Turkish Family Travels: Bucket List FAIL and the Mishap That (Almost) Ruined Our Trip

Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

This post appears as part of our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series, chronicling a fun fall fling in the city of Istanbul… well, except for the hotel shenanigans I’m sharing today.

It’s obvious from comments both written and spoken that some people think the life of an expat or long-term traveling family is one of endless glamour. It must be amazing to see so many places in the world! You are so lucky! I wish I had your life! Hmmmm.

Amazing? Yes, at times.

Perfect? Hardly.

I think the travel blogging community doesn’t do enough to show the other side of travel. You know… the my-kid-threw-up-on-the-train-and-we-just-had-to-leave-it-or-miss-our-connection side. The diaper-blowout-that-coated-the-entire-car-seat-at-4am side. The I-so-looked-forward-to-this-place-but-it-totally-let-me-down side.

I’m definitely an accomplice in this only-show-the-pretty-side routine. It’s not that I want to purposely hide anything. It’s more that I prefer to write about the fun times and often forget to write about the travel disasters.

So, today I’m sharing a bucket list FAIL and a nasty hotel mishap that nearly ruined our trip.

You can read more about our mishaps and total travel fails in Italy, Bulgaria, Karlovy Vary, and Seoul via the links provided.

Out of Time

You’ve probably seen my bucket list here. The last item on the list is something I’ve never done before – visit two continents in the same trip without flying between them. Fortunately, this is easily done in Istanbul… if you have time.

But, time we did not have. Sadly, we could only sail between Europe and Asia, touching the former but not the latter. All in all, not a super big deal. Plus, it means I’ll have to go back. Three cheers for silver linings!

Now, on to the dark cloud..

Istanbul Accommodation Hunt

Normally we stay in vacation rentals when we travel. They’re cheaper, provide more space than a traditional hotel room, and give us the opportunity to imagine living in the city.

I had a terrible time looking for accommodations in Istanbul. It seemed that all of the apartments were in Galata – or much further away.

I wanted to be within walking distance of as many places as possible in Sultanahmet since we only had three days. I had no idea (and had no time to research because we were moving) how we would do on public transportation, and I didn’t want to risk it.

Numerous searches did not turn up any apartments that fit my criteria – and yes, I continually loosened my expectations over the weeks I looked for a place. Finally, I had to fact the facts – a holiday apartment was out. Time to look for a hotel.

Shabby Digs – Chic Prices

Many of the hotels looked ridiculously run down, shabby quarters with royally high prices. We needed a cot of some kind for Charlie at least two double beds for the rest of us. I hoped for a door of some kind to make the room a suite so that Doc Sci and I could hang out at night while the boys went to sleep. A kitchen is also a huge plus for us.

The hotel rooms my search returned were both depressing and hilarious. Some of them were decorated with antiques in a rich, granny style which is fancy but never feels clean to me. Others appeared so cheaply put together and dirty I could easily imagine the grime and the bugs (not pictured, of course).

My absolute favorite was a “family room” (their words, not mine) sporting a double bed and a single bed in one room… both were nestled in the main room next to a hot tub with neon lights. Just – wow.

Lucky Strike?

I finally found a hotel I thought could work. The Hotel Enderun featured a beautiful breakfast area enclosed in glass and a small green area perfect for little boys to let off steam in a stressful new city.

The rooms did not have kitchens, but I figured that we would not need to cook when staying only a few days. Having breakfast provided would be enough for 1-2 meals a day (we usually make sandwiches with buffet items).Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

The description on the website stated that the Family Room (the language suggests they have only one) had two connecting rooms, one with a double bed, and the other with a single. However, the photos showed two singles and one double. Either way, that would work for us – and it had a DOOR! After all, that’s what connecting means, right?

Wrong.

When we arrived, we were shown to a regular hotel room (ONE room) that had one double bed and three portable cots. Yep, this hotel expected my big boys to sleep in baby beds. Even worse than that, they completely lied about the description of the room.

From the Hotel Enderun website:

Family Connected Room has 2 Connected Rooms each other. One of them has 1 Single beds and the Other Room has 1 Queen Bed, Private bathroom with shower, Dual action (heating and cooling) air-conditioner, 24 hour hot water,Satellite LCD TV with major European channels, Direct dial telephone, Mini bar, Hair dryer, Safe deposit box,WI-FI, Free internet connection. Buffet Breakfast, Non Smoking. Maximum 3 Person per room in existing beds.

 

At first they were “full” and then they suddenly had an extra single room next to that “family room” that they could give in addition to the room we currently had. But, my kids are too young to sleep alone in a strange hotel in a new city, and I didn’t feel comfortable going in the hallway in the night if they needed us.

Plus, this was NOT what I booked. The manager on duty finally admitted that the room we had was a “deluxe” room – great, but NOT what I booked.

I can handle a lot of stressful situations but being tricked and ripped off is not one of them.

I explained that this situation was unacceptable and showed them on their own website. I asked repeatedly to see that room in the pictures. The manager told me he had never seen those photos and had no idea they had that kind of room. Wow… Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

After a bunch of “But, we’re full..” garbage, I was finally allowed to see a suite – again, not the same as the photos. I was assured nothing could be done that night. And I assured them I would not be paying the quoted rate for that night.

We had no choice but to sleep in the room offered or be on the street that evening. I paid half of the nightly rate and also negotiated a free return taxi to the airport at the end of our stay.

The Saga Continues

The next day, we finally were able to see what was supposedly the advertised room (“It’s our best room! You’ll love it!”).

Want to guess what we found?Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

Inside were one double, one single, and one roll-away bed (NOT four real beds). There were indeed two rooms at one time, as in probably a hundred years ago, that now are one big room with a six-foot opening in between.

No door.

Once more, c’mon, let me hear it… NOT WHAT I BOOKED!!!!Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

I was – naturally – furious. But what could be done? Either I could accept this room and make it work, or I could let this ruin the rest of my vacation.

We chose the former.

Buyer Beware

Unfortunately, the photos of this fake room are still up on the website.

I know now that these are photos from various rooms, not one room, put together in a slideshow to lead the customer to believe they’re getting something that does not exist.

I know this because I’ve been in these rooms. The bathroom pictured is from our first room (the one with three baby cribs for three big boys). And several of the other photos are from the other family room I was shown, but that we did not stay in.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

I write about this not to shame a particular hotel (though that is an added bonus), but to caution you. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

In this instance, the price wasn’t outrageously high or low, and nothing about the website seemed sketchy. I wish I would have had a backup plan so that when I was offered a room at another hotel, I could’ve had something to bargain.

Be Bold!

False advertising?! Language translation error?! Who knows – what I do know is that I wasted hours on this mess, and it nearly ruined our entire vacation since we had to deal with this garbage on two of our three days in town.

If blatant misrepresentation happens to you, do not be afraid to call management out on the error and negotiate terms to make the stay acceptable to you.

These infuriating shenanigans are part of that less glamorous, least-publicized, rarely discussed side to travel. These kinds of situations are the mishaps that make a place memorable – for better or worse.

What about you? Have you ever bumped into false advertising on your travels or had another mishap nearly ruin your trip? What would you do if what you got was not what you paid for?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Lead image credit

All other images are from and link to the Hotel Enderun website.

A Family of Hobos We Have Been

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

This is one of my insanely long posts. Instead of just passing it off as tl;dr, make yourself a cuppa and stay a while… or just skim the headers. We can still be friends.

We are that crazy family… the one that others sometimes speak of as brave when they really mean insane.

