About a month before we departed on a European vacation with our 13-month-old daughter, a long-faced colleague walked into the office, sat down, and urged us to reconsider the decision. "You're making big mistake," he warned.
He was overestimating the problem; we were underestimating the challenge. We naively assumed that international travel with a child meant simply having another -- although smaller -- person along for the ride. We found that such an excursion is not really a "vacation," but a different experience of scaled-down expectations.
The big challenge of international travel with a child is learning to co-exist and interrelate every minute of every day. At home, you can put the baby down for a nap and go to another room. Abroad, the baby's room is your room. Likewise, if you stay in small hotels and pensions, your bed also may be the baby's bed. Further insuring the inseparability of travelers is the lack of bilingual baby sitters.
The only trick to traveling abroad, we had thought, was to identify the necessities and figure out how to transport them. We packed a huge suitcase full of disposable diapers, baby food, powdered milk and every other conceivably necessary item. Each time we carried that bloody suitcase into a hotel, we cursed our stupidity. There is absolutely no need to haul around all that paraphernalia. European children have the same needs as American, and the solutions are readily available.
About the only piece of equipment we were glad we brought was one of those submersible "hot rods" which plugs in for heating a cup of coffee or tea. It provided unending supplies of boiling water for sterilizing bottles, nipples, and mixing with the powdered milk when we ran out of bottled water.
The flight across the Atlantic was the first indication that European travel en famille is much more than the organization of essential supplies. tBoarding a transatlantic flight with a skunk would no doubt be more popular than boarding with a 13-month-old child.
Terror-struck faces stare back as you walk down the airplane's aisle toward your seat. Row after row of fellow travelers hold their breath, hoping that you won't be sitting by them for the next seven hours.
The airplane experience taught us the first rule of international travel with an infant: Leave your pride at home. It sounds simple, but it is the single most important factor in having a good trip. The sooner parents relax and accept that they are traveling with an infant, and not a little person who can be expected to adhere to acceptable behavior norms, the better the trip will be.
It is well known that children can sense parental anxiety and frustration -- aggravating their unsocial behavior. It is hard to remember this amidst a planeload of sleeping passengers. Everything we did on that flight was overreactive.
Remarkably, on the flight back several weeks later (after we'd all learned to be laid-back travelers) our daughter was a charmer: happy, playing, sleeping and making faces at the lady behind us.
Our first night in Europe had us thinking that maybe the colleague at the office was right. After checking into a small hotel on the Left Bank in Paris, we set out for a relaxing dinner in St. Germain de Pres.
Once again our great logistical planning failed us. Another useless piece of equipment turned out to be the stroller we lugged along. The narrow, crowded sidewalks make it a hazard for both child and pedestrian. (We learned later that they also aren't permitted in museums and other public buildings, and they make public transportation most impossible.) We found that a sturdy, aluminum-frame backpack is the only practical way to transport a small child around European cities.
At dinner in St. Germain that first night we sat at a long line of tables with a banquette on one side. Our daughter, sitting with one of us on the banquette, proceeded to demolish our table. Napkins, silverware, ashtrays, all on the floor. Not satisfied with wrecking our table, she slid down the banquette and began to destroy the next.
The only solution to her demolition derby was to hold her, to which she responded with great cries of anguish. When the restaurant proprietor discreetly increased the volume of background music, we began to wonder if we should just turn around and go home.
That experience taught us the second secret of traveling abroad with a small child: Don't take what your're doing lightly. Anticipate the child's needs and actions, and develop contingencies. We later learned that a corner table in a restaurant allowed our daughter to play happily on the floor, apart from other patrons.
So what if she's not Army Vanderbilt? Europeans bring their dogs into restaurants and seat them at their feet.
This may be painfully obvious, but when you're abroad with a certain set of expectations and a limited time in which to fulfill them, the obvious seems to disappear: It is simply not possible to accomplish as much with an infant along as you could if your were alone. You cannot drive as far, walk as much, or spend as long in one place with a child as you would if by yourself.
Scaling down expectations and activities is not altogehter bad; in fact, it helps overcome the usual "rush-rush" syndrome. We gave up five-star restaurants, but we sampled a vast array of wines, cheese, pates and breads on our picnics.
Europe with a small child is not a "vacation" in the usual sense of escaping responsibilities and routines. Sharing one room, one table, one bath with a small child is not much of a holiday.
It is not for the faint-hearted, over-proud, or inflexible. It is, however, remarkably easy from a logistical point of view and immensely rewarding in terms of what you learn about your child, yourself, and coexistence.
It's a great experience -- once.