One month later, and at home in Cholula

It’s been one month and five days since we left Amsterdam. I’m sitting in my temporary apartment in San Andres Cholula, Puebla, Mexico, and thinking about some of the things I learned about long-haul travel, moving, and starting over.

#1 Flying long haul with my then 13.5 month old was exhausting but do-able, and we flew some random cheap airline. Learn from me – if you are flying long haul with a baby/toddler who can walk/climb/etc., – get extra legroom. Get bulkhead if at all possible. Not because you’ll be using the bassinet, but because you can construct some sort of bed on the floor – or at the very least, a play area that is something other than your lap. Also, bring a full-size pillow or a piece of foam or whatever that allows you to construct a bed.

Ayla is a sprawled-out-tummy sleeper. She fell asleep around her normal bedtime without too much of a problem in Enrique’s arms and then across our laps, but after an hour or two she wanted to roll over on her tummy. Try as she might to get comfortable, she couldn’t really find a way to sleep happily on her belly, which meant she was fairly restless. Still, had she been the only baby on the plane it all would have worked pretty well – the one thing that woke her up (over and over) were the other crying babies. Sigh. Not much you can do about that.

#2 We changed locations quite a bit over the past month. Flew to Merida, stayed there 9 days. Went to the beach (Chuburna), stayed there 8 days. Back to Merida, 3 days. Flew to Mexico City and then drove to our new home in Cholula, have been here about 2 weeks. Three very different climates and very different places. Ayla adjusted remarkably easy schedule-wise when we first landed in Merida – by the third night she was already back in her preferred schedule of 8pm sleep/7am wakeup. Then we moved locations to the beach, where we had to share a small bedroom with her – and she woke up every night at least once, and it wasn’t always easy to get her back to bed. Ayla seems to love new places when we get there. She gets all excited to explore and love to run around a new apartment or house. But at the end of the day – I think that moving around does indeed take a toll.

#3 What is fun for adults isn’t always fun for kids. Vacations have changed. Merida, for example. This city is just simply not the place to go to with a young toddler for three weeks. Why? All the fun stuff is at night, when the temperature cools down to a reasonable 27 degrees (instead of 34 which felt like 44). And for as much as we tried to alter her schedule so she would go to bed later, she was having none of it, she wanted to be in bed by 8pm. And in terms of daytime activities, the heat was simply too much. It was incredibly humid, no breeze, not a lot of shade, and no toddler-friendly public parks in the sense of paddling pools or playgrounds. We tried *everything* – museums (not so many, but we went for the A/C!), restaurants and … that was that. Well that, and running around the zocalo chasing pigeons or the little plazas around town. I’d absolutely go back to Merida, but I’d A) go in January or February B) wait until Ayla was at least three C) make sure we stayed in a place that was air conditioned throughout, not just in the bedrooms – or a place that had much better air circulation D) plan to stay about 4-5 days instead of 3 weeks.

#4 It got a bit tedious to just be me/Enrique/Ayla for 3 straight weeks. No other kids, no other friends. I wouldn’t do that again, for that amount of time, at Ayla’s age. I can spend 3 weeks just with Enrique, no problem. But with Ayla in the mix it’s so different. I’m pretty sure she was getting bored of us, and at the same time growing more clingy. When anyone else would give her attention she was all over it and again, I felt a bit bad. She’s at an age where she needs other people to play with that aren’t mom and dad all day, every day. I’m not shy and I can talk to strangers at parks and make a quick friend, but I can’t really do that if the park itself doesn’t exist.

#5 We moved to Cholula, and Cholula is perfect for us. The second we arrived in here, we found a playground. Ayla’s eyes lit up. Seriously. She hadn’t seen a playground with other kids running around in three weeks and she was so. freakin. excited. Then we found more playgrounds. More public spaces with grass and trees. And more kids. The weather is perfect – not too hot, not too cold. Our temporary house is big and comfortable and she has her own room with a new crib. We just got bikes. This town is just so typically Mexican in all the best ways – kids everywhere, dogs everywhere, beautiful views of mountains and volcanoes, random fireworks go off all the time, there’s almost always a high chair available wherever we eat, and there’s no real challenge in how to spend time, either alone or with Ayla. This is the kind of stuff you want if you’re moving away from home with a young toddler.

