Berlin, Germany

We rented an artist loft through Airbnb for our week-long sojourn in Berlin, the mid-point of our trip and a chance to relax, catch our breath, and do laundry. It’s a large metropolis with lots to see and do, but mostly we enjoyed walking around and hanging out. We attended another classical music concert, this time in a gorgeous venue at the Charlottenburg Palace. While the venue was prettier and the music just as inspiring, it was harder to sit through as the night progressed and I had to sympathize with the boy when he got squirmy toward the end.

I booked two additional tours: a bike tour along the remains of the Berlin Wall with a brief history lesson about the Cold War, and a day trip to the city of Dresden. The kids absolutely loved the bike tour, and they tolerated my relentless picture-taking in Dresden with good humor. Dresden was yet another beautiful European city with lots of history and charm, but like Salzburg it owed its existence to the pleasure of tourists.

Berlin has a substantial Vietnamese population so we seized the opportunity to indulge in our favorite meal, phở, twice. After our first bowls of phở on Father’s Day, having the opportunity to watch a World Cup match between Germany and Mexico in a public venue underneath Brandenburg Gate among hundreds of thousands of soccer fans was a pretty cool experience not likely to be replicated.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/UUhgxvGakAXG8tf98

 

Prague, Czech Republic

We made the mistake of taking an Uber rather than public transit into the city center, and my initial impression of Prague was, “My God, what a dump!” We had just left the dazzling city of Vienna and were now stuck in traffic winding through the littered and graffiti-plagued streets of Prague. I imagined that this must be how foreign tourists feel when they enter Manhattan for the first time. And just like Manhattan, once you get past the gritty exterior, there is a glittering treasure in its core. By the time we drove through Old Town and arrived at our hotel in the Little Quarter, I was infatuated. After a delicious dinner that was a welcome departure from Austrian cuisine, I had fallen in love.

We finally hit the jackpot on our city walking tour and food tour. Our guides in Salzburg and Vienna had been expats while our guides in Prague were natives born and raised in Prague, and it made all the difference. The city tour included a boat tour and a fabulous lunch, and our guide clearly cared very passionately about her city, which made us care too. The food tour was fantastic; the local cuisine was elevated beyond anything we had sampled so far on this vacation. The only drawback was the hoards of tourists, an unavoidable side effect for such a popular destination. We saw so much impressive architecture, and explored so many lovely gardens and parks, that it was well worth battling the crowds. The boy even got to meet up with a couple of his favorite schoolmates, while the parents drank beer. A good time was had by all.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/txxuTc2JL9xBpEQN9

 

Vienna, Austria

Vienna was also a beautiful city, and felt like it had more character than Salzburg. I could understand why Mozart left his birthplace in Salzburg and set up residency in Vienna. It was just as expensive, but the accommodations were plusher, the food more appetizing, and the sights more impressive. We went on a fun and tasty food tour, followed by another boring and forgettable city walking tour. The highlights of the trip were visiting Schonbrunn Palace and attending a Strauss and Mozart concert. It was just enough classical music to make me feel cultured and inspired, with just enough opera and ballet sprinkled in to hold the kids’ attention through the two hour performance. And a glass or two of champagne makes any evening magical.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/zW1TotpYdCtSXBmy9

 

Salzburg, Austria

When I was starting to put together an itinerary for our summer expedition, I budgeted four weeks for four European cities. After a lot of back and forth, input from various fellow travelers and friends, research, and a “fuck it, let’s do this” attitude, the itinerary morphed into eight cities over five weeks. Eight cities we had never visited before, and a ten page itinerary detailing over a month of travel. It was a masterpiece that took several months — booking airfare and train reservations, lining up hotel and Airbnb accommodations, researching excursions, planning day trips, strategizing what and how to pack for a family of four for a five week trip in six foreign countries. It was an undertaking not for the faint of heart. But it got done, and it’s impossible to overstate how good I am at travel logistics. Like, ridiculously good. There was little room for fuck-ups, but somehow Tom found a way. I delegated one simple task: please book a car rental for our road trip through the Alsace Wine Route during two specific days, clearly explained in an email. ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS READ THE EMAIL. Did Tom read the email? Apparently no, because he booked he wrong dates. Not a big deal and easily fixed. The second fuck-up was not as easily fixable: DO NOT LOSE YOUR PASSPORT 36 HOURS BEFORE AN INTERNATIONAL FLIGHT. Shouldn’t have been hard when all of our passports were stored in a lockbox safe. However, a few weeks before our trip Tom took his passport out of the safe to do a banking transaction and then swore he left it on his desk. Except it wasn’t there. He broke the news to me on Friday evening, and our flight was leaving on Sunday afternoon. You can imagine how fun that Friday night was, ransacking every crack and crevice of our house in search of the missing passport. At one point in the middle of the night I even ventured into the backyard to peer into the bushes. You do desperate things when you’re desperate. We needed a back-up plan so I started googling like crazy to see what our options were. Predictably, it’s really really really hard to get a replacement passport issued within 24 hours, especially over the weekend when government offices are closed, especially when there isn’t a life or death emergency. The closest scenario resembling an emergency was that Tom feared for his life because of the threat of spousal homicide. I’m joking, because I channeled the shit out of my yoga practice and kept cool as a cucumber under the most provocative circumstances. Tom survived the weekend unscathed because of yoga.