In case you’re new ’round these parts and aren’t sure if I’m for real about the nutty bit, this post should convince you.

The Overview

Rewind with me to last autumn. We left our home in Freiburg at the beginning of October 2014, and ended up in Arizona just shy of New Year’s Eve. Seems simple, right? Ha – not so fast.

Hang on to your hats and follow along on our ride from Germany to Arizona via a dozen other destinations.. with all the madness and mayhem in between!

Please note that I am including some links to posts that have not been published yet. If you discover one of these, you can bookmark this post and come back later to read the linked posts, or you can just follow the blog via email (sign up on the right) or Facebook to be notified of all future posts.

By the way, if you’re reading these posts for the culture shock aspect, I’ll be honest and admit that recapping the events below is difficult for me. There are certain aspects of living in Freiburg that I miss somethin’ fierce, and I get a bit choked up when I dwell on certain memories for too long. So keep in mind that this adventure is two parts insane, one part pain.

Leaving Freiburg

Moving is never easy, and moving from one continent to another just multiplies the trouble. The ins and outs of our move is beyond the scope of this post, but I will briefly mention that we shipped most of our things to the US via DHL. Because of this, we did not have to schlep ten, fifty-pound checked suitcases and three children. Just the three kids, they’re non-negotiable.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Testing out the new headphone splitter and learning to share one small DVD player.

Instead, all five of us all had backpacks and carry-on suitcases. Additionally, we took two gigantic checked bags and a car seat bag. If my math is right, that’s 13 pieces of luggage.

Hey, I never said I’m a pro at moving light – just packing light.

We bid Freiburg farewell and boarded a train to Leipzig. When we changed trains in Frankfurt, and Alpha and I literally ran to Chipotle in the rain to fetch one last German burrito. While there, we bumped into old friends from the US I haven’t seen in over ten years, also getting their burrito fix. Super fun, and super random. It’s a small (Mexican food) world, indeed.

Leipzig and Dresden

In Leipzig, Doc Sci attended one last conference for his post-doc while I had a fun meet-up and playdate with a blog reader (hi, Rose!). I also took the boys to Dresden… by myself.

Gulp.

Istanbul

After three days in the City of Heroes (Stadt der Helden), we flew to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. Turkish offered the cheapest fare, and it actually turned out to be even less expensive to stay in Istanbul for 3 days on a stopover rather than going straight to the US.

We experienced three intense days in Istanbul, soaking up as much as we could of the local flavor and Turkish culture. Stay tuned for a budget-friendly “Istanbul with Kids” series!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Welcome to America

Our first stop in the US was Washington Dulles to visit family.

Of course (of course!), we landed on the day that the extra special screening for Ebola at passport control rolled out. Not exactly the best welcome to be stuck in customs/immigration for hours…

The boys enjoyed a weekend running crazy with the cousins. All five kids took advantage of a favorite autumn pastime – jumping in gigantic piles of leaves.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Orlando

We then flew to Orlando to reunited with friends, boxes shipped from Germany, and our car.

The last time we drove our car, Charlie was in an infant seat. Now, we have three lanky boys, all in forward-facing car seats. We shoved, pulled, squished, and prayed that three car seats would fit in the back row… of our Honda Civic.

In the end, we managed – but just barely. Good thing, too, because this car was to be our home for the next two months.

During our time in Orlando, Doc Sci started applying for jobs. We took turns hanging out with the kids and searching for open positions. At night, we both researched universities, cities, companies; we emailed out CVs and cover letters.

We dreamed, and we prayed.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

We celebrated the birthdays of Bravo and Alpha while on the road, one at the Lego store…

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

…and one at Legoland!

Nashville

Just before Thanksgiving, we road-tripped up to Nashville for a change of scenery. We set up camp at Grandma’s house, hung out with friends and family in Music City, and applied for more jobs.

It was during our stay in Tennessee that Doc Sci had a phone interview with the university that eventually hired him. But, we didn’t know that at the time, so after two weeks, we then set our sights on the Big D.

Dallas

One of our Freiburg friends is from the Dallas area (hi, Cheril!), and her parents were up for letting five dazed and confused ex-expat strangers take over half of their house. Generous souls!

We drove from Nashville to Dallas, and unpacked the car once again. More fabulous reunions with friends in the heart of Texas, employment meetings and emails, spelling tests, and math worksheets.

This is beginning to be a repetitive story, eh?

The News – and the Dilemma

Somewhere in the middle of the Metroplex, we got the call that a university in Arizona wanted to offer Doc Sci a visiting professor position for the spring semester.

Great news – except for one thing. The job started in less than one month.

Oh my.

Should we say accept the position? Should we move for a job that was not guaranteed for more than four months?

Beyond the philosophical, we also faced a physical dilemma. We stood, at that moment, halfway in between the Arizona job and our stored possessions in Florida.

Should we attempt to rent something furnished and run the risk of having to go back to Florida if the job turned out to be permanent? Or, should we go get our things in Florida now?

To complicate things further, Doc Sci had set up an in-person meeting in Atlanta for two days later.

Seriously?

Seriously.

What did we do? Why, we packed up the kids and drove to Atlanta, of course!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Atlanta

One more interview and less than twenty four hours in Atlanta later, we were zooming down I-75 on the way to Orlando again. We were positively sick of being on the road, but we needed those four hundred and fifty miles to discuss whether or not we would move to Arizona.

Orlando.. Again

Ultimately, we said yes. And, we took our stuff.

Just shy of two weeks after that major decision, we emptied our storage unit, packed a truck, and said goodbye to Orlando.

Road Trip!

Over the next week, we logged a minimum of eight hours of solid driving each day – not including breaks – to make it to Arizona as soon as possible. We needed to have at least one week to move into a house and prepare for Doc Sci to teach (for the very first time, I might add).

I drove our car with the three boys in the backseat, and Doc Sci manhandled the moving truck. If there’s such thing as an ideal road trip, this was the exact opposite.

We encountered some of the most intense rain I have ever driven through, a hail storm while on the “stilts” of I-10 in Louisiana with no place to pull over, snow in Texas, and ice in New Mexico.

I had done my best before we left to buy new DVDs, arrange little goody bags, dollar store toys.. you know, all those cutesy things you see on Pinterest.

But, after a couple thousand miles and sitting ALL DAY LONG for days on end, things got pretty frazzled in the back seat (okay, in the front seat, too).

Hey, at least no one threw up.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Dallas.. Again

The one bright spot was spending Christmas Eve and Day with our new friends in Dallas (remember those nice people that let perfect strangers take over half of their home?) and the rest of their family.

We’ll always remember 2014 as the Christmas where we literally could not uphold any traditions (no Adventskranz, Adventskalendar, cookie swaps, or gingerbread) and barely managed to fill the stockings. Instead, we received the fabulous gifts of generosity and hospitality from strangers turned friends. Humbling, indeed.

Arizona, Finally!

We rang in the new year at a hotel in Arizona, roasting marshmallows in the fake fire pit outside.

Hey, it could be worse. We had survived our road trip, and we were all healthy and alive!

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Happy New Year!

Unfortunately, the house we rented wasn’t ready for us to move in until after Doc Sci started working. In the meantime, I shopped with the kids in the mornings, looking for basic furniture for our new home. When we moved to Germany, we gave nearly everything away because it didn’t make financial sense to store it.

In the afternoons, the boys did school while Charlie napped. When Doc Sci came home from work, I left to do more shopping and research.

Home…?

