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It’s Time for Fantasy with Dragan: In which we make an argument for international travel with children.

It’s Time for Fantasy with Dragan: In which we make an argument for international travel with children.

I don’t want to tell you what to do.  I hate reading those posts: “Top Ten Things Every Person Must Do in Order to Retain their Essential Humanity,” or whatever.  I do have my own strongly held beliefs, and while I don’t pretend that everyone will agree, I do respectfully submit, for your consideration, the following arguments for traveling outside the U.S. with your children.  (Note: this post is particularly directed at those of us in the United States for whom the geographic realities of life do not necessarily inure themselves to international travel.  The rest of you, keep doing your thing.)

For the record, we actually do not vacation with our children.  Never, ever.  We travel.  Vacation conjures up notions of rest, repose, enjoyment even.  Travel, on the other hand, can encompass all manner of dusty, sweaty, tear-streaked adventures that a person simply cannot expect to experience lounging in a hammock, fragrant tropical breezes gently caressing one’s brow.  Pshaw.

Cliffs of Moher
Windy walkabout at the Cliffs of Moher. County Clare, Ireland.

Why do we do this?  Why would anyone want to expend considerable time, effort, and money dragging an entire family to a foreign land, only to  subject themselves to the fickle hand of fate as wielded by the Travel Gods, and their minions on earth, Unpredictable Children?  Personally, I cannot help but recall an oft repeated phrase of my mother’s, “You can sleep when you’re dead”.  Okay, so that’s a bummer to think about, (and not the gentlest way to get a groggy child out of bed, by the way), but it’s oddly motivating, at the same time.  Life is short.  Have an adventure.

Don’t get me wrong, Disney World is fun.  It is actually totally amazing that the creative geniuses of Disney have built a magical place smack in the middle of an inhospitable Florida swamp.  Consider, however, that for what you spend on a Disney vacation, and perhaps even less, you can take your children to see a REAL castle.  A place where kings and queens were born, lived, and sometimes met really gnarly and gruesome deaths, deliciously chilling to learn about.  Kids love gruesomeness, do they not?  The truth is, there is a wide, wonderful world out there that often costs less, and offers unexpected benefits that can make your children savvier, more resilient, and better citizens of the world, than your standard domestic fare. And every once in a while, you might just have a little fun amidst all that personal enrichment whatnot.  For example:

1. The Obvious:

Foreign travel exposes children to languages, landscapes, and cultures different from their own.  Children who travel can see, even if they do not totally comprehend, that different people live differently depending upon their history and natural environment.  About two days into a recent trip to Montenegro, my daughter remarked that all the old houses were built out of the same material, stone, and wondered why that was.  This lead to a perhaps too lengthy exposition on my part regarding regional use of building materials, about thirty seconds into which my daughter completely lost interest and probably considered falling over in the style of a paralytic goat in hopes that I would stop talking- but regardless, a seed was planted in her mind, and one day she will very likely have cause to draw upon it.  Quite simply, travel is an education.  It broadens a person’s worldview (this is true for grownups as well, of course).  Maybe it’s overreaching to suggest that travel might be the path to word peace, but it surely can’t hurt.

Orava Castle
Orava Castle tour, Slovakia.

2.  Travel requires flexibility:

“Grit” seems to be the quality du jour that we parents are supposed to be instilling in our children.  Great!  Now I have to drop my kid off in the middle of the woods, and see if he can make it out on his own?  Who can find the time? Don’t fret.  Travel to distant lands is a great way to teach your children adaptability, creativity, and resilience.  On this same recent trip to Montenegro, we stayed in one of those old stone houses, purchased and renovated by a wealthy Dutch couple.  Built into the side of the mountain, overlooking the Bay of Kotor, it was a magical place to spend a week.  In our email exchanges with the owner leading up to the trip, she assured us that while she would not be present, there was a local man next door, Dragan, who would be happy to help us with anything we needed.  Were any problems to arise, simply knock on Dragan’s door, and although a language barrier was to be expected, we could communicate our needs using what she termed “fantasy”.  So there we were, strangers in a strange land, our only embassy a grumpy Montenegron olive farmer, whose happiness to be of service was perhaps slightly exaggerated by the owner of our rental.  In fact, our efforts at fantasy with Dragan were generally met with stony boredom, and an occasional tongue lashing from Dragan’s mother, who lived in a neatly kept cottage behind a stone wall, across the gravely path from her son’s homestead.  So cantankerous and inhospitable was Dragan, that “fantasy with Dragan” became a joke amongst our travel party, which also included grandparents and aunts and uncles, and a shorthand for the machinations we travelers must sometimes go through to obtain food and other necessities.  As it turned out, we had more opportunities to engage in pantomime with Dragan than we would have liked over the course of the week, most notably when we lost power during a storm, and could no longer flush the toilets.  Dragan showed us the location of a hidden circuit breaker, and after a few flicks of switches, the lights were back on.  Overcome, my mother in law impulsively flung her arms around his middle, and after a stunned moment, he wrinkled up his face in a smile, revealing a row of broken teeth that all our previous attempts at communion with this man had failed to uncover.

