Happy Turkey Day

Today, I’m thankful that my brothers and I are all able to congregate at Coach and Nana’s house with our families. This is the first time in many holidays that we have all been able to be here at the same time.

I’m thankful that I don’t have to work Thanksgiving (and Christmas, and the 4th of July) anymore. Well, I am a stay-at-home parent now, so I suppose I’m still on the job — but I get to have Thanksgiving dinner with my family and sit on the couch watching TV while I do it.

Most of all, I’m thankful for my wonderful, superlative Wife and our incredible, lovely children.

And I’m thankful for you, Dear Reader. Enjoy your Thanksgiving and have a great weekend!

Arrival

(Note: This post picks up immediately after “Flying… With Children (International Edition) left off.)

Our flight landed at the airport in Keflavik, Iceland before dawn. And I mean “dawn” for a normal day in a part of the world further from the pole, not just that mid-morning dawn that you get in Iceland in late autumn. We landed at the airport, but for some reason there was a change of plans and we were going to have to disembark from the plane on the runway and be shuttled to the actual airport building.

It’s 6am. We’ve been awake for hours. There’s a howling rainstorm outside and the temperature is near freezing. All our winter clothing and coats are packed in a suitcase we don’t have access to. And we have to move a baby and two kids in pajamas, a baby-elephant-sized diaper bag, two backpacks, and three carseats through the airplane and down rain-slick steps. Remind me again why we are doing this to ourselves?

Oh, yeah, and we were sitting in the last two rows. It was a load of fun hauling those carseats down the entire length of the plane the first time; I can’t tell you how much I was looking forward to doing it again. Unfortunately, the crew thought we looked so pitiful that they needed to let down the rear stairs so we could exit that way. So I didn’t get to struggle down the aisle with those seats and bags after all. Dang!

In all seriousness, getting our stuff and our kids and ourselves off the plane and onto the bus (and then off the bus and into the airport) in that freezing rain and blasting wind was one of the two or three really bad experiences we had on our trip. It was brief, but it was not a fun way to start our vacation.

After an interval in the airport wherein we got our luggage and struggled to remain conscious and civilized, we picked the awfulness right back up with an unhelpful shuttle van driver, more driving wind, and freezing rain.  He literally just walked around an abandoned cart blocking the airport exit and waited patiently while we struggled with bags and carseats until the last thing was left and a “can I help” feebly emanated from his offensive face.  Luckily, the ride was literally across the parking lot and into the next building.  So close, in fact, the Wife asked if the kids could just stay in the van.  She would soon discover that one of our two vehicles had been canceled.  Which did not really matter because they did not have a second van even if they had kept the reservation.  No one seemed to be responsible for it. The teenagers who appeared to make up the entire staff of the organization would point to their monitor and tell us that they had received a cancellation. The Wife certainly hadn’t cancelled anything, so who had? They didn’t know. Who can say? Sometimes car rentals get cancelled.  But that is no problem because they don’t have another van anyway.

We were tired, hungry, uncaffeinated adults with tired, hungry, bored kids who could only keep themselves awake by whining and hurting each other. This kind of SNAFU was not what we needed. At this point, I had to get the kids and all our stuff out of the shuttle van, so I missed the details of how things went down after that. However, after about forty-five minutes of the Wife being pissed at them and clearly unwilling (and, considering the amount of stuff and people I brought in from the shuttle, perhaps unable) to depart without both the vehicles she had rented, the high schoolers running the show managed to find that, yes, they did actually have a second van.

It is critical, Dear Reader, that you understand one thing about this two plus hour horror fest: we met our goals. NO ADULT CRIED. NO ADULT SWORE.  We are 2 for 2 with international travel involving copious jet lag, car seats, and car rental with NO TEARS and NO F BOMBS.

Finally, we loaded up our two vans (really, they were only slightly larger than a Honda hatchback but had sliding rear doors!  Oooh!) and headed out, just as some light was beginning to creep into the sky.

Which was when we discovered, as we suspected would be the case, that the GPS in our cell phones wasn’t working. Nor could we call or text each other — at least, not without it being a big, expensive, international communication. We had a fold-out map that had the whole of Iceland on one side and Reykjavík on the other, and we had the maps in our guidebook. However, none of that told us how to get out of the airport and headed in the right direction. The Wife and I were in one van with the kids, while Granma Cake and Granpa Shim were following us under the mistaken belief that we knew where we were going.

The Wife had a plan though (she typed that)!  Breakfast!

After driving around in the dark, squinting at the long, Nordic names on roadsigns, the Wife spotted a bakery that seemed to be open. By the time we had coffee with some ham, cheese, and the most amazing orange cardamon donut holes, the sun was rising and the world seemed a much better place.

