Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Vacation 2.0

Surprise! I'm on the grid! It turns out our hotel has wireless access, so here I am on our balcony overlooking a cove on the Costa Brava. Le Petit is asleep after a very long day.

When I was eighteen months old, my parents took a trip with me to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I have no memory of the trip, but my mother has often told me all she remembers about it.

"You wouldn't sit in a high chair. You had a fit and wanted to throw food on the floor. So your father and I were forced to eat at McDonalds every single meal."

To hear her tell it, it seems my willfulness wasn't just typical toddler behavior but a deliberate attempt to sabotage their vacation.

"You decided that you wouldn't go to sleep with us in the hotel room. You thought, 'Well, as long as we're all here, let's play!' So your father and I were forced to sit in the bathtub and read while we waited for you to fall asleep."

This is where I, a road-worn parent of one year, bitterly regret not giving my parents a harder time in the sleep department, since they were clearly far too soft. A year, even six months ago I would have happily slept every night in the bathtub if it had only meant that le Petit would fall asleep easily and stay asleep without my intervention.

Besides, of course I didn't want to sleep. The party was in my room for once, so let's dance! No?

Now I fumble my own way through parenthood and assemble anecdotes to share with le Petit some day, and my mother's words take on an echo of revenge. We're on the first leg of our trip, where we spend a week in the Paradores in Spain, a chain of beautiful hotels that are both luxurious and an affordable (enough) splurge. It reminds me of our honeymoon in Spain, when we traced a circle from Castilla to Granada, through Andalucia and up through the arid Extremadura, and of trips since when we crossed the Pyrenees to Rioja and back or followed the Way of Saint James by car through northern Spain to Compostella. I remember sharing tapas at tiny bars near midnight, picnics on the side of the road, detours down long paths to the beach. I remember sitting with a glass of Fino on the patio overlooking Toledo at sunset, just days after our wedding, noting the way my husband's gaze devoured my short skirt from behind the lens of his camera.

Good memories. Happy days. No kids.

Let me say now that le Petit's birth has made me happier than I ever imagined I could be. Clichéd as it is, I can only say it like it is.

And yet. Oh, how vacation was so much simpler in the days pre-Petit!

I hadn't expected it to be so complicated. After all, we'd finally gotten into a nice routine before leaving Paris, and although I expected it to be a bit challenging to translate it to living out of a suitcase in Spain, I figured it would fall into place easily enough. We might have to sacrifice our afternoons to a naptime vigil in the hotel room, but there isn't much else to do in the hottest part of the day in this country of siestas. Le Petit, like most French babies, is used to going to sleep between eight-thirty and nine, so I anticipated the worst part would be shifting him to eating with us when the hotel dining room opened at eight o'clock. Dinner time would run dangerously into the pre-bedtime meltdown hour, but we could cope.

Or so I thought. Yet I was more nervous than I realized when we showed up at the hotel dining room on the first night. I'd been told that in Spain children are treated royally, unlike in France where dogs are often welcomed more warmly in restaurants than les petits. Though as with most stereotypes, this has proved far from true in our experience, for we've been very well-received in restaurants in France. At any rate, we had no choice but to find out first-hand: the first Parador we'd be staying at was far from town and thus more casual restaurants, and the second two only accepted full room-and-board reservations in August.

True to our hopes, the wait staff were friendly and went out of their way to talk to le Petit as he presided at the table from his high chair. There was even a special baby menu. Most of the other diners were indifferent and ignored us when le Petit started squealing, throwing toys on the floor, or banging his spoon on the table. A few found him downright hilarious, especially when he let out of peals of laughter at the faces we made or some inside joke he shared only with himself. A middle-aged Englishwoman seated with her husband and teenage daughter a few tables away laughed so hard at us that she wiped away tears.

We learned a few things the first two nights. First, bread sticks are extremely useful for keeping le Petit calm, often for as much as ten minutes at a time. Second, toys that do not roll far or make a loud noise when clattering to the floor are to be favored. Third, the closer we can sit to another baby or an appreciative audience, the better. Aside from fingerpainting an entire side of the tablecloth pea green one night, there were no mishaps.

By the third night, we thought we had mealtime down. We arrived early and chose a table next to another family with a small child a little bit older than le Petit. The mother overheard our conversation and warmly said hello.

"He's named le Petit? He's named el Pequeño!" She indicated her son, who shared le Petit's name, but in Spanish. I learned that he was almost two, and seeing him sit calmly at the table with his own parents made me think that perhaps there is light at the end of the toddler restaurant tunnel after all.