The process of trying to communicate with people whose language you do not speak is revelatory for children, whose worldview is often understandably narrow.  It is eye opening to begin to understand that modes of communication are not universal.  For American children in particular, who are unlikely to be exposed to languages other than English in their daily lives, it can be quite a novel experience to attempt to order off a menu, or ask the location of the bathroom, in a foreign country where few people speak their language.  It can be frustrating and intimidating, but when my daughter successfully navigates a social situation in a foreign country, her self satisfaction is as obvious as if she had leapt into the air in a twinkle of gold coins, Super Mario style.  These experiences accrue in ways both large and small over the course of any trip abroad.  I believe the take-aways have to do not only with resourcefulness, but a sense of universality of human needs (a child wandering, confused through the dining room of a restaurant is almost always looking for the toilet, after all), and sometimes poignant lessons about ways in which communication styles might not be shared across cultures- but let’s focus on the positive.

3.  Children are good ambassadors.

Eros Bendato
A junior linguistic mashup inside the Eros Bendato sculpture. Market Square, Kraków.

So, two things here.  One, people love children.  Two, children love one another.  Nearly everywhere we have traveled, it has been our children that have drawn attention from the locals, and invited camaraderie.  In a recent visit to Kraków, my son frolicked with a little girl in the old Market Square for the better part of an afternoon, while her father and I shared a bench, and the occasional smile at their antics.  No words were exchanged, although our children blithely gabbed to one another- he in English, she in Polish- the entire time, and my son still talks about his “friend” from Kraków.  My daughter passed a weary evening in the airport waiting for a delayed flight to Moscow, talking and giggling with a Ukrainian girl, after I noticed her glancing meaningfully at us as we skulked about the gate.  I encouraged my daughter to approach her and say hello, and in a matter of minutes they were laughing and comparing the contents of their backpacks.  A girlfriend of mine traveled through India with her extended family, which included an eight month old baby, and she told me that on one occasion, a restaurant worker delivering the news that the establishment did not have high chairs, then extended her arms in an offer to hold the baby while my friend’s family ate their meal.  All families who have traveled abroad can recount similar stories.  Perhaps your ugly mug has failed to make inroads with the local people in previous travels, but you will be amazed at the connections your adorable little urchins will make.  Give it a try.

and finally;

4.  It is easier (and cheaper) than you think.  

Krakow Beer
I’ll have 49 more, if you please!

A beer at Disney World costs like, one hundred dollars, right?  That sounds about right.  At that rate, you can order more than fifty beers throughout much of Eastern Europe.  And you are traveling through Eastern Europe with your entire family, so let’s face it, Papa needs those fifty beers.  Not only are meals and attractions usually less expensive in direct relationship to their distance from the beaten path, the advent of websites devoted to helping travelers identify accommodations that go beyond cramped hotel rooms, means that families of all sizes and varieties can find a comfortable place to stay at an affordable price while traveling abroad.  Don’t need a five bedroom vacation rental?  Why not bring Grandma?  She can babysit while you have a date night.  (More on traveling with extended family in a future post.)  Worried that your kids won’t do well away from their toys, amidst unfamiliar surroundings?  Having stayed in apartments, rented houses, and “pensions” in many different countries, it is my experience that basically the entire world is furnished by Ikea, so don’t sweat it.  Your kids will be able to play with poorly made wooden cars and stuffed toys virtually anywhere in the world.  Because I defy anyone to conjure an image more familiar and comforting to a child than a tiny wooden bed, with that ubiquitous plush carrot nestled on the pillow.

So, now that I have you all convinced to get those passports in order and hit the road, where is everyone going?  Tell us about your plans for adventure.  For those who have been abroad with your children, where have you been?  HOW AWESOME WAS IT?