On moving day, we pulled up to our new house and found that all the vendors (painters, cleaners, etc.) had packed down the snow in the driveway, leaving us a housewarming present of a two-inch thick slab of solid ice on which to unload our things.

A kind neighbor lent us a snow shovel; the boys chipped away at the ice while Doc Sci and I tried not to break any bones.

Insert snarky comment about how with America’s fabulous system of healthcare, we wouldn’t have had coverage for any ice-related injuries since Doc Sci had not started work yet…

Once we were moved in, Doc Sci had to turn his attention back to the paying customers – students – leaving me to assemble the furniture, unpack, and set up our home.

After sleeping in twenty different beds in a mere two months, we felt like guests in our new-ish house with brand new furniture. The scars of pro-hoboing must be deep because even after six months here, that feeling has just started to subside.

Since the job in Arizona was only temporary, I wasn’t exactly motivated to really move in – you know, hang pictures, decorate, make things “for real.” Plus, it was hard doing everything alone.

Doc Sci left early in the morning, worked all day, came home for dinner, and then worked again until nearly midnight almost every night in an effort to stay at least one class ahead of the students.

I know this is reality for many families, but it was new to me and just.one.more. adjustment coupled with all the other changes.

The Bright Spot

The bright spot in all of this was that the two of us did not grow apart, though that would have been rather easy to do. We both worked hard in different ways, and we respected each other’s efforts. We asked for help when we absolutely needed it, and gave as much as we could to each other in that time.

Looking back, I do not know how we made it through apart from the grace of God.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Hiking in Arizona!

Our kids managed to overlook our flawed and stressful selves. Although they moaned and complained here and there about having to do school, I think they were just so relieved to not be hobos anymore.

I love to travel, but those months were an adventure I surely do not want to experience ever again.

Things are looking up for us now, maybe because it is summer break or because we have made some friends here and we don’t have any more boxes to unpack. I do still have more pictures to hang and projects I think would make this place more like home. But, we’re getting there. I can feel it. Inch by inch, centimeter by centimeter, minute by minute, day by day. We’re making it.

How about you? Have you ever had to move from place to place, looking for a job? Has a new location shifted your life in a big way?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Mishaps: Our Not-Exactly-Perfect Italian Adventure

Thrifty Travel Mama | Our Not-Exactly-Perfect Italian AdventureOkay, this is my LAST Italy post, and then I’ll shut up… promise!

When I post personal vacation pictures from our travels, I often get comments about how great it is that we travel the world.  And it is…. and, it’s not.

We are so, SO blessed to have this experience.  It’s awesome to pack up the kids and head to Italy for two weeks.  However, I just want to bring things down to earth, and share some of the utter chaos that often accompanies us when traveling as a family.

What follows is a short recap of our mishaps – the Italian edition.

Saturday… 330am

We wake the kids up in the middle of the night in order to knock out several hours of driving while they sleep.  We discover that Big Foot has a massive squidgy poo in his pants.  Annoying, but this is life with a baby, right?
Somewhere between Basel and the infamous Gotthard Tunnel, the poor thing has another blowout.  This one is even more epic and reminiscent of the early infant days, creeping its way up all over every possible surface within a six inch radius, including his car seat that conveniently does not have a washable cover…
And we wondered why he only slept about ten minutes of the first 3 hours of driving.  Huh.

Saturday… 330pm

By this time, we have been sitting in standstill traffic on the Italian highway for nearly three hours longer than expected.  We can’t exit the highway because the rest stops are clogged with other travelers escaping the eternal gridlock, and we are about to go bonkers listening to the bored boys in the backseat… screaming, crying, fighting, tired.

Saturday… 830pm

We realize that due to the morning’s unforeseen fecal fiasco, we seem to have forgotten the older boys’ stuffed animals that they sleep with every night.

Sunday

Screech is playing in the yard in front of our villa, being creative with the available materials.  He pretends the gravel is chicken and stuffs it in the stone grill.  He rips the unripe pears off the tree and uses them to bomb the “bad guys.”
He then picks up a terra cotta vase that is used to decorate the yard.  As I warn him not to use the (ancient? irreplaceable? collectible?) artifact,  he promptly drops it like a hot potato and laughs as it smashes to bits.  There goes our security deposit…

Monday

In Siena, T-Rex tumbles head first down a flight of stone steps.  He lands on his face, bruising his nose and knocking three front teeth loose.  I have nothing more to say on this since I’m still *slightly* traumatized.

Tuesday

Doc Sci tries to hop onto the swing where I am sitting on the playground just outside Pienza, and splits the front of his one good pair of shorts wide open.  Daily photo ops are now over.
Later that evening, I am doing cartwheels with T-Rex in the front yard when I accidentally kick him square in the mouth, in the exact spot where he had injured his teeth the day before… I could not have aimed more perfectly if I’d tried.

Friday

The boys have managed to break half of the pool toys we brought along, including two brand new super squirters.  In just a few more days, they will have managed to reduce every last pool toy – literally – to pieces.

Saturday

Despite our harrowing experience the previous Saturday, we decide to risk taking the highway for a short distance between Chianti and a pit stop near Pistoia.  We have not learned our lesson… and endure an unnecessary hour in standstill traffic.

Monday

I leave my brain by the pool instead of taking it with me to Firenze.  I grab the wrong paper map, fail to pre-load my “Tuscany with Kids” Google map on my phone, and forget the Frommers guidebook in the car.
We know our way to Brunelleschi’s Dome.. but after that?  No clue.  We wasted hours (hours!!) looking for a wifi spot in order to revive the map and trip notes on my phone.
I could go on, but you get the idea.  Life with kids is unpredictable and wonky in the best of circumstances; traveling with them just takes the pandemonium up a notch (or ten).
May our mishaps serve as the catalyst to bring contentment to the place you’re currently at (traveling or not) and anchor your dreams to reality (traveling with kids is only done by crazy people).
Got any good traveling-with-kids horror stories?  I’d love to hear them in the comments below!Signature-Marigold

Our Attempt to Experience the Famous Palio di Siena Horse Race

Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsOutside of Tuscany aficionados or Italy insiders, few people have heard of the Palio di Siena.  I first read about it in my trusty Frommers family guidebook, and instantly thought it could be a fabulous, insane but authentic Sienese experience.  So, what the heck is it?

In a nutshell, the Palio di Siena is a horse race, held twice per year in the summer.  The bareback riders dash around the main square in Siena, the Piazza del Campo.  The contestants are decked out in colors and patterns representing one of the city’s seventeen districts.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, the Palio is a really big deal in Siena.Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with Kids

Two of the seventeen district flags.

Two of the seventeen district flags.

Though I paid attention when the guidebook mentioned that taking small children is problematic in that crowds top 50,000 and getting to a toilet is nearly impossible.

But, a side note encouraged me in this crazy plan: “To experience the event for free, aim for the trial races, also held in the Campo.  It’s still busy but it’s bearable, at least for the morning sessions.”  Perfect.  We aimed to attend the 9am trial race on the 13th of August.

To get a feel for the city, I thought we might just want to visit Siena the day before the race and check things out.  You know, just in case…

As we approached the Campo, the first thing we noticed was that every entryway that led into the piazza from the surrounding streets was closed.  What the?!Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsAfter what seemed like at least a half an hour of searching, we stumbled upon the only open entrance which just happened to be right next to our first destination of the day – the iconic Torre del Mangia.  We noticed that the square was already set up for the race: bleachers erected, dirt track laid, metal barricades entrenched.

