after arriving at our accommodations, she sat down and explained that she could no longer feel the right side of her body. With my limited Italian, I managed to ask the proprietor at our farm stay to call an ambulance. As we were waiting in our room, my mother-in-law's speech began to dwindle. We did our best to stay calm, but Isaiah and I just kept looking at each other in disbelief, Was this really happening?

Once the ambulance arrived (at least 20 minutes after calling), we realized it was a bit like a mini-hospital on wheels. The doctor on board asked some questions, and I answered to the best of my knowledge and ability. They took my MIL away, and we were left waiting to find out where they were taking her. Upon her arrival at the hospital (nearly an hour away from where we were staying), they scanned her brain and found two tumors, one of which had ruptured. The next four days were surreal. Hunter and I stayed back at the farm stay (and eventually hotel) while Isaiah cared for his mother at the hospital. Our dream vacation was over, and Hunter and I were just waiting for our return flight back to San Diego. Isaiah would stay another two-and-a-half weeks until his mother was released.

So that's the background of the story. Here's why I will always buy travel insurance: trip interruption coverage. Although our health insurance covers medical emergencies abroad, it doesn't cover the extra expenses incurred if you have to stay past your trip dates to accompany family members in the hospital: car rental, food, hotel. When all was said and done, in order for Isaiah to stay behind, we had to pay close to $3,000 out of pocket for those extra expenses that were not part of our original vacation budget. Thankfully, our insurance benefit for trip interruption included up to $200/day for food, transportation, and lodging for anyone staying behind as a "non-medical escort." On top of that, we had no idea that my MIL's medical insurance doesn't cover accidents abroad, so her expenses at the hospital in Sicily were covered by the insurance policy I had purchased for her (a benefit of up to $15,000). Furthermore, even after 3 weeks in the hospital, my MIL remained paralyzed on her right side, so there was no way to she could fly back on a regular flight. She and Isaiah flew back to the U.S. by air ambulance, covered by our policy's "emergency evacuation" benefit (up to $150,000).

I am still waiting for some information from American Airlines (worst Customer Service ever, btw) before I file a claim to get those nearly $3,000 reimbursed, so I will have to update this post later to let you know how that process went. Claims can be filed online, and the process seems pretty straight-forward, but I am sure it will be a while before we see that money. Also, just FYI, I am not going to give our insurance company rave reviews. They contracted out to another company to organize the air ambulance transfer, and the communication between doctors, companies, and patient was terrible. But they got the job done, and that is all that really matters, right? I think any travel insurance company will do, but if you'd like to know the name of the company we used, just send me an email. I like the kind of company that allows you to build or personalize your own policy, especially since the ones that Orbitz or Expedia offer are often more expensive and have benefits that are unnecessary since many credit card companies offer certain travel benefits for free just for using their card to purchase the airline tickets. If you're wondering about cost, I purchased 4 policies for around $200. Money well spent, don't you think?

I think now, after this ordeal, the odds are probably in our favor. It's probably very unlikely that something bad will happen to us on a trip ever again. But the Debbie Downer in me won't be taking any chances. The next time we travel abroad (which won't be for a very, very, very long time), we will buy trip protection/travel insurance. Yes, most definitely so.

Friday, July 3, 2015

New Month's Resolutions: July

When Elisa pointed out that half of the year has come and gone, I felt a little panicked, as if I haven't accomplished much this year. I thought, what have I been doing all this time? And then I calmed down a bit because oh yeah, duh, I have been finishing up school, growing a baby, and looking after my family! Not bad! So far, I have really enjoyed setting these monthly goals. It has helped me reflect on all aspects of my life: from bad childhood habits like nail biting, to home decorating, and now to my parenting. I have been thinking a lot about being a good mom lately. Last month, I started listening to some parenting talks as part of a "Be a Better Parent" free online summit. The talks and some subsequent research have brought so many aha moments (learned SO much from this site) that now the only thing I really want to work on is establishing better parenting habits (and kick the bad ones).

Sure, I worked a bit on my goals from last month, but honestly, the thing I worked hardest on (and am still working on) was being a better mom to Hunter. You see, he's on summer vacation from school now, and this is the first time I have been all alone with Hunter for days and days at a time (not including evenings when Isaiah gets home, of course) at THIS AGE, after BOTH of us being in school with friends and fun for a whole year. There have been some very challenging moments and too many parenting mistakes. I am going to talk about them here because even though it's difficult to admit that I have done these things, I hope being open about it will help me avoid repeating those mistakes.

