Knocked Up Abroad: Lessons Learned From Traveling With A Baby

travel with a baby
Long before I became a mother, people told me that the first six months is the easiest time to travel with a baby – before they walk, talk or require children’s activities. Others told me to travel as much as possible before you have children, as it’s too difficult to go places for the first few years. I can confirm that you don’t have to turn in your passport when you have a baby, as my daughter Vera turns one year old today (they really do grow up so fast), and I’ve traveled with her extensively since she was six weeks old, as well as frequently when I was pregnant. As she was born in Turkey, far from our families and home country, I knew travel would be a factor in her life, but never expected I would love traveling with her and try to fit in as many trips as possible (nine countries and counting).

I’ve written here on Gadling a series of articles on planning travel, flying and international travel with baby, and expanded on these topics on my blog, Knocked Up Abroad Travels. I still stand by all of those tips and tricks, but below are the most important lessons I’ve learned from traveling with a baby in the first year.

Do a test run trip
Just as a baby has to learn to crawl before they can walk, start small with your explorations. Before you plan a big trip with a baby, take a shorter “test run” to see it’s not so hard and learn what your challenges might be. Taking a short flight to an unfamiliar place, especially with a time change, language or cultural barrier, is good practice before you take a bigger trip. If you live in the U.S., a long weekend in Canada or the Caribbean, or even Chicago, could be a nice break and a useful lesson on traveling with a baby. While we live in Istanbul, travel in Europe is (relatively) cheap and quick, so taking a vacation in Malta with Vera at six weeks old was an easy first trip. For our first trip home to visit family and friends, I flew to and from the U.S. by myself with Vera. If I hadn’t traveled with her before, it might have seemed daunting to fly 10 hours solo with a baby, but it was smooth sailing. Confidence is key, especially when you learn you’ll do just fine without the bouncy seat for a few days.Stay flexible
Parenting experts may say that babies need structure and routine, but recognize that they are also very flexible, especially in the early months when they mostly sleep and eat. As long as you can attend to the baby’s immediate needs, it doesn’t matter much where you do it; a baby’s comfort zone is wherever you are. Babies also make planning near impossible. You may find that just as you planned to visit a museum, you’ll need to find somewhere to sit down to feed the baby, with a decent bathroom for changing a diaper. You might eat dinner later than expected as you walk the baby around the block a few more times to get her to sleep. We kept our first trip with Vera to Malta simple, relaxing by the sea in Gozo and wandering around the old city of Valletta: no itinerary, no must-sees, no ambitious day trips. We missed out on a few “important” sights and spent a few days doing little more than reveling in the joys of cheap wine, trashy novels and ham sandwiches, but it was stress-free and helped us to connect with the place as well as each other.

Re-consider where you stay and how you get around
Once you start planning a trip with a baby, you might be spending more time on AirBnB than Hotels.com. When you travel with a child, you care less about hotel design or public amenities like a gym (ha!) and more about in-room comfort and conveniences like a separate bedroom space or kitchenette. On an early trip, we stayed in a friend’s home in Trieste, in a vacation apartment in Venice and in a room above a cafe in Ljubljana, and each had their advantages. In Italy, it was nice to have access to laundry and space to cook a meal with friends when we were too tired to go out; while when I was on my own in Slovenia, it was handy to go downstairs for breakfast or a much-needed glass of wine, and someone was always around if I needed help with the stroller. You’ll also have to think differently about how you get around town with a stroller or carrier and plan some routes in advance. In London, I spent a lot of time on the excellent Transport For London website mapping out which tube stations had elevators and what days I would use a carrier only (I love the Boba wrap). In Venice, I didn’t bother with a stroller at all for the city’s many stairs, bridges and cobblestone streets, but needed to stop more frequently to rest my tired shoulders and was grateful for extra hands to hold the baby while I ate pasta.

