“There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.”
Adult travelers often focus on the “must-sees” according to travel guides, and by concentrating on checking them off, they often miss finding a true sense of the place. Traveling with my young children not only gave them experiences and memories, it opened my eyes to new ways of looking at places and taught me to savor flexibility. They forced me to slow down and be more open to whimsy.
My children resisted behaving like tourists; they simply slipped into the rhythm of places we traveled and enjoyed the adventure of discoveries beyond the obvious. Their adventures are some of my most indelible memories.
Restaurants can be tricky with kids but would I have noticed the chocolate ice cream in a certain French restaurant was pink? Probably not. I seldom order dessert myself but the delight they exhibited at the surprise color brings sweet memories and I learned something unexpected.
I’ve never been invited into a restaurant kitchen while dining but they have, and I remember peals of laughter when an Italian chef did tricks for them using raw eggs and pretended to be a chicken. Then he came out of the kitchen with them and demonstrated for mamma and papa to have a laugh too.
Restaurants also encouraged them to learn bits of new languages. They quickly picked up the words for favorite foods and drinks like pommes frites and aranciata. Often finding it hard to sit still for long, they would learn how to ask where the bathroom was in the local language and query the waitstaff. The answers to “Dov’e toiletta?”and the like gave them an excuse to explore.
Archaeological sites were places to romp and pretend. I still remember their “fort” among the rocks at the back of the Trevi Fountain and how a living kitten eating strawberries and cream was more important to them than the dusty legend of the Minotaur in the labyrinth at Knossos.
They sought out and exulted in nature. Whether it was finding and nursing abandoned baby rabbits in Maine, catching and releasing frogs in a pond in Massachusetts or riding a tractor, shooing chickens and trying to milk a cow in Poland, they found adventure everywhere. Like most kids, if mud was involved, all the better!
They even enjoyed an outdoor presentation of an opera because it was Aida and many large, live animals were involved. When we were allowed to go backstage and pet the elephants before the performance, they were excited and the variety of animals in the Triumphal Parade at the end of Act I was a highlight for them.
One outdoor adventure was unforgettable for another reason, however—it could have been deadly! Used to garter snakes in New England, they were excited to find a snake in our Italian garden and asked to take it for show ‘n tell. I agreed and swept it into a cardboard box until our neighbor came along, shouted “una vipera!” and killed it with a machete. I couldn’t believe I almost sent a viper to school. Another learning experience via my children.
I learned from and enjoyed the children’s books we found abroad and read together. The graphic Asterix and Obelisk series made the adventures of Gauls and Romans funny and their Swiss adventure still makes me laugh about fondue. When someone drops their bread into the cheese, I’m tempted to yell, “Into the moat with you!”
When my husband was transferred and we adults couldn’t wait to move out of the hotel and into a house, they were content swimming in the hotel pool and climbing trees nearby to pick fruit. And when they fell in love with the runt of the litter born to a dog we met at our hotel, she became our seventeen-year companion.
Sometimes we sought out things specifically for the children’s enjoyment and ended up feeling like kids ourselves. One memorable example was a visit to Schloss Hellbrunn near Salzburg noted for its unique trick fountains. Getting squirted with water was never so much fun!
My children often moved strangers in any language to make friendly overtures (a ride in a fishing boat, anyone?) and that helped my own cultural integration and language learning.
They also had no fear of joining activities conducted in other languages, whether it was an Italian swim or soccer club or an Austrian tennis camp or ski school. Waiting with other parents for them to finish lessons gave me more chances to practice speaking a new language too.
Children adapt well to travel but that’s not to say it’s always a seam-free lark. Mine had occasional meltdowns and knee scrapes. The exotic was occasionally as overwhelming as it was fascinating. They got bouts of homesickness for their friends and sometimes wished for familiar foods, but these were all temporary bumps in the road. On the plus side, they absorbed a lot of geography and history because they could relate to places on a personal level and the desire to communicate with new friends helped them to appreciate the benefits of multilingualism. Overall, I think travel made them more curious and adaptable, less judgmental and more open to friends from all backgrounds. I hope they consider the journeys of their childhood as worthwhile and fun as I do.