The Absolute Best Thing Our Family Did in Paris.. This Time Around

Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with KidsPhoto Credit

Ahh, Paris. Gorgeous, amazing, one-of-a-kind, and yet.. overdone. Doesn’t everybody have a Top 10 Things to Do in Paris (with Kids) list?

I can’t bring myself to write anything so run-of-the-mill for you. But, even if I could, the entire post would be a big, fat, whopping lie because we likely did not do 8 of the 10 things on our trip.

Instead, let’s focus on a few more relaxed, out of the way, low-key, winter-appropriate Parisian experiences. I’ll still dish on the good, the bad, and the beautiful… I just won’t wrap it all up put a “Top 10” bow on it.

Forgive me.

Forgive me?

Bouncing Around Paris – on a Bike!

Given our family’s love of the outdoors and the smashing success of our day out in Lucca last summer, I was determined to find a way to incorporate seeing Paris by bicycle.

We cycle daily around our little German town, and we love it. Who can argue with built-in exercise, no traffic jams, and zero emissions?

Lucky for us, Paris has established herself as a beacon to bike-friendliness. The city boasts the third-largest bike sharing program in the world (only two cities in China have ‘er beat) and the bike traffic lanes to support it. Unfortunately for us, the Vélib’ public bicycles are not designed for young children or parents toting babies.

The Company – Bike About Tours

Enter Bike About Tours, a recommendation from Rick Steves. While the company was technically closed for the winter, I still received prompt emails from Katharine. The prices seemed fair, the details convenient, and away we booked.

When we picked up the bicycles near the Hotel de Ville, Doc Sci chatted up the co-owner and realized he knew the other co-owner from high school! (Insert “small world” cliché here.)Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with Kids

The other thing we discovered when picking up the bikes were the variety of options for families. We ended up sticking to traditional three-speed bikes with child seats, but that didn’t stop Doc Sci and Screech from testing out a spiffy Dutch tandem that could accommodate one adult and two children. Sweet ride – but not the best idea when you’re unfamiliar with the equipment and the territory.

The Route

After a hearty handshake, we were off! Across the Pont d’Arcole, we slipped past the imposing Notre Dame before crossing the Seine once again and settling in on the Left Bank.Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with Kids

We struggled to keep our eyes on the road (and the ever-changing bike lanes – yikes!) and not on the gorgeous landmarks whizzing by: Pont Neuf, Pont des Arts, the Louvre, the Orsay, Pont Alexandre III, Palais Bourbon, Quai Branly… on and on the eye candy taunted us until the object of everyone’s affection slipped into view and established herself on center stage.Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with Kids

So many people claim that the best view of Paris is from the top of the Eiffel Tower. I disagree. I think Paris without the Eiffel Tower is just another skyline, and how can the tower define the landscape if you’re standing on it?

For me, the better view is from the underbelly up. Stand squarely underneath Eiffel’s creation to appreciate the sheer mass of the structure. This is no girly trinket. It might have feminine frills, but the bones are literally ironclad.Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with Kids

After scraping our jaws off the ground, we zipped over to a neighborhood pizzeria to pick up a mediocre pie that we promptly devoured on a bench in front of the iron lady herself. Terrible food, gorgeous company.

We gave the cycling legs a break at the Champ de Mars playground where we heard mostly English spoken (expat hangout?) before zooming off toward the Army Museum. We were having too much fun on two wheels to pay for a look at Napoleon’s tomb.Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with Kids

I had high hopes for a walk in the sculpture garden at the Rodin Museum (surely my boys could handle that?!), but Big Foot spoiled our plans by falling asleep. We were forced to continue pedaling or face the wrath of an overtired baby.

Instead, I dipped in to La Maison du Chocolat where the only thing I could afford was a to-go cup brimming with soupified hot chocolate. Hello, delicious! The truffles are handled like pearls here, and the prices are about the same. Watch your wallets, folks.Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with Kids

Wearing our cocoa mustaches proud, we rode until we hit the big-time Boulevard Saint Germain. The day was wearing thin, and our nerves followed suit.  We stopped for another kid-friendly break at a small playground in front of the Musée de Cluny.

Had I not been so tired, I would’ve realized we were but a stone’s throw from Luxembourg Gardens and the fabulous playgrounds there. Ah, well, our small male army seemed satisfied with the paltry pre-fab, and Doc Sci and I amused ourselves by debating whether the sentry next to the free toilet was there to protect the paper or the people. Now, there’s a candidate for world’s weirdest job – waste watcher.

The day waned further, and we realized our bikes were not outfitted with lights (a major no-no in Germany). We rallied the troops and rounded out the day with a leisurely ride through the Île Saint-Louis and the Île de la Cité.

In case no one in history has ever told you, Paris is gorgeous at dusk.

With the bikes tucked safely back in their parking garage, we trudged back to our apartment knowing we’d have to spend the next days on foot. Paris really is better by bicycle.

Practical Tips

Just a few logistical notes…

  • We rented two adult bikes with seats attached for Screech (4) and Big Foot (1). We felt confident in T-Rex’s cycling abilities, so we rented a children’s bike for him.
  • In hindsight, it would’ve been better to rent a tandem (this kind – and yes, Bike About had one) because the bike lanes were somewhat different than what we’re used to in Germany.
  • Many roads have dedicated bike lanes and paths. However, in the absence of such a lane, bikes may use the bus/taxi lane. While we never felt unsafe in the bus/taxi lane, we were made well-aware of the drivers’ annoyance with cyclists in their way.
  • If you do not have children with you, I highly recommend the Vélib’ system as it is quite convenient and extremely cheap.
  • But for families who are looking for an excellent Parisian cycling experience, I would not hesitate to recommend or personally use Bike About Tours again. You can rent bikes or sign up for an actual tour. No paid advertisement here – just a good, old-fashioned friendly recommendation.

