To anyone thinking of traveling aboard with an 18-month old, especially if it involves a long-haul nine-hour-plus flight in economy seats, my advice is an emphatic DON'T.
Wait until your kid is four or five years old, i.e., old enough to be able to keep him/herself occupied with coloring books or small toys, and old enough to be able to use and navigate an iPad or tablet of some kind, and old enough to watch movies on the plane's seat-back screen without constantly killing them by impulsively swiping all over the screen with their little hands.
And if you still insist on going, forget about the whole kids under two riding for free thing, and fork over the extra money for your toddler's own seat. Dealing with a fidgety toddler who stubbornly fights sleep at every turn in economy seats is torture enough, and when your kid doesn't even have the sliver of extra space that his/her own seat affords, and is forced to be on your laps, the trip can turn into a seemingly never-ending nightmare fast.
On our nine-and-a-half-hour flight from SFO to Amsterdam, Simon slept a total of three hours. For the first six and a half hours, he absolutely wouldn't go to sleep. He ran numerous laps up and down the aisles of the plane, he messed with the seat-back screens to the point where I thought he was going to make them go haywire, he fidgeted a lot, and played with a variety of random non-toy objects, and it wasn't until about 11:30 p.m. his time that he finally crashed. At one point when I was changing his diaper in the minuscule restroom, he was so exhausted that he was laughing and crying at the same time. When he finally crashed, he was sprawled out across our laps, with his head on mine, his butt on Terezia, and his feet on the lap of the poor woman stuck in the window seat.
I spent a fair amount of time thinking about throwing myself off the plane through one of the exit doors. We overheard one guy sitting across the aisle from us say to his friend that Simon was a shitty kid. I wanted to say, "No, he is 18 months old and he behaves like most 18-month olds; actually, we are shitty parents for taking an 18-month-old kid on a long-haul flight. He shouldn't be faulted for any of this."
Simon stayed awake during the two-hour layover at Amsterdam Schiphol, and he kept trying to make a run for the moving walkway near our gate. Terezia and I took turns going back and forth on it with him several times. On the one-and-a-half-hour flight from Amsterdam to Budapest, Simon didn't sleep a wink. He finally crashed on the nearly two-hour cab ride from Budapest to Terezia's parents' place, and thankfully slept the whole way.
Toddlers with Jet Lag
Even if you survive the long-haul flight with your sanity (and your marriage) still barely intact, that's really just the first hurdle: You will then be confronted with the Boschian hell of a toddler with jet lag.
For the first two nights, Simon conked out (hard) between 8 and 9 in the evening, but awoke around midnight, wide-eyed and ready to play, and stayed awake until about 4:30. Then we all crashed and slept from nearly 5 a.m. until about 11 a.m. Totally exasperated and driven to the brink of a nervous breakdown, we scoured the web for tips on how to deal with jet-lagged toddlers. The problem is they really have no idea what's going on, and they're incapable of understanding that they need to try to sleep during the night so that their clock adjusts to the nine-hour time difference.
Crucial tip: When your baby or toddler awakes in the middle of the night and refuses to go right back to sleep, keep the lights as dim as possible and try to keep any physical activity limited to the bed. Basically, treat nighttime like nighttime, and don't let them run around and play like it's daytime.
We kept the lights off and played episodes of Macko Uško on one of our laptops. Macko Uško is a 1970s Polish (dubbed in Slovak) stop-animation TV show for kids with a cast of anthropomorphic animal characters. The main character is Macko Uško, a bear with a floppy ear who exhibits an OCD-like degree of neatness. The whimsical show has a slightly sleepy, old-timey feel similar to Gumby, lacking the frenetic energy of contemporary cartoons, so it's not likely to rile your kid up. Terezia and her brother watched it when they were little kids. Thankfully, it kind of worked. Simon was down without too much fuss after just two hours, and we were able to go back to bed by 1:00.
The fourth night was, finally, the first night that he slept all the way through.
But part of the problem when you have a baby who's dealing with jet lag is that you, the parent, have to deal with it too, and you really can't. In the pre-Simon era, I would take a sleeping pill the first few nights after arriving in Europe to help me sleep through the night and to get my internal clock adjusted to the new time zone faster. But you can't take a sleeping pill when you have a baby or toddler because you need to be able to wake up if/when they wake up, and you need to be alert enough to deal with them. So, once we got Simon more or less sleeping through the night and back on his regular schedule, we were still having trouble getting to sleep at night, waking up at odd hours, and fighting severe waves of drowsiness at various points in the day.
Taking It Slow
At any rate, suffice it to say we didn't do a helluva lot the first several days. On our first full day, after waking up at 11:00 a.m., we got Simon fed and dressed quickly so that he could explore Terezia's parents' huge backyard/garden. Their garden was looking especially green and lush, particularly since their apple trees were insanely productive this year. Several lower branches on a few of the trees were so weighed down by apples they had to be propped up. It was awesome to see Simon sitting under an apple tree next to a big pile of apples, checking them out and rolling them around. Simon also learned really fast that he can pick the sweet, dark purple concord grapes right off the vine and eat them.
We piddled around the house, yard, and village, and when Simon went down for his afternoon nap, I grabbed my iPod and took my customary walk around the village. There was a lot of this the first few days.
The second day was scarcely more productive, though we did go into town, i.e., Lučenec, to check out the playground at the city park and to make a stop at Tesco. This park has a big duck pond which caught Simon's attention since it was teeming with ducks and he loves water, but he kept trying to go under the knee-high chain around the edge of the pond so that he could go in the water or something.
