Swapping on a Sunday

Yesterday was our 4th annual clothing swap!

clothing swap

We ( Holly and I ) held our first swap the very first year we moved to Montreal. I had always wanted to hold one and finally got my act together and committed to it. With nothing but 4 clothing racks, 100 dry-cleaning hangers, 40 cupcakes and the secret ingredient…wine… we waited to see if anyone would come.

cupcakes

Well, come they did! With their jeans and blazers and shoes and scarves and purses and dresses. Armfuls of clothing, all pretty and pristine and ready for a new home.

A tradition was born.

We have observed some universal truths since that first swap.

We learned that people always bring more than they take. And that everyone has something in their closet with a tag on it.

That there are sizes for everyone. And that everyone loves shoes, shoes, shoes.

That teens need their own space to swap. And that moms love the teen space because we all buy our kids nicer clothes than we buy ourselves.

That the first time a swapper swaps, they are tentative and a little worried. The second time they swap? They are right in there at 2PM, ready for the first grab. 4th year? They do not even make it past the mannequin at the front door before finding something awesome ( yes, you can undress the mannequin…we do not have any stuck up store rules! ).

Cupcakes and brownies are the universal food of swapping…but all the grapes and tomatoes will disappear as well.

That there are swappers who love the dressing room. And swappers who never disrobe.  Ever. Not once in four years.

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 Why, when you can just fit that dress right over top!

Wine.

We have honed some details since that first swap. We made a lot less rules. Tooling around on the internet ( yes, Pinterest ), I found that there are a lot of clothing swap rules. Hell, there was even a clothing swap where the hostess spelled out a dress code to best complement her clothing swap decor.

Nope. We are simple…bring the items sitting, lonely, in your closet that you would want your best friend to wear. The best of your unloved. The pieces you bought because you could not resist them…but that somehow let you down once you got home. You know how that happens. Too often. And then swap them,  allowing them find life again on someone else.

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We really believe that there is clothing waiting for everyone. Especially beautiful jackets that everyone coveted but…like in Cinderalla…was only meant for one!

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In the early years, the swap was totally and completely free.This year we switched that up. We had a dedicated charity and asked that every participant donate 5$ to the cause ( the Sheela Bal Bhavan School in Jaipar, India, if you are curious ). This was awesome and several hundred dollars was raised for an extraordinary cause. Girls helping girls.

And of course, as in the other years, all the left over clothing will be donated to charities supporting women. The teen clothes will go to teens in need  and to India with Holly’s trip. The casual clothes will go to young moms. The business clothing will go to women needing to revamp their wardrobes to re enter the work force. Women helping women.

And so as I look around at my post swap home, waiting to undress those racks and pack up the hangers for another year, I am smiling.

And already planning next year’s swap.

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Let me know if you want in on the fun, new swappers always welcome!

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Oh, this year, we had a photo booth. While this may come across as one of those over the top Pinterest fuelled ideas, let it be known that we had the backdrop and all the props on hand already. So only a little bit crazy. Teeny tiny bit cray cray. Kind of like the photos…

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from damage control to cruise control

I was a little unsure on how to broach the not so perfect part of our family trip in a positive way. And realized the only way to do it was to dive right in at the spot where we found the solution…

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one of many, many, many family photos taken on the cruise

We realize now that we planned a very big trip, assuming that the little person in the mix would simply keep up. And of course, we know what happens when you assume anything with children…it usually turns around to bite you right in the ass…umptions.

And so there we were, in Italy, four happy family members:).

Oh wait…we are a family of five.

Yes, the littlest one was miserable. Too much walking and looking and heat had taken it’s toll. On the last few city days, we were usually left with a four year old completely not keeping it together. Heck, sometimes losing his mind as early as breakfast.

