Family Jewels: Something New for a Change

While the jewelry I have shown previously is old by family standards, last summer I was given a brand new piece for my collection. My family had taken a Mediterranean cruise during July (you can read more about it under the category Family Cruise 2011). One of the favorite places we stopped was the Greek island of Santorini.

My husband had arranged for a private boat to take us around the island. Santorini is part of an atoll- an exploded volcano. This explained the ragged black cliffs of igneous rock we passed on our excursion.

The captain was wonderful and knew where to find some private hot springs. We loved swimming in the effervescent water, which grew hotter as we approached the mouth of the inlet.

Captain took us to a snorkelling spot where we could approach a 600 ft drop off and peer down into the crater.

Afterwards we ate a delicious lunch he had prepared onboard: falafel, tomato salad, bread with olive oil, spinach, mushrooms and a plate of olives. Everything was fabulous! He dropped us off at the opposite end of the island, near Ia, where his taxi friend took us up top. The views were spectacular- even better than we see in the Jamie Lee Curtis commercials for Greek yogurt.

While we wandered around the numerous art galleries, we spotted a souvenir shop.

My mother had the clairvoyant idea to commemorate the day by purchasing choker necklaces made of lava beads- the same igneous rock we had motored up to in the morning. She bought one for each of us, so we could always remember the special time we shared.

This is the one she gave to me. It is made very simply out of rough pieces of rock. I love the symmetric placement of the blue glass beads and silver rings. It is great to wear with a t-shirt for a little extra pizzazz. Best of all, when I touch the lava beads, I can instantly take myself back to the sulfur hot springs and the tasty luncheon we all shared in Santorini.

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Day 9- A”Maze”ing Mykonos

Today we arrived in Mykonos, a popular Greek island for tourists. Everyone was excited to get out and explore after our previous day at sea. Hillary and Susan wanted to walk through the town together, shopping and sampling the local food. Mike, Amy and myself planned to take the kids to a beach for some swimming in the lovely blue Mediterranean waters.

We had done some research the day before and decided on a beach which was slightly farther away, possibly less crowded. Mike wanted to give David a thrill by renting a scooter for touring around. Amy and I planned to take Megan and Kate on the bus and meet up later.

We had all been informed by the cruise director that Mykonos was originally designed with natural foils- winding streets and alleys which were not laid out in any logical manner- in order to prevent capture by invaders. He promised us that we would get lost. Sure enough, while searching for the bus depot, we seemed to wander in circles, passing points over again until we got lucky enough to spot the buses.

The schedule was complicated to figure out and led us to believe we had just missed the bus to our destination and would have to make other plans. Just then we saw Mike and David filling up their gas tank nearby. We told them our new plan and they said they would meet us there.

When the bus arrived a few minutes later, we saw that it was in fact going to the beach we had preferred to visit. Oh well, so much for meeting the guys. At least they had a scooter and could get around on their own. We were stuck with where the buses went.

We had a comfortable ride up and down the coast of the island and could appreciate the layout of the different beaches. We arrived at our stop about 20 minutes later. The turquoise water was very inviting and the warm sand felt soothing between our toes.

We plunked our towels and backpacks down and went for a swim. Kate and Megan had a great time splashing and diving together. It was nice to see them having so much fun. And that was the point of taking a relaxing beach day where we weren’t focused on seeing the historic attractions. Amy and I lay on our towels, soaking in the smell of the salt air, the rolling sound of the waves and the glow of the sparkling sunshine on the waters.This was close to Paradise…

Unfortunately, our reverie would soon have to end in order to catch a bus back to our cruise ship. We collected our things and headed to the washroom. When we walked into the cafe, lo and behold, Mike and David were sitting at the counter having some sandwiches!  Apparently they had gone to the beach we told them, discovered we had not made it and decided to come here anyway. The funny thing is that they had not even considered looking for us on the beach,because we had stayed close to the moped parking area just in case.

We had to get going though, so we headed to the bus stop and then took the return trip back into town. Now all we had to do was rewind our steps through the maze to locate our loading area. At one point we came to a fork in the road. We were not sure which way to go and Amy suggested walking out to the water to get an idea of where our ship was. We passed through an outdoor cafe to the seaside lookout. We spotted our cruise ship and knew the general direction to head.

