Monday, August 6, 2018

10 tips for camping with kids

Yesterday we got back from a 9-day camping holiday with two kids under five on the coast. The excitement is still here, the kids are still on the campsite in their minds. They were outside 24/7, sleeping under the stars, being in the sea all day, playing with pine cones and stones, getting together with other little campers, muddy and sticky at the end of the day, eating picnic on the ground, and basically, having time of their lives. After a long time, they were TV/monitor/cartoon free for 9 days! So while it's fresh in my memory, I'd sum up our experience and write down tips of camping with kids. We've camped with the kids for a music festival before, but this is the first time we stayed for so long, and we took a grandma along. To be noted though, these tips are for camping in a tent. So if your family opt for an RV (camper van, mobile home or caravan) or a glamping tent, probably not all of the tips make sense.

What to do before you go:

1. Don't save on equipment

Don't buy tent in a department store or supermarket. Make a trip to a specialized shop for camping and outdoor sport and get them to help pick what you need. Buy high quality tent, air mattresses, camping chairs and table, and kitchen cupboard or shelf if you need. We've got this Quechua 4-person tent with two bedrooms on each side. Each bedroom fits a 140 cm wide mattress, so four people can fit comfortably. Grandma slept in one bedroom, my husband, the baby and I in another, and the toddler slept in a snug space between the bedrooms that is normally a living room. There was a thunder storm with very strong wind the whole night the fourth night we were camping, and the tent proved to be sturdy and completely waterproof. The height of the tent is around 2 meters, which means most people can stand normally inside it. I'd suggest you to get another tent or a pavilion where the family would gather during the day to avoid toys and food flooding the sleeping tent. We had this basic pavilion to fit a dining table and four chairs, a hanging toy rack for the kids and one cooking station and a little fridge.

Our lot was by the beach, at around 120 meter square in size
The kids were busy exploring and playing immediately

2. Search for a suitable camping site and research it well

We opted for Arena Camp Medulin at the south of the Istrian peninsula. It's 3-hour drive from Zagreb where we live, and is close from many attraction we wanted to visit. Unless you want to camp in the wild, search for a campsite with good facilities. Sanitary facility is essential. Ours was clean and well maintained, with showers, baby tub, toilets (even for the small ones), sinks and dish washing sinks. The camp provided several spots for barbecue, car wash, laundry facility, water-park and playgrounds. If you're a first time camper, don't be afraid of the hygiene and sanitary facilities in today's camping ground! We keep joking that it's mostly cleaner than our home! After some research, we plan to try Camping Straško on Pag Island for next summer.

Sanitary facility closest to our parcel, consist of shower, toilets, baby bath and dish washing section
Baby bath, small toilet, low sink and mirror, they thought well about the kids!

3. It's okay to not go electricity free

Don't hesitate to make use of the electricity. Most campsite offers electricity plug on each parcel. We didn't want the hassle of a stove with fire and gas bottle, so I brought along a small induction cooktop from IKEA. With the convenience of home, we could cook regular meals. Stunned with the efficiency of this cooktop, grandma wanted to buy one for herself. We brought a small portable fridge and table lamp to lit the dining area at night, although we brought solar lamps for the ground and LED lights on battery for around the tent just for the romantic feel.

Choose an induction cook top over a gas fire stove for better security and convenience

4. Create a packing check list and a meal plan before you go

It's very probable to forget things when you pack. And when you go camping, there are a very long list to bring along with you. Create a check list to help you packing, dividing it to sleeping necessities, cooking and eating necessities, lounge and seating needs, hygiene, medicines and mosquito repellent, kids' toys including bikes and beach toys, and electrical equipment including cable extension, adapters if needed and lighting. A meal plan will also guide you through what to pack and what to buy from day to day. A shop inside a campsite tends to be very expensive, so you probably want to make a trip to the city for groceries shopping. We lived on regular breakfast like at home (pancakes, french toasts, bread and spread, cereals), different kind of salads for lunch (tuna salad with pasta, Caesar chicken salad, mix vegetable and beans salad) and mostly barbecues for dinner that my husband made at the public barbecue place.

5. Make space in your car for all the stuff

We added a roof rack and a roof box to the car to bring all the things we needed. You can also add a bike carrier if you want for taking bikes. Some people tow a smaller trailer to take even more stuff if they plan to stay much longer. Don't forget to take things to keep the kids occupied: coloring supplies, board games, playing cards, bubble wands and balls. Most kids we saw in the camp is gadget free, and they're open to play with other kids. Our kids enjoyed things as simple as pine-cone. When they're outside in the woods 24/7, every little thing is interesting. During the day they spend most of the time in the sea anyway.

What to do when you get there:

6. Pick a preference and your priority

Once you check in, you will need to choose a lot. We booked our lot in the premium zone, but we had to pick the exact number of lot when we got there. So here you need to decide on what is important: proximity to the beach, or proximity to sanitary facility? Shade or sun? Do know that the wind is stronger when you're closer to the beach, and weaker when you're deeper into the woods. We picked a lot that is immediately on the beach with enough shade for both the kids and grandma in the afternoon to rest, but enough sun in the morning for sunbathing. It was around three minute walk from the sanitary object and the toddler was able to go by herself and back.

