It’s now five months into our great European adventure and as the days tick down with the end in sight, we find ourselves asking whether we consider the trip was a success.
Was it worth selling our house and upturning our kids’ lives by taking them out of school to travel around Europe? It may be too early to answer that one; we’ll have to see what life holds for us when we get back. And it may be that our kids will offer a completely different answer than we will.
Hopefully, we’ve shown them that there’s a big world out there that is beautiful and inspiring and worth exploring some more. Maybe we’ve also given them a few unique memories to hold onto. (Though we’re still waiting for the thanks on that one. Sigh. It may yet come.)
Perhaps we haven’t seen as many countries as we thought we would have by now, nor as many sights, but we have been lucky to walk along some gorgeous streets, look upon some beautiful countryside, and meet some interesting people along the way.
After 21 weeks of travel, we’ve also learned a few lessons we would not have expected before we set out. Here are a few.
Natural wonders always beat historical wonders: Much to the surprise of my husband and me, some of the happiest days on this trip have involved not the great historical landmarks of Europe, but its natural scenery. Our days chopping wood in a cottage near Killarney, Ireland, for example, were so much better than our days wandering Dublin. Our kids much preferred hiking in England’s Peak District over visiting what they called “boring” Liverpool. The beaches of Sitges, Spain, still trump the architecture of nearby Barcelona in our kids’ eyes. And when the kids are happy, the whole family is happy. Yes, my husband and I would have preferred to see more museums, but family harmony is paramount on trips this long.
You can’t do it all: If we had had all the time and money in the world, it would have been nice to research the perfect itinerary for travelling Europe in the winter. But with neither, we could only pick a few must-sees and fill in the blanks as we went. In the rush, we probably made a few wrong calls, staying in some places too long and others not long enough, doubling back unnecessarily while missing other highlights altogether. But you can’t always know what you’re going to love about a place until you get there, so it’s important to let go of the idea of the perfect trip and just work with the decisions you’ve made.
There are lots of down days: Five months in Europe sounds like it would be filled with sightseeing and leisurely lunches every day, but the truth is long-term travel with kids is more like real life with a few mini vacations in between. Most of our days have been spent doing just ordinary stuff, such as scrubbing the bathtub at our apartment rental, grocery shopping and laundry folding, or teaching the kids how to add fractions with unlike denominators (Ugh.) These ordinary days can sometimes feel like squandered “lost” days, but they are the reality of long-term travel and are what allow for the fun days.
You’re going to lose stuff: Unpacking and repacking multiple times per month with two scatterbrained kids means stuff is just going to get lost. The boy started this trip with three T-shirts; he’s down to one. He has no idea how that happened. We have battled our way through many bad apartment rentals and I have to say, we lost a lot of good socks out there, but we haven’t lost anything major. We did manage to “forget” an e-reader in the back of a taxi, but thanks to my negotiating in cringe-worthy Spanish, we got it back the next day. I’ve fumed many times over all the little lost things, but as I’ve had to remind myself, all we really need are our passports and our wallets; everything else can be replaced.
Bigger is better: … At least, when it comes to apartment rentals, which is a lesson we’ve learned the hard way. It’s fine to cram four people into a studio apartment in Paris if it’s just for a few days, but the longer we travelled, the more we craved personal space. When you’re spending 24 hours a day with each other, there are many times you just want some space of your own to go read a book or catch up on the news back home. That’s hard to do when you’re on top of each other. Thankfully, since we’ve been travelling in the low season of winter, we’ve found that renting bigger places isn’t a whole lot more per night than one-bedrooms, and as we’ve gone on, we’ve realized it’s well worth spending a little more for a little more space.
Travel days get easier: I will admit I started this trip as a disastrous mess of a traveller, stressed out and worried we’d either forget something, not be allowed to board a flight, or that an apartment rental would turn out to be one of those phantom rentals you hear about in the news. While racing to the airport before each flight I would call out in a panic: “Does anyone know where the passports are??” “We have them. Settle down,” my husband would answer coolly, my daughter rolling her eyes (Again. Because that’s what kids her age do to mothers like me). But it’s gotten easier as the trip has rolled on and disasters have been averted. Even our kids, who used to get completely befuddled by subway turnstiles, have become expert travellers, breezing through security checkpoints without even breaking conversation. Travel days have in fact become their favourite days, they tell me, because they mean change and going somewhere new.
We can only hope this excitement for travel becomes the greatest gift this trip gives them.