Lines for the tower can be incredibly long since only 25 people are allowed up at one time.   Lucky for us, we were definitely within the first group of 25.  Unlucky for us, we found ourselves standing around with the early birds for forty five minutes past the opening time of 10am.

Ready for the Palio di Siena

Ready for the Palio di Siena

When the boys went from restless to obnoxious, we started asking around.  The word on the street was that the horses had already practiced that morning, and the contenders had used the base of the tower as a stable.  Since tourists would hardly be impressed by the unsightly gifts left by the horses, someone had to sanitize the place.. and on Italian time.

No official explanation or apology, no “poop clearance in progress” sign on the door, no estimated time of completion.  When we had wasted an hour of our day in Siena, we finally gave up.

Next stop – a snack and then swings & a slide at the Orto Botanico.  Only it wasn’t open.  Chiuso per ferie.  Closed for the holidays.

Boo.  Hiss.

Determined to keep our chins up, we quickly popped in to the neighboring Museo di Storia Naturale to have a free look at a gigantic whale skeleton and make a pit stop.  Though seeing the big bones like that was totally rad, you have to admit that it’s rather pathetic when the best thing about your morning is a dead whale.

Museo di Storia Naturale

Museo di Storia Naturale

After a sandwich and a bit of gelato lifted our spirits, we took a deep breath and trudged on to face the crowds in the Piazza del Duomo.  The facade of the church is incredible.  I desperately wanted to see the inside, but I had to make a choice.

My boys weren’t going to put up with hours of art, and previous research told me that the Santa Maria della Scala was the more kid-friendly attraction.. Church or old-hospital-turned-museum?  The guidebook insisted on the latter, but my gut wanted to go with the former.

Research trumped momentary desire, and we shelled out 12 euros to enter the Santa Maria della Scala.  As promised in the promotional literature, there’s loads to see in this museum – art, science, religion, archeology, history – and it’s quiet.  The cycle of frescoes depicting medieval medical care is not to be missed, though my boys would argue the best part of the museum was the graffiti wall in the children’s area.

Santa Maria Della Scala

Santa Maria della Scala

Santa Maria Della Scala

Santa Maria Della Scala

The Duomo

The Duomo

But just between you and me, I would’ve rather seen the inside of the Duomo.  Zebra stripes are intertwined with delicate pink marble to decorate a most stunning facade second only to the Duomo in Firenze.  Sigh.  If its this exquisite from the outside, I can only imagine the interior.

At this point, Big Foot decided to give up the fight and fall asleep (the poor kid still has not learned how to nap on the go) which meant we had to keep walking or risk waking him up.  Our route took us by the best gelateria in Siena, the Kopa Kabana.  I’m still dreaming about the Coca Cola gelato!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsBut even the awesome ice cream could not revive our spirits.  The heat bordered on unbearable, the narrow streets were clogged with fellow tourists, our feet ached, our boys whined, and we couldn’t shake our feelings of discouragement.  We had spent nearly an entire day in the city, and yet we had virtually no authentic Sienese experiences to show for it.

The great divide - sun and shade.

The great divide – sun and shade.

To make matters worse, my heart sank when I realized that the next day, the first day of the trial races, would only intensify our frustrations.  We’d have to endure swarming crowds and scorching sun while waiting hours for a 90-second thrill.

Sounds a bit like Disney, doesn’t it?

Dejected, we did what we could to salvage the day.  We sampled pizza and schiacciata and let the boys roam around a few playgrounds as well as the Fortezza.Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Siena with Kids

But try as we may, we couldn’t catch a break.  At the very end of the day, we forced our tired legs down the stairs of the Fortezza in the direction of our car.  T-Rex stumbled, tripped, and fell face down on the stone steps.  The poor guy landed – smack – on his face.  Blood everywhere.  Three loose teeth.  Massive freak out.

Thank God, he’s fine.  The teeth weren’t broken, and they’ve been hanging on for over six weeks now.

Oh, Siena, I desperately wanted to like you.  But the stars were stacked against you, my friend, and things just did. not. work. out.  I hope we’ll meet again another time, in another season, and things will be different.

If you’re just joining us now for Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series, you might think we had a really awful time in Tuscany.  No, no, no!  Click on the link to read some of our other (awesome) adventures.

Okay, your turn!  Have you been to Siena?  Did you have a beautiful experience, or a rough go like we did? Signature-Marigold

Cruising the Chiantigiana.. and A Lousy Time in Greve

Thrifty Travel Mama - Chianti with KidsBeyond the food and wine, Tuscany is known for its unbeatable landscapes.  The Chianti region especially is famous for its picturesque little villages and rolling vineyards.  Since we had a car at our disposal, I wanted to make time for a classic drive on the Chiantigiana, also known as the SS222, between Castellini and Greve.

I couldn’t wait to burn up my camera with gorgeous images.  I had an idea in my mind of what we’d see, how perfect it would look, and where I would hang the lovely prints in my home.

Bahahaha! 

Someone please check my head please, because I must have forgotten reality.  Here’s a reminder (ahem, mostly for myself) – traveling with kids is never perfect, and things rarely turn out in the way you expect.

And that’s the heart of it, really.. expectations.  Keep them low, and you will often be amazed.  Set them high, and prepare for disappointment.

On the day of our wandering through Chianti, we had a late check out from our villa near Lucignano and at least six hours to kill before we could check in near Pistoia.  I made sure the boys had lots of snacks to ward off the where-are-we-going?-are-we-there-yet?-this-is-SO-boring broken record.

After getting turned around a few times, we made a left onto the infamous road.  I could hardly wait!  But, wait I did.  And wait, and wait some more.  My framed print never went from dream to reality.Thrifty Travel Mama - Chianti with KidsIn some places, the trees along the road were so thick, one couldn’t see the beauty beyond.  In other places, the sun beat down in such a way that the light was too harsh to capture anything worth remembering.  Not only that, the road was dangerously narrow and offered very few places to pull over.

And try as we may, we could not find this postcard picture.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Chianti with KidsAs if that weren’t enough, Big Foot didn’t feel like napping; instead, he decided screaming would be a more exciting way to pass the time.  We gave up gallivanting about, and parked in Greve.

Allllll the guidebooks tell you how charming Greve is.  And maybe they’re right.. except on Saturday mornings in August.

The main piazza was drowning in vendors and visitors.  Yes, the produce was gorgeous.  Yes, the cheese stunk to high heaven.  Yes, the shops were quaint.  But, it was difficult to enjoy the experience while suffocating from all the hype.  Thrifty Travel Mama - Chianti with KidsThrifty Travel Mama - Chianti with KidsIt’s hard to love a place when you’re being burnt to a crisp under the scorching sun, you can’t find a bathroom, and you pay through the nose for ice cream that’s worse than Walmart brand.

Even the punto panoramico was lame, and I’m always a sucker for a nice view.

Gah – what bum luck.

Well, am I saying that you should skip Chianti in general and Greve in particular?  Not exactly.  Everyone’s tastes are different, and you might visit on a Tuesday in May and love it to pieces.  Perhaps it’s magical at sunset when the light is softer and you’re not slathered in sunscreen.

Or maybe you’re super extroverted and savor being lost in a crowd.. in which case, what are you doing in backwoods Greve?  Get thee to Florence!

As long as you remember to keep your expectations low (hello, note to self!) and focus on what’s really important (time together as a family, for starters), you’ll always make memories… no matter where you go.

