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Some Stories and a Little Bit of Advice From a Traveling Dad

Travels With Leila

by DAVID ROVICS

I was sitting on a plane catching up on editions of my favorite BBC program, From Our Own Correspondent, and caught one about a reporter’s experience with trying to travel with her toddler, while working, doing interviews, filing stories, etc. For understandable reasons, taking a toddler on the road and working at the same time is something this reporter, and many other people, try to avoid. The piece reminded me of the many times I’ve traveled with my daughter while also working, as a touring musician.

She’s seven now, but from the age of one until the present, Leila and I have traveled together a lot. Sometimes it’s just the two of us. Other times it’s with her stepmom, Reiko, which of course takes me off the hook in terms of attempting to be an active parent while I’m actually on stage or doing an interview or something.

Leila’s first protest was when she was just over two months old. Mostly she was sleeping at her mother’s bosom, but she woke up for bits of it. It was me, Leila, her mother Nathalie, and fifty thousand or so Mexicans and folks from other Spanish-speaking countries in the region, marching for their rights as human beings and as workers, in downtown Houston, Texas. Definitely the biggest crowd I ever played for while Leila slept, though there have been many smaller ones since then.

I tried taking Leila on an overnight trip for a gig in Eugene, a hundred miles south of our new home in Portland, Oregon, when she was just over one year old, but that didn’t go so well. She was still breast-feeding, and had never taken to using a bottle at all. During the day and evening she was fine, having a blast playing with a 9-year-old girl she met there. There were a couple of friends there visiting from Denmark, and I roped them into hanging out with Leila while my actual gig was happening. Then we were planning on spending the night there in a tent. Which went fine until Leila woke up at about 3 am wanting milk, and was no longer impressed with the cold milk in the bottle I offered her. She just kept crying and saying “mommy,” making it abundantly clear what she wanted. I packed her and our stuff up in the car and headed back to Portland, getting there around 5 am and delivering her to mommy. Though once we got in the car and started heading north she stopped crying, and seemed content for the rest of the trip, perhaps understanding what I had told her about where we were headed, knowing she had successfully communicated her desires to me.

Leila got cut off from the boobie sometime soon after her second birthday, for the most part. I felt bad for her at the time, because it was something she really liked. On the other hand, I was glad her mother felt she needed to wean her, because that had been the one thing her mom had that I didn’t. Since then, I don’t think she’s ever missed her mommy enough to cry about it once.

Most of the traveling Leila and I did together with no other adult supervision happened when she was two. This is because of a combination of factors. Before she was two, she was busy breast-feeding all the time. By the time she was three, Reiko had moved in with us, and Leila had more options.

But the main difference between age two and after age two can be summed up by one two-word phrase: “lap baby.”

In the US at least, all the airlines participate in a collective delusion that babies don’t need their own seats. From a safety standpoint, this apparently makes no sense. (But I’ve noticed that in most airline disasters, either everybody dies or everybody lives, so that probably doesn’t matter.) From a financial standpoint, it’s fantastic – at least while the child is a baby. What it means is you don’t have to pay anything extra to take a baby on a flight with you.

This worked especially well for me, because I’m on some kind of watch list which seems to indicate that I should usually have at least one empty seat next to me on any domestic flight. My guess is that’s the seat for the cop, if the flight in question is going to have a cop on it. So the person sitting next to me is, presumably, a cop, or nobody. Usually it’s nobody. (No, I’m not paranoid.)

This of course meant that Leila usually had her own seat anyway. Which was good, because for babies, doing what everybody else is doing is especially important, so it would tend to seem unjust and otherwise altogether wrong for all the other people to have their own seats while the baby has to sit on daddy’s lap. (Which is of course where the baby wants to be most of the time anyway, but it’s important for babies to feel like they have options.)

Of course there is a cut-off for this lap baby policy, which is at age two. So technically, if the baby is over two, they need to sit in (and someone has to pay for) their own seat. Like most parents, we stretched that out to at least 2-1/2. Leila was maybe a little smaller than most babies her age, so in terms of appearances it worked OK. The potential problems came when she’d open her mouth, because she was definitely more articulate and had a bigger vocabulary than the average baby. I’d have the sudden, strange urge to interrupt her line of thought, or get her engaged in some kind of nonverbal activity, as I’d be looking at the person across the aisle that Leila was talking to, wondering if they were thinking that Leila seemed a bit too intellectual for a lap baby.