Everywhere is nice in a “baby bubble”
You should be prepared to be self-sufficient when traveling with a baby, from boarding a plane to getting on a subway, but you’ll be surprised by how helpful strangers can be, especially outside the U.S. Not touching strangers’ babies seems to be a uniquely American concept, while in Mediterranean Europe, waiters will often offer to carry your baby around or give them a treat (say thanks and eat it yourself). After Istanbul, I found Budapest to be the most baby-friendly, and even trendy restaurants had changing facilities and bartenders who wanted to play peekaboo. I expected Londoners to be rather cold, but their stiff upper lips were more often smiling and cooing. A tube employee helped me carry the stroller up several flights of stairs when an elevator wasn’t working, and I got table service in a cafe that normally only had counter service. Don’t expect special treatment because you have a baby, but enjoy it when it comes.

Stay calm and carry travel insurance
Having a sick baby is scary for anyone, especially when you are in a foreign country far from home. Statistically, it’s more likely that your child will get sick or hurt at home, but it can happen on the road as well. Before you take off, figure out what you will do in an emergency: can you get travel insurance that covers a visit to a pediatrician? Can you change or cancel travel plans if the baby is sick? If you rent an apartment, do you have local contacts in case something happens? In Budapest, by myself, I had a few incidents getting stuck in an elevator, locked out of our apartment and having the baby slip out of a highchair. Everything worked out fine, but staying calm was key as upsetting the baby would have just added to the stress. Coming back from Belgrade last month, our daughter woke up with a cold and a mild fever the day we were supposed to fly home. Our wonderful AirBnB hostess got us medicine and we ultimately decided to fly the short trip as scheduled, but if it had been more serious, I could have paid the change fee to delay our flight and visit a local doctor. The baby was fine the next day, though I still have some Serbian fever reducer for her next cold.

Don’t let the turkeys get you down
Perhaps I’ve become more sensitive to the idea, but I’ve noticed recently that screaming babies on airplanes have become the catch-all complaint for everything that’s wrong with air travel (though in Gadling’s Airline Madness tournament of travel annoyances, children didn’t make it to the final four). Look up any news story about children and airplanes and you’ll find a long list of angry commenters complaining about how they don’t want to sit next to your “brat” on the plane, and that you shouldn’t subject other people to your lifestyle choices. A crying baby is not an inevitability, and planes are still public transportation, so don’t get psyched out by the looks and comments from other passengers. After 22 flights with Vera without a tantrum or crying fit, I’ve learned that the most important thing is to pay attention to your baby and be considerate of others. I still tell my airplane “neighbors” that I’ll do whatever it takes to keep her quiet and happy, and by the time we land, we’ve made more friends than enemies.

Enjoy it while it lasts
The first two years are the cheapest time to travel with a child: domestic air travel is free for lap children, international tickets are a fraction (usually 10 percent) of the adult fare, and most hotels and museums allow babies free of charge for the first few years. This time is also the most “adult” you’ll have for awhile, before you have to consider the whims and boredom of a child. Vera’s first year has been delightfully kid-menu and Disney-free. In a few years we may have to rethink our itinerary and even our destinations, but so far, not much has changed. We still love going to post-Soviet cities, wandering around oddball museums and sitting outside at wine bars to people watch, though our bedtime might be a bit earlier.

Share your lessons learned while traveling with a baby, or tell me what I’m in for in year two in the comments below.

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Making Peace With Malta (Part 2)

valletta maltaI was sitting aboard a battered old bus in Valletta, Malta’s capital, on my way to search for Mario Cacciottolo, a retired Maltese diplomat who sent me a gentle rebuke after I misrepresented the country by dressing up like Colonel Gaddafi in a grammar school model U.N. in Buffalo, New York, in 1986. It was an insane quest, but I felt like I had to try to find him, so I could apologize in person, and let him know that I intended to correct the mistake I made all those years before.

(Read part 1 of this story here.)