#6 Changes! We still do a regular bedtime routine, but we’ve dropped a lot of the other seemingly important stuff. She doesn’t sleep in a dark room anymore for her naps – that stopped once the blackout curtains came down in Amsterdam. She now sleeps through barking dogs, fireworks, marching bands, etc. She no longer despises cars (we’ve had horrible times in cars in the past) and now can sit happily in her carseat in the back while I sit up front with Enrique. I credit this a lot to the forward-facing car seat, which I think would be illegal or at least highly not advisable in the US at her age. But man. It’s a game changer.

#7 Speaking of cars and change – it didn’t make any sense for me to bring my (big, forward-facing) car seat from Amsterdam to Mexico. So we got here without one, and while we were in Merida we used uber and taxis almost every day. Ayla sat on my lap, in the backseat, with the lapbelt around us both. If there is any carseat law in mexico, no one gives a shit whatsoever. This was a very, very hard thing for my american/dutch/rule following/new mom brain to handle, but I did it for short distances (no more than 20 minutes) and within city limits (frequent stops, typically not going more than 30-40 km per hour at most). Uber made leaving the house in the heat of the day possible – if we hadn’t used cars, I can’t imagine what we would have done all day. Holding her on public transport (buses) wouldn’t have been any safer.

#8 If I felt like I had no time to do anything before, in Amsterdam, my GOD if you travel/move with a toddler and there’s no one else helping out, any notion of free time is just simply gone. There is soooooooo much to do, logistics wise. So much. And yet Ayla needs to have her day too. So it’s slow-going to look for a place to live, to try to make friends/see old friends, to connect with grandparents, to get a bike, to replace a pair of sunglasses, to get a new phone, to go to the supermarket, to work, to get 10 minutes to myself to just chill out, etc.

The day we got to Cholula, we started making appointments with daycares and putting out the word to find a babysitter. Of course I’m quite picky about anyone that I’d leave with Ayla, but I thought that within 2-3 weeks we’d have found someone and done introductions and whatnot. It’s two weeks later and we haven’t even begun, due to Ayla getting really, scarily sick after we had been here about 4 days – which caused so many more logistics delays. If you move with your kid and don’t have an already familiar family member or babysitter, it will be very, very, very hard to truly accomplish all the little logistical things you need to accomplish. Phones, bank accounts, finding a dish rack, etc.

#9 Seeing Ayla with her grandparents (who live 2 hours away), and walking hand-in-hand with her grandpa: it cemented the idea that we absolutely made the right decision to move back to Mexico. But still – and anyone with kids this age knows this now – you can’t just drop your toddler with a grandparent and head out if that grandparent is essentially a stranger. It’s not fair to anyone. So slowly, Ayla will get to know her grandparents, and pretty soon we’ll be in a place where yes, Grandma and Grandpa can watch her for a few hours while Enrique and I get a break. Eventually. They are also older and slower, so they’re going to be the type to rely on electronics (and hopefully/maybe books?), rather than take her to the park. That’s fine, just needs to be considered that Ayla doesn’t have much attention span for electronics – I’m enormously proud that she has zero idea that the giant TV in our apartment has any purpose whatsoever, as she’s never seen us turn a TV on in her life.

#10 Ayla came down with an infection – from something she ate, drank, or touched. It was bad. Having a very sick child is the worst thing in the entire world. Witnessing Ayla’s clothes fall off her because she had lost so much weight broke my heart in a way that I’ve never felt my heart break before. While Mexico is a foreign country to me, it’s home to Enrique. So he knew how to look for a doctor, and what to look for. We are very lucky to live 15 minutes outside a major city (Puebla), so there are first-class hospitals and we can afford to see private doctors (which doesn’t mean they are any more skilled than the doctors who work in public hospitals – but it does mean a *lot* less wait time, which we were willing to pay for). Had this happened in the US and we didn’t have insurance that covered us there, I honestly shudder to think at what we would have spent. Either way: if you take your kid outside your home country for any reason, even for a day, make absolutely sure you are covered for health care costs.

#11 During the hard times of this whole relocation- either because of sickness, because of exhaustion due to Ayla waking up 3 times a night screaming because she was just simply scared and didn’t know where she was, or because of the days that we literally could not figure out how to keep her occupied in Merida, I must say I grew really tired of the “Babies adapt so easily!” comments I’d hear or read. Did Ayla adapt? Sure. In the long run, did it take her so long? Not really. But does that mean it was just totally smooth sailing and I went my days feeling well-rested and like a proud mama who was showing her child the world? No. It was all worth it, but that doesn’t mean it was always easy and always fun. I think this is an age where travel becomes harder. Not impossible, but harder. I think there are lot of things you can do with babies that are say, 5 months old or kids that are 3 years old that you can’t do with 14-month-olds.

