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November 11, 2009

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Dad to baby: Happy 1st birthday, world traveler

HAPPY first birthday, world traveler. Alexander's six teeth only number one more than the total of countries he's rolled, crawled or walked in (including the United States).

He's logged nearly enough air miles to circle the globe. He's been to mountains and the beach and sailed in the Caribbean. The little guy's wanderlust kicked into high gear with a trip overseas last January. Friends, family and even my editor said we were insane to take the then three-month-old to Ireland.

But my wife and I are pretty adventurous. We've hiked through jungles in Mexico to scale ancient ruins, climbed glaciers to ski in British Columbia and rode the rails through Europe as vagabonds. We hoped Alex would follow in our footsteps, even before he really knew what his feet were for.

It didn't take long to discover that traveling with a three-month-old requires major adjustments. We were taxiing down the runway in Washington before takeoff to Ireland, when Alex forcefully ejected his pacifier, which sailed in an arc to the grubby floor of the plane. Then his little brow furrowed and his face started shifting to that curious burgundy color that signals a tempest.

That's when we decided the "five-second rule" doesn't just apply to pizza that hits the dorm-room floor, it also applies to the pacifier. After brushing off the business end of the baby tranquilizer as best I could, I popped it in his mouth and averted the storm. So began a two-week trip to Ireland, which brought more exploration of the nuclear family than of the emerald isle.

While he's unlikely to have absorbed much of his domestic and international travel so far, he's taught my wife, Myra, and me lifelong lessons and created wonderful memories.

Traveling with an infant is a bit like a troop movement. Detailed strategy, support crew, heavy machinery and contingency planning is vital. But even more than that, we had to readjust goals. Rather than a mad dash to see and do it all, we have lived at a baby's pace. Taking time for a nap, or a bite to eat whenever it seemed right.

Now that doesn't mean we didn't have adventure. Alex rode through the streets of Belfast with a former IRA volunteer, was ejected from a Victorian pub and went to jail in Dublin. (To be honest and wreck Alex's street cred, I must admit the IRA guy was just leading us on a tour; baby was barred from the pub because of an age limit, and the jail was the historic Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.) But he did spend his last day in Ireland hanging with the Guinness brew master as Dad reported a story.

Gales of protest

Each adventure unfolds on its own schedule when you're traveling with a baby. It can't be rushed or forced. It took a few mistakes for the parents to learn that. Dad's zeal for rugby led to an especially disastrous outing in Belfast. The bleak, overcast weather and forecast for rain seemed manageable; after all, we had covered seats and loads of Gore-Tex.

But by the time we reached the match, the rain was blowing sideways and the temperature was diving. Poor Alex was burrowed into the baby carrier on my chest under my ski jacket, but still howled every time a gust chilled him. The crowd cheered us when we left before halftime. Even the natives wouldn't expose such a wee thing to the elements.

The next day, the local papers quoted Ulster's coach describing the conditions as the "worst" he'd ever seen. In fact, the stands we'd been sitting in were shut down because the high winds threatened to knock the roof down.

The wintry trip to Ireland was definitely a challenge, but Alex certainly warmed the atmosphere at pubs and bed and breakfasts, where his easy smile won instant friends. Two weeks driving around the country taught us not to drive too far or too fast. Savor the time and focus on one day at a time.

His next big trip, Aruba, was certainly more baby-friendly. Warm water, a caressing sea breeze and attention from a large group of family and friends kept the smile-to-howl ratio far in the positive. We napped when he napped. Nibbled when he had a bottle. And we came to appreciate the win-win nature of a big family vacation. Grandparents get QT with the cutie and Mom and Dad get a bit of a break.

So, for summer vacation, we built on that success and rented a house in the Outer Banks. The week at the beach bonded three generations of Faerbers (my Dad, me and Alex) with a lateral expansion of the Lopez clan (my brother-in-law, his wife and their 6-year-old). The dog and cat even joined us.

The whole family got to see Alex move from crawling to walking behind his little walker toy in the sprawling rental house. It's been decades since I went crabbing, but sharing the thrill of hauling the angry critters out of the water with my nephew gave a little preview of our future with Alex.

Myra, Alex and I just returned from our latest trip, to Mexico. The newly walking 11-month-old wobbled amongst the columns of a millennium-old ruin at Chichen Itza. His sticky, juice-covered face led us to try some of the wonderful fruit available everywhere in Mexico. And the brief crisis of an ear infection forced this Dad to shake some rust off the neurons to use Spanish I thought was forgotten sometime in the 1980s.

Everyone is always shocked that we've taken the little guy so many places. And many people ask if we're worried that the trips are wasted on him. We like to think that by exposing him early to travel, he'll be a stalwart companion on any trip throughout his life. And, if some day he gripes that he can't remember Ireland or Aruba, that'll be a great excuse to return.

So, looking forward to year two in Alex's itinerary, we're hoping to ski and see some of the Olympics in Canada, sail in Lake Michigan and visit other points unknown. But most of all, we want to explore the joy of growing as a family together, wherever we may be.


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