7. Get a schedule of kids' activity program

Ask the reception what kids (and adult) activities they offer. Our camp organized sport activities for adults (pilates, aerobic, etc) in the morning at 10am while also organizing mini club for the little ones. We didn't do any activities in the morning because we'd all be in the water then, but the kids enjoyed the evening activities a lot. At 8pm they organize mini disco, magician show and games. There was also teen club for older kids.

Mini disco held every evening
Evening games our toddler enjoyed a lot

8. Give each child a task to do

One of the good things about camping is the kids learn to be independent. There are many chores to be done in the camp and it's a perfect time to delegate suitable chores to the kids. Our kids are too young to independently wash the dishes, but we saw many kids older than 8 washing dishes at the sanitary centers for the whole family. Our toddler was assigned to collect dirty dishes and wipe the washed one dry. They could also get fresh water for the canister, take out the garbage, mop or wipe tent base, go to the shop for foods or help in food preparations.

9. Break the routine by exploring nearby attractions

Our family is not used of being stationed in one place for 9 days straight, so we needed some refreshment along the way. We took the kids to Pula Aquarium and gave grandma a day for herself at the beach. The kids enjoyed the amazing aquarium placed in an old fortress of Verudella. On the last evening, we all went to Pula for dinner and evening walk around the Colosseo.

At Pula Aquarium inside Verudela Fortress

Night stroll around Pula Arena (Colosseo)

10. Make friends, share beers with your neighbors and respect camping etiquettes

Camping is fun, and don't forget about that. It's less stressful than staying in a hotel or private accommodation. People are in bathing suit 24/7 and everyone is open minded. The beach in your front yard also means no need to carry millions of beach necessity with you every time you go for a dip. We didn't have clocks, we didn't care what time of the day it was, we did thing because we wanted to, not because it was the time. And that finally felt like a real holiday. We shared a couple of beers with our neighbors, the kids played together although they didn't speak the same language. It's also wise to talk about camping etiquette with your kids on the first day, such as not to walk across someone else's lot, not to be noisy at sleeping hours, clean after themselves especially in sanitary objects, leave the campsite clean and put the lamps dimmed or on low light late at night.

Now that you're ready to go on an adventure with the kids, enjoy!


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

A little piece of heaven on earth

I had seen this place virtually so many times before. Travel blogs, sites, magazines, everywhere I looked, I'd end up reading about this place. Usually on some high ranked position in the list of "the most unique lodging" or "the best glamping place" sort of articles. Garden Village Bled, that's the name of the place. It's a small resort near Bled lake in Slovenia that offers unique lodging experience in pier tents on the river, tree-houses and glamping tents with personal Jacuzzi. I told my husband about it and he was down immediately with a weekend getaway. I booked a pier tent for a weekend in June (it's €120 a night during high season including great breakfast, although the price is lower during low season). Tree-houses and glamping tents were too big and too expensive for us, so I checked with them on the phone and they say it's okay with them that we take pier-tent (normally for two persons) for us with two small kids.

That Saturday we had slow breakfast at home, the headed to Bled. A little earlier than noon, we're already at the resort. The loveliest staff let us know that our tent wasn't ready, but we're most welcomed to be at the resort and enjoy the pool. Once we saw the pool area, the kids freaked out. The view was just breathtaking. It's an Eco-friendly and non-chemically treated infinity pool with natural ecosystem in it, with a beach-like entrance. The water was a little chilly for June, but nothing stopped the kids to jump right into it. There is a kids' park across the pool as well with swings, slide, sandbox and kiddie picnic table with large wooden building blocks.

The pool was full of tadpoles and froglets, which was an absolute hit for the kids. My kids and other kids hop around looking for tadpoles and froglets, learning about different stages of frog lives. The kids also realized how amazing it was to dive into the fresh water, which didnt't burn their eyes like the salt in the sea water and the chlorine in the public pools.

The kitchen of the restaurant opens by 1pm so we ordered lunch on site. Not only the make good meals, most of the ingredients they use are fresh from their own garden and green house. If you happen to be in Bled but staying somewhere else, do know that their restaurant is open for public, so you can grab delicious lunch or dinner and enjoy the place. You'd have access to the pools, terrace and the bonfire area, but you won't be able to go to the tents and tree-houses area.

By 2pm our pier tent was ready and we're settled in our tent. Here is a hint: the pier tents and the tree-houses are located in the part of the resort where the creek is. Basically, you'd sleep on the creek full of fish with private beaches equipped with lazy deck chairs. This also means you'd hear the creek the whole day and night, which could be annoying for some people. We, however, loved the sound. The glamping tents are located on the other side of the resort, on the dry area with no creek, but with individual jacuzzi for each tent. 


There's basically just a double bed in the pier tent, with night stands on each sides and table lamps on each stands. On the deck of the tent though, there's a lockable chest where you can put your stuff, a pair of comfy chairs, coat hangers and a fridge. There's a padlock for each tent so you can leave your tent locked. LED lights are built in along the deck to lit the way at night, and there are two sets of bathrooms, toilets and sinks shared by nine tents. On each set, 2 toilets and 2 showers are available, so it's basically never crowded even when all nine tents are occupied.

