My family recently returned from our first intercontinental trip as a foursome. The experience of adventuring in England and France with my husband, children, and friends has since coalesced — in hindsight from the comforts of my little writing desk — into one of those trips of one lifetime because when I think of it, just a week or so out now, I get a little knot of that feeling of nostalgia or home-sickness or wabi-sabi, that feeling of immense gratitude and joy for having experienced it.
It was not all roses and candy floss. (OK, it was sometimes roses and candy floss.) What I mean to say is that there were a few parenting mishaps made along the way. Staying up until 10 PM to see the flickering lights of the Eiffel Tower. (A meltdown from our youngest party ensued.) Ordering a pizza a few too many times. (In Paris, this should be a crime.) Packing too many sights into that last day in London. (The Queen who?) THE COFFEE SITUATION. [See addendum, below.] But I’d like think there were a few things we did get right.
Staying with friends who have kids the same age.
This sort of goes without saying but vacations are immensely better when shared with other children and families and parents who are in the thick of it just like you! Perhaps this is a personal preference, but my husband and I have quickly learned that this is our preferred way of traveling and vacationing. It sort of squelches the whining (or whinging as they say in England) from everyone involved, parents included.
Letting ourselves go off schedule by enjoying the little things.
Honestly we didn’t really have a schedule other than picking one kind-of major thing or sight to get to at some point. (Walk through Kensington Gardens toward Buckingham Palace. Or: get on the bus and head to the Luxembourg Gardens.) The nice thing about this is that we were able to go with the flow and experience the smaller diversions that popped up along the way. Near Shakespeare & Co., we lallygagged in a delightful little park with a view of the now-compromised Notre Dame, feeding pigeons and chatting with a lovely teenager from Sacramento who spent upwards of an hour braiding the girls’ hair with daisies. Picnicking became our activity, sport, and destination in its own right with a trip to the market built into a walking tour that ended in a garden, lunch in tow. Instead of Mona Lisa, we sent the children into the market with a little bit of French, a little Euro, and watched them re-emerge with satisfaction (and a baguette).
Taking public transportation everywhere!
The city bus is the way to go. The children are delighted by it (especially in London where you must sit in the front on the top row of the double decker). It’s less money than calling a car and safer too as I’m not so sure how the carseat situation would work. Extra credit (or perhaps bare minimum effort, depending on how you look at it): we were doing our small part to off-set all of those carbon emissions from the plane ride.
This was an ongoing, running joke on vacation. When we first showed up, our friends asked where the rest of our bags were. Ha. I really packed only a few outfits and one pair of jammies for everyone, the children included. (I did do laundry twice on the trip, but this was weirdly an unexpected pleasure as I carefully hung and air-dried the clothes in the sun, something I would never do here in America, but should.)
Experiencing street design in Europe.
I love the podcast the War on Cars. (Give it a try here — you won’t be sorry). They do this running thing where they make fun of themselves when they return from Europe and talk about the relaxed bicycling or amazing street design or pedestrian safety measures; so yes, I am that person here but it is beyond inspiring! (See one of my street pics here.)
Creating diversions for the children, Part One: The Blessed Screen. (And some books, too.)
They basically watched TV and movies for the entire duration of their intercontinental flights. On the way over we seemed to care more about taking breaks from the screen as we were less tired but on the way back we just plugged them in. (This meant that I got to watch The Favourite, which was a shockingly good film and A Star is Born, which was meh but gets extra points for Lady Gaga who is of course a shockingly amazing talent.) But apart from this screen time, there was almost nothing else on our ten-day trip, largely due to our host family’s good habits and when in Londontown, do as the English do. Sophie started reading chapter books this year so we packed a few of those (lots of Roald Dahl to stay on theme) and a few old Ladybug magazines for Sebastian which made it easy on the packing and lugging.
Creating diversions for the children, Part Two: Travel Journals
This was the runaway success of the entire trip. Before we left, I bought these little notebooks for the children with special pens from our local stationary shop. We did a little sketching beforehand to get them excited about the sights but for the most part we dove-in on vacation. I think the big thing here that made this journal-keeping work for the kids was that I was keeping a travel journal too.