I managed to find a passport application office that was open on Saturday and snagged the first available appointment. I filled out all of necessary forms online, including a lost passport report. The funny thing was, the passport application required an original certified birth certificate. Tom was able to locate his original birth certificate issued by the State of Texas in 1976, stored among his elementary school report cards in a crawl space behind a basement wall, but he had no idea where he put his damn passport.

We both woke up early Saturday morning after an anxious, restless night. Tom kept re-tracing his steps, trying to solve the inexplicable disappearance. The only change he made to his office in the past week, he said, was removing a backpack. He already searched the backpack, he said. He held the backpack up, stuck his hand into it, and, lo and behold, pulled out his passport!!! Unfortunately, when you submit a lost passport report, the missing passport becomes invalid and can no longer be used for travel, and a lost passport report cannot be cancelled or revoked, even if you end up finding your missing passport mere hours after reporting it lost. Tom went to his appointment and explained everything to the agency worker, who strongly cautioned him not to travel with an invalid passport, which meant that he would have to stay behind and wait for a new passport to be issued while I boarded a plane as a solo parent to two kids en route to Europe. OH HELL NO. The itinerary said nothing about me being a solo parent for any part of this trip. Determined not to leave the country without my husband, I called airport customs, explained the situation, and got just enough reassurance to hope that my husband probably wouldn’t get arrested traveling with his invalidated passport so long as he received his new passport before trying to re-enter the U.S.

Everything worked out in the end. We arrived to Munich on Monday morning and traveled to Salzburg by train without any issues. Later that afternoon, the U.S. State Department sent an email notifying Tom that his lost passport report had been processed. We barely made it through foreign customs by the skin of our teeth, and luckily the time difference worked in our favor. We embarked on our European adventure in the charming city of Salzburg as scheduled.

Salzburg was beautiful but we got the sense that it existed solely for the pleasure of tourists, kind of like an adult version of Disneyland. Its most popular excursion was the “Sound of Music” tour, which shepherded busloads of tourists like us to various location sites where scenes from the movie were filmed. Local German-speakers could care less about the film, but fans from all over the world flocked to hear behind-the-scenes tidbits while singing along to the musical’s soundtrack. We enjoyed the tour, but probably would have enjoyed it more if we weren’t so tired from the morning walking tour of the city that we had done immediately beforehand. The walking tour consisted of a boring lecture about the city’s origins, inhabitants, and industry, something about salt mines and wealthy bishops who built monuments to their egos. Blah, blah, blah, when can we have a beer? On the “Sound of Music” tour? Well then, what are we waiting for? A couple of buzzed parents might have dozed off here and there.

We were glad to have visited Salzburg and the kids loved it, but after it was checked off the list we were looking forward to all the exciting new places on the itinerary.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/T1rUKwiKHgsaDTGq5

 

Ballet Recital 2018: Swan Lake

Instead of the traditional recital format where you have to sit through an interminable succession of coma-inducing dance numbers, the Colorado Ballet Academy coordinated an impressive production of Swan Lake that integrated performances from all student levels. It was engaging and fun to watch, and my daughter happened to be the most beautiful and talented ballerina on stage.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/XLqX2UwMEx4aeDw42

 

The Boy’s 8th Birthday

We had tricked the boy into believing that our spring break trip to Maui was in honor of his birthday so we were off the hook for throwing a party. Still, you can’t not do anything for a little boy’s birthday. Birthdays still matter to an eight year old, and it felt wrong not to celebrate in some way. So, I invited a couple of the boy’s friends to a play date at Spider Monkey and we made a reservation at Elway’s because the boy requested a steak dinner. I was able to combine the boy’s birthday play date with a play date for the girl and a couple of her friends as well, so I was totally winning at parenting that day. My proudest parenting moment happened at dinner, when Tom asked the boy if he was disappointed that he didn’t have a party and wasn’t getting any presents (even though there were a stack of presents on his bed waiting to surprise him when he got home). With complete sincerity our son replied that he wasn’t disappointed at all because he got everything he wanted: a fun vacation in Hawaii, a play date with his friends at Spider Monkey, and steak and lobster for dinner. He was grateful for what he had and I was so grateful to have this amazing kid as my son. Of course, he was super excited when he walked into his bedroom later that night and found a pile of gifts from various relatives, but that was just icing on the cake.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/uYGf2nN1qMpaPORg2

