I was going to write about my second visa “strike” this week, but that’s a very long story (with back stories, and back stories to the back stories, and back stories to the back stories to the back stories…) so honestly that might be a “Resettled in Germany” assignment. Feeling as tired as I do, it’s hard to imagine finding the motivation.
Laken and I are entering the second half of a two-week visit to Buffalo, New York, where my family lives. Since I’m on maternity leave for the year, it made sense for the two of us to take advantage of offseason prices.
Todd misses us, terribly, and looks a bit like Grumpy Cat when we see him on Face Time, but he gets why we’re here. And why we generally spend five to seven weeks here a year. And why 99.9% of my salary goes directly in to the “Trips Home” pot.
See, when Todd and I first got married, one thing I gave him fair warning about is that I don’t just like to fly home a lot—I need to fly home a lot. Truly, I’m that person who, if I didn’t live 4,000 miles away from my family, would probably own a house on the same block and stop over at all hours of the day to steal canned goods and, as my dad says, “shoot the baloney.” Living internationally is a very big stretch, even fifteen years in. The only way I can hack it is with frequent trips home.
The need to make these trips home is a thousand times truer now that we have a baby. It’s crucial to us both that she knows her cousins, her grandparents, and our close friends.
So, Laken—who is nine months old—is already a seasoned, passport-holding traveler with no less than thirteen flights under her baby belt. (I’m counting the intermediate flights between Frankfurt and Buffalo, where my family lives, and on to Washington, where Todd’s family is. We also did a weekend trip to England over Thanksgiving.)
Since our baby has reached teenage status when it comes to traveling by plane, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share thirteen thoughts, experiences, or tips in honor of each flight we’ve survived thus far.
One: Plane Rides Are Just Zippy Marathons.
I had a little ‘moment’ the first time I flew internationally with Laken.
We’d just boarded the plane and I stood up at my seat in the bulkhead area to watch all the other people settle into their spots on the airplane.
That’s when it hit me. The old days were gone. Over. Kapeesh. This should have been obvious, earlier, but for some reason I just truly felt it for the first time when I watched all those other travelers.
No more watching four movies in a row.
No more multiple glasses of boxed red wine.
No more curling up in the red Delta blankets for naps.
No more knocking myself out with Tylenol PM.
No more filling up my carry-on bag with all the things needed to entertain me, alone.
No more books, journaling, or smutty magazines that feed the paparazzi.
This was going to be a marathon.
And, it is in a sense. Flying with a baby is hard work and definitely different from when you’re childless and just trying to keep yourself fed, comfortable and drugged.
There is an upside that I’ve found in these thirteen flights and counting. The flight goes by so much faster. Each and every time, I am more than a little awed when the plane nosedives into the runway for landing. That’s it? It’s over, already? That was nine hours? Or two hours? Or forty minutes?
So. There’s that.
Enjoy the zip!
Two: Postpartum in Planes Can Be Like Peas in a Pod?
Laken’s first international flight was when she was six weeks old. At the time, I was headfirst in to a bout of Post Partum Depression. Forget airports—at that point it was beyond me to be comfortable doing even basic things in public, like going for a walk or eating at a restaurant. What if she cried? Or, what if I had to breastfeed in front of everyone?
So, an international flight was an undertaking, to say the least. I honestly didn’t know how, or if, I’d get through it.
If I could have looked at it objectively at the time, the flight wasn’t all that bad. Some two year old down the row was stuffed in to one of the bassinets and screamed like a maniac the entire time (making our baby look extra good.) Lufthansa lived up to its topnotch reputation with a ‘family line’ to check in luggage and they handed out free goodies to all the babies, including bottles, binkies and toys. We got a stuffed duck, and Laken still chews on its neck. Finally, the baby spent most of the flight laying in her Boppy Newborn Lounger. (The only time she cried was at the end, and you could barely hear her little caws over the pressurizing air.)
But, to my hormonally ‘challenged’ mind, it was a brutal experience. My teeth chattered the whole time. I felt like everyone was staring at us, and that they could surely see my nipples when I fed the baby.