On board, I showed the address I’d found for Mario in the phone book to a woman sitting next to me and she was able to tell me where to get off the bus, but couldn’t provide further details on how to find Xmiexi (shh-mee-she) Street. I ambled around what appeared to be an old, working class neighborhood lost in time, showing people Mario’s address like a lost child.”Ah, shmee-she street,” they’d say. “You’re very close!”

But no one seemed to know precisely where it was. I asked again at a shop that sold delicious looking pastizzi for 23 cents, and a woman in a dirty apron led me across the street to confer with a friend who directed me to a police station to ask for further help. Feeling like perhaps Il Homa really was just a dream that wasn’t a real address, I flagged down a taxi, but alas, he had never even heard of the street.

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Inside the police station, I approached a bored looking officer sitting at a counter. Rather than simply asking for directions, I decided to tell him my story, just to gauge his reaction to my quest. Like most Maltese, he spoke English, and listened patiently as I told my tale. As he studied my letter from Mario, I waited for his reaction, but got none. Instead, he looked at me like I was crazy and then proceeded to give me extremely complex directions.

“You go up this street,” he said, vaguely pointing behind him. “Continue on until you see a mailbox – then look for a little set of stairs on the right. That’ll take you to St. Luigi Street, go up and take the first set of stairs on your left. That will lead you right to Shmee-she street.”

I wrote it all down but felt intimated, so I flagged another taxi. But the second driver appeared even more confused than the first. “I have never heard of this place,” he said.

il homa maltaI followed the police officer’s instructions, and after climbing the second set of stairs came upon a street where all the tidy little newish homes had names rather than numbers. I assumed it was Xmiexi Street and felt triumphant a moment later when a passerby confirmed it. I walked up the street, butterflies in my stomach, taking note of every house name. Some were in Maltese, but others, like “April Showers” and “Goodfellas” were in English. Halfway up the street, I saw a home on my left called Il Homa, but felt a wave of disappointment as the place looked dark and empty.

I rang the bell several times but no one answered. I went to the home next door on the right, rang the bell and a woman answered in Maltese on the intercom.

“Hi,” I said. “Do you know Mario next door?”

“Who?” she asked.

“Mario Cacciottolo,” I said. “He lives next door to you.”

She said she just moved in and didn’t know him. I told her I had a gift I wanted to leave for him and asked if she could come outside so I could explain. A few moments later, she called out to me from her side porch, up on the second floor.

I looked up and struggled to explain my story from a distance. After hearing the Cliff Notes version, she said, “You are in the United Nations?”

“No, no, it was the Model United Nations,” I said, feeling ridiculous. “Back in 1986. Mario sent me this letter.”

I held up the letter, and then the news clipping with my photo, circa 1986, and the woman burst out laughing. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know him and I can’t help.”

And with that she went back in her house. I tried the house to the left of Il Homa and a man in his 70s came outside to speak with me.

“Mario moved a few years ago,” he said, as my heart sank.

The man explained that Mario moved to a town I didn’t quite catch the name of. Apparently it was nowhere near Valletta and I had just 2 hours before my ship sailed for Catania. I left the man a folder with the letter and clippings, a note from me, and a business card, along with the chocolates I bought for him. In my note to him, I apologized to Mario and told him that I hoped to correct the wrong impression I’d given of Malta back in ’86, as he asked me to in the letter. I asked him to send me an email or a letter. The man promised to pass the items on to Mario and I left wondering if I’d ever hear from him.

I didn’t find Mario, but I was fortunate to strike up a conversation with a gentleman who worked at Valletta’s archeological museum who was able to help me understand Maltese politics, circa 1986. When I showed him my documents, he had a good laugh.

“I’m not surprised they were angry at you,” he said. “The truth is that we’re a bit defensive and we don’t really like Arabs.”

The man’s cousin is a former political leader of the country and he asked me not to use his name in the story. He said that Malta’s Prime Minister at the time was Carmen Misfud Bonnici, a socialist who won a disputed election that touched off a period of political violence in the country.