Some of the tents have a private access to the creek with ladders coming down from their personal decks toward the creek. Not all tents have it, so if you'd like a private access, notify them at reservation to give you the specific pier tents with the ladders. Otherwise, everyone can go to the common beach which we enjoyed a lot.

After spending the whole day swimming, we decided to actually go to Lake Bled in the evening for a walk and for dinner. Although basically there's no need to get out of the resort because you absolutely have everything here. Honestly, I just really wanted to get my favorite Bledska kremna rezina, or cream slice of Bled, which is absolutely delicious. The only way to have it is at the Hotel Park on the hill foot of Bled Castle, so we ate the cake there. You can rent bikes from the resort to cycle around the lake, or if you prefer boat ride, one of two docks of the Bled traditional boats is located near the resort.

Since the capacity of Garden Village is not too big (which absolutely is a strength of the place), it might be hard to book a tent or a tree-house for your preferred dates, but it's worth a try. A tree-house is definitely a better option if you have bigger kids or larger family. We aim to come back and try the tree-house sometime next summer since the kids enjoy the place so much. The toddler got stung by nettle leaves when trying to pick up a snail on it, but hey, that's part of the learning isn't it? If you're not afraid of cool water and chilly air, in October they have special offer where you pay for one night and get a two-night stay.

Monday, May 21, 2018

5 Tips for guilt-free mom trip (and London itinerary, too)

As we realized I was turning 30, my husband asked me what I was planning to do for my 30th birthday. I immediately said I'd like to go on a weekend trip, without him, without the kids. I might go alone, or I'd take friends along. Destination didn't really matter. At the time of my birthday, our firstborn was 4 and our younger just a little over 1.

I immediately texted my good friend (I'd call her Poppy -although that's not her name, she just loves poppy flowers) to have her joining me. She was in immediately, before even knowing where we're going. If you remember our chaotic trip to Vienna with lots of kids, she and her family were in that trip, too. She's got two kids too, a 4-year-old boy and a baby younger than ours. We started planning strategically. Basically established the rule: the trip is girls-only, and the girls have to be moms. The trip would be a guilt-free mom time.

London came to my mind. Simply because my husband has rejected the idea of us going to London several times now. So I thought I'd use this chance and visit London. If it would've been up to my taste, I'd do Marrakesh, Istanbul or La Valletta; but then he and the kids would want to visit these places, too, so I'd rather not take that from them. I started asking (girl)friends, and two more moms finally joined us: my sister-in-law and a good friend who's also my husband's friend (I'd call her Mary). Each of us got two kids, so we're really entitled to a getaway. Although, to be fair, I get a me-time quite frequently. Just recently Poppy and I and two other friends got a private spa time for ourselves. But hey, we don't get what we deserve; we get what we negotiate for!

The days of London had finally come and the four of us enjoyed ourselves in London. Despite the frequent pumping and swollen breasts (Poppy and I are still breasfeeding) and the fire alarm that went off at our hostel and scared the life out of me, we've got three-and-a-half day free of kids and husbands, three nights of undisturbed sleep (f**k you fire alarm), many rounds of beers and uninterrupted lunches and dinners. We've even got the luxury of going to the National Theater, watching Macbeth in London!

I personally think that moms' getaways are necessary. We need to recharge ourselves to come back fresh to the husbands and the kids, be it a spa weekend of London. I know for a fact that I make a better parent when I'm a happier person. Now for a guilt-free mom trips, these are my tips:
  1. Get your partner on board. You need your partner's support for this. In return, your partner might also need his (or her) personal getaway. Don't forget that it's also beneficial that the kids have one-on-one time with their dad only, as well as with their mom only sometimes.
  2. Build a support system. Create a network around yourselves and your family so they could function well without you sometimes. My husband could easily stay alone with the kids. However, during the week, his long hours at work mean he'd be late to pick up the kids from the daycare. In this case we call my mother-in-law and she'd stay home with the kids for the days we'd need her to. Poppy got her mom to come and help while her husband was working, Mary combined the help of a neighbor and her sister. My sister-in-law lives in the same house with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law so she had a solid support. We even have a babysitter for the times when my mother-in-law is unavailable.
  3. Go with friends, make a group. If you still feel guilty and don't think you deserve a little me time and getaway, call friends to join you. They'd probably convince you to get a little break, and feel they'd join themselves. I made a little group of moms so no one needed to explain themselves why the needed the getaway.
  4. Explain about personal time to the kids. If your kids are like mine, most probably they'd feel sad of not going on trip with you. They love traveling and they're used to the fact that we always take them. Poppy's son asked her whether it's forbidden that kids go to this place called London, when he's wondering why she hadn't taken the kids. Upon arrival, do something fun and interactive to wrap up your getaway. I got "This is London" book by Miroslav Šašek which is basically a London city guide for kids full of classic 60s illustrations. For my younger, I got a board book called Busy London with interactive pages.
  5. Plan well, of course. Pick days that are not too busy. No painting class or french class for the kids during the days I was gone, no business trips for the husband at those days. I made a big pot of beef ragu so my husband and mother-in-law can just cook pasta and heat the ragu when they don't manage to cook proper dinner. I also plan the arrival to be on Sunday, because my kids love picking me (or their dad) up at the airport, so I planned my arrival to be on the day when my husband wasn't working and they made the trip together to the airport.