No one ever said anything about that, though, and I took Leila on five tours within a few months of her second birthday, most about two weeks in length, four of them involving flights. The exact timing, order, etc. eludes me, but what I do remember is me bragging to various people that summer that I had traveled with a toddler as a lap baby four times since she turned two. It’s the rebel element of the thing that sticks with me, I guess, and helps me remember the details a bit…

We went to the east coast twice, up and down the west coast by car, and another west coast trip to southern California by plane, that I remember, over-age lap baby and dad.

When it came down to walking, Leila’s preferred method of travel at that age was to sit on top of my rolling suitcase. That worked great for me, too. She was big enough that you could rely on her to hold on (and not fall off), but small enough that you knew you would be carrying her in some form anyway, and given the alternatives, this was easiest. It looked really fun, too.

On both of those trips out east in the spring of 2008, our flights got massively delayed. Once it was at O’Hare Airport west of Chicago, which is always really crowded and a bit dreary. For some reason we had to exit the airport and re-enter it. I can’t remember why, but it involved traversing the length of the airport twice, with Leila on my shoulders, in between the neck of the guitar and my head. (Reminding me of one of the first principles of parenthood you must learn early on: whatever else you’ve got going in life, mainly you’re a pack animal.)

Then we got stranded there in Terminal C for eight hours.

Being stranded in a crowded airport terminal with a toddler for eight hours is a sort of parenting test, some would say. In any case, that seems to be what it is, judging from the very mixed results involved with parents and children who find themselves in such a situation.

A basic principle that one must embrace when one has a toddler, is toddlers need to move. Physical activity is very important. And if the place they need to move in requires you to follow them in order for them to not be killed, then your job is to follow that toddler. Of course if you need to move in a certain direction it’s not hard to convince a toddler to move in that direction with you. But if you need to stay still, and you expect the toddler to join you in this activity for long periods of time, you’re being unrealistic.

So for eight hours, we did what any sensible toddler would want to do when stranded at O’Hare Airport – we rode the moving sidewalks back and forth, back and forth, all day. Leila had a blast. I occasionally thought of other things I might prefer to be doing than running around the moving sidewalk behind this little girl for the 159th time, but for the most part, I had fun, too.

The other time we got stranded trying to go from west to east was in Dallas, where the flight got canceled for some reason, and we spent the night in an airport hotel with no luggage. Leila was really excited to be in a hotel room, and spent a long time examining every bit of it and jumping on the bed, which was her routine in all new rooms we were staying in, whether it was a hotel room or a guest room in someone’s house. (Though the foldout couches are shit for jumping.)

The little store near the desk in the hotel didn’t sell much, but the one essential item for us was in stock – diapers. Diapers are a big part of your life when you’re a baby. When we were traveling around for several weeks with fellow rabble-rouser, Anne Feeney, Leila started out every morning there in the back seat singing a new original composition about that very subject. One morning when she failed to start the day with a song about diapers, I started singing one, instead, but Anne told me to stop.

At one point during that tour with Anne, Anne told Leila and Reiko and I that we would soon be meeting a teenage girl named Piper. Leila was aghast. She couldn’t believe it was true. “That rhymes with diaper!”, she pointed out. Which of course led to another ten minutes of diaper songs. But the next day, when we actually met Piper, Leila very politely never mentioned the potty poetry that her name had inspired.

I would often try to do concerts without lining up someone in particular to hang out with Leila, which may have been a bad idea, in retrospect, especially for those who came to hear a concert that might include lots of solemn material about people who die in the end and that sort of thing. The songs would be there, more or less, but there might be a wobbly little diaper-clad toddler running around my legs and diving off the stage, or sitting beside me and carefully taking off her shoes or performing some other captivating feat. It tended to change the focus in a way that wouldn’t be possible to achieve with an older child, because at her age people were generally afraid she’d hurt herself when diving off the stage, which she never did.

