A Little Bit of Airplane Courtesy Please

courtesy

In my forty plus years I have traveled on many airplanes, all over the world. The older I get, the crankier I get. Air travel is no longer considered a luxury, where passengers kick back, relax and are pampered along the way. It’s stressful, tiring, long and sometimes, just miserable. Airlines are eking out every last inch of space (and comfort) on their planes, in an attempt to increase profit. Knowing this is the reality today, as passengers, we need to work together to make the experience better. And that begins with some airplane courtesy.

Why are travelers so aggressive? Why, for the most part, do I feel like I am in competition for space, a spot in line or the last drop of coffee, when I’m flying to my destination? After almost three weeks of travel and four different flights during that trip, I learned a few lessons and picked up a few tips. Here I will share some of my thoughts and offer a bit of advice on how we can bring forward some airplane courtesy and hopefully make air travel a better experience for everyone.

I won’t go through the whole airport experience, as that is a blog post unto itself. No doubt the airport experience has been made increasingly stressful because of security, a tighter limit on baggage and the sheer number of people traveling. The main thing I will say about getting through an airport is to give yourself a ton of time. If you think you need our hour, come 90 minutes early. If you think you need two hours, give it almost 3.

Let’s focus here on bringing courtesy to the airplane experience and how we can all work together to make that happen.

Getting on the Plane

The airlines try to bring some order to the onboarding process, but for the most part, they do it really badly. Air Canada, for example, thinks that the business class passengers at the front and Elite members should board first, as a courtesy to them. But why board the front of the aircraft first, creating a log jam? Why not board from back to front, making it smoother for all? And why does the pre-board for passengers with young children or those who need extra assistance also happen after the business class group goes on? Makes no sense.

But since, for the most part, this is how it works, how about everyone stands in an orderly line and allow people space to get through in the order they are called? If I am traveling with my young children, with a stroller and bags, let me through the tight crowd so that I can get on the plane before your zone is called. And when I am walking down the tunnel with my kids, moving slowly, don’t shove me aside and try to pass me. The plane won’t leave any sooner and your seat will still be there.

Once on the plane, try your best to put your hand luggage above in a relatively swift manner and don’t block the aisle. If just one person blocks the aisle no one can board. It slows down the whole process and people get crabby.

Reclining your Seat

This may be the source of most of my crankiness on an airplane and possibly one of the areas where showing some courtesy would go a long way. I just traveled on four different planes on British Airways, where only 1/3 of the plane was, let’s call it, the economy section. The rest of the plane was made up of first class (wide individual pods), business class (smaller pods) and premium economy (regular seats, but wider and more leg room).  The economy seats were small, barely cushioned and had the minimal pitch allowed between seats. I’m a small person and I felt cramped.

Add to the fact that I had a baby on my lap (I’m not paying for a seat for the baby until she turns two, I’m too cheap), I had very little room. So, when the person ahead of me, just after take-off, reclined his seat all the way, I had maybe a few inches between my face and his seat.

Now I will admit, according to the rules, a paying passenger is perfectly within his or her rights to recline the seat. If the seat can recline, one can do it. If it’s a long flight, overnight maybe and the lights are out, okay, recline your seat. But all the way? And right after take-off? Could you show a bit of courtesy and notice that you had a woman behind you with a baby on her lap, with no space? Or at least move the seat back up when the food is served so that my tray didn’t constantly fall on my lap?

We are all on this tightly packed airplane together. If we show some courtesy and work together to be comfortable, it’s a better experience for everyone.

Getting Up and Down and Walking the Aisles

I like to sit in the aisle seat when traveling. I recognize that I have much less personal space on the aisle than the window but I just need to know that I can get up when I need to. Never mind that anytime I see the “vacant” sign show up on the toilet I run there. I’m always worried about being stuck in my seat and having to go. It’s just a personal obsession.

But, my seat is mine. It’s not a spot to lean on when chatting with your friends in the aisle. If you are sitting behind me, it’s not a tool you use to get up and down, pushing me forward or backward. We all have limited personal space on a tightly packed airplane, but show some courtesy for the person in the seat in front of you, especially if that person is asleep.

And on the issue of the aisles, these too have become tighter as airlines cram more seats across the plane. I know the seat and legroom are small, but please try to keep your legs/feet/arms out of the aisle. I don’t want to trip over you or walk into you and get the evil eye from you when I do so.

The Toilet

Every time I get on a plane I calculate how many toilets are on the plane and how many people need to share them. The big planes used for overseas flights have a higher toilet to person ratio, but there are never enough. But I can accept that. What I can’t accept is people abusing the toilets and treating them like their own dumping grounds. Can’t we all show some courtesy and keep them clean?

Some simple suggestions to keep the toilets clean:

  • Wipe the sink area if you spray water everywhere
  • Flush the toilet (I shouldn’t even have to say this, but really?)
  • Pick up any toilet paper or paper towel you drop on the floor and throw it out
  • If you finish the toilet paper, paper towel or soap, ask the flight attendant to load more
  • Use your time efficiently and please, if you can, don’t take too long. Again, the toilet to person ratio isn’t great. No one wants to wait too long to use the facilities.

Getting off the Plane

Once we have landed at our destination, everyone on that plane can’t wait to get off. No matter how aggressive everyone is lining up to get on, it’s nothing on how people behave once the plane has landed and arrived at the gate. We get off front to back, and it always takes a bit of time. So why do people at the middle and back have to jump out of their seats, leap into the aisle and push their way through? There’s nowhere to go. If I am in the row in front of you and I can’t go anywhere, why do you think you can, or why do you think that shoving me out of your way is good behaviour?

