A weekend in on the water in Prague

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The swans were among the first to greet us in Prague.

That was after our Airbnb houseboat hosts met us on a bank of the Vltava River and handed over the keys to their apartment. They gave us a quick rundown of things to do and see and left us with a bag of bread to feed the birds. They told us we’d probably see dozens of swans.

I didn’t expect that. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect in the Czech Republic. I had worried that staying on a houseboat in the winter in Prague might be risky, damp and cold. I was glad to be wrong.

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Marka and Michal’s place, Houseboat Benjamin & Franklin, ranks up there as a memorable place to spend the night. It’s a modern and cozy, heated two-bedroom apartment. We had mild enough weather to enjoy the waterfront balcony. Our hosts even supplied us with a wifi hotspot, a Czech cell phone and an electric dinghy to take into the city.

As our boys fed the ducks, seagulls and swans, Sarge and I practiced tying bowline knots so we could be sure to secure a parking spot wherever we might find one on the water.

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Our first glimpse of the “the city of 100 spires” was from our little boat gliding along the river on the first sunny Saturday of 2018. As soon as I saw the city skyline, I wished we could stay for longer than a weekend. I was mesmerized by the architecture and art in every direction.

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The only thing on our agenda was to walk around the city. We stopped at places that caught our eye, starting with the Dancing House, a twisty building with a top that looks like Medusa. Next, we checked out the sculptures and vendors along the Charles Bridge, and then we hiked up the hill to the castle.

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On the way down, we ducked into Tavern U Krale Brabantskeho for some refreshments. The pub claims to be the oldest in Prague and dates back to 1375. Our 10-year-old said this cavernous tavern was one of his favorite places of our whole year abroad. It looked like something out of “Harry Potter” with an old-world feel, swords on the walls, candlelight and a costumed barmaid, who, in medieval character, whipped Sarge on the back and asked if he was enjoying his beer. I’m sure the grandparents will be proud that we’re showing the kids great taverns of the world.

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At least we didn’t keep them out late. The sun sets early in January in Prague, around 4:30 p.m. By the time we got back to the dinghy, it was dark. We saw Prague aglow as we headed back to the houseboat. Once we tied up, a couple of swans returned, hoping for some bread crumbs and attention.

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I guess I am biased. I am a boat person. I like having my coffee while looking out over the water. There’s a peacefulness in watching the bending light, the ripples on the water and the world waking up.

This is how I will remember Prague: its steeples and swans, its beauty and its boats. And the kids won’t let me forget the pub.

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‘O tannenbaum, o tannenbaum’

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Yesterday in the German Aldi store, I was stocking up on groceries for the holiday weekend, and I heard a little girl behind me singing “O Tannenbaum.”

I didn’t even have to know any German to know the child, who was about 5, was in the holiday spirit. It gave me all the warm fuzzies. I love the way this country embraces all things Christmas.

The owners of the place where we’re housesitting in Schöneck left a decorated tree up for us. We’ve spent several evenings since we’ve been here visiting Christmas markets in big towns, such as Nürnberg and Frankfurt, and small ones, like Regensburg.

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Our favorite was the one at St. Emmeram Castle in the Bavarian town of Regensburg. I was as taken with the story of the woman behind it as I was with the charm of the market itself. Our German/Irish friends from Sarge’s Army days took us there to see the way the royal Thurn und Taxi family does a Christkindlmarkt: with torches and lanterns lining the path and stalls of high-quality crafts hand-picked by a princess. My friend Sandra told me how back in the day, Princess Gloria was a German socialite who married into royalty and became known as the “punk princess,” known for her and mohawk hair and wild style. After her husband died, she really grew up, studied finance and started running the castle as a business. The castle itself is larger than Buckingham Palace. And in my mind, that princess is still larger than life.

My favorite food of our Christmas market adventures would have to be the “Drei in a Weckla” (three bratwurst sausages in a bun) that my friend Tine from Nürnberg recommended. My drink of choice was the red glühwein (“glowing” mulled wine) served in a holiday mug, and Sarge preferred the white variety that tastes something like apple cider.

