Category Archives: Parenting

interview with Playground around the Corner: Italy with Kids

I was recently introduced to the blog Playground around the Corner (“Italy with kids”) written by Italian mom Mary. My husband and I lived for many years in Italy and we became first-time parents there, so I was especially interested in her quest to collect information to help families find good playgrounds when traveling in Italy. Her larger goal is to work towards improving the investment and availability in clean, safe, quality play spaces in Italy.

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Mary of Playground around the Corner and her son enjoy a playground – with breathtaking views – in Cinque Terre

I recently asked Mary if I could interview her and learn why Italy – a country that loves bambini more than almost anything –  appears to be coming up short in meeting standards families are looking for in quality play spaces for their children . Read further to learn more about why she is passionate about this issue and what she is doing about it. And take notes on some fabulous playground recommendations for your next trip!

Bringing Travel Home (BTH): Why did you launch Playground around the Corner?

Playground around the Corner (PATC): When Riccardo – my first son – was two, we took a journey to the U.S. I love traveling and I’ve kept feeding this passion even with my son in tow. During this trip I realized the importance in finding safe, welcoming and stimulating places where he could play, move and have fun between visits to cathedrals and museums. What better than a playground?

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Mary’s son playing at a playground in Trentino

In foreign countries I have never had any difficulties finding information about play areas: web and tourism offices provide complete information about placement and equipment of playgrounds. On the contrary, when I travel around Italy and I look for information about Italian play areas (parco giochi) I never find anything useful: no images, no descriptions, no maps. With my blog I want to fill this gap and provide useful information for families visiting Italy with children.

BTH: Have you visited American playgrounds? What is your impression of them compared to those in Italy?
PATC: After visiting playgrounds in Boston, New York and Toronto I’ve started to dedicate attention to Italian play areas. In Italy there is not a culture about playgrounds as there is in America or in many north European countries. In the foreign countries I visited, I loved spending time in the play areas I ran into because they are – for the most part – original, stimulating, welcoming, and well-placed. On the contrary, Italian playgrounds are too often neglected, anonymous, standardized and convey a negative image in the eyes of tourists who travel to Italy to discover its beauty.

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a much too common sight – a neglected Italian playground

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Another goal that I hope to reach with my blog, not immediate but equally important, is to shed light on the subject and to encourage the people in charge to take care of existing playgrounds, as well as investing in new play areas for children.

BTH: Those of us with kids know how important it is to find playgrounds or open play space when traveling with our little ones. What recommendations would you give families visiting Italy and looking for a playground? What are your top picks?

PATC: When I travel with my children I believe in the rule of “I give you, you give me” and what does a child wish more than play? If you come to Italy and you look for information about where your kids could play, you will find endless information about the most famous theme parks, but there are hardly any details about the small playgrounds that exist in every village, just around the corner. With my blog I want to provide the missing information and, with contributions from readers and other bloggers, I hope to soon be able to cover most of our beautiful country. I describe the playgrounds I visit in a very objective way and often I’m sorry for criticizing rather than praising, but I hope that the criticism may serve to improve. Fortunately there are many beautiful exceptions: at the moment I would put on the podium the play areas I visited in the Cinque Terre and in play areas in Trentino , with special attention for the universally accessible playground there is in the lovely Jesolo because every playground should be designed in order to allow every child to enjoy it.

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a creative playground space in Manarola, Cinque Terre

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Another fantastic playground find in Trentino

BTH: Americans believe Italy is a child-friendly, child-centric place because Italians love children so much. Then why are playgrounds being neglected in your opinion? Some of my favorite memories from having a child and living in Italy were the piazzas in the evening full of children and their families. But I also remember going to a mall shopping with my infant daughter and unable to find a changing table, even in the bathrooms.

PATC: If you ask me if Italians are child friendly: yes, they are. Children are welcome everywhere and are allowed in every restaurant, bar, museum, store and especially older people always have a smile or a nice word for children.