The basic courtesy of getting off the plane is to let people off row by row, patiently waiting for the people in front of you to collect their items from under their seats or above and walk forward. If the person needs a few extra moments, be patient. Maybe offer to help them? Smile. Don’t push them aside or jump in front of them. Let them get off the plane. And if we all do this in an orderly and courteous way, the process will probably move much faster.

Some other Quick Tips to show some courtesy:

  • If the touch screen for the audio/video system does not respond immediately to your fingers, don’t pound on it. It will work soon, and remember, pounding the screen means pounding on the back of the person in front of you.
  • If you have the window seat, you don’t have to open or close your blind but be aware of the people around you. People may be sleeping, so lower the blind. If the plane is landing and there’s a great view outside, open the blind and let others look too.
  • The arm rests are for all of us to share. While you may have one on each side of you, remember that you are sharing one (or both) with the person or people beside you. Resting your arms, or worse, pushing your elbows out, can be considered obnoxious.
  • Use your headphones. If you are watching a movie or TV show on your own device, no one else wants to hear it. Put on your headphones and keep them at a moderate sound level so that only you can hear what you are watching.

It’s hard to behave your best when travelling. From beginning to end the process is exhausting. It is my belief that airlines aren’t making it any easier for us. If you are willing and open to spend a bundle of money, it is definitely more pleasant in any and all of first class, business class or premium economy cabins, but that’s not an option for most people. So, my advice is simple, be courteous. We will all be better off.

What to Expect when Traveling to London with Children

London

I have been traveling to overseas destinations with my children since my eldest was just 17 days old. Some people think I am crazy. Others may be envious. And a few more have applauded me. Over the past eleven years I have traveled with my children all over the world, from New Zealand to France to Hawaii to Israel and many other points in between. This past week I added England to the list, or more specifically, London.

Traveling with children is not necessarily an easy thing to do, no matter the destination. Even in an English-speaking environment like London, with all the amenities I could ever want at my fingertips, we faced a few challenges. Over the past few days, as my family enjoyed a short stay in this fantastic city, I took mental notes about what to expect and what not to expect, and hopefully I can share some advice with others who are planning a trip with children to London.

Accommodations

London is a very expensive city, and a simple, clean, small hotel room in a central location can be expensive. I discovered the joys of Airbnb a few years ago, when we traveled to Rome, and I never looked back. For a reasonable amount of money (not cheap but fairly priced), a family can stay in an apartment (we booked a two-bedroom flat near Piccadilly Circus) that is spacious, has a kitchen and separate living area. You can save a bit of money if you book a space with no elevator. Grab some groceries at a local supermarket and enjoy breakfast before going out for the day. And you get a bit of a flavour of local London life too thrown in this way.

What to expect at an Airbnb: more space, great location, a more personal way to stay in an international city.

Don’t expect: a sterile, formal space. It is someone’s home. Treat it with respect.

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Having a snack at the Airbnb. Spacious and convenient.

Food

You can find every kind of cuisine in London, and like the accommodations, it’s expensive. My children eat with their eyes and want everything they see. They eat two bites and suddenly they are full. So, I picked up fresh bread, cheerios, bananas, oranges, chips, and chocolate (Cadbury Dairy Milk of course) at the local supermarket and carried them with me all day. We snacked on everything from sandwiches and pasta to sushi and pizza throughout the day as well (which were partially consumed), but all the snacks were demolished. The kids asked for treats at every street corner, but we learned to say no. One could go bankrupt just buying food in London. Don’t fall into the I’m hungry trap with children. Throw them a banana and some chocolate and they will settle down.

What to expect when buying food: to see the same price you pay in dollars for basics, but you are paying in pounds (3 pounds for a latte? Yep, that’s almost 6 Canadian dollars).

What I didn’t expect: cheap groceries. Fresh baguette was only 9 pence (that’s about 17 cents!) at the end of the day, and it was good.

Transportation

Public transportation is world class in London, but for an outsider it can seem confusing. When I first did a Google search on the topic I was overwhelmed. There’s the Underground, DLR, trains and buses. Don’t forget the famous black taxi, and Uber has arrived too. I can’t bear to spend fortunes to travel from the airport to my accommodations or to sight see, and I highly recommend using public transit. You can buy an Oyster Card at Heathrow airport (card has a five-pound deposit which you can get refunded at a machine when you leave), or tap your credit card to enter public transit as well.

I won’t go into all the details of how to use the system, but I will just say it’s efficient, it’s cheap and the kids love it. My kids could have spent a whole afternoon riding on the top floor, at the front, of a double decker bus and been happy. Don’t panic when you see the many transit options. Do your research and it will make sense.

What to expect when traveling around London: A tube station every few blocks and more double decker buses than cars downtown.

What I didn’t expect: kids under 11 travel free on the Underground, light rail and buses.

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They could spend all day and night on the double decker bus
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Now that’s the way to ride a bus.
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This is the way to travel through London – the Tube. And wow, it’s deep underground.

Sight Seeing

There are so many things to do and places to see in London, depending on your own personal preferences. My kids are like border collies and need a daily run. Like I did in Israel, I stood by my mantra to Keep It Simple Stupid. While the museums are incredible and I personally could spend hours at the British Museum or Victoria and Albert Museum, children don’t always have endless patience (or stamina). The torture chamber and historical re-enactment of a siege was a hit at the Tower of London as was our afternoon in Greenwich, where they could stand on Earth’s Prime Meridian (longitude is 0 degrees, so cool) and run up and down the deck of the famous Cutty Sark sailing ship.

