Imagine hearing the following comments made from a pair of adolescents while on a family vacation abroad: "The Hermitage has one of the most incredible collections of old master painters I've ever seen!" "It's understandable why a revolution occurred in Russia after seeing these ornate palaces and wasteful displays of wealth." "This borscht is not to my liking, but it was interesting to try it." "There is a real attempt to preserve the old architecture in Europe and it's fascinating to see buildings that date back to the 1100s." "In quite a few European countries, the monarchy still exists. It's amazing to see this tradition in practice today."
Now, hear reality: "The catsup's really watery here and it tastes funny." "Things take forever to get done here!" "Those guys must be dying in those hot uniforms and shaggy hats and stuff!" "Chips are crisps and fries are chips Ñ weird!" "These old buildings really smell inside! Haven't they heard of air freshener?" "Open-faced sandwiches are a pain to eat." "Their money weighs a ton!" "This ice cream really rocks!" "Look at all the McDonald's everywhere. They're even selling hotdogs at that one!" "Beet soup, yuck!"
Yes, out of the mouths of my babes came those precious gems on a recent family trip, combining a cruise of Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland), Russia (St. Petersburg) and Estonia with a stay in London. Traveling abroad with children (in this case, 12- and 14-year-old boys) is a unique experience that guarantees much laughter and a host of new insights that will constantly amaze you. It is a wonderful opportunity to open eyes, elicit an appreciation of cultural differences and provide multiple chances for kids to be put in situations outside of their normal comfort zones.
A cruise is a delightful way to travel through parts of Europe, particularly for families with children. The ease of transportation from port to port, the ability to eliminate the hassles of changing accommodations from one city to the next and the opportunities for relaxation on board a ship make travel abroad in this manner relatively easy and extremely enjoyable for all ages.
For Scandinavia, the cruise experience is especially wonderful due to the many islands, fjords and breathtaking scenery available only to those traveling by sea. Our ship, Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas, the newest of this cruise line's fleet, was stunning in its design and interiors and came equipped with a host of cushy amenities and recreational opportunities for all ages. There were over 250 kids on board (from all over the world) for our sailing in early August, and several cruise directors were available to plan a multitude of activities for tots to teens. On sea days, my kids were off on their own, either participating in programmed activities with other kids, or doing their own thing, independent of a group. My husband and I read on deck, took a dip in one of the many pools, luxuriated in a spa treatment (I highly recommend the hot stone massage!), spent time planning our itinerary for the next port, took in the excitement of an art auction, worked out in the state-of-the art exercise facility or simply enjoyed each other's company, free of interruptions.
When the ship docked in port, we went off to explore the area on our own as a family (with the exception of St. Petersburg, where we purchased organized tours with English-speaking guides to help facilitate our way around the sights). Guidebook in hand, we set out to hit various highlights, keeping in mind our kids' interests, along with our own. We toured our share of historic castles, palaces, cathedrals and museums, but also took picturesque canal boat rides, perused shops and sat in outdoor cafes sampling local specialties, while doing what we enjoyed most Ñ people watching.
Balancing the tour element with the more simple pleasures of imbibing the senses is important when traveling with children. Trying to see every museum and historical structure is an unrealistic goal and will often lead to a general melt down, which, trust me, can get very ugly! I think this holds true with adults, too, because after a while, sights begin to blur and the whole experience tends to be overwhelming and increasingly difficult to digest. Our kids loved pointing out interesting and often humorous differences in cultures, as well as noting similarities while strolling through the streets and narrow passageways of the towns we explored.
And eating was a definite highlight for them! They were open to trying new foods and discovered what they liked (chicken Kiev, wiener schnitzel, citrus flavored licorice, every kind of gelato and "real" Danish pastries) and what they disliked (borscht, salted licorice, water with gas, herring and heavily piled open-faced sandwiches with, as my youngest said, "all sorts of nasty stuff!"). They took pride in mastering the challenges of learning to use different currencies, reading maps and negotiating a variety of transportation systems, from trolleys and trains to buses and the Tube (London's underground system). Realizing that it was OK to make mistakes, get lost or misunderstand people, made them relax in their new surroundings and gave them confidence to take certain risks. They tried to learn some expressions in each language they encountered, even if it was just a simple greeting, and were delighted when they could use these new words successfully.
As we went from port to port, they became more astute at noticing ways of life and customs of each place. They were able to articulate how healthy, wealthy and clean many of the Scandinavian countries appeared in comparison to the depressed states of Russia and Estonia. One of my sons noted how "gray" it seemed in the latter two countries and how hard life must be for the people. He said, "You can see it in their faces, Mom."
They heard firsthand stories from people about the poverty and economic struggles in these places, but more importantly, they saw with their own eyes evidence of these problems. Not once, but many times, did my kids mention how lucky they were to be living in the U.S. They acquired a newfound appreciation for the opportunities afforded to them, simply by being Americans.
At the end of each day in port we returned to the haven of the ship where each of us could digest our experiences in whatever way we desired. We knew the children were safely on board and free to roam about the ship with their newly made friends and the only decision we had to make was what to order for dinner that night! At the end of the cruise, we were fortunate to be able to spend several days exploring London, which is a particularly wonderful city to experience with children. So many of the city's landmarks are famous and well known by most kids, so it's especially fun when they become reality to them. London is also a very accessible city to get around in and everything is well marked.
Highlights for our family included visiting Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Parliament, the Tower of London, Wimbledon (just outside of London) and the Eye (London's gigantic ferris wheel built for the millennium), as well as taking in a performance of "The Lion King," riding a double-decker bus, cruising down the Thames, eating lots of fish and chips and partaking in the customary high tea event (picture two active boys at a table with bone china, pots of hot tea and a host of finger sandwiches in an elegant tea room. I say no more!).
Our three week trip went by quickly, leaving us with a wealth of great memories to last us a lifetime. As a parent who believes in travel as an educational as well as recreational pursuit, I hope that each time my children leave home for a new destination, they become more flexible, adaptable and knowledgeable about the world in which they live.
The learning outcomes may not be readily apparent after such travel, but over time, hopefully my kids can process what they experienced and see its lifelong value. I can only wish that years down the road my children will not only remember the watery catsup and beet soup, but the emotions they felt seeing Russian dancers performing traditional Cossack dances in one of St. Petersburg's oldest palaces or the eerie sight of ravens resting on the Towers of London, testimony to a tradition that has lasted hundreds and hundreds of years.
More importantly, I hope they treasure the little moments, the laughter and the family camaraderie that made such an experience so special.