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Our boys have found Christmas joy in the form of a dog. Not ours, but the one we are pet-sitting. Otto is a sweet thing, a labradoodle who is getting spoiled with belly rubs. I even forgave him for chewing up my most comfortable shoe while we were out.

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One of my coworkers back home said he hoped we’d have a “magical” Christmas. And I’ll have to say it has felt like one.

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My snow globe wishes came true in Nürnberg. The path where we walk the dog we’re pet-sitting looks like something out of a fairy tale. We visited as many Christmas markets as we could. And despite being in a stranger’s home in a foreign land instead of with loads of family, some traditions from my childhood have found their way here. Tonight, we’ll sit in front of that tree in the living room and recapture some of that magic of Christmas. Merry Christmas to all!

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Goodbye, corner bathtub

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Tonight is our last night in our black-and-white-and-red-all-over Croatia apartment. What I’ve come to think of as our “Duran Duran” décor era is about to be over.

Our original plan was to move back to the States before the new year. Turns out, we’re staying in Croatia for a few more months. But first, we’re going to spend Christmas in Germany. I’ve always wanted to visit a German Christmas market, and just for a moment, feel like I was in a snow globe scene. I hope it is magical for the whole family.

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I found a housesitting job for us on TrustedHousesitters, a website that’s something like Airbnb for pet lovers. The boys will get the Christmas joy of dog-sitting a labradoodle. In exchange, we will get to stay in a German home whose owners are leaving a decorated tree up for us. Their town has already had some snow this week. We really might get our winter wonderland.

On the way there, we’re going to see some friends from Sarge’s Army days and celebrate Sarge’s birthday. It’s bound to be a fun reunion.

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Tomorrow, we’ll bid goodbye to our home for the last half a year. I will miss the giant corner bathtub, the light-filled rooms and the sunset views from the balcony. I’ll also miss our kind landlords, who leave fruit and vegetables at our doorstep and were the first to introduce us to the local culture. I’ll even miss Orange, the turtle that lives in the yard, and the landlords’ sweet dog, Lily.

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We arrived in Croatia with one duffel bag and one backpack each. (Except that one lost backpack the airline never recovered.) Our move to a new apartment by the marina will take several trips for all the extras we’ve accumulated – mostly household goods and beach gear, kid stuff and bicycles. I told Sarge we might have to introduce the country to yard sales before we leave. We’re limited to 22 pounds of carry-on luggage and 44 pounds of checked luggage each when we move back home.

Part of the experience of living abroad has been living with less. Maybe it will help me clear the clutter when I get back to my “real” life. Maybe I can finally clear the boxes out of my basement in Kentucky without wanting to hang on to everything. For now, I’m still savoring living in new places and soaking up the scenery. I’m not ready to leave just yet.

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‘Mom, what is adultery?’

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The email from the woman in the tour office at Ljubljana Castle in Slovenia struck me as slightly strange.

I told her I’d like to go on a tour called “Behind Bars” with my husband and kids so we could learn about the castle’s history as a penitentiary.

She said that would be fine, “but I hope it wouldn’t be too rough for your sons.”

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I didn’t think much of it, really. I figured my 10- and 11-year old boys would love seeing the castle’s dungeons. And, if anything, hearing stories about lives of prisoners might provide some kind of lesson about how they should behave.

The tour is a performance where actors play the roles of prisoners punished for crimes ranging from manslaughter to witchcraft. It’s well-done and really gives you a sense of what happened to reformers, soldiers and civilians, the rich and the poor, freethinkers and the politically problematic.

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I just didn’t expect that my youngest son’s commentary would entertain the whole crowd. Two other English-speaking couples joined us on the tour, and they were all ears when the tour guide explained the scene we would encounter next: the disgrace of a woman whose adultery earned her public shaming in the Wolves’ Hole, where she was taken by a monk.

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“Mom, what is adultery?” my son asked (loudly) during a lull in the guide’s narrative.

The couple beside me, grandparents from Pennsylvania, turned to hear my response.

“It’s when people are married and one of them cheats,” I said, “Like if a wife has an affair with a neighbor.”

“Does it have to be a neighbor?” my son said.

By this time, I had as much of an audience as the tour guide. During the course of the hour, I also explained “treason” and “prostitution” to my attentive fifth-grader.

