The Difference Between Travel & Vacation

IMG_9444“Do you know what one of the greatest things is about coming back from a trip like that?” I asked Sophie on our drive to go back-to-school shopping at Target, “It’s that being back home makes you realize how everything is just so…”

“Easy!” She interrupted, finishing my sentence.

Yes! A couple days earlier we had arrived home from three and a half weeks backpacking around Europe and there we were sitting in our air conditioned car on our way to a store that had anything and everything we could ever want, with displays and signage in a language we could read.

It was one of the unexpected lessons that my girls got to learn from this trip… appreciating home and all its comforts. Making our way, mostly by train, through five countries in the peak of a summer heatwave was not like any other vacation my daughters had ever experienced. It was hot and humid, uncomfortable and unpredictable. It wasn’t Disneyland or a cruise down the coast of Mexico (which was an incredible trip they got to experience earlier this year). It wasn’t even like camping. It was way more adventurous!

One of the things I found myself repeating to the girls over an over again, every time they complained that their backpacks were heavy, that the city streets smelled of trash and urine, when they were annoyed that they couldn’t understand what I was saying in Italian or French, that they were tired of walking all day and then having to run to catch a train was “you have to realize there is a difference between vacation and travel.”

At the time, I didn’t exactly know what I meant by that, but it is clear to me now.


Vacation is relaxing and having fun. It’s about a week-long getaway, where ideally you have no stress and easy access to all of life’s comforts: yummy food and drinks (unlimited amounts of them if you are at an all-inclusive resort or on a cruise), air conditioning, comfy beds, and lots of opportunities for fun whether it be a beach and snorkeling, or a theme park followed by a dip in the pool.

I feel the need to take a moment and note that if you’re vacationing with young children, you might have fun but you’re likely not going to be able to relax. According to other bloggers out there this defines the difference between a vacation and a trip. Since that has already been covered (here’s a fun article on HuffPost) and since my kids, at the ages of 7 and 10, no longer fall in the ‘traveling-with-young-children’ category (yay!), I am more interested in tackling the definition of travel.


• Travel is having cultural experiences: tasting new foods; hearing and speaking different languages; seeing ever-changing, and at times, breath-taking landscapes and amazing architecture; learning about art, history, religion. Being open to how other people live. Lucy has decided she wants to learn Italian, move to Italy and eat lasagna and gelato for every meal. I’m in!

• Travel is being in the present moment, being spontaneous and curious, losing track of what day it is, being open to serendipity and the kindness of strangers… living the true wander and wonder way of life.

• Travel is being hyper focused on taking care of your basic needs: eating, finding a place to sleep and knowing how to say “Where is the bathroom?” in five different languages. Sophie would argue it is equally important to know how to to say “Can I pet your dog?” in all these languages too… early in the trip, she downloaded Google Translate to my phone for this specific purpose.

• Travel is learning who you are and when you’re traveling with family, learning who they are. Scott and I discovered that we have complete opposite ways of exploring new cities. He wants to know and wants to go. He wants to learn the history of a place and he walks with a destination in mind. I, on the other hand, like to wander and wonder (duh, no surprise there)… I like to move slowly and pay attention to the details along the way and generally I let my feet take me where they want to go without any specific destination. I always have a map so I know where I am but I leave myself open to finding secret corners and magical moments. Let it be known that I do have a mission when I’m on these walkabouts – capturing amazing photographs. Traveling, to me, is also about storytelling and my favorite way to do that is through my photography.

We quickly learned that the girls were most interested in souvenir shopping and trying every possible gelato flavor.

• Travel is about gaining new perspectives, whether it be opening your mind to how other people live or coming back home and having a sudden appreciation for the things you used to take for granted.

• Travel is work. It is not easy. And it’s important to take a break!

One of the big lessons I learned from this trip is that you need to sprinkle in a little vacation when you’re traveling… especially when you’re traveling with kids! They desperately needed the time on the beach, fun in the pool and time spent with other kids.

I know our family learned a lot from this trip especially the girls who had never really ‘traveled’ before, but if I’m being completely honest, if I were going to do the same trip all over again, I’d add a little more vacation into our travel.

The Story : World Map of Tiny Treasures

Remember being a kid and finding a baby blue broken eggshell beneath a tree in your backyard. Remember the story it told of a life growing inside it. The image of a tiny bird pecking its way out, then nestled and squished beside its siblings, mouth agape waiting for a worm from mama bird. Days or weeks later that same baby bird flittering atop a branch, listening to chirps and squawks from both mom and dad encouraging it to fledge. Fly. Be free. Baby bird apprehensive and scared but then doing it, going for it! I was going to call it courage, but really it’s just trust. Trusting that nature knows what is and isn’t possible. Trust in what you are meant to do. Trust in your calling.

