Knocked up abroad: the baby-friendly difference

baby friendly
Me in Istanbul on Mother’s Day, 7 months pregnant, with Dalin baby product mascot

Just over two weeks ago, I made the leap from pregnant American in Istanbul to expat with child. My decision to have my first baby in a foreign country has been met with reactions from friends and strangers ranging from surprise and curiosity to outright disapproval. The transition to new parenthood is a strange and challenging time for nearly everyone, but living in a country that respects pregnant women and worships babies has made all the difference. While baby and child bans are being considered in many places from travel companies like Malaysia Airlines to American restaurants, Turkey remains one big baby-friendly country.

On the surface, Istanbul is not an easy place with a baby. The city is crowded, traffic is terrible and taxi drivers will barely pause to let you run across the street, and the sidewalks are a mini Olympics for a stroller with few ramps, cracked pavement, uneven cobblestones, and endless hills. There’s not many green spaces or parks, and for older children, few museums or activities designed for or appealing to kids. It’s the people that make the city welcoming to children. I can’t walk down the street without a chorus of “Maşallah” (bless you) and “çok güzel” (how cute!). Crowds form around us in stores of people wanting to kiss the baby, ask questions about her, and give me advice (this is when my limited Turkish is a blessing and I can just smile and nod). Waiters in restaurants coo over her and offer to hold her when I go to the bathroom (note: I’m hyper-aware of being a disturbance for other diners and will always take her out if she starts to fuss). As much as she is adored, the feedback isn’t always positive. Some older Turks don’t believe young babies should be out in public and think mothers should follow the custom of staying in the house for the first 40 days (our pediatrician says it’s fine to go out and we’ve taken her places nearly every day since she was born). Despite the current 100 degree heat, I’m warned against holding the baby near a fan, in air conditioning or even in front of the refrigerated case in the grocery store, lest she catch a draft.
Even before the baby arrived, Turks go above and beyond to make mothers and babies comfortable. Recently, a Turkish woman told me how she had been heavily pregnant in winter and one day found herself out in the rain, unable to get a taxi home. She began to cry in frustration and a police officer stopped to see if she was okay. She told him she was fine, just wanted to get home, so he approached a nearby taxi with two men inside, kicked them out, and gave the cab to her. I have no doubt that the ousted men were probably understanding and gracious about the situation, and the whole story encapsulates the Turkish experience for me.

In contrast, when I spent a week home in New York at five months pregnant, I was never offered a seat on the subway and struggled like everyone else for a taxi in the rain. Shortly after my visit, I read an article about a proposed official ban on food in the NYC subway (the idea has since been dismissed) with suggestions for other things that should be banned and was shocked to see a few commenters indignantly refuse to give up their seat to pregnant women. They reasoned that pregnancy was a choice and not the responsibility of society or any other passenger to cater to them. While I can understand their viewpoint, it’s so far from the Turkish mentality, I’d be hard pressed to explain it here.

While these are very extreme examples and not necessarily indicative of the average pregnant woman’s experience in New York or Istanbul, they represent two ends of the spectrum in terms of baby- or pregnant-friendliness. Consider this chart of a New York woman’s experience getting seats on the subway; while the overall results aren’t bad (just over 80% of the time she was offered a seat), it’s pretty appalling by Turkish standards. Since I began to show, I could barely step onto a bus or through the metro doors before I was offered at least one seat (and they’ll insist on it, even if I say I’m not traveling far). It’s not just on public transportation: I’ve been offered to cut in line for public bathrooms and even in line for ice cream. Several American cities like Boston and Chicago are considering or enacting rules against strollers (at least open ones) on public transportation to save space and aggravation for other passengers. When I return to New York, I’ll plan on wearing a baby sling or carrier on the subway, especially since few stations have elevators or escalators.

A few weeks before my baby arrived, I was wandering around Cihangir, a neighborhood I’d compare to San Francisco partially due its artsy, cafe-culture vibe, but mainly due to its many hills. My afternoon stroll involved many hikes up steep staircases and near-vertical sidewalks. Each time I’d pass a Turk, he would stop, watch, and wait for me to get to the top and once he saw I was okay and not about to pass out or go into labor, he’d continue on his way. Last week, I battled the same hills with a stroller and was helped by Turkish men on nearly every corner and curb.

