Vacationing in Europe: Why You Should Take Your Baby
by Ericka Lutz
A quiet walk along Venetian canals, a romantic Parisian dinner — with a baby in tow? Could it be done? Before Annie was born, Bill and I swore we’d never stop our adventuring. Then Annie turned seven months and it was time to test our resolve with a month in Europe; a modified Grand Tour: Holland, France and Italy. Our friends with babies were dismayed, “You’re so brave!” “What will you do about diapers?” “Can you nurse in a restaurant in Italy?”
So, how do you travel with bambino in tow without staying at the Ritz, Club Med, or with a doting ancestral family? Off we went in search of answers, strewing Europe with tiny socks, diapers and lost sunhats. What we discovered is that travel with the little one, while requiring a little extra planning and a lot of flexibility, can be wildly rewarding.
What to Bring
Tons O’ Baby Clothes — An hour before leaving for the airport we sat in the middle of a living room littered with baby clothes and road maps, two suitcases which seemed to have shrunk to gym bags, and Annie, rocking back and forth on her knees, thrilled by the chaos.
“Don’t crawl,” I told her, “wait a few weeks. Please?”
She smiled with glee.
“What do we bring for Annie?” I asked Bill.
We looked at each other mystified. What kind of weather would we face? What social situations?
“Let’s bring it all,” he said with a flash of brilliance. We stuffed everything into two suitcases (one for Annie, the other for us to share) and three carry ons crammed with familiar toys, passports (yes, your baby needs one), Annie’s quilt, our tickets, diaper ointment, sunglasses, Kleenex, books, baby books, more toys, and chewing gum.
Travel Tip #1: Bring as much baby clothing as you can cram in the suitcase. Doing laundry can be a drag, and your baby won’t become neat just because you’re on the road. You’ll be able to replace whatever you need, but the beautiful baby clothes in Europe are far too expensive for everyday use.
Travel Tip #2: Do laundry as you go. Bring soap for hand washing. Hotels and laundries charge an arm and a leg to do your wash for you and you won’t want to waste precious museum time watching pajamas spin in a Parisian laundromat. (Even if you do, you may have trouble finding one. Ask your hotel or look it up in one of the Europe-on-the-cheap guidebooks BEFORE you go). Damp baby clothes can be dried on the back seat of the car as you cruise through the Alps or the Tuscan countryside. (Your own underpants and socks can be too, if you don’t mind hearing snickers from the local constables who’ll stop you at the occasional road block).
Flying Baby! — We got lucky. Flying was exciting for Annie, not because of the gorgeous view of Iceland or the free drinks, but because of all the people and attention. Eventually she fell asleep, exhausted from smiling at so many friendly faces. And about the ear thing: we had no problems. Annie nursed during take-off and landing on the way there and on take-off on the way back. During the final landing, she refused to nurse and sat quietly on my lap, occasionally yawning.
The most important things about flying with an infant are the two words “Bulkhead Seats,” those seats on the airplane with nothing in front of them. For international flights, contact your airline about the availability of bassinets, “sleeping bags” and bottled baby food. Your doctor may prescribe medication to help your baby sleep (we had it but didn’t use it).
Travel Tip #3: INSIST on Bulkhead Seats. Nothing else will do! Call early and often, arrive at the airport with time to spare, and, if necessary, throw a small tantrum yourself.
Travel Tip #4: During take-off and landing, nurse your baby or make sure he is sucking on a bottle or pacifier to keep his ears clear. Contrary to the horror stories you might hear, many pediatricians now believe that there is no relationship between flying and ear infections.
Trains vs. Autos — The next question we faced was: How to cross the continent? Trains and cars both have assets and liabilities. While trains provide more room and a chance to meet the locals (baby travels free), they also restrict your movements. We opted for a rental car because of the many kilometers we were traveling, and because we got a great deal through our airline. A car gives you the freedom to stop for a quiet nurse in a quaint village or an emergency diaper run at the local supermarch. Our greatest discoveries were made because we were able to get off the main roads and wander. For Annie, the car became a home away from home, although the two days we tried to cover long distances were VERY trying, despite songs, toys and endless kisses. It’s no fun to drive amidst traffic doing 160 kilometers an hour with a cranky, screaming baby.
Travel Tip #5: With a baby, places are further apart than they look on the map. Plan lots of time for rest stops. Most European highways have well-organized 24-hour rest areas where you can get (expensive) food and gas and let baby relax in the children’s play area with kids from many countries.
Travel Tip #6: Bring your own car seat. Rental companies charge extra. Most airlines allow you to take the seat on board, and if not, will let you check it through without interfering with your baggage allowance.
Lugging The Little Rug Rat Around — And in the cities, a stroller? A back pack? A sling? We opted for a lightweight Gerry pack. Annie was able to view the world from her perch and we took turns toting the well-balanced load. Our pack was looked at longingly by many Venetian mothers who spend their days pulling strollers up and down the four hundred bridges of Venice. What many people don’t know is that Venetian bridges are all steps.