However—surrounding myself with family and watching them bond with Laken was more key to the recovery process than anything else I tried (to include a counselor, journaling my anxieties and tearing up thoughts as they no longer plagued me, a high dose of Paxil, and time.)
It helped to watch the bonding process. To be able to sit on the couch and watch other people hold her for a minute. To hear their exclamations about how long her fingers were, how big her eyes were, how sweet her arm dimples were.
So, despite how hard it is to make it through, international flights and postpartum depression can be, despite the intensity of the experience, like two peas in a pod.
Three: Babies Betray Biology
She’s a newborn. This is the easiest it’s ever going to be to travel with her. She’ll be asleep for most of the flight!
Many a mother assured me of this. Not true.
I didn’t think it was even biologically possible for a six week old, but Laken stayed awake for the ENTIRE flight. Nine hours.
What I learned: Wishful thinking about a flight spent with a sleeping baby is fine. But, be prepared for the possibility that they might stay awake the entire time.
Four: The Boppy Newborn Lounger is Fab.
We brought this coveted baby gear item on the flight with us, and Todd and I both agree that it was that + one + thing that made flying with an infant so much easier than it could have been. I know a lot of people keep their babies in carriers throughout flights. I have a Lillebaby (which I’d be willing to act as a company spokesperson for—it’s that amazing—but I just don’t find it comfortable to sit down with for long periods of time. The Boppy Lounger was a way to hold the baby…without necessarily holding the baby. If that makes sense.
Five: Delta Has No Clue About Bassinets. Or Else, We Have No Clue About Bassinets.
Twice, now, Todd and I have called Delta in advance to request bulkhead seats and the use of a bassinet.
Both times we showed up at the airport, asked at check in for confirmation that we had a bassinet waiting for us on the plane, were told “yes,” said “awesome,” and then boarded only to find out that our seats were nowhere near the bulkhead or the bassinets.
When we asked the flight attendants, they told us they don’t play a role in seat assignments or bassinet reservations and offered to check with the people assigned “our” bulkhead seats to see if we could do a switcheroo. But, in both cases families with young children boarded so, obviously, that wasn’t happening.
I don’t know what the problem is. Apparently reserving bassinets with Delta and receiving multiple confirmations that they’re booked isn’t…quite…how…it’s done? Either they have no clue what’s going on, or we don’t.
We finally got one on the flight we took in January from Detroit to Frankfurt. A couple of hours in, Laken passed out in my arms, so we lowered her in to the morbidly coffin shaped, narrow bassinet.
Todd was just selecting a movie and I had the New Yorker open to Talk of the Town when a flight attendant came by and pointed out that the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign was on, and that we had to take Laken back out of the bassinet and hold her on our laps, buckled in, until it went off.
But…she was asleep! Didn’t this lady understand the cast iron rule of parenthood, that you do not wake a sleeping baby? Ever? Unless there is a carbon monoxide leak? Also, the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign is on for the majority of an international flight (in our experience.) So, then, what is the point of reserving a bassinet you can’t even use?
That flight attendant shrugged and didn’t seem to care about anything beyond us taking Laken out and buckling her in. Which, we did, completely annoyed.
A while later I tapped a second flight attendant who was walking by.
“The fasten seatbelt sign is on, but my baby just fell asleep. Are we allowed to put her in the bassinet?”
“Yes, of course,” he said, like this was a stupid question. “Just exercise your own caution when there’s turbulence.”
I give up. We’re not doing something right. I’ll update this post when I feel confident about bassinet protocol.
Six: Wave the Baby Flag on the Day of Your Flight.
I doubt I’m alone in that I’m too cheap to buy Laken her own seat. She weighs eighteen pounds, soaking wet. I just can’t see paying for an adult sized spot.
However, I’ve found that if you wait until the day of your flight and pay a visit to the check in desk at your gate and wave the baby flag, things happen. My line of choice is, “Hello! I’m flying with my baby girl, today, and she’s pretty hyper…”
Not much else really needs to be said before the attendants start typing thing up on the computer and coming away with an upgrade to Economy Plus or both an aisle and window seat, rather than being condemned to ‘child in arms’ status.
