The author’s children in front of the Colosseum. (Courtesy of the author)

When traveling with children, all needs are special.

Over Thanksgiving, I traveled to Italy with my wife, two children, and my parents. The plan was to land in Milan on a Sunday, drive to Parma where my wife needed to work, celebrate the holiday in a rural Tuscan farmhouse, and then proceed to Rome where I had a conference. My wife and I love to travel and had spent a month in Venice in 2008, when our son was one. But since then long distance roaming had seemed impossible. First, we had no money. After the birth of our second child, we had even less money.  Financial matters improved when my wife finished school and began her career, but then we had no time.

Furthermore, the logistics seemed overwhelming. Our son has Down syndrome, with a highly limited diet and – in the past – difficulty adapting to changes of routine. Even short trips to visit family often left all of us exhausted. So although I am an historian of medieval Europe and my wife is a food scientist focused on European products, foreign adventures seemed out of the question.

Then last January something magical happened. We went on a short trip over the winter holidays. The children were fabulous. They listened well. They were able to be self-contained with toys and games and ample screen time. My son learned to eat scrambled eggs, albeit with considerable cajoling. We started to think maybe, just maybe, we might be able to travel again. When work opportunities in Italy came up for both of us over Thanksgiving, we decided to give it a try, spending weeks planning every booking, every stop, filling an extra carry on with food and backup clothing, and launching into a new era of our lives as parents.

Dancing in their kitchen in Rome. (Courtesy of the author)

And then the worst snow in a November in more than 100 years descended on Chicago’s airport. We sat for seven hours on the plane (we could leave, but then not re-board). The adults squirmed, worried, got backaches, and watched contingency plans fail. The kids, on the other hand, played on their iPads and ate snacks.

This pattern – adults worried and kids pretty much perfect – continued. We stumbled into an airport hotel around midnight near JFK, with a whole day of our magical trip lost. But then this happened: My son jumped in the bed and asked to go swimming. My daughter, beaming, told us it was like we had two vacations – first a New York trip and then an Italy one! Their attitudes carried us through the worst weather-related travel experience of our lives.

Finally, we got to Italy which, naturally, presented its own difficulties. We went to a supermarket to buy Thanksgiving dinner and it turned out to be a “supermarket de scarpa” – of shoes. The kids thought it was hilarious even as I swore.

That doesn’t mean the kids were always easy. Far from it. But neither our developmentally disabled son and hyper-verbal daughter were more likely to cause trouble at any given moment. Both kids have strengths and weaknesses. He’s distracted by police cars, loved police officers, and personally tried to shake the hand of every one of the 200 carabinieri we saw in Florence. He threw a huge tantrum when I tried to hurry him through the well-guarded Piazza della Signora. My daughter, on the other hand, demanded every single Kinder egg (small plastic toys contained in eggs made from terrible chocolate) in Italy, tried to pet every dog in Rome, and whined too much about wanting more gelato.

Down syndrome can make life harder. When I went off to my conference, my wife decided to stay close to our apartment, not wanting to risk him wandering or a behavioral collapse. Our son’s limited diet required us to pack a bag with pretzels, Cheerios, and to learn the words for cottage cheese – one of his major sources of protein (fiocchi di latte). At least Italy can always guarantee a supply of plain noodles, his preferred lunch item. Other countries would be harder.

Off to Italy. (Courtesy of the author)

But he also excelled at moments when his sister struggled. I was never prouder of my boy when, exhausted by the trip to Rome, he grabbed his suitcase and followed his mother right to the taxi and climbed in. His sister threw a tantrum, refusing to sit in the middle seat for reasons known only to herself.

Travel is hard. Travel with children is harder. But we’ve reached a point where it’s clear neither of our children have special needs. They just have needs, like all kids, and travel teaches us both how to improvise solutions to unexpected problems, while distinguishing the needs from the mere wants.

David M. Perry is a history professor and a freelance writer who focuses on disability issues. He can be found at How Did We Get Into This Mess and on Twitter @lollardfish.

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