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Who wouldn’t enjoy learning about torture?
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Nessa wasn’t impressed with the reenactment at the Tower of London. Sister Agnes took it all in stride.
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Standing on the edge of time.
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The famous Cutty Sark sailing ship is a child’s delight. Nessa ran everywhere.

For me, the best part of traveling to a city like London is walking the streets and soaking up the local culture. We walked and walked, well over 20,000 steps each day. We walked past Westminster and Big Ben, London Bridge, the London Monument and St Paul’s Cathedral. Trafalgar Square. Through famous historical neighbourhoods And of course over to Buckingham Palace.

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Family photo at Trafalgar Square
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Best shot we could get at Big Ben, with the ongoing renovations
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The London Bridge isn’t gorgeous, but we had to snap a photo
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Matthew and Julia learn about the famous Rosetta Stone at the British Museum

I could write a whole post just about the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Surrounded by thousands of people, many of them crammed together to get a good view, it was a bit underwhelming. You need to arrive at least 30-45 minutes in advance to secure a decent viewing point, and we chose the top steps of the statue of Queen Victoria (but don’t sit on the top of the statue, Queen Elizabeth doesn’t like that). A bit of advice: the ceremony begins at 11 am and continues for a half hour. Start walking away, towards the Wellington Barracks, at 11:20 am. The path to those barracks is quiet, and the “old guard” walk this route at 11:30. They march right past you and the band keeps playing. The kids were thrilled to see the famous guards up close.

What to expect at the changing of the guard: big crowds, aggressive people

What I didn’t expect: the band played a selection of ABBA. And it was great!

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Nessa brought her new bear with her to Buckingham palace. He’s a guard too.
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Taking a break from the guards marching behind us to snap a selfie
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It’s hard to get a good view of the action. I stayed on the Victoria statue and David tried to lift Julia (in purple jacket) up high.

And here is a little more advice:

DO:

  • Wear a pair of comfortable shoes, a warm jacket (like a packable down) and carry an umbrella. The weather changes like my kids’ moods.
  • Take a boat ride on the Thames. We used the MBNA Thames Clipper and loved it.
  • Buy tickets to attractions in advance on the internet. No line to enter (they will scan a bar code on your phone) and it’s about 20% cheaper online.
  • Stay in a central location, on the Piccadilly Line. Why? Heathrow airport is on that Underground (subway/metro) line and it’s so convenient (and cheap) to take the tube to and from the airport and your accommodation.
  • Check out the seemingly endless choice of Cadbury chocolate, at supermarkets and convenience stores. I have no self-control.
  • If you love the theatre, buy your tickets online in advance. Unlike New York, where there is a plethora of discounted shows through TKTS, there are few day-of deals in the London West End. Like everything else in this city, theatre is expensive.
  • Remember that they drive on the left side of the road. Look down before you cross the street – and read if you should look left or right.
London
Emma learns which way to look when she crosses the street.

DON’T

  • Choose an Airbnb above a bar or night club or on a street with a busy night life if you don’t like noise or the kids go to sleep early. Our place was great, but it was a bit noisy.
  • Stand at the front, right at the gates, of Buckingham Palace, for changing of the guard. You see much less and you are stuck there for the whole ceremony.
  • Let a little rain or dampness stop you. That’s what London is all about. Take it in stride.
  • Waste your money and time in a long line to see either Madame Tussaud wax museum or the London Eye. These are overpriced tourist traps. There are so many better things to do.
  • Buy souvenirs at one of the many stores that line the streets of the city. You can snag a deal at a stand on the street or sometimes pick up a quality, more personal item, at an attraction’s gift shop.
  • Only travel around by public transit (or taxi). Get out and walk. London is a flat, easy-to-navigate city. Most of the best attractions are a short walk from each other.

London is a great city, and I look forward to returning there with my children someday. Our visit was too short, as we only had two full days to explore. We covered a lot of ground, ate some good local food (okay, we ate a lot of Cadbury chocolate) and even spent an evening with my cousin, Jacob. It’s loud, lively and expensive. And I loved it.

It’s Worth the 12 Hour Flight to “Montreal” to Visit Extended Family

extended family

Israel is a long way from Toronto. If you fly direct, the flight takes about 12 hours. We travel this distance as often as we can to visit with our extended family. While there are so many wonderful things to do, places to visit and food to eat in Israel, the main reason we come is to see brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends. I often joke that it’s my 12-hour flight to Montreal. And it’s worth it.

David and I both have extended family in Israel. Most of the family we visit with are David’s relatives, including his mother, sister and brother, but I have a few cousins too. We see these people once, maybe twice each year, and we savour every moment that we are with them.

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A delicious dinner at David’s sister’s house

I will admit that concentrated time with family can be a bit stressful for all, and tempers get heated sometimes. Okay, often. Yes, there are blow-ups. But isn’t that normal when extended family come together and live under one roof for any period of time?

We just enjoyed a wonderful few days in the desert with David’s extended family. His mother, Barbara, generously treated us to the field school experience in Ein Gedi, which we all enjoyed. It gave us an opportunity to be together and recharge our batteries in the most relaxing of settings.