Airlines want to keep all of their customers happy, obviously, and doing whatever they can to make infant travel as unobtrusive as possible is their mission.
If you try to score the extra space in advance, you have to pay for it. But, my experiences giving the airlines a head’s up about the baby on the day I’m set to travel have worked out very well so far.
Seven: Here’s a Few More Things to Stuff in Your Diaper Bag
Pre-flight, I read Internet articles about what to bring in the diaper bag and found all of the standard things—baby food, toys, etc.
I have only a few items to add to the Google-able list. A friend suggested we bring several gallon sized plastic bags with us and I’m so glad that we did. We ended up changing diapers right at our seats (because otherwise we’d be waiting in line for the toilets, nonstop.)
Laken had a major blowout towards the end (conveniently right after the flight attendant made the announcement to prepare for landing by putting our try tables up and our seats in the upright position) so I was glad to have a sealed baggy for the poopy PJ’s.
If you’re traveling with a baby who is working on their pincer grasp, I can’t recommend Gerber Puff cereal enough. Any time you need the baby to stay still for a few moments, that’s the way to go. While I ate my dinner, after the flight deck asked us to stay seated with seatbelts on due to sudden turbulence, or just to resettle her if she got too loud or hyper, these admittedly overpriced Gerber treasures were invaluable.
Finally, in addition to extra outfits for the baby, bring one for yourself. I believe I had a bit of poop on my jeans after said blowout. This does not smell good or benefit one’s psyche in any way.
Eight: Why Bring Toys When Eating Seatbelts And Licking Windows is So Much Fun?
Last week I traveled alone with Laken from Germany to Buffalo for the first time. I brought a carry-on backpack filled with a hundred or so of Laken’s favorite toys. Seriously, this carry-on was massive. It could have fit my brother, who is six foot three, no problem.
Do you think she wanted to play with any of the toys I packed?
She was fascinated by the blankets wrapped in plastic, the Safety Information Card, the ice in my cup of orange juice, sucking on the metal part of the seatbelt, and licking the plane window from top to bottom. (I know…so, so, so nasty…but how do you keep these things away from a baby for the duration of an eight hour, forty minute flight? I just kept saying “all in the name of building up her immune system” and tried not to look.)
Bottom line—it wasn’t necessary for me to bring all of those toys. Babies are over-stimulated by the airplane environment as it is. Chances are they’ll find more than enough to play with.
Nine: No Need For Cheese!
Pictures! Pictures! Pictures! For some ridiculous reason I’ve only taken them on a couple of the flights, and they’re so precious that I go back to them all the time. It’s easy to get caught up in the mayhem of airplane travel. But, when it’s all over, the people frowning to see a baby board, the stuffy air, the seats that regress in size and comfort year after year, all disappear. The only thing you’re left with is the memories.
Maybe your baby pulled someone’s hair, or threw up in the seat, or had a blowout, or stayed awake for nine hours straight.
Embrace it! Take a picture! What comes out is so much more interesting than when everyone lines up and says ‘Cheese.’
Ten: There’s This One Evil Customs Agent in Frankfurt…
When we checked in, the attendant asked where Laken’s tickets were. As it turns out, babies are not completely free. On domestic flights they can fly without cost, but internationally you need to pay ten percent of an adult ticket. So, after an already late start to the airport, we were held up for a half hour or so with transactions to pay Laken’s flying tithe.
Then, and this is a first for me in Frankfurt, we had the meanest German customs officer in the country.
Laken and I approached the desk and handed over our passports. The man took them, eyeing me suspiciously, and when he spoke it was in German. This wasn’t a problem—only a tad surprising as customs officers normally revert to English if they note American passports. But, okay, whatever. I speak German.
“Where is the baby’s German passport?” he asked.
“German passport? Oh…ah…she doesn’t have one.”
