If this is Friday, we must be in Munich (or: European adventures with a toddler)

There is never, ever enough time in my life these days. I’m really trying to work hard in the library, and in the evenings by the time I get E. to bed, clean up the kitchen, and run through my Greek revision with Q., I basically have only enough time to do one thing. If I read a book for fun, I can’t blog. If I catch up my (old-school) diary, I can’t read for fun. If I write a coherent, thoughtful e-mail to a friend of mine who is having a really hard time right now, I can’t read the magazine from the Sunday paper I still haven’t managed to finish. If I try to sit down and sort through the 600 odd photos I managed to take on our trip earlier this month…I get overwhelmed and shut the computer down.

All that to say there are SO many things I’d like to blog about right now, but squeezing in any time at all has been impossible. But I feel like I need an outlet that isn’t my (old-school) diary, which I’m using more as a record of our trip. I want/need to post about how I’m doing with food, and exercise, and myfit.nesspal; and about all the fun things E is up to these days; and about my continuing soul-searching about what I want from my life and my job once I finish the dissertation (because I need to think about the future to keep me from floundering in the present- I am at a tough point in the dissertation right now); and about my thoughts and fears about going back to the clinic and trying for a 2.0; and about my thoughts and fears about trying to manage my PCOS long-term.

Whew.

There are a lot of posts bubbling up inside of me. And I’m going to try to find a bit more time in the next week to get them out. Today I wanted to start with something different:

Things I learned about travelling with a two year old

At the start of the month, Q., E. and I embarked on an adventure: ten days, three countries, more train rides than I can count. We were taking advantage of being in the UK to visit our friends who live on the continent. This is a very North American/Antipodean attitude: Ooh! We’re so close! Let’s go see them all.

This attitude originally led us to think we had to do the whole trip by car (less flights to the continent and back). Then, back in January, I finally sat down and looked everything up and realized that it would be cheaper to do the whole thing on planes and trains than to rent a car, even before the cost of fuel was calculated. Plus we could save two nights of accommodation. Plus we wouldn’t lose days to driving. Perfect situation.

This attitude also led us to decide to travel by train from Amsterdam to Vienna. In one day.

Our European friends were absolutely horrified when they realized what we’d done. But we had a different perspective.

When booking the trip, we said to each other, “Well, it will be long and tiring and it will be a rough day. But the whole thing is still massively shorter than the flight to Australia.”

Plus there was our cardinal rule for travelling with a small child: We will never see these people again.

So merrily we booked our tickets.

Back in January we also flirted with the idea of going to yet another city, one without friends. The impetus for this insane idea was the fact that Q. and I so rarely get to have a holiday that is just us (and now, just us three). We always have family obligations- either the long flight to see his family, or the drive to see mine. And I realized that we were once again organizing a holiday with no time for just the three of us, even though this time it would be friends we were seeing and not family.

“Why don’t we go to Prague?” We wondered. Neither of us had ever been. We have both always wanted to go. “Everything is so close together!”

About three days after we first floated this idea we came to our senses and realized that going to a city in a country where we didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the language WITH A TWO YEAR OLD was ridiculous. We recognized that we would not have a nice time and would not get to do any of the things we like doing in cities (go out for dinner, go to museums, go for long walks, spend too much time taking pictures, etc.).

So we sensibly cancelled the side trip to Prague and booked a week on a farm in Devon for our last week in the UK in August. (And I am so excited about this- I think E. will LOVE it, and we might even get a chance to relax).

But we still had the ten days, three major cities (Amsterdam, Vienna and Munich) planned.

I’d like to reiterate here that we would have NEVER, EVER considered doing this had we been at home this summer. We would have never looked at each other and said, “You know what sounds like a fantastic idea? Let’s take our toddler to go see our friends in Europe!”