Our first day of adventure had gotten off to a rocky start but caffeine and fried baked goods helped us shake that off and begin anew.  Our first day of adventure awaited!

 

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Why Are There so Many…

This part of the year is considered the off-season for Icelandic tourism. Typically, people prefer to travel there when it is warmer and the sun is out nearly all day. Of course, visiting during the off-season was why we got such a good deal on our package. There was another, unexpected, benefit to being in Iceland in November that turned out to be one of our favorite parts of the trip.

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The sun would rise around 9:30 or 10 in the morning and set between 4 and 4:30 in the afternoon. It hovered close to the horizon all day and peaked only halfway up the sky.

 

This is what noon looks like.
This is what noon looks like.

 

Photographers and cinematographers like to shoot landscapes during the last hour of daylight. The sunlight is softer and brings out the colors of the land better. They call it “The Magic Hour.” In Iceland, that magic hour can last for about a quarter of the day.

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The weather was frequently rainy, though the rainclouds came and went pretty quickly (or we were driving out from under one and into the next a lot). The upshot of this was that because of the low angle of the sun, any time it was rainy — or even a little misty — you could see fantastic rainbows. Big, huge, full, and often double rainbows, everywhere, all the time, every single day of our trip!

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It was spectacular. The landscape was already amazing to take in; the constant rainbows upped the experience all the way to “magical.” The girls will tell you this was the best part of the trip.

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Flying… With Children (International Edition)

The challenges of an international flight can pretty much be boiled down to this: you’ll be sitting down for more than five hours.

We’d brought along lots of things to snack on. The Wife portioned them out into little ziplock bags which meant (among other things) they could easily passed along from the parent with the big carryon bag to the kids. Our kids pretty much only get goldfish crackers on flights or long car trips, so that is a special treat they look forward to. The Wife had also put together bags of mixed nuts and raisins. The one downfall of these kinds of little snack foods is that kids will drop anywhere from thirty to ninety percent of them. Flight attendants who have been helpfully offering you extra pillows and peanuts for your young’ns may be unable to hide their horrified expressions when you finally remove the carseats and reveal all the debris lurking underneath.

While I have noted that nothing is as boring as being on an airplane, international flights often have little TVs on the backs of all the seats with free movies and shows to watch (note that my experience here is pretty limited, but our Icelandair plane certainly had this feature). You’ll want to bring plenty of activities along, anyway, because no one can watch the same four episodes of Dora the Explorer over and over for seven straight hours.

RU’s backpack had been crammed with toys and stickers and gewgaws. Once again, the Wife put an extra special twist on things. The activities were divided up into bags or envelopes and the girls were told they could open one every hour. This added a celebratory air to the proceedings, even if the “surprise” was a toy normally shunned at home rather than a shiny new one.

When assembling your sack of in-flight distractions, the first rule is to not bring anything you or your kids really care about. Books may get torn and doused in juice, toys may get dropped and left on the airplane, and the whole bag might get lost in the shuffle somehow. If you are taking things from home, pick a few small, cheap toys they don’t play with much (ideally ones that do not make noise). Those little books you get in kids meals that are floating around in your van? Gather ‘em up and bring ‘em along. If you are buying new items, stick to things that are similarly inexpensive and disposable. Those shelves at the entrance of Target where they try to unload a bunch of crap for one or two bucks is a great place to start. You’d be surprised how much mileage you can get out of just a pack of sticky notes and a ballpoint pen from the hotel.

Finally, don’t neglect your big guns: the iPad. As I’ve said before, we don’t normally rely on electronic devices to keep our kids quiet and busy. Plane trips are a big exception. Make sure you have your tablet charged up, and if your kids are going to have to take turns you’d best figure out ahead of time how to make sure that goes smoothly.

(Don’t neglect to pack something for yourself, too. My motto is “always have a book with you,” but I failed to follow that dictum on this trip. Since I was the parent sitting in the row with our girls, I did not anticipate having any time to myself at all — either I would be busy with them or they would be sleeping, in which case I would be sleeping, too. As it turned out, there were several stretches on both flights where I had whole, consecutive minutes where no one wanted anything from me. However, as I was sitting right next to my kids, I didn’t think it was appropriate to indulge in watching Mad Max or The Shawshank Redemption or any of the other in-flight movies I would have found entertaining. So, yeah, a novel would have been very welcome.)

Our flight from Denver to Iceland was going to be seven hours long. We’d be leaving in the afternoon and landing in the wee hours of the morning, Iceland time. This was a pretty good timetable for us. That put us getting wheels up around nap time, so if the kids could sleep the whole way, they would wake up acclimated to the time change. Plus, they’d be asleep for the seven-hour flight, which ’tis a hibernation devoutly to be wished.

