My kid is more up-to-date on geography than Google Maps

Google Maps, South Sudan“Where’s South Sudan?” my five-year-old asked me.

Being my kid, he’s big into maps. He has a map of Africa with all the flags on it hanging above his bed. Using it, he’s been able to trace dad’s adventures in Ethiopia and Somaliland. It’s been marked up a bit since I got it for him more than a year ago. I had to draw the boundary of the unrecognized state of Somaliland on it, and we had to add a flag after Libya suddenly got a second one.

He’s been hearing me talk about wanting to visit South Sudan, the world’s newest country after splitting from Sudan in July. In order to draw the new border, we looked it up on Google Maps. It wasn’t there. Google, which analyzes everyone’s search terms and takes photos of where everybody lives, hadn’t yet decided South Sudan was worthy of notice. We had to go to this map on Wikipedia to find out the information.

After an online campaign, Google Maps has finally changed their map to reflect reality, the BBC reports. Yahoo!, Microsoft and National Geographic have yet to follow suit.

I guess this a good lesson to my son that no source of information is 100% reliable, especially if that source is on the Internet.

Five ways to keep your kids from suffering museum fatigue

museum fatigue“I want to go to the museum.”

I love it when my son says that. A lot of kids never do. It’s not surprising. Museum fatigue can set in pretty quickly for the little tykes unless you approach them right. Here are five tips for getting your children to actually want to go to museums. These tips may just keep you from strangling them as they whine in front of the Mona Lisa.

Start early
If you suddenly decide that at age twelve your son or daughter needs some culture, they aren’t going to react well. They have to be accustomed to it. We started early with our son, wheeling him around museums and art galleries in his stroller. It helps that we live in a major European capital with lots of culture. This became part of our Sunday routine: lunch at grandma’s, then off to see an exhibition.

Follow their lead
If your kids wants to see something in particular or linger in front of the crocodile god, let them. They’re engaged in the experience and you need to foster that. Following a kid around a museum can be a surreal experience. They don’t go in an orderly, logical way like most adults. They flit around like hummingbirds, making odd connections between objects. “Hey, look, this statue is missing its nose too!”

Find some activities
My son loves the Prehistoric Europe room at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum because there’s a little bow and arrow you can shoot at cardboard deer. Any time we go into the Ashmolean we have to go to that room first. He also likes looking at the coin of the Roman emperor who has the same name he does.
Some museums are more entertaining than others. The St. Petersburg Toy Museum in Russia, pictured here courtesy Wikimedia Commons, is a safe bet. Another good one is the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford, with cases packed with strange statues and shrunken heads, and drawers you can open up. The museum is dimly lit and they give you flashlights so you can wander around like explorers.

Don’t overdo it
Most adults begin to flag after a couple of hours staring at paintings and mummies, so you can’t expect Junior to keep on going. In fact, a study of museum fatigue suggests it starts setting in within the first hour! Get a snack at the museum cafe, find a nearby park so they can run around, or simply cut your visit short and come back later.

Don’t skip the gift shop
My wife objects to this tip. She says children shouldn’t expect to be rewarded just for behaving. She’s half right. While they shouldn’t expect an overt reward like a present, some sort of award is in order. A trip to the gift shop can be fun and release some pent-up energy. The lights are brighter, you can talk at normal volume, and there are lots of cool widgets to play with. Have them pick out a postcard for grandma or their friends. A little gift for them is OK every now and then too. Getting some ice cream after the museum is another good call. Mix up the rewards so that they don’t get the mentality “museum=ice cream or museum=new toy.”

What do you do to get your kid to enjoy museums? Share your parenting tips in the comments section!

Watching bullfights with my five-year-old

bullfight, bullfights
One of the facts an immigrant has to accept is that your children aren’t going to grow up in the same culture you did.

When I want to give my five-year-old son a treat, I take him to dinner at El Brillante here in Madrid. You can’t get more traditional than El Brillante–an old-school cafeteria/bar that hasn’t had a remodel since forever, with hefty waiters who scream your order back to the kitchen. All the traditional dishes are on offer, and people throw their napkins on the floor. This may sound gross, but it’s more hygienic than putting your chorizo-grease-stained napkins on the same surface as the plates. Adapting to a new culture involves lots of little shifts in perception.

