The City of New Orleans

Back in September, at “The Event”, I bid on one item in the silent auction we hosted, the trip to New Orleans. I was super excited, but knew I didn’t want to go WITH children. February break, when the kids be at their grandparents, was unfortunately Marti Gras. (There were blackout dates on the hotel, alas.) So as April break arrived, I welcomed my mother-in-law and said a quick farewell as we hied ourselves down to The Crescent City.

The heart of the tourism zone

We had a great time. We got half our to-do list done the first day. We had begnets for breakfast, with accompanying live jazz. We hit the largest historical museum. We had foot massages. (Well, we did that pretty much every day!) We did the cocktail tour (of which I remember the beginning better than the end… for some reason…) The best part of the cocktail tour was the set of scientists we were doing it with who were there for a Physical Anthropology Conference and were fascinating conversationalists. The worst part of the cocktail tour was absinthe. UUUUUGH.

But it looks cool!

The French Quarter was a noisy, tumultuous crazy place. I found myself slightly off-put by just how pleased everyone seemed with the moral decrepitude. Also, the concept of to-go beer is surprisingly disconcerting. We liked it best in the morning – and there were some great museums. I loved the Pharmacy Museum, and the Insectarium was well done. The leaf-cutter ants were the coolest part!

Many of those implements were terrifying!

Food and drink are a huge part of the appeal of the Crescent City. While I think they were well done, Adam doesn’t eat seafood and I don’t like spicy food. I think the best of it was a miss for us. My favorite were the Cajun Eggrolls at the Huck Finn Cafe. We went to one of New Orleans top restaurants, the Commander’s Palace where I had a soft-shelled crab. I was upset when I realized that after the glorious diversity of New Orleans, I didn’t see a single person of color in the entire restaurant, as server or patron. There were probably 300 people there. That was not a statistically plausible outcome, even correcting for income inequality. That realization made my bread pudding souffle taste much less sweet.

You just eat the whole thing

Three days was a short trip, but we were both in dire need of rest. The lovely weather, down time and amazing things to see were just what the doctor ordered – and not a creepy 19th century doctor either!

White Mountain Hotel: historic without history

White Mountain Hotel - taking in fading light. Not in black and white.
White Mountain Hotel – taken in fading light. Not in black and white.

I will never ski again. This is not a mournful expression, but a promise to myself to ease my anxiety even looking at the slopes. Skiing, which I have only done once, and only for half a run, cost me great pain and brought me no pleasure. But I am raising New Englanders, and we love the mountains of New Hampshire, so… here I am, close to the shadow of Chocorua, in the snow.

For the second year we are staying at the
White Mountain Hotel
. It’s a grand old inn, nestled between a state park containing a truly impressive thousand foot granite cliff, and a state park containing a picturesque mountain lake. It has a gazebo, a pool heated to 90+ degrees where my children swim in the driving snow, a grand entryway with a roaring fireplace, and an elegant dining room with an unparalleled view of the mountains around Conway.

It is charming, comfortable and soothes my heart with the glimpses of mountain majesty through every window. From the warm couch in my comfortable room, I’ve all day watched a line of cold-looking people wait their turn in 17 degree weather to scale White Horse Ledge. That sounds hard enough in good weather!

This grand hotel is also just that level of worn that makes you think of ghosts. I polled through the histories of the region, to see if I could find the provenance of this grand old lady on the hill. It has the feel of history to it. One book I found (thank you Google Books!) had descriptions of hotels and I wondered if it might be this one, under a different name.

Sunset Pavilion
Sunset Pavilion
(The History of the White Mountains: From the First Settlement of Upper Coos and Pequaket by Lucy Crawford, 1883)

My favorite line there is from another ad, which speaks of “the beautiful views of weird Chocorua”. Mount Chocorua haunts me. I once tried to climb it and failed, and have been thwarted in climbing it ever since. (It’s too long and risky to go alone. My children cannot yet tackle it. And I can’t go with my husband because who would watch the children? And so I watch it and it taunts me in its loveliness. Someday!)

