This summer, my family went on vacation to Iceland (for a wedding) and Italy (‘cause, you know, Italy). We learned a lot, which I’m trying to adopt now that we’re home in Prospect Heights.
1. When in Rome...
While in Italy, we were forced to adopt Italian attitudes. On a few occasions we had to ride in cabs or shuttles busses without a carseat for our son, and when we picked up our rental car (and his carseat) outside of Venice, it meant a three-point harness for him instead of the standard US five-point one. My American self would have worried about such safety oversights, especially speeding down the sides of mountains at very many miles-per-hour. But we were in Italy! Land of kilometers and La Dolce Vita! At the urging of well-traveled parent friends, we had opted to fly without a carseat or stroller (see # 2), which liberated us immensely. And of course, the kid was absolutely fine, just as all the Italian children who ride in three-point harnesses every day are.
Ditto our vacation attitude towards bedtime, which was often ignored while we shoved our faces with gelato in a Piazza (see #7). We drank wine with lunch (well, my husband and I did). We slept until 10:30 the day we were supposed to go to the Vatican (and ended up getting in just fine around 3 that afternoon). In short, we relaxed. Which is what one is supposed to do on vacation. It was nice to have no expectations about how things were "supposed" to go, and we didn’t fret about our next meal, or how we were getting to the train station the next day, which I often find myself worrying over in my everyday life. Instead, we just were.
2. Travel Light
For a two week trip, the three of us brought two 22" suitcases and three backpacks (one of them toddler sized, which held all of the kid's toys). We crammed the few clothes we brought into stuff sacks, and did hand washing a couple times. I'll admit there were a few moments where we were all dirty and smelled kinda funky. But you know what? It was so liberating to be able to pack up and move on to the next place in less than half an hour. When we returned to Prospect Heights, it took three days before I grudgingly packed a diaper bag. But it's not half as heavy as it was before we went on vacation- it's got just the basics. I even ventured to the a few days after our return with nary a spare diaper or a snack in sight, and you know what? The kid survived. Which brings me to...
3. Anything Can Be a Toy
Part of what liberated us to pack light was letting go a little bit about the things all of us thought we "needed," most especially what we thought our son "needed." I carefully packed his favorite toys, and wrapped more than a few cheap plane gifts, downloaded some shows onto my iPad, and packed his favorite stuffed bear. But you know what he ended up playing with the most? The Kroners we'd picked up in Iceland and the Eurocents we were using in Italy. The ubiquitous maps we collected at every tourist spot. Tickets and receipts, which the kid "validated" and "stamped" in every "machine" he could find (for the record, a machine can be a doorknob, a set of pay-binoculars on the top of the Duomo's cupola, or a creatively-folded map). My husband's handkerchief was perfect for dipping into fountains, washing windows and snapping at imaginary pirates. And a $4 Pinocchio pencil we picked up on a lark was variously a magic wand, a talking guy, and a potion mixer that kept the kid occupied for days on end.
There were a few moments when we had to turn to the standards to reel him back in from the edge of toddler mayhem, but even then, far more in love was he with the soundtrack of Peter Pan which I'd downloaded at the last minute (and completely forgot about until the last half of our journey) than he ever was with watching the Wonder Pets. He spent hours lying on the floor of whatever bedroom we happened to be in, dreamily listening to the lost boys. Lesson learned? We don't need all these damn toys! I scanned his room upon our return and felt the urge to purge. And while I won't be throwing his scooter into the dumpster anytime soon, I'll certainly think twice before buying him- or me- something I think he "needs." I've got a pile of pennies saved up for a rainy day in my living room, and they ain't for spending.
4. Appreciate the Beautiful Things...
We went into this international trip with a two year old knowing that we might well end up just eating gelato in a piazza all day every day, and that was okay. It turned out that the kid was a trouper, and we got to see a lot of incredible places from the inside out, but just knowing we might have to settle with only glimpsing Saint Peter’s made us slow down and appreciate. We handpicked the sites we visited, learning from our first day in Rome that it was best to do one or two things well than undertake a frazzling many (that first day we tackled the Campo de Fiori, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Forum, Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and Piazza del Popolo, and we were all grumpy and exhausted the next day).
The entire ten days we were in Italy, we went to two museums: the Vatican and the Uffizi, and we had a fabulous time at both- even the kid!- mostly because we didn't have museum fatigue and could really appreciate the masterpieces before us. The other sites we tackled were adventures in themselves; we climbed the Campaniles in Venice and Siena and up to the Duomo’s cupola in Florence, and we bought vaporetto passes and took long rides up and down the Venetian Grand Canal. We went to the open market in Venice and the Mercato Centrale in Florence and ate and ate and ate (see #7). In short, because we didn't have any illusions about being able to see everything, we all had a wonderful time drinking in what we did. Upon our return to Brooklyn, I spent a good hour sitting beside the fountain in while the kid ran wild. It's not the Piazza Navona, but it's a pretty fantastic substitute that I hadn't fully appreciated before now.
