Saturday, December 28, 2013

Toronto with Tweens and Teens: 7 Must-Dos

This article originally appeared on Chicago Check out some of my other Chicago Parent articles here

Toronto, Canada's largest city and it's cultural and entertainment hub, makes not only for a great weekend escape for adults, but also for families traveling with tweens and teens. Plus it's less than two hours by air from Chicago! With so many fun options - from the walking on the edge of the tallest freestanding structure in the world to sleeping - literally - with the sharks, Toronto is the perfect spot for a family travel adventure. Here are seven must-dos for families visiting Toronto with tweens and teens.

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Explore the city by bicycle. Toronto's bike sharing network, BIXI, gives you 24/7 access to a bicycle, perfect for exploring Toronto's fascinating neighborhoods. Take a bike when you need one and leave it at any station when you arrive at your destination. First, you have to subscribe or acquire 24 or 72-hour access to use the service (about $5 per short-term subscription). Take out a bike as many times as you want for 30 minutes or less with no additional fees; usage fees for longer trips apply. Check out this Toronto Bike Map, which shows on and off-street bikeways, suggested routes and connections, bicycle lockers, rental and shop locations and other important information about cycling.
Walk along the edge of the CN Tower. The iconic CN Tower defines the city's skyline and is now home to one of the biggest urban adventures in the world: EdgeWalk . Participants are whisked 116 stories off the ground via elevator. Once they reach the top, they don orange jumpsuits and bright yellow harnesses and walk, hands-free, along the edge of the CN Tower - 1,136 feet above the ground! Come prepared to face your fears and enjoy the stunning view. Edge walkers must be at least 13 years of age.

Savor a Poutine pizza. Poutine, perhaps Canada's most famous dish, is even better when it's served atop a crispy pizza.Bannock, a casual restaurant featuring Canadian comfort food, features a to-die-for Poutine pizza: a savory pizza crust topped with french fries, a light gravy-like sauce, cheese curds and crispy roasted duck. Save room for sour cream doughnuts for dessert.

Sleep with the sharks at Ripley's Aquarium. More than 16,000 marine animals live in this brand new 135,000-square-foot aquarium at the base of the CN Tower. This is your chance to get up close and personal with marine life. You can pet a friendly shark, watch jellyfish magically change colors and crawl through an "underwater" tube surrounded by sea life. Extend the fun by taking part in a family sleepover, offered on Saturday nights about once or twice a month. Your evening will include a hands-on program, exclusive access to the aquarium, an evening snack, breakfast and your "accommodations" in a shark tunnel (you supply a sleeping bag and pillow). Age four and up are welcome to attend (children must be accompanied by a paying adult).

Enjoy an acoustic brunch at the Gladstone Hotel. The Gladstone Hotel is an art-focused, historic boutique hotel centered in funky West Queen West neighborhood. Every Sunday the hotel's hip Melody Bar features an Acoustic Family Brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dine on pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon - all the best brunch fixins' - while you enjoy some of the finest bluegrass musicians in town at a kid-friendly volume. Dancing is encouraged!

Get your laugh on at Toronto's Second City. Second City specializes in sketch comedy and improv and its resident company in Toronto guarantees a good laugh. While some of the material may be a bit too sophisticated for younger tweens or teens, older teens will be wowed by the company's creativity and flash comedy. Second City in Toronto even has a Teen Conservatory - an improv school just for teens.

For more information on travel to Toronto, visit

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Holiday Brunch at American Girl Place Chicago

 The day before Christmas I too two of the sweetest girls I know - my daughter and her BFF - to brunch at American Girl Place.

To say they enjoyed themselves would be an understatement: these two girls were THRILLED. I don't think they could have ever even imagined that such a place existed: a store made just for little girls and their dolls!

The day before our trip,  I gave my daughter a pre-Christmas gift: her very own Bitty Baby - a doll that really does look like she did when she was just a bitty baby, with her blonde hair and grey-blue eyes.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Luke 2:15-16 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Guest Post: The Canary Islands At a Glance

Today's guest post is written by travel writer Catherine Lavinia.  

