Knocked up abroad: planning travel with a baby

travel with babyLet’s get this out of the way: you can travel with a baby. Many new parents feel that once they have a child, their travel days are over, but many parents will tell you that the first six months are the easiest time to travel with a baby. Is it easy? Not exactly, but with enough planning and the right attitude, it’s not as hard as you might think. Is it selfish? Probably, but so is most travel. Again, planning, attitude and a good amount of luck factor in to ensuring that you and baby aren’t a nuisance to other passengers and that you and your child have a safe and healthy trip. My baby is too young to remember her early adventures, but she’s learning to be adaptable and sociable, and does well with travel, new people, and noise. Is it fun? Your carefree days of travel may be over, but you can still enjoy exploring new places, indulging in great food and wine (it might just be at a sidewalk cafe at 4pm instead of a trendy restaurant at 9pm), and engaging with locals more deeply than you ever did before baby. Given the patience, resourcefulness, and ingenuity that I’ve developed while traveling with a baby, I’d say it has made me a better traveler, maybe even a better person.

Living in a foreign country like Turkey puts me at an advantage: I deal with a language and cultural barrier every day and everything is much more complicated and difficult than it would be at home in New York. Because this is not our permanent home and imported items are expensive, we made it through the first few months with little more than a stroller, a baby wrap to carry her, and a portable changing pad, so we already travel light. I say it gives me an advantage because I’m already used to the challenges and unfamiliarity inherent in travel. What makes foreign travel daunting (even without a baby) is the foreignness of it all, which has become my normal (after nearly two years abroad, I can tell you that knowing what’s going on all the time is overrated). The skills I’ve honed as a traveler and an expat — problem-solving, thinking ten steps ahead, and planning an exit strategy — are the same I use as a parent; you can apply the same lessons with a child or on the road.Now with a few trips under my belt with baby both solo and with my husband (and more travel planned in the coming weeks and months), I’ve developed some guidelines to help with traveling with a baby. I’ll be posting some additional articles on how to cope with a baby on a plane and on the ground, travel gear recommendations, as well as some destination-specific info, but first: some tips on planning a trip with a baby.

Choose a baby-friendly destination. You may find that people everywhere are much more understanding and helpful to people traveling with babies than you imagine, but some places are more baby-friendly than others. In my experience, Mediterranean Europe is full of baby-lovers, even if the cobblestones, stairs, and ancient infrastructure presents a lot of challenges. Istanbul can be a nightmare to navigate with a stroller, but there are always friendly Turks willing to help. I’ve also heard babies in Latin America and Southeast Asia are treated like rock stars. Generally, countries with a high birth rate tend to be friendlier than others, though I’ve found the United States to be the most difficult in terms of other people’s attitudes.

-Prepare to pare down: There are a lot of great things about having a baby in the 21st century, but people managed quite well for generations without wipe warmers (really, this is a thing?!) and baby gyms. There are a few items I use at home every day such as a bouncy seat, a nursing pillow, and a folding bathtub, but I’ve done fine without them for weeks at a time while traveling. I know at some point down the line, I’ll need to pack a myriad of toys, snacks, and diversions for my child, but infants need very little. It may help to wean yourself off of baby gear in advance of your trip to see how well you can get along with less. Let the baby get used to a travel cot if you plan to use one, try getting around for a day with just a baby carrier, and introduce toys that can be easily attached to a stroller and then stashed in a pocket. Think about your destination: will a stroller be more of a hinderance than a help or can you get along with another mode of transport? Do you need a car seat or can you rent one? What can serve multiple purposes? I carry a thin Turkish towel that looks like a pashmina and I can use it as a burp cloth, nursing cover, baby blanket, and a scarf. The less you can pack, the better. Really all you can handle is baby in a stroller, one wheeled suitcase, and a purse and/or diaper bag. Anything more and you’ll regret it. Also, keep in mind that babies are born everywhere, and there are few places in the world where you can’t buy diapers, formula, clothes, or other gear. Pack enough in your carry-on to get through the first day and night in case you arrive at your destination after shops close.

