At home in the states, each of my kids has his or her own orbit, complete with school, activities, friends, sports, and what not. Here, in contrast, it’s mostly the “what not,” which generally means exploring the country, something we do a lot of.  What Not has its advantages.  I mean, how often, when you’re seventeen, do you spend the day zigzagging the countryside from one castle to another?–most of them hundreds of years old?


From kindly old gentlemen who function as self-appointed tour guides, you learn about the feudal system of goverment and how it functioned in Northern Spain. From younger siblings who want to scale the walls of every old fortress your family happens upon, you learn patience. From the undulating hills, everywhere flecked with medieval towns, you learn that life before the Twentieth Century really existed and that it was by turns violent and peaceful.







Sans your American Life, what do you do?  You travel.  And you learn to see!

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I saw these smiles today, and I wanted to eat them, just swallow them down to see if having three big, toothy grins rolling around inside me would pump up my own smile.


I decided that if there’s ever a time that I can look at these photos of our day in the Catalunyan countryside and not burst out laughing, I should check to see if I have a pulse.


Just before I said goodbye to my older son nearly three months ago, I challenged him to smile big, everyday, for a whole year, just to see how it felt. He immediately warmed to the idea, and we decided to call the effort 365 Smile. Sometimes we exchange stories about the people we trade smiles with. I actually still remember some of the faces those smiles belong to.

Man, it feels good to watch people get their smiles out.


Feels just as good to remember that I have one too.

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You know those moments that, when they happen, feel both totally spontaneous and perfectly planned?–like they were always meant to happen but just needed the right kind of chaos to seed them?  Well, the chaos, we definitely had:  two adults and four kids in a small, European car in Amsterdam, where we almost killed several people who, blithely pedaling along on their bikes, had no idea they had just missed a date with death.  And did I say four kids?–three teens and one eight-year-old?  And did I mention that the teens, all arms and legs, simply could not manage to fold themselves comfortably into those darned seats?  Moreover, did I add that the eight-year-old (now nine, and with a new permanent tooth coming in on top!), the smallest person in the car, was certain he was being breathed on, squished, smashed, and generally disrespected by his (mostly patient) older siblings?

So, on the road to Zaanse Schans, when several cows grazing in a roadside pasture ignited an idea in the mind of one of our daughters, we seemed meant to stop and capture the moment on film.  And now that the oldest, gone for two years, is away from us, this little video gives us all the perfect opportunity not only to see him and hear his voice again but also to contemplate what happens when kids and cows and cameras are thrown into collision.

The cure for road trip madness:  a video camera, several imaginative kids, and as many laid back Dutch cows.


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My youngest adores his older sisters. Mostly. And, like all “caboose” children, he sometimes finds the girls exasperating, like when they try to tell him his business. Or kiss his face so much he worries his dignity has been permanently compromised. That’s the beauty of getting out of the house. Out of town. Out of the country, even! In a new venue, all that sister love translates into the most miraculous forms of distraction.

On the coast of the Mediterranean: combing the sand for beach glass and rocks to add to a special collection. Brilliant.


Especially if you’re a boy who loves rocks of every kind, and more especially if you’re a boy with a sister who will stay in the sand with you until the tide comes up or the light dies or the world ends, whichever happens first. Having an older sibling of the female variety who loves to hunt for objects both small and beautiful–what a boon!


And older sisters are the perfect people to show off to, aren’t they? So you think you can skip a rock the size of a cell phone all the way to Greece, do you? But whether you can or can’t isn’t the point. The point is that two sisters will watch . . . and watch. And when you decide to downshift to smaller rocks (for the sake of the beach, of course, since we wouldn’t want to empty it of all cell-phone-size rocks, now would we?) and surprise!–the little ones SKIP!–it’s the big sisters who holler and cheer like you’ve just been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.


Will the world ever be as easy to conquer as it was the day your teenage sisters made you feel like The Master of Costa Brava? Hooray for them for all the times they hugged you so tight they nearly squeezed the life out of you. Their devotion will come in mighty handy someday, when the presence in your life of two good women may likewise attract the presence of others.


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Children 1, 2, 3, and 4. All mine. All victims of the nickname gene I inherited from my mother.


Some moms avoid nicknames, either on principle or because they just don’t have the nickname chip. Me, I must have gotten an extra chip when they were handing them around, because I am an inveterate nickname giver. Always have been. When my oldest (now nineteen) was little, he answered to Clavey, Claveman, Choochi, and Mr. B. (for Mr. Baby), among other things. Both of my girls responded (indeed, still respond) to Dollie, Sweets, My Sweet, and Beauty. And my youngest: he’s Goose, a reference to the goose eggs he wore around on his forehead as a result of trying (and often failing) to keep up with his older brother when he was a toddler.

