Thankfully, if you have a child who wasn't raised on McDonalds, take-out or Chuck-e-Cheese pizza, Lunchables and Pop Tarts, you are ahead of the game, as we were with Lucas. So far, the only food he balked at was a whole lobster staring him in the eye up in Mystic, Connecticut. We were right in thinking Italian cuisine would not be a concern for Lucas. So, what will keep your kiddie well fed?
- Healthy, fun snacks in the car, train or plane. Have extra in your mule bag--all the time.
- The same with drinks. Always carry one or two--Italy can be hot. When a kid starts acting up or fussing he might just be thirsty.
- Lunch. It's often difficult to find any restaurant open at lunchtime--Italians close shop and go to their own homes to eat and nap from 12 until 3pm! Look for bars instead. Bars are more like coffee shops in Italy. They usually have some sort of snacks or sandwiches around lunchtime.
- Restaurants don't open until 7pm or later in Italy, so allow a substantial snack in mid to late afternoon, like Gelato. There are gelaterias everywhere. BTW, In Rome you will be able to find lunch, but the same goes for dinner--They start dinner at 7-7:30pm.
- Picnics. Prepare for the times when you won't find a place to eat. Pick up stuff at the market, supermarket or alimentari in the morning and plan on having a picnic lunch. We think Lucas loved our picnics the best.
- In smaller towns, alimentari (local markets) will be closed on Sundays. Do your shopping on Saturday so you have supplies for cooking, picnics, drinks and snacks.
- If you are traveling by train, make sure you get on the train with a bunch of snacks and drinks. They offer very little for snacks and drink (and the drinks are usually warm).
- Visit local alimentari and let your son or daughter pick out snacks and drinks that look new and interesting to them. In places like train stations they might even see the odd bag of Lays chips, but there are other Italian brands that will serve them well. During your stay in Italy they'll develop their own favorite Italian brands. Take them to a supermercado and let them explore. They'll tell you what they want along with finding it all new and different.
- Fruit from the alimentari and outdoor markets. Stock up when you can. They might actually start to enjoy eating fruit if they haven't before. Italy has some great produce. The cheeses are amazing. And don't forget the sausages.
- Pasta and Pizza. Ok, this is Italy after all. Keep them away from the burgers and fries and have they will have fun having a plate sized pizza all to themselves. Try having them fold in in quarters like Italians do. Have them try pastas with different shapes, fillings or sauces than they aren't used to. It's all good. Order something different for yourself and offer a reward if they try some of what you are having. Broaden their palette!
- Drinks: Bring Thermos brand bottles to keep things cold. With a little ice they will keep drinks cold for many hours. You can refill water bottles from many public fountains in Italy. Just make sure it isn't marked "non potabile". Buy large bottles of water or sodas to save money. In restaurants, don't buy individual sodas or water, instead buy una grande bottiglia di acqua for the table. Water comes in two types, naturale and gassata. (normal and fizzy). If they really want a soda, I'd recommend Fanta. In Italy it's made with fresh orange juice.
- Cook at "home". If you are staying in apartments or an agriturismo, plan on cooking your own meals (have the kids help) and then afterwards, do what Italians do--take a walk after dinner on the main street or in the piazza. This is called the passeggiata, and is the time people watch, window shop and to have more gelato!
- Cooking classes. Search out classes to make pizza or pasta or even cheese. The kids will love it. Many agriturismo have classes custom made for the young foodies in your family
Electronics. By all means, this is no time to limit their iPod or smart phone use. Before you leave home, let them shop for and install some new games. Lucas kept one of our Kindles in the back seat of our car with Minecraft to keep him from getting bored. And he still put it down when passing by beautiful vistas, castles, and through crazy, windy roads like in Amalfi. Here's what tech things helped him from getting bored:
- Angry Birds (several versions)
- Weebly (so he could blog between stops)
- A really good smart phone camera app. (Some take hdr images which are higher quality).
- His own video camera (we got him a cheap Sony before we left)
- His own camera (He used myPentax WG-1 camera on the trip--it's indestructable and waterproof.)
