Travel magazines and other parents made it sound educational, enlightening. Maybe it depends on the family.
While planning our family trip to France and Italy, we learned that Venice was built out in the hard-to-reach wetlands by Italians escaping hordes of invaders. By the time we arrived there, we couldn’t help but think Venice might have also been a good escape from our travel companions: our 8-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl.
Our hotel in Venice was a palazzo that had been in the same family for eight generations. There was a big, brocade-covered bed for us, and canopy beds on the other side of a wall dividing us from the kids. There was a fancy bidet—hilarious to our boy, and admittedly refreshing to us after a long train ride and the walk up and down over canal bridges in the August heat.
While I was still discovering the lovely details in the room—like a medieval out-of-use door—Sam started jumping wildly on his bed. I feared getting kicked out. I screeched at Sam to stop jumping, so he did, but then he thought it would funny to “fart on the old door,” which was right on the other side of the wall from the hotel owner's desk. Sam backed up to the beautiful door and let one rip.
Sam is always full of springs and noises and at the end of days when the rest of us are too tired to sit up. I don’t want to make excuses for rudeness, but maybe he craves attention because, at home, my husband and I work too much. In fact, I worked weekends proctoring exams for private testing companies to help pay for this trip.
The hotelier kindly looked away when we emerged from our room to go exploring. The exploring didn't go as planned, but it was par for the course. I thought I’d arranged a pretty kid-friendly trip.
When we were in Nice, for example, I only planned to go to one museum: the Matisse. Sam stopped in his tracks like a stubborn mule. “Matisse sucks,” he said.
“Please don’t say ‘sucks,’” I said. “Matisse irks.”
‘Irks’ is the better vocabulary word I tried to teach my kids to say instead of ‘sucks.’ I thought it sounded kind of edgy, like something that could really take off. In five years, my kids would know it was their own mother who started it all.
“The word ‘irks’ sounds idiotic,” Sam said.
I dragged him in anyway, but Sam and his dad breezed through in ten minutes and then wanted to go to the park to watch local men play the French ball game called pétanque.
Authentic French culture, I conceded. Fine. Anyways I didn’t have a choice. My husband had agreed with Sam, saying “Matisse is overrated.”
I’d read several of those articles about traveling with kids in Europe that make it look like a good idea. But once there, I wondered if those articles are just trying to help parents make the best out of their questionable decision. I’d based a lot of our plans on the articles’ advice, for example allowing extra time for the Louvre in Paris because I’d been reading about all the things kids enjoy in the Jardin des Tuileries right outside of the museum.
The article said that the Jardin des Tuileries has toy boats the kids can sail around in the fountain pools. A photo showed a girl about my son’s age romping in the fountain with her toy boat. It was 94 degrees in Paris on our day, so I couldn't wait to get knee-deep in the fountain myself.
We stepped off the metro to find no toy boats there at all. A sign said that it was “interdite” to go into the fountain. The kids walked right by all of the statues and the views and begged to buy cheap sunglasses and Eiffel Tower keychains from the unlicensed vendors who troll the garden.
Still, I forged ahead looking for a balance of arts and culture and fun things for bratty American kids to do. I entertained no illusions about conquering the whole Louvre. I really just wanted the kids to see the Michelangelo sculptures, the Venus de Milo, and the Mona Lisa. But by the time you walk to all of those, you’ve seen a lot more.
Sam was out of his mind by the time we reached the Mona Lisa and refused to look at it. I had to hold his head in a vice grip and point it at the DaVinci painting. “Look at her smile,” I growled. He focused just long enough to get me to let go. I started feeling like I was just stringing together tourist obligations into a vacation. Mona Lisa: check.
I guess I just had higher expectations. When your kids go to French Immersion school, they have friends who sometimes go stay for months in France, or Belgium, or Francophone countries like Martinique and Cameroon. While other parents might think it’s a waste to take kids to Europe when they could be too young to remember, some French Immersion parents do it every year.
None of the other parents have ever mentioned to me that their kids didn’t relish the opportunity to soak up all the language and culture. None of them had kids who had declared: “I hate art and history,” like Sam did on the Pont d’Avignon.
Most art and history anyways. Sam did like the glassblowing demonstration on the Venetian island of Murano. He said he might become a glassblower and train there, but he’d only want to have his business in Minnesota. It’s hot enough work already with the glass-melting ovens and the fire, he said. “You need to be somewhere where you can go outside and roll around in the snow after you make something.”
He’s really a good kid, I was reminded when Sam insisted on giving 2-Euro coins to beggars. “Mom, how would you feel if you were poor?” he asked. He kept coins in the pockets of his cargo shorts so he could donate at will. He also saved baguette crumbs in his pockets so he could feed pigeons.
After a while though, he got more selective and started stepping right over some of the beggars. Eventually, only the women lying dramatically across sidewalks got coins in their outstretched Dixie cups. He slowed down on feeding the pigeons too.
At 12, our daughter Zari was on her iPad during much of the trip, and showed a shocking lack of thirst for the culture after seven years of French Immersion school. She wanted to go shopping in all of the American-style stores in Paris, even though we have the same stores near us because we live ten minutes from the Mall of America.
Zari seemed more intent on doing her back-to-school shopping in Paris than on experiencing the most iconic neighborhoods and attractions in Europe. “What’s Montmarte and who cares?” she asked. “I want to go to the Abercrombie on the Champs-Élysées.”
She snapped some amazing photos with special kaleidoscoping effects on that iPad though. Those of the Eiffel Tower look like lacy black handkerchiefs modeled into modern abstract patterns.
But she’d seen so much of the voyage through the lens of the iPad instead of her own wondering eyes. Sam borrowed it at the Louvre to take kaleidoscope images of sculptural penises, butts, and breasts.
Zari suggested we punish him for being inappropriate, but I didn’t let her delete the photos because at least he had engaged with the art.
I think it had been a culture shock for our kids to be in Europe, where the focus isn’t on making children feel entertained and instantly gratified. They liked the French Riviera beaches, at least, and Italian gelato. And they’d played with the grandkids of a family we spent a night with in the Rhone Valley.
The Rhone Valley couple’s daughter had lived with us for seven months when she was a teaching intern at our kids’ school. Our former intern couldn’t be there at her parents’ house though. Teaching at an American school had perhaps been the impetus for her change in career path, so she is studying nursing in Belgium now.
At the last minute, our former intern said she could come down to France and meet up with us after all. She had a ride from a friend with passes to a place she just knew the kids would love: Disneyland Paris. Seeing our former intern had been one of our highest hopes for the trip, and one of the only things the kids cared about. So we instantly said yes, even though I’d planned our last day in Europe for Dijon.
Somewhere in the middle of the “It’s a Small World” ride I realized that seeing our old intern friend, and her family, had been the best part of the trip because friends and family matter more than my tourist checklist of cities and sites. Then I started to get homesick for the U.S. , because usually when we’re on the Small World ride we are at Disneyland in California visiting my younger sister who moved there, and I miss her all of the time.
Even though I’d nearly lost it a couple of times and wondered if our kids were spoiled beyond repair—and even though I’d almost told Sam to go jump in the canal in Venice and been tempted to leave Zari at the Claire’s in the cavernous Les Halles in Paris—when we returned home, our family seemed closer.
The kids were more patient, and maybe I was too. In the end, I’m glad we took the kids to Europe. It irked, but it did not suck--it turns out the two don't mean the same thing afterall. I think we’ll all have some good memories of the trip. And if the kids don’t remember, at least they’ll have those iPad photos to remind them.