Monday, July 26, 2010

Zen and the Art of Traveling with Children

Rick Steves, the travel writer, says that people frequently ask him where to take their children during their European vacation. His answer is “to Grandmom’s house on the way to the airport.”

Traveling Europe with small children is chocked full of complications. What will they eat if everything on the menu is French and covered with sauce? How do you fit three children and two adults into a European sized hotel room? What do you do if your six year-old is tired of walking and is now begging to ride in the baby’s stroller? Where will you ever find a bathroom in a country where public bathrooms do not exist?

I would love to introduce you to the women on the playground at my children’s school. They collectively know more about traveling Europe with children than any travel author I’ve ever found. Children throwing temper tantrums in a long immigration line? Pull a latex balloon out of your purse and start a slow motion volley ball game. Worried about your potty training toddler on that long road trip? The best rest stops in Europe are in France. Going to Paris? Don’t waste your time at the Louvre, take the sewer tour and then climb to the roof Notre Dame Cathedral for a view of the city.

My biggest discovery here has been the Giet, or self-catering apartment.

Giets are everywhere in Europe, but I love the ones in the countryside. These rural gemstones can be almost any kind of building, from a modern apartment on a German family farm to an 18th century French pigeon coop. They offer enough space for our family of five, as well as the holy grail of all travel with children, a kitchen. This allows us to cook our own breakfast and dinner each day (saving hundreds of Euros and tons of wasted food).

If you have a willful and frequently defiant three year old, like I do, a giet also offers enough privacy to put that special someone on time-out without disturbing other guests.

When we first started traveling here, I made the mistake of booking a hotel room in an 18th century cloister in Luxembourg. The walls were paper thin. The frail antique doors did not even fit the door frames. Every footfall in the corridor could be heard two floors below. To make a long story short, we left early because our little one acted like a two-year old. On that trip, we learned a valuable lesson: just because a hotel offers a “family guest room” does not mean that they really want a family in it.

While planning a trip to Normandy, I found a recommendation for a giet that was a Pigeonnier, an ancient French pigeon coop. I was thrilled to see that the stone walls were two feet thick! “Ahhh, this is the place for us”, I thought. The kids could make all the noise they needed or wanted to make! We could cook our meals at home. There were two lovely bedrooms on separate floors. The farm offered a swing set, a barn full of animals, and a pond for fishing. Best of all, it was cheaper than a Motel 6. We went and had a fantastic time.

Another thing I’ve learned about travel with little ones is to allow them to be kids. Places that involve running and jumping will become immediate favorites. Distances further than ¼ mile are best covered by stroller for little ones and razor scooters for big ones. (Yes, we bring our razor scooters everywhere we can). Avoid museums where you can’t touch anything and guided tours that involve standing still as if they involved electric shocks.

Most importantly in this year of travel with children, I’ve learned about myself. Those of you who know me know that I am not the most patient person. I can be intense, direct, and perfectionistic. I believe I have been given these three children to teach me about patience.

Lately when I'm traveling and the kids are acting up, (especially my Audrey who is going through a screaming phase), I imagine jumping waves at the Jersey Shore. Jumping waves in the ocean is all about letting go of control. If you fight the wave, stand your ground, insist on having your own way, you are in for a nasty tumble. But if you let the wave happen around you, time your jump, enjoy the rise and the fall, you’ll find yourself on the other side before you know it.

With a little special planning and some good advice, we’ve had a wonderful time traveling with our children. Difficult moments are just waves in a big ocean. They will be over soon, so time your jump, keep your head above water, and enjoy the ride.

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