Never have I received such peculiar looks as when I told people last spring that my husband and I were vacationing with our young children in Europe. I could tell by the expressions on their faces that they variously thought we were crazy, pioneering, rich, or had a bad marriage. Some thought we were crazy, noble, and selfless.
Mostly, they thought we were crazy.
I must confess that midway across the Atlantic -- comforting my daughter between repeated rounds of vomiting -- it occurred to me that the people who had thought we were crazy were right.
They were wrong.
The 22-day trip, with husband C. J., son Alexander (then 8) and daughter Esther (then 6), was the best of many trips abroad.
The itinerary itself was not unusual. We spent the first three days in Paris. Then we took the boat-train to England where we stayed for the next five days with friends in historic Greenwich, a London outpost.
The heart of our trip was a 13-day, 900-mile journey by car through south and southwest England, visiting sites associated with King Arthur (and William the Conqueror, and A. Conan Doyle, and the pilgrim fathers, and the early Britons).
The trip turned out to be special not in spite of the children, but because of them. Here are some reasons why.
Traveling with children forces you to be scholar, teacher, and historian. Young children cannot be expected to do their own preparation -- you have to do it for them, put it in historical perspective, then spout it out again. Then, since you've spent so much money, you want the children to remember it, so you make a scrapbook when you return.
In the process, we have learned a great deal.
When you travel with children, you travel at a much slower pace. You see less, but savor it more. We "did," at the most, three things a day. We saw something in the morning, something in the afternoon. In the middle of the day we picnicked at a third interesting spot.
With children in tow, we never felt compelled to race from one thing to another. Take, as an example, our morning at Plymouth. We stood at the harbor and followed with our eyes the path taken by the Mayflower as it started on its way to the New World. Then we strolled over to the Hoe, where, we had read, Sir Francis Drake was playing bowls when word came of the entrance of the Spanish Armada into the English Channel.
There, 12 ladies and gentlemen, not a day under 70 and dressed in white flannels, were playing bowls along three well-manicured bowling greens. The ladies all looked like Margaret Rutherford, the gentlemen like retired colonels of the British Empire. We were thrown back to another age. Fascinated, we sat . . . and sat, . . . and sat, eating ice cream trying to calculate the path the oval ball would take along the green.
Children are great assets to retiring adults (such as my husband and I) who are not good on small talk. No one cam break the ice like a child. Sometimes you may wish the ice had not been broken, but that's another story.)
Never had I used my French so much on this trip, when I was forever seeking out food, bathrooms transportation. Englishmen, who might have gone no further than a brisk "Good afternoon," chatted amiably. We found both the French and the English sympathetic to the needs of family travel. And not once did I receive a sour look when I ordered one dinner to be shared by the two children. (Nor was I charged a "plate fee," as in America.)
I probably would have missed the lady with pink hair in Exeter had it not been for the children. I wouldn't have noticed that the sheep on Dartmoor had no tails. Church clocks would not have fascinated me so much. Certainly I wouldn't have spent an extra in Wells Cathedral just to watch -- again -- the mechanical knights joust on the hour of the 14th-century clock. But the memory was worth the wait.
Children not only bring fresh eyes, but different eyes. They see things from a different perspective and are much more attuned to detail. We still marvel at what we call "Esther's mysterious roll of film," which she took in Paris under the guise of "carrying" the camera for us.
Absent from her roll were the panoramic views that appeal to grown-ups. On her roll were such things as a pigeon eating bread, a stone face above a doorway. As we approached the English coast by steamer, the picture Alexander chose to take was not of the white cliffs, but of the first seagull which came out to greet us. That is how I now remember our arrival.
Travel in a foreign country isolates the family group and draws it close. We shared new experiences. We talked about things we'd never talked about before. The usual family tensions disappeared. There was no conflict between work and home; no house to clean, meals to cook, lawns to mow. Mother and Father have time and patience to answer their children's questions. Without playmates, sibling rivalry abates.
When I turned the children out into the hotel garden before dinner and heard their delighted laughter as they chased each other around, I thought, "This is how family life is supposed to be." This closeness lasted long after our return . . . and the sibling rivalry only started up again when school began.