Sheikh and I each loved to travel when we met – he had just gotten back from a year in Patagonia and I had lived in Ukraine only two years earlier while volunteering with the Peace Corps. After I finished law school, we spent nine months living in Delhi for his job, learning how to travel together to places I had always dreamed of going: Kathmandu, Mumbai, Rajasthan. We honeymooned in Athens and Santorini six months later.
Our experiences getting tea from a particular chaiwalla in Varanasi or sharing French wine and baguette in Jardins de Luxembourg or getting sick after reaching Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayas are memories woven into the fabric of our relationship. Part of our contract is that we will continue to build those memories together. And that we would continue to do so when we had a baby.
And so, Mimi in tow, we took advantage of cheap tickets and some work travel Sheikh has in Germany and flew to Lisbon for the first leg of our family adventure overseas. While the flight wasn’t perfect – halfway through the flight Mimi vomited while nursing so you can imagine the mess and hours of residual stench – we had it way easier than the brave couple traveling with six (yes, SIX) young children. Mimi made lots of friends and we read her “My First Words” book and so that she could point out the cats and dogs and buses and make all the corresponding noises, and she even slept for a couple of hours. We arrived at our Airbnb, climbing the five stories just in time to soak in the view of Lisbon’s rooftops and the river before the sun went down.
In Lisbon Sheikh and I fell into old travel habits that we soon discovered would require some adjustments to accommodate Mimi’s naptime, bedtime, and jet-lagged wakefulness between the hours of midnight and four a.m. We began with one or two modest goals for the day – see Sao Jorge Castle or eat a traditional Portugese seafood meal – and then we would find coffee and wander and eventually reach our destination. As we navigated the narrow cobblestone streets Mimi pointed at the dogs and trams from her stroller as Sheikh and I marveled at the tile work on nearly every residential building exterior and practiced a lilting “bom dia” as we passed a friendly face. We frequently got Mimi out of her stroller to climb the steps to a cathedral or to chase pigeons in one of many sprawling, quiet city squares. We enjoyed a family espresso date at a café-kiosk full of hip Lisbon couples. This travel-while-parenting thing is definitely for us.
But when Mimi started to show signs of complete exhaustion, it would take hours to get her to sleep. Sheikh and I had decided that we were going to have her nap in her stroller so that we could have some time in the city together while she slept. Our dates café-sitting while Mimi slept in the fresh air proved worth the effort, but not before hours of strolling and bouncing and one particularly desperate moment nursing her on a random stoop.
The most important things are to have realistic expectations and to be flexible. One night illustrated this perfectly. Mimi had napped late and was in her characteristic high spirits, so we decided to go out for an early family dinner at a market across town and have that Lisbon seafood experience. After hopping out of the cab, we were wandering over to a cathedral to take a look before eating, and I realized Mimi was missing a shoe. Keeping this active toddler in our arms all night was not an option, but as she played (sweetly, happily) in the cathedral square in her socks, it soon became apparent that we needed to get her some proper footwear. So we asked around and fortunately we just so happened to be in a district with lots of kids shops. Unfortunately, we did not find one that carried shoes for another hour. And the shoes we got her were the only pair in the store in her size: white Converse sneakers. When we got back to the market to eat, it was closed.
Hungry and disappointed and feeling the stark contrast between traveling as a couple and traveling with a toddler, I took Mimi back to the cathedral square to run around in her new kicks while Sheikh looked up another place for us to eat.
A boy about three and his father were kicking a soccer ball impressive distances under the lights in the square, and when I put Mimi down she stopped and stared at them for a minute. She reached for my hand and walked closer, stopping to watch, and then got closer again. The little boy, sweet-faced with a mop of dark curls, stopped and noticed her, walked up to her with the ball and handed it to her. Mimi took it, held it, dropped it, and in quick Portugese the boy explained that she needed to kick the ball, miming the motion. He gave the ball back for her to try. I exchanged an “isn’t this sweet” smile with his dad, and then with several relatives spanning at least three generations I saw were also watching on the sidelines. Mimi tried to kick the ball, it rolled a short distance, and she picked it back up. She stared at the boy who instructed her to drop it and kick it.
She held it until I went over and asked her to let go. The boy kicked the ball to his dad and then looked back at Mimi, who was then in my arms. “Obrigado” I said to the boy and his family. Thank you, and “tchao!” Then Mimi waved to the boy and smiled and the boy, pleased, smiled and waved back. I kissed Mimi’s forehead as we left, quietly thankful for the reminder that for all of the change she has ushered into our lives, she certainly brings me immense amounts of joy. Sometimes when I least expect it.