A night hike in the desert, a trek to a waterfall, a visit to the ancient fortress of Masada and a swim in the Dead Sea were all done with extended family. We relaxed outside under a full moon in the evening and caught up with old friends. What a way to spend a vacation inside a vacation.

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Family lunch at Tel Be’er Sheva on the way to Ein Gedi
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Getting ready to go up the cable car at Masada

After we left Ein Gedi some of us traveled north, first through the desert, then through the heart of Israel and into the Galilee, to see my extended family. I have relatives in Israel who I only met in the last ten years. Over 100 years ago my great-grandfather traveled to Canada from Ukraine. Not all of his siblings joined him, and one brother stayed behind and eventually moved to Argentina.

The family stayed in touch for a while but eventually, over the years, were separated. My great grandfather’s descendants stayed in Canada, and some my great-grandfather’s brother’s descendants stayed in Argentina while others moved to Israel. To make a long story short, about a decade ago we found each other. And now we always get together when I come to Israel.

Not only do I love the beauty and serenity of the desert, but I also adore the magnificence and lush landscape of the Galilee. With fertile valleys surrounded by mountains, how could you not love Northern Israel? And since this contingent of my extended family lives in a small community in the Galilee, I always get the opportunity to go there.

My extended family lives on a Moshav. There is no direct English translation for this term as this kind of community is very unique to Israel. It’s a cooperative agricultural community. Everyone owns their own home and property and for the most part have careers and commute to a job every day. But at its heart it is still a tight cooperative farm.

We love to spend the day with our cousins, at their home, walking around the Moshav and touring the dairy cows on the farm. The kids went on a tractor ride and fed a few cows, some born just a few days ago. Matthew even asked if he could take one home.

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Julia had fun in the grass with the neighbour’s dog
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Matthew enjoyed a tractor ride with his cousin Tomer
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Julia had a knack for giving the cows the tastiest hay

Our trip is not over yet, and when it is we will have a solid 12 hours of flying ahead, to get back to Toronto. We still have a few more days to soak up with our extended family, and we relish every moment. It’s a long, 12-hour flight to “Montreal,” but it’s so worth it.

The Personalities of a Field School

field school

When you travel, you meet all kinds of people along the way. It’s part of the fun of being in a new place. It’s not just the sights, sounds and smells, but also the locals. People watching I call it. Some people you come across share similar characteristics while others are rather eccentric.  Where we are staying now, in Ein Gedi, in the desert, beside the Dead Sea, at a Field School run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, there are many different personalities.

There are many places just like this one all over Israel. With simple but spacious accommodations, a field school is a wonderful way to see Israel. During holiday times the field school attracts hundreds, if not thousands of families. It provides a good home base for hiking, sight-seeing and just relaxing.

It’s where you meet real Israelis. The challenge for me when I travel is that I want to get a flavour of the real culture of where I am visiting. How do locals live and what do they eat? How do they spend their free time? In Israel, the field school is where local families go on vacation. And here, I get a true mix of local personalities.

Bohemian Religious Man

I saw this man in line at dinner the other night. Dressed in what I could only describe as pink nurse’s scrubs and sandals, he had a long grey beard, long curly grey hair to match, and of course a kippah on his head too. He was surrounded by a large family, spoke a mix of Hebrew and English and had a friendly, Santa Claus look on his face.

Cool Boarder Nature Guide

We had the opportunity to take an incredible hike at night organized by our field school, through a dried-up wadi (river) near Masada. We were led, in the darkness, by two experienced, 19-year-old guides who were a wealth of knowledge of astrology, the local area and its geological history. One of the guides was a brown-haired, curly-haired guy with a big smile. The Canadians in us quickly discovered that he likes to snowboard but really, he is in to surfing and skateboarding.

Children, so many children

One can find gangs of children all over the field school. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they are everywhere. The children speak in rapid Hebrew (that I can’t understand) and run around the place like wild animals. They wake up early in the morning, and with their loud voices and rapid footsteps, they are a great alarm clock.

Generations

Something that intrigues me about the field school is that one often sees three generations from one family all here together. Our group is a great example of that, but we are not unique. It is not uncommon to see a grandparent chasing a two-year-old down the path or a man explaining the various food options at dinner to his father. It’s actually kind of sweet that the field school is a place for multiple generations of one family to congregate together.

Gold Chain Wearing Man in a Wife Beater Shirt

There are always a few of these, here with their families. This is one of those situations where a picture is worth a thousand words, but I don’t have the guts to take a photo of one of these men. He’s typically tall, has dark hair, has on a tight shirt with some jewelry and speaks in loud, rapid Hebrew. He thinks he’s cooler than life itself and boasts to all around him how great he is. And oh, is it ever entertaining to listen and watch him.

Friendly, Quieter Religious Women

Israel is a place with a wondrous mixture of people, including many religious Jews. They travel and experience the country in the same way as other locals, including visits to a field school. Many (but not all) of the religious women cover their hair and dress in a modest manner. Sometimes they are followed by a brood of children of all ages. And they are a staple of the field school experience, often sitting at the same table as the gold chain wearing man in his wife beater shirt.

Overweight Head Cook in the Dining Hall

Not only does one get a family-style accommodation at a field school, but for a reasonable fee, breakfast and lunch are included. It’s not five-star dining, but there is a good variety of food, including tons of fresh vegetables, fresh dairy at breakfast and meat at dinner. There is a hard-working team of cooks preparing the food. Each field school I stay at the team is always led by a slightly overweight cook, who only speaks Hebrew and has a permanent frown on his face. He is probably harassed every day by annoying people like me asking if there is plain yoghurt or more fruit in the back. He appears at some point during every meal and quickly runs and hides in the kitchen before another guest whines or complains to him.

