Eli’s LEGO-Themed Room

As you might remember, we painted and decorated Elena’s room shortly after we moved in. Eli’s room, on the other hand … well, it stayed as is for over a year. In typical Eli fashion, it did not bother him one bit that it used to be a little girl’s nursery. Nope, laid-back Eli was fine with it.

Well, it was finally time to give the kid a room of his own! He wavered between a few different themes, but in the end he settled on one of his biggest loves in life: LEGO.

LEGO themed bedroom

He initially said he wanted the entire room green. (Note to all parents: do not give a kid free-range in the paint chip department unless you’re really okay with the most garish, hideous color they make. Because that is the one color your kid will pick.) We compromised and painted one wall green and the rest of the walls a light grey. The grey is a nice backdrop for the primary colors of LEGO, and should he change his mind about the theme in the near future, it will be much easier to repaint one wall instead of all four.

LEGO Bedroom

He had some dark wood bookshelves that were leftovers from our old home office, but they were too small for his growing collection of boy stuff and didn’t look great with the rest of his furniture. I chose these Wendel bookshelves from The Container Store. This particular collection has been discontinued, but they’ve revamped the collection since. The new versions are very similar.

elfa closet kids

We’d already had his closet done when we moved in. I cannot recommend Elfa enough, especially for kids’ closets. All of the shelves in Eli’s room can be moved up or down quite easily, so the closet will essentially grow with him. I also have an Elfa drawer unit in there to hold socks, underwear, bathing suits, and pajamas. I have several drawer units in my house (Elena’s closet, the basement, and in the pantry) and I’m continually amazed at the functionality of them. Some of them have served different purposes in different rooms, depending on the need. They are one of my best household investments ever.

Custom LEGO minifig canvases

The best part of his room, in Eli’s opinion, is the custom collection of LEGO prints. I had Eli set up several different scenes with his LEGO minifigs. He plays with his minifigs more than any single thing he owns, so they’re very special to him. After he set up the scenes, I photographed them up close. I then uploaded his 3 favorites to Fabness and ordered them as square canvases. Fabness is my favorite place to buy canvases from. They almost always have a great deal going, and the quality is amazing.

LEGO minifigure canvas

LEGO organization

We’ve tweaked the way Eli stores his LEGOs just a bit. For one, we moved them from the basement up to his bedroom. He plays with them so much more once we relocated them. For years we organized them in IKEA bins. While we still have them organized by type of brick (as opposed to color), we moved them into these LEGO bins from Iris. They’re perfect now that he’s a little older. You can either throw them in drawers (which works great for bigger bricks or Ninjago/Chima pieces), or use divided inserts within the drawers. I’ve always stressed that the way you organize LEGOs totally depends on how your kid likes to build. Eli loves to build from plans, so having bricks organized by type helps him when he’s looking for a certain brick. I often get asked if he’s able to maintain this system. When he was younger, he needed help. Now, while he might mix similar bricks together, he’s very good at keeping the different bricks separated.

LEGO organizer

LEGO organization Iris

We still need to figure out a window treatment, and we have a few more posters to hang up, but I’m really thrilled with the way his room turned out. Most importantly, though, is that Eli loves his LEGO -themed room, too!

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Traveling with Kids: Madrid, Spain

Hi friends! Some of you are probably over my posts about our trip to Spain and London, while others of you probably wish I’d posted in more detail and shared more photos. While I was able to post updates while we were traveling, time and wifi constraints kept me from sharing photos from my camera and detailed accounts of the wonderful places we visited. Over the next few weeks, both for my own personal travel diary and for those of you who may want to visit these places someday, I plan to dedicate a post to each city we visited. I’ll spread them out so as not to turn this space into a temporary travel blog. I hope you enjoy them and that one day you’ll take your family to visit!

madrid with kids and tweens

We started our month-long trip in Madrid, Spain. Not only is it an easy location to fly in and out of, it is also the home of my aunt and uncle. It gave us a nice home base to start from, easing us into international travel without having to figure out hotels and transportation right off the bat.