If you're looking for a summer sizzler or a winter warmer, the chances are the Canary Islands will crop up more than once during your holiday search. And for good reason too. While it's a popular hotspot for beach-lovers, this sun-baked archipelago is as diverse as they come, and offers plenty of experiences for holidaymakers from all walks of life.

Give a Child a @ShotAtLife This Holiday Season

"Six-year-old Alphonse contracted polio when he was four. He limps as he tries to keep up with his peers. His mother did not believe that vaccinations could protect her children from such a debilitating disease. She had to learn a painful lesson; and has now vaccinated her other children.

Consolata, on the other hand, has always known that vaccines save lives. Despite being blind, she, with the help of her 10-year-old son, Tony, always makes sure her three-year-old daughter is up-to-date on her vaccinations.
Both of these families live in Kenya, where the well-developed immunization system is strengthened by Governments, partnerships and supporters around the world. 

For the last few months, UNICEF, together with the Government of Kenya, has been working very hard to vaccinate 8.3 million children against polio. As the end of the year draws near, there is still more to do and more children to reach.

With your support, we can be sure of a final victory over polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases. Give today!
Just $20 immunizes a child against polio, measles, pneumonia and rotavirus. And thanks to two generous donors, your $20 gift will be doubled so two children can be protected.

Don’t delay. We all have a part to play in saving the lives of over two million children every year. Please join me this giving season and donate to Shot@Life now."

Many thanks,
Kanyankore Marcel Rudasingwa
UNICEF Kenya Representative

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Kids Say the Darndest Things!

Remember when Bill Cosby used to share funny interviews with kids in his Kids Say the Darndest Things series?

Yesterday in our home, I wished I'd had a video camera so I could have recorded my kids, both of whom said the darndest things during the course of the evening!

First up, 4-year-old Chiara, rationalizing why she should have a piece of chocolate after dinner:

"Mom, chocolate is healthy because it makes your poop stay brown."

(I couldn't confirm or deny that so of course I gave her a tiny piece of chocolate!)

Then 12-year-old Daniel shared about a test he took at school the previous day:

Daniel: Mom, I didn't do so good (sic) on the test I took yesterday....


Daniel: I didn't do so good...I did great! I got a 96% - I only got two wrong. I misused shrewd and I didn't remember what Bi-ASSed meant. 

Me: Bi-ASSed, as in two booties? 

The of course I went over the correct word BIASED, and of course we reviewed pronunciation. 

I was one of those days when I sincerely wondered what I did for entertainment in my pre-kids days!

Monday, December 16, 2013

#MakeMeSmileMondays A Holiday Visit to the Art Institute of Chicago

On Saturday, my son had an orthodontist appointment. Since we were on Michigan Avenue, afterwards we visited the Art Institute of Chicago, where I had a chance to see all the exhibits and paintings I'd wanted to, with the added benefit of having a great kid by my side. 

I have been dying to see Violence and Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes since it came to Chicago, and finally I was once again face to face to this painting, one of the most powerful paintings ever, and one of my all-time favorites. To me, it sums up coming to your senses, taking back your power, and using all your strength to follow through with what's right. 

Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Slaying Holofernes
"The daughter of painter Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia trained in her father’s workshop and quickly earned acclaim, completing her first signed painting, a dramatic yet sensitive rendering of Susanna and the Elders, when she was just 17. Her style bears some resemblance to that of her father, who was a follower of Caravaggio, but Artemisia’s paintings stand out for their theatricality—the raw emotional intensity of a few figures daringly arranged. The younger Gentileschi’s work is also distinctive in its focus on powerful heroines, capturing both their vulnerability and strength, a feature many attribute to events in Gentileschi’s own life. At the age of 18, she was raped by one of her father’s colleagues, Agostino Tassi. He was convicted in a trial a year later after Artemisia was tortured to “confirm” her testimony, but Tassi was never punished. Within months of the conclusion of the trial, Artemisia was quickly married and moved to Florence with her new husband." (from the Art Institute's website)

The Art and Appetite exhibit, next up on my wish list, was wonderful - check out the related online cookbook - and Daniel was able to see an Andy Warhol painting up close (he's been studying Warhol at school). All those images of food increased our appetite, so we headed to the Modern Wing and lunched at Terzo Piano. (Daniel recommends the burger, with its garlic aioli; I recommend the arugula salad with roasted pumpkin and gorgonzola toasts). The view of the snow covered city was lovely. (Here's a trivia tidbit from the Italian teacher in me: Terzo Pianco means 3rd Floor, and this restaurant is not only on the 3rd floor of the Modern Wing, but the Modern Wing was designed by Renzo Piano. I just love that play on words!)