You would pick up the eggshell with the utmost care, bring it inside and put it safely on a shelf in your room, where it would be kept company by your collection of rocks, sticks and other tiny treasures.

What’s the story behind a smooth piece of sea glass found washed up on shore or a tiny snail-like fossil? An arrowhead, a geode, a feather, a snake’s skin, a wasp’s nest? Each one filled with beauty and a sense of wonder. 

My kids say I’m no fun. I don’t know how to play. They’re right. As a grown up I don’t love pretending I’m a dragon, I don’t enjoy tickle-fests (all that squealing, ugh) and I leave the fort-building to the kids. But I will argue, that being an artist has allowed me to stay in touch with my inner-child by focusing on the beauty that surrounds me, by being in the present moment, by finding amazement in nature’s treasures.

This project in particular allowed me to connect with my kids because we did it together. We went treasure-hunting. We collected. We filled the ‘Nature Box’ that hung in our kitchen for two, three years. I knew all along I would make a map out of all our findings. I wasn’t sure how but I knew they would all end up immortalized in a work of art.

You know what the craziest thing is? There are pieces in this map that I collected when I was my daughters’ ages – tiny ceramic mice, itty bitty sea shells saved in a vile that I found with my cousin on the beach in France when the tide was low… when I was five years old. There are beads from when I worked with my best friends in a jewelry store as a teenager; sea glass I found with those same friends, growing up on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. And pieces I collected in my 20s when I traveled the world – seashells from Fiji and a little brass Ganesha from India. The fact is, there are hundreds of tiny treasures in this piece and they each have a story.

I thought this work of art was a tribute to wandering, wondering and the joy of collecting. I thought it was an excuse to do something fun with my daughters, even if it isn’t their definition of ‘fun’. I didn’t know it would turn out to be a portrait of my life. Isn’t that the beauty of art – finding the unexpected, telling stories you didn’t know you intended to tell – the big treasure among the tiny ones. 


Every Person Has A Story

every_one_has_a_storyLook what Lucy’s 2nd grade class, the Mitchell Elementary School librarians and I created in just one week! When the librarians learned that I am an artist who creates world maps, they asked me if I would be interested in working with the second graders who were doing a unit on recycling, to create a map out of outdated text books. I jumped at the opportunity and suggested we attempt to get it done before Multicultural Night in mid-April (our initial meeting was in mid-March and we had to schedule around spring break). Amazingly, we did it!


Up-cycled Text Book World Map: The Making Of

Over the course of a week, I visited with Lucy’s class for an hour on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. By Friday I had the finished piece sent off to be framed!

On Monday, the kids, teachers and I tore all our favorite images and words out of about 20 books. These were text books for young elementary readers filled with rich material and beautiful imagery with titles like Don’t Forget to FlySing It to the Sea, and Window to the Sky – not at all what you imagine when you think back to the text books we had in high school.


Back at home, I went through all the torn images – there was a plethora of subject matter: animals, plants, planets, dinosaurs, landscapes, people. When I make my maps I like to focus on messages of diversity, inclusivity, and unity among humans – acknowledging our differences and celebrating them! Remember that’s why I never include political boundaries. For that reason, I decided it made sense for our final work of art to focus on images of people. The 4-foot piece would hang in the library, be titled Every Person Has a Story, and would be dedicated to the kids’ amazing teacher, Mrs. Kirlin, who is retiring this year.

On Wednesday we spent an hour gluing in the library – some kids worked on words, the others on images. Back at home, I used my big map template to cut out the continents and glued them onto the background. I Modge Podged the whole thing and on Friday we just hung the finished piece up in the library and talked about what we learned.


What the Kids Learned

• Recycling helps save our planet and up-cycling is a great way to make art!

• You can accomplish SO much when you work as a team. Mrs. Kirlin helped them do the math and we figured out that what they accomplished in 2 hours would have taken me, an artist on her own, 48 hours (or more)!

• There are lots of different people who live on this planet – we may look different, eat different foods, make different music and tell different stories, but we all have the same desires: to feel safe, to be loved and accepted, to learn and to grow.

• When they see the final piece framed and hanging in the library I hope they get a sense of accomplishment and pride from getting to share their hard work with the world. Perhaps there’s a budding artist or two among them who has been left with the inspiration to grow up and make this world a more beautiful place.

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What I Learned

• A paradox: working with children is exhausting and invigorating at the same time.