- iPod (even a small one held all of his They Might Be Giants collection and much more)
- A few favorite cartoon series or movies on tablets.
- Word games. Sure, I-Spy is a classic, but lately we like the one where you pick a theme (let's say, Roman Life) and then take turns naming things... the first letter has to match the last letter of the last person's word. So... Circus Maximus... S... Senator... R... Romulus... and so on.
This is tricky. If you make them think you are going someplace just for their education, they'll shut down and act bored. We let Lucas choose some of his "must see" places while we were planning the trip. The Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Da Vinci Museum in Vinci were his top ones. Here are some other ideas from our trip:
- Castles. There are castles everywhere. While Lucas was used to seeing things from the Revolutionary War period at home in Pennsylvania, he was blown away by castles 500 years or more old. He especially like the raised fortress village of Monteriggioni and its towers.
- Colosseum. This really wowed him. He learned history naturally, just by being there and visualizing the blood and gore below us. He thought it was interesting how the Popes stole the marble from the Colosseum to built St. Peters. In the little museum there he saw ancient casks they carried documents in--like backpacks.
- Ignazia in Puglia. He loved the museum there. Seeing 2000 year old coins and a back fascinated him. Common things like toothpicks and frying pans let him feel the ancient world. Outside there were tombs and 1000 year old olive trees.
- Vatican Tour. Although I think our guide could have done more to entertain Lucas, he still picked up a lot of facts and was amazing seeing a bath tub that could fit 20 people, 2000 year old sculptures of dogs (he collects dog figurines), and that amazing Sistine Chapel, where he learned how Michelangelo lay on his back while painting and remembered that he was standing where they just elected the new Pope. He was shocked when he realized the three dimensional architectural details surrounding the windows were actually flat paint.
- Pompeii. Although it was a rough, hot day, he still had fun learning about the caldarium, frigitorium, and vomitorium, and imagining Romans taking a cold bath, a hot bath and then throwing up. He filled his water bottle from ancient fountains and jumped over the cross walk stepping stones. He saw the grooves left by chariots. Then he was struck by the plaster casts of people frozen in time under the ash at the moment they were buried in the eruption.
- Amalfi Ceramics: Lucas had already taken a couple of pottery and wheel throwing classes so one thing we knew we had to do is visit Solemene Ceramics factory in Vietri sul Mare. He even got a chance to watch the craftsmen painting plates and helped putting handles on cups. Hopefully, seeing all the various types of tiles and ceramics there will inspire him when he takes another class.
- Supermarkets. Yes, supermarkets. He learned about the different types of fruits and vegetables sold there, and how the milk is not refrigerated, and enjoyed an entire aisle full of chocolates. The huge cheese displays made him salivate. He loved trying to read the signs and figure out prices too. By the end of the trip he was doing Euro to Dollars better than Lisa. He was also amused at how we had to pay for plastic shopping bags and wear plastic gloves to handle fruit.
- Blogging to his class. While we were away, he was sending emails and blogging to his classmates. Whenever we had decent WiFi, he would respond to his classmates questions. While we were in Pompeii, he actually took one of his classmates on a video tour of the tombs via Skype.
Basically, we had a talk to Lucas before the trip and told him that when he felt tired, not to fight it and have a catnap. This helped prepare him, so when in the car, he would nap for a short while then feel refreshed. Once in a railway station he was so exhausted, he gave in to my pleading just to lay his head down on his rolled up jacket right at our cafe table. He was out like a light for about 1/2 an hour which really helped him. More ideas:
- Keep a tight bedtime schedule. When it was time to go to bed, we made him. He usually fell asleep right away. No staying up late especially if we were getting an early morning start.
- In the car, we would tell Lucas to put his headset on and listen to some music. This definitely relaxed him. He would also watch some videos, which took his mind off of the hecktic traveling we were going through at that moment.
- Trains are easy. let them run around at first, play some video games, and then they will naturally get sleepy and have a nap.