Maybe this is what the woman in the tour office meant by “rough.” It definitely wasn’t what I expected. It was better. Sure, we could have chosen a classic guided tour or stuck with the audio guide at the mighty medieval fortress in Slovenia’s capital city. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable.

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An Education on the Island of Pag

My pre-teen boys have introduced me to a new three strikes rule: The first time you go somewhere, it’s cool. The second time, it’s OK. The third time? That’s boring.

That is why they did not want to take Sarge to the village of Preko over the weekend. They deemed the beautiful little fishing town on the island of Ugljan “too boring” for a third visit. Sarge hasn’t been there yet, but we have. Twice. It is an idyllic little island a 15-minute ferry ride from where we’re living in Zadar. It’s everything I dreamed of last winter when I was freezing my tail off in the States – beaches with turquoise water; the remains of a Roman villa; pretty, narrow streets and stone houses; little to no wifi — the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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The last time we were there, we filled our time finding sea glass and skipping stones. Clearly, I need to introduce my boys to hard labor on this, their last week of summer break before their international school starts. Their European summer has been filled with such boredom.

I took their complaints as a challenge over the weekend and searched for an equally close island where we could go and hang onto the last bits of summer.

We found something new for all of us on the island of Pag, a kind of barren place that looks like not much more than sand-colored limestone mountaintops sticking out of the sea.

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It had a few things going for it: 1) We could get there quickly by car from Zadar. There’s a bridge that leads to the island. 2) It has uncrowded beaches, even in August, except for evening “party” beaches, which didn’t seem to apply to us. And 3) Cheese. It’s known for its cheese, “paški sir,” a goat’s milk cheese said to be one of the best in the world. We had to have some.

Also, upon consulting my guidebooks, they all listed the same restaurant to check out. I decided we must visit Bistro Na Tale and have spit-roasted lamb, or maybe seafood.

So we set off, and we checked everything off the list.

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1) The road to Pag is so interesting. We arrived on an arched bridge from the mainland, and I enjoyed spotting little prayer grottos property owners place along the road.

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The landscape changes from bushes and trees and crops in Zadar to what looks almost like a desert on Pag, where salt fields line the water’s edge in big, rectangular plots. We tried some of the local salt at Bistro Na Tale, one of our first stops, where the lamb and seafood lived up to the travel guide listings.

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2) The tourbooks also listed Zrće Beach in the town of Novalja as a popular spot. My GPS also listed it as “festival” grounds. I’m thinking that probably meant music festival grounds, and this would be the equivalent in the U.S. as a kind of Daytona Beach hotspot for Spring Breakers. Here’s a sampling of how that went down:

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My 11-year-old: “Mom, I think we’re too young for this beach. I saw people making out.”

I thought about replying: “Honey, I think I’m too old for this beach. I saw people making out.”

Instead, I tried to explain why the 20-something girls next to us (not the lovely women in the above photo) had their bikini tops off and were taking pictures of themselves. I told him they were just European and it was a cultural thing, but taking selfies looking naked was a bad idea by any cultural standard.

On the family friendly side, we rented a little red paddle boat with a slide. It was great fun. The water was cold, and the beach was full of pebbles. I wonder which part of our trip the boys will remember!

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3) Cheese. We had to make a couple of stops before we found a roadside vendor with a cheese sign who actually had cheese. The first guy was sitting in a chair next to a kiosk set up for wine tasting looking blissful as the sun was about to set. He looked like he’d had a few tastes. But no cheese. As we drove away, Sarge made up a story about what the guy must have told his wife about having to stay sitting by the coast selling the last of their cheese while he was really sitting there drinking the last of their wine. And that’s how we ended up buying cheese from a guy selling his wares of his white van. At least he had coolers. And samples of cheese and olive oil. It was good. We bought some of both.

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Pag made for a great day, even if it was a little more educational for our sons than I had bargained for. Looks like we have one trip left there before they put it in the “boring” category. Somehow, though, I don’t think they ever think of Pag as boring.

 

Rome, where we almost made history

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The metal prayer candle stand teetered, tipping burning candles and hot wax precariously close to the edge. I hurried over to steady the stand as our tour guide came up beside me.

