A Visit To Macy’s Santaland

This week, in between a visit to the Brazilian consulate to apply for tourism visas, and working on the Gadling family travel gift guide, I decided to make a trip to the North Pole. Or rather, the one on 34th Street, where the most famous department store Santa resides at Macy‘s Santaland. Visions of David Sedaris dancing in my head, I decided if we were going to do this, I might as well do it right. As I walked in the front door of the store (bustling even on a midweek afternoon), I wondered what sort of masochistic experience I was about to put myself through, especially with a person who won’t even remember it. At 17 months of age, my baby Vera is having her first American Christmas, as we spent her first holidays in Istanbul. Now as we are thinking of leaving New York again, I figured she might want to see a little of the magical holiday city that millions of children want to visit every year while it’s still just a subway ride away.

Last year, I took Vera to her first Santa at the annual International Women’s League Holiday Bazaar, held at the once-glamorous Istanbul Hilton. The annual fair is a scrum of expat families bumping elbows for overpriced but hard-to-find in a Muslim country items like Christmas crafts and Italian sausage, but if you are foreign and living in Turkey, you are pretty much obliged to go (I recommend getting some black beans from the Brazilian table, a few bottles of French wine, and hightailing it home). At five months old, she took meeting a strange bearded man like a champ, though it was before the dreaded separation anxiety kicked in, back when I could still use the bathroom by myself. The Noel Baba, aka Santa, she met at the holiday bazaar wasn’t the most authentic, but he beat the skinny Santa we saw in our neighborhood selling Lotto tickets, in a shiny suit and smoking a cigarette. In Turkey (ironically where St. Nicholas comes from), Santa is associated with New Year’s Eve and is almost as ubiquitous as in America during December, but the concept of visiting the man and asking for presents is still thought of as a bit odd.

%Gallery-173473%Fast forward to 2012, when it took me just a few days to get sick of holiday music again, the baby showed only sporadic interest in the seasonal decor rather than childish glee, and we were right in the midst of American materialism in all its festive splendor. After an intense elevator experience involving multiple store employees with walkie talkies, coordinating stroller-only and no stroller cars like parade marshals, we arrived on the eighth floor, official headquarters of Kris Kringle (from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., at least, who knows where he sleeps). Joining the line, one elf informed us, “Only about a half hour!” and judging from the relieved reactions of other parents, I assumed this to be quite short.

This time estimate was about accurate, looking at the time stamp on my photos, but included the diversionary time inside “Santa Land” before we actually saw the big man himself. I discovered this is not just a line to see a man in a red suit, it is an experience. Standing in line was like an anthropological study of Christmas: there was the gaggle of female relatives in town for shopping and holiday sightseeing, the pair of twin baby girls dressed up and looking much more relaxed than their parents about this event, and even a dour-looking couple of German adults behind me with no children. There were local families (playing hooky from school, perhaps) who come every year, bewildered-looking foreign tourists, kids out of their mind with excitement, and babies who just drooled and snoozed. A few minutes after getting in the outer line, we “boarded” the Santaland Express, a sort of life-sized train with a big bell on front, which each child seemed delighted to ring loudly, making me wonder how often the outer line elves got headaches.

Then we were inside Santaland itself, a wonderland of lights and animatronics, which was alternating thrilling and terrifying to small children. I won’t spoil it all – it really is an experience one should do once, especially with children – but the highlights for me were a huge Christmas tree with model trains circling and a large map of Santa’s route (I like tracking him online on the NORAD website). My baby loved the dancing bears and skiing penguins, but a sense of foreboding grew over us as we inched closer to the main event. Various elves tried to prep us for seeing Santa, even shooting some practice shots along the Santaland landscape. Spoiler alert: I think there might be more than one Santa, though the process of being ushered into Santa’s lodge is well-choreographed enough so you can ignore all the identical lodges and sounds of photos being snapped. We watched a family in front of us with an 8-month-old baby – still happy to play along with his parents’ excitement to take pictures of him with a stranger – and I made a note to drag my husband along next time to help wrangle and document the process. Vera began reacting like a cartoon dog going to the vet, whimpering and pawing at me, desperate to not be put on the lap of this man. Despite the best efforts of the high-quality Santa and elf photographer, we couldn’t get a happy shot.

A few minutes and $20 later, we had our official 2012 Santaland portrait (I opted for no photo mugs this year). “Don’t you like any of them?” a concerned elf asked as I slowly looked through the contact sheet. “Oh no, they are awesome! Every child needs their first crying-with-Santa photo!” I replied. I was proud that Vera had now entered the pantheon of scared of Santa photos, a proud tradition all over the world for many generations. I’m not sure I’ll return in Christmases future if I don’t live in NYC, but I’ll proudly wear my “Santaland 2012” pin, at least until December 24.

