When Family Travel Doesn’t Live up to Your Expectations

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
If you follow me on social mediaInstagram and Facebook, especially–you might think that my life is one long string of happy moments.

Happy times.

Happy times.

For the most part, you wouldn’t be wrong. I wouldn’t mind a bigger apartment, a more adequate cushion between financial stability and financial ruin, and fewer incidents of my youngest pooping or spitting up right.after.his.bath, but all things considered, these are trivial wants. I’ve got pretty much everything that counts in life: good health; interesting and meaningful work; stellar, supportive friends; a partner who really does love me unconditionally (even when he probably shouldn’t– but we’ll get to that shortly); and children who are as smart, funny, kind, and good as they are cute. In short, what you see of my life online is pretty much an uncut version of my “real life.”

What you see of my life online is pretty much what my "real" life is like. Most of the time.

What you see of my life online is pretty much what my “real” life is like. Most of the time.

Most of the time, anyway.

Recently, we took a family road trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York State. It was, as most of our travels are, a jaunt I proposed and planned. I’d been to the Seneca and Keuka Lakes area while working on the New York State guidebook last summer, but that particular visit was a solo trip, and I’d been eager to return with family in tow because the Finger Lakes are just such an incredible destination for parents traveling with their kids. Francisco was enthusiastic about the idea, so we started finalizing all the details for a long weekend. We’d rent the farmhouse I stayed in last year, go for a walk in Watkins Glen State Park, take Mariel to a kids’ glassmaking class at the Corning Museum of Glass, and maybe see whether Francisco could get in on a glider ride at Harris Hill Soaring Center. I wouldn’t be doing any wine tasting, but he could, and we’d let the kids burn off their energy crawling and running around the grounds of picturesque vineyards overlooking Seneca Lake. Sitting at my desk in New York City, booking the rental car and rolling our pennies for the farmhouse rental, I could just picture it: the perfect road trip, the perfect family weekend getaway.

But this is my problem, you see: expectations. My active imagination can conjure up the most beautiful scene of natural and familial bliss, the very picture of perfection. But nothing in life is perfect, even my just-short-of-perfect family, and it seems that no matter how many opportunities life hands me to learn the lesson that I really (no, really) should just let go of expectations and roll with it, I never quite get it.

In some ways, I can be a very slow learner.

By the time we got to the farmhouse on Saturday night, we were all tired. The drive from the city to Dundee, New York is about five hours, and on the last of several potty, leg-stretch, and gas fill-up breaks we’d pulled into a town that had a disturbing number of Confederate flags and people who looked none too welcoming. Mariel had been chattering non-stop for nearly six hours and we were all hungry for dinner, already burned out on road trip snacks.

At home, I’d pictured our arrival at the farmhouse. Everyone would be thrilled: Francisco would love the spacious kitchen and Mariel would maybe try sleeping in her own bed. Everyone would love the view, especially as we sat on the front porch in the morning, having our breakfast. Because we’re an emotive bunch, their respective pleasures would be expressed verbally, and we’d fully inhabit the house for the two short days we’d have it.

Only it wasn’t exactly like that. We dropped our bags, everyone gave a cursory look around– no verbal feedback!–and after grumbling about being hungry, we decided we’d skip cooking (which we’d fully planned to do– it was one of the reasons we’d chosen the farmhouse to begin with) and go have an overpriced, mediocre meal at a restaurant where I’d had a much better dinner the summer before. The only one of us who seemed thoroughly content was Orion, who claimed the kitchen floor as his own and made music out of egg whisks and wooden spoons. “Oh well,” I thought to myself. Surely after a good night’s rest everyone would come around and see the charms of the Finger Lakes.

One happy customer.

One happy customer.

Except no one slept very well, so we started day 2 on a low note. Despite beautiful weather and occasional picturesque moments, we were mostly warding off frustration and fatigue. We’re not a fighting family, though, so we all just wallowed in our own sad state. I really wanted everyone to pull it together, though. We’d spent time and money on this trip, dammit, and it was supposed to be fun, and no one was really playing along.

By late afternoon, when Francisco finally cracked a bit and said he’d just as soon blow off the half round of mini-golf Mariel had left and go take a nap rather than let her finish the second part of the course (the one that, in my opinion, looked the most fun), I’d kind of had it. While waiting for overly large servings of what were supposed to be small portions of ice cream, Mariel was playing around on the uneven wooden floor and fell down, skinning her knee and howling as if an entire pack of banshees had inhabited her body. Taking a cue from her, I took the ice cream and put it on the table with a melodramatically annoyed flourish, and disgruntled sighs emitted all around. Once again, only Orion was non-plussed.

This was not the way things were supposed to be, I thought to myself, my inner five-year old having her hissy fit. I left my family at the table to eat their ice cream while I went to get the car because that was it. We were done with the day and going back to the farmhouse and as far I was concerned, everyone could eat a bowl of cereal and just go to bed. I’d think twice before planning another family trip, oh yes, I would. If they couldn’t get with the program, then we’d just stay home from now on.

I don’t think you’ll be surprised to learn that I didn’t really sit back and take stock until we were back in our tiny apartment in New York City. Once you’ve decided to see things a certain way, you tend to not want to see them any other way, even when doing so would actually be of tremendous benefit to you (not to mention to the people around you).

Why did I need my family to have a good time? Sure, I wanted them to, but maybe Francisco just needed to spend those two days at the farmhouse in the Finger Lakes laying around on the couch or a hammock with a beer in hand, with nothing firm on the itinerary I’d carefully (over)planned. Maybe Mariel was just fine cosleeping with us in the same bedroom, even though there were three other bedrooms where she could spread out and have her own space. And maybe we didn’t need to play the full round of mini-golf. Maybe, instead, what we all needed was to just be where we were: I in my state of Finger Lakes wonder, Francisco in his legitimate “I need some sleep, stat” space, and Mariel not strapped in a booster seat, being whisked off to do the next thing, but to just be let loose in the yard to pick dandelions for as long as she wanted to do so.

Those lessons– just letting everyone be where they need to be, realizing that every state of emotion is temporary, and accepting that our happiness enriches but does not depend upon one another, and that it flourishes when we just go with the flow– are things I know, and yet struggle, over and over again, to keep in practice. Family provides plenty (continuous, actually) opportunities to practice, and family travel–especially when it doesn’t live up to our expectations–can help us get realigned with our inner compass.

Maybe it wasn’t the weekend I envisioned, but it ended up being meaningful after all.

Categories: Travel & Travel Tips | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

How to Stop Packing So Much Crap When You Travel with Kids

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
Later this week, Mariel, our four and three-quarters year old daughter, will finish her first year of school (!). Two days later, we will all (Francisco, Mariel, Orion, and myself–did I mention I’m seven months pregnant?) board a plane bound for Utah, where we’ll be working for a week, doing research for an article.

We will, no doubt, be jockeying for overhead bin space with other parents who are starting their summer travels. Before Francisco even starts grumbling about the bin hogs, wondering where he’s going to store his camera gear, we’ll have “Excuse us, please”‘d so many times past SUV strollers laden with The Things Parents Absolutely Can’t Travel Without that we’ll be tired before our plane takes off.

I applaud parents who travel with their kids because there are so many moms and dads who don’t do so; it seems too overwhelming to them. But I wish more moms and dads would realize they really don’t need to bring everything and the kitchen sink with them, especially when they’re traveling domestically. All of the items they’ve convinced themselves they can’t leave home without are so burdensome that they’re frazzled and hunched over and snapping at the kids and each other, ruining their vacations before they even begin.

Clothes bag for myself and two kids... for a three-day road trip.

Clothes bag for myself and two kids… for a three-day road trip.

I see these parents in airports and I want to walk up to them and say, “Really, you don’t have to pack so much crap.” Your kids don’t need all the things you think they need. Children are far more resourceful than we give them credit for. In fact, they are far more resourceful than you are. For them, anything can be turned into a toy. The emergency card in the seat pocket in front of you? Mariel has spent long stretches of time looking at the pictures and making up stories about what she thinks is happening. The barf bag? It makes for a great hand puppet. Besides, if you’re honest with yourself, the main reason you probably want to distract your kids is to ward off your own anxiety about whether they might have an on-board meltdown. As with most tasks and challenges of parenting, if you just let your kids inhabit their natural rhythm, they’ll do a fairly decent job of self-regulating. And when they don’t, then it’s time to pull out the window clings (which, by the way, fit MUCH better into your carry-on than the “educational” toy you packed).

One of the ways to pack less crap is to subject everything to the wants and needs test. Lay everything you want to take out on your bed. Now, look at each item one by one and ask yourself if you’re really going to need it, or if you’re packing it “just in case.” Most “just in case” items aren’t necessary. And even plenty of needs (the 32-count bag of diapers, for example) don’t actually need to be packed; you’d be better off picking them up once you’ve arrived at your destination. Decide what your list of non-negotiables includes and stick to it. Type it up, print it out, and refer to it each time you’re getting ready for a trip.

Once you’ve eliminated some of those “want” items and you’ve slimmed down your suitcase and carry-ons in the first round of ruthless packing, ask yourself the “Can I carry it comfortably?” question. If you can’t carry it comfortably, it doesn’t need to come with you. When you’re traveling with kids, you want to be agile and mobile, not burdened by two overpacked shoulder bags, a backpack, and a rolling suitcase. For me, packing for my family is a lot like clothes shopping: If it’s not comfortable, it’s not for me.

Finally, pack items that serve multiple functions and require minimal management. Rather than pack a blanket, a changing mat, a picnic blanket, and a scarf, I pack a 20-year old sarong that serves these and at least a dozen other purposes. Because it’s thin and dries quickly, I can wash it out in a sink when needed.

Inevitably, you will forget something you or your kids really do need. (This would happen, by the way, even if you overpacked). When this happens, consider it an excellent opportunity to teach your kids a lesson in creative resourcefulness.

TSA, flight delays, surly service… there are already enough reasons to be cranky when you’re traveling. Don’t carry so much crap that you make the experience even tougher on yourself and your kids.

Categories: Travel & Travel Tips | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Peek into My Writing Process: The Writers’ Blog Hop

Julie Schwietert Collazo

Apologies to Lily Girma, who invited me, more than a month ago, to participate in a “blog hop” of writers. I was supposed to post my contribution on April 21 and here we are, five weeks later, and I’m just getting in on the game. More about how that may reflect on my process in a moment.

But first, the blog hop. The way I’ve been thinking about this project is that it’s the digital equivalent of chain letters that my generation liked to send around when we were in elementary school… except this is cooler and more useful (one hopes). The idea is that each writer who is invited to participate then turns around and invites three other writers to talk about their process, but since I was often the person in elementary school who ended up disrupting the chain letter, I’ll probably play that role here, too, unless you’re a writer friend who hasn’t participated yet and you’d like to.

So here’s how the blog hop works: Each writer answers four questions. That’s it. I already write a lot (not lately, though) about the writing and editing processes–and, specifically, my writing and editing processes–over on my other blog Cuaderno Inedito (no, that blog is not written in Spanish). I’m fascinated by people’s processes, especially those of “creative” people, and I’d like to think that by sharing my own processes, I’ve contributed to other writers’ development, too. I encourage you to scroll through the archives there and sign up for new posts (yes, there will be more); in the meantime, here are my answers to the blog hop questions.

1. What am I writing now?
Right now–as in this week–I’m doing research and writing for several articles for The Latin Kitchen, one of my regular outlets. I’m finessing a couple of queries that were received well by editors at major national publications who have asked for some extra details. I’m following up with sources for two new assignments: publication profiles for MediaBistro’s “How to Pitch” service. I’m finalizing plans for two research trips and I’m also researching two feature-length assignments. As you see, then, being a writer isn’t always about writing. One of the many perks of my job is that it also involves lots of reading.

I also need to be thinking about how I’m going to promo my forthcoming guidebook to New York State, but I haven’t quite gotten around to that yet.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
The “genre” question gets increasingly tricky each year, as I continue to diversify the subjects about which I write and the publications where they are published. I write about (in no particular order of preference): food and farming; travel; science, the environment, and technology; Latin America; arts and culture (from hanging-on-hallowed-walls exhibits to obscure street art); politics; and profiles of people and organizations. I write about these topics for a variety of publications and formats (print and online), and I write books, too.

What unifies all of my topical interests and is consistent about my approach regardless of the “seriousness” of the outlet where my byline appears is my curiosity about and commitment to the overlooked. Sometimes, that means a place, person, or project who has completely eluded the gaze of mainstream media. Sometimes, it means an overlooked aspect of the life or work of someone who’s regularly in the headlines. What I’m always driving for is the story that hasn’t been told, the backstory, or understory, or the hidden story. I’ve often used a kitchen metaphor to describe my approach: While everyone’s interested in the star chef, I’m interested in his or her support team.

Finally, even when I’m being critical, I hope that my work is set apart by its respectfulness, both for my subjects and for the responsibility and potential impact of reporting. There have been questions I’ve been dying to ask subjects that I haven’t asked, simply because I didn’t think they were appropriate… no matter how much a reader may want to know the answers. There have been stories entrusted to me that I would have loved to have shared, but I understood that doing so would put someone at risk, a risk to which they had not consented. And there are stories I haven’t pitched or published yet because they require time, research, and immersion I haven’t been able to devote to them yet.

3. Why do I write what I do?
I write what I do because I’m not sure there’s any other profession that allows a person to explore and indulge in such a wide range of interests. I also write what I do because it’s important to me that overlooked stories find a platform for being shared, and in all of my work (I was a creative arts therapist who focused on writing therapy before I was a freelance writer), I’ve always worked to be the conduit through which someone could find their voice and literally articulate his or her story. I write what I do because I want to make sure that certain stories don’t slip into obscurity. And I write, period, because I don’t know how to experience and process the world without seeing everything as a story. That switch–the one that makes me ask about everything, “What’s the story here?”–never turns off.

