When a friend sends you an email that asks, “Wondered if you might want to stay in our apartment in Paris in the shadow of the Centre Pompidou while we are gone in July?” there is, I believe, virtually no circumstance under which the answer would be “No.” Thus my family’s recent vacation to Europe was not so much a matter of choice as proof of the power of logic in the universe.
Nothing is more boring than other people’s travel photos, so I’ve distilled our two weeks on the road down to five images that encapsulate the entire trip.
Image 1: Mama Goes Grizzly. During our stay in Paris we were warned about the danger of pickpockets, who carry clipboards in search of tourists naïve enough to agree to sign their fake petitions as a ruse to get in close. Two of them relieved our youngest child of her camera in the middle of a crosswalk with such alacrity on July 4th that we didn’t even realize it had happened until we reached the sidewalk, by which time they had disappeared. The incident, unfortunately, unleashed my lizard brain and for the rest of the trip I attempted to create a protective web around my kin through verbal warnings, aggressive gestures, and liberal use of the Stink Eye. Which is why my husband was left saying to a shocked street artist in Montmartre who I’d sandblasted, and who was guilty only of carrying a sketch pad and a bit of charcoal, “Je suis désolé. My wife supports the arts. Just not pickpockets.”
Image 2: Another H&M! A trip to Europe with kids ages 11 and 14 can and should be an opportunity to expose them to the great sights of the Continent: Versailles! The canals of Amsterdam! The British Houses of Parliament with the clock tower that contains the bell called Big Ben, which is not actually the name of the tower itself as you will be corrected by your child every time you make that mistake! However the real guideposts that marked our trip go by the names Hennes and Mauritz. “Can we check out that H&M – the clothes are different in every country!” we were assured. Over and over and over.
Image 3: We’re Fine Sitting in the Alley, Really. Don’t Worry About Us. Yes, we are American, and aside from the way we gently squeeze our wallets to disperse Euros and Pounds all over the major cities, there is little to recommend treating us with courtesy. That, at any rate, appeared to be the common theme with the European wait staff we encountered. Menus ripped from our hands in a café on Rue St. Germain in Paris because we didn’t order enough, a waiter in Kensington Garden’s Orangery who simply didn’t bring our food, and a Dutch bartender who snorted aloud at our order: service with a sneer.
But our favorite was the owner of a tapas restaurant in Amsterdam who led us around concrete barriers that marked the end of the restaurant’s outdoor seating to guide us to a wooden table and bench in the mouth of an alley that was stacked with building materials – leaving just enough room for four bemused Americans to squeeze in, out of sight of other patrons. If the patatas bravas hadn’t been so damn good, we probably would have complained.
Image 4: We Made It Through the Rain. Just before we left I bought a rain anorak on a whim. If you were to see the full photo album, you’d recognize it as the coat I am wearing in Every. Single. Picture. Because from the Low Countries to Old Blighty, it dumped rain every day. Not steadily, not all day, but in fits and spurts that influenced every choice as in, “Better tour the inside of the palace first, I don’t like the look of that cloud” and then “Oh, there’s the sun, let’s vault over those Italian schoolkids and get outside!” One day we waited out a downpour in an Amsterdam café over a lunch of croquettes and pannekoeken, left as soon as the sun peeked out but got only one block before the rain started coming down sideways. We ducked into a café to wait again, this time over lemon cake and cookies, and made it as far as a gourmet grocery store with a pastry counter before the next shower. Rest assured that the “blouson” effect of the anorak was all me by the end of the trip.Image 5: Mom Cries at the Harry Potter Studio Tour. The New York Times said, and I paraphrase here, “If the Harry Potter movies are heroin for J.K. Rowling fans, the tour of the English studio where the movies were filmed is methadone.” On the last day of the trip, we walked into Leavesden Studios outside London with two levitating children and hundreds of visitors from every country. Standing in the lobby waiting for the three hour tour to start, I looked up at the giant photos of the movies’ young cast through the years, listened to the cacophony of languages, and watched young visitors (and yes, a few creepy grownups) in their Hogwarts cloaks. Then I burst into tears.
“MOM!? Are you crying?”
I tried to explain that I was thinking of all the writers I know, every writer who thinks “Why am I bothering with this? Who cares what I have to say?” I was simply overcome with gratitude that J.K. Rowling did the hard job of ignoring her inner critic and plunged ahead with a tale of good triumphing over evil that became a central part of my kids’ childhood.
Write on. You never know who is out there, just waiting for your words.