I could go on and on describing the various personalities one comes across at a field school. To really understand the unique nature of this place you have to experience it for yourself. You get great views, the most beautiful scenery and of course the most interesting personalities.

**Disclaimer: that’s my mother-in-law, Barbara, and my father, Barry, in the feature photo. While they are not the typical personalities one finds at a field school, they are both an important part of my experience! And in this photo they are sitting in front of our rooms, with a view over the Dead Sea.

It must have been Hot when they Wandered the Desert

desert

I am at one of the lowest points on Earth. Well below sea level. I am surrounded by mountains, rocks and the deadest piece of water you can ever find. As I write, the sun has set, the moon is rising and there is a warm breeze outside. I’m in the desert. And it’s beautiful. And during the day, wow, it’s hot.

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Sunset over the Dead Sea and Mountains of Moab

People often ask me, when they hear that I blog or when they start to follow my posts, “Where do you think of all those ideas?” It’s easy. This blog is about my musings. Everywhere I go I get inspired by the people I meet and by my surroundings. Sometimes someone says something to me, and I have to stop and take note so that I can write about it later.

That happened to me today, in the desert in Southern Israel, when I visited a fantastic historic site called Tel Be’er Sheva. This is the ancient site of the city of Be’er Sheva. The modern city sits west of this small national park, where layers of civilization from a few thousand years ago remain.

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Some information on the ancient ruins I visited

It was a hot day, with blue skies and a blazing sun above us. As we walked towards the ruins of this ancient walled city, my mother joked, “It must have been hot when they wandered the desert.” And boom, my blog post came into being. Just a comment, a thought, a sight or a random meeting can inspire me.

So yes, it must have been hot when they wandered the desert. It’s hot in the desert. But I am amazed by the desert. When I see a small shrub growing out of dry rock and sand or a small stream of water making its way through the ruins of an ancient city I am astonished by the beauty of the nature around me. The desert is truly beautiful.

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Shades of deep green, lime green and brown, with camels, on the edge of the desert
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Look carefully at the beautiful delicate flower my daughter picked, in the middle of the desert.

And when the desert blooms, it’s even more beautiful. After we left Tel Be’er Sheva we drove along a windy road, with big signs saying dangerous curves ahead and descended hundreds of feet, deep into the desert. The landscape turned from deep green to lime green to brown, and each kilometer became more and more beautiful.

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500 feet above sea level. We have a long way to go.
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100 feet above sea level. Going down!
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Sea Level!
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100 feet below sea level and still descending!

And then suddenly, before our eyes, was the Dead Sea – the lowest point on Earth. It is a body of water with such a high salt content that nothing can live in it. It’s pretty much, well, dead. We continued to drive until we reached our destination: Ein Gedi. This is an oasis in the desert. It’s not some kind of strange mirage that you see in the distance in a cartoon. It is a place of beauty, with palm trees, grass and flowers, surrounded by a brown desert.

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My first glimpse of the Dead Sea

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Our group is fortunate to be staying at the Ein Gedi Field School – run by an organization called, in Hebrew, Haganat Hateva, and in English, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. We are high on a hill, with spectacular views of mountains and the Dead Sea. It makes you forget that you are in the middle of the desert. When I walk outside and soak in the beauty around me I understand why, even though it was hot, people have been wandering in the desert for thousands of years. Not only am I at the lowest point on Earth, I may be at the most beautiful one as well.

Sealed with a KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid

simple

Keep it simple stupid. It’s a phrase that is not necessarily associated with travel, but on our first full day in Israel it was my motto. After a long and sometimes stressful couple of flights (details in a future post), we arrived in Israel on Monday. Oh, how nice it was to feel the first blast of hot humid air on my face as I walked off the plane. The chaos of Ben Gurion airport, while totally insane and absurd, was a warm welcome to me to a place I had not visited in three years.

There’s so much I love about Israel, and over the next couple of weeks I will try to give a flavour of all the sights and sounds around me. On our first full day here, we decided to spend the day in the bustling city of Tel Aviv. It’s easy to get overwhelmed while visiting this city, so I stuck to my motto to bring success, keep it simple stupid.

Actually, I think it’s a good motto to have when traveling, especially when traveling with children. Complexity brings chaos, anger and confusion. Keeping it simple brings order, happiness and joy. And that’s what our day was all about.

With six kids in tow (that’s right six), I knew we had to keep things simple. Our group included my three children, my niece who is traveling with us, my niece’s friend who lives in Israel, as well as another niece who also lives in Israel. Age range of the children: 22 months to 12 years. Girl to boy ratio of said children: 5 to 1. Maybe that’s why my plan worked?

My day’s success was partly determined by the children’s willingness to walk, a lot. My favourite way to explore new places, anywhere in the world, is on foot. You can feel the vibes of a city by walking around its streets. You experience the culture by smelling the spices in the markets, touching the fabrics in the stores and eating at small cafes. On foot, you can scoot around quickly or meander slowly.

That was what we did. After a short train ride to the city, my plan was a walk through downtown, on both big boulevards and crooked narrow side streets, with a goal of getting to the beach and dipping our toes in the Mediterranean Sea.

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We made it to Tel Aviv!

Tel Aviv didn’t disappoint. The horns were honking, cyclists were cutting us off on the sidewalk and people were screaming. We took our time getting to our first stop, picking up a local SIM card for my phone and lunch for some of the kids.