-Schedule travel around baby: Babies are adaptable, but when it comes to travel, especially flying, make it as easy on yourself as possible. My baby generally wakes up early to eat, then goes back to sleep for a few hours, and sleeps through most of the night. Therefore, I’ve tried to book flights for early in the morning or overnight so she’s awake as little as possible. In the six flights we took to and from the US and domestically, the only one we had any trouble with was a 45-minute Boston to New York flight in the early evening, when she tends to be cranky. It’s hard to comfort a baby when you’re standing in line or getting ready to board a flight, so if your baby is already asleep at the airport, that’s half the battle. There used to be nothing I hated more than getting to the airport at the crack of dawn, but traveling with a sleeping, and more importantly, quiet baby is worth getting up early.

-Consider an apartment rental: With the popularity of websites such as AirBnB (even after the home trashing scandal), renting an apartment for even a short stay is an increasingly viable option when planning a trip. It not only gives you more space and a more home-like environment, it can also help you to get to know a place more through the neighborhood and markets when you buy food to cook on your trip. For a parent, an apartment has several key advantages over a hotel room. Having access to laundry while traveling can be a huge help and reduce your packing load significantly. Likewise, whether you are breastfeeding or using formula, having a kitchen with a fridge can be a necessity with a baby. If you’re set on a hotel stay (daily room-cleaning could be a big help too!), make sure your room has a minibar fridge to stash bottles inside and a bathtub if your baby is too big for the sink, and get info on the closest laundromat.

-Do your research: The last thing you want when traveling is to be standing on a subway platform with a crying baby, after hauling a heavy stroller up a flight of stairs, only to discover the train is bypassing your station. Before I travel next week to Slovenia and Italy, I’m looking up everything from how to cross the border by taxi, to what train stations have elevators, to public bathrooms in Venice with baby-changing stations (though I’ve managed many times on the top of a toilet seat lid and a changing pad). All the stuff about a destination you could wait to figure out until you arrived before you had a baby will help you a lot to plan in advance. Here’s some examples of things to research before you go, the more prepared you can be, the better.

Stay tuned for more tips on travel with a baby, in the air and on the ground plus destination guides for foreign travel with a baby. Waiting for baby to arrive? Check out past Knocked Up Abroad articles on traveling while pregnant and what to expect when you’re expecting in Turkey.

Knocked up abroad: applying for a baby’s passport

baby passportAs my new baby girl was born in a foreign country, getting a passport was a necessity for her to even return home to America. Though Vera was born in Turkey, she’s an American citizen by virtue of her parents’ citizenship and entitled to a US passport. For Americans born outside the country, the US consulate issues a Report of Birth Abroad that acts as an official birth certificate and proof of US citizenship. After a trip to the US to visit family and a vacation in Malta, Vera’s been in three countries before she reached three months of age and is rapidly racking up passport stamps.

As soon as we brought the baby home from the hospital, the first order of business on the road to getting her baby passport was getting her Turkish birth certificate. While not required by the US consulate, it is necessary in order to get her residence permit, required for anyone staying longer in Turkey than the 90-day tourist visa. I learned that I could obtain this at my local registry office with a letter stating that I had given birth at the American Hospital (this is provided in both Turkish and English by the hospital). I set out with my one-week old baby in her stroller, sleeping peacefully, assuming that the office would be a short walk from our apartment given the local address. An hour later, I had walked as far as one of Istanbul’s busy highways, dripping sweat, in tears, and definitely lost. Google Maps is generally a useful tool for many city addresses, but for some parts of Istanbul, you may as well be mapping a jungle. I enlisted the help of some Turkish friends who found a satellite image of the office online and emailed it to me. In true Turkish fashion, the registry office is actually two streets away from the mailing address and no one in the area can give you an exact street number when you are frantically seeking directions.When we finally got to the registry office, I took a number, left my stroller downstairs (in Turkey, you can trust that no one will steal it, but I did take the baby out first) and went in search of the counter for birth certificates. Naturally, Vera chose the moment I was filling out a form to launch into her first meltdown. As I struggled to write down my contact information and covertly feed her, I was ushered behind the counter and installed at a random guy’s desk, with an old Turkish lady practically forcing me to sit down and nurse the baby. Once the baby was content, I returned to the birth certificate lady but was met with a new obstacle in the form of a major language barrier. Fortunately, another man waiting at the registry office was able to translate for me – I would need to come back with all of our passports, residence permits, and marriage certificate from the US. The next day I returned armed with every possible bit of documentation and while every woman in the office gathered around Vera, exclaiming over her cuteness and wondering why the crazy foreigner was taking her baby out in public so early, I provided information for the birth certificate. I needed more translation help, as you are asked questions about your education level and religion (Islam is the default in Turkey, so many non-religious Turks are still considered Muslim even if they are non-practicing), which I couldn’t answer in Turkish but there is generally always someone around who can speak English. A few more rubber stamps and Maşallahs and I had her birth certificate.