Once we were in the air, we gave the kids a dose of melatonin. It was their nap time, anyway, but we wanted to make sure we put the final nail into the coffin of their wakefulness. July had fought off sleep on the flight from [Undisclosed] to Denver like a mother wolf fighting off a grizzly bear. No fooling around with that business this time; the sooner she went to sleep, the sooner I could go to sleep.

Oh yes, I took a dose of melatonin, too. I needed to adjust to the time difference as well, after all. Besides, two of my three children wake up at dawn every day; I can always use some extra sleep. Unfortunately, while it did make me very drowsy, I could not completely seal the deal. Instead, I sat in that gray, blurry zone between sleep and wakefulness for a few hours, too groggy to entertain myself.

Then the girls woke up.

Hoping I could still manage to get some shuteye in, I gave them headphones and turned on Dora for the rest of the flight.

Things to Do in Denver When You’re Superheroes

Our flight to Iceland left out of Denver, Colorado on the first day of November. We had decided that it would be a good idea to fly into Denver a couple of days early. The kids had never been there and had never seen the Rockies. Uncle Apple and Aunt Megan were going to be in Denver during that weekend as well, so we could get together with them. Breaking up our flights just seemed smarter than doing them both back-to-back, anyway.

One upshot of this plan was that, although we wouldn’t be at home for the holiday, we would still be able to do something to enjoy Halloween. The Wife had bought secret new superhero pajamas for the kids that could double as Halloween costumes. RU’s was Wonder Woman, Z got Spider-Man (although he was usually in the carrier strapped to the Wife or I, so there was never any point in putting it on him), and, despite the fact that her costume included a sparkly skirt and had a bow on it, MeToo was Superman not Supergirl.

While casting about for something to do, we stumbled upon the Colorado Railroad Museum. The museum was going to have a “Trick or Treat Train” on the 31st. The train, so we read, departed every thirty minutes and you could “visit all the town’s special shops” to get treats. Somehow, we convinced ourselves that this meant the train would actually travel to different places outside of the museum, perhaps some of the little former mining towns that are along the old railroad lines as you go into the mountains. We imagined a leisurely ride inside “vintage passenger cars” to three or four not-too-spookily decorated stops where the kids could get out and get candy.

The reality was that we made two loops on a track that circles around the yard of the railroad museum, giving you a view of the various machines and locomotives scattered about. The Halloween-themed locales were small areas around the place — a pumpkin patch just big enough to stage a picture in, a boxcar draped with fake spider webs.

Given the disparity between what we had imagined and what it was actually like, the experience ought to have been utterly disappointing. However, there were two things that saved it. One was that one of the “special shops” was a face-painting booth. The girls had been wanting to have their faces painted since… Well, pretty much all year, I think. Somehow our efforts to make that happen had been consistently stymied, but now we’d finally succeeded in making it happen and the girls had masks and tiaras painted on to accompany their outfits. The biggest factor that kept the outing from being an enormous waste of time, effort, and enthusiasm was the same thing that makes every lame Halloween activity fun: seeing other people in their costumes.

A constant stream of families poured into the museum, despite the fact that they seemed to know better than we did what to expect there. We saw Ninja Turtle families, Elsas and Anas, other superheroes, and one girl in a dress that evoked a rebel pilot’s uniform from Star Wars. That’s the part of Halloween that I have always loved the most. I enjoy getting to see what everyone is pretending to be, admiring the really imaginative or elaborate costumes, and the overall sense of play that seems to come with it all. It’s like everyone is part of an enormous parade (or attending the same Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror convention).

So that was the Colorado Railroad Museum.

The Wife and RU on a short hike
The Wife and RU on a short hike

That evening, we were able to actually go trick-or-treating for a little while. While planning for this trip, Granma Cake had the brilliant notion that we should rent a house to stay in together rather than all have separate hotel rooms. The house sat in a quiet, suburban neighborhood that was just perfect for getting in a little of the traditional All Hallows Evening candy shakedown. We hit a few streets until the Wife and I felt that we had enough sweet things to snack on during the flight to Iceland. Then, having made sure that our kids had experienced just enough seasonal fun to not feel cheated out of their childhoods, we returned to the house to prepare for the following day’s adventure in international travel.

To The Airport!

We possess the efficiency of a Medieval army. We’re slow and we have to bring the kitchen sink.

-The Wife, on our flight to Denver     

The rule of thumb is to arrive at the airport thirty to sixty minutes prior to your flight. That way you’ll have plenty of time to check in, go through security, and get to your gate. Once you have children, though, you need to add on additional time for potty breaks, meltdowns, and the simple fact that they have real short legs and no interest in standing in lines. Babies will inevitably need to nurse and have their diaper changed. On top of that, you also have more luggage when you’re bringing children along — possibly including carseats, strollers, and diaper bags — yet your additional personnel are next to no help when it comes to hauling all this extra stuff around.