Then here is how I decided to keep things simple. I had intended to walk through a local craft market, called Nahalat Binyamin. It only appears on Tuesdays and Fridays, and we headed in its direction. We took one wrong turn and ended up in another, very different market, called Carmel. While Nahalat Binyamin is full of local artisans and craftspeople selling beautiful pieces of art and jewelry, Carmel is a packed and cramped long path where local merchants sell everything from junk and household items to spices and fruits and vegetables.

I didn’t back track or panic or become angry. I went with the flow and realized that junk, candy and fresh fruit made the kids happy. They all picked out a bag of candy from one vendor and we enjoyed fresh fruit smoothies from another (I had pomegranate, pineapple, mango and passion fruit. Wow, so good).

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The candy buffet in the Carmel Market

Once we passed through the market we continued to meander through the city, and again, while I had at first intended to show the kids the Bauhaus district, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, I could see they were restless. They needed to run around and get off the street. I needed to keep it simple. So, I made a quick turn and headed in the direction of the beach.

The Tel Aviv tayelet, or boardwalk, is one of my favourite places in the world. The city of Tel Aviv is on one side and miles of sandy beaches and the Mediterranean Sea is on the other. I thought to myself as we arrived on the tayelet, let’s walk up the promenade and enjoy the long stretch of beach.

The kids would have none of that. No sooner did I blink and their shoes were off and they had all (okay, maybe not Nessa but she pointed) ran onto the beach and into the water. That’s right, fully clothed, into the water. They splashed, they squealed with delight and I smiled from ear to ear. I even gave up keeping Nessa in her stroller and let her bum walk her way through the sand and to the water’s edge.

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Will she or won’t she? Does Nessa want to check out the water?
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bum walking beach baby
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My niece showing off her acrobatic skills
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silhouette sand castle building with just their hands

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the beach. No bathing suits, towels or sand toys. No beach umbrella or picnic lunch. Just two adults and six rambunctious children, living it up in the sand and the sun.

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Playground on the beach? Check.

I think we walked over 10 kilometers, ate more junk food than I had planned and got sand in places I would rather not discuss. It was a perfect day. It was a perfect, simple day because I sealed it with a KISS. Try it some time. It will make your travel experience fantastic.

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We actually got a family photo on the beach

Leading up to an Overseas Family Vacation

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I love to travel, and if I could, I would take many trips around the world every year.  I can’t afford to do that, but hey, a girl can dream. But I don’t always have to dream, as once in a while I am lucky enough to go on a big trip. I’m leaving on one in a couple of days. And I’m not going alone. I’m taking my husband, my son, two daughters and niece too, to Israel. We are going on a long overdue, overseas family vacation. And I’m freaking out!

I have traveled many times with my husband and children, and we even took my nephew with us the last time we went to Israel, three years ago. Traveling with children does not scare me. I think that going on a family vacation is something wonderful and adventurous. If one can, travel is the greatest gift a parent can give to a child.

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Our attempt at a family selfie in the Old City of Jerusalem during our last visit to Israel 3 years ago

So why am I freaking out? Well, first of all, I think I always do in the final days leading up to a big family vacation. Whether we are driving to David’s family country house in Quebec or flying around the world to New Zealand, all the details that go into the booking, planning and (wince!) packing for a family vacation are stressful.

Most of the booking and planning is complete. The planning is actually the fun part. In some ways, you get to stretch the trip out longer when you surf the web and do research about activities and excursions. I’m now in the packing phase, which is always challenging. When I travel by myself, no problem. But I have set a lofty goal to pack efficiently and get everything our family of 5 needs into just 3 suitcases.

How many shirts? Did I remember to pack pyjamas for the baby? Since we are in Israel over Passover, did I make sure to throw in nice (clean) clothes for everyone? We will be in the desert, where it’s hot, for a few days. But oh, evenings are cold. So, I guess we need light jackets? Socks. Underwear. Toothpaste. Enough children’s Advil and Tylenol if the kids get sick. All of this swirls through my head night and day in the days leading up to our family vacation.

But it’s not just the packing. Just because I am going away, it doesn’t mean life at home stops. Okay, so I turn down the thermostat, shut off the lights and lock up my house. My daily life and daily routines comes to a halt. But the people I interact with every day keep living their regular daily lives.  I always need to prepare myself for that reality.

Who do I need to alert that I will be away? Are there services providers I need to contact? I don’t receive a daily newspaper anymore, so no worries there. I can monitor my home alarm from anywhere in the world. And in the technology age, I travel with my cell phone and am reachable at the top of Masada, on the beach in Tel Aviv or a windy road in the Galilee.

But there’s still so much to do. I work a few hours more in the week leading up to the family vacation to ensure I don’t leave any of my colleagues in the lurch while I am away. It reminds me of a study released back in January by ADP Canada (my main communications client right now where I spend most of my time) that examined how many hours Canadians typically devote to work before and/or after a vacation. Over 70% of people admitted having to put in much more work in the days leading up to vacation.

And for me and my family right now, as I have written about on a few occasions, life is stressful in general right now. Our work-life situation is rather unstable, and we don’t quite know where life will take us in the coming months. Is this the right time to go on such an ambitious family vacation? Should we be so far from home and potentially miss the next great opportunity?

Is all this freaking out on my part worth it?

The simple answer is, yes. I need a vacation. I really need a vacation. My family really needs it. No matter how many times I freak out in the next couple of days and wake up with night sweats paranoid about remembering to pack enough diapers for the baby for the plane, it’s all worth it.