Have you discovered Paris on two wheels? Would you cycle the streets with your kids?

Signature-Marigold

19 Cheap & Easy Last-Minute Halloween Ideas

Over the last four years we’ve lived here, I’ve noticed Halloween has become more and more popular in Germany.  While I don’t see trick-or-treating going viral yet, stores have at least started carrying costumes and snacks for the occasion (though sadly, not candy corn).

This year, we’re putting on a small party for some of the kids in our building, and I needed some fun yet simple ideas for food, decor, and activities. 

I really can’t justify going to great lengths to plan an amazing bash.  My kids aren’t even familiar with the word Halloween or what the holiday really entails.  They were too young to remember the holiday in America (and we usually ended up in tinfoil in honor of Chipotle’s free burrito day).  Plus, this year we’re busy getting ready to head over to Scotland (yay!).

So, if you’re strapped for time like I am, check out these inexpensive, cute, last-minute Halloween ideas from Pinterest.  Have more fun food, decor, and crafts?  Leave a link in the comments below!

Food:

Hard Boiled Monster Eggs from Chew Chew Mama

Banana Ghosts and Clementine Pumpkins from Creamty

Spooky Popcorn Hand from Little Nummies

Spider Web Snacks from Mom Endeavors

Pumpkin Pretzels from A Thrifty Mom

Mandarin Orange Pumpkins from Serving Pink Lemonade.

Decor:

Halloween Eyeball Topiaries from Crafts ‘n Coffee

Glowing Recycled Milk Jug Jack O’Lanterns from Sassy Girlz

Trash Bag Spider Webs from How About Orange

Halloween Pac Man Garland from Minieco

Plastic Cup + Sharpie Halloween Lanterns from The Australian Baby Blog

Activities:

Haunted House Halloween Cut Out from Sarah Jane

Q Tip Skeletons from Crafts for all Seasons

Footprint Ghosts from Hand Print and Foot Print Art

Paint Chip Monster and Candy Corn Cards from All Free Holiday Crafts

Leftover Candy:

Candy Bar Cookies from Pip & Ebby

Leftover Halloween Candy Bark from Brown Eyed Baker

Halloween Candy Gingerbread Houses from Cake Central

November Thanksgiving “Advent” Calendar, Harvest Tree, and Turkey Pinata from Alpha Mom

It’s time to break out the craft supplies, corral all the extra candy, and give some of these ideas a try!  Which is your favorite? Signature-Marigold

Global Eatery – Sri Lanka

Thrifty Travel Mama | Global Eatery - Sri LankaLiving in Germany has stretched me in many ways, but perhaps most unexpectedly in the kitchen.  I cooked a fair amount of dishes from scratch when we were in the US, but here?  It happens daily.  Bored with the minimalist grocery store offerings and my paltry handful of recipes, I’ve had no choice but to step off and try loads of new recipes.

As a result, my boys have grown to like all sorts of different of foods (thank God, they might just escape the prison known as a picky palate).  In any given week, our menu hails from multiple regions of the globe.  Sure, we still eat baked chicken strips with fries once in a while, but my boys also love polenta, risotto, dal, and jap chae too.

Experimenting with different ingredients and cuisines has become a source of happiness for me.  So when the opportunity to take a Sri Lankan cooking course came along, I signed up immediately.  Along with pictures of the food we prepared during the class, I have the permission of the teacher to share my favorite recipe with you.  Yay!

I must say that before this class, I probably never would have sought out (let alone attempted) to make anything from Sri Lanka.  But everything was easy enough to replicate at home, and delicious enough to be worth the effort.

Give the recipes below a try.  The ingredients can be found at Asian or Middle Eastern grocery stores, and they don’t require any fancy schmancy cooking skills.

First, a look at the class…

A sweet apertif with citrus welcomes everyone to the class.

A sweet apertif with citrus welcomes everyone to the class.  I probably would have been satisfied with liquid dirt if it had ICE in it!  So refreshing, and not at all the norm here.

As we all arrive and get acquainted, we munch on these delicious fried papadums.

As we all arrive and get acquainted, we munch on these delicious fried papadums with mango chutney.  I was quite impressed with the Sri Lankan version of chips & salsa.

It's time to get real with ingredients.  Thankfully, other than these particular chiles, there wasn't anything on the table I hadn't seen before.

It’s time to get real with ingredients. Thankfully, other than these particular chiles, there wasn’t anything on the table I hadn’t seen or heard of before.

Enough chatting - time to get to work!  We all chopped 'til we dropped: potatoes, green beans, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, bell peppers, pineapple, chicken...

Enough chatting – time to get to work! We all chopped ’til we dropped: potatoes, green beans, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, bell peppers, pineapple, chicken…

Working in pairs or small groups, we took turns cooking the dishes.

Working in pairs or small groups, we took turns cooking the dishes.

This chicken curry with its bell peppers and onions reminded me of fajitas - but obviously with a different flavor.

This chicken curry with its bell peppers and onions reminded me of fajitas – but obviously the flavors were completely different.  This dish is definitely the most kid-friendly of them all.

Our teacher, Chandani, set a beautiful dinner table.

Our teacher, Chandani, set a beautiful dinner table.  The best part of a cooking class is getting to EAT, right?

When everything was finally ready, we all eagerly heaped our plates with the fragrant food.

When everything was finally ready, we all eagerly heaped the fragrant food on our plates.

I was quite surprised to learn that the green bean curry was my favorite.

I was quite surprised to learn that the green bean curry was my favorite.