“You almost just made history,” she said, mostly to my 10-year-old, a curious boy who likes to touch things. It was a close call.

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Thankfully, on our trip to Rome, we did not burn down the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, the city’s oldest and only remaining medieval-style church. It dates back to the third century, and I would have hated to destroy it. The prayer candles must have been working. We said a lot of prayers on this trip.

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We toured Rome with a party of nine – me, Sarge and the boys, my in-laws and brother-in-law’s family – and one more if you include Anni, our tour guide from Local Guddy, a service that pairs tourists with locals to see sights beyond the beaten path.

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We did do the typical touristy things that I had seen before on other trips, making stops to marvel at the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum and the Forum. We tossed some coins in Trevi Fountain and sat on steps nearby to eat gelato. We sweated under the summer sun. We visited St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. We met nuns, gypsies, tramps and thieves and left Rome minus one wallet and passport – but that’s another story for another time.

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With Anni, we discovered an excellent restaurant close to the Vatican (Trattoria Vaticano Giggi) that serves authentic Roman pastas and wine. We visited an uncrowded hilltop (Gianicolo, or Janiculum Hill) with spectacular views of the city. Sarge made friends with a gladiator who let him wear his helmet for a photo op. We cooled our feet in a fountain (Fontana dell’Acqua Paola) that was not nearly as crowded as Trevi. We filled our water bottles from beautiful public drinking fountains that are piped into the city’s aqueduct system. And we discovered the neighborhood of Trastevere.

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Seeing Trastevere was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I would have never known it was there because it’s not on the must-see list of Rome. Maybe it should be. The former working-class neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber River has all of the cobblestones, piazzas and charm of Italy without the August crowds we ran into everywhere else.

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The Basilica di Santa Maria was magical. Anni told us it was the first church in Rome to hold a public Mass and the first church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. While we were inside, sunlight streamed in on the ornate, golden walls. We walked around and admired the mosaics, the history, myths and traditions. I will think of it every time I see a prayer candle and remember the time we almost made history.

 

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The secret is out: Croatia is not ‘undiscovered’

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The guidebooks say there’s still an “undiscovered” quality about Croatia.

Those guidebooks are not talking about July and August in the seaside towns along the turquoise waters of the Adriatic. It’s peak tourist season here, and Sarge is cursing the tourist drivers as if he were a local.

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The boys and I have taken in some sights, even if we have been elbow-to-elbow with people walking the streets of Old Town Zadar or gazing at waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park. It’s a wonder we didn’t see anyone in the Plitvice crowd pushed off the park’s boardwalks on the water’s edge. But I guess they have railings where it really counts. (The park is stunning, by the way).

Croatia was undiscovered, at least to me, before we moved here. It was under my radar, and I had to look up Zadar on a map when we found out we had the opportunity to move here. Sarge says all the convincing it took was for me to look at Croatia’s proximity to Italy on a map. I was ready to move as soon as he said, “Go!”

Italy has a place in my heart because I’m part Italian on my mother’s side, and my grandfather used walk around his house in Kentucky singing songs like, “’O Sole Mio.” That was one of his favorites. I heard that song here and imagined the singer to be my late grandfather.

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I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Italian flavor of many of the towns here. I had no idea that Pula, on the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula, has a well-preserved Roman colosseum that rivals the one in Rome. Or that the fishing port of Rovinj is “the most Italian town in Croatia” and is officially bilingual (Italian and Croatian). The flavor extends to the foods. I’ve had the best cheese and prosciutto here I’ve ever tasted. And the wine isn’t bad, either.

My preconceived notions of Croatia were that it would have lots of Communist-era architecture and be pockmarked from the war of the early 1990s. There is some of that. But there is lots of beauty beyond those scars.

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I’m struck by the old windows and doors here that function despite their age – and the old people here who function despite their age, making it up steep streets of cobbled stone, walking the stairs to their apartments and leaning out their windows with brightly colored shutters to hang their laundry.