Chocorua is the peak to the right in this picture of White Lake
Chocorua is the peak to the right in this picture of White Lake

I began to wonder why the hotel didn’t boast of it’s history anywhere I could see. Where was the “built in 18XX”, or the faded picture on the wall to give it that great sense of gravitas that so rightly belonged to it? Although I scanned the histories and advertisements, I found nothing that boasted of this spot between cliff and lake. I pondered the scandal that might cause them to try to blot out all prior histories. A murder perhaps? Was this hotel featured in some haunting book? Like, oh, The Shining?

Finally, I looked up specifically when this hotel was built. 1990. So much for that romantic fancy! And so much for my quiet afternoon – time to pick up my skiiers!

My snow bunnies
My snow bunnies

Roller coaster family

One of the great joys – and hardest parts – of becoming a new family by having children is figuring out who they really are. Do they love to read, like you do? Do they love hiking and camping? Are they morning people or night owls? Do they tend to see things as funny or offensive? Is their first reaction one of compassion? Do they work hard for their goals? There are so many things you discover over time about your children. Many of these things you can influence. It’s hard to get a kid who loves to read if they never have any books around, whereas a constant supply of books and time set aside for reading increases the odds dramatically … but not guaranteed.

Some of these identities extend from the individual to the family. We learn who “we” are. “We” go camping together. “We” play board games. “We” play soccer. For this period of twenty some odd years, we’re a team who does a lot of things together, or not at all.

This weekend, Adam and I asked our family a big question.

Do “we” like roller coasters?

Six Flags New England - I didn't take this one!
Six Flags New England – I didn’t take this picture!

There’s a lot riding on this question. If the answer is absolutely not, then I probably never ride the big coasters again. It’s not worth it to go with reluctant kids, and it’s probably not something I’d do after I have no kid responsibilities. I mean, maybe my life would hold one or two more big coasters… but not many more. With Thane at the 52″ mark, this was the first time we’d be able to investigate and really thoroughly address the question. I confess to being a bit nervous – I really like roller coasters and would be sad not to share that with my kids.

I’m happy to report, the kids loved the coasters.

We tried a bunch: the one built in 1941, the one where you bounce up and down from a great height. We went on the Mind Eraser three times, when a gentle rain dissuaded everyone else from riding it. Then the skies opened and there was thunder, which means nothing was going on. We had lunch (totally breaking from the Pantry Challenge for a day), bought ponchos that were apparently spun from the most precious plastic-sheep ever raised and waited for the rain to stop.

Legit downpour
Legit downpour

This was the best possible thing to have happen, since most folks left at that point. We bought too much fudge and waited. Miraculously, the weather cleared and we had fast run of almost all the rides. It was phenomenal.

Bumper cars were first to open
Bumper cars were first to open

Then we hit the big rides, with very very few lines. Our favorite coaster was the Cyclone. It was a perfect coaster – great drops, twists, upside curves… but not so shaky or vertiginous that we felt like barfing. The kids loved it. We loved it. I think we ran it three or four times.

Grey in line for the Cyclone
Grey in line for the Cyclone
Thane in line for the 300 foot swingset
Thane in line for the 300 foot swingset

At the end of the day, Adam wanted to do one of the really big coasters. Thane is 52″, not 56″, so there was a category of coaster out reach for him. So Adam and Grey went to do the big one, while Thane and I tested our courage against 300 feet of elevation. Thane loved it. He was phenomenal. After every roller coaster he’d say “That wasn’t even scary! Let’s go again…”

So. This weekend I discovered, we’re a roller coaster family.

Especially if the roller coasters come with non-stop sugary treats
Especially if the roller coasters come with non-stop sugary treats

Mud season in Quebec City

You scream...
You scream…

I’m old enough to have nearly 20 year old friendships… that started in college. Ouch. One of these friends is a true globe-trotter. Spending time together feels a bit like waiting for our orbits to align long enough to get a chance to sit down and share time with each other. He’s ended up in Quebec City for a while, so we decided to take advantage of a few days around April vacation week to drive back up to winter and visit him and his lovely family!