“Doesn’t have one?” He raised both eyebrows. “Why not?”
“She doesn’t need one…because…she is American.” I spoke haltingly not because it was in German, but because I felt like my answer to his question was too obvious and therefore insulting.
“No, she needs a German passport. If she was born in Germany, you had ninety days to register her in your town. This passport is only good for that time.”
He went on, speaking rapidly about registering and invalid passports and German protocol, and I eventually interrupted to ask if it was possible for us to speak English. Whenever things that are very technical come up, or potentially troublesome in a serious enough situation, I want to be speaking my native language to ensure I understand.
“No,” he said. “We’re in Germany and we’re speaking German.”
Then, he continued speaking—but this time as fast as he possibly could–about why Laken’s passport was not acceptable, and under what exceptions it would be. He spoke so fast his words slurred. It was bizarre. It was obvious that he wanted to inundate me with enough multi-syllable words that I capsized under the pressure. But, little did he know, I was able to pick out a few things out of desperation. Included among the exceptions he pointed out was that we weren’t military.
Ah, but wait. Yes we are! I pulled out our SOFA stamps and slapped them down on the counter, making my anger known.
“Oh,” He looked shaken, reluctant. “Well. That is acceptable, then.”
He stamped our passports. As he did, he launched back in to that fast paced German intentionally mumbled and full of anti-American statements. I’ll admit I was unable to follow the thread, but caught the vibe (to use two clichés in one sentence.) I didn’t need to know every word to understand he hated me/us.
And, why? I don’t know. Maybe it was a Donald Trump thing. Maybe he’d had his fill of Americans for the day. Maybe he had gas.
At the very end, the only thing I was able to pick out for sure (at least I think?) was the sentence “Die Welt ist Offen,” which means “the world is open.”
He handed back our passports and, on a whim, I glared directly in to his flat face and said, “Exactly. Die Welt ist offen.”
As I started to huff away, the customs agent leaned over and stretched to see me, before yelling, “Halt! What did you say?”
“The world is open?”
He was challenging me. He was obviously itching to lock an American up. I was going to get arrested or deported or at the very least held up and lectured for talking about the world being open, and not even understand what on earth the context of what I said, was. Do not be that person, I thought. Not with the baby. Not over the world being open, of all things. So, I just nodded and stood there until he broke eye contact with me, indicating I was free to pass through.
Then started crying and called Todd. Really? The woman with the baby? That’s who gets picked on? As if I’m not stressed enough?
I wish I knew this man’s name. He is inherently evil. I would like for someone to put plastic wrap over the toilet just before he uses the bathroom. I would like someone to eat an entire bucket of eggs and throw them up on his desk. I would like make him eat a handful of my hair.
Not that I’m bitter.
Eleven: Alfred Hitchcock Knows What He’s Talking About.
As I said, last week I flew alone with Laken for the first time. I. Was. Terrified. The idea of being on a plane for nine hours with a baby who is too squirmy to sit still on my lap for even a few minutes was daunting. Am I alone in this? Are other mothers around the world just boarding planes like it’s no big whoop? Am I a wussy-woman?
Anyway, I imagined lots of crying, walking up and down the aisles for hours, a bout of plane sickness, the baby grabbing my pasta dish and burning her fingers on the hot foil…
Wasn’t it Hitchcock who said that what our brains create/anticipate is scarier than reality ever could be?
Well, it went so much better than I ever could have expected.
Laken proved herself to be the best possible international traveler (which I’m incredibly grateful for because we plan to do this trip with her a LOT.) She played, happily, in her seat for the entire nine hours. As with the first international flight she took, she didn’t sleep at all (well, one forty minute catnap aside.) But, when she was awake she was perfectly occupied by everything within range of her fingers and mouth. (The oral fixation phase is big for her right now.)
My baby put up with the whole experience. From the hard plastic changing table above the cramped cabin toilet to the rough descent replete with ear pops. She was a champ.