jardines del campo del moro madrid

As we traveled through Spain, it really hit me how very different each region and each city is. Madrid, to me, is very business-like and cosmopolitan. It definitely has its own fascinating history, pockets of interesting neighborhoods, and cultural opportunities, but it very much feels like a modern city. While we found Madrid to be great for getting around easily, shopping, and top-notch museums, it didn’t have the beauty and personality we found in so many other Spanish cities and towns. That’s not a bad thing – we really enjoyed our time in Madrid. However I would definitely adjust your expectations. If you want quaint, typical Spain, you’ll want to include other regions on your itinerary. Now that we have that out of the way, here are the highlights of Madrid, especially if you’re traveling with kids and/or tweens:

plaza mayor madrid

Plaza Mayor

We started off our first day in Madrid at Plaza Mayor. Think of it as the ultimate town square. Built in the 17th century, this enormous gathering spot is lined with cafes. It’s the perfect place to sit and have a drink and a snack while people watching. We had our first meal in Spain here, and we kept looking at each other and saying, “Can you believe we’re actually here?!” The kids got a kick out of the fact that where we were leisurely enjoying our lunch, there were once bullfights and public hangings.

plaza mayor street performers

Another highlight for the kids in Plaza Mayor are the various street performers. You see all kinds of crazy stuff – ninjas that seem to be levitating, human statues, people dressed up as trees. Their favorite was the tinsel-covered goat, who clacked his teeth together if you got close.

royal palace madrid

Royal Palace

Just a 10-minute walk from Plaza Mayor is the Royal Palace. It has more than 2000 rooms! While you can’t tour all of them (thank goodness, says this mom who imagines a 10-hour tour with kids), you can tour some of the most amazing rooms. It took us about an hour and a half to get through the self-guided palace tour, and we all really enjoyed it. Throughout the trip I often relied on Rick Steves’ guidebook over a museum’s audioguides, and I think it worked well. I’d read the parts I thought the family would find interesting. I feel like we got so much more out of our city walks and visits to various sites using his book as our guide. There were no photos allowed inside the palace, so unfortunately I can’t show you the room made entirely of porcelain, or the hand-stitched wallpaper, but trust me – it’s awesome.

The most fascinating room for the kids was the hall where the royal banquets are held. The table is set to accommodate over 100 guests! We laughed about someone at the far end of the table yelling down to the other end to pass the rolls.

For Mike and I, the Stradivarius Room was the room we won’t soon forget. The palace has the best collection of Stradivarius instruments in the world. They have a full quartet that have an estimated value of $15 million per instrument! It’s crazy to stand in a small room surrounded by something that is worth so much.

Unfortunately the Royal Pharmacy was closed for renovations during our visit, but Eli loved seeing the Royal Armory. I mean, what boy doesn’t love a museum dedicated to swords, knights in shining armor, and instruments of torture?

Reina Sofia and CaixaForum

There are several world-class art museums in Madrid, including the Reina Sofia, the Prado Museum, the Thyssen, and the CaixaForum. While I would’ve loved to have visited all of them, I knew that with the time we had and with kids in tow it just wouldn’t be feasible. In Madrid, we opted to visit Reina Sofia and CaixaForum.

Can I just take a moment to step on my traveling with kids soap box? There is NO way to travel with kids and see each and every museum, cathedral and historic sight that these wonderful cities in Europe have to offer. You will all end up miserable, hating your trip and each other. You’ll be angry at the kids for not behaving or appreciating what they’re seeing. The kids will be insanely bored, tired and agitated, and will never want to travel again. It may very well be the trip of a lifetime, but you have to approach it as if you will be back again – either by yourselves or with older kids who can withstand more time in museums. We tried to balance each city with a must-see sight or museum, some down time, and something geared toward kids. Yes, we had our moments when someone was cranky because they didn’t like what we were doing. Yes, there were many things that I would have loved to have visited but had to forego. But looking back on the trip overall, I truly feel like we ALL got to do, see and experience things that we really enjoyed at one time or another. As a result, we have great memories and we all have the bug to travel to new places together again soon.  Okay, stepping down from the soap box now.

Reina Sofia focuses on the early 20th century, which means we saw Picasso, Miró, and Dalí. It houses Picasso’s most famous work, the enormous and very moving Guernica. We chose Reina Sofia over the Prado because I knew that there would be several paintings that the kids would recognize. I took the time before our trip to read a few books with them about the artists and paintings we’d see, and I highly recommend doing this. They were very interested and engaged during our visit, and they remembered things about the artists and the paintings that we’d read about at home. (The books we read were And Picasso Painted Guernica, 13 Modern Artists Children Should Know, and The Life and Work of Salvador Dali .)