Sometimes she’d get tired and take a nap on the stage, which was helpful for a smooth concert experience. Her favorite place to nap was inside my guitar case, which would often be somewhere off to the side on the stage. At that point I’m not sure if she had figured out that performance napping in my guitar case was exceptionally adorable. It was more just familiar, and what felt right, like this stage was our space, that’s dad’s guitar case, and I’m taking a nap, and I’m ignoring these people who are looking at us. People look at cute babies a lot, anyway, even if they’re not on stage.

I quickly found that it was important to announce early on that there is an unattended toddler on the loose in the room, and nobody has to worry about that, but whatever you do, don’t let her out. Because of course there would likely be a door that would be regularly opening and closing. Perhaps a door that leads onto a sidewalk and a busy street. Not an environment you’d normally let an unsupervised toddler venture into, but surprisingly, a lot of people will just unthinkingly hold the door for a toddler trying to leave a building and enter such an environment, unless they’re told in advance not to do that.

But as long as they didn’t let her out, everything would be OK. Of course, it’s not uncommon for a two-year-old to want to get naked. Leila was pretty good about keeping her diaper on, but whether she wanted to be wrapped in several layers of clothes, or wanted to shed all of them, would depend on her mood. Audience reactions would vary. If there were more hippie types in the crowd, Leila would end up with nothing but diapers pretty soon. On the other hand, at one gig we had flown to in California, Leila started taking her clothes off, but this time it was a show sponsored by a Palestine solidarity student group, and most of the audience was Arab, about half women, many of them mothers of small children. So at that event it took Leila longer to remove her clothes, because there were several dozen Arab mothers trying to help her put something back on, with only partial success.

A memorable moment during one of those lap-baby tours happened at the winter gathering of the People’s Music Network somewhere in western Massachusetts. The open mike was on, and the stalls folks staffed during the day and sold various stuff at (mainly CDs), were closed. By “closed,” I mean they had sheets covering them up, but all the merch and such was still there. Leila figured that out, and found money, in the form of single dollar bills, in one of the containers under the sheets. Unbeknownst to me or anyone else, she began stuffing dollar bills into her pants.

When she joined me on stage as I was singing a children’s song, that was not unusual or surprising. But when she suddenly started pulling dollar bills out of her pants and throwing them around on the stage, it was.

Just a few days before that we had had another notable money-related incident. We were staying at the home of some friends in West Hartford, Connecticut. Leila and Reiko and I live in a relatively small apartment, but most folks in West Hartford live in decidedly bigger houses, and this was the case with our friends there as well.

Since she was a baby, Leila has been as much a fan of hot tubs as her dad is. Our hosts had an especially nice, big hot tub in their backyard, which Leila and I were thoroughly enjoying. It was a cold winter, perfect time to be in a hot tub amidst the snow and ice, we both thought.

Leila took a little visual survey of the other houses around us in the neighborhood. Because it was winter, you could see them through the trees.

“I want to live in a big house with a hot tub,” she announced.

“I’d like to, too, my love, but we can’t afford it,” I explained. “It costs a lot of money to live in houses like these, and we don’t make enough money.”

Leila took this in, and went for a wander inside the house. A few minutes later, she staggered outside, carrying a glass lid to a huge jar, and in the lid she was holding about $30 worth of quarters, which, between the quarters and the thick glass container, is very heavy for a toddler.

“Is this enough?”, she asked, hopefully. (In the master bedroom she had found the gigantic glass jar they keep change in, and she had loaded the lid up and helped herself to some of it…)

I’m always sitting on planes with crying babies. I don’t want to brag, but they’re never my crying babies. I don’t really understand how it happens, but what seems to be going on is something along the lines of the toddler wants to move, and the parent tells the toddler to stay still. The toddler cries, and the parent tells the toddler to shush, usually by making faux sympathetic noises that are meant to sound like they’re trying to calm the baby down, when really they mean “shut up.”

One must connect with one’s baby. If the kid knows that normally dad doesn’t make me stay still, but on this rare occasion I have to stay here in this seat without crawling around, they’re more likely to just deal with it. Of course, as soon as the seat belt sign goes off, she’s free to go.