So what makes Istanbul such a welcoming city for little ones while New York remains hostile? It’s hardly a small town, Istanbul’s official population of 13 million is nearly double that of New York and the high density doesn’t make it much less crowded. It could be the volume of children, Turkey’s birth rate is nearly double that of many western European countries and significantly higher than the United States. I asked on Twitter about what countries travelers have found to be the most baby-friendly and most hostile, and nearly all of the positive experiences were in European and Latin American countries. Writer Anita Bulan put it well when she noted that in these baby-friendly countries, kids are seen as a part of life and allowed to participate in it. I’ve seen babies out late at night with their parents in Argentina, young children at fancy restaurants in Italy, and toddlers in museums in Spain. I’ve also seen hardly any tantrums in these places. I haven’t figured out their secret yet, but I imagine it has to do with exposing them to real life from an early age. Few restaurants in Istanbul have a kid’s menu but nearly every place will happily provide something appealing to a child, even if it’s not on the menu. If a baby cries, the parents as well as strangers will quickly comfort him and return to their meal practically before anyone else can notice.

This week I applied for my baby’s first passport and am planning travel in Europe and home to the US in the next few months. I’m not sure what to expect in each place, we might continue to be treated like rock stars in Europe and get dirty looks in America, or the reverse. I’m hoping my past travel experience helps me navigate airports and new cities but I’m aware of how a little one will slow me down and make me think ten steps ahead. My baby won’t remember these early trips or appreciate new places, but I hope that kindly strangers and a well-used passport for my child will make me a better mother and traveler.

Vera Alcazar Nesterov was born July 12 in Istanbul. Read her about her travels before birth and pregnancy in a foreign country in past Knocked up Abroad posts.

VIDEO: 50 state stereotypes in 2 minutes

Enjoy poking fun at other American states? You might enjoy this video posted by our friends at Huffington Post Comedy covering all 50 state stereotypes in 2 minutes and change. From Alabama

Our state bird is the NASCAR” to Wyoming

We don’t have any gay cowboys, alright? Okay, maybe a few gay cowboys…”, no state is left unparodied (read the video transcript here). Lest you think video creator Paul Jury is making snap judgements, you may want to read his new book States of Confusion, chronicling his post-college 48-state road trip.

Have a good sense of humor about how others see your state or country? You might also enjoy this map of US state stereotypes as well as maps from other countries. Follow Gadling and AOL Travel’s Road Trip Across America this summer and see how the states live up to their reputation.

Photo of the day – Don’t look a gift buffalo in the mouth

Photo of the day
Shopping at a local market can be a highlight of any trip. You might find antiques in Paris, produce and food in Ethiopia, or just tube socks and funnel cake in America. Today’s Photo of the Day was taken by

Flickr user American Jon at the

Bac Ha Market in Vietnam, known for colorful hill tribes, livestock of all kinds (some good advice on transporting your new chicken can be found here), and moonshine. Just don’t have too much of the local swill – you want to stay sharp when bartering for your buffalo like the gentleman above.

Have any good market photos to add to the Gadling Flickr pool? Make sure we can download them so we can use one for a future

Photo of the Day.

US map of stereotypes

map of stereotypes
We here at Gadling love maps and infographics, so we’re enjoying this tongue-in-cheek US map of stereotypes, ranging from “rainy hipsters” in the Northwest, to “old peeps” down in Florida by blogger and artist Haley Nahman. We’re a bit puzzled over some of the stereotypes such as the “fashion bloggers” in the Carolinas, but can’t argue with the “mountains and meadows and maybe some animals” in Montana and the Dakotas. Hawaii and Alaska aren’t included on this map, but I’d guess something involving “hula and LOST” and “Eskimos and strip clubs.” The artist is a “life of the party” Californian and seems to be partial to food and animal descriptions. Which stereotype of the US do you hail from?

Latin America on a budget: Antigua, Guatemala

latin america budget antigua

My first Latin America budget adventure, to Antigua, Guatemala, got off to a bad start. My flight from New York to Atlanta was cancelled due to bad weather and I was rebooked via Los Angeles. I finally arrived in Guatemala City a day late, and two days of activities suddenly needed to be compressed into one. In the spirit of the assignment, however, I didn’t inflate my budget. $75 was my limit for accommodations, transportation from the airport, all food, and all activities.