But, since we were over here and everything is so close (by our standards) it seemed crazy not to make the trip. One set of friends we hadn’t seen since late 2004. Another set we hadn’t seen since summer 2008. And our friend in Vienna works with Q., so we see him all the time when we’re at home, but whatever- Q. had never been to Vienna before and I didn’t get to see the Lipizzaners the last time I was there (eighteen years ago now) because they were touring North America at the time (oh the irony). And this – to see the Lipizzaners in the Spanish Riding School – was a bucket list item for me. I’d wanted to see them ever since I first read Marguerite Henry’s White Stallion of Lipizza. I can’t remember exactly when that was, but I was certainly under ten years old.

So off we went.

And here’s what we learned:

You see things differently when travelling with a toddler.

No, I mean you see DIFFERENT things when travelling with a toddler. For instance, in our ten day trip, we visited exactly ONE museum. We probably wouldn’t have visited any, but the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam had just reopened after literally TEN years of renovations, so it seemed crazy not to go. We miscalculated and got sucked in to the medieval exhibit on the ground floor when we first got in, where we spent a happy forty minutes with E. on my back in the Ergo chanting “See more paintings!”. We then (and only then) moved up to the Gallery of Honour and the Nightwatch room to see the Rembrandts and the Vermeers and the other Dutch Masters where E. chanted (progressively louder) “No more paintings!” until we ended up taking turns sitting with him on a couch while the other one sprinted around the galleries. Then we called it a day and went to find lunch.

Moral: When in a museum with a toddler, go straight for the big ticket items. There is no time for quiet contemplation. I’m  not even going to think about what the other (English-speaking) tourists thought watching me sidle up to some masterpiece and say to E., “Ooh look! There’s a cow in that painting! Do you see the cow?”

Here is what you do see in the great cities of Europe when travelling with a toddler: parks and playgrounds and formal gardens. In short, anywhere outside where the smallest member of the party can run around. It’s a good thing both Q. and I have been to Munich before, as we never saw the city centre. We spent one day at the Olympic Park, a second at the Botanical Gardens, and our last morning in the English Gardens. All places we’d never seen before. All places E. could zoom around to his heart’s content. Win/win.

I can also tell you that there is quite a good playground in the Rathausplatz in Vienna. Q. took E. to the Praeter as well, the day I went to see the Lipizzaners (as children under three weren’t allowed in, and if you think I hesitated for even a NANOSECOND about saddling Q. with E. all day while I went to watch the morning exercise and then had a tour of the stables, well, you don’t know me that well. The only negative was we weren’t there over a weekend when they do their actual performances, so we’ll have to go back to Vienna. I’d like to go in December one time, to see the Christmas market.)

I can also say with confidence that the Schmetterlinghaus (Butterfly House) in Vienna is another good option for toddlers, unless your toddler is, say, obsessed with wearing a particular item of clothing (a red hoodie, say), that is manifestly unsuitable for the warm temperatures that the butterflies need, requiring you to forcibly remove it from said toddler. Cue meltdown.

Luckily there is also a tunnel in the Butterfly House. Tunnels are basically toddler heaven. Also luckily the UK (and Europe) are having one of the coldest springs on record (the UK’s is the coldest in 50 years), which means we’re over halfway into June and we’ve only had to remove the red hoodie on a handful of occasions (and yes, we have two different ones so there is always one clean and available).

Public transit is awesome. Planes! Trains! Light-rail! Subways! Trams! Buses! E. rode them all. We took exactly two cabs: one in Vienna to our friend’s house because we’d arrived so insanely late (I must say the Germans let us down- the only trains that were late were German ones, which was exactly the case the last time Q. and I were in Europe in 2008), and the other from the train station to our flat once we got back in the UK. By my count, the trip went like this: Double decker bus to train to train to hotel. Plane to car to house (Amsterdam). Tram to train to train to train to cab to flat (Vienna). Subway to subway to train to subway to house (Munich). Subway to train to plane to Underground to train to cab to flat (home in the UK). Plus there were myriad trips on buses and trams in each city. If you have a little boy who adores riding on such things (and I mean loves them with the fire of a thousand suns- the highlight of his week in the UK is riding the double decker bus into town), this is a great thing

Flying within Europe when you are used to going to Australia is amazing. You barely take off and then you’re landing again. I kept worrying I didn’t have enough food, or enough diapers, or enough spare changes of clothes in our carry on, and then finally realized it’s because I kept thinking we were going to be travelling for the next twenty-four hours. These flights by the time E. finished eating the complimentary trail mix it was time to land.