As we walked back through the cafe, Megan spotted her Grandma and Nana sitting at the table an arms reach away! They were so surprised when she gave them a hug! We pulled up some chairs to join them and told them about our earlier meeting with Mike and David. Of all the places where the reputation was for getting lost, we had some pretty remarkable encounters!

We spent a half hour or so, sharing our adventures over some Mojitos and lemonades. It was funny to think what the chances of meeting up were, especially if Amy had not insisted on looking for the ship. When we got our bill, we were dismayed to learn that our Mojitos were outrageously expensive (12 Euros each). Fortunately, the ambiance of our gathering- surprise, family, view- made the whole experience “Priceless”.

Day 7- Athens: Crowds and Old Friends

This morning we docked in Piraeus, the port city of Athens. The Cruise family, Susan and Kate were in a rush to disembark. We had to catch a train in order to meet up with our tour guide. Mike had arranged a private tour with some local archaeologists to take us around the Agora and the Acropolis. We got slightly lost when our train was detoured to a different stop than planned, but we arrived at our meeting place only a few minutes late. Unfortunately, no one else was there.

Mike spoke with a local shop keeper who was happy to let him use the phone to call our guide. It took over a half-hour to determine that no one had been sent for us and we would have to take the tour on our own. Mike was extremely disappointed, but we all let him know we appreciated his efforts and would make do.  Kate and David had fun running amongst the statues, comparing their heights to the headless figures. Susan and Megan were deep in contemplation over what it took to build these sites; while Mike and I marvelled at how amazing it was that they were still around.

               

It was getting hot, so we decided to go to the top of the Acropolis before it got any later. Much to our dismay, we realized the crowds were growing large and there was no way to avoid them. The children were very patient and calm, even though we were wedged into a mass of strangers speaking many languages. The adults, however, were secretly panicked. We mentally divided up into partners, each with a child, whom we would protect in the event of a stampede (I know, we all have dark thoughts and worse case scenarios running through our heads). By the time we gained access to the historical site, we were stressed, dehydrated and needed a break. Poor  Kate had been such a trooper standing in line, but at soon as we broke free, she needed to sit down and take some Tylenol for her headache- which had started during the hour-long wait.

Almost at the same time, Amy called us on Mike’s phone. She and Hillary had met up with some old family friends who were visiting relatives near Athens. They had come to the city for the day to take them out to some museums and lunch. When we relayed our misfortunes to Amy, our friend insisted on coming to “rescue” us and bring us to lunch as well. By this point, we had had enough heat and crowds so we did a quick walk through of the Acropolis, took our mandatory photos and actually felt thankful that we didn’t have to stop at each ruin to hear a detailed explanation.

               

We met up with Amy and Demetrius, a now 60-something gentleman, but just as charming as I remembered. He greeted each of us with a big hug and his signature Greek kiss, one on each cheek. He gave us a local tour on our walk to the museum. He had grown up in Athens and his descriptionof how it had changed was almost more meaningful than seeing the ancient ruins. Demetrius and his wife were the picture of Greek hospitality. They were both so delighted to have us on their turf- although we felt ashamed we had come all the way to Athens to catch up, when we could have seen them in New York.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch- Greek salad, soup, lamb or pasta and a refreshing beer or lemonade to revive us after our stressful morning. We spent an hour talking and exchanging family updates. The children heard stories about their parents and came to realize that these kind people actually knew a lot about them. When it was time to head back to our cruise ship, Demetrius made sure to get us on the proper train with directions to our stop. We all vowed we would do a better job keeping in touch.

It is so wonderful to reconnect with old friends and realize why you were friends in the first place. Now it is up to us to cement that bond, and not just on Facebook. I don’t think eFriends give out Greek kisses, at least not last time I checked.