But if you ask me if Italy has much to offer to families with children my answer is not as positive at all: there are a very few dedicated facilities such as changing tables or play areas in restaurants or shops, no dedicated parking spots at the malls, hospitals or other venues. There is a very poor support for families with children – for example, finding daycare is very difficult for working parents,so many mothers end up having to either quit their job or rely on friends and family.

Play areas dedicated to children  – areas of prime importance for the growth of children both for a physical stimulus and, most of all, for creative and relational opportunities –  are too often neglected and badly-maintained (in my blog, unfortunately, there are a lot of examples). Those responsible for the design and management of playgrounds should not just open a catalog and choose three items within the budget, but rather look for information, study, and be curious about this issue, otherwise kids end up playing in the streets, piazzas or prefer the walls of the house and the video or TV screen to outdoor play.

To learn more about Playground around the Corner and also get tips for finding the best play spaces on your next vacation to Italy (I know I will), visit www.playgroundaroundthecorner.com

travel is the best investment for kids

It’s back to school time and I agree with whoever said public schools should sponsor and promote ‘travel teams’ much like sports teams, because of the  life lessons the act of traveling provides young people. Our trip to Italy earlier this summer has left a lasting impression on our two children and reinforced a key family value of the importance of exposing them to different cultures from an early age – even if it’s a trade-off to a bigger house, newer appliances or a nicer car.

Stazione Santa Lucia, Venice

Read about my tips on traveling in Italy with kids here through my interview this month with travel, art and culture blog, This is My Happiness.

on my bookshelf

In the past year since I’ve started blogging, I’ve posted about my favorite books that will take you places and provided book suggestions to discover Paris expat life of the 1920s. The latter is one of my most widely read posts, thanks to the 2011 published “The Paris Wife” that has brought Hemingway renewed popularity (well deserved, in my opinion) and what appears by my blog statistics to be a mob of readers with an intense interest in his first “Paris Wife” Hadley.

As I take a breath from my fixation on the Lost Generation, and I reluctantly return to the library the completed biographies  “Hemingway’s Boat” , and several on Gerald and Sara Murphy, I  turn my eyes up to the bookshelf to ponder what will next fancy an expat, ex-expat or version of.

My top three picks are:

The Expats by Chris Pavone

The first time this title appeared in The NY Times Book Review, I thought it was an espionage thriller, which really isn’t my thing and I passed.  But then the title reappeared by email from my sister (“read it!” she wrote).  I noticed it was set in curious Luxembourg ( a place our dear friends lived, so I know it without actually having been there) and is much more about the experience of expat life than I originally thought. In this first novel by Pavone, a husband and wife have the opportunity to move to Luxembourg when husband gets a new job. She, a burned out ex-CIA operative who has left her job, finds herself disoriented, embracing a new identity in a community of expat wives and mothers organizing domestic chores and finding ways to entertain themselves.  The plot turns, when wife becomes suspicious of husband and his new hush-hush job and she begins to investigate him. Expat experiences, a fantastic setting and sprinkles of espionage fiction. And with a name like that, what’s there not to love?

Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

Being a mother and having had my first child abroad in Europe, this book about an expat American mom raising her kids in France finds its way easily onto my reading list. I posted recently about this book which outlines differences in parenting she sees between France and the States – particularly those areas she believes parents excel with in France. She’s predictably gotten loads of criticism from all sides, but I’m interested in reading the book because of the cultural differences I, too, experienced when abroad,  not necessarily to find the secret french formula to teach my kids manners or sit at the table through dinner (though I imagine many young mothers will be doing the latter as witnessed by the length of the wait list at the library for this book).

I doubt this author will meet the standard set by Adam  Gopnik’s “Paris to the Moon” about parenting in Paris that shines with his intellect and New Yorker-style wit as he manages to wrap together brilliantly multiple subjects and observations of life and food and kids in Paris. But I look forward to another opportunity to slip in  – unseen –  to a family room in Paris through this book.