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We have traveled with all our kids from a young age. Jake was snuggling in a sling in Miami at ten weeks old, Holly had her first flight at twelve weeks and Alex took his first steps in a Paris hotel room at ten months old. But something did not work this time round. It is hard to admit when something is not going as planned, and to be honest we were at a bit of a loss. This trip was just too big for this kid. We were frustrated, he was exhausted, the big kids were being very patient but it is not always fun being the older siblings to a disaster of a child.

So thank goodness for the cruise. Who knew it would be the vacation saver that it was.

In the early planning stages of the vacation, a cruise was not even part of the consideration. The trip was to be a celebration, an embrace of all that is Italy, city and countryside. I am pretty sure Mark had visions of me roaming through unending Tuscan fields, happily shooting flowers and running children…and then realized that he might become a little…bored. Always a problem solver, he proposed an idea…a little land and a little sea. Some European surf for my turf.

Initially I thought that he was nuts. And then we did the math and a cruise was actually a very affordable way to experience Europe. There is no way around it, Europe can be pricey and when we did the comparison of hotel, food and travel versus cruise, which combines all three, it very suddenly became a very viable option.

We chose Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, a line we were familiar with, and a itinerary that fit right in with our schedule. The boat itself, the Legend of the Seas,  was not one of the super new, super huge ships RCCL offers but this was a plus for us, running as we were, across the ship, according to the on board schedules of three kids!

We were not new to cruising, having been on three previous cruises, but from the beginning, this experience was very different – in an “iamnevercruisinganywhereelseeveragain!!!” kind of way.

Case in point, embarkation. It was a breeze. There was refreshing lemonade waiting for us at the RRCL reception in the Civitaveccia port, and by the time we were finished drinking? We were registered. Minutes. It took minutes. In Europe, it is not unusual to be able to board in different cities, along the cruise ship route. This allows for an easy, no rush, no crowd introduction to the cruise. Anyone who has ever boarded a cruise ship in Florida or California would not have thought this kind of calm would be possible. No crowds? No pushing? The logistics of cruising in Europe are completely different  than cruising in North America.

ImageFrom the announcements being made in five languages to even simple elevator rides becoming adventures in cultural exchange, the cruise, while familiar, offered up a much more international experience than I anticipated. While we ran into some Canadians and Americans, I would say that the ship was heavy on Brits, French and Italian tourists with a smattering of Russians thrown in. Add that to the multinational staff already aboard the ship? It was terrific! I was a little worried about losing some travel authenticity, being on a ship as opposed to being in a city…but at the end of the trip, combined with what it offered in terms of our travel predicament with Alex, the cruise saved the day, in any language. In all languages.

And so our littlest, with his days of miserability ( totally made up word ) so ingrained into his very being that we thought he would never recover, boarded that ship, dropped off his Roman Centurion costume in our room, marched crankily to the Kid’s Club, took one look around at the other children and toys and smiling, friendly faces of the staff…and promptly announced to us that he would be staying. There. All day.Even for “Late Night”. And could he possibly sleep over?

I think there was a collective sigh of relief from our family that was felt throughout the ship.

And while Alex was still somewhat ridiculously difficult with us at dinner and at photo time and at bed time and well, still at every time…he was happy during the day, ensconced high up on the bridge, tucked into the Kid’s Club. Reports back from the staff were of a happy, enthusiastic child who smiled and chatted his way through making goo, painting pictures and even night time pirate raids. PHEW.

ImageWhat this then afforded us was time to explore the ports of Genoa, Marseille, Barcelona and Valencia knowing that our little man was content and entertained. Would we have preferred to take him off ship with us? Absolutely. But sometimes you need to go with what works. And RCCL’s approach to kid care rocks.

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I should also mention that not once on our cruise did Alex have any problem with his allergies. His caregivers ( all university educated child care workers and teachers ) were made aware of them, and they had the epi pen, but not once in the care of the Kid’s Club or at any point during any of our MANY meals, did we have an issue. Food was properly labelled and great care was taken in the dining room by our waiters to keep him safe – RCCL earned my allergy safe stamp of approval on this trip. Not an easy feat! I do not even award myself allergy safe status most weeks.