This policy of mine annoyed some fellow passengers, but I had no patience for their nonsense. If the seat belt sign went on, I’d get her into a seat, but otherwise, if she wanted to run up and down the aisle, as far as I was concerned, that’s what it was there for. Most people enjoyed it, including the flight attendants, unless she ventured into First Class, so I tried to steer her away from that, and so did the flight attendants, but always in a nice, playful way.

One time an older male passenger asked me, clearly perturbed, “don’t you think the child should stay in her seat?” Nope…

Of course if you do have to keep a small child strapped to a seat, keeping them engaged is important. It can just be good if they know that you empathize with their plight, you feel their pain. But if you got a good story up your sleeve, that always helps. One time I forgot to pack any picture books. That induced innovation, and that’s when I started up the habit of making up stories to tell to Leila. Which is a lot of work, to think up scenarios like that instead of just reading.

Traveling long distances east or west always comes with certain challenges, namely jet lag. When you get older, jet lag is pretty easy to manage. For little kids it’s not, and with Leila it seemed like adjusting to a new time zone was a very long process. When she was three, she and I and Reiko went to Europe together. For Reiko and I it was a pretty sleep-deprived experience, because Leila would always be wide awake from around 3 to 10 am, and then she’d be fast asleep from 10 am until late afternoon. So we got a stroller for her in London and took lots of pictures of Leila sleeping in it in front of lots of iconic London landmarks.

We have been to more amusement parks than I would care to count, many of them before Leila was at all old enough to appreciate them. I was so excited to have a kid, I wanted her to experience all those things that I really liked as a kid, such as amusement parks, of course. It just didn’t occur to me – and to many other parents of toddlers you see around at Disneyworld – that toddlers just want to climb things, and they’re too small for most of the rides. So we spent much of that first visit trying to coax Leila down from objects she had climbed which had signs on them saying things like “no climbing.”

We’ve traveled together in 9 or 10 different countries. When she was three or four I remember someone asking her what she wanted to do when she grew up. She thoughtfully replied, “probably travel around to different countries and play gigs.” Of course, she didn’t have many other examples to go on in terms of what other things she could do with her life, but I liked her response…

In a smoky expat English bar in Tokyo, where the leftwing group, Tokyo Spring, was having its regular meetings, Leila gave her first interview, at the age of three. It was a man from the Communist Party’s newspaper, a warm man with a scruffy beard who had lived at some point in Washington, DC and spoke good English.

“What’s your name?”, he asked her.

“Leila,” she replied.

“How old are you?”

“Three.”

“What’s your favorite food?”

“Thai noodles.”

At this, everybody nearby starting cracking up, to Leila’s bewilderment.

Traveling can bring you into all sorts of varied environments. Perhaps that’s a little more with the places I end up than it would be for most travelers, I don’t know. But on one memorable occasion the three of us were in a squat in Switzerland. It’s unusual these days in most western countries for there to be much cigarette smoking indoors, but at squats it’s more common. We had originally been thinking we might stay there, but we made other plans. It wasn’t that it was so bad – it was just not quite up to standards if you had higher standards than me.

The smokers had spontaneously decided to emigrate to the porch and keep the smoking outside, but the room still stank of cigarettes. Otherwise it was a nice enough place, with a table and a loft bed and a couple of windows. They made very nice food, which Leila liked a lot, a sort of salty rice porridge kind of thing. What I remember most is the conversation she had with her mother, who was back in Portland. It was on speaker phone via Skype.

Mom: “Where are you?”

Leila: “I’m in a squat.”

Mom: “What’s a squat?”

Leila looked at me and Reiko for direction, apparently not sure what a squat was, either.

Her mom heard the silence, and added helpfully, “Is that when people take over an abandoned building?”

Reiko and I nodded affirmatively.

Leila: “Yes.”

Mom: “What’s it like in there?”

Leila: “It’s dirty.”

There were nice Swiss punks sitting nearby who could presumably hear every word, but they didn’t react. Reiko and I thought it was hilarious, but we didn’t want to laugh too loudly and possibly offend anyone.