Although Isaiah and I have chosen not to spank our children or put them in time-out, when I've lost my patience with Hunter, I tend to get grabby. I've always told myself that any time I touch my child it should be a loving touch, but these are those times that I have not stuck to that principle. I remember the first time it happened, when he was around twenty-two months old and we were getting ready to leave the house for school. I was running late as usual, he was being silly while I was trying to get him dressed, and I snapped. I brusquely took him by the shoulders and spoke very sternly to him. He burst into tears. At that point, I remember feeling like it was my lowest mommy moment. When it happened again last week, immediately after he burst into tears, he asked, "Mommy hug?" With those two words, he said to me, "I need some reassurance that you love me because that was not a loving touch."

Of course, if my child's in harm's way, I have a split-second to react, and the only way to get him to safety is to grab him and move him, then I will do it, but I find most of the times I've been grabby with him, the situation could have been handled in a thousand better ways. One of my biggest issues with non-loving touches, such as grabbing, is the blow to my child's dignity. He is not a puppet that I can move about willy-nilly. He is a small human being. How would I like it if I were in a store about to take a product off the shelf, and someone came and grabbed my arm and moved me away from the shelf, especially without saying a word? The dishes in the sink can wait, looking put together doesn't really matter, and the laundry on the floor will eventually get put away because I can't think of anything more important right now than being a good mother to my spirited 2-and-a-half-year-old son.

The goals...

1. Connect with Hunter. There is going to be a time very soon when I will need to split my attention between a newborn and an almost 3-year-old. I need to make sure I have a solid connection with Hunter so that he always feels loved and knows he is important even with a new baby around. I also find that when I take the time to connect with him throughout the day, he is less likely to show undesirable behaviors and more likely to go along with my requests. If I feel myself start to lose my patience with him, I need to check in on my connection with him. This also means waiting until naptime or bedtime to catch up on social media. He ALWAYS shows challenging behaviors if he sees me on my computer or phone. One of the helpful phrases I've heard a couple of times in the various parenting articles I've read is "connection before correction."

2. Eliminate the "morning rush." Leaving the house in the morning (or any time of day, really) is where I have faced the biggest challenge. It's one of my triggers, for sure. It's 10 minutes before the time we need to leave the house, and Hunter is not ready to go. It's all my fault, of course. I leave him in his pajamas for breakfast so he doesn't get his day clothes dirty. Then he plays a bit while I get dressed and gather everything we need to leave the house. Before I know it, it's time to go. He's busy climbing furniture or something, and the last thing he wants to do is sit and change his clothes. The solution? Get him dressed as soon as he wakes up so that the only thing he needs to do before we step out the door is put on his shoes. While getting dressed, talk to him about the day and what we need to do before we leave the house. I have an apron he can put on himself and wear at breakfast to keep his clothes clean. I also want to make a little "exit poster" than we can review 10 minutes before we need to leave. We would use it as a gauge to check that we're ready to leave the house. Communication and setting him up for success is key. (Seriously, why the heck did it take me so long to figure this out?)

3. Take a deep breath. Before dealing with a situation, if I take a deep breath, it actually helps me respond rather than react. Any time I have been grabby with Hunter, it's because I am reacting, not responding. One of my other "triggers" is when he is about to do something naughty or has just finished doing something naughty. For example, he is climbing on his stool about to knock over something breakable. My first reaction is usually to snatch him off the stool before he can do it. Instead, I should firmly call his name to get his attention, and then take a deep breath. Then I can ask him to leave the object alone. If he doesn't respond, I come close to him and say, "I see you are having a hard time stopping yourself from touching this. I am going to take you down from the stool now." Since I'm calm at this point, when I take him in my arms, my movements are gentle and loving. He may resist, of course, but I am not hurting him and he knows I care. OR he may have been too quick, and the object is shattered on the floor. Still, I take a deep breath. Stuff is stuff. He sees the consequence of his action. I tell him, "I need to move you to another room while I clean this up." After everything is cleaned up, we have a chat about what happened. 

Easier said than done? We'll see when I will report back next month!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Traveling Internationally with a 2-Year-Old

I wish I could tell you that this post is all about how invaluable it is to travel internationally with a toddler or that I have tips for traveling with a toddler, but countless posts like that already exist. (Thank goodness for the latter because I most definitely used this one and this one to prepare for our trip. Here is another good one by Elisa. By the way, we only took these carry-on backpacks for our baggage so we could have hands free for pushing around a stroller/car seat or chasing our toddler.)