I love crèches, and Neapolitan crèches take the cake. When I lived in Italy, I had a boyfriend from that region and every Christmas he and his family created an elaborate crèche. That inspired me to start my own family's tradition of creating a beautiful crèche in our own home: every year I add more figurines, hoping to eventually create an entire village of Bethlehem. The Art Institute just unveiled a mid-18th-century Neapolitan crèche and this exhibit alone makes for a fine reason to visit the Art Institute over the holidays. It's one of the very few and finest examples of such a work outside of Naples, and it truly is a holiday gift to the city

Speaking of the holidays, the museum is decked out in its Christmas finery. I just loved all the pretty greenery adorning the grand staircase, and of course, the lions with their festive red bows. 

Don't miss a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago this holiday season!
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Friday, December 13, 2013

Art and Faith of the Crèche - Nativity Scenes from around the World

This past Sunday, the kids and I took a break from the Mag Mile shopping madness and took some quiet time to soak in the current exhibit at the LUMA Museum: Art and Faith of the Crèche: The Collection of James and Emilia Govan. This touching exhibit shows how artists across the globe depict the Nativity, and makes for an interesting, relaxing and thoughtful break from holiday shopping. We decided that we're making a stop at this annual exhibit part of our pre-Christmas family traditions. 
I volunteer with the Chicago Sister Cities, and here are my kids in front of the crèche that our Milano committee sponsored.

The Art and Faith of the Crèche exhibit showcases how artists recreate the nativity scene with clothing, architecture, and figures from their native lands. Can you guess where these crèches were made?

When you pass Chicago's historic Water Tower, steer your family towards the LUMA at 870 North Michigan Avenue. The LUMA is open on Tuesdays from 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. (free admission) and Wednesday–Sunday from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. For more information, visit
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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Escape to Vallarta-Nayarit, Mexico with #FunjetVacations

Disclosure: This blog post is part of a paid SocialMoms and Funjet Vacations blogging program. The opinions and ideas expressed here are my own.

This morning I faced one of the worst winter commutes ever in Chicago: think snow, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and a chilled-to-the-bones me as I waited for the heater to kick in at full blast in my car. It's most definitely time to plan a winter escape!

One of the destinations on my radar is the Vallarta-Nayarit area of Mexico: I visited pre-kids, and I'm looking forward to returning, this time with my kids in tow. Named one of Frommer's Top Destinations for 2014, Vallarta-Nayarit is the perfect blend of old world charm, traditional experiences, family fun and beautiful beaches. 

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Dreaming of a sunset in Mexico on a cold winter's day in Chicago 
For this Chicago mom, it all boils down to the sunny stretch of lush beaches of the Riviera Nayarit, but I also adore the quaint beach towns and pretty Puerto Vallarta. I have fond memories of strolling through this splendid Mexican coastal city and soaking in the art - there are over 30 art galleries! - and culture. The cuisine of Vallarta-Nayarit also makes a visit to this destination worth its while on its own: award-winning and unique restaurants abound, all of them featuring the freshest, finest seafood and locally-sourced ingredients. Perhaps best of all,  families can book a Vallarta-Nayarit vacation with Funjet for as little as $50 down and non-stop flights from so many origins make for an easy-breeze flight to warmth and sunshine. 