Next step was a passport photo, a seemingly easy task that is particularly challenging the younger the baby you have. The US State Department requires that the baby look at the camera with eyes open, and that the photo be taken with a white background and nothing in the photo such as your hand or a baby seat. Newborns tend to sleep a lot and their vision is quite hazy, so getting them to be alert and somewhat focused on something is easier said than done. While some parents might opt to take the photo themselves, I decided to go to a professional rather than try to mess with the correct measurements and angles myself. One afternoon when Vera was barely two weeks old, I waited until she seemed awake and took her down the street in her carrier. The five-minute walk immediately put her back to sleep, so the photographer and I tried everything we could think of to wake her and get her attention. Somehow a half hour of tickling and a Turkish man yelling “kız bebek!” (baby girl) only made her sleep more deeply. Finally, we managed to get the photo you see above, which will remain her passport photo and primary means of identification until she’s five years old. Though some online information led me to believe they may not accept the picture due to her open mouth, the US consulate approved it for use.

Passport photo in hand at last, we made an appointment with the US consulate to apply for her US passport and Report of Birth Abroad, which will serve as her official birth certificate. The paperwork for this report turned out to be slightly more complex than anticipated, as it requires precise dates of presence both in the United States and abroad for each parent. If you keep good records, this could be simple and straightforward. As I’ve traveled frequently for the past decade and have been living in Istanbul for over a year, this took a lot of time to estimate using passport stamps, old travel confirmations in my email, photo date stamps, and anything else that could give me an idea of dates I spent outside of America. You are also required to provide documentation of the parents’ citizenship (my husband is Russian-born, so we needed the approximate date and place of naturalization), marriage (if applicable, it’s a whole other can of worms if the parents are not married), and dissolution of any previous marriages, which can result in some frantic emails to friends back home and calls to US registry offices if you don’t travel with all your paperwork.

The US consulate in Istanbul is far from the city center (you can take Metro to İTÜ Ayazağa and then a quick taxi ride) and resembles a fortress on a hill, with American-style maximum security. Most places in Istanbul with metal detectors, including the entrance to the airport, allowed me to skip security while pregnant (I got a cursory pat down at the airport) and often with the baby, and often ignore metal objects that cause the detectors to beep. At the consulate, I forgot to remove my camera from my purse and was yelled at when I attempted to remove it myself (“Ma’am! Step away from the bag!”). After clearing security, we waited in the US Citizen’s Services room to present the baby and our paperwork. There was another couple waiting with their month-old baby which turned out to be their sixth child, and they were fairly blasé about the fact that they had come from Iraq to have the baby in Istanbul (we guessed military family) and planned to return home to the US only two weeks after applying for the passport. Presenting our own paperwork turned out to be easier than expected, as they only needed to see that we had in fact lived in the US before, but it’s a good idea to have all of your travel dates on hand in case you are questioned. Finally, we paid our $205 for the report and passport, and had them both delivered to our home one week later (compare that to the weeks it usually takes to get a passport at home!).

We planned our first trip out of Turkey for when Vera would be six weeks old, which was just enough time to get all of our paperwork in order and feel competent enough as parents to travel. She will receive her Turkish residency next month after she is four months old. When we went through passport control leaving Istanbul, there was some confusion as she had no visa or residence permit and we were prepared to pay a fee to leave the country, but we were eventually allowed to pass through free and only purchase a tourist visa when we re-entered Turkey that will cover her until her residency is established. Now the adventure would really begin: actually traveling with a baby.

Stay tuned for tips on traveling with a baby and destination guides for foreign travel with a baby. Waiting for baby to arrive? Check out past Knocked Up Abroad articles on traveling while pregnant and what to expect when you’re expecting in Turkey.