• There is satisfaction in getting my message of world peace and acceptance across to a group of school children whose minds are open to learning and willing to listen. However much I hope that my art can help towards making positive change in this world, I know that there are grown-ups out there who will never get it.

• I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to give back, in my own special way, to this amazing school that is working so hard to build a strong educational foundation for both my daughters!

• I have said it before and I will say it again, but Sophie and Lucy really do have a love/hate relationship with my art. Sometimes I think they see it as a third child that they have to compete with for my attention. But they also understand the joy of making and being creative and I can tell that there are moments when they feel proud of what I do. It was so AMAZING to include Lucy and her classmates in the process of making this piece. Although, I did put my signature on it (just to make if feel like a piece of Fine Art), the piece isn’t mine at all… it’s theirs.



Why I Quit My Dream Job to Become a Professional Artist

A friend told me recently that when she tells others about me she says “Charlotte quit her dream job for her dream job.”

It’s true. Sort of. I just quit my job as a designer, photographer and art director at Denver Zoo to pursue being a professional artist. Am I crazy? Maybe, but hear me out.

The story of how I came to work at the zoo is one of vision, perseverance and serendipity. It’s a long story, a good one, but one for another blog post. Suffice it to say, when I started there, it was the closest I could get to my ultimate dream job. For six years, I was continuously challenged and I grew exponentially as a designer, photographer and leader. I got to work with the most amazing, talented and dedicated people and at any point, I could walk outside my office and be in the awe-inspiring presence of lions, tigers, polar bears, gorillas and hundreds of other species. More importantly, I was working for an organization whose mission lie in engaging guests, inspiring their connections with animals, and motivating them to take conservation actions. We worked towards improving the lives of animals on grounds and throughout the world. Since I was a young girl I loved animals. I felt a deep connection to them and I dreamed of working with them. My job at the zoo felt like a dream come true.

So why did I quit?

First of all, I’m going to put this out there to set the record straight – my ultimate dream job is to travel the world as a wildlife photographer. It never truly was working at a zoo; it isn’t really to be an artist; and being a web/graphic designer for the past 15 years was just a smart career choice and I am good at it. The idea of being an animal photographer is what drove me to the zoo in the first place.

My number one priority in life right now is being in a happy, loving supportive marriage and raising my daughters to give them a good childhood with a secure, solid foundation – something I didn’t have as a child. If I were to pursue my ultimate dream, I imagine I would be getting up and going on faraway adventures for weeks on end, leaving the girls with an absent mom, feeling abandoned – not to mention it taking a toll on my marriage. But, I’m not one to let go of my dreams just because I chose to be a mother. Just the opposite, actually. I want to teach my girls to follow their dreams and the best way to do that is to live by example. Being a zoo photographer, to me, was the closest I could get to being a wildlife photographer while still being able to take my girls to soccer and dance, volunteer at their school every now and then, throw amazing birthday parties, and build a loving mother/daughter bond. I did my best to do those things while I was working at the zoo, but it was not easy. Actually, it was really hard and stressful and that whole mother/daughter bond thing, well, I wasn’t so confident that I was succeeding.

The fact was we were a family with two full-time working parents and at the end of each day, we were exhausted. The kids were exhausted from the school day and then nearly three hours of aftercare in the school cafeteria. My husband and I both had long commutes. He came home drained after 45 minutes in traffic and then having to get dinner ready. I experienced stress having to rush back in time to get the girls to soccer practice on time. There was a lot of tension and one too many bottles of empty white wine in the recycling bin.

That was our day-to-day reality. So yeah, I was setting an example for my daughters to follow your dreams… but at what cost? True, I wasn’t off traveling the world but I also wasn’t being the present, calming, consistent force that I felt a mother should be.

So that was part of it. A big part of it.

And then there was this calling to be an artist and all these signs telling me “it is time.” 

This graphic illustrates the plethora of influences and inspiration that I experienced pointing me to my calling as an artist.

Some of the primary reasons I left my job to be an artist were:

  • I turned 40.
  • I read Big Magic.
  • The 2016 presidential elections were a wake-up call. I started to understand the deeper meaning behind my world maps and felt the need to share them with the world.
  • I went through 6 months of therapy recalling childhood trauma and came out of it free of anger and resentment.
  • I got Best of Show in the Arts Brookfield Show.
  • I was asked to be on the Board of Directors for Athena Project, an arts organization empowering women.