- Apartments are best: In large cities like Rome, most hotels are fine for children, but if you are staying for more than three or four days, I would suggest an apartment is better to afford the children a sense of "home" while they are far away from theirs. Don't forget to let them bring their stuffed buddies or special blanket. Lucas brought three of his stuffed dogs from his "dog pound" at home, but left Cushie, his favorite bear at home for fear of losing him.
- Separate rooms: If possible, give your kids their own rooms. This will give parents privacy when needed, but also allows you to get the kids to bed early while you stay up planning the next day, blogging, checking emails and the like--without interruptions. And set strict bedtimes. Remember, at the beginning of the trip their will be the jet lag factor.
- Agritourismos: These are basically working farms, although there is a rash of "luxury" agritourismos that are simply properties that have been rehabbed and turned into chic resorts with pools, cheap wines to buy and rarely much for children to do. A true argritourismo is a working farm and gives the kids the opportunity to interact with farm animals, make cheese, help pick produce in the gardens, play with cats, dogs.... you get the idea. Many have classes just for kids... making cheese, making pasta, pizza, etc.
- Hotels: Hotels in Italy are, for the most part, simple affairs. The rooms are just rooms, with extra beds for the kids. They rarely have game rooms or pools. The in-house restaurants are often stuffy places, making families with kids feel unwelcome. I would recommend against staying in hotels for traveling families.
- Planes: In most cases, there are 7 seats to an aisle with jetliners flying to Italy. It would be best to book early enough to get an entire row, for up to a family of 2 parents and 5 kids. In this way you would have line of sight to all the kids without having to jump up and look around to check on the kids (and less disturbance to your neighbors.) It's also easier to get up to go to the rest room from 2 aisles. For our flights, we booked the center aisle or 3 across with myself and Lisa on either side of Lucas so he felt secure and confident on the flight. (We did have some scary moments of turbulence where he did a death grip of my hands for minutes at a time). Introduce your kids to the rest rooms as soon as possible during the flight so they feel comfortable in case of the inevitable (we don't want them to hold it in, do we?) Definitely bring familiar snacks on board, especially for the departing trip.... and of course, bring their smart phones, tablets and such.
- Car services and Taxis: Make sure they know they are in another country and coach them in trying our their Italian phrases, even if it's just squeaking out their little "grazie" when the driver holds the door for them. Suggest the ask questions... does the driver have kids? What sports do they like? Do they play Minecraft? These interactions can help them start enjoying the differences--or similarities--in the culture right away.
- Trains: Train stations are very busy places so keep your kids very close. You do not want them getting lost in a strange place when language might be a problem. If your child is old enough, make certain that they have a cell phone activated for Italy with your own cell number programmed into its memory. Practice them calling you in case they are lost. As for the rest, get them a hot chocolate and cornetto, find a nice spot to wait for the train and play word games until the train comes. Once on the train make sure they check out the rest rooms. On older trains they'll want to see that their #1 and #2 goes right onto the tracks. On the more modern ones, they'll love the futuristic buttons ans sliding doors.
- Car Rentals: If you have a large family, sure, go ahead and rent a mini-van. You'll need the space. But do the research beforehand and book the smallest car possible after considering number of passengers and trunk space for the pieces of luggage you are dragging along. (Most of us over pack when going to Europe, so consider paring things down!) For "we three", our favorite car was the best fit... a Fiat 500 L (Italians call it the "cinque cento Large"). Lucas loved the raised "theater seating" in back that improved his view. I loved the economy and the relative narrow size. (Wide vehicles don't fit well on Italy's narrow streets, and allow a little extra breathing room for Italians who pass down the middle of the road even if there are cars driving on both sides of the road.) I also loved that the glovebox was also a chiller for water or soda bottles! Don't forget to bring your favorite mp3 files. Most cars in Italy have accessory jacks for plugging them in.
If you like this post, please COMMENT and SHARE it with your friends! And please, stop by our SURVEY and spend 60 seconds telling us how we could make our blog better! Grazie!