 

Spring Break 2018: Maui, Hawaii

We somehow tricked the boy into believing that we were taking him on a Hawaiian vacation for his birthday and not for our own selfish reasons, even though spring break is at the end of March and his birthday isn’t until May. How long are these kids going to be such gullible suckers? Tom loves Hawaii and would go at the drop of a hat, and I was happy to use any excuse to get the boy to accept a family vacation in lieu of a birthday party. We had enjoyed a beach vacation in Puerto Vallarta not too long ago and I was hesitant to book another beach vacation so soon. It seemed gratuitous, and I prefer metropolitan cityscapes anyway. After a couple of bone-chilling cold spells in February and March, however, we were ready to embrace the tropics, and Maui did not disappoint.

The first time Tom and I went to Maui in 2009 we took along my mom, Tom’s dad, and our baby girl, a 9 month old infant at the time. One of the major sightseeing attractions of Maui is the Road to Hana, a 30 mile stretch of narrow, winding mountain highway. You have to wake up ridiculously early and devote at least 12 hours to the many stops along the way, neither of which we did when we attempted the Road to Hana with our parents. We never reached Hana in that first attempt. My mom was sick so she stayed behind in the car while Tom, his dad, and I fumbled our way through the jungle in search of Maui’s famous waterfalls. We chased the sound of rushing water but were woefully inept at discovering Hana’s hidden treasures.

Fast forward to 2018, and I know better now. We hired a private tour guide to drive us along the Road to Hana and point out all of the worthwhile stops. We started the guided tour at 6:30 A.M. and got our fill of waterfalls and beautiful beaches (with sand colors ranging from black to gray to red to powdery soft white) in the 12 hours that followed. I’ve taken over travel planning in recent years which is why we have better vacations now. I’ve also taken over photography duties from Tom which is why our family photos are so much better now too.

We also did a morning snorkeling tour earlier in the week and saw multiple coral formations along Molokini. I kept hoping the kids would enjoy snorkeling as much as Tom and I did, but they didn’t, which made me enjoy it less as well. As much as I bluster about being selfish and self-centered, my happiness is completely dependent on my kids’ happiness. Being little more than skin and bones, the kids couldn’t stop shivering in the ocean water and were always eager to hurry back to the boat. I was bummed when they opted to skip a couple of the stops. On the last stop, the boy finally acclimated to the water and stopped shivering long enough to enjoy exploring the coral reef. Coincidentally, I had the most fun at the last stop and felt like it was the best one. There is nothing that makes your heart smile quite like your child’s smile. Despite the shivers it was a fun excursion, and we got to glimpse whales, dolphins, and sea turtles from the boat. And even though they had spent all morning in the ocean, the kids went straight into the hotel pool after lunch and stayed there until sunset. After ten consecutive hours in the water, the kids begged for a bath before bedtime. They must be part amphibian.

The kids’ love for all things aquatic didn’t end with swimming; they chowed down on shellfish, sushi, and fresh seafood like nobody’s business. When we were at a local hot spot and asked if they preferred a chicken or fish dish, they picked fished without hesitation. We had to find a crab boil joint pursuant to the girl’s request. During our fancy sushi dinner at Morimoto’s, we had to fend off our children from devouring the best pieces of sushi before we’d had a chance to eat. These kids have excellent (and expensive) taste when it comes to food, just like their mother. At Mama’s Fish House, the girl ordered the priciest item on the menu — fresh caught lobster tail. Mama’s Fish House is a Maui institution and we got a nostalgic kick out of returning there with our nine year old daughter and showing her pictures of when we took her there as a baby. At the time we were celebrating our ten year wedding anniversary and the boy hadn’t been born yet, but there’s a possibility that he was there too because he suspiciously showed up nine months after that trip. For that reason among many others, Maui will always occupy a special place in our hearts and I have a feeling we’ll be returning often.

Maui in 2018:

https://photos.app.goo.gl/a5aUWd1ASOzFklzy1

Maui in 2009:

https://photos.app.goo.gl/5sVUU93znrfsTUfD2