The potatoes were flavored with FIRE!  I'll be toning down the crushed red pepper before I make this for the boys.

The potatoes set my mouth on FIRE! I’ll be toning down the crushed red pepper before I make this for the boys.

This chicken curry was delicious and completely unlike any other chicken curry I have tried.

The chicken curry again, this time all dressed up with scallions.

When we couldn't look at another grain of rice, we headed back to the kitchen to make dessert.

When we couldn’t possible stomach even one more grain of rice, we headed back to the kitchen to make dessert.  Here is the coconut filling and a few completed crepes.

No Sri Lankan meal would be complete without a perfectly brewed cup of Ceylon tea.

No Sri Lankan meal would be complete without a perfectly brewed cup of Ceylon tea.  No, we didn’t add any garlic to it…

A delicious dessert of coconut crepes ended our lovely evening.

This simply elegant dessert of coconut crepes and Ceylon tea ended the evening.

Want to try your hand at Sri Lankan cuisine?  Here’s the recipe for a very delicious green bean curry!

Green Bean Curry
Serves 3-5

Ingredients:

  • 250g Green Beans
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 6-8 curry leaves
  • About 1 inch piece pandan leaf (rampa) (optional)
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper
  • ¼ tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • 1 tsp mustard seed
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/2 cup thick coconut milk
  • 2-3 tablespoons cooking oil

Preparation:

Wash and slice green beans with diagonal cuts into 1” or 1 ½” pieces.  Wash curry leaves & pandan leaf and set aside.

Heat oil in a pan and once hot, add mustard seeds.  When mustard seeds start to pop, add crushed red pepper, onion, curry leaves & pandan leaf.

Sauté for few minutes until onions are tender and become fragrant.  Then add green beans & mix well. Add all the other spices. Mix all together, cover with a lid, allow to cook over medium heat. Check the mixture from time to time, and add some water if needed.

Once the beans are fully cooked, add thick coconut milk.  Stir well.

Add salt to taste. Simmer for a minute or two more, and remove from the heat.

Enjoy!

Have you ever cooked or eaten food from Sri Lanka before?  If you try this recipe, please leave a comment – I’d love to hear how you liked the food!Signature-Marigold

Visiting the Kinderkookkafé in Amsterdam

The Kinderkookkafe, where kids are the star of the meal.

The Kinderkookkafe, where kids are the star of the meal.

I live with a five year-old aspiring chef.  T-Rex constantly asks me if he can help cook dinner, bake a cake, make pizza, etc.  His kindergarten allows children to prepare a meal every Wednesday for the whole class, and it’s rather dramatic if he can’t participate.  So when I heard about the Kinderkookkafé in Amsterdam, I knew we had to go!

The Kinderkookkafé is a unique cafe in Amsterdam where children run the show.  Each child selects what he or she would like to eat, prepares the dish, helps place it in the oven (if applicable), serves the food, and cleans up afterward.

The cafe hosts cooking classes and birthday parties on weekends.  The children congregate in the open kitchen for instruction and then play while the food bakes.

The cafe hosts cooking classes and birthday parties on weekends. The children congregate in the open kitchen for instruction and then play while the food bakes.

Menu choices include lunch items such as ham and cheese croissants, open face sandwiches, and pizza to desserts like cupcakes and cookies to simpler snacks of carrot and cucumber cut-outs.

Standard menu choices are pictured, but daily specials are written on the blackboard.

Standard menu choices are pictured, but daily specials are written on the blackboard.  The top photos represent the finished product, and the bottom photos help children to select all the required ingredients.

Both of my boys chose to make pizzas.  The menu card showed what items they needed to collect from the self-serve area to create their meal.  With dough, sauce, cheese, vegetables, flour, rolling pin, and pan in hand, they got to work.

First step - smear liquid butter all over the pizza pan.  Really.

First step – smear liquid butter all over the pizza pan. Really.

T-Rex and Screech had a blast doing everything themselves.  Doc Sci observed that the hardest part about a visit to the Kinderkookkafé is actually letting the kids do everything themselves.  Perfectionists will squirm when their child puts all of the cheese in one spot and doesn’t cut up the bell pepper.  Not that I know anything about that…

Ready to bake!

Ready to bake!

I must say that there’s not a whole lot to entertain the little ones while their food bakes.  I noticed a stack of books and a table with paper and colored pencils.  In warmer weather, the children could play outside in the little attached playground.

The cooked pizzas were rather crispy (food safety?), but neither of my boys noticed or cared.  It didn’t take long for the chefs to devour their masterpieces.

Food prices are reasonable; the pizzas cost about €3,50 each and most other dishes cost less than that.  I assume that the cafe makes most of its money from adult refreshments (coffee, cake, etc.).

Bathroom cleanliness was questionable.  The sinks were rather stopped up from all the dough bits washed off of little hands.  T-Rex almost overflowed the basin.  Let’s hope the staff uses separate facilities and keeps the kitchen cleaner than the restroom.

The staff members spoke English and were happy to answer all of my first-timer questions.  When I was mixing up a bottle for Big Foot, one of the women working there walked over and offered to warm it up for me.

The Kinderkookkafé concept is brilliant, and it’s obvious that the place has had great success.  I highly recommend stopping here for a meal or even just a snack when visiting Amsterdam with kids.

Have you been to the Kinderkookkafé?  If you had the opportunity, would you enjoy going to a restaurant where your children prepared and served the food?

Headed to Amsterdam?  Check out our Snapshot of Amsterdam with Kids, and don’t miss a visit to Keukenhof Flower Gardens!Signature-Marigold

Snapshot: Amsterdam with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Amsterdam with KidsNo BeNeLux itinerary would be complete without a stop in Amsterdam.  Doc Sci and I have been to the city before, so I thought it would be fun to incorporate some kid-friendly activities this time.

