Visiting Grandma? She’s 7,636 Miles Away

Over the river and through the woods? If only. These days, as more people move in the name of love, jobs, and adventure, families are often hours—if not oceans—apart. On a trip with her two boys to rural Argentina to visit their beloved Granny, NBC News editor Marian Smith talks about playing gaucho with her tot, making flank steak purees for her baby, and what we can learn from los Argentinos about airplane travel.

La familia  Marian Smith (left) with her husband Dan Montalbano and their two sons. The family of four traveled to Patagonia, Argentina to visit their beloved Granny, Rosanna Montalbano.

La familia Marian Smith (left) with her husband Dan Montalbano and their two sons. The family of four traveled to Patagonia, Argentina to visit their beloved Granny, Rosanna Montalbano.

It’s not unusual to have to travel to see your family. These days our relations are often in other cities or states. Sometimes they’re even in other countries.

We fit squarely into that third category, as we’ve made our home a whole ocean away from the rest of our extended families, in London. For many years my husband’s mother lived just outside the city in the Cotswolds and we saw her often, but when she retired and moved back to Argentina, where she’s originally from, visiting Granny became quite another story. Gone were the days of packing into a car for a Friday night drive and a weekend in the tame English countryside, where we would stroll past tidy farms on our way to the picturesque, cobble-stoned village with its cozy pubs and window boxes.

Now we were looking at a multi-day, multi-mode trip of 7,636 miles. I’m talking a 13-hour flight to Buenos Aires, an overnight layover, a 2.5-hour flight to a small town in the Andes, and a not-so-insignificant drive on pot-hole-scarred mountain roads to Granny’s house on a steep hillside.

An adventure made all the more eventful with seven-month-old Nicholas and 2.5-year-old Alexander in tow.

Taking flight  Swinging at Granny’s house in San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia. Photo by  Dan Montalbano  (aka our bilingual charmer)

Taking flight Swinging at Granny’s house in San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia. Photo by Dan Montalbano (aka our bilingual charmer)

But we were up for the challenge and couldn’t wait for our boys to see Granny again—in little Nicholas’ case, it would be his second time meeting her, and as for Alexander, FaceTime couldn’t give real hugs and kisses, as much as Apple tries.

As we arrived at Heathrow airport, weighed down by our nine pieces of luggage, we were excited but realistic, with questions such as, “How will the boys fare with jetlag?” and, “Did we bring enough diapers?” on our mind. What we didn’t expect was that our first hurdle would come before we’d even gone through airport security.

“You didn’t check in online?” asked the British Airways agent behind the counter, the corners of her red-lipsticked mouth turning down in utter disbelief, horror, and abject pity. “Online check-in has been open for 24 hours! The bulkhead seats have already been reserved.”

For the uninitiated, the treasured bulkhead seats—the first row of the economy section, with a coveted amount of legroom and crucial baby bassinet—is the difference between a somewhat successful international flight with babies, and a flight that is so difficult and overwhelming that it can only be compared to drug-free childbirth. I am not ashamed to admit that I almost burst into tears right there. No way in hell were we going to hold a very chunky seven-month-old on our laps while simultaneously trying to prevent our toddler from kicking the seat in front of him for thirteen hours.

The BA agent apologized and told us there was nothing she could do. Our only hope lay in asking the current bulkhead passengers to swap with us and our lowly middle-of-the-middle-row economy seats.

I died a little inside. This was London. Brits respect the “queue” above all else, and whoever nabbed those seats during early check-in was sure to be congratulating themselves, rightly so, for their foresight. Those who missed out were sure to be cursing their bad luck but preparing to endure their imminent misery with silent stoicism. The latter certainly wouldn’t dream of challenging this unspoken code—especially within the confines of public transportation—and the former would be offended if anyone did.

Besides, regardless of these cultural norms, who in their right mind would give up those enviable seats with their extra legroom and their footrests for the likes of us, bleary-eyed parents and a pair of potential noisemakers?

Who, me?  Taking in Huechulafquen Lake in Patagonia, Argentina.

Who, me? Taking in Huechulafquen Lake in Patagonia, Argentina.

My husband Dan and I voted that he would take the lead. Not only is he a bilingual charmer, but he had also managed to put on a collared shirt that morning, whereas I looked like I’d dressed in the dark. Peeking around the curtain that separates economy class from the kitchen, he zeroed in on three Argentines stretching their legs, and, with a kid on both hips and a smile from ear to ear, he bravely approached the front row with a “Perdoneme…” (Excuse me…)

He barely got the question out before all three passengers—none of whom was traveling together, and only one of whom was a woman—started gathering their things, pinching our sons’ cheeks and exclaiming things like, “Que lindo!” (How beautiful!) and, “Los ojos!” (The eyes!). Our jaws were on the floor.

As it turns out, Argentines love children and want to help you with everything from playing to soothing to diaper-changing—and most importantly, to swapping seats for the comfort of “los niños preciosos.”

And it didn’t stop there. When Alexander ran up and down the aisles for two hours straight, he seemed to be making friends instead of enemies. When Nicholas decided to scream for a solid 45 minutes, old ladies asked me if they could rock him. When he pooped through three onesies (yes, three), I got knowing smiles and chuckles when running to the lavatory, instead of disgusted stares at the revolting sight of a yellowy-brown stain inching up his back.