Reina Sofia also edged out the Prado because they are hosting a special exhibit on Playgrounds through September 22. The Risky Kids writer in me couldn’t pass that up! We had one dicey moment when they mistook a part of the exhibit as an actual piece of playground equipment to sit on. I have no idea what the museum yelled at them, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t “Are you enjoying the exhibit?” We moved on quickly, had a talk about touching things in museums, and I gave thanks that it was a piece of wood and not a Picasso. Other than that, the museum was a hit.

caixaforum madrid vertical garden

We chose CaixaForum based on a specific special exhibit: a Disney Pixar exhibit! This was so very cool. It was full of original artwork from the movies, interactive stations for the kids, and a jaw-dropping huge zoetrope of your favorite Pixar characters. Again, no photos were allowed, but we were too busy enjoying the exhibit.  Even if you don’t go in, a walk by the museum is a must-see. One side of the museum is a 3-story vertical garden!

retiro park pond madrid

El Retiro Park

This 350-acre park sits in the center of the city. Walking through it on tired legs probably isn’t your best idea with kids, but they’ll love it as a first stop in the day or for an evening paseo. Grab an ice cream from one of the many vendors and enjoy a leisurely stroll. You can rent rowboats in the large pond or take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the park (of which we did neither, much to the grand disappointment of the kids). There’s a fabulous playground on the north side of the park, near the Retiro Metro entrance.

retiro park playground madrid

Parque Madrid Rio

Just a few miles from downtown Madrid, the Madrid Rio is an urban park set along the bank of the Manzanares River. A big section of Madrid’s highway was moved underground, and what used to be the highway was converted into a park, with wide bike paths, playgrounds, cafes and 17 (!) playgrounds. We rented bikes and went for a leisurely ride. The kids had a blast. It was a great way to see a different part of Madrid, and because you don’t have to worry about cars, a perfect family activity.

bike rental madrid rio

Shopping

Because it’s such a cosmopolitan city, Madrid is great for shopping. Eli wasn’t so into it, but if you’re traveling with teens or tweens (especially girls), they’ll love the stores in Madrid. Elena loved shopping at Zara, Mango, Stradivarius (clothing – not to be confused with $15 million violins), and Bershka.

Don’t miss the huge El Corte Ingles in Puerta del Sol. It’s a very popular department store, and you can find them all over Spain, but this one is enormous. We found some good deals on clothing and souvenirs here as well. But my favorite part is the lowest level. It has a full grocery store downstairs!

mercado de san miguel madrid

Mercado De San Miguel

We visited markets all over Spain, and this one in Madrid was by far the prettiest and fanciest. It’s not very big, but it’s packed with vendors selling all kinds of tasty treats. Definitely come on an empty stomach! Sadly we’d already filled up on a disappointing (and expensive lunch), but that didn’t stop us from having an ice cream. Elena tried what appeared to be an odd flavor combination: lemon chocolate chip. It ended up being delicious and we were all giving her puppy dog eyes for a lick. If you have picky eaters with you, markets and grocery stores are your best (and cheapest) bets for feeding them well. Everyone can walk around and pick out what looks best to them, then you can find a nice spot nearby for a picnic.

Lemon chocolate chip ice cream mercado de san miguel madrid

So to sum up Madrid …

How much time should you allocate?  We spent 5 days in Madrid and it was plenty of time to see the city. Three days would be pushing it, four would be perfect.

Must-See: The Royal Palace. How often can you say you’ve been in the King’s house (and Graceland doesn’t count!)? Everyone will find something they enjoy seeing here.

