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: 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.

Knocked up abroad: baby shopping in a foreign country

baby shopping
Knocked up abroad has been on a bit of a hiatus as my travel schedule has slowed and the due date has sped up. Feel free to catch up with posts on pregnancy travel, Turkish superstitions, medical care, and naming children.

I’m into the final month of my pregnancy in Istanbul and that means the countdown is on to get stocked up with wee tiny baby things, garishly colored toys and furniture, and gadgets I never knew I would need. If you’ve ever been baby shopping, either for yourself or for a gift, you know it can be intimidating. Specialty boutiques and megastores are overrun with all sorts of contraptions and devices, in many varieties and brands, organized in ways that are overwhelming to all but the most seasoned of parents. Now try doing this shopping in a foreign country, in another language, with very limited space, and a semi-nomadic expat lifestyle and you’ll understand why I’ve put it off until, as the Turks say, the egg is at the door.

My “home” is in Brooklyn, New York, but I’ve spent less than a week there in the past 14 months. My current home in Istanbul is very small but fully furnished and outfitted with many storage cabinets (Turks dislike visible clutter) but little floor space. My husband and I have been heresince last April on an open-ended work assignment with no end date in sight. We may end this year back in Brooklyn, still in Istanbul, or in another city and country altogether. Given our situation, I’m trying to accumulate as little as possible and try to cut through the “must-have” baby lists to the bare essentials and stuff I won’t mind leaving behind in six months.

%Gallery-126823%In many ways, Turkey is a great place to have a baby, as Turks adore children and are happy to cater to them (someone should commission a study on the correlation between Mediterranean countries and baby-craziness, there must be something in the olive oil). Most malls have an area if not a whole floor of stores dedicated to kids, including local chains like Joker and E-Bebek (that’s e-baby), as well as many branches of UK chain Mothercare. While they all carry most of the same brands as in America and western Europe, the websites and store info is generally in Turkish, meaning a lot of time spent with a dictionary and translation site when researching products. Also unfortunate is the usual Turkish sales approach of hovering. Generally when you walk into a store in Istanbul, a sales person marches up to you, says “hoş geldiniz” (Turkish for welcome) and then proceeds to silently follow you around the store until you ask a question or flee the shop in paranoia (I usually flee in search of a shop with sales help who can’t be bothered to look up from their texting). This is the practice in nearly every store other than touristy carpet shops, and Turkish friends will tell me they are expecting me to take the lead and tell them my needs or tell them to buzz off. I found this hard to do in baby stores and instead tried to do much of my browsing online so I was prepared to purchase in stores.

The big ticket item on my list (as with many other expecting parents) is a stroller. I wanted something that could work from birth to toddlerhood, that could serve as a sleeping bassinet for the first few months (no room for a crib now) and be versatile enough to travel the world. Earlier in the pregnancy we contemplated a shopping trip to somewhere relatively nearby like Amsterdam or Barcelona where they must sell the chicest and most practical of European city strollers, but ended up deciding to buy something available in Istanbul that we could get parts and service for nearly anywhere in the world. We don’t own a car in either Istanbul or New York (in fact, I’m in possession of a soon-to-expire learner’s permit), but we got a car seat from a Turkish colleague to use on taxi rides and future road trips that can fit onto many strollers with an adapter. For Istanbul, the stroller needed to be tough enough to handle many hills, uneven sidewalks and cobblestone streets, but be light enough to tote up New York subway stairs and navigate narrow supermarket aisles. After researching dozens of strollers, spending many soul-destroying hours watching demo and review videos online, and testing a few out in person, I have determined the Perfect Stroller does not exist. Since I have no nursery to decorate and few other things to buy, I was able to splash out on a tricked-out Almost Perfect Stroller (I won’t name brands until I have a chance to test drive, but it’s one you will see in most yuppie coffee shops around the world) and will buy something cheap and lightweight when I am back in a city without metro station elevators and helpful Turks.