We walked in the other night and a bullfight was on the television. My son was immediately transfixed, not because of the program but because he got to see a TV. We don’t own one. Spanish TV is as dumb as American TV, and with fewer channels.

I hesitated, wondering whether we should stay. I don’t like bullfights but I also don’t like breaking promises to my kid, and this is one of his favorite places to eat.Then I began to think. Bullfights are controversial here in Spain. Last year the region of Catalonia banned bullfights and many Spaniards see them as a national embarrassment, my wife included. They’re still popular, though, and get lots of coverage. If he hasn’t seen a bullfight already, he’s bound to see one on TV sooner or later–at his grandmother’s house, another restaurant, or a friend’s place. I’d rather he saw it with me than someone whose judgment I may or may not trust. So we sat down and ordered.

Is five too young to see a bullfight? Yes and no. I’m his father. My job isn’t to shelter him from the ugliness of the world, my job is to prepare him for the ugliness of the world. Bullfighting is part of Spanish culture and we’re both going to have to deal with it. He sees bad stuff every day, like the homeless guys drinking themselves to death in the park. There are limits to what I’ll let him see, though. When the news showed the carnage of a suicide bombing in Pakistan, I covered his eyes. I should have covered mine too.

While a bullfight is a needless display of cruelty, there are at least two sides to every issue. After it’s killed the bull is eaten. Bulls live a free-range and well-fed existence, unlike the factory cows penned into stalls so tiny they can’t even turn around. I’ve always been amused by people who get righteously indignant about bullfights and then go eat a hamburger.

A bull has a pleasant life until the last fifteen minutes, when it suffers pain and terror before being killed and eaten. In other words, it has much the same life it would have in the natural world. If I was to be reborn as a bovine, I’d choose a bull’s life hands down.

We ordered our food and my son perched on his stool and watched TV. The last time we were here he was equally entranced by a reality show about a 73 year-old man learning how to cook. But this was no cooking show. As usual, the bull had to be goaded into a killing frenzy. Horsemen called picadores speared the bull, and three banderilleros run out with pairs of spikes and jabbed them into its back. Bloodied, weakened, and enraged, the bull was ready to meet torero or matador. A young man in an elaborate suit walks towards the animals wielding a cape and sword.

“Do you know why he carries a sword?” I asked my son.

“No.”

“Because he’s going to kill the bull.”

He turned to me with surprise. “Really?”

“Yes.”

“But sometimes the bull kills the torero,” he said.

“Sometimes.”

He turned back to watch. I wondered again whether this was a good idea. Farm kids see animals killed, as do children in the developing world, so really it’s our urban, First World culture that’s in the minority with this.

The torero had a tough time. After making a few impressive passes, the bull got wise and stopped just in front of the cape and sideswiped the torero. The guy retreated behind a barrier while two assistants distracted the bull. After a minute he summoned enough courage to go back out. He’d lost his confidence, though, and only made the bull do a few passes before using his sword to finish it off. It was a pointless spectacle, not nearly as entertaining as most bloodless sports. I get the impression that in another generation bullfighting will die. The average age of the spectators almost guarantees it.

By this time my son wasn’t so entranced. He was paying more attention to his salchicas del pais con pimientos and was treating the slaughter on the screen with very Spanish indifference. Being Canadian, I could never be that indifferent to a bullfight.

“So what do you think of bullfighting?” I asked.

“It’s OK,” he shrugged. “Not as good as football, though.”

And by football, of course, he means soccer. Chalk up another difference between him and his old man.

[Image courtesy Marcus Obal]

Exploring ancient Rome in Mérida, Spain

Spain, Roman, theatre, Merida
It’s Christmas. What do you get an avid traveler who used to be an archaeologist?
For my wife the answer is obvious–a trip to a Roman city!

