St. Petersburg

We hear so much about Russia in our history and our news channels. What is it to be Russian? What makes them proud? What can they build? To answer my questions and to put a face onto the unknown other, we traveled to St. Petersburg.

Built along the Neva river on contested land, Peter the Great built his city as a modern, beautiful marvel to rival other contemporary capitals in Europe. Further down the Neva, Peter built his “summer palace” as a direct response to Versailles. Additionally, he then built Peterhof as the “dasha,” or summer home of the Tsar, as a country escape from his official capital. Its beautiful gardens and working fountains were a marvel of technology at the time.

 

Although, honestly, I’m not sure who would have wanted that escape. The city has been voted the most beautiful in the world several times for good reason.  St. Petersburg is, foremost, a town of palaces. Each building a unique testament to wealth and privilege painted in pastel colors and decorated with statues of ancient gods and symbols of plenty. It is clean, smoke free, litter free and proud of its heritage as Peter the Great’s chosen capital.

Unbelievably, the interior of these palaces are even more startling. The talent that went into the inlaid flooring, gilded ceilings and paneled walls is unparalleled. Peter and his descendants drafted architects, designers and artists from Scotland, France and Italy to make their vision a reality.

The churches with their golden cuppolas and glittering mosaics speak to their strong faith which seems to be the foundation of its residents, who thrive on the banks of the Neva River. The buildings and street stalls that surround them comprise the backbone of St. Petersburg main industry: tourism. The maroushkas, porcelains, t-shirts and children’s toys offer you a piece of St. Petersburg’s rich history. I bought two of whatever I could carry.

And so, St. Petersburg is demystified. It is a beautiful westernized European city. The citizens speak English and Russian. They are capitalists with a long memory of different days.  They enjoy the same music and really good caviar that we prize in the United States. They are people as we are people. And if you have an opportunity to travel there, I hope you accept the chance to visit this beautiful city.

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France: Disneyland Paris

I love traveling and experiencing new foods, places and cultures, but these are fun activities from a grown up perspective. So when Isabella dramatically died of boredom on her tour de chateaux, we knew it was time to change up our itinerary. Luckily, we had planned for our threenager to be in full force and had booked a special detour just for her and Olivia.

DISNEYLAND PARIS!

We live in the United States, but this was our first trip to any Disney resort. We did internet research from Dedicated to DLP, Disney promotional videos and listened to input from friends who Disney often in the States. We knew that on-site guests have access to early entry to the park and that we would benefit from purchasing a dining plan. We purchased our tickets directly from Disneyland Paris but we used the French speaking site because it’s literally more expensive to get the same package when you book in English. We also reserved character dinners two months in advance, which is the limit for Disneyland Paris (DLP). We had better luck calling Customer Service directly (yes, we called France directly from the U.S.) than trying to reserve online. They did speak English and were very pleasant over the phone.

Lodging: We stayed on-site at the Sequoia Lodge. It was close enough to walk to the parks and far enough to remove ourselves from the parade crowds at the end of the day. It is themed in a rustic “American style, Western-pioneer” motif. If your kids like playing cowboy or out in the woods, this is a pretty cool place to stay. The hotel common areas were gorgeous. They also had an on-location Disney Store with exclusive DLP pins, clothing and suitcases.

Mom notes: The room met our needs with two double beds and en-suite bathroom. I would compare the room to a Howard Johnson or Holiday Inn. They provide a cute Mickey Mouse Shower gel and shampoo, but they do not provide conditioner. We opted for breakfast with our accommodation. It was a light buffet with assorted breads, cereals, cold cut meats and cheese. If you want to take advantage of the early “magic hour” then I suggest booking breakfast at 7:00 or 7:30AM. By 8:00AM, the line was extremely long with lots of hungry little princesses and Avengers waiting for an open seat.

The walk from the Sequoia to Disneyland Park was great. It took us past a beautiful pond with a hot air balloon and straight through Disney Village. There were very kitschy, cute restaurants and lots of various shops to visit. I loved that we could hit the shops outside of the park on our way back to the hotel and not carry everything through the park all day.