Your turn – have you gone wild with anticipation before traveling to a particular place?  What did you learn from the experience?Signature-MarigoldThis post is part of Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Yep, I’m THAT Parent

Thrifty Travel Mama - Expat Life MishapsAn open letter to those bystanders who opened their eyes but not their hands…

Hello, you.  Yes, you.

Have you forgotten how it feels to have a baby in your arms, in your care?  I suppose if you’ve never had one, I’ll grant you that excuse.  But your face betrays the fact that you know.  May I presume then, that you’re drawing a blank as to what it’s like to run errands toting a baby who protests his presence in your plans with all the force his twenty two pounds can muster?

Because you look like you’re judging me.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who parks her bike + trailer as close to the bank door as possible without actually blocking the exit or getting anyone else’s way but still manages to absorb the sneer of the suited man on his way out to grab coffee.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who precariously positioned her baby on the ledge jutting out in front of the ATM, while flailing arms punched numbers, grabbed cash.  Yes, I know I could’ve put the baby on the floor, but wouldn’t you have glared harder had he howled in protest at being only an arms length away from his beloved?

Yep, I’m that parent who weaved through the pedestrian crowds with said bike + trailer the length of a minivan, accidentally bumping old ladies and chanting “excuse me” right and left as if tossing flowers for a bride behind.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one that found a marginally acceptable place to park the self-propelled minivan in front of the home goods store only to have the entire bike and occupied baby seat tumble over while reaching for the steel U-lock nestled on the floor of the trailer.

But you, you were the one who wagged your head at me in judgement as my baby wailed more from shock than pain.  You offered me no help.  You craned your neck to peer at the poor woman who surely must be idiotic or inconsiderate to allow her child to topple toward the cobblestones.  You wondered, was I that kind of parent?

Yep, I’m that parent, the one whose left arm cradled a concrete ten month-old and with the right clutched a bag containing a rather fragile plate bearing a chip not noticed until purchased with precious little pocket money, all the while praying that neither arm would give out.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who rehearsed the phrases in another language, debating word choice, verb order, correct question grammar, formality all in a whisper while shushing her still-whimpering baby.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who fumbled over her lines, voice trailing, humiliation apparent, yet surprisingly emerged victorious with a darling new, chip-free plate destined to be the centerpiece of friendship and fellowship for as long as it shall live.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who held her head high as she walked past you, the onlooker sipping her coffee in the shade of the cafe and squinting at me in disapproval, only to realize that the awful crunch and creak coming from below belonged to a hopelessly flat tire sentencing me to an even further frustrating walk home.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who has these kind of adventures almost daily, the one who sometimes finds kindred spirits and kind faces, that blessed stranger that gives empathy so warm you care not if summer ever arrives or if it should leave without notice.  But, alas, not today.Signature-Marigold

Beware! Not All Travel Tips Are Actually Helpful

How many “Top 10” travel tip lists have you read recently?  I must admit, I’ve pinned plenty of these.  But, how many have I actually read?  Well, let’s just say there’s a reason the “pin now, read later” phrase exists.

A few days ago, I came across this tweet… “10 Things to Never Let Your Kids Do on a Plane.”  Sounds educational, right?  I’m always on the lookout for great family travel tips.  I clicked the link with the intention of pinning the post.

And then my eyes fell to the first tip on the never, ever, EVER list – don’t let your kids kick the seat.  This must be a joke, right?  The number 1 tip when traveling with children on a plane is to make sure your kid doesn’t mistake the front passenger’s butt cheeks for a soccer ball?

Come on.

The only excuse I have for this sorry list is that it must not have been written by a real-life parent who has actually traveled extensively with his or her children.  The list reflects the writer’s self-consciousness; what others think about him or her is most important.  I can only imagine the miserable time the author (an au pair?) must have had to pen this list!

In an effort to set the record straight, let’s have a gander at these serious travel sins.

Never should you ever let your child…

Kick the seat.  “It is up to you to make sure your child keeps her feet to herself. She doesn’t realize how uncomfortable she is making the person in front of her, and most passengers will not turn around to complain, but instead will silently curse you and your child.”

Where to I begin?  Sure, you can teach an older child that kicking the seat in front is not kind.  But, what about a baby or toddler sitting in a forward-facing car seat on the airplane?  These little ones often have legs that don’t dangle much, leaving their toes touching the seat back.  Reality check – it might be physically impossible to prevent your child from toe tapping the traveler in front.

I’m not suggesting parents disregard the comfort of other passengers.  But I do think there’s only so much that can be done.  Remove the child’s shoes (this softens the kick), do your best to explain how to be a nice neighbor, and then embrace the reality that your kid is going to kick the seat at least a few times despite your best intentions.

Better advice?  Apologize.  Profusely.  And buy the unlucky recipient a drink.

Big Foot breakin' the rules.

Big Foot breakin’ the rules.

Stand on the seat.  “This is a dangerous thing for your kids to do, so don’t encourage them to do it and make sure that you put the kibosh on seat-standing the moment it’s attempted.”

Let’s go back to those babies and toddlers.  When tiny legs are a squirmin’, the best thing you can do is to let them stretch their muscles by bouncing gently on your lap or the seat cushion.  As long as you’re abiding by crew member instructions (including those all-important seat belt signs), what’s the harm?

Now, if you’re allowing your ten year-old to create his own mosh pit in 31B, that’s a different story…

Play with “guns.”  Really?  I guess I could let this one slide for travel newbs who have had their head in the sand the past 12 years…  I have three boys, and I can’t say my kids have ever wanted to play or talk about fake guns or other weapons on airplanes.

My naughty baby - roaming the aisles.

My naughty baby – roaming the aisles.

Run up & down the aisle.  “Kids get restless when they’re asked to sit for long periods of time, but that’s no excuse for them to run up and down the aisle of an airplane. For one, flight attendants often walk the aisles with beverage carts and food, making it a dangerous place for your kids to be. Also, it is a risk for other passengers who will use the aisle to reach the restrooms. Keep them in their seats.”

GET REAL.  True, the safest place for a child on an airplane is in their seat, belt fastened.  But this advice is not realistic for parents with young kids on flights longer than 2-3 hours.

True, you little one shouldn’t use the aisle to train for the 2028 Olympic track team.  But provided flight attendants aren’t serving meals or drinks, I wholeheartedly recommend you get up and walk the aisles a few times with your child on a long haul flight.  P.s. – It’s also good for your health.

Throw a tantrum.  “Granted, fits and temper tantrums are not necessarily controllable, but they will disturb the entire plane and put all of the other passengers on edge. Do your best to put the cap on any tantrums as quickly as possible, for your sake and for the sake of all on board.”

Wait, who benefits from this advice?  The child?  The parents?  No!  This is obviously written by an annoyed passenger who’s had one too many screaming seatmates.

Tantrums will happen.  Why?  Because kids are out of their routine, out of their comfort zone.  Yes, do your best to avoid meltdowns, but admonishing a parent to never let their child throw a tantrum on a plane is unrealistic.

Panic. “Keeping yourself calm is step one, and getting your kids to relax is the next step. Keep all panic out of your voice and your actions, and your kids will trust your instincts and mirror your reactions.”

This is one for the parents – not the kids.  I guess this is good advice if the parent thinks there’s something worthy of panic.  But, hopefully any psychological issues with air travel will be worked out before boarding.

The only thing worth panicking about on board is whether the pasta meals will run out before the meal cart reaches your aisle leaving you with rubberized chicken for dinner.

Take off the seat belt.  If the seat belt sign is lit, don’t let your kids take off their seat belt… It’s best for them to remain belted throughout the flight if possible.”