Things started well, but we took our time studying the menu. We ignored le Petit's bored and tired signs, distracting him with bread sticks and spoonfuls of gazpacho. A special, homemade
bowl of baby food arrived but much too hot, and we didn't wait long enough for it to cool down before trying to give him a bite. A burning hot spoonful made him melt down, wailing, and I quickly pulled him out of the high chair and into my lap.

It was our first serious error of the evening, and an obvious one at that. I felt guilty and stupid, and le Petit, once calmed, realized we'd handed him a get out of jail free card. No more high chair! Freedom at last!

My husband tried to contain le Petit and his mixed screams of glee and indignation as I headed off to the dessert buffet. When I returned, el Pequeño's mother was trying to give my husband a hand by letting her son and le Petit stand next to one another and hold a conversation of sorts.

"Da da da da da!" said le Petit, proud of his internationally understood vocabulary. El Pequeño, less outgoing, said nothing and looked a bit scared. Soon they were both circling around the table, parents in tow, as I ate my dessert, grateful for the distraction. I finished, my husband left to get dessert, and I took over. I held onto le Petit's hand and kept his boisterous movement as close to the immediate circumference of our table as possible. I scraped together enough of my high school Spanish to say to el Pequeño's mother that twelve months old is muy dificil. She nodded her understanding.

"Señora!" From several tables away, a middle-aged man I'd hardly noticed, seated next to a dour woman with cherry red hair, started talking loudly. At first I didn't even understand that he was talking to me. Then I realized that the angry shower of Spanish that I barely understood was meant for us, le Petit and me. Especially me, the mother who didn't understand that this was a restaurant, not a jungle gym. I ignored him while trying to reign in le Petit in hopes of gathering him back up onto my lap. The man was more angry that I didn't respond, and started yelling at a nearby waiter to do something about us.

I was shocked. I knew that letting le Petit walk around the restaurant had not been a good idea, but the events had gotten away from us. And we were nowhere near the man, so his complaint was clearly out of principle, not practicality. He wanted to police the toddlers of the world starting with us.

I sat down with le Petit and stared at the floor. When my husband returned a minute later I explained that we had to go, that we were starting to get comments, and without even daring to say goodbye to el Pequeño and his parents, I walked out with le Petit and left my startled husband to ask for the check.

I was quivering with shame when I left. A former me would have cried. Yet as I held le Petit in my arms and started up to the room, I thought about my beautiful baby, all full of the energy of a one-year-old but with no way of knowing what to do with it. I thought about my husband, who took equal share in the mistakes and successes as we fumbled through parenting by trial and error. I was grateful for it all, and I realized I didn't care what the man thought, not really. Strangely, le Petit gave me freedom I'd never had before.

That didn't keep me from letting all the stress and disappointment explode when my husband came back to the room. This vacation was anything but, I complained. Dinner time was torture, and if it would continue like this, we may as well all go back to France. Much shouting ensured, but somehow le Petit ended up bathed and sleeping anyway, and we continued our discussion calmly on the hotel balcony once he was in bed.

We reviewed our mistakes. We came up with a plan for the next evening, with the rule that le Petit would not leave the high chair under any but the most pressing of circumstances. For two nights now, le Petit has been a picture of good toddler behavior at dinner, smiling at the waiters, babbling at other diners, scarfing down everything in sight, and laughing out loud for no apparent reason. We learned that if we feed him off our plate he stays happier longer. He loves peas and slurps gazpacho with gusto. There's still the occasional high-pitched shriek, but things are looking up.

Meanwhile, our dinner has been reduced to a carefully choreographed ritual. Spoon duty is handed off with military precision. Little adult conversation filters through. I watch young couples gaze at each other from across their table, lingering over the last bites of their dessert, and I miss it terribly and remind myself that some day le Petit will be old enough to spend a vacation with the grandparents.

Then I realize that, between cleaning peas and sliced peaches off the floor with a diaper wipe and trying to keep le Petit from throwing a spoon across the room, I am enjoying myself. This is the New Vacation, and it is far less glamorous, but I just think I may be learning to enjoy it, after all.


Isabelle said...

Chances are the angry guy never had kids, therefore his selfishness and bad mood!

caramama said...

I'm seriously impressed! It is SO HARD to go on vacation with a young child... heck, it's hard to go out to eat with them! The fact that you guys are working out a method for it, regardless of the fact that you had one off night (and I'm sure there will be more, because kids like to keep us on our toes).