Those who find nicknames either silly or infantilizing miss the point. And, just to clarify, I’m not talking about nicknames that denigrate the child. However, coming (as they so often do) from a place of affection inside the giver, nicknames signal happy moments. After all, mothers seldom invoke them when they’re frustrated; they do it when they’re at ease with their child and themselves. My own mother called me Peanut. Or Pumpkin. Or Beckola. She’s been gone these fourteen years now, and I still feel a ripple of joy when I remember her voice saying “Dearie,” another one of her endearments for me.

True, sometimes I’ve had to be called out for using a nickname at a completely inappropriate time. Mr. Goose (yes, I’m beyond rehabilitation) had to have a chat with me one afternoon, after I’d thoughtlessly called him Goose in front of the after-school crowd, which was getting up a game of soccer on the lawn out in front of the second grade classrooms. Yikes! You’d have thought I was standing there shellacked in Viva Glam and blowing him big kisses, he was that mortified. So we had the talk–later, when it was quiet, of course. He’s always been one to stage his child-parent confrontations carefully. And he calmly pleaded with me not . . . to use . . . “Goose” anywhere near the playground. I agreed that he was not being unreasonable, and so we came to an understanding.

So, yeah. Time and place. Certainly. Very important.


Tell me, then. What nicknames do your kids answer to? I might just have to award a tube of Viva Glam lipstick to the mom whose nickname cache is the most inspired.

(Photos: The Eleven O’Clock Kids dead-panning it in Budapest, Hungary.)

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Flight info to Barcelona from London

About a month ago, we moved to Europe.  We’d always wanted to move abroad with our kids, and, strangely, everything sort of lined up so that we could.  Odd but cool.  So, after putting all our stuff in storage, selling two of our cars, withdrawing our kids from school, and getting on a plane, we are now in Barcelona, Spain, living in the seventh-floor loft we call home.  Are we nuts?  Definitely.  Is it a grand adventure?  Definitely.  Will we ever regret doing something that had been at the top of our bucket list for a couple of decades?  Nope.

Getting the kids on board with the idea was of course the first step.  Son number one was planning to be gone for two years and basically said Good luck, wish you the best, you go do your thing, I’m going to go do mine.  Which was important, really, because had he somehow felt that he was going to be missing out, we might not have come.

Daughter number one was key as well.  A senior in high school, she might have said, No way.  But she fell in love with the idea of living abroad:  seeing new things, sampling cultures, thrifting here, there, and everywhere (her Thing).  Though she knew she’d miss her friends, she also knew she wouldn’t have a chance to do anything like this again.

Tessa's MUN Friends at the Farewell Party

Friends say goodbye to Tess (center, in the “Y” t-shirt).

Daughter number two was hesitant.  A happy and talented song bird, she belonged to a choir she adored and studied with a voice teacher she adored equally.  When and where would she sing while we were gone??  Valid question, we agreed.  But it was only one school year, not forever, and her voice would keep, as would her gift, as would her enthusiasm for working her way toward a vocal music scholarship, her dream.  We suggested she could sing on the road, as it were.  Finally she bought in.

Millay at the Farewell Party

Millie enjoys the farewell party.

And that left our youngest, who, like all youngest children, goes where the family goes and does what the family does.  I believe he’ll remember this experience as The Year of the Sisters given the fact that they dote on him, pester him, and tell him his business in equal proportions, constantly.  But.  He’s connected with a new hobby–photography–and as long as he’s got his Puma sneakers on and the camera battery is full, he’s good to go.  A couple of days ago, during a family outing to the Raval neighborhood downtown, he took 350 pictures!  What other American nine-year-old gets to snap photos of the colorful effusions of foods in the markets?–the spray-painted artwork on the corrugated pull-down doors of the city’s endless stores?–the brilliantly engineered drinking fountains tucked here, there, and everywhere?  Yeah, he’s dealing okay.

Mom with Silas in London

Silas and I trade silliness in the airport.

Our Airplane to Barcelona

Tessa asleep in London

Silas asleep in London

Millay in Heathrow Airport

Long flight.  Sleeping.  Making our connection in Heathrow.  And landing in Spain.

On British Airways Flight to Barcelona Spain

Over Barcelona

Over Barcelona 2

It’s all working.  Stay tuned for more thoughts on living abroad.  With teens.  And one groovy little nine-year-old.

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