Sounds solid, right?  Yes, this tip would be golden… if it weren’t so absolute.  How are potty-trained children going to take a tinkle while strapped in?

Leave with strangers.  “If your kids end up in a seat in a different row from you…”

Hold it.  Stop right there.  The rest of this sentence should read, “then fight tooth and nail to get reseated.”  Don’t take no for an answer.  Sit with your kids.  You wouldn’t let someone else entertain or take responsibility for your iPhone during a flight, would you?  Then why in the world would you do the same with your most precious children?

Eat too much.  “Letting your kids eat too many treats could lead to trouble.”

What, like them sitting quietly in their seats for an entire flight, passing the hours one Cheerio at a time?

Of all the tips on the list, I consider this one the worst.  Snacks can get a mama through a multitude of trials: delayed flight, missed connection, those infamous mystery chicken nugget kid meals, long haul boredom, and more.

I’m not advocating administering a stream of sugar – candy, chocolate, cookies, cake, and Coke.  But bags of crackers, pretzels, cereal, almonds, vegetable sticks, fruit… seriously, let ’em eat!

Let their ears pop.  If this is something to never let your kids do on a plane, then forget traveling altogether.  It’s impossible to prevent a change in pressure.

Instead, be prepared with (age appropriate) tools.  Let little babies drink a bottle, nurse, or suck on a pacifier.  Older toddlers and children can lick lollipops, chew gum, and slowly sip a drink.

My advice to you – treat travel tips as just that.  Tips.  Not rules, not absolutes.  Make sure the advice you’re filling your overstuffed parental brain with is from a reputable source.  Take what works, and toss out what doesn’t seem to fit your family’s values and lifestyle.

And then, just go!  Get out there.  The best travel tips come from personal experience.  In no time, you’ll be writing your own list!

Signature-Marigold

Visiting Strasbourg, France with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Strasbourg with KidsI waited three days for the rain to stop.  And then, I decided to make a run for it.  A run for the border, that is.   Well, okay I didn’t actually run – I’ve already learned my lesson on that one.  No, this run to the border had a lesson of a different kind.

When traveling with kids, timing is everything.

This was supposed to be one of those hey-look-isn’t-France-so-stinkin’-amazing-and-check-it-out-my-kids-think-so-too posts.  But, that was before I realized T-Rex had bruised his heel while swimming the day before.  The boy who could hike the tallest mountain in South Korea was not even interested in walking a hundred meters.

Big Foot developed an awful cough and was majorly grumpy.  Turns out the poor thing had a touch of bronchitis.  Nice one, mama.

And, Screech, well, he’s just a major sass these days since he’s going through the “impossible 3’s.”  Don’t let anyone tell you the twos are terrible.  They’re a cake walk compared with the threes.

So there we were, a band of aches, pains, and trantrums, stomping our way around Strasbourg.  Below is a peek at our adventure.

The first thing I do when researching a new destination is to search for existing kid-friendly city guides.

The first thing I do when researching a new destination is to search for existing kid-friendly city guides.  I mainly look for playgrounds, natural attractions, inexpensive places to eat, and shops hawking wares that my boys would like.

I found a few good tips here, including the suggestion to visit the largest and oldest park in Strasbourg, L'Orangerie.

I found a few good tips here, including the suggestion to visit the largest and oldest park in Strasbourg, L’Orangerie.

Not only does L'Orangerie have an expansive playground, but it also has a small zoo.

Not only does L’Orangerie have an expansive playground, but it also has a small zoo (free).

My boys enjoyed seeing all sorts of creatures like ostriches, goats, mountain lions, flamingos, tortoises..

My boys enjoyed seeing all sorts of creatures like this owl, as well as ostriches, goats, mountain lions, flamingos, tortoises..

Bonus - the park has restrooms at the west entrance (Allee de la Robertsau)..

Bonus – the park has restrooms at the west entrance (Allee de la Robertsau)..

And they're free!!

and they’re also free!!

As we left the park, I noticed that it is located very close to the Council of Europe.  Strasbourg also houses the EU Parliament.

As we left the park, I noticed that it is located very close to the Council of Europe. Strasbourg also houses the EU Parliament.  Unfortunately, my kids aren’t quite into government yet, so a visit to these institutions will have to wait.

We hopped a bus to take us to the city center, and passed this beautiful cathedral on the way.

We hopped a bus to take us to the city center, and passed the beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral on the way.

After stepping off the bus, we discovered this funky fountain (Fontaine de Janus).  It would've been a nice place to tear into a baguette, but I was just plain ol' too cold.

After stepping off the bus, we discovered this funky fountain (Fontaine de Janus). It would’ve been a nice place to tear into a baguette, but I was just plain ol’ too cold.

I should mention that Strasbourg has one of the best Christmas markets in all of France which just happens to be open after Christmas as well.

I should mention that Strasbourg has one of the best Christmas markets in all of France and it just happens to be open after Christmas as well.

But I have to be honest.  I was not in search of winter trinkets.  No siree, I wanted a burrito.  Doc Sci was ready to order tacos for a month.  To go.  But La Cocina's owners decided to take a siesta... for two weeks.

But I have to be honest. I was not in search of winter trinkets. No siree, I wanted a burrito. Doc Sci was ready to order tacos for a month. To go. But La Cocina‘s owners decided to take a siesta… for two weeks.

Instead, we ate our sandwiches in the Petite France section of Strasbourg which is positively charming.

Instead, we ate our sandwiches in the Petite France section of Strasbourg which is positively charming.

We discovered two playgrounds right on the canals (off of Rue des Moulins).

We discovered two playgrounds right on the canals (near Rue des Moulins).

We were totally bummed about the burritos, and that made us totally not in the mood to even have a bite of Alsatian cuisine at one of these funky little weinstubs.

We were totally bummed about the burritos, which killed our appetite for even the smallest bite of Alsatian cuisine.  Should you be keen on downing a flammkuchen, do so at one of these funky little weinstubs.

Strasbourg seemed to be filled with two kinds of shops: those selling sweets..

Strasbourg seemed to be brimming with two kinds of shops: those offering sweets..

and those selling ridiculously cute but outrageously overpriced children's clothes.

and those selling ridiculously cute but outrageously overpriced children’s clothes.

I'm sure you guessed that we went for the sweets.  A great stop to make with the kiddos is La Cure Gourmande.

I’m sure you guessed that we went for the sweets. A great stop to make with the kiddos is La Cure Gourmande.

They get you in the door with the free cookie samples and keep you there with the mouth watering caramels.

They get you in the door with the free cookie samples and keep you there with the mouth-watering caramels.

Right outside La Cure Gourmande is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg.  It's magnificent.  And huge.  I wanted to climb the tower, but all the injuries/attitudes/coughing shut that idea down right away.

Right outside La Cure Gourmande is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. It’s magnificent. And huge. I wanted to climb the tower, but all the injuries/attitudes/coughing shut that idea down right away.

So despite my plans for spending the day lollygagging around France, we decided to fold and go home.  All three boys dozed in the car while Doc Sci and I took in this amazing sky.  Strasbourg, I'll be back.

So despite my plans for spending the day lollygagging around Strasbourg, France, we decided to fold and go home. All three boys dozed in the car while Doc Sci and I took in this amazing sky. Strasbourg, I’ll be back.

Visiting the Alsace region of France?  Don’t miss Colmar or a trip to the three castles near Ribeauville.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!

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Birth

Disclaimer: This is NOT a short post!