And… finally… my husband and I spent a lot of time and energy exploring what was possible financially and what was best for our family. I have always been the one in our relationship with lofty, ambitious, career-focused dreams – the over-achiever. Scott is grounded, smart, hard-working and not without his own dreams. His though, have always been based on family and living a good life, here and now. It was hard for him to understand why I would want to leave a job that I loved. He even said, “I don’t know how you can be hash-tagging #ilovemyjob one month and then wanting to quit the next.” So I shared with him everything I have just shared with you here and then he shared with me that ever since he met me and learned that I was creatively driven that he dreamed of some day supporting me as an artist. So now we both get to work towards our dreams.

Here’s to the start of new adventures – to finding success as an artist, to being the best mom and wife I can be, and to sharing this journey with you!


Valentine’s Day Love Letter to Sophie

Dear Sophie,

Happy Valentine’s Day! I know that it makes you shy and makes you all squiggly and squirmy when I read you these love letters, but I am so excited to do it, because I can’t wait to tell you how much I love you and all the things I love best about you.

I love that you are someone who wants to always do what was is right. You are very conscientious and I can always tell that you want to do the right thing and be kind to others. It makes you feel bad to not follow the rules or to be mean to other people. I love being able to trust that you are good person at heart.

Of course, I love what a good student you are. You are so smart and love to learn. You read books that are way above your grade level and do great on your report card every time. I am so proud of you for doing so well on your erosion project, for learning to work as a team on the project even if you had disagreements at times, for presenting to the principal, Mrs. Hollman, and I love that if all goes well, you will actually get to see your terrace idea come to life!

I love that you are a leader. You are not afraid to take charge and you take others’ opinions into consideration and think about their feelings and make others feel included. Leadership isn’t about trying to convince a group that your idea is the best, but instead it’s about taking everyone’s ideas and building something even better than the idea that you came up with. It’s about listening and being the person who makes everyone feel like they played an important part in the success of the project or the team. Leadership is about celebrating your team, not about being the boss. I think you probably learned some of this while doing your erosion project but I also saw you practicing some of these ideas while you were writing the scripts for your class plays and seeing how you wanted everyone to have a part. I love that you are a great leader now and that you will be in the future. It’s just in your nature.

I love how you have found something that you are so, so passionate about – theater, drama, plays, acting, play writing and monologues. Your birthday party was so much fun because you got to see what it’s like to be a great actor as a grown-up. And you got to share that with your friends. I’m so excited for these unexpected private lessons that you get with Taylor at the rec center. Although I know you would have so much fun if it were a big class, I think he’s teaching you a lot about auditioning and hopefully this will help you get the part you want in theater camp this summer. Also, I’m excited to see you be the narrator for the little kids’ play in the spring recital.

I love how much you love learning piano. I love the motivational signs that you made around the house that say “Play the Piano, No Electronics” – that is a very creative way to remind yourself that practicing will make you better and better and soon you’ll be writing your own songs.

I love the special moments we have together like early mornings in the big red chair, evenings reading in your room while the bunny hops around doing binkies (I also love that you clean his cage) and I especially loved our recent microadventure sleeping outside with our sleeping bags in January. I can’t wait to do more of those with you!

You are a wonderful girl and I love you so, so much!


Valentine’s Day Love Letter to Lucy

I started a tradition a few years ago of writing love letters to my daughters on Valentine’s Day. I read the letters to my girls and they love it. I thought, now that I have a blog, it would be fun to share them here. Being a mom is so hard at times, but it is also the most gratifying thing in the world, especially when you stop to recognize how grateful you are for your children.
• • • • • • • • • •
Dear Lucy,

You are so, so, so excited about Valentine’s Day. I know it’s because you are having a party at school where you’ll have fun with your friends, exchange the beautiful handmade cards that you made, make ice cream, and eat candy. I’m excited about Valentine’s Day because I get to write this letter to you. I get to tell you all the things I love about you.

I love when in the middle of the day, for no reason, you just blurt out “I love you Mommy!” and come running over to give me a great big hug, you smile up at me and give me a kiss. I love how full of love you are. And I love your smile especially with those two front teeth missing. It reminds me that you are not going to be little forever and that I need to enjoy every moment with you because soon you will be a grown-up and you’ll be smiling down at your own children.

I love your love for art. I love when you want me to make art with you and then you get upset when I want to draw on my iPad. You want us to use crayons and paper, scissors and glue – you want us to get messy together. We don’t do that enough and I would like to do that with you more. I love that you can teach me what real art is all about.

I love how smart you are and that you love to learn. I can see what a good reader you are when you read me stories at night and you make math look easy when I watch you do your homework. Mrs. Kirlin tells us that you are a great student and that you work well with others. I love that you are kind to your friends and classmates. And I especially love watching you give hugs to all the teachers standing outside the school in the morning. You are a lover and I love that.