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Another first book for this author and reviewed as “very funny” by the New Yorker, today’s essay in The NY Times Book Review by Gary Sernovitz somewhat convincingly draws comparisons and contrasts between this book and Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” While the book apparently makes no mention of this, the essay explores the differences between the inner struggles of the lost generation during the 1920s and the generation of today (you see, I couldn’t stay away from Hemingway for too long.)

In what The NY Times Book Review describes  “a precise, reflective and darkly comic voice” and “a revealing study of what it’s like to be a young American abroad”, the main character, an aimless but intelligent and earnest poet, has bluffed his way to Spain and struggles with the idea to live authentically and capture and represent life truthfully (in foreign and native tongue)  “beyond snapshots of localized events”.  “A book soaked in references to art and literature”, it features the American far from home, alienated, in search of meaning…..while making it clear that “a gulf separates their (referring to Hemingway’s characters in “Sun” and the character in this book) experiences and point of view.” I’m looking forward to reading about a lost generation of today, which could be more lost than ever before.

french parenting lessons

Last week I discovered the Wall Street Journal article “Why French Parents are Superior,” by American expat, journalist and author Pamela Druckerman. It wasn’t more than two paragraphs down when my head began shaking up and down uncontrollably – like a marionette doll at the Luxembourg Gardens – in agreement and recollection from my time abroad.  The article discussed her book released last week,”Bringing up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.”

Druckerman, raising her children in Paris, describes the French parent’s ability to achieve outcomes so many American parents seem to have such difficulty with. Like teaching our children to sleep through the night, eat and sit nicely at meals (no ginormous bags of pirate booty and pretzels every half hour might just help, dontcha think?), properly and politely greet adults, avoid interrupting and play on their own. The French practices of teaching respect, patience, self-control and delayed gratification – with easy, calm authority (“big eyes” she calls them), and being involved with the family without being obsessive are key points, according to Druckerman, and hard to come by in my parts these days.

Our baby was under a year old when we returned  to the States, yet I still got a small taste of the parenting style in Northern Italy. And I do say Druckerman’s observations are not just a French thing.  I encountered some similar characteristics with many families there. At  birthday parties, children played happily together while parents sat on chairs – not down on the floor  – and enjoyed a glass of wine. Down the hill from our house was a part playground/part outdoor cafe (Awesome Idea. Why has it not caught on here?). Moms chatted and drank coffee – guilt-free- while the children played. At pick-up time at the local Italian preschool, parents were not even allowed in the playground area. The kids were having so much fun together they hardly noticed. Finally, the children knew they were expected to greet adults. As Judith Warner writes this week in  “Why American Kids are Brats” for Time.com, saying hello and goodbye helps them to learn that they aren’t the only ones with feelings.

Parenting styles will come and go. I’ve tried them all. I’ll admit it, after reading one book when I was desperate, I even followed the advice to roar (yes, roar) with my toddler as she melted down – giving voice, I guess, to the temper tantrum. Some experts say feed their ego or they’ll grow up with no confidence. Others say don’t feed their ego – if you do, they won’t be prepared for life’s hard lessons. Be their best friend. Be not their best friend – show who is boss! But the article suggests that amidst helicopter and other kinds of current popular  parenting styles, some core, common sense lessons have gone lost and forgotten – like setting boundaries and teaching manners, good behavior and respect for who’s in control.

Even though she makes the point that French parents aren’t perfect, I imagine this book, like all others on parenting, could ignite a heated debate. But it makes a lot of sense to me. Maybe I’m an example of a new kind of American mom, who went to too many Positive Parenting workshops early in my mom career, and years later, hear myself telling my kids “No means no because I said so!”  Then realizing this is exactly the message I want to send them.