Ever heard of the children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day written by Judith Viorst?  It’s a classic tale of an entire day gone awry for a little boy named Alexander.

Alexander, dude, I can so totally relate.  I had a day like that, only so much worse.

I’ve often been asked about my experience giving birth in Germany over the past eight weeks (eight weeks!  already?!).  Was it good?  Bad?  How did it compare to the two other births in the US?  As the title of this post suggests, it was H-E-double-hockey-sticks.

The terrible awfulness actually began with my due date landing smack dab in the middle of August.  Though some people may try, it’s not like you can really plan these things.  And, even if I did plan it, I would never have known to avoid the month of August.

August is the one and only month a mama should absolutely positively should avoid if ever giving birth in Germany.  It’s holiday time – and I mean holiday in the British sense, not in the Christmas-St.Patrick’s Day-Easter sense.  Doctors, midwives, friends, anesthesiologists, firefighters, garbage collectors, telemarketers, nose pickers, etc. all skip town to lay on a beach somewhere in Italy until they’re crispy.

While my friends fried themselves in the sand of faraway countries and continents, I was left to wonder what in the world I was going to do with the existing children while I popped out the next sibling.

As my due date approached and the baby made absolutely no signs of making an early or even on-time appearance, I began to realize I would have no other choice but to have my labor induced on the last possible day of the month when I’d have reliable childcare for Screech and T-Rex.

Yeehaw – I just love partying with Pitocin.

By the way, convincing a doctor in Germany to induce labor before your due date is next to impossible unless you have complications.  I somehow found myself with an extremely kind hospital obstetrician who agreed to put me on the drip just one day after my due date… but only because I had already had two other inductions and I managed to put on a rather impressive puppy dog face.

On the morning of the appointed day of dread, everyone in the house got up as usual.  I knocked some breakfast back, kissed T-Rex & Screech goodbye, and walked myself to the hospital, sniveling the whole way.  You’d have thought that would’ve put me into labor.  But no.  Apparently, I’ve got a bomb-proof amniotic sac.

Doc Sci dropped the boys off at our neighbors house and then hopped on his bike to meet up with me in the labor & delivery ward.  Upon arrival, I was given an ultrasound, a nasty needle in my arm, and the depressing news that I was only 2 cm.  I was not, however, given a hospital gown or a label on my wrist with my name, blood type, and favorite flavor of ice cream.

The king-sized bed and that blasted CTG.

I was then shown to my room.  It was twice the size of the rooms in the hospital where I had Screech and T-Rex, complete with a king size birthing table, a jacuzzi, mood lighting, and a minibar serving up your choice of regular Pitocin, extra-strength Pitocin, or no-pain-no-gain Pitocin.  I voted for the full-on, let’s-get-this-pain-train-a-rollin’ cocktail, but the midwife and doctor wanted me to start with the wussy stuff.

Speaking of doctors and midwives, I was assigned two midwives (a “real” one and a student) and a doctor.  Predictably, I saw the student the most.  In Germany, it’s the midwife that runs the show, but if you’re in the hospital you do need the doctor for a C-section, rupturing membranes, or other serious matters.

I was ordered by said midwife to lie down on the bed in order to record 30 minutes of baby heart rate and mama contraction data on the monitor (known in Germany as the CTG).

Well, thirty minutes turned into hours.  Doc Sci and I asked every hour (or more) when my water would be broken, when the Pitocin would be turned up, when I could walk around, when the pain hurricane would let loose.  “Just wait a little longer,” we were told.  “The doctor wants to see more data on the CTG.”  What is this thing telling the doctor?  My fortune?  Winning lotto numbers?

I had hoped the doctor would break my water upon arrival.  But it’s rare that doctors will rupture membranes at only 2cm.  I needed to dilate more, and I needed Pitocin to help me dilate.  Such a sick and vicious cycle – all charted on the CTG, of course.

Defying all natural birth common sense, I was never given the chance to get up and walk around to get the contractions going.  I was just supposed to lie down and take it.  Er, I mean give it… to the slave master CTG.

Lying down. all. day. long.

Well, except for lunch.  The staff needed a lunch break, and they didn’t want pesky patients ruining their schnitzel unless it was an absolute emergency (and apparently getting my baby out RIGHT THIS MINUTE did not count).  In order to keep us from buzzing the midwife in between her bites of bratwurst, we were sent off to the patient kitchen in another part of the hospital to have our lunch.

The kitchen was deserted.  No one paid any attention to what, if anything, I ate.  A stein of Bavarian beer and a basket of pretzels was supposed to be waiting for us.  Instead, we got water, bubbles or no bubbles, because the hospital was crazy busy and didn’t know to send a lunch up for me.  Good thing Doc Sci happened to bring some sandwiches and snacks.

When we had had enough of being bored and ignored, we went back to the labor and delivery ward.  Empty.  Still working on the schnitzel apparently.

Lunch finally was delivered a few hours later – bread, butter, cheese, cold parboiled carrots, and tea.

Well that’s all fine and dandy ya’ll, but I’m here to have a baby and I would like him to come out NOW.  It was like the Soup Nazi worked there.  No baby for you.  Come back, one hour.

And come back I did.  Time and again.  Begging and groveling like a total loser.  Oh please oh please oh please send the doctor in.

At half past four, I finally made the cut.  The doctor showed up and agreed to break my water.  Too bad I was still only 2cm.

I’ve had my membranes artificially ruptured twice.  I couldn’t feel anything either time except for whoosh and gush that comes afterward.  But, you know things can’t be that simple in a culture where pain is noble.

Instead of the crochet hook, I got fingernails on a chalkboard.  Doctor Does-It-Hurt-Yet scratched a hole in my membrane.  Let’s put things in perspective.  After 8 hours of Pitocin pulsing through my veins, I could barely feel the contractions (and by this time the drip was turned up as high as they would allow it to go), but I felt every last scrape of her nails.

Doctor Does-It-Hurt-Yet’s partner in crime was the Merciless Midwife, a.k.a. the second shift queen of nastiness.  She again gave me the bit about lying down for 30 minutes of CTG recording.  After 8 hours of that mantra I was done being told to stay horizontal when vertical is what you need to speed things along.  I informed her that I would be getting up to use the bathroom, and she retored, “Well, it’s your birth – do you what you want.”

Oh, GOOD!  We’re finally getting somewhere.  Now that I can do what I want, I’d like to get in the birthing tub.

That big teacup is the birthing tub.  Water birth is very common in Germany, and all the staff are trained to deliver babies in the water if the mother so chooses.

From that point on, things started to really heat up.  I was the frog in the pot that just kept getting hotter, and I was about to be boiled alive.

Sitting in the birth tub, the contractions became too intense to handle.  I felt like my tailbone was being smashed to bits.  And that’s because it was, only I didn’t know it yet.

I admitted to Doc Sci that I just couldn’t take the pain anymore.  It was time for an epidural.  What I failed to explain to him, however, is that German hospitals don’t give out epidurals like candy.

In the US, the mother is encouraged to sign all the consent forms for an epidural before going into labor so that (ideally) at the exact minute she wants one, she can have it.  In Germany, doctors and midwives purposefully do not give the mother any information or paperwork for an epidural for the express purpose of delaying the intervention as long as possible in order to (hopefully) avoid giving it to her.  The bottom line – if you want an epidural in Germany, you’re going to have to fight like mad to get it.