Kids in the Hot Tub

Ever since I booked a Mediterranean cruise this past summer, I have been receiving a newsletter from Cruise Critic.com.   I usually just read the headliner and then move on. In the last week though, something caught my eye. Apparently, with the increasing number of families taking cruises the lines have become blurred over the rules about kids using the hot tubs and who is responsible for enforcing them. As the author of the blog, Jodi Thompson, said this has become a “hot button topic”. Reading the responses to the article was quite dramatic. People strongly had an opinion on either side of the argument. So here is my view, having been on a Holland America cruise this summer with adolescent children, for what its worth.

During the first two days of our cruise, the Lido pool (aka the family pool) was closed for maintenance. The only option for the children (of whom there were plenty) was to swim in the Aft pool (labelled as adults only). Obviously, it would not have been fair to prohibit children from using the only available pool on the ship and I had no problem with that plan. However, once the pool was reopened the rule did not seem to be enforced. The first day I used the adult pool was our day at sea. It would have been very relaxing to lay on a lounge chair by the pool or soak in the hot tub, except for the fact that both were teeming with children- some wearing only a swim diaper!

Hygiene and health issues aside, don’t I have the right to enjoy some peace and quiet if I am at what is called the adult-only pool? My own children always went to the family pool. They were old enough to know polite manners and how to be safe. Besides, at 11, 13 and 15 they needed their own space as much as I needed mine. Even though the Lido pool was crowded and noisy, it looked like the kids were all having fun. There were plenty of families hanging out there…except for the few who chose to ignore the rules and allow their children to play in the adult pool.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have been a preschool teacher for 10 years and I love little kids. But this was my summer vacation. I came here to get away and relax. I tried to ignore them for a while, but every time I wanted to swim, I got splashed in the face. And whenever I wanted to use the hot tub, there was a crowd of them horsing around in there. Finally I could not tolerate it anymore. I felt like a terrible curmudgeon, who everyone must think hates children, but I approached one of the parents. I politely pointed out that this was an adult pool for relaxing and that the other pool had reopened and was meant for families. She didn’t look too happy with me, but she went to check it out and within fifteen minutes moved her kids to the other pool.

Apparently, I was not the only one who was annoyed. A little while later, a staff member asked the kids in the hot tub to leave and by the next day, signs were up everywhere reminding people of the age restriction. Of course, there were some teenagers who ended up using the adult area, but as long as they were just talking and not fooling around no one bothered them. I couldn’t really blame them since their only other choice was to go in the noisy kids pool.

Maybe what these cruise lines need to do is rethink their on board entertainment areas in order to accommodate the growing numbers of young families as well as the retirees who tend to travel. There should be a reasonable way to provide an appropriate swimming area for different age groups and a willingness to enforce their rules. Parents need to be responsible as well. The last thing I want to do is be policing other people’s children when I am on vacation.

Days 5 & 6- Istanbul: Reflections on food and faith

We docked in Istanbul this afternoon, sailing into the port which proudly sported the Turkish Star and Crescent. We had great views of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia from our starboard side verandah.  Amy had a friend who lived in Istanbul. We were not able to meet up with her, but she had made a dinner reservation for us and we were looking forward to a real Turkish meal. We had some time to spare before dinner though and most of us wished to wander around the city. Only Hillary and Kate stayed behind as they were a bit jet-lagged and wanted to save their energy for our big shore excursion tomorrow.

Everyone else headed over the bridge that crossed the Bosphorus. The walkways were loaded with fishermen trying to pull in something big enough for dinner. The women were dressed in a variety of styles- ranging from jeans and tank tops to full burkas. I guess I neededn’t have stuffed a scarf in my bag since we were not going to the mosque today.

We reached the Spice Market- a very traditional building with exquisite mosaic designs, and walked inside to see the most amazing arrangements of a different kind. There were fresh spices of every color, stacked in open bins, with their fragrant aromas spilling out into the air! It was hard to resist buying bags full of every imaginable flavor. My husband was smart not to give me any of the Turkish Lira he had exchanged. So all I could do was take it in with my camera and breathe the air.