I’ll outline our day in this post, but several of the activities deserve their own separate space.  Look for more complete reviews of specific attractions in the coming days.Thrifty Travel Mama - Amsterdam with Kids9:30am – Hop on a bus headed to Amsterdam from our home base in Haarlem.  Since we planned to walk everywhere that day, we decided the boys should have something to keep them interested and minimize “are we there yet” complaining.  T-Rex rode his scooter and Screech toured Amsterdam on his laufrad (balance bike).

I gotta get me one of those!

I gotta get me one of those!

We opted for the pram instead of the backpack carrier for Big Foot.  Was this the right choice?  It’s hard to say.  There are sidewalks in Amsterdam, but most of them are narrow and made of stone.  The hardest part was keeping the whole circus (pram, scooter, balance bike + two adults) somewhat together on the sidewalks.  But 10 hours is a long time to carry a baby and Big Foot sleeps better on the go when he’s in the pram.

Solution: If you can, do as the Dutch and rent a bakfiets for the day!

10:15am – Arrive in southwest Amsterdam and plot a walking course to our first stop.  Upon arriving at the bus station, we noticed one of Amsterdam’s public urinals.  Did we try it?  To quote the oft-sold saying, “What happens in Amsterdam, stays in Amsterdam.”

Free public urinal at the bus station.

Free public urinal at the bus station.

11:00am – Pop in to the most anticipated stop of the day, the Kinderkookkafe!  This place is (obviously) designed just for kids, and it’s awesome.  All the food is made by the kids themselves!  The boys put together pizzas while Doc Sci and I downed some delicious Dutch cheese sandwiches we had brought and drank tea to warm up (did I mention it was blowing snow when we left Haarlem that morning?).

The Kinderkookkafe, where kids are the star of the meal.

The Kinderkookkafe, where kids are the star of the meal.

12:30pm – Take a walk through Vondelpark, the most beautiful park in Amsterdam.  The place was hopping with tourists and locals alike.  Our favorite feature of the park was the multilingual lost and found.

Lost a glove in Vondelpark?  Check here.

Lost a glove in Vondelpark? Check here.

1:00pm – Shop at HEMA, the discounter (think Target) known for its Dutch design and reasonable prices.  We drank hot chocolate at the cafe which has an IKEA restaurant feel.  HEMA is a great place for budget travelers to stock up on unique souvenirs (we found a fun Netherlands puzzle for 4 euros) or any travel necessities you might have run out of or forgotten.  If you don’t love HEMA, it’s because you just don’t know it yet!

Knocking back hot chocolate at HEMA.

Knocking back hot chocolate at HEMA.

2:30pm – Hit up Kitsch Kitchen Supermercado for whimsical gifts and home items.  As luck would have it, the store was having an Easter egg decorating contest.  My boys were thrilled to be able to sit down and paint hard boiled eggs while I browsed the shelves.  I big fat puffy heart LOVE serendipitous events!

Painting Easter eggs at Kitsch Kitchen.

Painting Easter eggs at Kitsch Kitchen.

3:30pm – Get lost in a parade of clothing from past eras at Episode Vintage Doc Sci is always looking for quality denim in his size, and I can go for a fun peasant top any day.. as long as it fits me.  Alas, we didn’t find anything that day.  If you’re looking for cheap clothing, this is not the place.  Shopping at Episode Vintage is for those seeking one-of-a-kind or nostalgic pieces.

Piles of surprisingly organized vintage clothing.

Piles of surprisingly organized vintage clothing.

5:00pm – Order savory enchiladas and tasty tacos at Los Pilones If you’ve hung around Thrifty Travel Mama for long, you know that I’m always on the hunt for authentic Mexican food in Europe.  When I discovered that Los Pilones sells its own bottled chipotle sauce, I knew this was THE place to go for Mexican food in Amsterdam.  Yeah, buddy!

An enchilada end to our day in Amsterdam.

An enchilada end to our day in Amsterdam.

6:30pm – Catch the bus back to Haarlem.  We munched on stroopkoeken (Dutch syrup cookies) all the way home.  What an exhausting but enjoyable day!

Bye, bye Amsterdam - next time we'll have to get around by water taxi!

Bye, bye Amsterdam – next time we’ll have to get around by water taxi!

Have more than one day in Amsterdam?  Here’s what I would’ve added:

  • NEMO Science Center – Admission is expensive, but the place looks bonkers cool.  Plan to spend at least a half day to get your money’s worth.
  • The Dutch Riding School – It’s free to poke your head in and take a look at the riding classes.
  • Albert Cuyp Market – The largest street market in the Netherlands.  I also stumbled upon a tip that there’s a vendor selling fresh stroopwaffels on Saturdays!
  • De Kaaskamer – A store dedicated to Dutch cheese.
  • Pancakes! – Serving up every kind of pancake imaginable from blini to crepes to American-style flapjacks.
  • The Pancake Boat – For a two-in-one experience, the pancake boat offers all you can eat pancakes while cruising around the Amsterdam harbor area.
  • De Taart van m’n Tante – A super funky cake shop.
  • Bierfabrik – A restaurant specializing in organic, charcoal-grilled Cornish game hens.  Eat with your hands, and get to know your neighbor!
  • Le Pain Quotidien – Excellent choice for breakfast or lunch.  Think Panera gone all French.
  • Bagels & Beans – Perhaps not as exciting to US travelers, but expats craving bagels (Einstein Bros or otherwise) will love this place.  In addition to coffee (hence the beans), this chain brews loose leaf tea.