In the end, this is our three-day itinerary during guilt-free mom trip in London:

First day: we landed in Heathrow in the early afternoon, checked in to our Clink 78 hostel near King's Cross, then we took coffee-to-go and see the Buckingham Palace. We walked through the Green Park toward the Big Ben (that is under reconstruction -therefore is not visible!), crossed the the Westminster Bridge and got to Southbank on the other side of the Thames. Passing the London Eye, we strolled on the promenade and decided on having two rounds of beers and a Mexican dinner at Wahaca Southbank before heading back to rest.

Second day: we started the day at King's Cross station for Harry Potter 9 3/4 Peron, got scotch eggs from a local market at King's Cross for second breakfast (after the one at the hostel), then went to Kensington gardens and saw the Kensington Palace from afar. We strolled across the Hyde Park heading to the Park Lane, where we took our Megabus tour bus (cost only 2 pounds) that took us see most of London. Starving after the bus, we had lunch at Rose&Crown Pub at Park Lane, where we had baked potatoes and shepherd pie and a round of beers. Later we went to the London bridge, and had nice hot chocolates at Rabot 1745 at Borough Market. We walked toward Tate Modern from there, enjoy the view of London from the observation deck, and went see the exhibition at Tate (free entrance!). We settled on Chinese dinner at a restaurant nearby Tate (can't recall the name) where we had warm udon and Chinese beers before heading to the hostel.

Third day: we got up early and had full English breakfast at a bistro close from King's Cross station which also had vegetarian version of full English breakfast (Poppy is vegetarian). Then we headed to Covent Garden and Jubilee Market. It was too early for English afternoon tea, so we headed to the National Gallery at Trafalgar. We enjoyed the collections (free entrance!), then slowly heading to the National Theater at Southbank for Macbeth. Poppy got us ticket for the play for 15 pounds each and we got upgraded to great seats worth 50 pounds each. We had lunch and prosecco at the theater before the play. In the evening we headed to Camden, bought some souvenirs and sat for rounds of beers at a traditional pub the Oxford Arms at Camden Town. Of course, then we're hungry. We settled on Indian dinner this time, and headed back to King's Cross and eat at the Indian Lounge. To wrap up our trip, we had rounds of drinks at the Water Rats before heading back to sleep, because the next day we've got a very early flight :)

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Do a weekend trip with 6 kids. Because you need chaos in your life.

At the end of last year my husband and I were talking about Metallica concert, they're doing a 2018 world tour. He asked me one brief question: "they'll be performing in Vienna and Milan. Which city would you prefer?" My answer was sure: "Vienna. We can do the zoo too with the kids. They've been dying to see giant pandas". "Alright, Vienna it is" he added. Then we realized that Metallica would perform on Saturday, March 31, and that it was long Easter weekend. All of the sudden I got the urge to invite two other families to do a long weekend trip. And all of the sudden it was twelve of us, out of which six were children.

What the hell was I thinking??

We have been doing long Easter weekend trips for ages. We just always did it. We'd leave on Friday or Saturday, bring the whole Easter breakfast with us and arrange them on the table nicely on Sunday and we'll have nice Easter Sunday somewhere new. But we've never done it with six kids. And there are the other six of big kids adults (read: us, parents).

So the Metallica tickets were sold out already last year. But my husband never has ticket in advance for any concert anyway. He's overly confident that he'll get one on the spot. I was doing the kids-activities planning. All of us have been to Vienna anyway, so I focused this trip on kids entertainment: the infamous Viennese zoo (the oldest in Europe, with giant pandas), the Natural History Museum (dinosaurs, anyone?) and the Prater area for a ferris wheel ride.

I found a big apartment for all of us, a duplex with three bedrooms so all of us stay together. I was initially planning to get us three separate studios, but my husband said, let's go all out and put us in one common space! Thing is, our firstborn is crazy (she's brilliant, but she has the energy of three toddlers). And so is the firstborn of another family which is of the same age as ours. The worst thing is, they're best friends. Since birth. Put two 4-year-old that have been best friends since birth in one roof for three days. Stimulate them with new experiences like dinosaurs, huge zoo, metro rides and foreign language. You know what happens? Super excited and tired toddlers running around up and down screaming to each other, showering each other and makes floods in the bathroom, annoying the other two older kids of the third family (they're significantly older) and resulting in one thing: a neighboring guest knocked on the door on Easter Sunday morning threatening to call the cops if we can't make them calm down. They were up since 6am.