Best Tip: Figure out the Metro and use it to get around. It’s relatively inexpensive and extremely easy to navigate. We would buy a T10 ticket (which gets you 10 rides) for around 12 Euros. You don’t need a separate T10 ticket for each person. You buy one ticket, and then go through the turnstiles one at a time. Each person feeds the ticket in and goes through the turnstile. The next person retrieves the ticket and does the same. Easy peasy. The Metro is clean and safe. Of course you need to be aware, but we never had any issues with pickpockets or feeling unsafe. You do not need a car to explore Madrid!

chocolateria san gines

Best Things We Ate: Churros at Chocolateria San Ginés. It’s open 24 hours, and after sampling churros all over Spain we have to say the dipping chocolate here was our favorite. It’s so thick, it’s almost like pudding!

churros con chocolate

The best tapa I ate in Madrid wasn’t specific to one restaurant, so look for it on any tapas menu. It was boquerones, or marinated white anchovies. I had them served atop freshly fried homemade potato chips and they were the ultimate bar food! So good with a clara, which is a combination of half beer, half lemon soda.

¡Hasta luego, Madrid!  Next up: a day trip from Madrid to Toledo.

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Feliz Cumpleanos, Elena

"Feliz

Welcome to the year of discombobulated birthdays! I spent my birthday in the car, driving home in hopes of beating an epic snowstorm that left us stranded in the house for three days straight. Mike spent his birthday on a plane, with a stopover in Philadelphia for a cheesesteak. He capped off the evening sharing a cramped hotel room with an exhausted wife and two children that refused to go to sleep. Elena spent her birthday in Spain, with her dad and her friends six hours worth of time zones away from her.

Of the three of us, Elena got the best end of the deal. I mean, come on … Spain?! But it was a very different birthday from what she’s accustomed to. We (okay, I) make a big deal about birthdays, and we don’t hesitate to celebrate all day long. You get to pick your favorite foods for each meal, there’s always a cake,  presents, and friends. I didn’t have so much as a card for Elena to open, let alone a present. Although in a moment of brilliance, I realized that the Spanish pastry shops like to wrap their baked goods up like the tasty little presents they are. I think she was pleased with my choice.

Spanish pastry

My cousin and our hostess in Sevilla, Elena, stepped up big time for me. She sent her husband, David, for churros in the morning. She arranged a cookout for the afternoon, inviting a few friends and family. Her daughter, Huga, secretly wrapped a few small gifts for Elena and hid them around the house, scavenger hunt-style. My cousin, Julio, took me to the bakery so I could buy a cake. And later in the evening, Julio and his wife, Hara, took us down to Sevilla so that I could fulfill a long-held request of Elena to take one of those horse-drawn carriage rides around the city.

Carriage ride Sevilla

I must admit, for someone who has always looked at those things through jaded eyes, it was a magical way to end an evening. We counted six brides getting their photos taken in the Plaza de Espana. It wasn’t lost on me that in another 12 years (of which the first 12 have flown by in the blink of an eye), Elena could be a bride herself.

Plaza de Espana wedding photo

For Elena, Mike and I, it is also the year of almost-milestone birthdays. Next year we’ll turn 40, and Elena will enter her teenage years. Oof.

Looking back, I realize I have seven years of birthday posts for Elena recorded in Google’s vaults for eternity from this very corner of the internet. When you’re seven, this is adorable.

Take more pictures of me, Mom! Is this going to be on the blog, Mom? Please put it on the blog!

Elena Montessori

At twelve, this is no longer the case.

Stop taking so many pictures of me, Mother. You’re not going to post this on your blog, are you? DO NOT put it on the blog/Facebook/Instagram, Mother.

Sigh … from both of us. Only hers is an annoyed sigh, and mine is a tired, battle-worn sigh. Sadly, these differences in sighs cannot be communicated through italics or emojis. You just have to take my word for it (unless you’ve already been there, and then you know).

Elena tree selfie

It’s hard to write about Elena these days. More and more, I’m feeling that her story is not mine alone to tell. The occasional brag is fun to share, but the sweet and reflective moments feel too intimate to share. They don’t come every day now, and as a result I hold them as fiercely as she held her favorite toys as a toddler. As for those not-so-sweet and exasperating moments, I can’t bear to share them either. I’ve never aimed to use this space as therapy. That’s what girlfriends and big bottles of wine are for.

Instead I’ll do what I’ve always done when I can’t find the right words. I’ll see and share her through my lens. She might not love it now, but I know the day will come when she’ll look back at herself, teetering between child and adulthood, and realize what a treasure she was, is, and always will be to us.

Elena Sanlucar Spain

Happy (belated) birthday, Elena.

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