Once I stand on my mother-in-law’s balcony, looking west to the view in the distance of the Mediterranean Sea and to the east view of the Jerusalem hills, I will feel better. Most of what I am feeling right now is normal. Going on a family vacation is a tremendous luxury, one that I appreciate more than ever right now. It doesn’t mean I will freak out less.  But it does mean I may enjoy it just a little bit more.

Down in the Dugout at Safeco Field

Safeco Field

My son Matthew loves baseball. I would consider myself to be a baseball fan, but Matthew has taken it to a new level. He doesn’t just love the Toronto Blue Jays, he loves baseball in general. He talks about the sport all the time, air pitches all over our house and watches live games or highlights every chance he gets. His dream is to visit every Major League ballpark, all 30 of them, during his childhood. This week he checked one off his list with a tour of Safeco Field, the home of the Seattle Mariners.

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The excitement builds before we enter the stadium

Have you ever visited a Major League Baseball park during the off season? It’s a very different experience. First of all, it’s really clean. And it’s quiet. So quiet that it’s almost eerie. It almost feels like you are a celebrity or you are in a movie where you are that main character who appears on screen in the empty ballpark. And it’s really cool!

Our guide greeted us in the Safeco Field Mariners’ store (of course, that way we could make souvenir purchases, like our new hats, before the tour even began!). He was dressed head to toe in team gear and knew everything about the local baseball club and the building in which they played.

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Matthew chats with our tour guide

As we traveled through the various levels of the stadium, from the concourse on the 100 level to the cheap seats on the 300 level, our guide shared with us his tremendous knowledge of everything Safeco Field. It’s fan friendly and its roof really is a “retractable umbrella.” The incredible rolling mechanism, which is actually in three parts, is quite the engineering feat and I believe weighs, in total, over 20 million pounds. But it’s not a roof, as it’s above the lights and allows fresh air to flow through the stadium. Amazing.

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Selfie from the cheap seats

Once we had a taste of the stands, our guide took us indoors to the restricted zones of the building. First we visited the private suites, then we headed up to the press box. It’s a place I knew well from my early days in sports media. Well, I spent time in the press box at the Rogers Centre, so it was my first time in the press box at Safeco Field. Wow, it’s a big one, with a perfect line ahead to home plate and the pitcher’s mound. The protective netting behind plate at this ballpark is also quite low, so a journalist who is not paying attention could get a line drive in the head if he or she is not careful. Oh the walls could talk there!

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Matthew imagines himself calling the game from the comfort of the press box
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He could get comfortable here
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Example of wall damage from a foul ball

We then traveled down to the bowels of Safeco Field, to the most restricted part of the stadium. We saw the exclusive Diamond Club for people (or corporations) who pay big bucks for the fancy seats first then headed down the hall to the visitor’s clubhouse. Matthew loved this part of the tour.

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Happy 40th birthday Seattle Mariners

Since it’s the off season the locker room of course was not in use. So the Mariners’ tour team had the space set up with its team jerseys to give us an idea of what the locker room would look like if some uniforms were set up. The 5,000 square foot space includes a kitchen and dining area, showers, toilets and the main lounge and locker area for the players. We didn’t see the Mariners’ 15,000 square foot clubhouse, which I am sure is quite the space.

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Matthew looks in awe as he enters the clubhouse

The final stop on our tour was the dugout. It was so exciting for our little group as we walked along the same tunnel that all our favourite players pass through on their way to the field. One guy started to do his own play-by-play, imagining it was game 7 of the World Series, and he was the star player, about to enter the stadium to cheering fans.

There’s something magical about walking into the 47,000 seat stadium via the dugout. You can almost taste the game that is played in this sacred place. Matthew and I together imagined the exact spot where the manager sits and the chatter among the players along the bench. We loved it.

Safeco Field

Matthew and I have visited three ballparks together so far – Rogers Centre in Toronto, Wrigley Field in Chicago and now Safeco Field in Seattle. I look forward to more games and more tours. I will help make sure my son’s childhood dream comes true.

A Visit with Family in a Special Place

visit with family

David and I are lucky to have family who live all over the world, from New Zealand to England and Israel to Washington State. We are even luckier that our family has invited us to visit them, stay with them and experience their local culture. We have taken full advantage of our family’s warm hospitality over the years, and we often plan our travel expeditions based on where various members of our family live at any given time. A visit with family is always wonderful, and a visit with family who live in an interesting place is even better.

Matthew, Barbara and I are having a great trip to Seattle, and this weekend we had the opportunity to have a trip within a trip. We spent the weekend in the San Juan Islands. More specifically, we had a visit with family on the island of Friday Harbor. Don’t know where that is? Well, it’s a series of beautiful islands off the coast of Washington State, northwest of Seattle. Look it up on Google Maps. You may want to visit sometime too.

David’s first cousin, Pema, lives on Friday Harbour. She generously hosted us this weekend, along with other members of the family. Pema lives in, what I believe, one of the most beautiful places in the world. On first look at her house it seems like she lives in a treehouse. Her home overlooks the Pacific Ocean, and it’s built on bedrock surrounded by trees. It welcomes you as you approach.

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View from the second floor of Pema’s house. Like you are in a treehouse
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There are deer all over Friday Harbor. Here’s one hanging out near our car.