Bonnici forged strong ties with the Soviet Union, Gaddafi, N. Korea and other communist states. Relations with the U.S. were frosty, at best. There was an open campaign against Catholic churches in the country, some were raided and vandalized as were newspapers that were critical of the government.

As the teachers at my little Catholic school in Buffalo were wondering about the somewhat aggressive tone in the letter we received, the streets of Valletta were awash in protests – some broken up violently with police firing on and killing demonstrators in some cases. We had no clue, but the country was deeply divided. In 1990, conservatives took power and relations with the U.S. improved. The country has made great strides in the last two decades, managing to grow its tourism industry and joining the EU in 2004, but Bonnici, now retired, still publicly agitates for Malta to pull out of the EU and go back to the old days.

But that’s not going to happen. Malta’s future is in the EU and the increasing flow of tourists into the country means that gaffes like the one I made years ago are unlikely to happen again. When I turned up at our model U.N. in Buffalo representing Malta as a Colonel Gaddafi look-alike, no one batted an eyelash, or rebuked me for being dead wrong. These days, if a student tried it, they’d certainly be laughed out of the room.

More than a quarter of a century late, it’s time for me to correct the false impression I gave about Malta. Malta is a beautiful, independent European country with a fantastic climate and friendly people – people who dress in modern fashions. I had no idea, but now I do. Sorry, Mario. Please drop me a line someday. I owe you a beer.

Read Part 1 of this story here.

Read Part 3 of this story here.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

[All photos by Dave Seminara]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Making Peace With Malta

valletta maltaI’ve felt an odd kinship with Malta ever since I created a minor international incident with the tiny island nation by dressing up like Colonel Gaddafi in an 8th grade model U.N. exercise in 1986. When my teacher decided to throw me a curveball by assigning me the task of dressing up like a citizen of Malta, I was initially displeased. In the pre-Internet age, it wasn’t easy to ascertain how the Maltese dressed if you lived in Buffalo, New York, as I did.

I dressed up like Gaddafi because Malta and Libya seemed close enough on the map and I had no better ideas. A photo of me in Arab garb made it into The Buffalo News and once the Maltese got wind of it, they were none too pleased. In their indignant response, Mario Cacciottolo, the private secretary of the Prime Minister of Malta, told me that I should try to correct the misperception I’d created regarding their country. But I was a 13-year-old kid living in Buffalo. How was I going to do that?

My school was alarmed by the letter and sent it to the State Department. Several months later, the Desk Officer for Malta sent me a letter encouraging me to consider a career in diplomacy. I did just that in my 30’s. Over the last quarter of a century, I’ve traveled extensively in more than 50 countries, including most of Europe. All this time, Malta’s been on my radar, but I’ve been circling the place without actually landing there.Over the winter, I attempted to secure a phone interview with Mr. Cacciottolo via the Maltese embassy in Washington, but the Maltese ambassador said that the matter was closed. Mario accepted my apology but he didn’t want to speak to me. I wondered whether the embassy actually passed on my request and, if they had, why Mario didn’t want to talk to me.

In February, I watched a documentary on the Costa Concordia disaster and decided to look into going on a Costa cruise, with the idea that they’d be offering bargain rates. Perusing their website, the cheapest cruise I could find also happened to make a full day stop in Valletta, Malta’s capital. I was hooked.

valletta maltaSeeing the old port of Valletta, with its picturesque sprawl of shipping cranes and indestructible, uniformly sandstone colored buildings set against a perfectly blue sky had me chomping at the bit to explore the city that had been looming in the back of my consciousness for more than one-fourth of a century.

I was the first person off the boat and made a beeline for a tourist information hut in the port. It was 7.45 a.m. and 21-year-old Kathleen Polidano was having a coffee and getting ready for the usual onslaught of map-requesting tourists when I ambled in with photocopies of myself representing Malta in the St. Gregory the Great School Model U.N of 1986 and the indignant response I received from the Maltese.

I explained my story and as soon as I pulled out the photocopy of the press clipping, she burst out laughing.