And fight – and scream – I did.  Remember Miss Merciless Midwife?  Here’s a little exchange I had with her…

“Hi, how are things going?”
“I want an epidural.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I want an epidural.”
“Do you feel a need to push?”
“No, I feel a need to get an epidural.”
“Do you want me to check you?  Maybe you’re 10cm.”
“No, what I want you to do is call the anesthesiologist.”
“Okay, I can do that.  But let’s just give it a little time and see how you’re doing.”
“The only thing you’re going to give me are DRUGS!”

At this point, I start shaking uncontrollably because my body does not handle adrenaline very well.  Here I am, scantily clad, convulsing, shrieking, and begging for a fix.  If it weren’t for the swank hospital suite on my insurance company’s dime, I could’ve very well been in some back alley in the Bronx.

After my scary self convinced Merciless Midwife to actually call the anesthesiologist, I had to wait about an hour for him to arrive.  The hospital was incredibly busy due to – as I mentioned previously – lots of staff members being on holiday.  Plus, Germans generally like to use fewer staff to do more work.  I later found out that there was only one anesthesiologist there that night for the entire hospital which just happens to be one of the largest in the whole of Germany.  Brilliant.

Because I couldn’t stop shaking, I was given drugs to stop the contractions so I could sit still enough for the big poke.  Then I was given Pitocin again to restart the contractions.  Back and forth between two extremes, and yet in all of this the baby was not coming down and out.

I wanted to avoid an epidural if at all possible.  I somehow managed to get Screech out without one, and the recovery is a million times faster.  But if you need it, you need it, and better to get it over with and the baby out as soon as possible.  When I had an epidural with T-Rex, and it was glorious.  After more than 18 hours of induced labor, I fell asleep for two hours, woke up, pushed for 10 minutes, and that was the end of that.

However, this epidural was NOT the heaven I remembered.  I still could feel every. last. contraction.  I was breathing through each one, shaking from the adrenaline, and in a world of hurt.

Before the anesthesiologist left, he instructed me to wait 15 minutes and assured me that the drugs should work by then.  But, the crash, bang, boom happening at the end of my spine was not letting up.  I had to once again beg, grovel, and plead with Merciless Midwife to call him back.  And what did she tell me?

“Just wait a little longer.”
“How much longer?
“Five minutes.”
“… Okay, it’s been five minutes.  It’s still not working.”
“Just wait a little longer.”
“What is this, a prerecorded speech?  How much longer?”
“I don’t know.”
“THEN CALL HIM!  In case you somehow missed it, the epidural is NOT WORKING!”

I told you she was real special.

When she finally called him, he had gone home for the night, and the next anesthesiologist had to be briefed.  The new guy gave me something else which did end up working after another 20-30 minutes.

But by then, I had had it.  It was almost midnight, and all I could think of was how ridiculous the whole ordeal was.  The staff was not interested in helping me get this baby out at all.  The last hours were spent in a freakishly awful pendulum of pain and progression (though mostly pain and little progression).  The whole point of me being in the hospital at that time was to get the baby out.  And he was not coming out.

I looked at Doc Sci with all seriousness and said, it’s time to do a c-section.  I can’t handle this any longer, pain or no pain.  I’m giving up.  Yep, I’m a wimp.  A wimp who wanted to see my new baby and get home to my kids and away from this sick hospital circus.

We called the doctor (she actually came!) and asked her to do a c-section.  Shocking my socks off, Dr. Does-It-Hurt-Yet agreed and said it was no problem.  But… she wanted to check me first.  Surprise, surprise, I was ready to push.

Pick-your-poison pushing positions.

In the US, I included a request in my birth plan to push in some position other than the standard flat-on-your-back approach.  The doctors told me flat out they were uncomfortable delivering babies any other way.  In Germany, my hospital room came complete with a smorgasbord of pushing options.  However, given that I had an epidural and wasn’t able to stand up, I couldn’t take my pick.  The midwife and doctor both wanted me to push while lying on my side.  It was one of two moments that saved me from utterly despising their total existence until the end of time.

As precious baby boy #3 sailed his way into the world, he was abruptly shoved back the way he came.  I’m sure if he could consider it rude, he would’ve.  But, it was brilliant from my perspective since that one nasty smack from the midwife saved me from blasting open a wider escape route for the dear little bub.

And when he finally, finally came out, he was, as the Germans say, looking at the stars.  Sunny side up and screaming his little head off.  And, speaking of his head, the poor thing must have been so sore from banging against my tailbone.  all. day. long.

Well, even if he was sore or misshapen or madder than a wet hen, I couldn’t tell.  All I could see was a beautiful baby boy – here at last!

–  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

You’d think that would be the end of the story.  And that would be lovely if it were true.  But no – there’s more…

A (much) nicer midwife measured and weighed him, and gave him back to me sans bath and still covered in stinky white stuff that no one in the hospital ever bothered to wash off (!).  We were then moved to a temporary holding cell (hang on to your hats, it’s about to get prison-like) where my awesome, amazing, and exhausted husband was forced to try and get some sleep on a stool.  No back.  Extra grease on the wheels.

The holding cell – red light special.

Around 330am, I was finally given a room.  Only the maternity recovery ward was full (see? August is a terrible time to have a baby in Germany!!), so I was wheeled to a room in another ward on the other side of the hospital.  What I didn’t realize at the time was this ward was full of sick women, and only one (ONE!) nurse was on duty.

Oblivious to what I was getting myself into, I sent a weary Doc Sci home around 4am.  Our sweet neighbor was staying the night with the kids, and I wanted her to have at least some normal sleep in her own bed.  Oh, and Doc Sci was not allowed to stay in the room with me unless we paid for a “family room” which cost almost double the price of a single private room.

The single private room. Doc Sci must have taken this without my knowledge!

I buzzed the nurse, and asked her to remove the epidural that was still in my back and also the “baggage” that comes along with getting said epidural.  She said no.

No?

NO, she would not call the anesthesiologist (only he could remove the annoying little thingie shoved in my spine) because he wouldn’t come anyway since he had other important things to do.  NO, she would not help me try to stand up because she was alone and didn’t want to have to help me up if I fell down.  NO, I could not go back to the labor and delivery ward.  NO, she would not do anything at all because there were other people more in need of her than I was.  NO, I could not believe this was happening.

So there I lay, alone, in a small room with a tiny new baby.  I was unable to open the window, get something to eat, use the bathroom, or change the baby.  I was stuck in bed incredulous at this frustrating turn of events especially after all that I had been through in the past 24 hours.

Thank God, I had my phone next to me, so I called Doc Sci.  But, there was nothing he could do either.  He couldn’t leave the boys, and he couldn’t ask the neighbor to come back until a more decent hour.  I decided right then and there I was going home at the first possible instant.

If I had possessed the ability, I would have scooped up the baby and gone home in the middle of the night.  But several items of business had to be taken care of first, so I pestered the nursing staff every hour in order to get everything I needed to be discharged.  At 3pm, I was ready.

The new baby’s hospital bed. It must be taken everywhere you go inside the hospital – bathroom, shower, kitchen, etc.

I’m used to the high security hospital wards in the US, but from my experience in a German hospital, I’d guess baby stealing and switching is only an American fear.  Doc Sci did not need to check with anyone or show any ID before coming in my room.  When he walked the baby over to the pediatric nurse station to get more diapers, no one stopped him or asked where he was going.  Upon checkout, no one verified that the baby I left with was actually mine.

Sheesh.  Good thing I’m sure.  I think.

So, there you have it.  The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Birth that left me with a handsome, healthy boy we’re calling Big Foot.

Welcome to the world, Big Foot!

Herzlichen Glückwunsch!