Five tips for a great Gozo break

gozo

Gozo, as Meg Nesterov recently reported, is a spirited place. The smaller of the Republic of Malta‘s two main islands, the island also known as the Isle of Calypso provides the rustic antidote to big brother Malta’s package holiday flash. There’s a lot to do on Gozo. Capital Victoria boasts an incredible walled Citadel. There are trails for hiking. There are little villages that become shady and welcoming in the late afternoon; many of these have gloriously grand churches to visit. And then of course there’s the classic Mediterranean activity: setting down towel and various paraphernalia along the water for an idle afternoon.

Here are five tips for making the most of your time on Gozo, with an emphasis on local cuisine.

1. Eat lunch at Ta’ Rikardu. This little restaurant occupies space on a passageway in the walled Citadel at the heart of Gozo’s tourism core. Don’t let its popularity with tourists chase you away. The restaurant offers an absolutely delicious local platter (see above) of fresh tomatoes, local cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives, and onions. Also delicious are the homemade ravioli, fat and enormous, stuffed with cheese and parsley. There’s a small shop on the premises selling local food and drink.

2. Book a taxi with Marcel Mejlaq. You should probably rent a car on Gozo. Those unable or unwilling to drive will likely need a taxi from time to time. Track down Mr. Mejlaq through your hotel. He’s friendly, full of good anecdotes, and charges under the going rate. Another cabbie charged €18 to go from the port to our hotel; Marcel charged just €13.

3. Eat dinner at Jeffrey’s Restaurant. Though far less explicitly local in orientation than Ta’ Rikardu, Jeffrey”s is a good place to taste Gozitan food. The fried cheese starter is especially nice and the beef-stuffed squash main is also quite good. A vegetarian version of the stuffed squash (called “marrow” here) can also be ordered.

4. Swim at Xlendi. Popular among locals and tourists alike, Xlendi’s bay features exquisite clear water and a lively weekend atmosphere. Avoid the tiny beach and plunk your towel down on the sloping rock along the left-hand side of the bay. Dive in or lower yourself down via a ladder. Afterwards stop by Gelateria Granola for ice cream. Don’t expect solitude or a village vibe here. Xlendi is tourism central, but the town has been developed in a manner that isn’t garish and the water is absolutely lovely.

5. Walk the Ta’ Cenc plateau. Adjacent to the very nice Hotel Ta’ Cenc is an attractive plateau. The views over Gozo and across to Malta from here are wonderful. There are Neolithic period dolmens and even the remains of a temple to check out. In the hours leading up to sundown the plateau is particularly captivating.

Visit the Gozo Island in Malta

Ta’ Cenc, Gozo

ta' cenc gozo

What constitutes a good hotel experience? This question animates a certain subset of travel writing. It’s just popped up for me again in light of the buzz around the launch of Ritz-Carlton’s new marketing campaign. (Check out the campaign’s quite captivating video.) “Let us stay with you” is the tagline of the Ritz-Carlton’s campaign, which is designed to capture the idea that experiences are more important (and in fact more desirable) than objects within the context of luxury hospitality. I like that theme, even if I’m plugging into travel at a vastly lower price point.

Frankly, the realization that this was Ritz-Carlton’s intention came as a relief. Originally, I interpreted the “stay” in the tagline to mean “cohabitate.” The idea of a hotel’s staff moving in is a bit disconcerting, the physical version of a social media nightmare in which Facebook likes and Foursquare check-ins take over and define us. And then of course there are some other uncomfortable interpretive dimensions of this marketing campaign, especially in light of the ongoing bedbug epidemic in parts of North America, which might make some readers cringe at the prospect of a hotel “staying” with them past checkout.

Potential misinterpretations aside, Ritz-Carlton’s campaign hinges on the idea that a hotel can create memories. This is fine, of course, but there is also something here that grates on my nerves and, I’m guessing, the nerves of other tourists and travelers–namely, the idea that the work of memory-creation would ever be outsourced to hotel staff. I’m not sure I want anyone I don’t know making memories for me. And shouldn’t travel be driven by advance research, personal obsessions, and the odd planning mistake, anyway? Travel isn’t an all-encompassing cloud of good feelings. There are ecstatic moments as well as stressful moments.