Have you been to Amsterdam with kids?  Did I miss any fun places that little ones would’ve enjoyed?Signature-Marigold

Wandering Weekend: Staufen, Germany

Staufen!  Big Foot was also with us, but he was hanging out on Doc Sci's back.

Staufen! Big Foot was also with us, but he was hanging out on Doc Sci’s back.

The German word for hiking is wandern.  It’s one of the words I actually like – short, easy to say, and it actually makes sense.  We’re getting into the German wandering thing and exploring small villages, castle ruins, and the countryside every chance we get.

Two weekends ago we wandered on over to the little village of Staufen.  It’s a wine town, and perched above the grapevines is a smashed up castle.  Exploring such a place on a Saturday morning is definitely our idea of a good time.

Below is a peek at our little trek.  Enjoy!

Why, hello there castle ruin.

Why, hello there castle ruin.

We tried to memorize this map and the various ways to hop to the top..

We tried to memorize this map and the various ways to hop to the top..

but, we kinda sorta took the wrong way and ended up here with the sheep.  It was a happy accident though - the boys loved watching the lambs.

but, we kinda sorta took the wrong way and ended up here with the sheep. It was a happy accident though – the boys loved watching the lambs.

Back on track, we found this walkman just hanging out in a tree.  Geocaching??

Back on track, we found this old skool Walkman just hanging out in a tree. Geocaching??

And German dudes tending to their vines.

It must have been a day for tending the vines because we came across several workers.

It must have been prime time for vine dressing because we came across several workers.  Nice view from the office for this dude.

Nice view from the office for this dude.

Hey there, little village of Staufen!  The view from the top is swell.

Hey there, little village of Staufen! The view from the top is swell.

Even my five year-old thinks you're something to look at.

Even my five year-old thinks you’re something to look at.

Though not as impressive as Hochburg, the ruins were nice enough for a picnic lunch.

Though not as impressive as Hochburg, the ruins were nice enough for a picnic lunch.

Not wanting to backtrack, we took the alternate route down the hill.  And by down, I mean we almost fell down the extremely narrow, steep steps.

Not wanting to backtrack, we took the alternate route down the hill. And by down, I mean we almost fell face first on the extremely narrow, steep steps.

The ruins from the other side.

The ruins from the other side.

Staufen has a little Wii wine shop.  How could you not stop in and buy a bottle?

Staufen has a little Wii wine shop (hehe). How could you not stop in and buy a bottle especially when you almost tumbled down the hill where the grapes were grown?

Nerdy travel alert!  Doc Sci explained to T-Rex how this ancient wine press works.

Nerdy travel alert! Doc Sci had a good time explaining to T-Rex how this ancient wine press works.

Spare bottles in case you want to give it a go yourself?

Spare bottles in case you want to give it a go yourself?

My favorite find of the day - an iron pretzel.

My favorite find of the day – an iron pretzel.

Thanks for letting me share!  Where would you like to wander?

Signature-Marigold

Four Tips for Planning a Travel Itinerary with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama Tips for Creating a Travel Itinerary with KidsI am often asked for tips on how to put together an itinerary when traveling with kids, so this is the beginning of a new series of Tips & Guides to Traveling with Kids.  Below, I’ve outlined a few basic – but very important! – rules that I live by when planning a trip with my three boys.

The absolutely-positively-totally-do-not-forget-it, number one rule of creating an itinerary with kids is this: keep your expectations rock bottom low Even the best behaved, most amazing, awesomely angelic children surprise us in unexpected, and sometimes shocking ways when taken out of their element and plucked in a foreign place.

By the way, if you have kids as I’ve just described, send them my way.  I’ll take them on vacation myself!

Could your kids last several hours in a fascinating – to you – museum?  Maybe.  But chances are if their routine is out of whack (and it almost always is when traveling), they probably won’t.  Sometimes their behavior isn’t even the issue; maybe that delicious street food you had for dinner last night is wreaking havoc right next to da Vinci.  You just never know.

In light of this, here are four more guidelines to help you determine your ideal vacation itinerary.

Keep Them Interested

The first thing I do in itinerary planning is make a list of everything I am interested in exploring.  I rank the list of attractions, shops, restaurants, etc. according to importance.

Next, I make another list of things that my children enjoy (such as swimming, hiking, going to the playground, etc.).  Google “(your destination), (activity), kids” or “(your destination) with kids” to see what fun activities are possible for them.

Visiting the Museum was something I knew my boys would enjoy.

Visiting the National Air and Space Museum was something I knew my boys would enjoy.

When I have my lists, I pick ONE thing from each list to do per day.  Yep, only one.  Most likely that’s all you’ll successfully accomplish – and even the successfully part is not guaranteed.

Your compilation will vary greatly with your personal interests as well as with the age of your children.  Some things I blacklist when traveling with a baby, a preschooler, and a kindergartener are museums, organized tours, places where children MUST be quiet, fancy places with breakable objects, expensive restaurants, and attractions with potential danger for children.

Hiking Hallasan was something Doc Sci and I really wanted to include in our visit to Jeju-do.

Hiking Hallasan was something Doc Sci and I really wanted to include in our visit to Jeju-do.

Families with older children probably won’t need to blacklist anything.  Also, the interests of older children will be more developed and personal.  I suggest letting each older child make a list of things he or she like to do.  Then, give each of the children a block of time to plan.  You might need to help in the area of logistics, but as much as possible let them come up a realistic itinerary that embraces their unique interests.

Keep Them Happy

Now that you have your ONE thing per day that you are really looking forward to, it’s time to provide some incentive for the kiddos to be on their best behavior.  The rewards for positive attitudes, good behavior, listening, and being patient can range from a simple treat like ice cream or a souvenir from a fun shop to something much bigger such as a visit to the zoo or a water park.

