We just returned from three weeks abroad with our kids, age six and nine. It was an amazing adventure to London, Paris and Dublin; I’m still shaking off the jet lag, but I already know a few things I learned from our trip. Should you be contemplating an extended future vacation with your little ones, maybe these few insights will help.
1) I really like my kids. And my husband.
If there’s one thing you learn while traveling for twenty-one days with people, it’s whether you dig them or not. Really dig them. Fortunately, it turns out, I do. Our kids went (with mostly little complaint) from dawn till dusk, on public transportation, through tons of museums, a million monuments and through dozens of meals featuring foods they had never seen, let alone tried. They were game, they were fun, they were funny. My husband led us through a maze of maps of every city, photographed and videoed us at every turn, rallied and inspired us; he made friends with the English, the French and a million other interesting folks we met in between. Chris’ kindness made the difference with people, with unfamiliar situations and with me. I shouldn’t be surprised I suppose, at any of this, of the sheer loveliness and flexibility of the people I love most, but I was.
2. Packing light is key.
I never, ever have accomplished this, but this time I did. And at every cab ride, subway stop, hotel change and enormous flight of stairs, I was grateful. You really do need less than you think.
3. American curling irons seldom work anywhere else.
Even with an outlet adaptor, a converter and much prayer, my iron failed me. Should you travel abroad, plan on buying a native one or going without.
4. Paris is very crowded in the summer. And warm. And humid. And still, totally gorgeous.
Given all of this, I would recommend going at another season. But if you can’t make it any other time, go and prepare to wait, to sweat, to be sold to mercilessly and despite it all, still be glad you are there.
5. Comfortable shoes are non-negotiable.
That is all. And bring two pairs. Trust me on this one.
6. It’s good to plan well, but just as important to embrace spontaneity.
Every day, we had a goal of a neighborhood or destination, but we also played it fast and loose at times. We made sure to ride a double-decker bus in London, to take a Seine river cruise in Paris and to see Trinity College in Dublin, but we also made time for an impromptu soccer game with some French boys in a park in the Marais and for playing with a family from the Dutch Islands in Luxemborg Gardens for hours. When we missed our connection in Frankfurt, we made friends with a family from Norway and spent the six hour layover sharing a dinner and conversation I will remember always. Above is a cherished photo of Finn and his friend Viktor; neither spoke a word of each other’s language, yet they laughed and danced and played the whole evening. It’s amazing how real connection can transcend words; on this trip I realized how children get this perfectly.
7. Everything really is different everywhere.
I had seldom traveled and, as such, had the idea that things were probably pretty much the same everywhere. It’s a small world, etc. This is not true. Things are incredibly varied in different parts of the world: the milk you normally drink, the showers, the washing machines, the temperature of the beverages, the culture, the fashions, the politics, the mannerisms, whether people smile at you in a subway – all of it is different. I hope to keep this wider perspective as I consume the news and have conversations about current events and politics: it is a very big world out there and there are many ways of living in it. At the same time, we found goodness and humor and humanity everywhere we went – a constant regardless of cultural differences, foods, language. I hope I will remember that part too – and that my children will grow up respecting our global differences, keeping right beside that respect, a deeper empathy in their hearts for people everywhere.
8. Homesickness. It’s not just for kids.
In fact, generally my kids (although missing their friends and their pets) were mostly not homesick. I, however, missed home: our house, our animals, our friends and extended family – the familiarity of our little life was even more fragile and precious than I’d realized. Through all the adventures, I kept my homesickness in a deep pocket and did my best to stow it there, but every now and then it would spring up and I’d have to feel it for a moment and then move on. It turns out, now that we’ve actually made a home, I’m quite attached to it – and all the comfort it brings.
9. Come for the adventure. Stay for the view.
Oh, Ireland. Goodness, what a gorgeous country. We had planned on a five hour drive with family to Kerry from Dublin – due to a mudslide, it became a ten-hour ride down curvy, one-lane roads, often through rocky cliffs. Honestly, my heart stopped for most of the drive, my anxiety in rare form. The kids, however, were unfazed, popping m&m’s in the back of our rented car, singing and laughing. My husband, driving happily for the whole stretch on the wrong side of the road up and down perilous lanes, kept excitedly pointing to rainbows and waterfalls and whatnot. I’m not too proud to share that I couldn’t bring myself to look out the window very often because when I did I would terrify myself with the devastating drops below us. Occasionally, I would open the window and take a photo with my phone, not looking; the one above is the view out the window – the view I was mostly too afraid to look at. Ah-mazing. This area is the western most tip of Europe and it felt like something out of Lord of the Rings – devastatingly lovely. I wish I’d looked more.
10. Family can make anywhere feel like home.
Our trip culminated with my husband’s family in Ireland. They treated us like royalty and took us to every imaginable destination in this beautiful country; we walked the beach in Kerry, the streets in Dublin, the carnivals in Bray. We ate battered fish and chips and Irish breakfasts and drank delicious teas and plenty of Guinness. But mostly, we connected and laughed and exchanged family stories; their incredibly loving generosity and kindness made a country five-thousand miles away feel exactly like home. We were terribly sad to leave and are counting the days until they come visit us in America; I will have the tea (and curling iron, should they need it) waiting.