4. How does my writing process work?
I’m not sure that writing is a process for me, as much as it is a lifestyle, by which I mean that I am always writing, if not on paper or screen, then in my head. But in terms of what one colleague has accurately described as “ass to chair” time (meaning, the time spent actually writing), my process isn’t at all precious or picturesque. My desk, which I share with my husband, is in the middle of our living room, which means that it’s piled high with whatever we’re both reading at the time, as well as one or two cameras, stacks of notebooks, research materials, business cards, and all sorts of daily living detritus (which, at present, includes a pair of our son’s socks–clean, thankfully– a near empty tube of hydrocortisone, admission badges from a museum we visited this weekend, and a bag of jacks, sans ball). I’d love to tell you that I have some sort of fine-tuned routine, but when you have two kids and a husband who also works at home, you just write when you can. Sometimes the kids fall asleep at 10:30 and you write like mad until 2 am, but your husband wants to talk about an idea that occurred to him, and in the telling, he needs to show you an Ali boxing video from 1975 that’s 16 minutes long. In short: I write when I can and have mastered fitting into two or four hours what takes many people twice as much time. I am also the master of the stolen moment… and of typing one-handed while I hold one kid on my lap.

Want to know more about what and where I write? Here’s the complete list.

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Now Open in NYC: Oscar Murillo’s “Mercantile Novel” at David Zwirner Gallery

Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
I learned about the new exhibit at David Zwirner Gallery via a somewhat unlikely source: the parenting blog, Mommy Poppins. Oscar Murillo’s installation, “A Mercantile Novel,” “isn’t that interesting for kids,” the blogger admits, but there’s free chocolate-covered marshmallows, made on-site as part of the exhibit. Mariel approved… heartily. So heartily, in fact, that she has gone to bed early with a stomachache after palming a few extra confections in addition to the packaged ones she got to go.

Mariel approves of this exhibit.

Mariel approves of this exhibit.

It’s true; the exhibit is somewhat underwhelming, mainly because the 13 workers who traveled outside Colombia for the first time to make the chocolates on-site as part of the exhibit are kept from interacting with visitors due to health code regulations. Even the process itself, which kind of seems like the big deal, is beyond gallery-goers’ direct line of vision. You can peek through a stack of boxes to get a glimpse, but personally, this seemed like the most interesting part of the project (not to mention a big part of it), and the rest of the show, such as it is, is somewhat underwhelming.

A peek at the production line... from afar.

A peek at the production line… from afar.

That being said, the concept, about which you can read here and here, is pretty interesting and raises some provocative questions about how social media is/can be used in contemporary art (too bad, though, that the staffer on hand didn’t know the gallery’s own instagram handle off the top of her head…. She had to look it up).

The exhibit runs through June 14.

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Now Open in NYC: Brooklyn Grange’s LIC Rooftop Farm

Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo

View of the farm--and New York City--from the rooftop farm of Brooklyn Grange.

View of the farm–and New York City–from the rooftop of Brooklyn Grange.

There are places in your own neighborhood that you just never quite seem to get around to visiting. For us, Brooklyn Grange was one of those places… until this past weekend. Saturday was opening day for the 2014 season of the urban farm that’s on the roof of 37-18 Northern Boulevard, a 43,000 square foot expanse that, in addition to growing 50,000 pounds of produce every year, has a pretty fine view of the city.

The farm is open each Saturday from 11-3 if you’d like to pick up some farm-fresh goods, honey, or hot sauce. If you have kids, bring them along and let them get dirt under their nails during one of the farm’s educational workshops (Mariel planted peas and played with worms during her visit last weekend and begged to return regularly). And keep an eye on the farm’s calendar– they’ve got a full roster of fun events, from a “butcher paper dinner” (crawfish!) to a “trashion fashion show”… and that’s just for May.

If you don’t live in the neighborhood, and you’re wondering whether it’s worth your time to traipse out to Long Island City on a Saturday, consider bundling the farm visit into a stop by LIC Flea, the outdoor flea market and food fair, which is just a couple blocks from Gantry Plaza State Park, perfect for kids, with playgrounds anchoring both the north and south end. And in the same building as the farm, you’ll find Coffeed, a coffee shop with ample space and free WiFi (and a food director who’s a Michelin-starred chef).

So come on over… and stay tuned– I’ll be featuring some other rooftop farms on The Latin Kitchen later this summer!

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