Travel -- November 1996
be fun for a parent, too
by David Owen
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.
Grown-ups like nice hotels too, of course. But kids are more likely to view the place where they stay as the point of the entire exercise. I know this from my own early travel experiences. Among my very first memories are several hazy details of the interior of an old hotel on Cape Ann, in Massachusetts, which I visited with my mother and grandmother when I was three. The hotel made a far deeper impression on me than did the ocean, which I was seeing for the first time but can't remember at all. In fact, a good-sized hotel may seem to a kid like a sort of miniature foreign country: there are strange natives, interesting shops, mysterious corridors that can be explored, and the miracle of room service.
FOOD is a pivotal issue for underage travelers. Every once in a while one hears about an eight-year-old who eats salad, but most such stories surely belong to the category of urban myth. Even at home my kids have trouble finding much they consider edible. Feeding picky eaters in a foreign country -- especially one where the native cuisine is difficult for even an adult to defend -- can be harrowing. The lifesaver in Laura's case was pizza, which along with Big Macs and Whoppers has become a sort of culinary lingua franca. Personally, I am sad that the world is becoming so much the same. But it's a big relief for kids.
Although steak-and-kidney pie didn't interest Laura, British candy did. Candy is a subject of intense interest to most children (see the novels of Roald Dahl), and it is one in which they can often claim expertise on a professorial scale. Studying the confectionery peculiarities of another culture permits a young traveler to savor the tension between what is known and what is not. The British Mars bar, Laura discovered, is what an American child would call a Milky Way; British Skittles, in contrast, are nearly identical to their American counterparts, with the notable exception of the purple ones, which taste more like Wine Gums (an indigenous sweet that appalled both of us). She took similar pleasure in poring over British teen magazines, searching for Britishisms in the English editions of books she knew from home, and scrutinizing the inventories of British toy stores. Among other discoveries, we learned that in Britain G.I. Joe is known as Action Man.
Shopping for strange candy and hanging around in toy stores may seem to an adult like activities too frivolous to be part of a big, expensive trip abroad. But a kid's world is different from a grown-up's world -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, one of the biggest benefits of traveling with children is that they force you to take a hard look at the true entertainment value of your itinerary. Because kids' threshold of boredom is low, they usually can't tolerate the sort of dutiful sightseeing that adult travelers may also hate but seldom resist. A grown-up visiting London, for example, might feel a moral obligation to spend an afternoon at the British Museum. But if the grown-up is traveling with a child, he or she can bypass all that boring plundered sculpture and go instead to the London Dungeon. Situated way over on the other side of the Thames, the London Dungeon is a garish tourist trap. Still, it does a better job than the British Museum of illuminating the most darkly fascinating side of British history. Where else can you learn the exact technique for burning a heretic, or see a lurid re-enactment of a medieval torture involving the abdomen of an immobilized prisoner and a cage containing a hunger-maddened rat? You wouldn't go if you didn't have a kid in tow. But, well, why not?
Because we were unconstrained by adult convention, Laura and I also went to the trouble of driving a rented car from Edinburgh to Aberdeen for the sole purpose of taking one of the longest possible sleeper-train rides back to London. Had I been traveling with my wife, the idea of such an excursion would have seemed silly to both of us. Because I was traveling with an eleven-year-old, I got to have the fun of reading myself to sleep in a gently rocking berth while our train skimmed across northern England. Like her, I had more fun at the London Zoo and Pollock's Toy Museum than at Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London; like her, I got a kick out of snooping in the school-uniform department at Harrods. We skipped the pubs, the plays, and the National Portrait Gallery, but I didn't feel deprived.
One of our trip's key moments came after we had been in London for a day or two. At first Laura had been a little intimidated by the Underground, London's excellent subway system. The Underground is different in every way from New York's subway system, the only other one she knew. In addition to comfortable seats (perhaps the biggest difference), there are variable fares and tickets instead of tokens, and you have to turn your ticket back at the end of your ride. After a couple of trips, though, Laura could handle it all herself, and her feeling of mastery made London open up to her. Acquiring local competence is a major breakthrough for all travelers, but especially for kids. Figuring out the buses, learning to handle the money, making yourself understood to native speakers -- all of these are steps that make a visitor feel less like an alien and more like a local. By the time we left, Laura felt that she belonged.
Not all parents would be captivated by the idea of taking a trip abroad designed around the interests of a pre-teenager. But any parent traveling with children would do well to remember that kids and grown-ups have different agendas. The good news is that bending a trip to the interests of a child can be fun for the adult as well. Although we planned our itinerary with Laura's interests in mind, I never felt that I was condescending. As you get older, youth itself begins to seem like a foreign country. If you have a knowledgeable guide, you can sometimes feel that you are visiting it again.
Illustrations by David Hitch
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1996; Innocents Abroad; Volume 278, No. 5; pages 46-49.