We’re having a delightful time! We’ve rented this loft in the trendy part of the city (which was only slightly more expensive than a hotel room would’ve been). We’ve shared some excellent meals together, and spent much of today navigating mud and seeing the glorious views in this historic city, while enjoying what rumor has it is the first really nice day of spring up here.

The boys are becoming a real delight to travel with. I don’t worry too much about where they are. They’re flexible and fun and insightful. They can read over breakfast with their parents. They’re both really good with the younger kids – it was super sweet to watch Thane playing with a charming 1 year old girl.

A trip where you get to reconnect with the dearest of friends and enjoy your family in the warm sunshine… ah bliss!

Notes from Madrid

I’m finally coming to the close of my period of schedule insanity. I’m not entirely done – the next two weeks remain unusually busy – but at least today marks my last planned travel for… well, ok I have another fun family trip planned April, but I don’t have to fly anywhere for a while.

After eating the last of my lemon meringue pie last weekend, I immediately turned to packing my bags for Madrid. I’d never been to Spain before, and the work agenda left little time for sight-seeing, but being in a new country is always a mind-opening experiencing. I ended up having several extremely fine meals, met many of the locals, and snuck in two museums after work on Thursday. Here’s what I learned:

Weird Madrid art and architecture
Weird Madrid art and architecture

My Spanish is pretty decent, but very rusty
I spent years learning Spanish in school. I never have had the chance to live for even a few weeks in a Spanish-speaking country to move the “fundamentals are good, vocabulary is decent, overall not half-bad” level of fluency I’ve maintained for years to a real fluency. In the last six or so years, since I started really trying to improve my career, I haven’t really maintained my Spanish at all. I was wondering how it would work out in Spain. In most of the traveling I have done, English is more than sufficient to the needs of the day. It feels like everyone speaks some English. Even in Mexico, when I try to open a conversation in Spanish, they take one look at me and reply in English. (Sometimes I get a pat on the head for being an American who at least TRIES to speak another language.) But in Madrid, while most of the people speak some English, my Spanish was totally useful. The first night I went out with my colleagues, my Spanish was better than the waiter’s English, and I translated for the table back and forth. It felt amazing to have it be so useful! During our meetings, most of the folks I was working with were Spaniards. Periodically they’d lapse into discussions on some arcane point in Spanish. Because I shared domain knowledge, I could often follow along, and understand. The longer I stayed, the more of our conversations were happening in Spanish.

The Museums of Madrid
Last night my colleagues left and I was by myself, finally done. In the heart of the city, I headed to a park plaza Google maps had shown me, with some museums mapped. The public artwork of Madrid is odd – combinations of ultra-modern, near-soviet brutalism and baroque ornateness all intermixed in a way that says the city was once richer than it is now. The larger-than-life art deco statues stand above reflecting pools that have gone too long uncleaned. The museums were fun. I am no great fan of Chagall, but there was a retrospective of his and I spent an hour in a dark, cistern-like basement carefully studying his works. I think he might amount to something if he ever learns to draw. (I jest.) All the museum notes were given only in Spanish. But I read them, and I understood them. It was an odd moment – feeling almost Pentecostal to me in the unexpected understanding as the words unfolded themselves to me.

I also went to an exhibit celebrating Cleopatra. I’ve seen better exhibits of Egyptian artifacts in Boston, London and Istanbul. (For that matter, in Vienna as well.) My favorite part of the exhibit was the retrospective of Cleopatra in artwork. Half the time she looks like some silly ninny who just provides an excuse for the artist to show boobs. But some of the pictures of her were resplendent in meaning. My favorite showed her dead – her face lying in shadows – but the pose of her body speaking volumes of both pride and despair. Again, all the text was Spanish, and again I found myself understanding it.