Now that I wrote about the messy part, ask me if it was worth it. My answer is YES. It was definitely worth it. I think we (at least I) do need this kind of chaos in my life anyway. The kids gained experience they can't buy with money. Adapting to other people's habit, synchronizing with other families' rules, and just being in a group that is doing something new together. The zoo was great, the giant pandas were okay, but they enjoyed riding in the wooden carts (that was something new!). They enjoyed being in the zoo together. The dinosaurs were a hit, but my kids did half the museum and they were done, we went out to grab lunch while the two other families did the rest of it. Only one family did Prater in the end, ours didn't because the kids were far too tired.

On the last day we did Bratislava, and we met my friend who has an older son. And the older kids from the third family finally had their peer and it was fun for them. The toddlers? They were just being their crazy selves in another country. We don't do much of touristy things and we don't take many pictures and selfies, but in the end of a trip we always ask our firstborn what she liked the most about the whole experience. And her answers were: the aquarium at the zoo, the time when I made pancakes with her and the other toddler, the times when she's playing with the older kids of the third family, and her ice cream that we ate by the Danube.

Was it a crazy idea to invite so many people? It was. Would I do it all over again? Probably. At the end of the trip one of us said "we should do Prague now. But for a week". Now if you decide that you also need a little bit of chaos in your life, I've got some points to pay attention to:

Go with families with kids with similar age to yours

It's much easier for kids to enjoy each other if they're at similar age. Our firstborn is 4, the other toddler is 4. We have babies too but they don't really play yet. Then the other families have a 7 and 9 year old. Small kids are fascinated with big kids. They like them and they want to be like them. They'd run around the big kids and climb on them and touch them and hug them and, well, some big kids don't think it's cool, which is normal. They also play different kids of games, and they might even have gadgets of their own. Of course it's not a definite no no if you have to travel with kids of different ages, everything is manageable!

You have to be very close personally, and know each other well

It's commonly known that we should never, ever travel with someone we're not that close with. Even friendships break up sometimes during traveling time. It's really hard to find a good match in traveling (I did find my match and I married him!) For some reasons, the chance of a fight is much bigger on the road than at home (yours or theirs). So be prepare for it. If you're close enough with somebody, you actually can fight with him/her. You argue and in one second you fix it and laugh about it. And it will happen again. If you can't manage to fix a problem and sweep everything under the rug, the trip will be filled with lots of awkward moments.

Plan everything well, but be okay if you can't stick to the plan

I did a full three day itinerary for all of us, and it helped us all coordinate and orientate with time. We didn't force ourselves to convoy all the time (we had three cars), but we have some planned meeting points and specific times. We managed to stick to most plans, but we had to give up and made changes for specific needs (meal time, afternoon naps, toilet breaks), which was okay.

Focus on the experience, don't aim too high on the touristy side

The key? I would say don't focus on sight-seeing and see as many places as you want (and document them), focus on your kids' and your family's experience. The dining together, the tasting of local foods, the trying of public transportation, the togetherness. Or as my husband always put it: I just love the act of traveling (read: he hates taking pictures and buy souvenirs).

By the way...

About the Metallica concert? He got a ticket and went in. He went with the other toddler's dad, they managed to find a couple who was fighting and decided not to go to the concert and sell their tickets. The guys bought the tickets at much lower price than they initially were. Sometimes I can't understand how the universe functions.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Train adventure in the Neverland

Oh it's been forever since the last time I wrote a post! I returned to work in January after a year of maternity and parental leave, so I'm basically now juggling between getting back in the game with my job, doing my PhD research (that is more or less abandoned), driving my two kids around (who unfortunately attend two different kindergartens, go to french classes, sport training and painting classes) and co-managing the household (forgotten laundry, overcooked dinners, sticky floors, messy kitchen) with a husband who's on business trips a lot. On top of that, we found out recently that we're moving abroad (hint, hint!) so things have been quite stressful More coffee wine please!

Remember two business trips that happened during my maternity leave, to China and to Azerbaijan? So my first business trip now that I'm officially back at work was to the Netherlands. Or as my firstborn said, to the Neverland (she's quite shocked to find out that I was visiting Peter Pan). Following a 100-hour work on the course, earlier this month I participated in a four-day training on climate governance issue. The problem was, that it was held in a city called Heerlen. They booked me a flight to Amsterdam and I was supposed to arrange my own travel (by train) from Amsterdam to Heerlen to be reimbursed later. I didn't want to go to Amsterdam city central, so I planned my journey directly from Amsterdam Schipol Airport toward Heerlen. Using the official journey planner of the NL train, it seemed pretty simple: Amsterdam Airport to Utrecht, then Utrecht to Heerlen. One train change. It would take me a little over two hours. Well, it didn't turn out that simple, since the NL railway decided to have a massive rail works the day I came to the Netherlands.

My never-ending train journey in the Netherlands Neverland started at the airport. My plane from Zagreb landed in Amsterdam at around 10:30 that day. I was supposed to take the train to Utrecht, except there were no trains to Utrecht operating that day due to rail works. My de-route required me to go to Rotterdam, then to Eindhoven, and then take the train to Heerlen from there. The moment I realized my new route, I missed my Rotterdam train by 30 seconds, so I had to wait for half-an-hour waiting for the next train. Once I got into the next train, everything seemed right. It was a short ride (I believed 20 minutes or so) and I managed to eat a sandwich I got at a little shop in the station and read several pages of Dan Brown's Inferno I was reading.