The next day, we went into Lučenec again to get ice cream from Záhradná, one of the best ice cream joints I've been to in Slovakia. This place goes way back – Terezia and her brother were taken there as kids. Záhradná really nails the texture, which is smooth and creamy, and their flavors are generally pretty rich. The server gave Simon a free ice cream cone, and we put bite-sized pieces of our ice cream onto his cone so he could have some, since he's a little too young to manage a full cone of his own without dumping it on the ground and having the whole experience end in tears.
Later that afternoon we went to see Terezia's super nice childhood friend Mirka, who lives in the town of Detva. We visited Mirka the last time we were in Slovakia. She has a daughter, Lucia, who is just three or four months older than Simon, and the two of them seemed to hit it off. What's cool about Mirka's place is that it's totally set up for kids. In her backyard there is a swing and a big elevated wood fort full of various toys and a window looking out over the yard. Mirka's living room is also extremely kid friendly, to the point where it kind of looks like a daycare center. Simon was in heaven.
Mirka lives on the edge of town, and the four of us walked up the street to a ranch in the hills where a girl was riding a horse and a couple of peacocks were ambling around. Just beyond that was a pasture with a flock of sheep. We went up to the gate, called the sheep over, and fed them pieces of bread. Simon really dug seeing the sheep up close and offering them bread.
On Friday we took a little road trip to Banská Štiavnica with Terezia's mom. We've been to Banská Štiavnica a few times, and I've written a little about it here. It's by far one of Slovakia's most picturesque medieval towns, and it has the look and vibe of a real, historic European town with its narrow and winding cobblestone lanes, grand and ornate medieval and renaissance facades, and elegant church spires and clock towers poking out over the rooftops.
|The town's main square with the plague column|
The setting is gorgeous, and the streets and buildings spill gracefully down the sides of the steep, tree-covered hills. Attractive medieval towns like this, in this kind of setting, are a dime a dozen in Tuscany or Provence, but in Slovakia they're much less common, which is partly what makes Banská Štiavnica stand out.
Banská Štiavnica is a great place for wandering around, but, of course, with Simon in tow, we couldn't cover too much ground. We piddled around the town's center for a bit, and Simon really dug watching cars go by on the main road from the elevated sidewalk. We stopped by a toy store with posh wooden vehicles made to look like old-fashioned cars, meant for little kids to ride on and/or push around, and the employee there was cool about letting Simon push some of them around for a bit.
A little history: Banská Štiavnica lies in a massive caldera created when an ancient volcano collapsed, which made the area extremely rich in minerals. Settlers had been mining in Banská Štiavnica since the 1100s, and probably much earlier, but things really took off when Hungarian rulers began inviting German mining experts, engineers, and scientists to the town around the 14th century to share their knowledge and expand the mines. The town became known throughout Europe as a gold and silver mining hotspot. A lot of innovations in mining occurred here, including one of the very first uses of gun powder for mining, and the creation of an intricate system of reservoirs and channels to filter water out of the mines. A prestigious mining academy was established in the town in the 1700s, whose graduates were seen in the industry as being at the top of the heap. A bustling university town built around a vibrant and highly lucrative industry, Banská Štiavnica was hopping by the 17th century, and was at one point the third largest town in the kingdom of Hungary.
However, with more and more precious metals coming in from overseas, and with the town's mines approaching depletion, Banská Štiavnica began losing its competitive edge in the world market by the mid-1800s, and gradually fell into decline. It remained somewhat of a backwater until the 1990s when its buildings were restored and the town was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
At any rate, for lunch we ate at a place with outdoor front patio seating so that it would be easy to get up and take Simon outside in case he got antsy or crabby - and that's exactly what happened, particularly since the restaurant's lone highchair was already occupied by a much younger baby, which meant Simon was flopping around in a regular chair. (The waitress brought out a sort of tall, white, plastic stool with no arms and no way to secure a little kid, which was completely useless. Simon could maybe do a booster seat atop a regular chair, but he'd fall right off this stupid stool thing in seconds.) We each took turns taking Simon up and down the block while we scarfed down the daily lunch menu special of beer-battered fried chicken and potatoes.
It was a condensed visit, obviously, since we can't expect Simon to walk all over the town with us, and he also doesn't like to be in a stroller for more than 25–30 minutes at a time. But we knew it would be this way going in. You have to have very realistic expectations of how much (or how little) ground you can cover when you've got a toddler with you. And you have to be ready to abruptly stop what you're doing and high-tail it out of wherever you are if your toddler suddenly starts acting tired or cranky.
|Winter shot of Banská Štiavnica taken in February 2012|
One interesting development since our last visit to Banská Štiavnica was that the abandoned old synagogue has been restored. I wasn't able to get inside, so I don't know what it's currently being used for, but at least now the building isn't going to crumble away. When we last saw it, the windows were broken and/or boarded up, and the whole thing was looking pretty shabby. I mentioned in this post how the Holocaust decimated Slovakia's Jewish population, and very few Jews who survived returned to Slovakia after WWII. During communism, the abandoned synagogues were typically either used for storage and/or neglected and left to the elements. But in the last decade or so, towns have gradually been able to secure funding to fully restore the synagogues, which are often repurposed as cultural centers or galleries.
|The synagogue back in February 2012|
|The synagogue after restoration in September 2018|
Terezia's mom was utterly exhausted after our little day trip. She's been extremely helpful with Simon on this trip, and happy to spend time with him, but the car ride to and from Banská Štiavnica, as well as exploring the town with Simon, completely wore her out! Terezia and I are pretty much in a permanent state of exhaustion these days, so we know how this feels.