Despite all of this awesomeness, going by train from Amsterdam to Vienna is, in the end, not toddler friendly. I’d thought through the issues, and I’d intentionally built in a long layover in Cologne so we had time to get off and have lunch and let E. run around. And I’d also thought ahead and booked seats in the family compartments (as Q. put it: “If the Germans have somewhere they want the toddlers to sit, we sit there.”), which are small compartments for one or two families. It was always going to be a long day- we left our friends’ house in Amsterdam at 7 a.m. and weren’t planning to be into Vienna until 9 p.m. But it would have worked- E. napped on the train and was enjoying himself- except that our second train (the one from Cologne after lunch) ran thirty five minutes late…which meant we missed our connection by two minutes.

I wish I were joking.

So we had to get rebooked onto the next train, which wasn’t for another two hours, which meant we didn’t get in to Vienna until 11 p.m. Plus we lost our seats in the family compartment, which meant that when E. lost the plot about three hours out of Vienna and started shouting, “No more train! All done train! Get off! Get off! Vi-en-na! VI-EN-NA!” an entire compartment of people got to hear it.Did I mention we’re never going to see those people again?

Whatever. We survived. Q. got E. to go to sleep around 10 p.m. so the last hour was quiet enough. We were sick of the train too by that point (although I think long train rides will be brilliant when he’s a bit older and, say, able to read and entertain himself, as Q. and I love them, and no one gets motion sick.). And, most importantly, we actually got from Amsterdam to Vienna, which we weren’t sure we would manage to do because the Danube had flooded, and our train went right through the worst of it, including towns that had been on the news the night before.

And yes, as I looked at the swollen Danube, which was running angrily probably only about ten metres or less away from the train tracks, there was a moment where I thought, “I’m not sure a good parent would bring her toddler into this situation.”

But, hurrah for German efficiency (if not timeliness): we got through and our holiday continued as planned.

Moral: Do not take a toddler from Amsterdam to Vienna on the train in one day. Just don’t do it.

The trip would have been nightmarish had we been staying in hotels. Just try eating in a restaurant for three meals a day with a toddler. Go on. I dare you.

I think we ate dinner in restaurants three times: once in Vienna in a cellar (we sold it to E. as a restaurant that was in a tunnel), once in Munich on the warmest day of the whole trip where we sat with our friends on a patio and I ordered bread as fast as I could while Q. took the shrieking E. (“Some num num! Some NUM NUM!”) for a walk until food arrived. And once in Heathrow upon our return before starting the Underground/train combo to get back to our flat. We ate out a couple of times for lunches in restaurants as well, and had quite a few meals of sandwiches and fruit and trail mix on the train. But most dinners we were able to eat with our friends and cook and E. could get down from the table as soon as he was finished/bored.

If you are travelling with a toddler, you could do worse than go to central Europe. Bread! Cheese! Salami! Schnitzel! Fries! E. had a great time. He got so excited with salami he kept adding extra syllables: “Ee-mi haf more sa-ma-mi-mi-mi!” (Personally, I was more excited about all the cakes and pastries. I didn’t log in to myfit.nesspal once while we were away, nor did I feel guilty. My favourite was the strudel in Vienna made with poppyseeds. Oh, and the apple cake in Amsterdam. Our friends took us to a spot that they said made the best in the city. It was amazing. Q. just loved all the heavy German bread. “The bread is just better here” he said pretty much every day.)