I hopped off in Rotterdam and change tracks to find my next train to Eindhoven, which was coming in ten minutes. Once the train's there, I boarded the train and found a comfy seat, storing my suitcase on the overhead compartment. Ten minutes into the ride, an announcement was made in Dutch. I asked a passenger next to me what it's about (thanks heavens everyone in the Netherlands speaks perfect English). Apparently the train had technical issue and had to stop in the next station, where passengers need to get off the train and wait for the next train to Eindhoven.

A few minutes later, I found myself  stranded in a small station called Breda. I didn't even bother finding out in which part of the Netherlands I was at, I just remember it was cold and windy. I checked the monitor for departures and saw that the next train to Eindhoven was in half-an-hour, so I sat down on a bench and read my book. It was over 1pm at this point. Five minutes prior to when the train was supposed to arrive, I saw this monitor:

All trains to Eindhoven were cancelled that afternoon
The train to Eindhoven was cancelled. After gathering more information, seems that they didn't plan to operate any more trains to Eindhoven that day. I quickly consulted the NL train journey planner on my iPhone (no roaming within the EU member states literally is the best thing ever happened to EU, isn't it?) and found out that there might be a train to Heerlen going from a station called 's-Hertogenbosch. And since that station is within the route to Zwolle, I decided to hop on the train to Zwolle (I had no freaking clue where the Zwolle was).

Breda station, where the train left us stranded
By 2pm I was on the train to Zwolle. At this point I was pissed with myself for having decided to take a big suitcase.I normally travel really light. I took a tiny light suitcase to Azerbaijan and ended up not having any space for gifts and stuff I had to buy (don't judge, that's what happen when you go somewhere for work and little people are waiting at home); so my husband convinced me to take the big suitcase this time (he'll pay for this!). Half-an-hour later, I hopped off at 's-Hertogenbosch station (try to pronounce that one loudly you!). That was my third train for the day.

I finally found Heerlen in the monitor for the departures. I found the track and waited. In half-an-hour a double-decked train came and I hopped on. I went upstairs and settled myself. It was a two-hour ride after all. A lady-officer came by to check my ticket (which was not checked the whole day by the way) and I told her that it's my fourth train since Amsterdam. She gave me a sympathetic smile and said "I know, it's been chaotic today. But now you're in the right train finally!". The train took me to Heerlen, where I got off at around 4pm. Over five hours adventure from the airport. I took a local bus to get to the hotel I was staying, which, by the way, is run exclusively by volunteers who are retired people. But that's a topic for another post. As for now, my never ending train journey in the Netherlands Neverland was finally over.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Business trips are my vacation

It's pretty often when I see memes on my facebook timeline with similar phrases to "vacations with kids are basically business trip". And in my personal opinion, it's also the other way around: when you have kids, business trips are basically vacations. Well don't get me wrong, I enjoy traveling and vacationing with kids. As you might have noticed from my previous posts, we travel and vacation a lot with kids. However though, like most moms with babies, once in a while I wish I could just have a night away from the kids to just sleep for eight (or even six!) hours straight. And business trips, for me, are the answer to this.

Of course I could easily have a night out with the girls, or with my husband, and leave the kids for a night to the grandma (or a sitter). And I do that, now and then. However, my needs sometimes extend beyond the need to sleep alone. I also miss being just by myself sometimes. Not being someone's mother, or someone's wife. I used to travel alone when I was much younger. This nature changed when I met my better half who's also a travel addict, so we started to travel as a couple. Now with two kids, we travel as a family with young children. Business trips, are basically my excuse to not only get more sleep, but also experience solo traveling again, now and then.

In June I went to Beijing, China, for a conference; leaving my then five-month-old and three-year-old at home. I wrote about the dilemma here. After the post, I received mixed responses. Half of it judged me for having left such a small (and exclusively breastfed) baby for work reason, and the other half saw it as an empowering decision. Honestly, I was glad I chose to go.

Last month, in November, I was invited to hold two lectures for two days in Baku, Azerbaijan. I immediately said yes for three reasons: I needed a little break for myself, I have never been in Baku, and we needed the money. My mother-in-law agreed to stay at our place to watch the kids while I'm gone, because my husband wasn't able to take day-offs.

I left Zagreb on Saturday morning, although my lectures were only on Monday and Tuesday. The organizer wasn't able to get me flights on Sunday so I had to fly earlier. Which was a good thing for me, of course. My husband and the toddler drove me to the airport, and I left the baby with grandma at home. Like when I was leaving for Beijing, this time I also left expressed breast milk in the freezer. Although, now that she's 10-month-old, she preferred mostly real foods to breast milk.