There were plenty of nights, after Ayla was in bed, where Enrique and I would sit around and come up with a grand, fun, family plan for the next day. We’d be so optimistic! And then reality would happen instead: Ayla randomly decided that she was terrified of the pool we had in Merida, and that manifested into hating taking any sort of bath or shower (bath time used to be one of her favorite things to do, she’d cry when we took her out). Or she’d wake up at 5am in Chuburna and just simply not be willing to go back to sleep which meant a seriously cranky morning on her part and exhausted parents. Why did she hate taking baths for three weeks and then decide to like it again? I have no idea. Was it really because we didn’t have the same bath toys we used to have? Was it the fact that we didn’t have a real bathtub? Did she miss watching us fill the tub with water, like she used to in Amsterdam?

Even during our travels, we always had toys around for her (though not the amount we had in Amsterdam), of course. However, a few days ago the grandparents bought us a few of the boxes we had shipped, and one of those boxes included a whole bunch of toys. When I gave Ayla this pink dog that she used to play with in her crib, she squealed with delight, hugged it, and sat right down to start playing with it the way she used to. It was amazing to see. She remembered that dog. I don’t know how much she understands about this move, or what – if anything – she misses anything from home. But I’ll mention something else: she saw a plastic bicycle at the park the other day, similar to what she had in Amsterdam. She went right over and grabbed on to it as if it was hers.

I really need to get her a new bike.

#12 We made the right decision to move to Cholula. I think it, and say it out loud, several times a day. I love this town. I love that I wore sandals and a teeshirt today when I rode my bike to go pick up some zucchini flower quesadillas for lunch, along with a couple liters of fresh juice. I absolutely love the views of the volcanoes and mountains. I love that the weather is no longer an issue, that I can plan on taking Ayla out every single morning and we’ll never be too cold. The people in Cholula are generally friendly, warm, and easy going. The town has somewhat exploded in the past few years with new restaurants, cafes, bike shops, etc. There are enough public places for us to take Ayla where we all have a great time and we don’t need to spend any money. The other day I put Ayla in the ergo on my back and climbed the pyramid, just for fun. When we got to the top, I took her off my back and held her hands as she climbed the stairs, and I thought – wow. She’s going to grow up thinking this is so normal. That you just climb up a pyramid in the mornings to get some exercise, and then eat your tamale at the bottom. That’s just what you do.

We moved at the right time. It was perfect to have Ayla’s first year in Amsterdam – I had lots of support, friends, and took every advantage of living around so many parks. But I’m also so happy that we managed to get out before her second year – before our second winter. In a city where I really couldn’t afford regular childcare, where I didn’t really like the childcare options, and where my apartment was feeling smaller and smaller the more Ayla learned how to run around. I’m thrilled that I’m not dealing with the dark mornings, the super early sunsets, and the constant gray drizzle. Ayla doesn’t have a winter coat at the moment, because she doesn’t need it now – a jacket is good enough for the chilly early mornings. I love that there’s no waiting lists to get into the daycare that I want her to attend – and that we can afford daycare. It’s fun to see Ayla adapt to putting her toothbrush in a cup of water to rinse it off, rather than use the tap water. Or to see her “sing” along with music from the gas truck that drives by. There’s so much to do to continue to feel at home, but so far, so good.

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Goodbye Amsterdam, hello Mexico

Last night Amsterdam was beautiful. I was surrounded by friends, I ate Surinamese food all day long, I drank great beer, I was covered in hugs and kisses. It was so clear and warm and the moon was full, and when I rode my bike over the Amstel, my heart ached a lot. I have my complaints about this city, but at the end of the day, a warm and clear night spent hanging out with friends completely erases any complaints I might have. There are days here where life is perfect, where I can’t imagine living anywhere else. But I don’t really need to imagine, because tomorrow is coming up regardless and tomorrow means I move continents, again.

Next up: MEXICO.

Goodbye Los Angeles – originally published 15 April 2008

My last day of work in Los Angeles is tomorrow (technically, today), the 15th of April, and I keep getting a lot of “wow, you sure are leaving quickly, huh?” type of comments because my flight to New York is the 16th. But Los Angeles was only a temporary move, so it doesn’t seem like a quick departure to me. What else am I going to do here? Go look at movie star homes? I saved some money, enjoyed the weather and the food, and now it’s time to go. But before I leave, I have to pack.