I’ve heard people say that parts of Croatia are “what Italy used to be.” I’m sure the crowds here don’t rival the summer crowds across the Adriatic in Italy. But the charm of Croatia is no longer a part of secret Dalmatia. The word is out. I’m just another American discovering what Eastern Europeans have known for decades. It’s a pretty good time to be here, even if I have to bump elbows with other tourists.

Good friends and great adventures

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After three months of living abroad, our first visitors from America have finally arrived, and I’ve been counting down the days for them to get here.

I told Sarge I was looking forward to talking to Americans again. He said I could always talk to him. But it’s really not the same as talking to my girlfriends from back home. Even with messages and video chats, being far from home has made me miss the human connection of longtime friendships, the same way my kids have missed their school friends. I’m grateful to have friends who would travel the world just to see me.

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My friend Tanya A has been my pal since we were newspaper reporters just out of college, and everyone on the city desk called us “Tanya A” and “Tanya B,” since our maiden names start with A and B. We’ve signed Christmas cards to each other that way ever since. We’ve seen each other through career moves, failed relationships, pregnancies and all the milestones that longtime friendships withstand.

She’s traveled across the country to see me get married in Hawaii, be Godmother to my son in Alabama, go boating in Indiana and stay connected in points in between. Our families have spent weekend trips together and have become close, and our kids are like cousins. Right now, all five kids are piled in one room on beds and air mattresses for a week of sleepovers.

Sleepovers are among the things my boys have missed about America. Their friends in Croatia haven’t had the same American sleepover experience. But the boys and their Chicago cousins brought the experience here, complete with popcorn, Nerf guns and Minecraft video game battles.

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My boys have shown off their favorite find in the Adriatic Sea – inflatable water parks. These are like bounce houses on the water, and my boys can spend hours on them wearing themselves out. Spending the afternoon at one yesterday may explain why all five kids are still asleep this morning.

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Travel has been a unifying bond for us. The kids remember a Spring Break trip to meet up at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis one year. We took a trip to Chicago to see them the year after that. Last year, we met to go pontoon boating on a lake. The kids’ memories of each other are like a collection of vacation snapshots. And we are creating some new ones this week.

One of the great things about being here is having the chance to experience things that are new to everyone. I’m just as excited to be reacquainted with my old pal and reflect on all of the places we’ve already been together.

 

 

Europe with kids, ain’t it grand?

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“I don’t know why everybody says Europe is so beautiful,” my youngest complained today as we walked our bikes through a crowded street of Old Town Zadar, Croatia, trying to avoid running into tourists. “Look at all the cracks on the stones!”

“Do you know how old those stones are?” I said. I don’t know how old those stones are. Old. Very old.

I’ve spent half the summer defending Very Old Europe to my kids and explaining why they should appreciate their surroundings as much as going to roller coasters and water parks. Some days, I lose the battle.

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Today, I promised them that after I finished my work, we’d go somewhere. My oldest, “A,” wanted to go to a history museum, which naturally meant his brother, “W,” wanted to stay home.

“Why do we have to go somewhere that seems like school?” he said. “It’s summer!”

Sometimes, I think my kids have a secret pact. If one wants to do something, the other must protest. I run the spectrum of wanting to keep them from being spoiled brats to wanting to keep them content in a country that is not their own.

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Today’s destination was the Archeological Museum. Lots of old, cracked things. “W” was not impressed. I kept having to stop and say nagging, motherly things to him, like, “Don’t sit on the tomb!”

“A” is more of a history buff who likes lingering on past lives. We walked around the museum talking about the people who must have made the objects we saw. “W” sped past us looking for interactive exhibits that haven’t arrived in this country just yet.

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If the best education is not learned in the classroom, I hope all of this “old stuff” is rubbing off on both kids. It’s kind of like taking them to an antique store and wanting them notice more than a dusty collection of stuff. Not everything comes with an app or video or a climbing ropes course like the children’s museum back home.

If one child tours museums looking miserable, disinterested and bored, will he still take it in by osmosis? Or do the teenage years last way beyond the teenage years? (He’s only 10).

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I keep having to remind myself that my kids are not mini adults. They’re just kids. Their travel experience is not supposed to be like mine.

We will not look at cracks in cobblestones in the same way. And I need to be fine with that.

 

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