Macy’s Santaland Herald Square is open every day 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. until Christmas Eve, December 24. Download the Macy’s app to book an “express” visit to Santa.

[Photo credits: Meg Nesterov]

Do people really care where you’ve been?

The humorist David Sedaris once wrote that as a child, he looked forward to a trip to Greece mainly because it was his chance to prove to his friends at home that he was worldly and continental. He imagined his classmates saying, “Did you hear? David has a passport now. Hurry, let’s run before he judges us.”

If each one of us were to take a dose of truth serum, we might admit to a similar feeling of self-satisfaction after a long trip. When I returned home from my first venture abroad, I embarrassingly thought that everyone I met would be dying to hear my tales of foreign intrigue. Turns out, few cared, and for those who did ask, I couldn’t provide a very satisfying response to their questions.

“So, how was it?” a friend would ask. “Umm, it was really good,” I’d answer. What more could I say? How could I condense a several-month-long trip into a several-second-long response?

In his 1902 novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad addresses just this topic:

No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence– that which makes its truth, its meaning– its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream– alone.

A little bleak, yes. But it’s true– we can’t explain, especially in casual conversation, exactly what an extended trip has meant to us. Even worse, few people would want to hear it even if we could. I myself confess to lacking patience when someone recounts the details of their latest trip abroad. I roll my eyes when I hear that friend– you know the one– who relates everything in her life back to that semester abroad in London. (“I’m tired.” “One time, in London, I was tired, and…”)

But perhaps it’s for the best that most people aren’t terribly impressed or interested in other people’s travels. It makes traveling for the sake of status seem desperate and foolish. It forces us to create new memories rather than constantly trotting out old ones.

There are so many good reasons to travel that we shouldn’t have to rely on bad ones, like impressing our friends and family and being more interesting at cocktail parties. While these might occasionally be the result of a trip, they shouldn’t be its motivation.

What do you think, Gadling readers? Are your friends and family genuinely interested in your travels or do you suspect they’re just humoring you? Do you have any friends or family members whom you’ve heard tell the same travel story dozens of times?

Road trip tip: Best audio books for a drive

Saturday’s road trip tip–how to stay awake while driving, listed listening to audio books as one technique.

The last audio book I listened to on a road trip (from New York City to Columbus, Ohio along I-80) was David Sedaris’s Live at Carnegie Hall. It isn’t an audio book per se, but a taped performance of Sedaris reading some of his essays. I was awake and laughing–hard.

This weekend, as I was leafing through a magazine (Better Homes and Gardens?) at a friend’s house in Wooster, Ohio, I came across a sidebar-type article on the 7 best audio books for the road. One of them is a fabulous choice because of its lovely language alone.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best novels written, in my opinion. The language is lush. Harper Lee , the author is the narrator.

Another author narrated suggesion was E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. This choice reminded me of another option that would appeal to children, but also resonates with adults. White is the narrator as well.

Here’s another one of my choices. The Velveteen Rabbit narrated by Meryl Streep is wonderful, particularly since George Winston’s piano accompaniment is woven in with Streep’s voice.

For another mix of music and narration for children, what about Peter and the Wolf? Here’s a version where David Bowie is the narrator. This one is a great way to brush up on your instrument knowledge.

10 more ideas for traveling cheaper in 2009

Even though the economic forecast seems to drone on and on as being gloomy, here are more tips for how to travel cheaply. With the beginning of a new year, start using some of these tips and you might find out that travel in 2009 can be less expensive than you thought it might be.

One of my mantras is “Don’t assume.” That means, don’t assume something is expensive until you check out all possible angles. I’ve been surprised over and over in my life how travel is doable and affordable.

1. Plan ahead AND wait until the last minute– I do both. Planning ahead, helps me save for a trip and have enough time to do research. Waiting until the last minute has landed me deals I didn’t expect like cheap tickets to a traveling company Broadway play and to see David Sedaris. I sat in great seats for a fraction of what the people around me had paid. Some theaters offer discounts on the day of a performance. That’s how I bought $25 dollar tickets to Avenue Q. Sometimes, certain days at certain times will be cheaper. Call a theater box office and ask.

2. Buy an Entertainment Book– If you’re going to be traveling to a particular city in the United States, consider buying that city’s Entertainment Book. An Entertainment Book, typically sold by clubs as fundraisers, can be purchased directly from the Entertainment Book website. If you buy one for the city nearest to where you live, there will be a deep discount for the second city purchase–or for both. The book contains coupons for restaurants, movie tickets, museum admissions, art events and other local attractions. After one purchase, the book often pays for itself. It’s also a great way to find out places to visit that you may not have thought of before browsing its pages.

