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, the three-year-old pitched a fit (as they are wont to do for no apparent reason) and attracted the attention of two particularly seedy looking Spaniards, one with cigarette in hand. Balloon, of course, met cigarette, and a broken-hearted four-year-old joined his screaming brother on the sidewalk. “Mira lo que hiciste!” (Look what you did!) the stranger shouted to his friend. Tears welled in the culprit’s eyes and he fled the scene leaving his friend to comfort the wailing child. (The three-year-old had yielded the center ring by this time.) Moments later, the contrite character returned with handfuls of shiny gold-wrapped candies, and the two unlikely “friends” remained playing with all three children until the tears had ebbed.
Children’s attitudes may be altered somewhat by a trip abroad. One mother reported that her six-year-old daughter was particularly taken with the Romulus and Remus tale as they toured Rome. She delighted in calling them “Romulus and Remula.” When told they were both boys, she corrected it to “Romulus and Remulus.” On leaving Rome, she remarked, “I just love wolves.”
The traveling families also confirmed another advantage which the Fielding guide mentioned. Children safeguard you from formal sightseeing to the point of exhaustion. The bulk of activities with children (under seven) must be planned around parks, beaches, picnic areas and naptime.
Here are some additional suggestions from parents who have traveled with their children in Europe.
BEFORE YOU GO
Include your child in the background reading. Leila Hadley recommends Miroslav Sasek’s travel series for children. (This is Paris, London, Rome, etc.) Even preschoolers can look at pictures in Time-Life books, and older children will enjoy cataloging free travel information, especially if the mail is addressed to them. My own visit to the library turned up additional books. Let’s Travel in (Italy, Germany, etc.), a series from Children’s Press, Inc., in Chicago has full-page color photographs, phrase-book in the back, and a brief sketch of famous names in the country’s history.
Get Ready, Get Set! Go!, a Young Traveler’s Guide to Europe, by Stan Raiff, (Donbleday and Co., Inc.) might flatter an eleven-year-old traveler. The book not only suggests sights to see, but tells where the best cookies and trinkets are to be found. Money exchange is explained in terms of things a child might want to buy. The phrasebook portion is also especially geared to a child’s needs.
HOW TO GET THERE
If you’re on a budget, try to find a charter flight. One good one in Dallas is offered by Channel 13, the public television station. For $335.95, members (participants must be members for at least six months prior to departure) can fly roundtrip to London on Pan American. Even though regular commercial flights offer half-fare rates to children under twelve, this charter flight is still more economical. Various colleges and professional groups offer group rates that are equally attractive.
For the lengthy flight, each child should have his or her own flight bag full of favorite things, toys, coloring books, pens, paper, and books. My sons would never get past the metal detector at the airport with their hammers and screwdrivers.
There’s no economy in it, but if you have the time and the money, take the boat. It’s a more relaxing way to travel with children. Boats are well equipped with movies, games, swimming pools and nurseries. One couple traveling with children ages three and six had feared the lengthy and many-coursed meals which are ordinarily part of the pleasure of the H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth II. They came to the table equipped with coloring books and crayons. To their pleasant surprise, the waiters kept the children thoroughly entertained throughout the meal and even provided the extra service of cutting their meat.
Another parent suggests that you check the cost of taking your own car with you on the boat (economy models only, of course) against the rental fees in Europe.
WHEN YOU ARRIVE
All of the parents I talked with agreed that car travel was ideal for children. Trying to meet taxi, train, and air schedules with children and suitcases can disaffect the most affectionate of families.
WHERE TO STAY
If you’re traveling on a tight budget, consider camping if weather permits. If you’re ill-equipped for that, Arthur Frommer’s latest edition of Europe on $5 and $10 a Day may be helpful. Even if you don’t intend to camp, check the sporting goods store for a small collapsible cot that fits in a suitcase. It may prove useful for sleeping little people in your hotel room.