The food on board was wonderful and plentiful with many healthy options. But really? When traveling with kids? It comes down to the all you can eat ice cream. And it was there, day after day after day. No one went hungry…the teens actually used room service more than is probably socially acceptable to mention.

Oh! The teens! While Alex was happy in the Young Explorer program, and Jake was off ship with us, Holly made good use of the Teen Club. She lucked into a great bunch of kids and by night two, was making it home seconds before her nightly curfew ( and even once after, which nearly spurred a boat wide search by her brother and father…but that has been forgiven now). Music and more ice cream and arcade games filled her nights. And her bilingualism paid off! She became the go to person between the Florida kids and the Parisian teens, the only person able to understand everyone! Oh, and the ship was able to organize a nice little birthday surprise for her room on the day she turned ONE-FOUR.

ImageShip life was good. So good in fact, that Alex even deigned to allow the ship photographers to take his photo. Many times. POSED. Which is more than I can say for what he was allowing me to do. So…what did we do? We bought every photo that team of photographers took! It has to be noted how hard these cruise ship employees work. They are up late every night and back at it before we ever hit the breakfast line. Always smiling, always patient…I do not know how they do it! And when our stories have been forgotten, somewhere there will be many images of a smiling, charming Alex from this trip…and for that I am grateful.

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Oh. And very grateful for one more memory…Holly and her little Roman;). This is the photo she will kill me for posting, but it has to be done. ImageAnd so, from hard days on land, to peaceful nights on a ship, our family vacation continued on from Italy to France ( sigh ) and on to Spain ( ole! ).

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rome – the good, the bad and the ugly

After our lovely days in Venice, we trained to Rome. Train travel is so romantic to us, as a family. It offered room, comfort, wine, good coffee, internet and an exciting way to see where we were going. Crossing the tracks out of Venice, across the water, was a highlight for the littlest one and the tunnels through the Italian countryside was thrilling for the rest of us. We like tunnels, I guess. And getting places fast.

Pulling into Rome, it was dark and late and we realized that we would need to split up in order to get us and all our children and bags to the hotel successfully. It is always in moments like this where I wish I knew 42 languages. Racing off in our two cabs, me with Jake and Mark with the younger two, I momentarily wondered if we would wind up at the same place. We did, of course, fifteen minutes later, standing on a steep hill, too much baggage in hand, tired 4 year old in arms and we were at our new home in Rome, within touching distance of the Vatican walls. Incredible.

Waking up in our huge apart-hotel, the next morning, we planned out our day. I was probably the most organized for Rome – itineraries, bus routes, schedules planned with parks for the little one, the Vatican planned for the big ones and shopping planned for the middle one. I should have realized that this would never go according to plan.

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The good about Rome?

So much. You can walk this incredible city, finding beauty around every corner. You hear this all the time, and it is true – everywhere you look there are incredible testaments to art and history and the development of western civilization IN YOUR FACE. It was overwhelming and fantastic.

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The bad about Rome?

It was fantastic but overwhelming.

I have to be honest…I think Rome defeated us. More specifically, Rome defeated the littlest of our family. This was totally my fault but what resulted was a very good lesson in how not to travel with a young child. No matter how prepared you are, no matter how many great books you have read, no matter how you think you need to “see” a city…ultimately you need to listen to the needs of your family. Our time in Rome was amazing…but it was memorable for different reasons for each of us, not all positive.

Day one started with a quick tour through St. Peter’s square, minutes from our hotel and then we hopped on a double decker tour bus. Having read that this was “the” way to see the city with kids, we realized quickly that it wasn’t for us. The initial wait for the bus ( they do not run as posted ), the crush to get on, the heat on top, the extended waits at random stops…too much for a little kid. He fell asleep for most of the tour but awoke cranky and uncomfortable. We jumped ship…I mean bus, halfway through, deciding that walking would be the new plan. Refreshing sips from the lion fountains were enjoyed ( with 2500 drinking fountains offering cold, fresh water throughout Rome, we were never far from water ) as was mysterious cold air emanating from some unidentified ancient ruins on an unidentified road ( so much for detailed sharing) as the heat was near unbearable.