Every last person sitting within our vicinity, and all of the flight attendants, made the much-appreciated point of commenting on how incredible she was. “That baby is a Wunderkind!” the couple beside me exclaimed. “If only all babies were like that.”
I love my daughter more than life. As a parent, I now get what grounds that statement in the cannon of clichés. And, after that flight, I love her even more and feel guilty that I had such low expectations for her capacity to handle the experience. She did better than most adults could do!
So, don’t discount the idea that, just perhaps, your child will astonish you.
Twelve: You Can Come Under My Umbrella, Ella, Ella, Ey, Ey!
Germans are in to the big wigs of cars (BMW and Mercedez Benz, respectively.) They are also in to the big wigs of…strollers.
I’ve heard it referred to as “Stroller Culture” in Germany. I am always a bit shocked when I find out how much money people (lots and lots of people, from all socioeconomic backgrounds!) are willing to pay for these things. It is not uncommon to spend close to a thousand dollars on what amounts to, well, a stroller, for Gods-sake.
Strollers there weigh as much as freight trains. They have plastic wheels and lightweight, padded bassinets and aluminum frames that could hold up in combat situations. They can be customized to the shape and span of the baby. They practically push themselves and give other strollers high fives.
People parade these beasts along the Hauptstrasse and, among the humdingers, there isn’t a rickety, plastic wheeled inferior contraption to be found.
Todd and I were not willing to sacrifice Laken’s college education to assimilate in to Germany’s stroller culture. However, we went to the store Baby One just to take a reluctant look and actually found a stroller that would have held up just fine in the line up of grandeur on Main Street. Best thing about it? Seventy five percent off.
We still haven’t figured out why. Our guess it that a newer model came along and God forbid something as antiquated as a 2014 model gain access to the road.
The purchase made my day. I was so excited to join the ranks, to get the slight nod of approval from passerby German mothers, to hoist my child in to a vehicle designed for emperors, and pass over cobblestone like it was bubbles.
Well, she hated it. Go figure. I hoped it was just a phase, but Laken has made it clear since she was a newborn that, for her, nothing about this stroller lives up to its bigwig reputation. She cries, squirms, constantly wants out. Twenty minutes is about as long as she’ll put up with.
So, when we bought an umbrella stroller for travel, there wasn’t much hope that she’d enjoy it. After all, if you don’t like a Mercedez Benz, are you really going to put up with riding in a Nissan Centra?
It turns out she prefers the latter. The umbrella stroller we bought—the Summer Infant 3D Zeyre—is awesome. I can’t recommend it enough for travel. It’s lightweight, rides smoothly despite plastic wheels, has a window so you can see what the baby is up to, a very large canopy that blocks out sunlight, and it’s obviously comfortable because Laken just about melts when placed in the thing.
If you’re looking for a good travel stroller, I can’t recommend this enough. It made the three hour early arrival to the airport and subsequent layovers so much easier.
Thirteen—You’ll Find Lots of Shiny, Happy, Helpful, People.
People told me this would be the case when traveling with an infant, but I hardly believed it. In my mind, everyone who saw us would back away, slowly, and try to glimpse our tickets so they could switch to the opposite end of the plane from wherever our seat assignments were. And, I can’t say I blamed them.
I guess one thing that I didn’t consider is that a lot of the people you see in airports are parents, themselves. Or have nieces and nephews. Or they’ve just seen cute kids on TV. In other words, they know what it’s like and are so willing to help.
Obviously, I can’t vouch for every flight. But, it was such a refreshing view of humanity when I flew alone with Laken last week. People could not be helpful enough. Rather than just passing us by and being absorbed in their phones, like people in public places generally are, so many made a point to stop. To ask how old the baby was. To offer to fold up my stroller. To point me in the direction of something. To let me skip the customs line and go straight through. To offer a travel tip.
There were these zinging maternal and paternal urges everywhere we went, and it made me feel like I wasn’t actually flying alone with Laken. How often do you feel community in a group of strangers? (Well, okay—at sports games, concerts, etc. I know.)
But in an airport? Not often. So, that felt special and like an experience worth repeating.