Innocents Abroad

Family togetherness takes on a new meaning when you take the kids to Europe.

Family togetherness takes on a new meaning when you take the kids to Europe.

I haven't traveled much with my children. The last brief flight we took within the state started pleasantly enough. No one threw up on take-off.

However, shortly after the flight attendant served the Seven-Up, my three-year-old announced in a voice surely heard at ground control, "I gotta do-do." No time for a lecture on what we should have done before we left home. Knowing that little brother would scream throughout the bathroom visit if we entrusted him to the Pucci-printed attendant, all three of us stumbled to the cubicle at the rear. Once the door was closed, no easy feat with three of us, the sign overhead began flashing "Return to cabin-Fasten seat belts," and the captain mumbled something about turbulence. While baby brother sorted through the trash and unrolled toilet paper, my barebottomed three-year-old lurching on his throne exclaimed, "Hey Mom, this is neat! Let's just stay in this little room until we get to Corpus Christi."

My children's fascination with bathrooms is only one of the reasons I am reluctant to dream of a family trip to Europe. Imagine fellow travelers' dismay when my children commandeer the bathroom for the entire eight hours of trans-Atlantic flight or my dismay when they discover the toilets on Eurail trains in Italy.

Another aspect of traveling with children that causes me to wince is the dining out. Although my boys' skill with fork and spoon is occasionally demonstrated on such things as fried chicken and spareribs—cereal, applesauce, scrambled eggs, pancakes with syrup and noodle soup are invariably attacked with fists. Any food chewed by mistake (i.e., anything green or remotely nutritional) is blecched into the hand and placed on my plate. The younger, untoilet-trained one coordinates his incontinence with meal time and consequently completes his meal standing in his high chair. If company is present or if we have foolishly chosen to dine in a quiet restaurant, the three-year-old sparks the conversation with show-stoppers like "Does Santa Claus have a penis?" The lulls between such queries are filled with an innate and unconscious motorcycle-jack-hammer noise ably produced by both boys. (Women's Lib be hanged, I've never met a girl who could duplicate this sound.) The noise level isn't high; it just effectively prohibits adult conversation, impairs digestion and assures a continual fine spraying of food from both mouths. Tour d'Argent? Never!

My reluctance to take the kids undoubtedly also stems from the memory of our first and only trip to Europe the summer we married. Aside from the trip over on the S.S. France, it was no luxury tour. Armed with Frommer and student I.D. cards, we spent many a night in seedy pensiones with underwear drip-drying over our heads. Sometimes my unnecessary luggage and his tour-guide zeal frayed our nerves, but it was nevertheless a carefree time when I never washed a dish and when it never occurred to us that we'd need the money for a house payment—a way we'll never be again.

Considering the cost of stateside sitters and, even worse, my three-year-old's ability to create unremitting guilt in me over a trip to the grocery store without him, I seem to have no choice but to dream of a trip for four. I am reassured by the fact that others have done it and lived to tell about it. Although I didn't interview them on deplaning, these parents agreed that they would do it again if faced with the choice of going with the children or not at all.

Leila Hadley, author of Fielding's Guide to Traveling with Children in Europe , makes it sound too easy. Phrases like "happy, rewarding, trouble-free travel" which appear in her introductory remarks let me know immediately that we are not talking about the same children. We didn't even make it to the neighborhood bookstore to peruse travel books without incident. The unshelving of 50 volumes by little brother was to be expected, but on our way out, for an encore, my three-year-old suddenly stooped over to examine a discarded Lifesaver, sending books, boy, baby and Mom crashing to the sidewalk. Bloody knees, minor concussion and shredded pantyhose, and we haven't even left the country!

After bandaids and naps, I was more receptive to Ms. Hadley's "Advantages of Taking Children with You." All of the parents I consulted who have traveled with their children agreed that children with their fresh perspective are more observant travelers. Touring the Palacio Real in Madrid, one eager four-year-old followed the tour guide and middle-aged tourists with interest as they proceeded from lavish bedroom to sitting room to bedroom of the private chambers of the ex-king. "But Daddy," she exclaimed as the guide paused to catch his breath, "where does the king go pot?"

It's also apparently true that more unusual, unexpected and downright pleasant things happen to you when you travel with your children. My children are always introducing me to people I never knew I wanted to know in parks, barber shops and grocery stores. "Bet you don't know my Mom," the three-year-old says, climbing over the pork chops to the buzzer at the meat counter. "She's Prudence." (Besides the pork chops, I get flank steak cut to order now.)

It apparently happens in Europe too. A Texas Monthly editor traveling with three very young children reported several instances of being pursued by strangers who wanted to give the children pastries, candy or fruit. Children are attention-getters in any language. In Barcelona, she recalled how a three-year-old's tantrum, a huge green balloon and a cigarette brought on an unforgettable display of human emotion. The giant balloon (36-inch diameter) purchased in the park across from Gaudi Cathedral for her four-year-old "balloon freak" had survived a jaunt in their VW bus and a visit to a restaurant where a kind waiter, seeing no other place for it, had delighted the children by suspending it from the ceiling. Walking out of the restaurant,

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