So much delicious in one place
So much delicious in one place

I’m glad to be an adventurous eater
Traveling in Spain is not hard. It was not at all like traveling in Africa, where every night you wondered what was going to happen, and cockroaches were the least of it. But on several occasions I found myself faced with a menu I couldn’t parse. (Menus are actually just about the hardest, since they use such arcane vocabulary – especially in really good restaurants.) I would ask what the most “Madrilleno” dish was (of a companion or a waiter) and then eat whatever they put in front of me. This week I had pig’s cheeks (I think), squid in it’s own ink, grilled octopus (twice) and a couple dishes whose provenance I couldn’t guess. Some of it was exquisite, and some was not to my taste. But I thought about how much more fun my life is because I am not compelled to be picky. I didn’t have to worry whether there’d be anything I could eat. I didn’t even have to limit myself to foods I could recognize from where I’d been before. I could pick the strangest sounding thing on the menu and say “That.” I am not sure how much pickiness is a choice, vs how much it is an inherent value. I’m just rather glad that I somehow got the version that lets me experience new things.

Water and wine are practically interchangeable
The water was super expensive and the wine was super cheap. On several menus, set up “price fixe”, you had your choice either of water or wine. That blew the mind of this Boston-based girl!

I’m really bad at a 24 hour clock
I thought I had an hour more to get to my gate this afternoon than I actually had. Good thing I’m obsessively early, eh?

This set of jet lag was particularly devastating
Perhaps it was because I was still recovering from Piemas. Or I’d been knocked off an hour by daylight savings. Or I was still finding my footing again after 9 days on the West Coast. But this round of jet lag was BRUTAL. We took a redeye in from Boston to Madrid, but they turned the lights on for breakfast at what would’ve been my midnight and so I slept not a whit on the plane. When we got out of the airport, it was nearly 8 am local time, and we hadn’t closed our eyes for a minute. Then each night, between the end of the dinner and the beginning of the next days work there were not 8 hours to be had. Let’s just say that my phone wasn’t fully charged when I had to get up in the mornings. (Slow transformer, but still…) Madrid is a late-night city. The restaurants DO NOT OPEN for dinner until 8 or 8:30! The cafeterias didn’t open for lunch until 1 pm. So we had the worst of both worlds – a Madrid-centric evening commitment and an American-created morning agenda. (Ok, that was totally my fault.) There wasn’t really a siesta to make up for it, either. I wonder how long it will take me to get back to Eastern Time. Hopefully that’s a better transition.

Apparently the hot new sport in Spain is called Padel
I’m writing this sans internet on a flight (I KNOW! Can you believe they expect me to go SEVEN WHOLE HOURS without teh intarwebs?!) so I can’t provide links. But my sources inform me that a sport ‘Paddle’ is all the rage. It’s played on half a tennis court, with a net and a solid paddle. It has playable walls, like racquetball, but is played with a tennis ball and isn’t nearly as fast. And it’s so popular that the folks I was with had Paddle courts in their workplace. According to my reliable sources, it’s very fun but it’s not nearly as athletic and hard on the body as either tennis or racquetball, and you can have fun playing even when you’re older. You heard it here first, folks.

You can see the stadium on the right here
You can see the stadium on the right here

Speaking of Sports
It’s a small sample size, but I’d say the city is more into basketball than soccer (aka football). I was personally saddened by the fact that the Real Madrid playing on Thursday was the basketball team and not the famous football team. I would’ve risked life, limb and pocketbook to be in the stadium for a Real Madrid football game. I couldn’t even summon up an “eh” for basketball. Also, my cabbies upon learning I was from Boston kept going on about Larry Bird.

How many great cities have no great body of water?
As far as I could tell, Madrid has no major body of water in it. It was weird to be in a city where you couldn’t orient yourself to the water. Even humble Merced has Bear Creek. We were trying to figure out how many cities have a layout completely unaffected by a body of water. Las Vegas, perhaps? Santa Fe? Which cities can you name?