My boys LOVE chocolate.  79 cents for two hours of good behavior is a total bargain.

79 cents for two hours of good behavior is a total bargain.

It’s definitely okay – and encouraged! – to use attractions from the kid’s list as incentive.  I’d steer away from threatening (“If you don’t keep quiet, I’m not taking you to Legoland.”), and instead just keep it positive (“I can see you’re trying hard to be quiet.  Keep up the good work, and we’ll have fun at Legoland together when we’re finished with this exhibit.”).

How about a visit to an animal park or zoo as a reward?

How about a visit to an animal park or zoo as a reward?

How and when you use these incentives is up to you.  Sometimes I find that telling my boys too far in advance that they will get to go to a fun kids restaurant for lunch results in me having to listen to, “When are we going to the restaurant?” three hundred and fifty times in a span of about ninety minutes.  I usually let their best morning behavior run its course before reaching in my virtual bag of tricks to pull out a reward.

Keep Them Fed & Hydrated

It seems rather obvious to feed your children, right?  But, it bears repeating since every parent knows the horror of a hunger-induced public meltdown.  Get a good breakfast in your kids, and then set out to do your one thing.

We usually have a picnic or eat at the vacation rental for breakfast as well as one other meal per day.  When we eat in restaurants, I scope out the location, type or service, and the menu in advance.

It's rare that we eat at the Golden Arches.  But, when we do, it's a big deal to the kids, and a lot of bang for our buck.  Full tummies and a reward for good behavior all rolled into one.

It’s rare that we eat at the Golden Arches. But, when we do, it’s a big deal to the kids, and a lot of bang for our buck. Full tummies and a reward for good behavior all rolled into one.

Once your itinerary is set, start searching for restaurants that are in the area.  I use Google maps for this, and it works great!  Type in your location, click on the little marker, and then click on “Search nearby.”  Enter in anything from pizza to kids restaurant to Mexican to take-away.

Choose two or three options, and make notes of opening times, address, price range, etc.  I cannot tell you how many times we have gone to try a Mexican restaurant in a new city and it is closed (permanently or temporarily).  Have a backup or two.

Beyond eating out, BRING SNACKS and drinks!  You will inevitably be stuck in a line, on a bus, waiting for a train, on a crowded tarmac.  Special snacks are also good rewards, and they can keep children busy when you are enjoying your ONE thing.

Keep Them Comfortable

Does your family have a daily routine?  Do your little ones still take naps?  Do they have a special nighttime ritual?  Give your kids as many comforts of home as you possibly can while traveling. You won’t be able to totally recreate your home environment while away, but do your best to include some elements.

I often let the boys watch a DVD while I cook dinner, so they enjoyed catching an episode of Thomas the Train in Korean while I prepared rice and dumplings in our kitchenette.

I often let the boys watch a DVD while I cook dinner, so they enjoyed catching an episode of Thomas the Train on Korean TV while I prepared rice and dumplings in our kitchenette.

For instance, my two younger boys still take naps (and the older one and his parents definitely benefit from an afternoon snooze).  Unless there’s something mind blowing happening from 2pm-3:30pm in the city I’m visiting, my boys will be napping in our vacation rental, the car, the stroller, or a backpack carrier.

In line with the very first rule of keeping your expectations rock bottom low, I know that my boys might not actually sleep during nap time.  But, I’ve found that it’s better to give them the opportunity to shut their eyes and the chance to cling to the comfort of their routine.

Do I ever stray from the routine?  You betcha.  But not without a lot of consideration, and I rarely – if ever – will screw up the flow two days in a row.

Keep an Open Mind

Traveling with kids is all about compromise.  It’s vital to balance your wants and needs with theirs.  Tip the scales completely in either direction, and it’s a recipe for some very unpleasant travel memories.

Have a mix of downtime and go-go-go.  If one day contains a frantic hop-on, hop-off bus tour where you’re packing in as many sites as you can, let the next day include a leisurely walk along a river or in a forest followed by a picnic lunch.

Letting boys be boys.

Letting boys be boys.

Find play places where they can let off some steam and take a break from behaving themselves.  Some of the best memories we have of certain destinations are of our boys just having a grand ol’ time on the local playground while Doc Sci and I sat and talked.

Trying out the funky swings in Dublin, Ireland.

Trying out the funky swings in Dublin, Ireland.

None of these guidelines are hard and fast rules.  That’s why they’re called – wait for it – guidelines.  Be willing to be flexible and go with the flow no matter if something amazing or drastic happens.  By using the tips above, you should have everything you need to successfully start planning your next itinerary with kids.Signature-Marigold

A Jar Full of Date Nights at Home

Thrifty Travel Mama - 35 Ideas for Date Nights at HomeSo, how was your Valentine’s Day?  Say, what Valentine’s Day?  Right, right, the one last week.  Did you strike out?  Buy overpriced red roses that died the next day?  Bought milk chocolate instead of dark chocolate?  Totally forgot the day all together?

Well, here’s a thrifty idea sure to patch things up and even win over the Valentine’s Day haters – a home date night jar!

We are blessed to have some great babysitters here, but using their services every week is more than our budget can handle.  It’s doable for us to splurge once a month, but what about the rest of the time?

Relaxing with a movie at home is our Friday night activity of choice.  But, it can get old.  And what if there are no new interesting and/or appropriate movies to watch?

I came across this Home Date Night Jar on Pinterest, and I thought it would be a fabulous Valentine’s Day gift for Doc Sci.  It’s ridiculously easy; the hardest part is coming up with ideas that you know you and your significant other will enjoy. To (hopefully) make things easier for you, I’ve listed 35 ideas below.

