Three weeks in Croatia was long enough to fall in love. I can’t say that I fully understand the place – the nuances are still a mystery. The language is foreign and for all I know there are hidden elements that I was never able to grasp. It made a hell of a first impression though.
One thing it made me think about is how various places respond to children – I travel as a family of five, so this has a particular relevance to me. The more I have been traveling this year, the more I have come to realize that the United States is not a very child friendly place. I’ve been at the parenting thing for a solid ten years now and I can say that raising kids in the US is challenging.
Sometimes, and this is no joke, I get the impression that dogs get more consideration than children in the US., especially as a father of a child with severe allergies that trigger asthma. When someone arrives with a pet for some al fresco dining as we enjoy a meal at a restaurant, we are the ones that need to move or wrap up our meal and leave. Our kid can’t handle the exposure, but our concerns hardly take precedence.
I often do a thought experiment to see how the world would react if my kid were to displace a dog. Like, I have seriously been in restaurants where I have had to endure a dog audibly licking its crotch while I nursed my cocktail. Not that I really want to envision that level of exchange, but how’s this? Not long ago, I was at a rural post office collecting my mail from a PO box and as I worked the key someone walked by with a large dog on a leash. With both hands occupied extracting my weeks’ worth of mail, the dog buried its muzzle in the seat of my pants. My first reaction was to turn around swinging, but I tempered my response. As I attempted to squirm away from the indiscretion, the owner shrugged it off and made some lame excuse about her dog’s personality. I shudder to think what the reaction would be if my kid got out of my sight and for some strange reason were to bury their face in someone’s ass. Seems far-fetched, I guess, but kids get nervous and confused and my littlest kid routinely likes to push her way through a tunnel under her parents’ legs. She could easily make the mistake and if she did, I think I might either be in a fight or talking to the police, not sure which or which would be better.
In the United States, we have the pretense of lots of things for children. We have family-friendly restaurants which are generally chains with a gimmick and a kids’ menu. The food is infallibly terrible and outrageously priced. It’s really no fun for anyone, especially if your kids actually have some culinary sense about them. Try taking your kids to more mainstream eating establishments and you quickly grow a thick skin from all the sneers and dirty looks you rack up on entry.
One noteworthy night I was at Tommy Bahamas restaurant in Palm Desert, California. They actually have a kids’ menu so they maintain the pretense of being family friendly. My kids were on the brink of good behavior, teetering as they often are. I have typically maintained that it’s the sneering from the surrounding tables that leads to the bad behavior, the tantrums, and the spilled drinks. Whenever my kids have an episode in a restaurant, we can usually pinpoint the table that was causing them the anxiety. (Take home – if you are worried about kids spoiling your experience, try not giving them the look – they can feel it. It’s a guarantee that they are going to screw up). In this instance, though, it was not my kids. They were teetering, but maintaining control.
At the table next to us was a couple with a pretty young baby. They were doing their best. The baby made some noise, but it was drowned out by the ambiance. I was just happy to see that they were out and having a good time. Then this old lady came over on her way out of the restaurant to berate them as they ate their meal. I was absolutely stunned. At first, I couldn’t believe it. I thought she was doing that playful old people thing where you fake that someone is in trouble and they are in for it and then you crack a smile and make the baby laugh. No, this was for real. Bullying a young family because their six-month-old kid made some noise. I was so affected by it that I approached the table and apologized on behalf of humanity, and told them they were doing a wonderful job.
We have a lot of things for children, which is to say a lot of programs and profit generating opportunities (#capitalism). We have organized sports, and theme parks among other diversions, most of which are designed to break parents’ spirits and bankbooks both. Playgrounds are most often hidden in residential areas and horribly under-used, except on game days and practice nights. I have an app on my phone so that I can always locate a park when I am traveling with my kids on the road because they invariably need a break from the car to blow off steam. In the US, I often have to exit the freeway and make my way through miles of circuitous surface streets before finding one. You quickly learn as an inveterate park user that in much of the United States these are favored areas for drug exchanges. Lots of suspicious cars, strange meetings and random assortments of people emerging from the restrooms. This has been my experience even in nicer neighborhoods when it’s not a peak use day.
Strangely, while traveling I have found that in many places parks are prominent, right in the center of the action. Perfectly situated so that kids can get some exercise while parents relax and socialize.
Croatia? Yes, back to Croatia. Aside from being a beautiful place full of wonderful people and excellent food, Croatia has playgrounds next to restaurants, cafes and bars. As though I wasn’t already sold on the place. This was revolutionary. These parks defined the terms of my endearment with the place. I don’t know much about children’s issues in Croatia, but I can say that the kids I saw were happy. They were playing, not hidden from view, in the vicinity if their parents, while their parents happily whiled away the time that they engaged in careless play.
They say this arrangement exists because Croatians love their coffee. I’d say it’s because they love their kids. We all love coffee. Not all of us think to build a playground next to our coffee shops so we can engage with one another, enjoy our leisure, and still be with our kids, out in the open, in the glorious sunshine.