“This is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said.

I told her I was looking for Mario Cacciottolo, and showed her the address and phone number I’d found in an online phone directory. Without my asking, she said, “Can we call him? I want to hear what he has to say.”

It rang and rang but Mario didn’t answer. I chatted with her a bit and she reassured me that I wasn’t the only foreigner who was clueless about Malta, a nation of just 122 square miles that’s been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, the Hapsburgs and the British, among others.

“A lot of people don’t even know we’re an independent country,” she lamented. “We’ve been independent from Great Britain since 1964, but I guess the news travels slowly for some people.”

I walked uphill towards the old town and immediately noticed the British influence – hotels with British names, bright red British phone booths and an entrance to the city called Victoria Gate. And most people I stopped to ask for directions could speak English, in addition to Maltese.

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Watching Valletta wake up was joy – old men labored to raise the shutters on their storefronts, women filed quietly into the St. Paul Shipwreck Church and murmured responsorial psalms, and a pleasantly quiet buzz pervaded the beautifully decaying streets. The streets are called triqs in the Maltese language, which sounds like an exotic, melodic mix of Italian and Arabic.

pastizziAfter a stroll through the Upper Barrakka Gardens, which offers a stunning panorama of the city, I saw a line of men outside a stall called Champ on the Old Theater Street near St. John’s Cathedral, and decided to join them. I followed their lead and ordered a Maltese ricotta cheese pastry called a pastizzi, one of the Malta’s national treats, and a coffee. They use the euro in Malta and the bill came to 70 cents – 40 for the coffee and 30 for the pastizzi.

I can’t remember the last time I had a cup of coffee for less than $1, let alone 50 cents, and the pastizzi’s artery clogging goodness was so satisfying that I ended up getting a second one. Every street I wandered down seemed to have new discoveries – a crumbling piazza, an old man in an ancient looking workshop, a time warp café that looked like a WW2 era postcard.

But I wasn’t in town to frolic on the ancient streets; I wanted to know what was going on in Malta in 1986, when I got the letter, and I wanted to find Mario. I paid a visit to the National Library and met Carmen Muscat, a Maltese librarian who wasn’t as amused by my story as Kathleen was.

“What were you thinking?” she asked, when shown the photo of me dressed like Gaddafi.

“I was only 13,” I replied, more than a little defensive.

“But we’re closer to Sicily than Libya, why didn’t you dress up like an Italian?”

The real answer is because it’s more fun to dress up like Gaddafi than an Italian, but I let it slide. Carmen read through the letter from Mario and then called her husband on the cellphone to see if he knew him.

“My husband used to know him,” she reported back. “But they lost touch a long time ago. My husband studied Public Affairs and so did Cacciottolo.”

She pulled out the local phonebook to look him up and found a different entry than the one I found online. She was certain that the entry she found was the correct one.

“Look, here,” she said, pointing to a line in the phone book. “He has a B.A. and a Diploma of Public Affairs, so this must be him.”

She explained that in Malta, people listed their degrees in the telephone book, and Mario had a Bachelor of Arts degree and a DPA, a Diploma of Public Affairs, listed after his name. She jotted down the rest of the address to me but it made no sense. She wrote, “Il Holma, Triq Xmiexi, Msida.”

Carmen explained that “Il Holma” means “The Dream” in Maltese. His home had a name, not a number. The street he lived on was called Xmiexi, which is pronounced shhh-mee-she in Maltese. Msida was a town just outside the center of the city. We tried to call the number listed for Mario in the phonebook, but once again, he didn’t answer.

I met up with my wife and children and spent a few hours visiting Malta’s stunning old capital, Mdina, a half-hour outside of Valletta. As we arrived back in Valletta, my wife said that she had no interest in tracking down Mario, so I was on my own. I bought a box of chocolates for him and felt a bit like a nervous schoolboy heading off to first date as I alighted onto a public bus bound for Msida. But would I find Mario, and if I did, what on earth would we say to each other, after all these years?

Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.

[All photos by Dave Seminara]

Cisk Lager: The Worst Best Beer In The World

cisk lager malta best beer in the worldIs it possible that the world’s best beer is brewed in Malta, a nation of just 400,000 souls?
There’s a bus driver named Steve in the Maltese capital of Valletta who is quite certain it is. I was chatting with Steve, a half-Maltese, half-English immigrant who’s lived in Valletta for 25 years this week and as we passed a brewery on the outskirts of town, I asked him if their brew was any good.

“Good?” he said, stunned by my apparently dumb question. “They make Cisk Lager – it’s the best beer in the world.”

I thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t.

“It’s brilliant,” he said. “You’ve got to try it while you’re here.”

“It’s the best beer in the world?” I said, still not quite believing it.

“Absolutely it is,” he repeated in his thick English accent. “They had an international contest and it won – best beer in the world. It was in the papers here.”

The sun was shining and we were enjoying a glorious day in a beautiful city. I wanted to believe him. If someone tells me that I have to try some beer I’ve never had, they don’t have to ask twice.

I waited until later in the day when I’d build up a nice thirst and then went into a shop and picked up a can of the stuff for 1 euro. It was a warm day and I expected it to be a thirst quenching lager, if nothing else. Upon first taste, it seemed excessively bitter and almost completely devoid of any discernable flavor. I thought that perhaps I just needed to get used to it, so I kept sipping away.But The Best Beer in the World, or The Best Beer in Malta, if you like, didn’t get better. With half left, I found myself grimacing each time I willed the bright yellow can up to my lips for another sip. I wanted to throw it away, but it didn’t seem right. Throw away a can of The World’s Best Beer? How could I do that, when the whole rest of the world outside Malta can’t even get a can of this stuff?

But I couldn’t finish it. I made it 2/3rds of the way through the can and tossed it. I haven’t really quaffed much cheap, bland lager since college, other than the occasional crappy beer at a sporting event or wedding, so maybe I’m too picky, but this beer tasted like something that dripped out of a sewer. A few hours later, I conferred with my wife, who had tried the same brew, but on tap at a bar and she concurred that it was swill.

I wanted to board the #52 bus to Mdina again to track Steve down, ask what on Earth he was thinking, dubbing this beer the world’s best. But the more I thought about it, Steve was right to be stoked about his hometown beer.

I’m a seeker – the kind of person who is always convinced that there’s something better on the next block. Sometimes it takes me an hour to settle on a restaurant while traveling because no matter how good a place looks, I always have this sneaking suspicion that there’s someplace better and cheaper right nearby. Even when I make a great discovery, I tend to wonder if I might have missed something even better.

That mentality is a ticket to unhappiness and a lifetime of restless wandering. There’s nothing wrong with satisfying one’s curiosity through travel and exploration but you have to learn how to master the art of appreciating what you have in your own backyard. Maltese Steve really believes that Cisk, the beer he drinks, is the world’s best.

When I lived in Macedonia, the locals were certain that Skopsko, their national beer, is the best in the world. And thousands or perhaps millions of other people around the world are convinced that the local beer they drink is the best. The point is that there is no best beer in the world – there is only the one you drink. And figuring out how to believe it’s the best one might be one of life’s great lessons.

The 10 smallest countries in the world

ten smallest countries in the world

The world’s ten smallest countries in terms of area fall into two general categories: European microstates (Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican) and small island nations of the Indian Ocean, Pacific, and Caribbean (Maldives, Marshall Islands, Nauru, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Tuvalu.) Some of these countries are quite new as independent nations: Tuvalu gained independence from the UK in 1978, while the Marshall Islands gained full independence from the US in 1986. Others have been around for a very long time. San Marino dates its founding as a republic to 301. These countries vary greatly from one another along other axes as well: population, income, life expectancy, industry, tourist facilities, and membership in various international organizations.

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[Image of Tuvalu: Flickr | leighblackall]