To read more about Pamela Druckerman and her new book,  “Bringing up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting,” visit http://www.pameladruckerman.com/books/

UPDATE: “Teaching Self-Control, the American Way” is a fantastic NY Times editorial that came out in response to the attention this book has been getting.

m. sasek’s great cities of the world

The other day while my son searched for a book on snakes in the library’s reference section, I popped over to the next aisle to search for books on Europe for his older sister. With an upcoming trip there and her big 8-year-old appetite for information, I wanted to find something fun and imaginative – beyond what the guide books that fill our bookshelves at home offered. I located the section and flipped past a few fact-heavy books on Roman and Renaissance Cities, the stereotypical-hokey Italian food and culture guides, and an atlas, when I came across several large books inserted sideways. In cursive on the binding it read “This is Paris.” Next to it was “This is London”. Then I found it. “This is Venice.” Jackpot.

What a find.  (We plan a day trip to Venice on our trip.) Written by Czech author and illustrator M. Sasek, (1916-1980) his award-winning classic stories on the great cities of the world were first published in the early 1960s and re-issued. In “This is Venice”, he brings young readers the charm of the city with imaginative, playful, really beautiful illustrations and amusing verse with just enough information – and the right kind – for an 8-year-old. Before you know it, you are experiencing the essence of Venice – venetian specialties like glass and lace, gondola specs (eight different kinds of wood are used to build one!), the pigeons, a unique system of house numbering – along with other historical information and tourist attractions. Not one rating or checklist of “must-sees.”  Instead he has captured and shares with children the simple truths and beauty of Venice through his words and keen sensitive eye.

“The water brings scenery to the theatre – melons to the housewives – and tourists to Venice.”

“As much as Venice loves the water, the water loves Venice.”

“The most romantic sight is the Grand Canal at night.”  (or, from experience, early morning – one of my favorite Venetian moments. Ever.)

A 150 page information-filled guide with sleek, laminated pull out maps just can’t – and won’t –  do that.

A true gift for the reader is the back page of explanations corresponding to asterisks found on a few pages in the book. While his story is timely and current, a few changes are inevitable and the publishers, naturally, want to correct outdated information for accuracy. But this is the best stuff. For example:

Page 47. * “Today the pigeons in Piazzo Marco are no longer fed by an official, but you can buy corn at kiosks and feed them yourselves!”

Page 58 * “Today you will no longer see watermelon stands in Venice. However, many vendors sell fruit salad to keep you cool in the summer. And there haven’t been horses at the Lido since the 1980s.”

This is our kind of guide book.

pigeon photo credit and for more information on the This is series: http://www.miroslavsasek.com

colpo d’aria and other peculiar health beliefs abroad

The longer time passes in the States after my three years abroad in Italy, the more I  believe that some of the peculiar Italian health beliefs I encountered there hold some truth.

These are health beliefs my husband and I once would openly laugh at and not even try to hide an exasperated roll of the eyes.

Peculiarities. A partial list includes:

Panic and fear surrounding use of air conditioning.

Obsession with food and digestion, to the point of speaking of digestive matters of the body at the dinner table.

The vibrating body shapers advertised constantly on TV to melt the pounds away.

The requirement of wearing a  “maglia della salute” (shirt of health – or undershirt) to prevent illness.

Dress code enforced based on calendar (not weather). 

A “foot bath” one must walk through before entrance to a pool at the fitness club. To disinfect your feet. Barefoot is bad. Very, very bad.

But one of the most entertaining to us was the infamous colpo d’aria, or “attack – or hit – of the air.”

My husband, who worked  in an Italian medical clinic, came across many of his Italian patients who reported a rather common self-diagnosis of colpo d’aria. When describing their predicament, patients would accompany the diagnosis with expressive and convincing body language to show exactly the angle and form in which the air attack happened. To the neck, the back, the head. Depended.

I remember when I was pregnant and I wore my cute snug American Apparel t-shirts that sometimes rode up my belly. The nurse at my childbirth classes – and others – pulled the shirts down to cover any skin showing. The air was bad, or cold, I guess, for my unborn child. Who was….. in my stomach.

