Europe In Winter With A Child

One of your jobs as a parent is to keep your kids alive. In fact, that might be your main/only job. So, when you plan a big trip with a one-year-old, your first child, you shoot for a safe destination. And, as much as I love third world countries for the crazy stories, nursing my child back to recovery with a nasty bout of malaria seemed like a story I didn’t want to tell.

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So the search for our next trip was on. We had simple criteria. We needed somewhere that had: first world amenities; a good police force; working roads; few airborne diseases; no large predators roaming the savannah; no towns controlled by drug lords; little to no corruption; a modicum of respect for women; and the ability to tolerate Americans. Having not found any such place, we settled on Europe.

Two things you should know about me — I love deals and I hate crowds. That’s the reason I haven’t spent much time in Europe in summer. So I told my wife, Caitlin, that if we went to Europe, it’d have to be in the winter. No tourists — only off-season prices.

Being the Southern California boy that I am, I expect good weather year round. Here in San Diego, we only have one season, officially called “Summerspring-ish.” I’d been to Europe in the winter before, and I left feeling like Paris and Amsterdam in December were the two coldest places on earth. Still, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest sounded pleasant in February. Right? “Ok,” we thought, “let’s do it.”

When we boarded the redeye from Los Angeles to London — en route to Prague, we figured we had everything perfectly planned. We timed the flight exactly with our daughter’s bedtime. She’d sleep the entire flight. We’d all wake up very much rested in a foreign country across the Atlantic. What could go wrong?

The passengers boarded the brand new 747 on a flight was 40% full at best. Perfect conditions. No one in the row in front of us, no one in the row next to us, only one person in the row behind us (a large, gruff-looking Brit). The flight took off and everything seemed fine. Our daughter was awake but, again, fine. Glasses of wine were served. Lights went off. I viewed the onboard entertainment. (We rarely watch movies, so this was my chance, I thought.) There were five movies I wanted to see (five!) — all on a brand new monitor. There were plush, brand new seats. Ten hours of bliss awaited me.

But then things changed. They changed a lot, and badly. Almost immediately our daughter was inconsolable. She squirmed out of my arms. I paused my movie. She screamed. I set my wine down. She kicked the glass of wine over onto my pants. I moved seats. She screamed some more. I moved to the back of the plane. She kept screaming. I wanted to scream. (On a related note, have you ever wanted to punt another human being out of a plane before? I’m not saying I wanted to punt my child. This is just a hypothetical question. Ok, fine, ignore that question.)

My wife and I passed our daughter back and forth for the next nine hours. No movies were watched. No alcohol was consumed. No sleep was had. We deplaned in London, bleary-eyed, exhausted. The gruff-looking Brit seated behind us thanked us for the good behavior of our daughter. “Oh, yeah. Sure. She’s always this good,” I replied. He had no clue, and we were off to a terrible start.

When we reached Prague, it was late at night. Snow blanketed the ground. We had an Airbnb booked near the heart of the city. Our daughter had, by this time, now been asleep for a few hours. We were cold and happy to get to our lodging for the night. Just then and there Europe hit us.

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Caitlin lived in Europe for a year when she was in college, and we both have spent a lot of time in the mountains in winter. Yet, why were we so unprepared for the cold weather? I personally believe winter is colder in Europe — less insulation, less heating apparatuses. We knew Europe was like this. Yet, when we reached our apartment and couldn’t turn the heat high enough, we were dismayed. We filled up the bathtub for the three of us. The water temperature never rose above tepid. Welcome to Europe. Welcome to winter.

Well, at least we could sleep. We hopped into bed and got a solid three hours before our daughter was wide-awake, ready to start the day, ready to play.

I’ve never been jet lagged before. I’ve always had a system in place to defeat jet lag. My system was this — no matter what, when I reached my destination, I would sleep for as long as it took to get back on track. For example, if I got to a destination at 4pm, even if it was 8am my time back home, I would try to sleep until 6am the next day, local time. Sure it was a waste of time. But I was NEVER, EVER jet lagged. Ever.

My system is impossible to implement with a young child. We all gave up on sleep at 2am. Lights were turned on. Books and toys were brought out. Snacks were opened. We, the adults, were delirious. 7am came quickly.

We did have a nice morning, though. It’s not often I get to see the sunrise. However, to be honest, I didn’t see it rise in the haze of winter. I did get to see the darkness fade into light, and that was enough I suppose. After a few hours, our daughter crashed for her evening slumber at 10am. We were faced with a quandary, finally get some sleep, or do some actual sightseeing.

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Obviously we got out to see the sights and they were amazing. But we were limited to two hours, max, outside. The weather was in the 20’s. (Fahrenheit. Sorry, that’s all I know. And please don’t tell me that 20 degrees isn’t that bad.) After a day of sightseeing, with multiple stops for spiced wine and a child asleep in her stroller for most of the day (most pictures we have of her, asleep in her stroller in front of any number of amazing buildings, looks like we’re dragging around a corpse in the style of those old-time Western daguerreotype photographs that families would get soon after a child passed away). We’d eventually get back to the house at 7pm, dead to the world.

We were cold and tired. After three hours’ sleep, our child was awake again for the day at 10pm.

Being wide-awake for two weeks straight in the middle of the night was not my idea of a vacation. Plus, we were cold, very cold. Seriously, is there no hot water in the Czech Republic?

However, we accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. We explored our cultural horizons as a family. I got some wonderful pictures and the adults have fantastic memories.

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Here are my highlights, lowlights and other observations:

  • Holy wow Prague. You’re like a medieval Disney movie with a lot more blonde, Eastern-European-looking women drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. Bravo.
  • Umbrella strollers and cobblestone streets don’t mix. I had real, legitimate fears, that I was damaging my daughter’s brain by all the shaking. We may not know the permanent damage I created until much later in her life.
  • We spent three days in Vienna and barely left our hotel room because of exhaustion. I have no idea what, if anything, Vienna has to see and do. I consider those three days of my life a blur — lost, unmemorable.
  • I’ve never really been to Eastern Europe. But I think I got a glimpse of it in the Budapest train station. The train station had Stalin-era charm — it was composed entirely of cold concrete and totally devoid of color. Loitering around the station were large men looking to relieve us of our money. I’ve never been to Russia, but I do plan to go. An entire country filled with this much sunshine sounds ah-mazing.
  • At both Airbnb places we stayed, neither had a true shower. They had baths with handheld showerheads, but no shower curtains. So, if you chose to shower, you’d have to stand in the bath, hold the showerhead with one hand while trying shampoo your hair with the other hand, all while splashing cool water all over the bathroom. Showering quickly became optional.
  • As an American, I have no idea how to use a bidet, or why one would even want to. I once saw an ad for bidets that said, “You wouldn’t clean mud off your hands with paper, would you?” That was a good point, for sure, but that point will not change the fact that I will never, ever, use a bidet.

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