Vallarta-Nayarit is a great family destination because there is something for everyone in your family. While I'm looking forward to cuddling up with a strawberry margarita under a beach umbrella, I know that there are plenty of activities to keep my adventuresome family busy, too. Scuba diving, snorkeling, jungle tours, kayaking, cruises - there is endless adventure on the menu. My 12-year-old is looking forward to a snorkeling excursion, while my 4-year-old daughter will love simply building sandcastles on the beach.  Both of my kids will love diving into the ocean and playing endlessly at the resort pool. 
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El caballito, symbol of Puerto Vallarta
Looking to escape the winter, too? Check out the many Funjet deals on vacations to Vallarta-Nayarit. And here's another cool tip to save you some money: Use the exclusive SocialMoms promo code ULTRAPVR3 and you'll save up to $300 on all air + hotel and hotel only packages! (The booking window is 12/3/13 – 12/31/13 and you'll have to travel between 12/3/13 – 5/31/14; some blackout dates apply and there is a minimum stay of three nights). 

Have a margarita on me with the money you've saved!   

Also, head on over to Social Moms and enter for your chance to win a family trip for four to the all-inclusive Riu Palace Pacifico in Vallarta-Nayarit

Be sure to "Like" Funjet on Facebook for more great deals and getaway ideas!

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An Italian Teacher's 7 Stages of Love for Eataly

This article of mine originally appeared on - check out our blog!

A week since it's wildly successful opening, Eataly is still a Chicago hotspot. Many people may not know that I'm a mom, a blogger and an Italian teacher for Chicago public schools.  So you can imagine that this Chicago Italian teacher's delight to check out Eataly, which opened to much fanfare last week. Finally I can find my cherished Italian treats right here in Chicago! Here are seven Italian delights I recommend at Chicago's newest emporium of all things Italian.

1. Italian hot cocoa with fresh panna.

Available at Eataly's coffee bar, you must give Italian hot cocoa a try. Rich and pudding-like in consistency, it has a dark chocolate flavor that is guaranteed to warm your heart and your soul. Topped with fresh panna - whipping cream without the cloying sweetness - this Italian treat makes for the perfect winter afternoon pick-me-up.

2. Pizza baked in a wood-burning oven.

As far as I'm concerned, you haven't lived until you've eaten a *real* Italian pizza margherita, topped with fresh, creamy mozzarella and sweet San Marzano tomatoes, and baked in a wood-fired oven. Eataly has the real deal - even the bakers have a Neapolitan accent!

3. Fresh mozzarella.

One of the things I miss most about Italy is the fresh mozzarella. Until Eataly, I had never been able to find quality, tasty fresh mozzarella here in the U.S. Eataly makes its fresh mozzarella on site, right before your eyes. On my first visit to Eataly Chicago, I pretty much filled my belly to the brim with fresh mozzarella - it's that good.

4. A truly grand cheese selection.

Eataly's cheese counter has it all. Wheels upon wheels of Grana Padano, Parmigiano Reggiano set my heart fluttering. Then again, when I was three years old I got my finger stuck in a parmigiano cheese dispenser, so I may be a bit biased. But trust me, you'll want to spend some time perusing the cheeses here.

5. Foccaccia, fresh from the oven.

The bakery department at Eataly churns out freshly baked foccacias that are both airy and robust with olive oil. The beautiful selection of carefully crafted breads and foccaccias is a feast for the eyes and the belly. 

6. Panettone and Pandoro.

Looking for a unique hostess gift that doubles as dessert or a breakfast treat with coffee and comes beautifully wrapped? Eataly has a huge selection of Pannettone and Pandoro, traditional Italian Christmas cakes.

7. Cappuccino art.

There is something ever so sweet about having your cappuccino topped with a heart. It's the little things - and Italians excel at making the little things in life a little more out of this world.

Monday, December 9, 2013

#makesmesmilemondays Letter from the Past

When I look at the date on this letter, I'm amazed at how much time has passed. 


It seems like just yesterday I was sitting in Mr. Riberdy's class, in my itchy wool Catholic high school uniform, joking around with my classmates and sharing stories we'd written, reading classic novels or just listening to Mr. Riberdy go off on a tangent and talk about one of his adventures in parenting or the funny experiences he had while working odd side jobs in the summer. 

Back then, Mr. Riberdy was about my age now, and had two little kids at home, too, so when I think of him today it's bittersweet: I'm the one who is teacher now, the working parent of little ones, the teacher going off on tangents and just hoping my students will aspire to just a little bit more in life. 