I’d like to think that I’m a good packer, but I wonder if I’m lying to myself. When one makes a “normal” move, ie: moving to a different town, you pack up all your crap in boxes and go. Of course I’m sure you throw a lot of stuff away and donate and whatnot, but for the most part, you don’t get rid of everything. That’s the big difference when you move across an ocean, especially if you have absolutely no idea how long you’ll be away or where you might end up. So yes, I have a few boxes in my father’s attic with photo albums and comic books. I will leave another box or two at my mom’s house in LA with clothes and shoes – but my reasoning for leaving behind my beautiful shiny black shoes? They’re heavy. I love them, but they’re heavy, so they stay in the US. The goal is to get all of my worldly belongings in two suitcases, each under 50 lbs., and heavy shoes do not make the cut. I won’t be moving books, movies, or photo albums. For the most part, all I’m bringing with me to Amsterdam is clothes, about 1/4th of my shoe collection (which is really hard), and a couple thousand of dollars worth of electronics. It would be nice to think that if I do manage to settle down in Amsterdam, I could have a few boxes sent to me and reclaim some of these items. The hardest things for me to leave behind (other than the shoes) are the pictures that I keep in frames and my wonderful winter coat, which is long and warm and wonderful and completely impractical for Amsterdam in every way. I spent over four hours this past Sunday listening to the Clash very loudly and going through every item I currently own, trying to figure out if it stays or goes… and I’m not done. And have I ever mentioned that when I came to California, I only had two suitcases? I know most of the time I spent packing was really going through paperwork – years of bank statements, old passport copies, plane tickets – but still. I have no idea how that took four hours.

I know those first few weeks that I spend in Amsterdam are going to be really weird – going from a super-structured life in the US to a totally unstructured life in Europe is obviously going to take some getting used to. I have a meeting with some folks in Amsterdam on my first full day there (the 24th), and I admit, having something to do – a place to go and a time to be there – it helps, mentally.

So the first leg of the journey starts with a 6-hour plane ride east. Back to Eastern Standard Time, back to Brooklyn, back home to New York. I’ll spend four days running all over the place, picking up a few last-minute items, trying not to be late to some last-minute appointments, and of course, saying goodbye to friends and family. My time is booked up nicely with dinners and drinks and hopefully, lots and lots of sleep.

Preparing to leave NYC – originally published 3 Jan 2008

I purchased one-way flight tickets from New York City to Portland, Oregon and from Oregon to Los Angeles. I leave New York on the 29th of January, and I’m spending five days in Portland before heading to LA to begin my (temporary) new life as someone who works at an accounting office as of February 4. Working in an accounting office = saving money, pure and simple. Then in April, I plan to move (by myself) to Amsterdam.

While in Portland I’ll be meeting with the woman I talked to about a potential job in Amsterdam at an editorial company. Getting in with this company would give me the best chance at a legit way of living and working in the Netherlands and would do wonders for my career, so obviously that is my first choice. The company has their main office in Oregon, a very small operation in NYC, and a growing operation in Amsterdam. I already met someone from the NY office and really fell in love with the entire company and filled my head with all types of wishful thinking.
In the time between Christmas and the New Year, I really went back and forth a million times about taking this next step. Quitting my job here in New York, moving to the west coast for a few months, planning out my living situation in Amsterdam… it definitely all started to seem a little overwhelming. But what I keep coming back to is this very simple fact: if it doesn’t work out, I’ll do something else, and that will be okay. If the weather or the flat landscape of the Netherlands depresses me too much, or if I really can’t find a way to get the proper permits, or if I run out of money, then I will just simply do something else.Here’s the thing I’ve learned after having moved around a bit from city to city, and it’s a very simple lesson: I need to allow myself a decent amount of time to figure things out. When I lived in Paris, I honestly never really felt like it was my home until I had been there for about a year. It took about that long to figure out my routine, to find my regular spots, and to stop having to ask questions about the culture/language/policies before doing everything. After about a year, I had been to French doctors, done little things like give directions to other Parisians who would end up lost in my neighborhood, and I found a job. When I moved to New York City in October 2006, it took about six months before I felt similarly comfortable, even though I was raised about 2 hours from NYC. Still, I had to learn a lot of things about this culture that I didn’t know that I needed to know, if that makes sense. I had to act like a ten-hour work day was something I was totally familiar with, when in fact I had just moved from France where I worked about six hours a day max. I had to figure out how to survive without any health insurance, it took months to find an apartment, and everything in NYC is done through favors and friends and knowing the right people. The rules are always bent and things are always just a little (or a lot) illegal, from apartment terms to work conditions.