I scrawled each one on a small scrap of colored paper and then shoved them inside the jar.  I threw together a quick label, attached it with packing tape, and voila!  Done.

Like my label?  Download it here: Date Night Jar Label.  I’ve included the color and a B&W version.  Free for personal use only, please!Thrifty Travel Mama - 35 Ideas for Date Nights at Home

Date Nights at Home – Ideas

  1. Make Fondue (cheese, pizza, meat, chocolate, etc.)
  2. Play a board game
  3. Dig out the cards and play Gin, Rummy, or the like.
  4. Poker Night – get creative with what to bet with!
  5. Make Milkshakes and watch That Thing You Do!
  6. Start a bucket list and post it somewhere that you can both see it and add to it
  7. Whip up some hot chocolate and sit outside together
  8. Bake a batch of the most amazing chocolate chip cookies ever
  9. Do a puzzle together
  10. Dream about where you want to be in 5 years
  11. Scour You Tube for hilarious videos
  12. Mexican fiesta – tacos, chips & salsa, and Nacho Libre
  13. French theme night – French onion soup, French bread, and watch Amelie
  14. Italian evening – pizza or pasta, gelato, and The Italian Job
  15. Korean wave – grilled, marinated chicken or beef, karaoke, and My Sassy Girl
  16. Have a chocolate tasting and watch Chocolat
  17. Eat ice cream sundaes and watch old videos you have made
  18. Write the story of how you met
  19. Make an Amazing Race audition video
  20. Order take out and eat it by candle light
  21. Wii Games – husband’s choice
  22. Wii Games – wife’s choice
  23. Find a book you both want to read and take turns reading out loud to each other
  24. Watch a movie made before 2000
  25. Be a kid – stock up on junk food and watch your favorite TV series from childhood
  26. 80s dance party in your living room
  27. Wine, cheese, and fruit night – keep those pinkies held high!
  28. Sports Night – watch a game, eat nachos, drink soda, and root for the home team
  29. Chow down a picnic in your living room
  30. Cook breakfast for dinner and watch cartoons
  31. Write silly love notes to each other and hide them around the house
  32. Eat cake and watch your wedding video
  33. Bake a dessert from when you were dating and share your favorite memories
  34. Try your hand at making some gourmet popcorn
  35. Go to sleep early!

Want more?  Check out Six Sisters’ Stuff for hundreds of other ideas.

What would you add??Signature-Marigold

Thrifty Travel Mama – 2012 – A Year in Review

Whew!  2012 has been a wild ride, full of experiences and surprises.  “Year in Review” posts are all the rage in the blogosphere, so despite my inclinations to do the opposite, I’m jumping on the bandwagon.

In January, I went fully frugal.  I shared my source for Free DIY Passport Photos.  I pointed you to the European Backpacker Index, a tool for researching expenses in European cities.  Oh, and I saved you from having to run to the store at the last minute by showing you how to make your own brown sugar.

February brought me a birthday, and Doc Sci took me to Milan (sans kids) to celebrate.  We ogled da Vinci’s Last Supper and the views from the roof of the Duomo.  We got caught in Carnival madness, and stuffed our faces with risotto, bread, pizza, and (of course) gelato.

I went crazy in March trying to make our awful concrete student housing apartment more homey on a very small budget.  I spiced up the kitchen, bathroom, and front entry.  I constructed a ginormous cork board wall in the living room and plastered it with photos.  I somehow also found the time to completely finish Rosetta Stone German and post a final review.

In April, our little family went home to the US for 3 weeks, stopping in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida.  We soaked up the sun, and made kid-friendly activities a priority.  Among the boys’ favorite was our trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Back in Germany, May was part work and part play.  Doc Sci and I both took week-long intensive German courses.  We also managed a date night to the movies, complete with popcorn and assigned seats.

Doc Sci let us tag along with him to Berlin in June.  He attended a brainiac conference while the boys and I played at Legoland.   And speaking of brains, I got mine to work long enough to pass my German driver’s license exam.

In July, I switched to extreme nesting mode.  I stocked the freezer with a gazillion meals, and organized our life into one happy turquoise notebook.

I took a six-week break starting in August to bring our third and final little traveler into the world.  His birth story is the kind nightmares are made of.

We ventured out to Frankfurt in September to get the little guy his passport when he was only two weeks old.  And good thing, too.  Later that month, Big Foot found himself coasting through five countries on four planes, five trains, and two buses, in the span of three days.  No sweat for a seven week-old.

In October, I posted reviews of flying Delta Airlines and easyJet with a baby.  I should’ve shown you these fashionable Oktoberfest pull-ups, but I was too busy scoring freebies for babies and mamas in Germany.

November was an exciting month for us.  We bought a car!  Doc Sci wrote a fabulous guest post detailing the adventure.

We took our car on a little road trip to France in December.  It was all the travel we could muster in between the zillions of Pinterest projects that filled my days and nights before Christmas.

Every year has its highs and lows, surprises both good and bad, and 2012 was no different.  It’s just how life goes, and I’m thankful to live it with my awesome-amazing-how-could-I-describe-you-in-just-one-word husband and three blessed boys who make me laugh every day.  Here’s to 2013!

My Pinterest Christmas

Merry (belated) Christmas!  Yikes, it’s almost the new year.  I hope you and yours had a simply joyful holiday, whatever it is you celebrate.  Though Christmas is officially over for 2012, you probably still have your tree up.  So, while you’ve still got the holidays on the brain, I thought I’d share my very Pinterest-y Christmas with you.

Last year, I put together my very first homemade advent calendar.  This year, I wanted to add a twist.  I found a puzzle with 20 pieces that depicted a manger scene.  I wanted to add a piece to each day’s surprise (well, the first 20 anyway).  The puzzle wouldn’t fit in the matchbox calendar, so I had to come up with a different design.