Finally full  Feeding seven-month-old Nicholas was a source of entertainment for Argentinian friends and relatives. Photo by  Dan Montalbano

Finally full Feeding seven-month-old Nicholas was a source of entertainment for Argentinian friends and relatives. Photo by Dan Montalbano

Once we were on the ground, more special treatment: some free pastries at the café around the corner from the flat where we spent our layover in Buenos Aires—“Gordito!” (Chubby!)—and some surprise presents from a toy shop across the road—“Rubio!” (Blondie!). When we checked in the next day for our flight to Patagonia, one of the security agents—a man, no less—begged us to take a picture of him holding Nicholas.

Did we let him? It seemed cruel not to.

Needless to say, none of this would have happened back home in London—nor in the U.S., I’d venture to say. (Can you picture those burly, humorless TSA agents cuddling a baby? Didn’t think so.)

After two exhausting yet culturally revelatory days, we finally arrived at Granny’s house in San Martin de los Andes, ready for the adventure we had planned for our boys and ourselves. We fed chickens, collected eggs, pet horses, picnicked on lakeshores, and had asados (barbeques) with oh-so-much meat. Alexander ate his first empanadas, blood sausages, lamb and steak, and discovered the delights of dulce de leche. He was outside every day in pristine air, climbing “mountains” (Granny’s hillside), playing on a home-made rope swing and learning how to light un fuego (what, your two-year-old can’t make a bonfire?).

Un arco iris  Alexander spotted his first rainbow on the family trip. Photo by  Dan Montalbano

Un arco iris Alexander spotted his first rainbow on the family trip. Photo by Dan Montalbano

Meanwhile, we lost track of how many people held Nicholas, and we introduced him to animals ranging from the family of teros (a South American plover) nesting nearby and liebres (Patagonian hares) dashing across the roads, as well as Granny’s friendly, slobbery dog and the chickens she kept out back. He grew accustomed to bundling up for windy walks in the Baby Bjorn and must have gained 10 pounds from all the over-enthusiastic feeding (“Look! He’s still hungry!”).

But most of all, our boys were spending precious, quality time with their grandmother. And she was in heaven, curling up to read bedtime stories, holding sticky hands as she walked down muddy roads and rocky beaches, kissing chubby cheeks after a warm bottle, and singing Argentine nursery rhymes at the tops of her lungs with her two little boys.

We were three generations, making our boys’ first memories—watching someone change a huge tire on a real truck, throwing stones into a cold lake, seeing a rainbow fill an entire sky.

Yes. This is why we travel, and we can’t wait to go back soon, 7,636 miles be damned. In the meantime, though: Granny, you are more than welcome to bunk up with us in London!

Marian Smith is a homepage editor at NBC News. She and husband Dan Montalbano—the photographer—and their two boys live in London. What’s always in her airplane carry-on, now that she has kids? Zip-lock plastic bags and a change of clothes.

have family travel TIPS OR QUESTIONS ON argentina?
Let me know below!

 

Field Notes
Marian’s tips, tricks, and gear recommendations
for long-haul travel to Argentina.

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Know the airline rules Why did we neglect to book those bulkhead seats on British Airways? We typically tickets on Virgin, and every airline has different regulations for flying with children. Make sure you know the “baby-in-arms” and family check-in rules several days before your flight.

Break up the journey We made the decision to travel over two days because our international and local flights arrived and left from different airports in Buenos Aires. It would have been too painful to land after a 13-hour flight, drive across the city, and start all over again.

There’s no place like (a) home
I highly recommend reserving an Airbnb instead of a hotel for amenities like a kitchen and washing machine. Also map out things like nearby playgrounds.

Get creative to save Dedicate some time to find deals and discounts before a family trip. As your list of ticket holders grows, it can save you big bucks. Case in point: My mother-in-law booked our in-country Aerolineas Argentinas flight because she can get a resident discount (a government initiative to encourage local tourism), which saved us a few hundred dollars.

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Desperate measures At home we strictly limit screen time, but for the flight we gave Alexander a pair of CozyPhones and an Amazon Fire for Kids tablet loaded up with puzzle games and movies.

Non-screen distractions Usborne’s “First Sticker Books” about Airports was hugely entertaining. Think baggage trolleys, check-in desks, security control and immigration. Coloring books may sound brave for a toddler, but Stabilo Cappi pens with a cap ring were a revelation (no lost pen caps and the shape of the markers means they don’t roll easily). We also included a few A-list books (Julia Donaldson’s Snail and the Whale and The Gruffalo were flavors of the month at the time.)

We also had the baby’s favorite lovey on hand, as well as a few surprise dollar-store toys hidden in our pockets for emergency distractions (a London cabbie gave us that tip!).

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Eat local… Don’t shy away from foreign foods. Meals made for some of our favorite memories. Alexander drank fresh full-fat milk every day, ate home-made yogurt, tucked into empanadas, and tried all kinds of meat. Nothing topped dulce de leche or alfajores (a chocolate and dulce de leche biscuit), which he continues to ask for, months later.

…with exceptions The one thing we weren’t willing to gamble? The baby’s choice formula, so we brought our own.

Buy what you can in country We gave Granny the boys’ diaper sizes so she could stock up, which allowed us to keep at least one suitcase item to a minimum.

Learn from your mistakes Along with two diaper bags—the Baby Bjorn diaper bag for the tot and the JJ Cole Caprice over-the-shoulder diaper bag (bigger with more pockets) for the baby—we brought a backpack for the grownups. The third bag was total overkill.

The biggest lesson learned was with our checked baggage. We thought we were being clever and organized by packing a small suitcase for each boy, and one each for me and my husband. Next time, we’re bringing fewer clothes—and cutting our load in half.

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