Travel Tip #7: In the Rodin museum in Paris and in the Van Gogh in Amsterdam we were requested to check the back pack. Be prepared to argue your case (we won in Amsterdam) and be prepared to lose (we lost in Paris).
Those Bodily Needs
A Clean-Bottomed Baby — However much you believe in cloth diapers (and we do), forget it. Please don’t spend your European vacation handwashing poopy diapers in hotel room sinks. Disposable diapers are expensive in Northern Europe, about twice as much as the same brands are here. A necessary expense. And you’ll get good at changing diapers in strange and awkward places. The secret to changing messy diapers on the road? Speed.
Travel Tip #8: While diapers are available in all supermarkets, diaper wipes are more problematic: they often smell strange or are only available in tiny, expensive quantities. Bring extras. Bring small packages of Kleenex, too. You’ll be glad you did.
Escargot, Baby? — If your baby eats solid food, bring some for the first day, or, rather, night. Your baby’s body (and your own) will still be living in another time zone and may get hungry at two-thirty A.M. Poor Annie had to make do with a stale rice cracker and tap water. The next day you can hit a supermarket, but be prepared for some strange discoveries. The Dutch begin feeding their kids bottled food at three months; puree of cabbage-tomato-green bean, non-iron fortified rice cereal. The French baby food is delicious but filled with sugar and salt. Ah, what the hell, it’s a vacation.
The Night Life — Can you take your infant to a fine Parisian restaurant? Well, we did. Suddenly, the formal waiter we remembered from three years ago, the one with the scornful upper lip, melted into cries of “Coo Coo! Coo Coo!” as he presented our smiling child with spoons, bread, and a tiny plate of her own.
Travel Tip #9: Sit near the door. If baby cries, take her outside IMMEDIATELY! And bring toys, food, whatever to keep her happy. Annie spent many an hour sitting on the floor under restaurant tables in five countries and was greeted with, for the most part, joy and pleasure by the restaurant staffs and patrons. Europeans tend to be more tolerant of babies. And after all, many of the other tables have small dogs sitting politely under them.
Madonna and Child — Perhaps the most challenging part of traveling with Baby is finding places to nurse. While I never saw a European woman nursing in public, I nursed when absolutely necessary, and the only people who looked twice were kind, grandmotherly types who smiled with approval and nostalgia. People all over the world understand that when baby has to eat, baby has to eat. I do admit to breast feeding in the Botticelli room of the Uffizi Palace in Florence…
Travel Tip #10: When you are out sightseeing and baby is hungry, try finding a four star hotel lobby or lounge. Nobody will stop you. Booths in dim restaurants work well. You can try public bathrooms, but many of them only provide “stoop” toilets. Under duress, even Venetian doorways on narrow streets can provide shelter. As in the United States, the key to it all is discretion and cultural sensitivity. Don’t just whip it out anywhere. And please skip nursing in the Notre Dame.
Pacing Yourself and Baby Too — Part of the joy of traveling with a baby is discovering a part of Europe you would have never seen pre-parenthood. To satisfy Annie’s need for rest and exercise, we took to finding parks in the middle of the day so that she could sit on the grass and practice her creeping. A highlight was the beautiful Jardin de Luxomburg in Paris. As in many European parks, trespassing on the well-groomed lawns is forbidden. There is, however, one lawn reserved for children under six and their parents. We spent a blissful afternoon watching the French bebes in their navy and white $80 outfits playing with their chic mothers. Annie, while less stylish, had a blast.
Travel Tip #11: GO SLOW! Build in relax time. Your baby couldn’t care less about the Louvre or the remains of the Berlin Wall.
Open Arms, Smiling Faces — We’re home now, and Annie is still mastering The Art of the Crawl. As I write this, I realize that I don’t have answers to all the questions, but what parent ever does? What I do know is that the only real secret to traveling with a baby in Europe is flexibility. You may not see all the museums or Cathedrals, but you’ll have adventures nonetheless. We’ll never forget: bicycling in Holland with Annie balancing in a seat on the handlebars; Annie’s coos of delight at the flock of pigeons in front of Notre Dame; her smiles at the twenty Italian grandmothers surrounding her at the Piazza San Lorenzo in Florence screaming, “Che Bella!” “Ciao!” “Che Bella!”; her looks of wonder at a world so seemingly different from her North Oakland neighborhood.
Children are loved around the world but hold a special place in Europe. Traveling with Annie allowed us to transcend the role of tourists and opened the arms of even the most jaded European. The often too-formal French and Dutch approached us with smiles and questions, and the Italians stumbled over themselves in an attempt to get close. Traveling with Annie enabled us to see a different side of European culture that had always eluded us before; a world of well-dressed infants and doting grandparents, a world where babies hold the central role of attention wherever they go, a world where a row of newly washed stuffed animals hangs, pinned in ranking order of size, from a Venetian clothesline over a silent blue green canal.