We caught a glimpse of the neighborhood where our dinner reservation was- up the hill by the Galata Tower. When Amy and I realized how steep the walk would be, we became concerned that Hillary would have trouble because of her knee. We knew the kids could manage just fine and Susan, who had been a good walker all her life, was getting stronger every day. We decided Susan & I would walk up to the restaurant with Megan and David while Amy and Mike went back to the ship to collect Hillary and Kate and hail a cab to dinner. We were starting to realize how cumbersome a group we were and that it would be impossible to fit everyone in 1 car anyway. Fortunately, we had a van reserved for our tour tomorrow.

It took about 40 minutes to regroup outside of Kiva, but when we went in our table was ready. We had a prime spot for 8 by the open area looking out on the Galata square. It was the first night of Ramadan and the restaurant was empty at 7:00. The owner was so friendly and willing to talk to us about the choices. He decided to give us a special treat since we were so interested in the local delicacies. He had his staff prepare about a dozen dishes in smaller portions that we could all sample from. These included black-eyed pea and spinach salad, a seaweed salad, zucchini casserole, mushrooms in sauce, shrimp skewers, chicken curry and several flavors of rice. Needless to say, David was able to enjoy almost everything. He turned down the chicken, but loved the shrimp, and was excited about all the vegetables and rice dishes. Kate was very adventurous and even tried a taste of the seaweed!

It was not until after 8pm that the locals started coming in to break their fast. By the time we were finished, the place was packed. Again, it was a mix of secular and orthodox attire. It made me realize that Islam is similar to all other religions in that way. You have control over how strictly you follow the rules and traditions. I myself only attend church on Christmas Eve. My husband no longer fasts on Yom Kippur. And while our children benefit from the holiday traditions of both faiths they have never been forced to go to Sunday School. As our tour guide told us the next day, she was conducting her job-including a lunch break- just like 60% of the other Muslims in the city. She planned to eat a special dinner with her parents as part of their tradition, but other than that she didn’t practice regularly.

This all got me thinking about why the U.S. has such misperception about Muslims. Have we become so paranoid about terrorists that we have classified all Muslims as such? In reality, Islam is a very tolerant religion. It was founded on the practice of allowing other faiths to practice in exchange for a “jitzah”- a tax on non-Muslims which granted them religious freedom.  Our fear has blinded us as to how similar we really are. There are extreme groups within any religious or political organization whose voices somehow carry more weight than those of the more secular masses. I am just glad that our family got to see first hand how these Turkish people lived and how friendly and welcoming they were. It was a great opportunity for us all to form (or reform) our own perceptions.

As we walked back to our ship that night, we looked at the colorful lights illuminating the mosques and heard the final call to prayer. How fortunate we were to be able to observe such a wonderful blend of new and old religious celebration.  

Day 4- At Sea- To Eat or Not to Eat

Today we are sailing from Split all the way around Greece, up through the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus River- the location of many battles over the centuries- to Istanbul. As it turns out, we had to face our own battles- based on food. First of all, as I previously mentioned, there were too many tasty treats readily available. We tried to keep an eye on the kids in order to prevent them from gorging on sweets, but it seemed like we were always saying “No”.

With three adults monitoring the situation, we slowly recognized how often this was happening and began to feel terrible. Wasn’t this cruise supposed to give them independence and personal responsibility? We became very distressed with ourselves. How can we be responsible for their eating habits without giving them all these limits? In the end we decided the reasonable thing to do was set some general guidelines on what to eat and how often, and hope they had more self-control than most children. This strategy may have given them 10 days of excessive eating, but it was better than fighting over the issue every day.

In contrast, Susan who was underweight due to a shattering life change (mentioned earlier), was trying to put on a few pounds. She needed to learn some “bad” habits. She added croutons, nuts, olives and eggs to her salads, ate whole sandwiches instead of open-faced, and threw some chips or fries on the side. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds though. Her appetite had severely dropped and she was only able to eat small portions at a time. It probably didn’t help to keep checking in at the gym to see if she was putting on any weight. We made a plan for her to always eat with someone for company and to limit how often she was checking her progress.