Here are some drawings of the beach huts in Brighton, starting with my journal followed by my seven-year-old daughter’s and my four-year-old son’s:
How do you draw Notre Dame? asks Sophie. I didn’t know so we looked at a photo together and decided to split a page in her journal, drawing it side by side and step by step. I think we switched sides at one point. I like how Sophie added the detail about the fire:
Pro-tip: skip the Louvre; instead head west to the Jardin des Tuileries for candy floss:
A journal page from my favorite day of the trip: the kids made a pop-up art show in the Brighton Fringe and then we hopped in the Micra for a speedy road trip to Ditchling Beacon in the Downs, bucolic English countryside with a misty view. A diversion to historic Lewes brought us down Keere Street, a cobblestone path:
We found the most beautiful rose! A charming queue of flower pots! Even ended the day with a Sunday Roast! Our last day in Brighton brought us to the circus, an abundance of mango ice-cream, and top-notch graffiti including this splendid idea from Howard Zinn that will awaken your inner radical. Brighton was everything and more…
And then off to Paris where the ice-cream is pistachio and even the fences are stylish…
I was behind from Day 1, sketching Brighton in Paris and Paris back home. London will have to wait for a rainy day.
So here’s a bit more on how our collective journaling worked, if you’re curious:
At down time in the house or even out at a cafe waiting for food, we would take out the journal. It was even a mood regulator at times! It gave the kids something to do and it is easily portable — they can carry it in a mini-backpack themselves.
Picture-taking was more purposeful. I would pull a child aside and say I am taking a picture of this because I want to remember it for my sketching later.
The practice of journal-keeping was a great way to recap our day. Traveling can be both exciting and overwhelming, with a lot of new things happening in a short time. The practice of drawing and remembering hones your thinking requiring you to pause and reflect on the things that stood out in the day.
It’s a great way to get your kids involved in asking more information about what they saw. They were excited to add details to their pages (and facts) so we discussed things like why the Eiffel Tower was built in the first place and how it wasn’t intended to remain permanently.
Sometimes we would all draw the same thing — for example I was really taken with the beach huts on Brighton Beach so we did a drawing exercise together. It was such a lovely result to see the differences and similarities in how we each approached the same idea. Sometimes kids need to see how you draw something, step by step. Otherwise they don’t know where to begin or what to do. Taking a few minutes to demonstrate how you would draw something goes a long way in giving them the tools for them to make it themselves. I think this is really the key: like anything, the more involved and interested and participatory you are in the process the more they are excited to engage with it.
Addendum: The Coffee Situation.
I should have known. England is all about their tea and Paris, well, who knows. (All I know is that a single espresso doesn’t really cut it.) Some people meditate; here at home I wake up an hour before my children to sip extremely strong coffee with a splash of milk made in a drip American coffee maker over a finely ground dark roast bean. I know, all sounds very precious but as far as vices go, this is mine and always has been since 1998, the year I began drinking convenience store coffee with a splash of (wait for it) two of the almond-flavored “pumps” at the corner store near Myles Standish Hall in Kenmore Square on my way to my darkened lecture on the History of Art. God, I had it really good, despite the vile drink in my hand.
So by 40 you basically need to have (1) quit coffee or (2) evolve beyond 7-11. So how then, did I get here: happily abroad and coffee-less? Our lovely host in England caught me one morning parenting while un-caffeinated and she might have been a smidge careful not to double-cross me. (Sorry, sweet English friends!) And in Paris… well, our flat rental might(?) of had a broken Nespresso maker somewhere in the back of the closet but really our coffee situation as I’m now calling it involved going out to the street for a cappuccino or espresso to start the day.
Evolution means that you can anticipate and adapt with your own future in mind and I’ll say it right now: mine will no longer involve travel without access to a proper cup of coffee. This proclamation led me to Wirecutter for a travel coffee maker rec (really, don’t click on Wirecutter, you’ll lose 3 hours), and was amazed to discover this… and this accompanying video. So now I know what I’ll be packing for our next big trip abroad, likely to the exclusion of something else in my already-minimalist suitcase. Not the travel journals, of course. I guess the underwear will have to go.