EVERY traveler feels the tug of competing yearnings: one for the strange, one for the familiar. To experience the strange -- Egyptian pyramids, Hawaiian beaches, Italian frescoes -- is the most obvious motivation for leaving home. But even an adventurous traveler is pulled as well by the potent lure of the familiar -- a lakeside cabin visited summer after summer, a favorite small hotel in Paris, a particular pub in Dublin. We may travel to see what we have never seen, but few of us don't also seek the comfort of what we already know.
This conflict was much on my mind during a recent week-long trip that my eleven-year-old daughter, Laura, and I took to Great Britain. Planning (and continually revising) our itinerary was largely a matter of seeking a balance between the weird and the well known. This is something that all travelers do, whether consciously or not, but it's crucial with young travelers, who may not yet be sufficiently numbed by ordinary life to welcome novelty as an end in itself. As a result, for the sheer sake of familiarity we did a number of things that I would never have done if I had been traveling with other grown-ups or by myself -- such as eat dinner at a Scottish McDonald's.
Great Britain is strange and familiar at the same time, and thus is a good destination for an American kid making a first trip abroad. The language is almost the same, but not quite. The buses have an upstairs. The cars look different and travel on the wrong side of the road. Laura and I had a great time, and I had many opportunities to reflect on what it takes to pull off a successful trip abroad with a kid.
The first challenge faced by any globe-trotting family is that foreign places tend to be alarmingly far away. The ideal travel accessory would be a board-certified anesthesiologist, who could knock out your brood before you left for the airport and gently revive everyone after you had cleared customs on the other end. Keeping fully conscious children entertained for many hours while strapped into uncomfortable seats is no joke. When our kids were little, my wife and I used to travel with enormous bags of library books and hope that we wouldn't have exhausted them all by the time the plane left the ground. A major turning point in our family's emotional history occurred on a plane ride several years ago, when Laura, who was seven, spent thirty minutes reading to her brother, John, who was three. That half hour, during which my wife and I skimmed in-flight magazines and held our breath, seemed almost like a second honeymoon.
Now that the kids are older, long flights don't seem so long. Laura had her pile of books and magazines, and I had mine, and we didn't bother to watch the movie. But most of the other kids on the plane, I would judge, had too little to do. There aren't many three-year-olds who can make it all the way across the Atlantic on a half-filled Pocahontas coloring book. Even Game Boy loses its luster after a couple of thousand air miles. Weary parents may look forward to the prospect of simply being able to sit down for half a day and have their meals brought to them on trays, but their children are unlikely to feel the same way. For kids who aren't eager readers, one of the most agreeable time-killers is a Walkman and a handful of recorded books (a broad selection of which is available at many libraries). Age-appropriate mystery stories are especially effective: even a jaded kid, once hooked, will hang on to find out who the murderer is.
Distance has another downside: kids need more sleep than grown-ups do, and jet lag affects them more. I can usually bluff my way through a five-or-six-zone time shift, but the change from Eastern Standard to Greenwich Mean Time hit Laura pretty hard. (Neither of us has managed to acquire the knack of falling asleep in an airplane seat.) The transition was made more difficult by the fact that we took a night flight and thus arrived in London early in the morning, hours before we could check in to our hotel. Wandering around in a sleep-deprivation-induced fog is not the best introduction to a foreign capital. I should have either made sure that our room would be ready at eight in the morning, even at the expense of paying for an extra night, or booked a flight that arrived at a time when it would have seemed normal to go to bed. Our first day in Britain struck Laura as alien and disorienting, and it wouldn't have if I had planned better.
I also made the mistake of thinking that Laura would get a kick out of what I see as a quintessentially British experience: staying in a small, inexpensive bed-and-breakfast hotel in which one's charmingly uncomfortable room is at the end of a maze of stairways and passageways, and where the bathroom is down the hall if not in another postal zone. After one night in such a place I realized my error, and we moved to a hotel with big rooms, real showers, and elevators. My mistake was in overlooking the significance of a surprising fact that I remember reading somewhere: most children's favorite part of Disney World is not Space Mountain but the swimming pool at their hotel. (My kids confirm this. When they wax nostalgic about their own trip to Disney World, which we took a couple of years ago, they talk about the pool, the water slide in the pool, the place where we ate breakfast, and a snack bar where they could make their own sundaes -- but almost never the Magic Kingdom.) Laura's and my new hotel didn't have a pool, although the one where we stayed in Edinburgh -- the distinguished old Balmoral -- did, and that turned out to be Laura's favorite.