A ferry boat brought us from the mainland to Friday Harbor on Friday morning. I felt an immediate sense of calm as I drove my car off the ferry and into the streets of the island. There are no traffic lights on Friday Harbor, and there’s no need. People are friendly and polite.

A visit with family always begins with warm greetings and hugs upon arrival. A visit with family in Friday Harbor then includes getting cozy on a comfortable couch near the wood stove. That’s what we did. Pema’s house is open concept, and once we found our comfortable spots around the house, we dug in for an afternoon of relaxation. Or at least most of us did.

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Pema and Barbara show off the new tablecloth – a gift from Barbara

You see, the other great part about a visit with family is eating with family. David and I are also lucky that we come from families in which food plays a central role in all gatherings. David’s extended family, especially the Hart family, plans all gatherings around food. Much of the conversation is focused on what the last meal was and what the next meal will be, all while eating the current meal.

So, while some of us lazed around on the comfy couches, others, including our host, Pema, planned the meals, prepared the meals and cleaned up too. We enjoyed a wide range of delicacies this weekend, like roast chicken, vegan pot pie, cheeses, black cod, homemade fish cakes and more. And the desserts. Pema’s homemade apple pie and lemon tarts from a local bakery. Wow. I also just snacked on a pain au chocolat from the same bakery that had more dark chocolate loaded into it than any other I have ever tasted. Another wow.

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I can’t resist a local farmer’s market. Even Demeter bakery has a booth!
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The lemon tarts from Demeter. Amazing, don’t you think?

I would love to write that we took full advantage of the great outdoors and scenery around us this weekend, but really, we spent most of our time indoors. It was freezing outside. It even snowed a bit. We took one short walk all weekend, which was pleasant, but it was nice to return to the couch and warm house. And to get ready for more food.

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Matthew and Barbara on our walk
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Matthew climbed up the hillside, that has a greenhouse on top.
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Wall of moss. Will climb.
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It’s convenient when another member of the family is house-sitting, where there is a hot tub

I love to see the world and have a visit with family in some great cities like Hong Kong or London. But I also love a quiet weekend with family in special places like Friday Harbor. The warmth of the wood stove warmed my heart, but so did my time with close family.

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We can’t resist a selfie, especially on a ferry.
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We just had to take another selfie

When in the United States… Go Shopping

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When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in the United States, go shopping. It’s an activity I always enjoy when I go to the US. I know the exchange rate isn’t great, the prices aren’t that much better than what we find in Canada and we can get many of the same items at home. But still, there is something so exhilarating about walking into a speciality store, a mall or dare I say, a big-box store, when I am in the USA.

This is my third trip to Seattle with my mother-in-law, Barbara. We seem to have fallen into a routine, and shopping plays a role. The first full day of our trip always includes shopping. My heart starts to beat a little faster as I slide into my rental car and head for the stores on my list.

For some Canadians, shopping in the United States is a religious experience (just ask my sister, Darcie). For others, it’s a curse (just ask my sister’s husband, Leigh). And for me, it’s definitely fun and exciting. Somehow, clothes, toys and food always look better when I’m in an American city.

Thursday was our designated shopping day for the newly established Travel Trio. Our first stop: the Apple store. It was a big day for Barbara as she took the leap into the smartphone world. Barbara has had an iPad for a number of years, but she is now the proud owner of the new iPhone 8.

Walking into the Apple store can be an overwhelming experience. As you look around the sea of people and technology, you don’t know where to start. Should you wander around and play with all the tech toys or look for some assistance from a blue-shirted, headset wearing employee?

A kindly looking salesperson approached us and helped Barbara choose her phone and her protective case. In the usual efficient Apple way, the new smartphone suddenly appeared moments later, and in no time the purchase was complete and we were out the door.

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Opening the new phone
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The triumphant photo of Barbara and her new iPhone

After a celebratory coffee and hot chocolate at Starbucks (what’s a visit to Seattle without a few trips to the sacred home of coffee?), we were on our way to Northgate Mall. The American shopping mall always fascinates me. I have shopped at malls around the world, but Americans kick it up a notch with their shopping malls. They pack so much into a relatively small space, with every kind of clothing, shoe, cosmetics, accessories and technology store you can think of.

It took us no time to do some damage all over the mall. Silicone utensils at Bed Bath and Beyond, a micro down coat at Eddie Bauer and sweatpants for Matthew at Macy’s. We checked out shoes at Foot Locker, Xbox One games at GameStop and pyjamas at Old Navy.

We took a break back at Annie’s house, then we were back out to cover more ground. Annie joined us for the rest of the day’s shopping expedition. Our next stop was a vast indoor/outdoor plant nursery that was more than plants. Our mission was to buy a large house plant for Annie’s daughter, Lila. This store sells everything from plants and flowers to stationary, toys and clothes. And the train display. Wow. This is an example of the American store at its best. Did you know that Hans Solo, Wonder Woman, Indiana Jones and Elsa from Frozen all appeared in the same battle scene? Go to Swanson’s and you will see it with your own eyes.

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Now that’s a train set
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More of the train set

No trip to the United States is complete without a shopping trip to a grocery store. On Thursday evening, we scoped out a small grocery store and picked up some important supplies like cookies, crackers and drinks. Today we went to another one and picked up more fun stuff like local chocolate (always important).

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oh what a fun it is to be in an American grocery store!

And our shopping expeditions are not over yet. We are enjoying a quiet weekend in Friday Harbor (more on that in another post), but the Seattle Premium Outlets and Uwajimaya are in our future. Those are two very special places. I hope my credit card can handle the pressure.