My family not-so recently returned from a trip to Sicily. What was supposed to be a fabulous 2-week long family vacation was anything but. (The main reason it was a bust is a doozy of a story, and I will save that can of worms for another post.)

The trip was never about me since the whole purpose was to take my mother-in-law to visit the homeland. She had never been out of the United States before this trip, and early last year she discovered the names of the Sicilian towns in which her paternal grandparents were born. When she expressed her desire to see Sicily before leaving this life, we knew we were the only ones who could make that possible for her, and now was as good a time as any. We were already planning on selling our house, so when it sold last fall, we were able to accomplish many of our goals: pay off our combined student loan debt, finance my Montessori training, and take this trip. We spent months planning. We decided to go during spring break since the fares and other costs are lower in the off-season. That meant we'd have to bring Hunter with us since my momma would not be available to look after him (she works tax season).

I will be the first to admit that it was selfish to take Hunter on this trip. Part of me couldn't imagine being away from him for 2 weeks. The other part of me was itching to visit Italy again, and it had been 5 years since we were last in Europe. I was basically desperate to go on this trip, desperate for a major change of scenery. I wanted to make this trip happen so badly, I maybe ignored warning signs that it was not the best idea, and definitely not in Hunter's best interest.

I can't say that every moment of the trip was terrible, I mean, c'mon. Look at that boy's face playing among the ancient Greek ruins of Selinunte. Even today he talks about "Italy" (but he also talks about how Nonni went in the ambulance... geez!). He sees photos of ancient ruins and pronounces, "Look! Temples!" He played trucks with a sweet Sicilian preschooler at our airbnb accommodations outside of Palermo, and cried when we said it was time to go grab dinner. Every single Sicilian person who walked by Hunter gave him a little pat on the head (or full-on ran their fingers though his hair). He looked for Easter eggs in the field near our villa rental outside of Ragusa. Even though we live 10 minutes from the beach here in San Diego, it was in Sicily that Hunter started saying, "I see ocean!" He made friends with Jonah and his little brother (from Frankfurt) at an agriturismo outside of Agrigento, trading toy cars and playing tag on the patio after breakfast. He collected seashells on the walk to the Scala dei Turchi... we shared many special moments. But, there are lots of buts.

Even though almost all of our accommodations were of the self-catering type (meaning we cooked and ate most meals at the rental, especially breakfast and dinner), and even though Hunter is a champ at eating out at restaurants here in San Diego, this boy would not sit at the table when we went out to eat. Isaiah spent nearly every lunch we ate out entertaining Hunter outside. Also, we tried to see touristy sites, like Selinunte and the Valle dei Templi, that were outdoors so he could run around, but we also wanted my MIL to see some of the other spectacular places and cities that Sicily has to offer, which were not always so fun for a toddler. One site in particular was the Villa Romana di Casale. I was in awe of the mosaics when I saw the villa years before on our road trip through Italy, but this time I should have skipped a ticket for me and played in the parking lot with Hunter because he was not having it. Even though we all adjusted very quickly to the time difference, a big problem was that he was always up so early, and the rest of us were kind of leisurely about getting up, so by the time we were out the door and out and about, his naptime creeped up on us really quickly. Let's not even discuss what an 8-hour flight looks like with a child who has no interest in the iPad and who'd rather be riding his balance bike.

The biggest problem, however, was our lack of consideration for Hunter's developmental needs. We've all heard that the first five years of life are the most important. It wasn't until my Montessori training, however, that I recognized the magnitude of that statement. The task that these young children have is huge. They are building themselves into the men and women they will become. They are establishing an "inner compass" and laying the foundation for the rest of their lives. Education truly begins at birth, and the child's first teachers are his parents. Among the child's great tasks during these five years are adaptation to society during a particular era and in a particular place, language acquisition, and building intelligence. Therefore, to accomplish these great tasks, parents need to recognize what children need during those first five years: stability, order, a predictable environment, and opportunities for independence (among other things, of course).