Peculiarities. I’m the child of a European immigrant so I kind of get it. But no better can it be explained than a brilliant, must-read  BBC News article, “How to Avoid Getting Hit by Air in Italy.”  Oh, Dany Mitzman, if you are reading this, can we please have an espresso together and swap stories?

But this morning while dropping my 8 -year-old daughter off at school, and we crunched across the frosted blades of grass, I noticed again dozens of kids in short-sleeved shirts, sweatshirts, and  shorts. They were shivering and red-faced. I thought, did their parents forget to tell them as they ran out the door that they would benefit from  a jacket in 30 degree weather? Or do these California kids ignore them or ditch the jacket in the backpack? A kid blew a wet sneeze in my direction. Another was hunched over, back strained, fighting a hacking cough like, well….. an attack of air. 

Maybe the Italians get the last laugh.

photo credit: emergency physicians monthly

bimbo a bordo: my baby was born abroad

Eight years ago this week my first child was born. Abroad. Over the years, I have been asked what the experience was like for me.

And this is what I say. It was beautiful. And it was maddening. It was amazing. But at times we felt alone and confused. It was incredibly special and an adventure. I realize now how very lucky we were to experience having a baby abroad. It’s these life changing and growing experiences that build the memories that form our unique family history.

So, in honor of my born-on-foreign-soil daughter’s 8th birthday,  I’ll  share some of the things that I will never forget about having my first baby in Italy.

In dolce attesa. “In dolce attesa” in Italian translates to “in sweet anticipation” and it sums up how Madonna-like I felt when I was pregnant in Italy.  In the country where la mamma rules, I was about to become one, and men were swooning, cars were skidding to a stop to let me cross the street (unheard of), and I couldn’t get enough of people telling me “che bella pancia!” (what a beautiful belly!) I was served wine at parties, where I actually could take a few sips without a dirty look or being reported to the local police.

The hospital, the equipment, the medical staff were top-notch.  Italy’s not a third world country. I think there is an assumption among some Americans that I gave birth in a country lacking the stellar U.S. healthcare (get over it) because it’s (gasp!) socialized medicine. Perhaps an Italian hospital invokes memories of visiting an Italian post office on vacation (well, I’d be nervous too). Or they have images of the doctor spinning a pizza with one hand, while checking how far along the baby is with the other. The hospital in Northern Italy where I gave birth was much nicer, more technologically advanced, and cleaner than the one I experienced stateside the second time around. With even the Pope’s portrait staring down at me from the hospital walls, I felt well taken care of.  And I was having a girl, hallelujah, so I didn’t have to search for a Jewish rabbi to perform a circumcision (should I have chosen that), as American friends did in other parts of Europe!

Here I am just hours away from my planned c-section, in front of my hospital in Italy.

Other than the general anxiety of having my first child, pregnancy was quite peaceful and positive, thanks to my wonderful OB Gyn. He treated pregnancy as if it were…. natural.  I didn’t need to fill out loads of insurance paperwork. I didn’t have to check my deductible to see if I could “afford” to have this kid. My doctor didn’t feel the need to go over the hundreds of “what ifs” or perform unwarranted tests. And he was a saint in dealing with an anxious American soon-to-be-mom. (but, c’mon, Europeans, where’s the gown?)

Here we are with our wonderful doctor who delivered our baby girl.

The Nuns. If you can get past the Pope’s portrait on the hospital wall, you will see that my hospital was staffed with volunteer nuns. And not the sweet Sound of Music kind. Being American, taught to self-educate and question authority, I took a tip from one of my parenting books and prepared a little sign to hang over my new baby’s wheeled bed. Written in Italian (cutely in first person, or so I thought), it asked staff not to offer a bottle or pacifier to her as she was learning to nurse. The doctors and staff looked at me suspiciously.  And after being hounded by the nuns for 5 days (yes, a 5 day stay!), when it was time to be released from hospital, there was nothing to “check-out.” No paperwork. No infant car seat check. No wheelchair. So I limped out post-surgical thinking my baby could be strapped on top of the car  for all they knew.  (Not that it’s more sane in California. With my second child, I couldn’t carry my own baby until I was out the door of the hospital for liability reasons.)