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The Trevi Fountain, an impromtu lunch of seafood pastas and oh so good caesar salads ( with free wifi!) and The Spanish Steps made up for the too quick glimpses of the Colosseum from the bus. We were fortified on pasta and made it up the Steps in record time, with Alex leading the way.

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Our goal became the Villa Borghese. This park promised a luscious green space in the middle of the city, ideal for children to play and adults to recline and relax. We should have realized that in 40 degree heat, nothing is lush and nowhere is relaxing when you are that sticky. Not even multiple gelatos and an arcade could make the park what we so wanted it to be. We admitted defeat and turned to head back to the hotel…only to realize we were clueless on how to get back, maps be damned. Up a hill, down a lane, through the park we went, passing the now closed zoo and then the fall…you know the kind…the exhausted, “icannotgoonestepfurther” cry followed by a tumble off of a curb. Alex was finished. And only steps away from civilization, here we were now bleeding and hysterical. A true Calgon moment in a country far from home.

And then the respite we needed. Do not tell me that pizza is not a cure all.

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A tiny restaurant, perched awkwardly along a busy road offering refreshingly cold sprite, the always cure all for scrapes and bruises, and HOT DOG PIZZA restored vacation hope in our family. Yes, hot dog pizza. Thank you, Italy.

It was from this point that we realized that all my itineraries and plans needed to be scrapped. It was a pizza epiphany. When you know what works for your family, you need to work with this, no matter what you think the prescribed tour should be. And from that moment on, we split up.

Rome, the good, the bad and the ugly to be continued…

Does Holly get to shop?

Does Alex smile on day 2?

Do Mark and Jake make it in to the Vatican?

All this and more!

 

 

 

 

Venice, not your regular kind of islands

san marco square

san marco square

When we decided to go away this past summer, we let our oldest son Jake choose our destination. When he decided on Italy,  I knew I wanted to see Venice.  I started reading up on visiting this romantic, astounding, unique place…only to find many sources somewhat discouraging about traveling to Venice with younger children.

Too boring. Too crowded. Too non kid friendly. Too old. Too dangerous.

Good thing we did not listen. Traveling with two teenagers and an almost kindergartner was going to pose certain challenges, this we knew. What we did not plan on was that the supposedly least little kid friendly place we were to visit, would be the place where our 5 year old had the most fun.

And why? Basically because Venice is filled with magical alleyways, waterways filled with song and expansive areas ( yes, I am using expansive to describe this island ) where a little boy, filled with beans, could run and play. San Marco Square was his sanctuary. Early mornings, after getting a caffe for me and a juice for him,  we would go and chase the pigeons and then choose a spot to sit and play. The overwhelming crowds we were told to anticipate? Not there in the mornings. Instead, we spent quiet time decorating a mask, picked up inexpensively for one euro, watching the meticulous dance of the Torre dell’Orologio. That clock amazed my son for the 4 days we were in Venice, never losing it’s charm.

san marco square

san marco square

We did brave lines for the Campanile di San Marco. Alex, the lover of clocks, was determined to get to the top. And so to the top we went. Once there, he happily perched himself on a corner overlooking the Torre dell’Orologio, while  the rest of us drank in the wonderful perspective offered to us from up above the orange roof tops.

campanile di san marco

campanile di san marco

And yes, the gondolas? Worth every penny. The experience of peacefully gliding down the canal while the gondoliers serenaded us was…so NOT how it happened! Instead we were treated to hairpin turns, good natured ( we think ) verbal jousting between gondoliers, water traffic negotiations that made me question how safe we actually were between rival gondolas, water taxis, vaporettos and the occasional kayak, all filled with laughter from my family and a certain air of disbelief that a place like Venice has actually existed for so long.

