Europe With Kids: The Good, The Bad, And The Awesome
If the pretzel looks like it was baked as a stunt, don't put it in your mouth. The more you know.
Before I begin, hi! How are you? I missed you, Smarties! It's good to be back!
And where from am I back, you might ask? And "HOLY SHIT WE TOOK OUR KIDS TO GERMANY AND PARIS" I will answer triumphantly and with a bit of residual exhaustion!
This year marked my Smartner's 40th birthday. You know, the guy whose family comes from Germany and whose German cousins visit us annually? That one. And all he wanted for his birthday blowout was to take our Smartlings to the old country to visit our cousins and experience life as they live it in their small village outside of Frankfurt. We tacked on 3 days in Paris at the end of the trip because of this person, who has been devotedly obsessed with France and all things Parisian (especially the Eiffel Tower) since she was 5:
Berets courtesy of Shannon Brugh herself! Smartling wears them all the time.
Not pictured: the Eiffel Tower postcards on the wall by her bed, the French flag curtain she created in her room with crepe paper, or the Duolingo alerts I get via email reminding me that she speaks more French than I do.
I was expecting the trip to be hard. I was expecting it to be a hot mess that we all learned from rather than enjoyed. And, at times it was. But what I wasn't expecting - EVER - was how absolutely fantastic it would be. Truly, readers, those 2 weeks were packed with those usually rare moments where the whole family, ALL of us AT THE SAME TIME, were happy and excited to be traveling together.
To sum up, it was magic. Magic that required hard work, planning, and the cooperation and support of our generous hosts and extended family, but magic nonetheless. Rather than returning with a vow never to haul my kids around the globe again, I returned already forecasting what our next European adventure would look like.
That's right. It was so great that I wanted to spend 11 hours on a plane smelling strangers' farts with 2 squirming kids AGAIN.
Like I said, magic. Settle in. I'll tell you all about it.
1. Family Time & Pace of Life
Our absolute favorite parts of the trip was spending time with our cousins at their beautiful and comfortable home in Bockenheim an der Weinstraße, a picturesque village in German wine country. The pace of life they have cultivated was so soothing yet orderly, and something I really want to emulate in our own family now that we're home. What I enjoyed most was weekend morning breakfasts, during which we all sat around the table for a good, long time sharing bread, different kinds of sausage and cheeses, Nutella or chocolate piled on buttered rolls, fruit, juice, and coffee. It was such a gentle and warm beginning to the weekend, and so much more connected than my family's tradition of sitting in front of screens after a perfunctory bowl of cereal. I want to have German breakfasts here, maybe with friends coming over to share the meandering, casual, friendly meal. It didn't happen last weekend because OH, HI, JETLAG, but this Sunday I'm planning on slipping out early to pick up some rolls from a nearby bakery to make our own German breakfast tradition here in the states.
Overall the general vibe I got from staying with family in Germany was that Germans enjoy their leisure and work-free time like other continental nations and cultures do, but that in addition to that they like to have their acts together. Dinners are long and languorous, AND the trains run on time. Families spend time together talking and playing games after dinner, AND the infrastructure is fantastically maintained. See? Slower life, but not compromise when it comes to efficiency. I can dig it.
2. Being Surprised
It is absolutely no surprise to loyal readers that I am a planner. I love a list, a goal, a chart, an itinerary. But on this trip I left nearly all of the planning to my Smartner, whose dream vacation this was, and our relatives, who know the country. As such, I was in the rare and privileged position of being surprised by so much of what we experienced on our trip.
For example, our family suggested that we visit the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz because our 13 year old cousin had been with her class on a field trip and there was a neat print shop where the kids could use simple printing presses. "Fine," I said, "sounds good."
Then, when we got inside, I realized that I was in a former rare book researcher's* dream! Because, people, I had only considered the printing activity for the kids without considering that I was in the goddamned Gutenberg Museum, which features GODDAMNED GUTENBERG BIBLES. 4 of them! That I accidentally took pictures of before reading the sign saying that it was verboten! The building was full of original Gutenberg printings of Martin Luther's fiery treatises, beautifully illuminated manuscripts, and printing presses that spanned the ages. I could not have geeked out harder, and I never saw it coming.
Gutenberg Bible (Sorry, Gutenberg Museum! I was just so excited!), Johannes Gutenberg and his new best friend, and Smartlings printing like pros.
This happened again a couple other times on the trip where I found myself saying "Oh, wait! THIS IS AWESOME!" because I hadn't exhaustively researched and pre-experienced our travels before actually executing them. I don't know that I'd recommend this strategy for every adventure, but it did send home the message that sharing the planning load can lead to unexpected pleasures.
Lest you think I'm casting too bright a light on our successes and doing some web magazine version of Fakebooking, read on to...
1. Jet Lag
OH MY GOD, IT'S THE WORST.
Our littlest Smartling suffered the most from jet lag and actually spent a morning vomiting before miraculously recovering after a deep 3 hour nap. She never exhibited any other signs of illness for the rest of the trip, so our assumption was that she was just so exhausted that her body gave up on digestion to save energy. We eventually wound up giving the girls Benadryl to help them accumulate some hours of sleep at night while they adjusted, which perhaps isn't ethical but sure is effective. Thank goodness we brought it.
Poor sweet pea.