3. Pack snacks – When you travel, pack snacks. Think about buying them ahead on sale and storing them so when you’re heading out the door, you have snacks on hand. That will help you stay fed while seeing sites without spending more money than you planned on. Plus, this will save you time since you won’t have to figure out what or where to eat. When my daughter and I were in Denmark the first part of December, my Danish friend had snacks on hand everywhere we went.

4. Ask for water– Whenever we travel, if we’re stopping at a fast food place, I always ask for a cup of water. Water is free. If you’re traveling on Amtrak, ask for ice. The ice is free and when it melts, you’ll have water. I received that tip from a woman who was traveling with her family from California to New York. She said buying water on the train is expensive, but the snack bar hands out ice for free.

5. When ordering at a restaurant, share– If you are traveling with another person, or as a family, figure out which items you can order to share that will give everyone something he or she wants to eat but will cost you less money. Yesterday, my son and I were eating at the Barn Restaurant at Sauder Village in Archbold, Ohio. I noticed that the sandwich plate was $4.99. For $3.99, you could add on one trip through the soup and salad bar. Instead of ordering him the soup, I ordered everything for myself, gave him the soup that came with meal and we shared items from the salad bar and the sandwich. The restaurant was amenable to this arrangement.

6. Ask for the best hotel deal at the front desk before you check in–In November, we stayed at the Millennium Hotel in downtown Cincinnati. When we were checking in, I was lamenting that we had an Expedia reservation since I found out that there were better deals if we had gone through the hotel directly. My dad, who was with us, asked the hotel clerk what he might throw in to sweeten our stay. We were given four continental breakfast vouchers. The breakfast was great. If we had paid, it would have cost us $10 a piece.

7. Don’t assume how expensive travel might be without checking first–This summer I was pleasantly surprised how inexpensive it was to take the train the New York City on Amtrak. I thought the train would have been more expensive than it was. Two weeks ago my mother snagged an airline ticket to LaGuardia for $166. This summer, the same ticket would have cost her almost $400.

8. Don’t assume you won’t be able to use frequent flyer miles for a flight–My daughter and I went to Denmark from Columbus for 50,000 miles each using Northwest frequent flyer miles. I thought we wouldn’t be able to get those tickets until I checked.

9. If you have a discount card, don’t forget to use itAAA is one of those cards I keep forgetting to use for other things besides our car and hotel deals. Two days ago, I was at the Libbey Glass Factory Outlet Store in Toledo, Ohio and saw that they give 10% off for AAA card holders. I saved $1. Hey, it’s something.

10. Go to places on days when there is a discount or a free day– Just today, when we were in Findlay, Ohio at Wilson’s, a family-owned hamburger joint that has been around since 1936, I found out that if you go in on a Saturday with your Wilson’s mug between 7–11 a.m., you can get a free cup of coffee. If we had gone to the Barn Restaurant on Monday night, my son would have eaten for free.

Speaking of coffee. When you travel, bring your travel coffee mug with you. Truck stop type places often will charge you less money if you bring in your own cup.

Top 10 stupidest laws you could encounter abroad

David Sedaris with Rick Steves: Funny travel incidents and observations like when flight attendants pass gas

Two of the things I remember from an interview I heard with David Sedaris on Travel with Rick Steves is that Business Class is known as ICU because passengers are in need of attention and flight attendants pass gas as they walk up the aisles because the sound covers the noise.

A flight attendant told Sedaris that. Not, Heather, our Gallery Gossip gal, someone else.

Here are two travel tips during the conversation that Sedaris passed on in his sardonic m wry wit sort of way.

  • When staying in a hotel, you don’t put your clothes in drawers because that’s how you lose things.
  • As a matter of fact, don’t let your belongings wander more than two feet from your suitcase.

And here’s a bit of irony that Sedaris has noticed when staying in high end hotels. He pointed out that these hotels have half-hearted attempts at going green. He points out that they may tout going green with missives like:

Save the earth. Don’t make us wash these towels, save the earth.

Then with the turn down service, they turn on the radio and the lights.

He also says that, “Sometimes, I turn on the radio and I think, “Who the hell was in this room?” . . .like if the music is heavy metal.

Both Sedaris and Steves talked up travel in Japan which our own Matthew Firestone who lives in Japan could verify.

About Japan, Rick Steves says, “People were so unbelievably kind. In Japan, ordering was terribly fun. Japanese are so gracious. Only country I’ve been in where people regularly stop me and ask, ‘You look lost, can I help you?'”

Living in Japan helped Sedaris quit smoking. He wanted to quit smoking because so many hotels don’t allow smoking anymore.

To listen to the Podcast between Steves and Sedaris, click here. What I’ve passed on are only tidbits of the wealth.