More Food for Thought

When we went to dinner tonight, we had a huge private table for 8. It was so wonderful to all be together and talk about our day. We shared our favorite shore adventures so far, the funniest things that had happened (for Kate, Amy and myself this was the pepper shaker story, which I’ll save for another time), or a report on the ping-pong matches of the day.  This tradition of sharing while eating as a family has always been important to me- a value instilled when I was growing up.

Ever since I was a girl, dinner has been more about socialization than actual eating. It was a family gathering time- a place to catch up with each other and share our day. My parents made this time an important family value and I continue to carry on this principle in my own home. Ever since my kids were little, I have enforced the 10 minute rule. This meant you must sit at the table for at least 10 minutes before you may be excused (remember when kids are little, 10 min is an eternity). As they have gotten older, we rarely have to enforce this rule unless someone is in a surly teenage mood.

Obviously on this cruise, our dinners lasted over an hour and we had plenty of time to talk. The thing that really impressed me though, was the variety of foods the kids were willing to try- watermelon soup, stuffed mushrooms and even tuna tartare. They may not have liked them all, but some were surprisingly delicious. I was just proud of them for trying.

When Food Choices Backfire

Sometimes, trying new things can backfire, though. On this night, David decided to be adventurous and order the roasted quail.  He took a few bites of it and then recognized that his dinner had once been a real bird- similar in size to the pigeons he loved in Venice. He politely excused himself from the table, saying he didn’t feel well. When I went to check on him later, he was very upset. He declared he was never eating animals again.

David is a very compassionate person and when he makes a decision on a principle it is very difficult to dissuade him. I tried to be supportive, figuring it would only last a few days (I was so wrong and this became a concern as time went on). Do you know how hard it is to support your child when you are concerned that their decisions will have a negative effect on him? I have certainly done enough research on healthy eating habits to know vegetarianism can be very beneficial if done correctly. There were multiple vegetarian options on the cruise menus so I was not concerned about what he could find to eat, but Mike and I did convince him to continue to eat fish as a source of fat and protein. For the remainder of the cruise, David declared himself a Pescatarian and enjoyed all the fruit, vegetables and sushi he could possibly eat.

Cruise Day 3- Split Croatia

The compelling thing about a cruise is that you tour the land by day and travel great distances on water at night. So by the time you wake up the next morning, you can be far away. In our case, we had travelled across the Adriatic Sea to Split, Croatia. Neither Croatia nor our next stops in Turkey were places I would have considered making a separate trip to, but that was the appeal of the cruise. I couldn’t imagine getting there any other way.

Split looked like a charming little town with a historic palace, market place and some museums to explore. Mike and I took the kids to the tourist attraction, the Diocletian Palace, while the other three adults visited the museum and market.

The palace was crowded, but once we climbed up the tower, we had great views of the town and out to sea. Unfortunately, the height of the stairs, as well as the rickety construction, gave Kate second thoughts about ascending. I felt bad that I had gotten her into this situation again. However, she bravely waited with me or Mike at one of the lower landings, while we took turns climbing. We were very proud of her ability to deal with the crowds and her appreciation of the old buildings we were seeing.

Next we had fun wandering the market. David, always the animal lover, spotted a woman selling rabbits. He bent down to pat them, just as he had with the pigeons in St Mark’s Square. They took to him immediately. For the rest of the trip, he tried to convince me that he should get a pet rabbit when we returned home.

After our tour, we stopped at a restaurant for pizza and salad. We sat at an outdoor table where we could watch the pedestrians from many countries walking by. While we were waiting for our food, I had my niece call home. I knew my sister would be anxious to hear from her and it was hard to get cell phone reception on the ship (not to mention very expensive).

Predictably, Kate only gave her mom minimal answers; “yes”, “no”, “cool”; so when she was done, I took over the conversation, filling her in on the details of our trip so far. I remembered how much I had longed to hear from my daughter when she was away with her Nana last summer on the Baltic.

My sister could not thank me enough for calling her. “You just made my day!” she exclaimed. I am sure Kate knew her mom would want to hear from her; but, as children do, wanted to draw the lines between her life experiences and her parents’. Fortunately, she had no qualms about sharing this experience with her aunt- so we had plenty of fun moments together, which we will remember for a long time.

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