Our advent calendar made from colored paper, ribbon, and an old IKEA mirror frame.

Our advent calendar made from colored paper, ribbon, and an IKEA mirror frame.

I was totally strapped for time, so I have a confession.  Doc Sci actually did most of the work on this advent calendar.  I just arranged the envelopes, slapped on the numbers, and strung them up in an old IKEA mirror frame.  The man’s got skills beyond brainiac physics, thank God.  He’s also got some pretty rad muscles, but luckily we didn’t need those for our Christmas-y arts & crafts.

Along with the puzzle pieces, I slipped in short devotions for each day.  These were designed to be quick (and they were), but I found some of the questions to be a smidge over the heads of my three and five year-old boys.  I just altered several on the fly and kept my expectations for deep, thoughtful discussion very low.  Perhaps next year T-Rex will be ready for more.  I plan to keep these inserts around and reuse them.

My favorite part of the advent calendar, however, are the fun things we get to do.  I don’t have the time or energy for something amazing every day, but I was able to pull off some memorable activities.

This year's Christmas tree!

This year’s Christmas tree!

For starters, we decorated our new Christmas tree.  Last year, we had a real tree.  But, on a clearance hunt after Christmas, I came across a small, pre-lit artificial tree… for 2,50 euro!   We hung the cheapie ornaments we bought last season as well as these 3D stars which I made out of photocopied sheet music.

Our "snowy" view.

Our “snowy” view.

It snowed for the first time this year in late October.  That quickly melted, but we received another decent dumping around T-Rex’s birthday in early December.  It seemed fitting to decorate the windows with paper snowflakes.  I folded the paper and sketched the patterns.  T-Rex cut (with Doc Sci’s help), and Screech smoothed out the finished flakes.

T-Rex and Doc Sci cut...

T-Rex and Doc Sci cut…

and Screech smooths out the finished product.

and Screech smooths out the finished product.

I had planned to make these fun Christmas cards that feature easy paper strip Christmas trees, but I ran out of time.  I was too busy preparing for a cookie swap party.  I do not know what I was thinking, hosting such madness while juggling two preschoolers and a four month-old baby.

The loot!

The loot!

I invited at least 25 people, thinking most of them would not come.  Wrong!  Many of my guests had never heard of such a thing as a cookie swap and just so happened to think it was a fabulous idea.  I had more than 15 adults plus kids in my teeny tiny apartment.

Swappin' cookies.

Swappin’ cookies.

The boys and I decorated sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies.  I put the nice ones out for the party and sent the crazy-looking creations to the boys’ kindergarten Christmas fest.  I also served this show-stopping Garlic Parmesan Pull-Apart Bread.  And then I prayed for leftovers.

And, of course, we had to bake our own cookies for the swap.  Since I asked each guest to RSVP with their cookie choice, I was forced to choose a cookie that no one else was making.  In the spirit of our Florida roots, and since citrus is plentiful this time of year, I went with Creamsicle Dreams.  If you make these, don’t skimp on the orange zest or the white chocolate, and double the amount of orange juice for some really punchy pucks.

Just between you and me, I really wanted to make these Cafe Coffee Cookies.  But Doc Sci gags at the taste of coffee, and I thought they might not be as universally pleasing as the Creamsicle Dreams.  Maybe I will be bold and go for it next year!

Elf on TV and gingerbread popcorn on the mantle.

Elf on TV and gingerbread popcorn on the mantle.

Since I didn’t want guests to just go home with a zillion cookies, I made several batches of Gingerbread Popcorn to give as party favors.  Disclaimer: this popcorn is totally addictive.  Especially if you decide it should have some salty pretzel sticks added in and melted white chocolate drizzled all over.  I probably ate as much of this stuff as I gave away… and I enjoyed every calorie-laden bite.

IKEA gingerbread house kit.

IKEA gingerbread house kit.

Gingerbread houses are not just fun to make; they’re great party decorations, too.  I originally thought it would be a good idea to deck it to the 9’s with the kids.  Then, I came across a much better idea – have the boys decorate ice cream cone “trees” and then put those up around the house.  Genius!

The boys decorated these ice cream cone "trees."

The boys decorated these ice cream cone “trees.”

Our completed house!

Our completed house!

Rear view.

Rear view.

A candy cane fence is good for keeping out sour patch kids.

A candy cane fence is good for keeping out sour patch kids and lemonheads.

Peppermint path.

Peppermint path.

My boring front door needed some pizzazz to welcome guests, so I whipped up a toilet paper roll wreath.  I gave it my own trash-to-treasure touch by adding newspaper flowers.

If you make one of these wreaths, please do yourself a favor and use spray paint.  Painting every crack and crevice can really kill the Christmas cheer.

If you make one of these wreaths, please do yourself a favor and use spray paint. Coating every crack and crevice by hand can really kill the Christmas cheer.

After the party, we had a family Christmas movie night.  I made veggie Christmas tree pizzas (although this snowman pizza is adorable, too) to snack on while we watched Elf.  It also seemed a fitting time to devour the gingerbread house while Will Ferrell poured maple syrup on his spaghetti and sprinkled it with M&Ms, chocolate syrup, and Pop Tarts.

Christmas pizza - step 1!

Christmas tree pizza – step 1!

Decorating the trees.

Decorating the trees.

Bubbling over with anticipation.

Bubbling over with anticipation.  Pour some syrup on it and Buddy would be proud.

Thanks for taking a tour of my Pinterest Christmas.  I’d love to hear about your Pinterest-inspired Christmas experiences too, so leave a comment below to share!