I learned that from birth to around age 6, children can't be taught about the world around them; they absorb the world around them, and it becomes a part of them. Interestingly enough, this article uses a similar point to argue in favor of traveling with young children, saying that "the right kind of experiences in their early years can help children's brains grow!" The author assumes that what young children experience when traveling abroad is the "right kind of experience." Not only is it up for debate what defines those "right experiences," but the author also doesn't take into account the fact that disorder, such as that which arises when in an unfamiliar environment, can actually inhibit a child's mental growth. Since the "sameness" of everyday life provides the child a sense of peace and security, her energies are not occupied with making sense of her environment but rather they are free to focus on her development. Most family homes, whether or not they are set up the "Montessori way," have in place an order that the child grows to recognize and internalize. This order even brings the child pleasure and happiness. A trip to an unfamiliar place, however, will throw off her internal compass, so to speak. She will focus most of her energies on orienting and defending herself instead of on the amazing cultural sights and sounds that surround her. I am not implying that a 2-week trip to Sicily totally messed up Hunter's development, but I do believe it caused a blip, one that made him behave in ways that we rarely see when he is home surrounded by the familiar. In that sense, I feel it was unfair of us to take him on this trip, not necessarily detrimental, but definitely insensitive to his needs.

The kind of travel (slow travel or living abroad temporarily) that this author advocates, however, actually makes it possible to establish some order in the child's life. If you live more like locals with a home base, then the child will start to notice patterns and the parents will likely set up routines that help give the child's life some stability. You see, the author and her family lived in Costa Rica for a year with four children under the age of five, so her argument may very well be valid in such a case, but for other families who get to take one big 2-week vacation every now and again, it just doesn't hold up. Unfortunately, extended vacations or work stints abroad are travel experiences that very few families get to have.

Don't get me wrong. I definitely want to be a family that travels, and ideally, I'd love to live abroad again, this time with our children. While Isaiah and I will never again visit Pamplona for 24 hours with no hotel reservation and sleep on the grass while Fiesta San Fermin revelers continue to party all around us, and despite our most recent experience in Sicily, I sincerely believe that travel with children is worthwhile. Unlike the woman who wrote this other article, however, I think it's wise to wait until your children are older. Of course I want my children to be global citizens, I just don't think that in order to achieve that it's necessary to start international travel before the age of 6. The author of that article is yet another person advocating "slow travel," yet she's basically claiming that anyone who wants to give their child the gift of the world has to start traveling when the child is very young. Yes, families that live abroad or live in countries that border lots of other countries get to experience international travel with little fuss, so the children in those families most likely don't get their internal compass too out of whack. Yes, they get a head start on becoming global citizens, and travel really becomes part of their identity. When that baby builds himself as a man of his time and place, his place truly is the world. On the other hand, families who have a more or less "normal" life at home (e.g. many North American families) but every now and again go on a big trip somewhere, the children under 6 in those families get yanked away from the environment that they are learning to adapt to and plopped in a completely different place. As soon as they start to adapt to that new place, they return back home. It can be quite startling and confusing. Everyone says that children adapt very easily, and they do, but the situations we adults put them in are not always good for their development.

Despite my beef with the author's first point in the Huff-Post article, I liked her fifth point a lot because it makes the most practical sense to me. Traveling through food experiences or taking local weekend trips are doable for most families AND you can do this with younger children. I also get point #7 because if travel is worth it to you, then you will cut back on other things in your life to save up the money for it, when the kids are older, of course ;) So, really, the article isn't that bad; it's really just with her first point that I can't jump on board: traveling with young children. What I agree with: if I you start traveling when your child is a baby and do it frequently, he or she will get used to it. Sure, of course she will, but it's not always in the child's best interest to do that. For this author and others, it seems traveling with young children is just part of their plan for what they think is best for their children (global citizenship) and a way to condition them to become good travel companions later (or "great little travelers" like point #3 in this article). What else I disagree with: The offhanded comment implying teenagers are not good travel companions if they've never been anywhere. My sister and I didn't start traveling internationally until we were teenagers and we were awesome companions ;)

I have read a lot about how little ones who've traveled all over the world since they were babies already have a global perspective and have grown to love traveling and learning about new places, all before they can tie their own shoes. I think it's wonderful! But what if their parents had waited just a couple more years until they could tie their own shoes? Don't you think a 6-year-old, or even a 10-year-old, could appreciate (and benefit from) swimming in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland just as much as a 4-year-old, if not more? I definitely didn't need to have international travel experiences as a toddler to be bitten by the travel bug. Heck, I didn't leave the U.S. (Tijuana, Mexico doesn't count) until I was 15 years old when I visited our family's exchange student in Brazil, then visited Israel the following summer, and was already dreaming of studying abroad in Florence the year after that when I enrolled at NYU. Those first international travel experiences morphed into full-on wanderlust and a deep appreciation for different ways of life around the world. Go figure!