Moral: Do not expect your toddler to return to his normal high fibre diet after ten days of bread and cheese and sa-ma-mi-mi-mi without repercussions. We still haven’t sorted E’s digestion out.

Probably the easiest time we had was in Amsterdam, which I think was due to a combination of factors:
1. Our friends there had a three year old, so their routine was very similar to ours (i.e. afternoon naps are needed) and E. had a playmate who understood English.
2. Our friends had extra bikes so we were able to just cycle around the city with them. E got to ride in the front of our friends’ big cargo bike with their daughter, which he loved.
3. We spent the first part of the trip with them, so E. wasn’t yet completely beside himself at the lack of routine and familiar surroundings.

By Munich, which was the last stop before home, E. was basically toast. He really tried to cope, but it was all just too much: too much travelling, too little routine, too few familiar surroundings, too little control over his environment, too little input into doing what he wanted to do. We would do things that were toddler friendly, like going to the Botanical Gardens, but he still had to keep up with us and couldn’t just do what he wanted to do (i.e., run through the tree tunnel again and again and again).

Our friends there have two daughters, seven and almost five, and it was lovely to watch them play together (while their parents still slept!) and see how independent they were, and how easy things become (to a point, obviously all ages have their challenges). The dad watched E. having a meltdown one afternoon. “He’s just saying no to everything now,” he said, “because he has no idea what is coming next. If he says no, at least he knows he’ll be rejecting the things he doesn’t want.”

We ended up having to sit in E’s room while he went to sleep every night, and for every nap. The first night in Amsterdam he freaked out the moment I even considered leaving the room, and we just couldn’t rationalize fighting him on it given their daughter needed to go to sleep as well. And, to be fair, we were asking a LOT of E. to just go to sleep by himself in a strange environment. So we stayed with him. It made our evenings pretty short since E. often took until 9:30 p.m. or later to finally go to sleep, but it meant he went to sleep calmly with no crying. And we were able to break the habit with no difficulty as soon as we were back in the UK- he knew what the old routine was and was happy to go back to it.

We really did try to keep things manageable for E. Almost every day we made the time for an afternoon nap. He had a consistent bedtime and his usual routine. Food arrived at predictable intervals, and we never went anywhere without plenty of snacks. But the end result is toddlers thrive on routines and familiar surroundings and on that trip E. couldn’t really get either, and ten days just proved to be too much.

He coped, to a point. We all survived. We all had fun (sometimes). I think Q. found it a lot more stressful than I did, but Q. generally struggles a lot more with E. as a toddler and has a lot less patience for E’s meltdowns or his need to assert his own autonomy than I do. Overall I’d absolutely rate the trip as a positive: it was wonderful to see our friends, we got to see some new parts of Europe, I got to see the Lipizzaners, and we made some memories that will probably be 99% positive in a few years once we’ve forgotten the negative bits (except maybe the train to Vienna. I’m not sure we’ll ever forget that.). Q., I think, just found the entire trip exhausting, which is sad.

It was, I think, a holiday but not a vacation, in that we weren’t working, but it wasn’t remotely relaxing or restorative.

I’m really glad we went. And I think there are ways to see Europe with a toddler that would be fun and relaxing. I think the way to do it would be to go for a week (no longer) and spend that week in ONE city. Rent an apartment so cooking is easy. Trade off during the day so each parent gets to do some things they most want to do. We never had enough time in each city. Every time we had to leave I found myself thinking, “I don’t want to go yet! There are so many things I’d still like to do!” I want to go back to Vienna to see the Lipizzaners perform and go to the Christmas market, when E. is old enough to appreciate the horses. I want to go back to Amsterdam to see Anne Franks’ house, again when E. is old enough to come with me and understand. I want a morning to myself to cycle along the canals of Amsterdam to take pictures without feeling rushed.

It’s always good to have dreams for the next time.

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Filed under Adventures across the pond, E.- the third year, What were we thinking? (aka travelling with small children)

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