Antigua is Guatemala’s top tourist draw. Famous for its language schools, its new age aura, and its nightlife, Antigua is a major tourist center, and it is undeniably cute. The town is a very pleasant place to loll about, with its particular hybrid of colonial, expat, new age, and contemporary Guatemalan influences, though it’s also easy for more action-oriented travelers to fill days here visiting the town’s churches, museums, and convents.

Antigua is also known as a jumping-off point for adventure activities, especially volcano climbing. One of these excursions would have made for a perfect second day’s activity.

Antigua is chock-full of visit-worthy spots. Some essential stops that also happen to be free include the Church of San Francisco, the Santa Catarina Arch, La Merced Church, and Antigua’s central park.

The Church of San Francisco dates back to the 16th century, though it has been rebuilt many times. A service was underway when I visited. The Arco de Santa Catarina is probably the most iconic sight in all of Antigua. It’s an arch across 5 Avenida North, one of the town’s busiest blocks. Its golden yellow hue is matched by the exterior of La Merced church one block away.

La Merced itself boasts a beautifully ornate stucco exterior of golden yellow and snaking white symmetrical vines that look from a distance like icing on a big yellow cake. Next to La Merced is a fountain which can be visited for 5 quetzales (65 cents.) The fountain was not running during my visit; apparently this is the normal state of affairs. Rounding out the town’s top free sights is Antigua’s Parque Central, located at the nerve center of Antigua. The fountain in the center of the park dates to the 18th century.Also not to be missed are a number of sights that have very reasonable admission costs. There is the Museo de Arte Colonial, which includes paintings, largely religious, of the colonial era. The collection is frankly a bit thin, though it is certainly of interest. Admission is 50 quetzales, or about $6.55.

There is a worthwhile exhibit on colonial religious life in the small museum area of the Capuchinas Convent, though the real treat here is the convent’s rambling compound. It features a glorious patio around a fountain and a still, echoey cellar. This was probably my favorite place in Antigua. Admission is 40 quetzales, or $5.25.

Also absolutely worth a visit are the ruins behind San Jose Cathedral, just off the Parque Central. Admission is 3 quetzales, or just under 40 cents. These ruins date from the late 18th century. There are underground storage spaces and at least one quaint and very popular underground chapel.

Eating and sleeping, of course, occupied the lion’s share of my remaining costs.

I had a delicious breakfast of eggs and beans at Fernando’s Kaffee, a lunchtime sandwich at Doña Maria Xicotencatl, and a chicken dinner–no shame!– at Pollo Campero, the enormous Guatemalan fried chicken chain restaurant. Pollo Campero has taken off across Central America and beyond. Table service sets the experience apart from US fast food chains.

At Doña Maria Gordillo Dulces Típicos, a famous traditional candy shop, I obtained a solid shot of sugar in the form of a delicious little dulce de leche puck for 5 quetzales, or about 65 cents.

Here’s my grub costs breakdown: Breakfast came to 34 quetzales ($4.40). Lunch was the most expensive meal at 46 quetzales ($6). Dinner was mine for 40 quetzales ($5.25). Three meals plus my caramel delight totaled $16.30.

My head hit the pillow at Hotel Casa Cristina, a cute guesthouse close to La Merced, where I paid $27 for a small, simple, and attractive room. Casa Cristina is a budget traveler’s dream spot–cheap, friendly, super clean, and without question a good value. Single rooms on the first floor at Casa Cristina begin at an even more affordable $22 per night in high season. There are cheaper places to bed down in Antigua, but I wanted charm and personable proprietors. I found both at Casa Cristina.

So how did I do in respect to my budget? I miscalculated slightly and ended up spending $76 on my action-packed day, once the shuttle from the airport was added into the total. Still, I came awfully close to spending under $75 even with a compressed schedule and the $20 cost of the shuttle from the airport into Antigua.

For anyone wanting to stay in Antigua for longer than a weekend, these costs should flatten out quickly. Those days that don’t require a shuttle to and from the airport, for example, will be much less expensive, and days spent visiting churches and other sights that don’t charge admission could easily translate into expenditures as low as $40 per day, assuming a baseline of $22 for accommodations and around $15 for food.

Hungry for more budget travel ideas? Be sure to check out Gadling’s budget travel archive.