Above Istanbul, landing for a stopover

With three hours of layover in Istanbul and three hours of time difference, I only arrived in Baku at around 9pm. It was cold and raining when I went out to the bus stop after exchanging some money. Five or six taxi drivers approached me to get me hire one of them, for 50 Manat (around €25) to my hotel. I was a little stunned (and honestly afraid) so I turned on my phone and search for Uber. There was an Uber 3-minute away so I ordered one. It offered me a drive for 10 Manat (€5), a fifth of the price the guys wanted me to pay. 5 minutes passed and I didn't see any car coming. On the GPS I saw the car was right there. An official for the airport parking asked if I needed assistance, so I told him I'm looking for my Uber. He went around the lot to find the car by the license plate, and finally found my Uber, empty, with no driver. Using his own cell phone, he called the phone number provided by my Uber guy, but  he wasn't answering. I had no other choice but cancelling my order, which cost me a penalty of around €2.While still figuring out options, an elder guy took my suitcase from my hand and put it into the trunk of his car, while saying "I'll drive you for 15 Manat (€7.5)". The price sounded okay, he knew where my hotel was. The problem? He wasn't a taxi driver. The car is not a cab. He was just there. I know I should've ran and just find a cab, but a little adventurous part of me told me to just go into his car. And I did.

We didn't talk much. In fact, not at all. He knew no English, and I don't know a word of Azeri. We drove for 20 minutes and I didn't have any bad feeling about it. Then I saw my hotel and he dropped me off in front of it. I thanked him and handed him 15 Manat, and safely got to the hotel.

I had the whole Sunday to myself. It was a beautiful sunny day in Baku, although a bit windy. After breakfast at the hotel, I headed to the city center with the free shuttle bus provided by the hotel. The shuttle bus left me in front of Park Bulvar, a shopping center nearby the Port, at the beginning of the Promenade along the Caspian Sea. I walked along the promenade, saw several interesting architectures and saw the famous Fire Towers from afar (three towers shaped like a flame together). I headed to the Old Town and started my journey at the Maiden Tower, that was built to worship the fire by the Shirvanshahs, who ruled in this area between the 9th and 16th centuries.

The view of Baku with its Fire Towers from the top of the Maiden Tower
I climbed the Maiden Tower after paying for 10 Manat for the entrance. I would've paid half price if I had my student card with me, but of course I left it at home. Don't judge, I'm legally a student ;) Each floor of the tower is part of the museum with historical collections and stories, and from the top I had a 360 degree view of Baku.

After enjoying the view from the top, I took off and decided to get lost in the old town with no map. The old town is the part of Baku inside the old wall, with a palace complex, mosques, and several museums. I walked alone in the small quite alleys and realized that this, was exactly what I needed. I needed to be alone, somewhere new, somewhere I've never been at, just to get myself recharged.

Souvenir stands along the small alleys of the old town
I bought a ticket for the Shirvanshah's palace (would've paid half price too if I had my student card with me), and started exploring the palace. Too be honest, I wasn't too impressed. The palace complex was quite small and empty. I sat down a little bit looking at the ruins of hamam (the bath house of the royals) and went out. I walked along the city wall and stopped to buy passion fruit fresh juice from the street seller. I remember it was a traditional thing in Istanbul, so I assumed here it's a thing too. I decided to walk toward the Fountain Square to find a restaurant.

Inside the Shirvanshah's Palace complex

I found a small restaurant with authentic interior and glass wall with full view to the square. I had to order lamb pilaf since it reminded me so much of my life in Istanbul. Pilaf is rice cooked in seasoned broth, served with stew, mine was with lamb stew caramelized onion, dried apricots, raisins and chestnuts, it was traditional Azeri and recommended by the staff. It was delicious! Most importantly, I was enjoying my meal ALONE! I know most people hate eating alone, but eating alone is one of the things I enjoy the most. I had been missing this!

My pilaf and a glass of draught local Xirdalan
I went back to the bay area and decided to walk back to the shuttle stop to get back to the hotel. I went back to the city that day in the evening to grab dinner, but back to the hotel quite early to enjoy my spa bath. I didn't want to tell you this, but I had a personal spa massage bath tub in my hotel room. Yup, no kids, big bed, and a spa bath. It was heavenly break.

On Monday I had to work, so I spent the whole day in the conference hall of the hotel. I met two new colleagues with whom I was working, so we went out the evening to buy some souvenirs and eat dinner at a restaurant nearby the Maiden Tower. Tuesday was similar, except one of my two colleagues had already flew home. I took the other colleague to have dinner at the restaurant I had lunch the first day, then we decided to visit the Aliyev center. Heydar Aliyev center is a gallery and a conference center with a museum inside. But that wasn't the reason we wanted to visit it. The main reason was because this building was built by the famous architect Zaha Hadid, who also built the spectacular train station in Naples and the port terminal in Antwerp. She almost built Zagreb airport, too, but she didn't win the tender.