I’m not sure what Madrid is like
Sometimes I’d see a building of brutalist cinder blocks, ill-kept, and think of Athens. We’d pass a glorious baroque building (City Hall was particularly lovely) and I’d feel the ghosts of Vienna. The narrow cobblestoned alleyways reminded me of parts of London. But in parts of five days, I couldn’t really get a feeling for Madrid quo Madrid. All the people I met were imports from other regions of Spain. Around meal time glasses of vino, the unsuppressable longing for a home far away (far different) would start to echo across their voices. I still don’t have a feeling for the city, and I can’t tell if one will be granted to me retroactively or not.

Google Fi is awesome
This summer when we went camping in New Brunswick (or as I like to call it “The Trip Where Everything Got Mildew”) we more or less had to shut our phones off after we crossed the border. Verizon’s roaming rates were appalling, and without a do-or-die reason, we had to do without. But as I landed in Madrid and turned on my phone it politely informed me that except for some voice calling, all the rest of my data and text rates were identical to what I’d be paying at home. I did not have to figure out how to navigate a major modern city without a phone. I can never go back – it was so hassleless. I already loved Fi, but this really sealed the deal for me.

Thus the business is concluded. The meals are eaten. The journey home more than half-flown. I return to a more normal cadence and routine to my life (and not a moment too soon – this has been months worth of travel packed into only a few weeks!) I hope my family still recognizes me. I’ve missed them!

Kiss me and smile for me

If you had to sum up your objective in raising kids, what would you say? What’s a one-sentence goal for parenting? I think mine is something like this, “Raise healthy happy humans who make a positive impact in the world, and who are capable of full financial, emotional and personal independence.”

Saying goodbye to brother and father
Saying goodbye to brother and father

Basically, my job as a mom is to make it so my sons, when grown, do not need me. (Hopefully they’ll want me, but that’s another story.)

Clearly, to my mind, this doesn’t start when they’re 22 and turning the tassel on their cap for their BA. It probably doesn’t even start when they’re 18 and walking across the stage to the sound of their name in cheap rented polyester robes for the first time. It started a long time ago, and the work of that independence is in full force.

The long airport waiting
The long airport waiting

I’ve taken steps to encourage this all along. The kids have walked to school – about 3/4ths of a mile along a major road – pretty much every day this year. Grey has gone to sleepaway camp two years now. The kids have regular chores they’re responsible for, and just last week I trained them on how to do the dishes. (Not that I followed up with the educational experience by having them do dishes by themselves…)

He was, understandably, nervous
He was, understandably, nervous

But this weekend marks a major moment. I’m putting my ten year old son on an airplane for a transcontinental flight. (His first question when I told him, “Will I have wifi!?”). I’ve never done this before. The whole unaccompanied minor thing remains a mystery. (I love the advice to give my child a cell phone and credit card. Um, no. I’ll pack some really nice snacks instead, ok?)

Waiting to board
Waiting to board

He’s going to spend February break with his grandparents in Washington. So far I’ve heard of a major financial outlay for Poptarts. We’ve loaded his laptop with the software he wants and figured out authentication for Minecraft when we aren’t present. We’ve got a backpack and a computer case packed. Laundry is being done in support of the rest of the packing. And before dinner tonight I’ll wish him well and walk him to the gate and kiss him goodbye.

In most circumstances I would say “And then I won’t see him for a week.” But things are complex now. My grandmother’s health is very rapidly failing, and it’s not unlikely I’ll see him in California for a funeral in this next week. Death is hard to predict though, so there are almost two branching plans in my mind, with a great moment of uncertainty. I’ll talk more about that later.

He did not look back
He did not look back

But all these things help build independence. The trip across the country. The packing. Even the sudden change of plans and brush with mortality. They help turn a child into a boy. And lay the groundwork for a boy to grow into a man.

The weary traveler
The weary traveler arrives at the gate