At Disneyworld Tokyo we were having a good time, until Leila wandered off without us noticing. She was lost. After a while we gave up on hunting for her and contacted staff. They were getting ready to send out an all-points bulletin kind of thing, and needed to get all the pertinent information.

Reiko was saying something like, “She’s a three-year-old little white girl with wavy brown hair.”

They were looking at Reiko’s very Asian features and seeking clarification. “She’s half-white…?”

“Totally white,” Reiko explained… She turned up soon thereafter, found happily milling about somewhere not too far away.

When we were in the lowlands in Europe we heard about a wonderful, old amusement park called Efteline.

Our friend Armand is basically a rock star in Holland. He’s in his late sixties and has long, wavy, dyed pink-and-yellow hair, and dresses in a psychedelic interpretation of 17th-century Dutch fashion. He and his partner, who dresses the same way, met us at Efteline. Armand had recently been on TV a lot, and all the Dutch youngsters were approaching him for his autograph. He had come prepared with postcards to sign. Some adults wanted to have pictures with him, too.

Leila didn’t notice all the hubbub around Armand, but had a great time with the rides and the things in the forest. She eventually bonded a bit with Armand, because he was the only one of us who would accompany her on the rides that made the rest of us nauseated. Armand had recently done an interview with a journalist while riding on the really fast roller coaster there at Efteline, so he was used to it.

When Leila was four and we were in Copenhagen, the Israeli attack on the aid convoy that included the Mavi Marmara took place. I generally tried not to expose Leila to too much television, but during those few days I was spending a fair bit of time with Al-Jazeera streaming on my laptop. So the concept that there were some bad soldiers out there who killed people was one she grew to understand that week.

At first she said we should go help those people being attacked in the ship, which was a very nice response. Though sometime the next day she said, “I like watching soldiers kill people on TV,” which was a less desirable perspective.

There was a protest at the Israeli consulate in Copenhagen which I was asked to sing at, and we were getting ready to go there. Everything was fine, but when we got there, Leila saw the Danish policemen, identified them as soldiers, and asked, “Are they going to kill us?”

I immediately thought of the Danish police shooting protesters back in 1993, but I decided that sort of thing happened infrequently enough there in Denmark that I could ethically lie a little bit in that situation and I told Leila that the police here in Denmark don’t shoot protesters, they’re not the same soldiers, those ones were far away from here. (It’s good when they feel safe…)

Traveling with a child can bring out the best in people.

I learned when Leila was much younger that if she’s hungry in the middle of the night, you should be ready to give her something to eat. I tried complaining that it was the wrong time to be hungry, that she should sleep and we’d eat in the morning, lazy things like that, but I was convinced by experience and by other parents who were more intelligent than me that this was a bad strategy. Just feed them if they’re hungry, it’s pretty basic. It’s not like she’s so picky when she wakes up at 1 am hungry. A piece of bread or an apple will generally do.

But one time we were in upstate New York, just the two of us in a hotel room. We had been in bed for a little while, it was after midnight, and Leila said she was hungry.

Shit, thought I, we have no food with us. That was dumb. So I said I had no food, but we could go off to the nearest Denny’s, which I knew would probably be the only thing open in that area at that time of night.

We got our clothes on and drove twenty minutes to the nearest Denny’s. Leila was excited. The place was brightly-lit, the menus were colorful, the staff friendly, other people were up and about, and it was the middle of the night, when everybody was supposed to be asleep!

The food itself didn’t impress Leila wildly. Even she could tell it was not very good food, coming out of a frozen box as most of it did. But she was still happy to be there.

There had been some big floods in that part of the world in recent weeks and months, and there were thousands made homeless by them. Which I guess is what one older couple nearby us was thinking when they bought our dinner. Leila wasn’t old enough to understand the concept of buying anything yet, I discovered when I tried to explain what had just happened. And the couple was already outside and heading toward their car when the waitress told us they had bought our meals.

I felt a little guilty, for not being the flooded-out little family they probably thought we were. Just a happy dad happy little girl in an all-night diner at one in the morning.

David Rovics is a singer/songwriter based in Portland, Oregon.