5. ...But Find Beauty Off the Beaten Path
One of the most challenging things about having a toddler in your family is that you are forced to respect your familial limits. I'll admit, there were a few moments where I felt a stab of regret at not being able to read more about where we were going, or having to miss the Fra Angelicas at the Convent of San Marco or the Tintorettos in Venice. But there were plenty of things we experienced on our trip we never would have had we not been traveling with a toddler. The agricultural festival in a small town in Tuscany, for example, that we wandered into because the kid was desperate to know where that trumpet music was coming from. The chance to watch the light change over the Piazza del Campo in Siena (and the wedding party spilling out of the Palazzo Pubblico, led by a bagpiper) when it became clear that what the kid needed was a solid hour or two to just run.
I realized when I came home that when I'm with the kid in our normal life, I often feel the need to accomplish something, whether it be a grown-up thing (folding laundry, making dinner) or a kid thing (we have a playdate, we were going to go to the playground). It's hard for me to let go of these "plans," and I've taught my son that they are important. But it's also important to climb under the sheets and play mermaids every now and then, and I thank my son for teaching me that.
6. Drink a Lot of Water
I'm convinced that one of the main reasons we had such a blast in Italy was that we were so well-hydrated. Nearly every place we went had free-flowing water fountains, in which we could fill our water bottles, wash our feet, wet our handkerchiefs, and, in a patented move that drew more than a few guffaws from locals and fellow tourists alike, the kid doused his head in nearly every one in our path (forget that he refuses to put his head under the shower- we’re still working on that).
7. Eat Well and Often (When in Doubt, Eat Gelato)
We ate everything in sight. Bufala Mozzerella, Fiorentina Steak, Pici, Arancini, Peaches, Salami, Olives, and the most incredible Gelato in the world. The day after we got back, I went to the and bought an abundance of beautiful fruit and vegetables. I was reminded, in Italy, of what a simple and important pleasure eating is, and it was a joy to watch my son look forward to our every meal. Something to strive for in the "real" world.
8. Indulge Your Mutual Interests
There was not a single bookstore we passed in that entire country that my son didn't want to go into ("go into" is an understatement; he wanted to spend hours in every one, sitting on the floor, thumbing through books that neither of us could read). Of course he did- he's my son. And while there were moments it was annoying (when we were, say, lost and hungry in Venice), we discovered that we all had a good time when we embraced his desire for twenty minutes of book time, because that's what we love too.
9. You are Capable of Things You Can’t Imagine
I was a little nervous about the last day we had planned in Iceland, spent on a chartered bus that took us on the "Golden Circle Tour," a well-traveled loop featuring some stupendous natural wonders. I didn't know how the kid would do on the bus, strapped into a carseat, for what turned out to be a nine-hour day with seven stops, but he was incredible. He had the time of his life (as did we), and there was something about the fact that there was someone leading us (not to mention two older, enchanting children) that he respected in ways he never would if it had just been the three of us. We were dazzled by waterfalls, geysers, one enormous crater and scores of wild horses, and I learned that he can do a lot more than I sometimes give him credit for.
Likewise, we had planned to buy a cheap stroller when we got to Italy, but had a hard time locating one on our first day in Rome, and then we knew we wouldn’t be using one in Venice thanks to all the bridges, so we put it off. You know what? We never bought one. The kid walked miles every day and slept like a rock every night. I’ll admit, my husband also did an incredible job of shoulder and Ergo carrying, but that was a feat of theretofore unimagined capability as well- I think he kind of amazed himself with his own strength, and it amazed me too. Which brings me to…
10. Romance is Everywhere
I'll be honest: I had always imagined my trip to Italy as being alone with my husband. It's one of the most romantic countries, and there was something about watching young lovers cross the Ponte Vecchio hand in hand at sunset, or riding on a gondola together, that was easy to envy. But the truth is that nothing will make you fall in love all over again with your family (and your partner) than a vacation. Watching my husband carry my son in his arms reminded me of how strong he is, and how well he cares for us. Holding my son's hand as we skipped up an unknown street reminded me of the adventure we are on as a family. And I proved to be resilient and resourceful on long days of travel, and patient in the face of meltdowns. We had one spectacular three-way argument in the middle of a Venetian street that will make me laugh until I'm old and gray, but for the most part, we were a happy little pod of three, much the way we are back home, in "real" life, but without the stress and distractions. I remembered to slow down and let myself fall in love, and that's a lesson I want to remember every single day.