gondola ride

gondola ride

My daughter describes Venice as the coolest all inclusive ever – you are “stuck” on an island with endless gelato and rides outside your hotel door, an amusement park of historical measure.  Exploring became the name of the game while walking the length of the island. There were hordes of people at times, but only around the busiest of spots – the Palazza Ducale, the Rialto Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs. Once you made your way through these crushes, there opened up wide walkways along the water to enjoy the excitement of waiting gondolas and spectacular private sailing boats, quieter residential areas or to discover the Giardini Pubblici (Public Gardens).  This park area filled with birdsong and with it’s wide avenue leading up to a children’s play area, was a wonderful respite for all of us. The shade and many benches made our hot day so much better.

watching the gondolas

watching the gondolas

Did I mention the heat? The July sun made us crave beach. After days of travel and hot wandering by foot, our little one was tiring. Through my reading, I knew that nearby, a simple Line One vaporetto ride away, was Lido, offering public and private beaches, as well as historical hotels and a laid back feel. To be honest, I found the write ups on Lido to be underwhelming and my expectations were not particularly high. Well, good thing our desire for surf and sand exceeded our belief in guide books…Lido was fantastic.

The moment we stepped off the vaporetto, we knew we had definitely left Venice. A holiday feel permeates Lido. Perhaps it is the shaded street lined with beach stores, the sound of flip flops along the sidewalks or the gelato ringed mouths of the children ( and adults! ) everywhere but if you are looking for relaxation, Lido serves it up. My original plan was to find the Hotel des Bains and ask if we could spend the day on their beach but we were hungry and quickly decided that convenience over planning was going to win out again ( is this not a common occurance when traveling with kids? Please tell me yes…). After quickly wandering through one public beach area, we came upon Venezia Spiagge/ Lungomare D’Annunzio.

the beach hut

the beach hut

It is one of several private beaches on Lido offering beach huts, a restaurant, a beach shop, playgrounds, showers and bathrooms. Many of the huts are rented seasonally or weekly. The most desirable spots are in the front row, facing the ocean, and we lucked out in that one was available that day ( likely because it was a week day ). The combination of the blue and white huts, the warm Adriatic Sea, the simple yet neighbourhood feel of the beachfront and families who were set up around us with their kids and their food, towels blowing in the wind, soccer balls flying…was just perfectly relaxing. Italian was the only language we heard that day,  and we got to use our minimal Italian, usually met with giggles from the Italian children running around. The facilities were spotless ( just remember to bring toilet paper into the stall with you ) and charming ( jugs of nutella hanging from the tree at the beachside resto? Okay!). It was the absolute best way to spend a day in Italy.

lido

We have decided that on our next visit to Venice, we will stay a few nights on Lido and take the 10 minute boat ride over to Venice ( or any of the other islands ). Venice is always busy, humming with activity, and this proved to be a little overwhelming at times for our daughter, who did tire of the constant hawking of toys and souvenirs. And there is a constant barrage of “stuff” to buy, always within reach of your children. The 10 euro straw fedora was a worthwhile hit but stay far, far away from the plastic “splatty” toys – even at one euro, they are way too expensive when they break within minutes ( we learned the hard way, twice ). Hot, disappointed four year olds are never a fun time.

Four days filled with moments we loved – from dining one evening, in the shadow of a centuries old bridge, along a canal, with a jug of house red to the morning Mark and Alex took turns scaring  tourists in their gondolas as they would round the corner of our hotel,  perched on the corner of a busy canal. Venice, we were already missing you as we boarded the train to Rome…

at the corte grimani apart-hotel

at the corte grimani apart-hotel

How we got there: Lufthansa flight from Montreal to Amsterdam to Venice; water taxi charter to the doorstep of our hotel

Apart-Hotel: Corte Grimani