Living in Paris was originally a six-month experiment that ended up stretching on for almost two years. There was so much I figured out as I went along, and it’s been the same for NYC. I thought I would move to NYC and stay for a few years, but after about six months here, everything in my personal life changed and it prompted me to come up with another plan. I love this city and I love the people here, but this isn’t the life that I want right now. If you had asked me about a year ago, I would have given a totally different answer.

So what I’m going to do is keep trying to learn as much as I can about living in Amsterdam. I’ll keep listening to podcasts on Radio Netherlands and trying to teach myself as much as I can from books, message boards, blogs, and expat communities online. I will save as much money as humanly possible in the next several months. However, I know that no amount of research is really going to teach me all the things I’m bound to pick up along the way.

Though I have been having a great time in New York City lately, recently my neighbors were robbed (at knife point) and I had to step over two dead rats on the sidewalk outside my house. It comes with the territory of course, but it is nice to remember all the things I won’t miss.

Inspiration in Philadelphia: originally published 12 Dec 2007

(This post was written while I lived in NYC in 2007, during the “I think I want to move back to Europe” phase)

This past Saturday I was running (well, biking) all over Philadelphia from one event to another. I started off at Molly’s Bookstore in the Italian Market, where Big Tea Party was having their 10th-anniversary celebration and fundraiser. They had a great crowd come out, and the small bookstore was packed with activists, artists, filmmakers, musicians, etc.

I was happy to see someone I knew from back in the day, Ellen, come in to the room. As we started talking I caught her up on what I’m up to (living in Brooklyn and working in TV post-production) and what I’m planning in the near future. Part of me remains a little scared that that no one will take me or my plans seriously, but I shouldn’t have been worried about something like that while I was at a fundraiser for an anarchist cooking/crafts/activist show. So I began talking in more detail about why I want to live in Amsterdam and the documentary that I want to make – and Ellen’s response is “I did that exact same thing!”

I’m going to guess Ellen is about 40 years old. When she was younger, she decided to move to Paris with her boyfriend for no real specific reason (hey, me too!). Then she took a 3-day trip to Amsterdam, fell in love with that city, and relocated. She stayed for about five years, had her son there, and had a great story about living on a houseboat. She’s currently a video production instructor in Philadelphia and also makes her own documentaries. Both of us shared pretty much the exact same views on why Paris is great but we don’t want to live there and why Amsterdam is such an appealing city.  So now I’m in this amazing conversation with an American documentary filmmaker who has lived in Paris and Amsterdam, and this guy who has experience shooting throughout Sarajevo joined in on the talk, and they’re both telling me that I should absolutely move back to Europe and make documentaries. “How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?” the guy (whose name I forget, dammit) said.

“28,” I replied.

“Oh, you’re still a baby! Of course you have to do this,” was his response.

In my head, I silently thanked him for thinking of me as someone who is still a kid. Every so often I get an irrational fear in my head that I have waited too long, that I should have been out there when I was 18 years old. I should know more languages and I should have traveled to more places by now, and maybe it’s too late and I should just stay in New York City and work myself into the ground trying to become a bigshot in TV production. But then I attend events like the Big Tea Party fundraiser, and I’m surrounded by people like Elizabeth, who will be celebrating her 50th birthday this year and is still just as passionate and daring as any 18-year-old. These people are still traveling, still protesting, still activists, and still have time to encourage me to do the same. I feel very grateful to have such amazing role models in my life.

It’s always been hard for me to be patient, but I really want to do it right this time around. This is the good part about being 28, and not 22 – I simply know a little more now. I know that my first priority in Amsterdam must be figuring out a way to live there legally with a proper residence permit. I know that is going to be very, very difficult. The first few months I’m there – well, I have no idea what it will be like, but it won’t all be sunshine and roses and bike rides and apple strudels. There will be mountains of paperwork, bureaucracy rules that I’m not used to, and the very real fact that I don’t have a lot of friends living there right now that I can lean on for support. But when I do have all my paperwork in order and I’ve obtained the residence permit and gotten myself a place to live (and I don’t doubt that I will be able to do all of that), I’m sure I will have made a few more friends along the way, and I’ll toast to the next phase in my life.