You may smoke at the 2nd floor Cafeteria (near the “no smoking” signs, and the ashtrays spread out on the tables), but you may not open the window. Heard of the European Heat Wave of 2003?  You know, the one where hundreds of French and other Europeans were dying? Yup, we were in it.  Unfortunately, there is a thing in Italy about open windows and air conditioning “attacking” the newborn, so we, new moms, sweated profusely in our hospital beds.  Ironically, smoking was allowed a few floors down inside the frickin’ hospital. Adding to the heat wave, my daughter was born during the week of la luna dei lupi, a legend about a full moon that the nurses were convinced made women go into labor (in reality, I kid you not, broom closets were used as rooms that week because the hospital was so full with laboring mothers).

When we finally got home, we immediately placed our new baby girl on a blanket under the umbrella shade in our backyard, to survive the heat wave since we had no air conditioning. Can you tell she was already enjoying “la dolce vita”?

Language. I spoke Italian pretty well. I no longer envisioned a female floozy when seeing the Italian “bimbo a bordo”  (“baby on board”) signs tacked to the car windows  (just as I was able to eventually see European brand “Wudy” hot dog ads on trucks without cracking up…) I learned all the Italian that had to do with pregnancy including baby-related words like diapers and nursing. But anxiety and a second language didn’t mix well for me, so I became very good at searching for cues through body language. A smile from the ultrasound technician meant baby organs were good to go or all 10 fingers were there. When  I attended weekly birthing preparation classes, I missed out on a lot due to a very sweet but fast-talking teacher, but I’ll never forget her description of the placenta: a piece of foccacia.

The Great Parent Education Mystery. But other than my birthing classes (which consisted of answering questions like “do I need to wear a seat belt when pregnant? or “I don’t like water. Does sparkling water count?”) what I couldn’t find were parent education resources, support groups – all the things that we Americans are so good at.  Breastfeeding support? Forget it. The lobbies were bare of literature, other than photos of smiling babies I assumed had been delivered by the hospital. I do remember my doctor making it very clear not to wear high heels while pregnant (fashion is never far from thought in Italy, is it?).  I imagine there is so much guidance passed down with the big family support systems there, they leave it to the grandparents. But, in the hospital, it became almost a challenge. Someone knew where the new parents meeting was, but who? And where was it? And when? So I walked up and down the hospital halls like a crazed woman (and I looked the part as well), crashing any group sessions I discovered.

So at the end, there were things that were wonderful and others that were frustrating. Not that I had a choice. I was in their culture, their country, and I had to play by their rules. David wasn’t allowed in the OR with me to witness the birth –  no matter how many strings we tried to pull – and my baby was whisked away for a bath and clothing so we had little immediate skin-to-skin (she’s okay, I assure you).  But during the most important moments of delivery, it was in Italian – not English – that I heard my doctor announce the appearance of my first child. It was in Italian that I heard the nurses weighing her and handling her with joy and exclaiming how beautiful she was.  Italy was the soil she was born on. At that moment, I needed to trust this country I found myself living in. This country was bigger now, part of my daughter’s life story, and our family history.

Several months later, reporting to the American Embassy in Milan among high post 9/11 security, my husband and I claimed her as our own, we swore in as her parents and she got her Official Certificate of Birth Abroad.

At the end, I had my “bimbo a bordo”, a beautiful baby girl. 48 centimeters. 3190 grams. 19  inches. 7  pounds. And I was a Mamma, in Italy, in America, and in any place in the world.

(Michela, 3 weeks old, and proud parents on the Arno River, Florence. This week she turns 8 years old.)