Once Mr. Riberdy actually packed up a group of students into a minivan and off we went to O'Hare airport late at night, to pass out personal care kits to the many homeless people that slept in the terminals for the night. I remember how exciting and fun it was to be of service with my friends, and to this day, I always try to plan two or three service projects with my students each year, hoping that my students will gain something from the contagious spirit of giving as I did while wandering the late-night terminals of O'Hare with my classmates and teachers. 

Mr. Riberdy died too young, of cancer, leaving behind his young family, soon after my class graduated in 1991. 

I am thankful for his good wishes and words of advice, advice that I will try to follow this Christmas and every one that follows. 

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. Isaiah 9:2 ESV

Friday, December 6, 2013

Bump Club and Beyond to host the shopping event of the season on December 12th!

Have you ever attended a Bump Club and Beyond event? Always fab, these events are the place to be for moms with bumps or moms with babies. This holiday season, Bump Club and Beyond is partnering with the best local retail vendors and hosting the holiday shopping event of the season! And perhaps best of all, you'll be shopping for a good cause, because 100% of the proceeds from admission fees for this event will benefit More Than Milk, Share Our Spare and New Moms Inc. as well as the American Red Cross for tornado and typhoon relief. 

Join your fellow moms at The Land of Nod on Thursday, December 12, 2013 for the second annual Holiday BCBazaar and you'll not only enjoy 15% off all Land of Nod merchandise but also exclusive discounts from on-site local retail partners. Attendees will have the opportunity to shop items from the huge BCB 2013 Holiday Gift Guide going live on December 6th at Local retail partners include Psychobaby, Preggers, Argo Tea, Galt Toys + Galt Baby, Sprout San Francisco, Urban Sitter, Monica + Andy, Petit Organics, Baby Mantra and more.

Visit the Bump Club and Beyond website to purchase tickets or make a donation to support the local charity partners:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

What my 4-Year-Old Wants for Christmas: Magic Grow Capsules and Calico Critters

This Christmas, my daughter, age 4, has one thing on her list: she wants those little capsules, that when immersed in water, turn into sponges (Grow Magic Capsule Safari Animals). They are about $1 at the dollar store. This is one of the benefits of not having a tv in our home: my daughter is not bombarded with commercials telling her what she should want for Christmas. But of course, I want to give her a few new toys that she will enjoy throughout the year, and I'm looking for quality and toys that encourage the imagination.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

#GivingTuesday - Two Easy Ways to Give Today! @ShotAtLife

  • Head over to and stock up on diapers and other baby needs, and will donate one life-saving vaccine through the Shot@Life campaign with every $50 purchase when you use code SHOTATLIFE50(Don’t need baby products? No problem! You can still use the code on any of the Quidsi Brands' websites)

Monday, December 2, 2013

#makesmesmilemondays Chopping down our Christmas tree in the wild woods of #LoganSquare

Daniel and Chiara in the wild woods of Chicago
After a restful and joyful Thanksgiving, we headed into the wild woods of Fullerton and Western Avenue (in our Logan Square Neighborhood of Chicago) and chopped down our Christmas tree.

Normally I wouldn't bring a tree into the home quite so early, but the weather is sorelatively warm and my daughter so enchanted by all things holidays. So we picked out a beautiful, fresh tree, tied it to the roof of our car, and set it up in our home, and trimmed it with lights and our favorite ornaments, much to the delight of both the kids. 

Yesterday was also the first day of advent. We lit the first candle of the advent season, and read from Romans 13: Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. I reminded the kids how difficult it can be to put on that armor of light, to be the good example and a light a in the world - because it really is much easier to wade through life and not be a light. I know sometimes I let frustration loosen my armor: this advent season I'm going to focus on keeping my armor of light on, and intact. 

Chiara picks out a wreath

Even our dog, Gizmo, got into the holiday spirit. He donned his holiday sweater and sat like a human on our sofa while we trimmed the tree. I swear he is my 3rd kid. Let me rephrase that - he knows he is my 3rd kid and that's that.