What we didn't bring, however, was any kind of sleeping aid for the adults in our crew save from 2 Tylenol PM I had floating around in my toiletry bag, which was nowhere near what we needed to sleep at night. The only over-the-counter sleep aid I could find in a German apotheke (pharmacy/drug store) was herbal and not effective. On our next trip I'll bring sleeping pills from home for me and more Benadryl for the kids. Those long nights of wakefulness and longer days of fatigue were so difficult and, to a point, avoidable.
I didn't intend to overpack, and I generally am great about packing light. However, the day before we were set to pack up, the weather reports included thunderstorms and days of rain in Germany. So, on top of our minimalist wardrobe choices I frantically added boots, raincoats, long pants, and long sleeves to our inventory. All of this meant extra pounds to lug around which, on a multi-country trip, meant sore shoulders and significant huffing and puffing in train stations and on city streets.
But here's the thing, we didn't really need all of what we packed. We had access to laundry the whole time and could have been doing a daily load to keep up with clothing needs, and we were never really going to go tromping around in pouring rain as long as we had small children to take care of and cars (a rental and family cars in Germany; Uber and taxis in Paris) at our disposal. We could have easily done without a quarter of what we packed and made things easier on ourselves.
Packing light would have left more room for more dirndls!
Likewise, I filled our two carry-on backpacks with activities and toys and art supplies and books for days when, really, all the girls wanted to do on the plane was watch movies on the in-flight TV's 8 inches from their faces. While a gallon Ziploc of colored pencils and mini coloring books came in handy during long meals in restaurants, and the teeny Shopkins I bought for them boosted morale on long car trips, mostly they were happy with their cousins; their cousins' pool, trampoline, and Perler beads; and the occasional show on the iPad for entertainment. Smartner and I never cracked our novels once. We could have saved so much weight and so much hassle had we assessed our needs more realistically, relied on digital entertainment, and left much of our backpack contents at home.
One exception to the overpacking errors brings us to...
1. Our Old, Beat-up, Broken-down Umbrella Stroller
If you intend to travel to and within Europe with a young child who can possibly still pass for stroller age, I highly recommend that you bring a lightweight umbrella stroller. My Smartner and I strongly disagreed on the need for one; he said we didn't need it because our littlest is almost 5, and I said we did because that almost 5 year old can be mulishly stubborn and melt down hard when overwhelmed. Ultimately, I prevailed, and we brought our nearly-dead umbrella stroller with us.
We only wound up using it in airports and one day in Paris, but on every one of those days that stroller saved our sanity and happiness. Upon landing in Frankfurt after a full day of travel, we faced a nearly 90-minute line at customs in a hot, airless room crowded with other unwashed travelers. Because we had a child in a stroller, though, we got to cut ahead of the line and zip right to baggage claim. Then, when our day devoted to walking the Champs Elysee and going up the Eiffel Tower burst into full sweltering, sprinkling, humid bloom, it was the stroller that made the day at all possible as our little girl melted into its seat and wept wearily.
Don't worry. A quick and thorough application of chocolate gelato on the 2nd level of the Eiffel Tower revived her.
Another great tip: Kids are easily renewed by ice cream and Orangina, both of which are widely available throughout Europe.
Finally, as traffic and poor planning worked together to give us only 2 hours to make it through Charles de Gaulle Airport security, it was the kid in the stroller that again gave us the cutting privileges that allowed us to make our flight.
In short, if you're debating whether or not to bring the stroller, bring the stroller. You may not need it all the time, but when you do need it it can save your whole trip.
It is no exaggeration to say that the judicious use of a stroller past traditional stroller-age made this dream come true.
2. Our Kids' Flexibility
Listen, if you had asked me prior to this trip whether or not my kids were flexible and able to roll with unexpected problems and improvised solutions, I would never had said yes. And yet they were both able to rise to the challenge of international travel with remarkable grace. Yes, we had some tears in a sidewalk cafe. But, yes, some snuggles and good food and the discovery of a beautiful and historic sweets shop nearby dried them right up. Yes, there was a huge tantrum in Musee L'Orangerie. And, yes, we were able to recover from it to enjoy beautiful art and one another's company.
Without having tested our kids on this trip, we might never have found out how resilient and understanding they could be. Without facing frustration together, we might not have learned how to work through it together. Without having traveled with our kids, we never would have discovered what good travelers they are. And that, along with all the fabulous memories of our adventure together, make it all worth it.
Smartlings & Monet's Water Lilies. NBD. Totally normal. Just another weekend. Ho hum.
Now, I know that this was an expensive, luxurious, once-in-a-lifetime kind of a trip. And I know that this kind of trip is out of reach for most families. But, to amplify the excellent message in Scarymommy's "Take The Trip," let me just say, uh, well, TAKE THE TRIP.
Maybe not this trip. Maybe not even an out-of-town or overnight trip, but some kind of travel that takes you and your family out of your usual routine and forces you to experience some kind of challenging novelty together. Because even at its absolute worst, this trip made us smarter, closer, scrappier, and more connected to one another and to others. Travel does that. Confronting new cultures, experiences, and our reactions to them does that. And the effort of facilitating that kind of broadening challenge is so, so worth it.
Here's to Europe! Here's to family! Here's to traveling together! Cheers!
It's juice. I swear.
*Which I am!