BRAD     |     EMILLIE

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Adventuring with a Toddler

While preparing for our trip, I trolled the web for advice regarding traveling with a toddler. There was all the usual stuff about plane flights, baby proofing hotel rooms, etc. but nothing about more off-the-beaten track style traveling. We basically wanted to take Nikolai on a backpacking style trip. The few websites that I found were blogs of people who'd taken their kids somewhere more adventurous, but they were all positives. As in "it's really easy" and "everywhere you go people love kids".

I would have to say that our experience in Turkey maintained both of these truths. However, I do want to blog some advice that I would have found helpful.

1. In general I think that naturally relaxed, easy-going children would probably make for better travelers. Nikolai has always been that sort of relaxed kind of kid. But travelling still makes him a bit more tense and crabby (though he did cut those last two molars during the course of our trip, so maybe it wasn't the traveling that made him cranky). Which leads to point number 2...

2. Parents have to be totally flexible and focused on ensuring that their child's needs are being met. Our whole day rotated around Nikolai's random sleep pattern (usually quite regular at home), his food needs and his need to have "unstructured play time".

3. You should definitely learn the following words in what ever language you are travelling in: Hello (Merhaba) -this is a good one to teach your child as well-, Thank you (the politest form in Turkish is Teshicur-lar), and I'm sorry (Pardone).

Here's some Turkey specific advice:

4. I didn't see much evidence of many children in Turkey (though I am coming from Ireland, so perhaps my view of the number of children that ought to be milling about is tainted by that). It is probably because urban areas have a low birth rate, and because everyone hides them away indoors, or at daycares (creche) during the day. Of note, maternity leave is only 8 weeks, but despite that breastfeeding rates are high. I even witnessed a fully covered Muslim woman breastfeed her toddler in public without covering up (although, arguably, the robes did a good enough job for her).

5. In general EVERYONE is very overprotective of children. The first time we went to a playground we had most of the other parents on-edge because Nikolai was climbing monkey bars, going on swings, sliding down slides etc. People also feel that they could interfere with Nikolai's playing on our behalf (making me feel like a naughty parent). Even older children were stopping Nikolai from using the playground equipment once it became clear that we weren't going to do it. This overprotectiveness extended beyond the playground, to any stairs or railings that we were around. We ate at an outdoor patio one night and had at least two waiters concerned that Nikolai would fall under the railing (he would have had to work to squeeze into that gap) and at one point another patron got up and pulled him away from the railing.
This was very difficult for us, because Nikolai is a decent climber, he can climb rope ladders and is very competent with stairs. We also needed to let him have time to run around, climb and play... Thus I spent a chunk of time feeling like a naughty mommy, as people frequently interfered to protect Nikolai from our negligent parenting. Perhaps I should have also learned the phrase "please don't worry".

5. People in Turkey have an overly enthusiastic and affectionate relationship with children. Having known Serhat and his mother Umid for many years now, I was pretty certain that they would be very affectionate with Nikolai. I had somewhat prepared him for that, by talking all about Serhat, and teaching him to say "Merhaba Serhat", etc. What I wasn't prepared for was that EVERYONE loves children. And many people feel like they can pinch your child's arm, cheek, leg, whatever is available (I'm talking about at least 3 or 4 pinches an hour when we're in public; I'm talking about absolutely random people walking by us on the street; and I'm talking about everyone from young teenage boys to old grandmas). Perhaps I should have also learned the phrase "please don't touch my son".

The enthusiastic relationship with children is expanded if you have had any sort of personal interaction. Food sellers would nearly always give Nikolai a treat as we left their restaurant or shop (and boy was he protective of those treats! It was like wrestling with a tiger to get him to share a bite of the interesting looking pistachio cookie, or apple nut tart. Even if Nikolai was full up from dinner, he'd hold on to that cookie with a death grip in the knowledge that the cookie had, in fact, been given directly to him.) A few people (including the security guard outside of Serhat's work - what do you say to someone with a gun?) would even pick Nikolai up professing in Turkish "mashala, mashala".

At first Nikolai and his newly formed two year old sense of self, was very uncomfortable with all of this. If anything he certainly envisioned himself as the master of his world, rather than just a cuddly cat, there for other peoples entertainment. However, by the end he was resigned, and generally ignored any attempts at winning his attention, unless, of course, they were holding out a cookie.

The hardest thing about traveling with a toddler was that Nikolai stopped sleeping in any normal routine. Basically he went down to sleeping only 8 hours a night (so we all went to bed at the same time) and taking a random assortment of naps throughout the day. This definitely made for some cranky moments, but nothing we could do would encourage him to fall asleep before 10:30 at night, or sleep later than 7am. Luckily 10:30 pm is about average bedtime for Turkish children, so the playgrounds remained pretty full until at least 9:30 pm.

The best part about traveling with a toddler is that he quickly learned to communicate with the locals. Our first playground experience was awkward, to say the least. Nikolai managed to freak all the parents and older children out with his playground skills, and Nikolai was very upset and worried that no one understood him. About halfway through the trip, he figured out that clowning around would get the other children to pay attention to him and laugh at him. Our last playground experience involved Nikolai interacting with nearly all the children in the park. He even managed to get older children to play with him on the seesaw, and pushed him around on somebodies trike. The surprising turn of affairs is that Nikolai has taken up babbling nonsensically. I'm betting he's using Turkish phonemes, as it's that big language development period. And we are still playing the talking in gibberish game.

The picture is of Nikolai and Brad on the top bunk of the overnight train. Nikolai had no problems sleeping on the overnight train, and having all the roaming around space of train was definitely preferable to traveling by bus, or perhaps even by car!

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