One of the greatest perks of expat life is the travel. Proximity to places we only dreamed about visiting from the States means we can hop on a plane or roll down the highway from our little Lux and be anywhere in Western Europe within hours. Our four kids are young (aged nine and under)…one just took her first steps; they’re all small enough that they still want to cuddle before the light goes out.
This year, we’ve traveled a lot. A real lot, and it’s fabulous! But it’s definitely not always easy. Let’s face it — sometimes it’s a total sh*tshow.
A quick weekend can take months to plan, weeks of preparation, days to pack. The final hour before departure is occasionally far from glamorous. “Did you grab the passports?” “Kids, get in the car!” “We’re running behind!” By the time we leave for the airport or load up in the van, I’m usually exhausted from dragging around suitcases, running up and down two flights of stairs for hours in a frenzy to accomplish as much as possible while the baby naps.
And once we arrive at our destination after a travel day, actually moving four kids from point A to point B is an exercise in crowd management. From the elevator to the restrooms, through security or crowds, onto trams, up stairs, down escalators, onto planes, out of cabs, across streets, away from deadly ledges (this is a biggie in Europe where most everything is “at-your-own-risk”)…. And the only way the baby will nap while we sightsee is if I carry all 21-pounds of her on my body for hours like a pack mule.
So why do we do it? And why do we keep doing it? It’s so much work. No one sleeps quite as well, even though we rent flats with multiple bedrooms and we travel with an entire suitcase that’s filled with white-noise, night lights and monitors.
Because it’s incredible. It brings our family together like nothing else has or possible could. We’re explorers, a registered team in our very own Amazing Race. We’re navigating the unknown. Making memories.
We’re creating our family’s story.
It shakes us out of our routine. When we’re walking medieval streets in Lisbon, eating lunch on the Eiffel Tower, riding a roller coaster in Copenhagen’s Tivoli, running through poppy-lined vineyards in Champagne, or boating the archipelago in Stockholm, the kids aren’t still in their pajamas at noon, watching their third Peppa Pig. They aren’t bored, arguing about whose yoyo is green and whose is blue. I’m not doing laundry. Rob’s not mowing the lawn.
We ARE pushing ourselves to experience life in a new and different way. We’re stretching, growing, learning, tasting. Being present in the moment. Being together. Living fully. When we rent people’s homes in different parts of the world, it opens our eyes to other lifestyles — the kids see bedrooms that are simpler, a life with fewer toys; Rob and I learn to cook in a less equipped kitchen, to hang dry clothes when there’s no dryer (I know! Life without a dryer!).
It forces us to be adaptable. Stuff happens; you deal with it. Lose a sightseeing day because three kids barfed through the night… Forget the carrier, so the baby won’t nap on the go. Rent a house near the Red Light District…oops. Leave a suitcase by the front door. Lose two kids for a terrifying few minutes in Paris. Leave the double stroller several hours-drive away. Neglect to bring clean underwear. Shred a tire in the mountains. Realize you’re not staying on the beach but in the Maritime Alps. Show up at the wrong terminal and sprint through an airport with four children. Assuage hungry kids when there are no pit stops for 100 km (road travel is different in Europe too). Weather an allergic reaction on a Sunday when all pharmacies are closed. Search out antibiotics in a remote mountain town. And the worst of all scenarios: the lost lovey or two…or three (read about that here). C’est la vie. Each one makes you realize that we can handle most anything that may come. It’s not that each scenario doesn’t come with its own brand of stress in the moment, but you learn almost nothing is insurmountable; no temporary hardship trumps what we’re gaining in our shared experience. It forces us to be creative, to learn what we can live without, and to know our limitations.
Travel. It’s exciting. It’s exhausting. It’s priceless. It’s expensive. It broadens our perspective. It makes us deeply appreciate home. It makes routine, normalcy, the hum-drum…absolutely lovely.
And, we’re getting good at it. The more we travel, the more streamlined we become. The kids better understand what’s going to happen and how to improvise. They understand our expectations of them. Like playing piano, the more we practice as a family, the more easily our fingers fly over the keys. We still have melt downs, sibling tussles, and all the other things that come with family life…we’re just doing it together in cool places.
The thing I will take away from this experience is less WHERE to travel and more HOW to travel. Packing light, being nimble. Forging ahead when things don’t seem perfect….and finding that they can be just as great, or at least create a terrific memory or hilarious story.
Going anywhere to experience something new as a family — however near or far, and regardless of whether it’s free or five-star — is worth the work and expense. It’s a million dollars in the bank in terms of how these trips shape our life, our collective memory, our future interests, even our neuropathways.
While our experience abroad is allowing us to travel Europe, I think the gift it’s really giving us is the courage and confidence to travel well anywhere. One day when we live in the States again, I can hardly wait to show my children all the beauty and history in the place we call home.
Sometimes travel with kids hard, and it probably won’t ever be harder than it is right now. So why do it?
Because. It’s incredibly rewarding and it’s worth it.