So here we are in Mérida, capital of the province of Extremadura in Spain, not far from the Portuguese border. In Roman times it was called Emerita Augusta and was capital of the province of Lusitania. This province took up most of the western Iberian peninsula, including most of what is now Portugal. The city was founded in 25 BC as a home for retired legionnaires on an important bridge linking the western part of the Iberian peninsula with the rest of the Empire. Putting a bunch of tough old veterans in such an important spot was no accident. The city boasts numerous well-preserved buildings and together they’re now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It’s a five-hour ride from Madrid on a comfortable train. Almudena and I brought along my five-year-old son Julián to give him a bit of classical education. (No cute kid photos, sorry. Too many freaks on the Internet)

Our first stop was Mérida’s greatest hits–an amphitheater for gladiator fights and one of the best preserved Roman theaters in the Roman world.

Both of these buildings were among the first to go up in the new city. Since the Romans were building a provincial capital from scratch, they wanted it to have all the amenities. The theater was a center for Roman social and cultural life and this one, when it was finished in 15 BC, was built on a grand scale with seats for 6,000 people. One interesting aspect of this theater is that it underwent a major improvement between the years 333 and 335 AD. This was after the Empire had converted to Christianity, and the early Christians denounced the theaters as immoral. The popular plays making fun of the church probably didn’t help their attitude. As I discussed in my post on the death of paganism, the conversion from paganism to Christianity was neither rapid nor straightforward. At this early stage it was still unthinkable to found a new city without a theater. The backdrop even has statues of pagan deities such as Serapis and Ceres. Although they’re from an earlier building stage than the Christian-era improvements, the fact that they weren’t removed is significant.

%Gallery-112089%Julián didn’t care about that, though. He was far more interested in the dark tunnels leading under the seats in a long, spooky semicircle around the theater. At first his fear of dark, unfamiliar places fought with his natural curiosity, but with Dad accompanying him he decided to chance it. It turned out there was no danger other than a rather large puddle we both stumbled into.

On stage he got a lesson in acoustics. The shape of the seats magnifies sounds. Voices carry further, and a snap of the fingers sounds like a pistol shot.

Next door was the amphitheater, where gladiators fought it out for the entertainment of the masses. Built in 8 BC, it seated 15,000, more than twice the amount as the theater. This was a city for veteran legionnaires, after all! Julián didn’t know what gladiators were so I explained it to him and soon throngs of ghostly Romans were cheering as Sean the Barbarian fought the Emperor Julián. He wanted to be a ninja and was disappointed to learn that there weren’t any in ancient Rome.

These two places are enough to make the trip worthwhile, but there are more than a dozen other ancient Roman buildings in Mérida as well. The best way to sum up the experience of walking through these remains was what I overheard some Italian tourists: “Bellissimo!
If the Italians are impressed, you know it’s good.

This is the first in a new series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: More Roman heritage from Mérida!

Father saves daughter from zoo bear attack

Warning to little girls everywhere–giant teddy bears may very well try to eat you.

Warning to parents everywhere–watch your kids when around dangerous wild animals.

A Dutch family was visiting a private zoo in Luenebach, Germany, when their three-year-old daughter became enchanted by an Asian black bear. While her parents’ backs were turned she climbed the fence, which was only a meter (three feet) tall, and fell inside the bear’s enclosure. The bear then struck the kid. Daddy leaped in, got his own share of bear battering, and managed to save his daughter. Both were taken to the hospital but their injuries are not life-threatening.

This isn’t the first time the bear has acted like, well, a bear. Three years ago he attacked and injured a zookeeper.

Police are now investigating why it was so easy for a small child to get into the bear’s enclosure and why the parents didn’t notice her doing it.

As a parent I can testify to how quickly a small child can slip out of sight and get into mischief, but even when my son was three he knew not to climb fences and approach strange animals. Why? Because I told him. Of course that’s no guarantee, but he hasn’t done it in the first five years of his life, greatly increasing the chances that he will see the next five. Parents, please, teach your kids about animal safety. Cute does not mean safe. Just ask the Chinese guy who suffered a panda attack.

Image courtesy of Guérin Nicolas via Wikimedia Commons.