I love watching you play soccer and really running after that ball. Also seeing you play well as part of a team. You try so hard when you’re the goalie. I love my little soccer player. You’re great at playing games in general, not only on your iPad but when we played Settlers of Catan as a family for the first time, you won!

Lastly, I love your laugh. I love how silly you are and how you don’t take life too seriously. I love how when I am feeling grumpy you can make a funny face and make me smile.

I love you so, so much Lucy!

Forty and Full of Gratitude


Today is my 40th birthday!

I woke up early this morning (per my usual modus operandi) and decided to journal about this milestone birthday. Here’s what I wrote about upcoming festivities and reflecting on my life up til now.

My big birthday bash is this Saturday at our local brewery. We are expecting about 50 adults and 15 kids. Maybe more. That’s more guests than we had at our wedding! Crazy. Well, you only turn 40 once.

Isn’t it funny that I’ve chosen to have a big bash to celebrate my birthday instead of something small and intimate. And that I’m actually excited about it? I mean that seems a little crazy coming from an introvert like myself. How is it possible that I am actually excited?

It’s because I’ve gained so many wonderful friends over the years and many of them will be here to celebrate with me. In chronological order in my life: Jade and Jon from childhood, unfortunately no college friends or travel friends since they’re so far away (Ahhh!!! Update since I wrote that — I just got a text from my college/travel friend Megan who just said she’s coming from California! I am sooooo excited!!!) , Scott’s friends from when I first moved to Colorado who quickly became mine too, Marjorie from my first job in CO, Playgroup friends, Book Club friends, families from Golden that we’ve become friends with over the past few years, work friends from the Zoo, and my recent besties, Teka and Jamie. Of course, family too – Scott, the girls, Emilie, Matt and Maman. So many people that I love dearly all coming together. I can’t begin to express how grateful I am for that!

So now… how do I feel about being 40? Kind of weird if I’m being truthful. Up until yesterday, I felt fine about it. But I woke up this morning feeling kind of weird. When you’re in your 30s you are still on the young end. But 40 – when you tell a kid that you’re 40 they definitely think that’s old. But of course, I feel great.

Twenty years ago, if I had been offered the opportunity to look into the future and this is what I saw, I would be happy about it. A wonderful husband, beautiful, healthy children, a nice home (that finally feels like I belong in it thanks to all the work we did this year), amazing friends, a job that I love and being part of this incredible community of Golden, Colorado. Still taking photographs, still making art, working hard to stay strong and healthy and looking good. I probably would have thought that I would travel more but that requires time and money and it’s not so easy with kids in school, but at least it’s part of our plans for the near future.

I also feel fine turning 40 because I can look back and see all that I’ve accomplished over the years. All my incredible friendships that I’ve made along the way – listed above since most of them are coming to my birthday party! My early years in Boston (making it out of there pretty much unscathed – a child of unhappily divorced parents and a mentally ill mother); then a more safe, traditional childhood spending the rest of my youth growing up on Martha’s Vineyard; summers spent with my family in France and traveling around Europe; college and my years of world travel (living in England, Italy, India and Australia); amazing jobs as a teenager working in a bakery, a stationery store owned by a local artist, then with my friends (Jade and Jon) essentially running a bead/jewelry store together, and waitressing at Jade’s aunt and uncle’s restaurant; as an adult working at UMASS, in an art and frame shop in the heart of London, being an art teacher in India, assisting a designer in Australia, being a web designer at International Networks, running my own successful freelance company DESIGNi2i, and now my job at the Zoo; getting married and starting a family – going through natural childbirth twice, once at home in my bathtub; turning our house into our home by filling it with love and things that I love (specifically Scott and the girls and our pets); making art for over a decade; going through heavy-duty therapy to let go of anger and resentment from my childhood so that I can be the best mother that I can be; going through marriage counseling to ensure that Scott and I will have a strong and loving marriage and so that I can be the best wife that I can be; starting yoga and meditation in my early 20s and sticking with it, intermittently, throughout all these years, staying spiritual; focusing on my health – making fitness and good nutrition a consistent part of my life over the past decade; and lastly, being on this constant quest to grow, to learn and to improve as a human being on this earth. To be filled with gratitude for this wonderful life that I’ve led. When you’ve accomplished all that, it’s not so hard to face the fact that you are 40.

Now… on with my day. I’ve taken the day off work to enjoy a little solitude and to fill it with things I love to do: write (done!), draw, go on a photo adventure, meditate, go for a hike, enjoy nature, and spend quality time with Scott, Sophie, Lucy and my pets, Peanut and Patches. I know my introverted self will need this day of introspection, peace and quiet before the amazing chaos that is about to ensue!