After the stroller was chosen, there are a few other items necessary to many new parents and designed well for travelers. As is common in many modern Istanbul apartments, we have no bathtub (Turks see them as unclean, and even the traditional hamam bath is more about the steaming than soaking) and tiny sinks in our bathroom and kitchen. I was resigned to buying a big plastic tub that I would eventually leave behind, but then found this cool device by American design company Puj. It’s essentially a glorified piece of foam that folds into a seat you can wedge into the sink, but unfolds flat and can be hung on a wall to dry. I imagine I can also pack it in the bottom of a suitcase for travel. One item on my list for my next US visit is the Nest from Phil&Teds: a rather ingenius travel carrier that can carry all the gear and then work as a bed or cot at night. Our parents would say a suitcase and pillow could serve the same purpose, but this meets more safety standards than a Samsonite and fits in the overhead bin too. Finally, we also wanted a baby carrier to go hands-free and stroller-less when traveling. There are upteen options out there, and we ended up with a Sleepy Wrap (another glorified bit of fabric with a nice label on it but several friends swear by it) purchased at a terrific speciality shop in Singapore. Fun fact: the Turkish word for baby carrier is kanguru.

The most fun things to shop for are, of course, baby clothes. Few people can resist tiny t-shirts, onesies, and dresses, and most parents can expect to receive many items as gifts. I stocked up on the basics at Mothercare and other clothing stores (we do have Baby Gap and even Baby Zara in Turkey), but discovered a treasure trove of baby shops recently in Eminönü, a crowded shopping area between the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market. In these local shops, I found a range of clothes from the adorable to the downright odd, some with Turkish phrases and many more with strange “Turk-lish.” Check out the gallery above for some of the best.

Now that my apartment is filling up with baby things, I feel just about ready for my due date on July 20 without feeling weighed down by useless gadgets. Any other expat or frequent traveler parents out there who can recommend products? Feel free to leave them in comments below.

Stay tuned for a final pre-birth Knocked up abroad (pending baby’s cooperation, but they say first babies are usually late) on Turkish vs. American attitudes toward babies and pregnant women. Until then, catch up on the other posts here.

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]

SkyMall Monday: Hangin’ Around Henrietta

gadling skymall hangin' around henrietta hangingWe all get lonely sometimes. Maybe you’re an only child with no one to invite to your tea party. Perhaps you’re an elderly widow who’s no longer able to attend the bridge games that used to fill your days. Or you could just be a serial killer biding your time in your seemingly innocuous suburban home, waiting for just the right moment when you show the world that you’re worth everyone’s attention. Whatever the reason for your loneliness, your suffering is felt by everyone here at SkyMall Monday headquarters. Thankfully, your misery ends today. Open your windows, let some light and fresh air in and put on your best spring outfit, because you’re about to entertain a new friend. SkyMall heard your cries (and read your tear-stained diary) and found the perfect companion to make you feel special. Get ready to to welcome your new best friend because it’s time to meet Hangin’ Around Henrietta.Making new friends can be challenging. You have to let your guard down, open yourself up and listen to other people talk on and on about themselves. How tedious! With Hangin’ Around Henrietta, you can do all the talking. Henrietta won’t judge you, like the other children. And, since Henrietta isn’t technically a real child, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a middle-aged man admiring her through his bathroom window.

Think that hanging a fake child from a tree is creepy? Believe that fake children shouldn’t be displayed upside down? Well, while you see if any sexual predators live in your neighborhood, we’ll be reading the product description:

Any time is playtime as Henrietta celebrates summer days and simpler times from her lofty perch (easily secured to tree branch or ceiling with an authentic rope). The artist sets breezy fun in motion by casting her enchanting, nearly life-size sculpture in quality designer resin and hand-painting it, one piece at a time, complete with lacy pink socks and pigtails.

While your new friend may not be real, its comforting to know that the rope is authentic. When it comes to rope, accept no imitations.

Your lonely days are over thanks to Henrietta. She’s adorable, precocious and won’t fight back here to brighten your day. She’s the prefect friend for anyone (except for adult men, adult women, well-adjusted children, people whose neighbors can see into their yards and anyone who wants to keep themselves off or is already on a law enforcement watch list).

What are you waiting for? Hang that fake girl from your tree today!

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.