You actually have to travel under the Disneyland hotel, a beautiful pink chateau in its own right, to get to the park. This is, as they say, where the magic happens.

What to do with a 3 year old and 6 year old in Disneyland Park? Well, we visited during the 25th Anniversary which includes special costumes, parades and attractions in the park. We definitely bought new costumes and they wore them the whole time we were there.

We spent most of our time in Fantasy land because that’s where the girls’ favorite rides were: Tea cups, Flying Dumbo and the Alice in Wonderland labyrinth. We did each a few times and you  know what? It was ok. They had a blast and we had a good time being with them. And we did take them through the 20,000 leagues under the sea ride and driving the motorized cars in Discoveryland. There was something fun for everyone.

In the end, vacations are about getting away from the everyday grind and spending time with the people you love most.  Whether it’s grabbing the special blue donuts with star sprinkles or just watching a little blue fairy dancing joyously in her new costume, the magic of Disney is making those memories together.

Mardi Gras: a celebration

As a Latina, I’ve always celebrated holidays with friends and family. My grandmother always made it a point to make every holiday a little special for us. And now, my extended family always makes an effort to celebrate their traditions with the girls, ensuring the cultural significance gets passed down to the next generation.

Mardi Gras in a Latin-Catholic family is about shiny necklaces, sparkly masks made of paper and then the last sad goodbye to whatever treat or activity that you will give up for the Lenten season. In my husband’s Italian family, they tend to focus on amazing food, which just elevates the celebration!

This year, Mike just returned from a trip abroad and so we’ve been fortunate to ramp up for Mardi Gras with new masks from Italy:

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The girls received buckets of beads while their cousin was attending Loyola in NOLA. Olivia is VERY excited to wear hers to school:

And finally, no celebration would be quite as sweet without the king cake!

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We wish everyone a safe and happy Mardi Gras!

Multicultural appreciation

This is my daughter’s first year in real school, kindergarten. This means new rules for us as a family regarding when we can travel. It’s new for us and we’re adjusting, but we also have the opportunity to participate in interesting new events, such as International Appreciation Day at school.

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Because my heritage is Latina/Chicana, I assumed that the girls would wear pretty dresses from Coyoacan, we’d bring some tacos and we’d all have a good time.

Then, I received an excited email from my husband, who is 1/4 Scottish. “I’m going to make Haggis for International fair!”

Oh. My. Goodness.

If you haven’t tried haggis, it’s spiced sheep pluck and you can usually find it at a local Highlands festival. It’s REALLY good and I encourage you to try it. I’m unsure how I feel about having it cooked in my home, but we’ll see.

I didn’t think much more about it until I came home and Mike said that we had an email update that there was going to be a PARADE for the festival and the kids could participate.

What does that mean exactly? In my house, it means BAGPIPES.
My husband unearthed his bagpipes from the depths of our basement and cleaned them up for my 5 year old to play in the school parade.

If you have heard bag pipes in real life, you know that they are a unique sound and can only imagine the delight that making these noises has brought to my child. So, if the purpose of International Appreciation was to interest your children in their heritage and open them to new ideas, then mission accomplished.

In the mean time, Bella and I will just be sitting here appreciating Olivia’s new musical talents.

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Iceland: Touring the great unknown

When you think of vacation destinations, do you imagine endless stretches of beach? Great skiing? Beautiful nature trails with waterfalls? Did you realize that you were thinking about Iceland?

You can get direct flights from most major hubs and we had a toddler. Direct flights were our only criteria for vacationing abroad.  We set out for the land of Vikings and ice and we found a beautiful and diverse country.

The black beaches are made of smoothed lava rock. And although the sea was cold, we ended up taking off our coats and stretching out in the sunshine for a while.

The juxtaposition of thermal geysirs shooting up warm water, the steaming thermal jets and icy  Glaciers jutting through the hills was marvelous to experience first hand. We even went to a restaurant that cooked using the natural steam.

We didn’t get to experience the Northern lights, so Olivia wants us to go back with specific tours to see the wintery phenomenon. So, who knew that this journey would be the beginning of a lifelong love of puffins, glaciers and geological wonders?

Aren’t you dying to experience Iceland?