By the time you have three children, you need to plan on getting to the airport eighteen hours prior to your flight. I’m only kidding a little bit. On a different occasion, our flight was one of the first ones of the day and we ended up getting to the airport so early that we had to wait for it to open. Really, if you have an upcoming plane trip with your children and you’re not sitting at the gate as you read this, you’re already running late.

For this trip, we started packing in earnest the day before our flight. Even so, we were rushing to be ready the following day, with the Wife zipping the suitcases closed as I was strapping the kids into the van. We brought along five suitcases, three carseats (one with a base that traveled as a separate piece), two backpacks, a diaper bag, and a belt pouch. Thank goodness for curbside check-in!

We checked as much as we could, but decided that we needed to keep all the carseats with us. If our stuff got lost or delayed, not having carseats would result in the biggest hurdle — can’t leave the airport without a safe way to transport the kids, after all. So one carseat got hooked onto the handy rolling frame we have (and highly recommend for anyone needing to get a carseat through an airport), with another flipped upside down on top of it. Z’s bucket seat, minus the base, is pretty light and easy to carry by itself. Z himself was strapped onto the Wife. The backpacks were strapped onto the kids (for as long as they could maintain forward momentum). The Wife wore the pouch. I carried the diaper bag which bulged like an elephant pregnant with another elephant. Whoever wasn’t dragging the carseats would hang onto the kids.

As usual, getting through security at [Undisclosed]’s airport was no more onerous than it had to be. There’s no getting around the fact that you have to unburden yourself of all your party’s carefully balanced crap (and your shoes) and then gather it all up again without seeming like a maniac, which can be a challenge. The Wife is usually able to keep the kids from darting into secure areas without making sudden movements herself. I’ve almost perfected a way to heave the diaper bag onto the scanner’s conveyor belt that will simultaneously flip me out of my shoes — for, y’know, efficiency’s sake.

The [Undisclosed] airport has gotten rid of the play area it had between some of the gates and replaced it with a bar. Because with all those bored kids sitting around with pent-up energy, the adults are gonna need to do some drinkin’. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long before getting to lug our circus onto the plane.

We had an uneventful flight. That means we had a couple of hours’ respite from carrying our stuff but had to spend it keeping the children entertained. We’d brought a whole backpack of things to keep them distracted with, but that was for the big flight to Iceland.

It couldn’t have happened to a nicer kid.

-The Wife, regarding MeToo passing out on the plane after having kept herself awake for 45 minutes.

Actually, I lucked out and didn’t sit next to the rest of my party. The Wife sat with MeToo and Z (who was able to have a seat as the flight wasn’t entirely full) while RU sat in the row behind her with Granma Cake and Grampa Shim. I sat across the aisle and got to occasionally hand them things from our carryons. For the most part, though, I had elbow room and some time to myself.

That was reversed once we landed in Denver. The Wife and Granma Cake immediately headed to get the rental cars, which required a shuttle ride to somewhere far from where the kids and the bags were. Once we’d reassembled our mountain of luggage, Grampa Shim “remembered” that he was carrying the IDs that would be needed at the car rental counter and headed for the shuttle. That left me to get the kids and all the luggage outside where we could eventually be picked up.

I have commented before about how boring airplane rides are. Airports, too, are some of the most boring places on earth. Maybe there are things to do or see or shop for if you are on your way to the gate or waiting to take off. Once you land somewhere, though, the place is just dead. They don’t bother to put up a bar or a souvenir shop next to baggage claim. Everyone’s on their way out. So Heaven help you if aren’t able to leave right away and have a couple of entertainment-starved children in tow.

When the other adults finally felt like coming back to pick us up, there was a flurry of activity. Only two of the carseats and most of our suitcases could fit into our car, so one of the girls and a bag went into the grandparents’ vehicle. This would set the precedent for the rest of the trip for the girls to bicker over who got to/had to ride with grandma and grampa.

All of this was something of a warm-up for our flight out of the country a couple of days later. In the meantime, though, we were in Denver. More importantly, we were done with airports and airplanes for the day.

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Icelandic Saga

We have just returned from our adventures, Dear Reader, and I am happy to share them with you. 
Last week, the Wife and I, accompanied by her parents (Granma Cake and Granma Shim), took the kids to Iceland, by way of Denver, Colorado. Uncle Apple and Aunt Megan were going to be in Denver on Halloween, so we took the opportunity to break up our flying and spend some time enjoying their company and the locale. 
There’s a lot to talk about (and lots of vacation pictures to bore you with) and I’ll be writing our travelogue as quick as I can. However, I’ll have a couple of jet-lagged preschoolers and a baby with an upside-down sleep schedule to contend with, too, so “as quick as I can” may not be all that quick.
Until then, enjoy this preview, showing the ugliest, most squalid sight we came across: