Gabe and I always said we were going to be the traveling sort of family. We said this before we had children. One flight to Southern California with a toddler made us quickly realize that for us, the traveling would have to wait.
With the kids long out of diapers and their ability to sit mindlessly in front of a screen well intact we realized that now was as good a time as any to stand by our own words and become the sort of family that travels.
“Really?! Are we doing this?” I said just before hitting confirm to purchase five round trip tickets to London. We had no plans beyond the fact that we wanted to go for three full weeks and that we were flying in and out of London.
Here’s what helped us make that final decision. 1. As I mentioned before – no diapers and mindlessly can sit in front of a screen (like say for nine hours when you are flying across the Atlantic). 2. Christmas was coming and I was so overwhelmed by how much stuff they already had that the thought of filling my house with more crap that would most likely end up at Goodwill made me sick to my stomach. 3. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
We wrapped a few small European mementos; maps, French candies, and journals for the kids then tucked them under the Christmas tree. They politely said, “thank you!” after they opened the presents but hadn’t quite put all the pieces together.
We had Baron read a letter I had written which read, “You may not fully understand the value of this present yet but in time you will come to realize that we have given you quite possibly the best gift there is. The gift of seeing the world.” At this point they all broke out in tears, hugged us, and told us repeatedly that we are the best parents ever. Actually, what really happened was they said, “cool” then went back to foraging under the tree for the next gift.
“Wait, wait, wait!” I exclaimed. “You don’t understand. We are going on three week trip to Europe as a family!”
Six months and many hours of planning and many dollars saved we were on our way. The biggest lesson that we walked away from after that experience was that traveling overseas with three children is not only completely doable but it’s also incredibly fun. It is, as my father-in-law says, not really a vacation when you are with kids but more of a relocation.
With expectations in check, and these vital lessons we learned along the way, our relocation brought us closer as a family and gave us a lifetime of memories in three short weeks.
Adjust the expectations
This is by far the biggest and best thing you can do to ensure an enjoyable trip with kids. Normally when I travel my day is basically organized around the where I what I want to eat. But kids aren’t necessarily willing to walk miles and miles for dinner just because you read about this particular method the chef uses for roasting his chickens. When the kids are hungry they want food immediately. In some places, like Paris for example, this may mean that there are several meals where the place closest to you when the hunger pangs strike is really not the ideal place to eat from a culinary perspective. But I readjusted my expectations and reminded myself over and over that this trip isn’t about me and my desire to seek out the best restaurants. Seems obvious to seasoned family travelers but for me it took some work. Actually, there were many pleasant learnings from adjusting my travel expectations and traveling in a way that was quite different from how I travel without the kids. For one thing I was once again reminded of the beauty and joy in the simple food; the sort found in the stalls on the side of the street, not the food delicately teetering on the plate with white linen napkins on your lap. There is nothing quite as satisfying as ham and butter on a baguette. In fact, there is a ham sandwich in this book dedicated to our love of jamon baguette (page xx). And never before have I sought after European parks, but really there is not a better way to spend a day then slowly wandering through a foreign park.
In America we are used to getting what we want when we want it. Our passports hail from the land of 24-hour restaurants and if you want breakfast food at 10pm your wish is their command. Other parts of the world don’t operate that way, and frankly, I appreciate them for that, in theory. It gets a little tricky when you arrive in Paris off the train exhausted and hungry at 4:30pm. You tuck in to the nearest Brassiere only to realize dinner service doesn’t start until 7 pm. That’s when you take advantage of the moment to teach about cultural differences and patience and order wine for the adults and a bottle of Coke for the kids. You tell them to find something to do from the backpacks they packed themselves for such an occasion and you sit and talk and paint and watch the Eurocup until the clock hits 7 pm and you can now order golden and crisp frites, pâté, and a roast chicken salad with friseé and a pungent dijon dressing.
We waited to take this trip until we were in the magical years where everyone could easily walk for themselves. Although Gabe’s working title for our not-yet-written travel book is “Europe on Two Sore Shoulders A Day” thanks to Ivy’s continuous insistence on riding on his shoulders. There may have been a couple of tired shoulders but we dodged the task of traveling with strollers. The kids could also adapt easily to new sleeping situations, they no longer needed naps, could carry their own luggage, and could entertain themselves in the boring moments, like standing in line at the passport checkpoints or on the train or when their mom makes you go to yet another museum.
Yet they were still young enough that they enjoyed being with us. They weren’t yearning to go off on their own adventures quite yet. We did most everything together and for our first massive traveling adventure I loved that. There were a couple museum visits that I scurried off to alone but they didn’t mind missing out on that.
I know plenty of people who have successful traveling tales while adventuring with children much younger than our 9, 7, and 5 year old, but for us this was a perfect age to begin exploring the world together.
Let them help plan.
We wanted the kids to feel included in the planning and execution of the trip. For the months leading up to our adventure, dinner table conversations centered around our expectations, ideas for adventures, and our excitement and fears about how this trip would unfold. We read books about the countries we planned to visit and knowing we were going to be spending some time in Normandy both of the boys dug deep into their interest in World War II. Duolingo became our most used app and I’ll Have What Phil’s Having our favorite show. In fact, if you watch the episode on Italy and Paris you basically know exactly what we did including an early morning 3 mile walk with Baron to Blé Sucre because Phil and David Lebovitz said we had to go there.
Direct flight is worth every penny.
We flew directly from Seattle to London then spent a few days in London adjusting to our new time zone and easing into the trip. Without layovers a travel day allows you to actually rest and start acclimating to the new time zone. It was much easier on all of us. If at all possible try and get a direct flight.
Pack light. Pack Light. Pack Light.
I can still tell you everything I packed for that trip. It was no more and no less than what I needed and it all fit in half a carry on leaving me with enough free space to carry home my new copper pot and hand painted Italian plates. We each had a backpack that we were solely responsible for and then Gabe and I managed the two carry on suitcases. I tucked a linen bag in my suitcase knowing that we would be acquiring a few things along the way so that served as overflow. This trip had us moving around quite a bit. For two thirds of it we were switching apartments or hotels every other night so there was a lot of packing and unpacking and lugging bags through security lines. Had we brought with us more than our backpacks and two small suitcases those travel days would have been much more hectic. In fact living so simply for three weeks has really helped me reevaluate how I acquire and live with so much in my day-to-day life. I’ve not gone full Marie Kondo, and I don’t plan to anytime soon, but I’ve seen how little we can live off of and how freeing it feels.
A clear no screen policy.
We set the expectations from the beginning; this was to be a screen free trip with the exception of the Kindles (the very basic model with only books) the boys both got for their birthdays. We wanted them to continue to read but didn’t want to fill our suitcases with books. There were a couple times when we put on a movie on our computer at the end of an exhausting day but there was no arguing over screen limits and policing their time and telling them to turn it off for one minute so they can look at the Eiffel Tower. By eliminating the expectation completely there was no arguments and to our surprise they adapted to the idea and found other ways to fill their time immediately. It was never an issue on our trip. We all lived presently and enjoyed just being.
Walk 20 minutes. Then eat gelato.
We averaged five miles of walking every day we were in Europe. Some days it was actually closer to ten miles while other days we basically just lounged around the pool. The key here is short bursts of walking with intermittent breaks such as toy shops, gelato, hot chocolate, influential landmarks, or a playground. It’s like the carrot dangling in front of the rabbit. There were also times when some members were really done walking and they hopped in a cab or on the metro while some of us continued on foot. We knew we would be doing a good bit of walking during our travels so we prepped the kids for that expectation so each day when we got up and set out on an adventure on foot they understood that this was part of the traveling process.
Activity, then rest.
If you can manage to travel for a long period of time I highly recommend it. When you’re there for a long time you have time to see plenty while also making sure there is a good bit of time for rest. Sometimes this looked like an activity in the morning then a quiet evening home or sometimes it was a full day of adventuring then the next day we rested and kept things quiet. The balance was needed for all of us.
Being gone for three weeks is a long time and eating out can get not only extremely expensive but also a bit tedious. That sounds a bit ridiculous for me to say now as I’ve not been traveling recently and the thought of someone else cooking all my meals sounds pretty damn great but I know from past experience that after a certain period I tire of restaurant food and desire to step into the kitchen again and do a bit of the chopping myself.
We learned pretty early on in our travels that our most successful meals were the ones made up of our gatherings from the day’s adventures then brought home and enjoyed in the comfort of our borrowed home. There was a day in Paris when we slowly wandered the cobbled streets and tipped into any shop that arrested our senses from the sidewalks. By the end of the day we had a feast of chicken paté, various cheeses, warm baguette, raspberries, tomatoes, and an assortment of desserts from Pierre Hermé. In Italy I made full use of our Airbnb’s wood fired oven by driving a few miles down the street to the butcher to pick up the famous Chianina steak to make Bistecca Fiorentina; a thick cut and simply seasoned steak from the largest and one of the oldest cow breeds in the world. We meandered slowly through the local supermarket (visiting foreign grocery stores is a favorite activity of mine) and picked up a few things for a salad to accompany our Bistecca Fiorentina. I used the morning’s leftover biscotti to crumble over apricots then tucked those into the wood fire oven while our steak rested. We sat outside and lingered at the table while the kids got up to play soccer in between the olive trees and I cried at the thought of ever leaving.
From that trip my favorite food memories are the ones where we felt as if this foreign country could be home. Preparing (or assembling) the food then sitting down at our adopted table made any place we visited immediately feel like home.
Comfort is great, and overrated.
From the moment we told the kids about the trip we also started telling them that there will be times along the journey where you feel a bit uncomfortable. Where you long for the comforts of home and ache for familiarity. But it’s also in those moments where you become a better person. You grow and stretch and while that is an uncomfortable process you come out of it better for it. We encouraged the kids to learn words and phrases from the countries we would be visiting and then we pushed them to order food themselves, stretching what little grasp of the language they had. But they did it and walked away beaming with pride.
There were blisters, and long waits, and food that looked inedible to them. There were closed shops when the hours on the window promised they’d be open. There were failed expectations and exceeded ones. There were tears shed over stuffed animals missed at home, there were celebrations and family gatherings we missed as a result of this adventure. All seemingly little problems but in the life of a child they feel anything but little. Even for Gabe and I we pushed outside of our comfort dealing with the language barrier, booking flights in another language, making sure we went into the train station and out again with all three kids in tow. There was incessant whining when we really just wanted to sit and linger with another glass of wine, there were fears over finances, over decisions made and whether or not this experience was really the best thing for our little family (the answer was and is yes).
In those challenges we grew stronger, more united as a family team, and in those little stretches the even easier challenges of our day-to-day back home felt more doable. We all walked away from that experience more confident, and with more “broad, wholesome, charitable views of men.” Just as Mark Twain promised we would.