Most parents agreed that the charming accommodations listed in Fielding’s Guide to Traveling with Children in Europe were rather expensive. One exception worth noting in the section on England is the National Trust, which has holiday cottages for rent in Cornwall costing about $30-$55 per week. Rereading the Arthurian legends and exploring the rugged cliffs, hidden bays and quaint fishing villages might be a pleasant respite from the hectic sight-seeing of the capitals.
With all accommodations, be sure that children are allowed. More than one parent had horror stories to tell of being turned away at 10:30 at night or being charged an additional three pounds for the night.
Eating only one meal out a day is apparently the key to survival here. Breakfast can be eaten in your room. Continental breakfast is seldom adequate for American children, so locate a delicatessen, fruit stand or bakery for a mid-morning snack. The midday meal can be the big splurge. European restaurants never heard of booster chairs or high chairs. Pack aprons for everyone who needs one to wear at meal time or you’ll spend your vacation in strange laundromats. European dinner meals are not served at six o’clock, so either provide plenty of tea time snacks or plan a light meal in your room. Most parents admitted exhaustion by dinnertime anyway.
The parents who traveled with more than one child under seven years of age recommended taking a babysitter. Even with a one to one adult-child ratio, they admitted to feeling outnumbered. Fielding’s guide is full of suggestions, including the hiring of an au pair girl when you arrive who can serve as interpreter and tour guide as well.
Many parents felt that the Fielding guide was a little deceptive in suggesting that babysitters are readily available in all European cities. One couple traveling with two children last fall did not find it so. In Germany they learned that most parents do not leave their children with sitters at night. Children are put to bed and left alone. A neighbor may be alerted for emergencies. In desperation, this couple finally consented to leaving their children in the room with the phone off the hook so that the desk clerk could hear in the room. Even bell hops served as sitters occasionally.
SEEING THE SIGHTS
Chapter 11, “Museums Can Be Fun,” in the Fielding guide is a must for any parent whose children are old enough to benefit from the great museums of Europe. Parents who followed her suggestions and played some of the games with their children over six were amazed at the amount of art history small heads can absorb. (You might practice the games in your local museums before you go.) “Oh no, not another skull,” is to be expected at the Prado and “Ooooh, St. Sebastian, how gross!” is standard at the Vatican, but you may also, as Leila Hadley’s guide suggests, come away with “That Albrecht Dürer sure can draw!”
Outdoor sights in most of the larger cities can be seen from horse-drawn buggies, a relaxed way to see a lot without tiring small feet.
Since pleasurable traveling with children often necessitates traveling far from the English-speaking urban areas, some knowledge of the language is essential. Most guidebooks provide the necessary emergency phrases, but you and your children will feel more secure if someone understands the responses.
None of the parents interviewed said that traveling with children was easy. There were some rewards, however, in the concentrated period of togetherness —in-family jokes, seeing Daddy cry in Italian traffic, and the feeling that “we survived it all.” I might even be tempted to take my innocents abroad . . . in a few years . . . if they shape up.
FROM THE CHILDREN:
“What did you like most and least about your trip to Europe with the family?”
“I liked the ice cream in France and Italy.” Least? “I hated my Italian cousin who bites.”
“I got to taste real wine in a vineyard in France. I hated the walk, walk, walk in Rome—that’s all we ever did.”
“I loved the dogs everywhere in Paris. We even saw dogs in the restaurants.” Least? “Throwing up on the plane at night.”
“I loved the food in Sweden and the forest. It was hot, though, and my mother made me run around in the back yard in my panties.”
“I liked the pastries everywhere and the neat little restaurants that looked so crummy, but had such great food. Hated the museums—we saw too many.”
“I got served a drink in one of the pubs in England … got ushered out of another one.”
“I liked sleeping three in a bed. We’d never do that at home.”
“The best part was that my brother played Hearts with me in the hotel room. He doesn’t even speak to me at home.