After a pretty difficult, dangerous first post in the Foreign Service, we had the incredible luck of being assigned to a European post on our second tour. Knowing that this may be our only chance to live in a place where it’s so easy to visit so many places, we’re trying to make all our time here count: our goal has been to visit a different country each month. (Right now, we’re in the midst of a flurry of Nordic trips to take make sure we’re visiting them when there’s still sun but not TOO much sun: we just got back from Stockholm, Sweden, soon we’ll go see the fjords in Norway and a few weeks later I go to northern Finland with my mom to explore our Finnish roots.)
Albert and I both liked travelling earlier in our lives. And we still do. (I’ll go farther than that: travelling is a part of who I am. Really, it’s a love.) But, now, we’re not travelling as individuals: we’re travelling as a family. I used to say, when I was still backpacking my way around with friends, that you see the best and worst of each other when you travel. Well, when you travel with a child, I find that PART of that rule still holds true: you see the absolute worst in yourself as a parent and, often, in your child.
It makes sense… Your child is out of her home environment, with all the normal routines, toys and snacks that are so important to her. She isn’t particularly interested in beautiful vistas, historical buildings, museums or that unusual local food. You have expectations about what you want to see, do and eat and you have often already invested money to get there to do so. It’s a situation ripe for conflict.
And, we’ve had our fair share of conflict. On our first trip outside the Benalux area (thus our first trip that required more than just an hour or two drive), we went to London. The morning of the first day found us trying to get Kahlilah to stop rolling around on the disgusting floor of the Tube station in the throes of a full-fledged temper tantrum. Albert threatened he was about to go back to our hotel, not to come out again. The afternoon found us trying desperately to keep Kahlilah entertained so we could at least walk by (not even go in) world-famous sites like the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey. I ended up breaking down in tears, wondering whether this would be our last trip like this…why spend the money to travel to places when we couldn’t actually go in and see them?
So, what to do? Well, over the last few months, we’ve been charting a new course for us travelling as a family.
The first step was for Albert and I to TRULY accept the fact that we could no longer travel in the same way we did as individuals; we adjusted our expectations of the amount and type of activities we could do. Adjusting our expectations translated almost instantly to greater satisfaction. But, adjusting expectations didn’t mean giving up everything.
The second step was for us to be better at planning and prioritizing for trips. For our recent trip to Stockholm, for example, Albert and I both wanted to see the Stadhuset (where the Nobel Prize banquet is held) and the Vasa Museum (where a stunning ship, sunk in the 1600s and raised in the 1990s, is shown). I also wanted to take a ferry around the Archipelago, while Albert wanted to see the Royal Palace and the changing of the guard. Researching and prioritizing isn’t just about what Albert and I want to do, though; we are also careful to research if there are playgrounds near what we want to see/do and attractions that are more appealing to children. For example, in the process of researching Stockholm, we learned about Skansen (the world’s first open-air museum cum zoo, petting zoo and children’s museum). One parent blogger called it a “must see” for parents with children, so we added it to our list of priorities. Finally, we make a short list of things we’d like to do ONLY if we have time and if things are going well. For Stockholm, these optional activities were to check out the shops in the Old Town, Junibacken (a children’s museum dedicated to the Swedish author of Pippi Longstocking and other tales), the Nobel Museum and the Photography Museum. We ended up being able to briefly do the first two activities but not the rest.
The third step, and this one was really important, was to learn how to better recognize the clues Kahlilah and each other give as to when we need to “adjust fire” during the trip itself. This can mean recognizing when Kahlilah is hungry and/or tired and/or restless and we need to stop what we’re doing and get her fed/rested/exercised. This can mean recognizing when one of us is tired and losing patience and the other needs to “take the reins” dealing with Kahlilah. This can mean recognizing when it’s best that we take turns visiting a site, so that the person visiting the site can actually enjoy it and not be worrying constantly about Kahlilah breaking something/talking during a tour/having a tantrum and Kahlilah can enjoy some down time and not have unrealistic expectations placed on her (e.g., I saw the Royal Apartments at the Stockholm Palace, while Albert let Kahlilah run around outside and then I watched her while Albert saw the Palace’s Treasury and Museum of Antiquities). And, this can mean recognizing when something just isn’t working out (e.g., when we went to Stockholm’s Old Town and Kahlilah was having none of the shops) and we need to switch activities (in that case, we went on a boat ride and then Skansen so that Kahlilah could run around for awhile).
And, the fourth step was to learn to appreciate things that we were doing (and not doing) that we wouldn’t have if we were travelling as individuals or as a couple. A good example of this was visiting Skansen. Albert and I probably would have gone to the Nobel Museum and the Photography Museum if we were there by ourselves, but I am SO glad we went to Skansen. It is such a treasure. We went there for Kahlilah, but I think Albert and I got just as much out of it as Kahlilah did. Furthermore, travelling with a child slows us down. And, that’s not a bad thing. (Heck, we’re a couple that overscheduled our honeymoon!) The time that Albert and I get to sit on a park bench while Kahlilah plays is precious—after all, it gives us time to relax and appreciate the trip.