Heydar Aliyev center was, ladies and gentlemen, spectacular! It was breathtaking to see. We wanted to go to the museum but it worked only until 4pm, so we were just standing there in front of it, and made two rounds around it. The curves and the flows, the building was magical seen from every angle. The roof flows all the way to the floors around it where we were all standing. See it yourself:

That night for the last time I had my private spa bath. I slept very tight in my king-sized bed. On Wednesday morning I had late and slow breakfast, then headed to the airport. I watched a movie during my first leg of the flights (The Circle with Tom Hanks and Emma Watson), had a good coffee in Istanbul airport during my short layover, and finished a book in the second leg of the flights (Veronica Henry's A Night on the Orient Express). By the time I arrived in Zagreb at 10pm, my toddler and my husband were waiting for me on the arrival gate with the biggest smiles. I kissed them both and handed her a red Lego suitcase with Lego Junior horse farm in it. She happily said "I want you to go to a business trip again soon so I get more gifts!" And just like that, I was rested, had a vacation, they got their well deserved break from (annoying) mommy, we're happier reunited, and soon we were driving toward home where my baby and mother-in-law waiting for us.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Cruising on budget

On my previous post about our story of cruising with little kids, I promised to write a separate post for tips and tricks for cruising on budget. I mentioned how we took the cheapest cabin available in the ship. The price also covers all meals and access to most facilities like pools, gym, theater, library, etc. Of course, you'd have to pay extra for spa and its services like massage. The good news is, kids don't pay until their 18th birthday, and they get their own beds in the parents' cabin.

So if you're not crazy about private balcony or windows with sea-view, take the cheapest inside cabin for your family and spend most of your time on the outdoor deck. You'd literally just sleep and shower in the cabin. Apart from the main price of the cruise, these are our tips to keep your experience low budget:

Research well to avoid taking their official shuttle

Most cruise ports are located a little far from the city center or the old historic port of the town. Because of that, most ships offer their official shuttle to get you to the city. Their prices are usually pretty high, so research well whether you can find another way before deciding to take their shuttle. In Marseilles we took Costa's official shuttle for €11 per person round-trip, only to find out later that Marseilles cruise port has a free shuttle for cruise passengers. In Ibiza we took public bus for €4 per person round-trip, much cheaper than Costa's shuttle for €12.

Avoid falling for the water scam package

Before the departure, if you have an online booking or account, the cruise company will send you e-mails, to remind you to pre-book beverage packages. One of the packages was the water package, which was offered at around €30 for 13 liters of still bottled water. I had to dig into lots of forums to make a decision whether it's necessary to take the package. The answer is NO, it's a scam! During meal times, cold drinkable water and ice cubes are available from the dispensers, and you can drink unlimited. In case you're really thirsty in the cabin, the minibar isn't that expensive. We took a one-liter bottle for €3 from the minibar. If you like, you might take the alcohol packages though. Although my husband prefers paying by a glass in the bar (€5 a pint), or buying in the shops in the city and take 'em back to the ship. Contrary to most beliefs, they're not strict at all about taking beverages from outside to the ship.

Unless you want to be extra convenient, don't take their excursions offers

Plan your own excursions. Find itineraries online, research what you want to see, buy a map and take public transport. Don't let the cruise company rob you by organizing a city tour at €50 per person. Or if you're like us, just walk with no plan and let destiny brings you to places.

Read the daily journal thoroughly

To maximize your experience of living in the ship, read the journal delivered to your cabin every night. The journal lists all of the events and activities for the next day, so you can plan your day well. It also lets you know the breakfast, lunch and dinner options, so you can plan what kind of meal you want. There are free seminars, dance classes, music programs and shows in which you can participate. Don't miss the competitions and quizzes which win you prizes like free spa treatments!

Pack for different outfits

They don't give guidance for clothes to pack prior to sailing, but we needed different kinds of outfits throughout the journey. Make sure you have formal/gala outfit if you plan to choose the formal sitting dinners. Formal outfit is also necessary for the cocktail party with the Captain (usually held on the last night of the cruise). Other than that, you can be casual in the ship, but they organize different events like "La Notte Bianca" in which all of us was expected to wear white for one night and there was an open show of ice carving on the deck. Don't forget warm clothes, even if you're sailing during summer like we did, it gets quite windy and chilly in the evening on the open deck.

Bring basic medicines, and mind sea-sickness

On-board doctor visits are expensive. You can check the detailed prices on the daily journal, but I'll tell you here one single visit would cost €136 and that doesn't include the medicines. Unless it's an emergency, avoid it. Bring your regular medicines for the whole family. Our toddler got a fever during our trip but I had her rectal paracetamol with me. I also packed probiotics, rehydration salt, painkillers, rash cream, sun screen and insect repellent. None of us had problem with sea-sickness, but if your kids (or yourself) had had car-sickness before, anticipate that they might also have sea-sickness, so bring their usual medicines.

Last but not least, basic safety

One thing: do not miss the emergency drill. Some might think it's just a waste of time, but no. Big no. You need to participate on the emergency drill. Usually it's organized on the departure day, but it was also organized on the second day for those who missed the first drill. You need to know where your meeting point is in the event of emergency (the ship is huge, there'd be several of meeting points, know yours!). You need to know where your life vest is, and how to properly put it on. You need to know where your emergency stairways and where your lifeboat would be. For those cruising with kids, don't repeat our mistake, put on their bracelet with their names and cabin number on it, in case you lose them on board.

Have en enjoyable cruise, safe winds and following seas!