All of this was on my mind when I stayed at Gozo‘s Hotel Ta’ Cenc this past weekend. Ta’ Cenc a beautiful property occupying a considerable piece of cliff top land on Gozo, on the edge of the village of Sannat. Ta’ Cenc is not terribly expensive by European resort standards, at €186 per night for two, though it’s far beyond my standard budget, which averages just a fraction of that.ta' cenc gozo

My stay at Ta’ Cenc was an indisputably good experience. A beautiful location, nicely-kept grounds, friendly staff, and capacious room were all points in the resort’s favor.

The physical setting of Ta’ Cenc is absolutely lovely. The single-story hotel rooms snake through flowering gardens and alongside two outdoor pools, one for families and one for adults. There is an attractive small spa as well, with an additional pool, gym, and sauna, all complimentary for guests. Treatments are quite reasonable, with body massages beginning at €25.

Several buildings are Trullo-style, with conical roofs. Beyond is a beautiful plateau that stretches to cliffs that drop right down to the sea. The plateau, which includes hiking trails, affords striking views over Gozo and across to Malta.

Ta’ Cenc is undergoing a renovation. Our suite (a gratis upgrade from a standard room) was clearly mid-renovation. Consequently, the bathroom was old school, while the bedroom and lounge were smartly done in understated blues and beiges. The bed was very comfortable.

Was it perfect? No. Had I been terribly fussy, the unrenovated bathroom would have bothered me. More substantively, the hotel’s restaurant did not thrill me, with its very bland Italianate dishes that didn’t really reference Gozo’s local culinary heritage. (Malta may produce little of its own agricultural products, but what it does produce is very tasty.) Lastly, the hotel advertises a private beach on its website, despite the fact that the beach is not currently open for use. I’d count two of these issues (bathroom and beach) as minor.

Will Ta’ Cenc “stay” with me? The dry heat, the pleasant pools, the architecture, and the surrounding cliff top were all absolutely lovely, and I won’t soon forget the sweetness of several staff members. I’m happy to leave it there: a hotel experience that was far better than most, with a few mostly minor hiccups.

Watching a small village parade in Malta

village parade
I just returned from a week in the small island country of Malta. For our first trip with our nearly two-month old baby, we decided to rent a house outside the village of Xaghra on Malta’s smaller island Gozo. Picking us up from the ferry, our landlady explained how the town was gearing up for the national Victory Day holiday on September 8th as well as the village patron saint’s feast celebration, and each night there would be smaller festivities building up to the main event. Every night we’d walk to the square, choose among the handful of restaurants to eat (with a population of 4,200, it’s among the more cosmopolitan of Gozitan villages), and watch the square fill with people chatting, eating, and playing bingo, as it turned out. We saw girls in outfits that would be considered skimpy in a Miami nightclub flirt on the church steps with boys wearing shirts with religious icons. On our last night on Gozo, the square was more packed than usual and soon we discovered why: a parade was about to start!

%Gallery-133057%The village parade consisted mainly of a marching band and a large statue of the village’s patron saint, Our Lady of Victories, carried by a team of local men, many who had been enjoying a few Cisk beers. The make up of the band’s members was motley but memorable, including a tiny man carrying a drum that nearly dwarfed him, a boy barely in his teens playing among musicians decades older, a pretty young woman in high wedge heels. The band started out in the square, playing various Gozitan and Maltese anthems, before moving down the main road under a rain of confetti. We followed the band along the street until we were stopped in a bottleneck in front of Our Lady of Victories. You do NOT want to get in front of Our Lady, lest you want to be scolded by the man in charge of her and her (increasingly drunken) handlers. We moved aside and let the band continue down the street, leaving a thick carpet of confetti. Every child in town came out to gather bunches of confetti, build forts in it, and throw it at their friends.

As the crowd began to disperse, we stopped at a snack bar where they played a recording of the songs we had just heard, in search of a nightcap. Even a dozen years of living in New York with its legendary parades couldn’t compare to the fun we had at a small Gozitan feast, and this was just a warm up celebration! In New York, you wouldn’t see a child rolling around making confetti angels. In New York, you can’t touch the floats. In New York, you couldn’t buy a magnum of good local wine after hours and be told apologetically that it would cost 4 euro. But in Gozo, a family of Russian/American New York City expats from Istanbul could feel dazzled by a small village feast.