Don’t judge a book by its cover and, similarly, don’t judge traveling with children by an Instagram feed. It’s not glamorous, it’s not easy. It’s sort of like your own life at home, but harder. That was a foreboding start, but I think anyone who has traveled with their little ones would agree. You’re out of your routine, often hungry, tired, you’ve rented an Airbnb and it’s not childproofed so you’re constantly on guard, your noise machine broke as soon as you tried to plug it into the converter (just us? We didn’t even bother with one this trip!) and motorcycles go loudly buzzing by right outside your window, you have a lot of unanswered questions (where’s the grocery store? how do you say bathroom? why are all the restaurants closed right now? is there an ATM close by?), kids are strapped in strollers, car seats, needing to stay (somewhat) still on trains or planes… you get the picture!! When Steve and I first came to Italy, just the two of us, these questions never entered our mind. It’s a whole new ballgame when you’re traveling with kids. So let’s dive in.
I should’ve prefaced it with this: I love traveling with my family. I wouldn’t turn down a trip to practically anywhere with them. We’ve made such good memories, I feel like they’re getting a priceless experience, I hope, pray, and imagine that we’ve planted a love for travel and other cultures by doing some of the travel we’ve done, and I love the idea that they recognize (or are at least beginning to) that the world is so big, with so many different types of people in it, who do things so differently from us.
But it’s still hard.
Take this morning for instance: Anders wakes too soon for his bedtime. Dammit. We eventually get out to coffee. Once there, he’s just acting up (he’s been extra squirrely, particularly when we sit down to eat, since being here. Tired? Just out of his element since he’s not in his typical space? Sick of being told, “shhh!”?? All of the above?). I haven’t ordered yet, but already it’s not going well. (Steve’s not with us, he’s in class, btw.) So I put him back in his stroller, and decide to go. I need to speak to him about his behavior in a way he will understand (he is 2 after all). Parker begins to cry because he really wanted this specific “mela” (apple) pastry. Parker was contributing to the acting up, so I explain that we had to leave because of their behavior. I hope I’ve communicated this to them, and we try another place that has outdoor seating which feels more forgiving of energetic kids. We sit down and I order–cornetto semplice for all, orange juices for them, and a cappuccino for me. I’m tired. (The sweet part of this story, and it is so unbelievably sweet, is that both boys, unprompted, looked at me about 5 minutes into our second place and said, “I love you Mom.” Or “Lala Mama” in Anders-speak. Sort of broke my heart and simultaneously wiped the slate clean.) So there we are. It’s going well. Eventually I have to get up to pay, and I hope I can do it quickly enough before Anders bolts. In retrospect, I should’ve put him back in his stroller at this point but then you risk all the other patrons hearing him cry (he’s sick of being in it at this point; we never usually have this trouble at home.) and that stresses me out. So I dart away to quickly pay while he sits at the table. But, of course, his sitting doesn’t last long and he’s running into the piazza. This piazza is a big, beautiful open space that’s somewhat quiet, but not entirely quiet. Cars do come through. I hear, “Bambino!” while an Italian woman runs after him. My bambino, of course. I’m there in a second (this is all very close proximity). “Mi dispiace, grazie mille,” I keep uttering over and over, totally embarrassed. Back into his stroller he goes and we’re off. We have to go to the grocery store before getting back. Now, this grocery store is tiny. The width of the aisles is not much bigger than our stroller, and add to that they’re always restocking their shelves at questionable times (namely, not when the store is closed, but in the middle of the day when it’s packed). That means these enormous wheeled carts are blocking the already tiny aisles and there’s virtually no way to get around with a stroller. (And I need the stroller, to carry both Anders and the groceries back to our place which is a few minutes’ walk from here.) I look at the line, blocking the entrance, and at myself with a stroller and two kids. It feels like all eyes are on me as I enter with my parade. “Here we go.” I eventually get past the long checkout lines and start to get my groceries, Parker, always eager to help (it’s seriously the sweetest thing), dragging a two wheeled cart behind him. He needs reminding to be behind me and not next to me. We can’t get through otherwise. An older woman in front of me has no interest in making space as I try to get to the produce. Not wanting to be rude, and not knowing much Italian, I stand behind her waiting. Anders begins to fuss. Another Italian woman, coming towards me, sees all of this and looks apologetically at me. We make it through, I pay, we get out and back to our apartment, up to the third floor, all groceries and children surprisingly intact.
La bella vita.
My point is that things can be challenging when you’re traveling! In some places more than others. Italy is one of my favorite countries ever and I’ll come again and again, but it’s not a modern country that caters to you, no sir. No, it can be difficult–especially with kids! I swear, it’s part of its beauty and long afterwards you’ll marvel at how you did it all while managing to brush and floss your teeth, and keep all children alive, healthy and in clean clothes. But you’ll have really rich experiences (and, in my opinion, be a bit tougher) in the long run. You’ll come to appreciate a simplicity and slowing down that they seem to have the market on, you’ll have delicious pasta and gelato, see some of the most stunning vistas in your life, and, hopefully, make some wonderful friends–other travelers, or locals. You’ll sit at a cafe (hopefully you can do a bit of tag-teaming it, because cafe-sitting is one of the best things to do in a foreign country–ever!) in solitude, drink a Spritz, and watch people pass by hearing all different languages spoken.
So, I guess here are some of my tips: expect it will be hard. Have low expectations. Know you’ll be tired. Share the load with your partner–whether you need a nap or just a breather at a cafe, take care of yourself too. Tag team. It’ll be minimal, but important. Have an iPad along. Don’t worry so much about screen time. It’ll be infrequent if you’re out seeing the city everyday, so if you need a three hour mid-day siesta and put them in front of Trolls, so be it. Don’t have really ambitious itineraries. Kids chafe against those. Expect that you will see less of the city/country/etc. than you might’ve hoped, but have a way better time doing it. We spent a good chunk of one of our two days in Florence lying in the Boboli Gardens while Anders napped and Parker played with these little spiky balls that were hanging from the tree in front of us. They needed to just chill and their needs are important too. If you push them, it goes well for no one. Make things fun. We stopped at one of those Tiger stores (love them) and bought water guns. Filled them at a fountain and it made the wait for tickets at Pitti Palace fly by while the boys ran around and shot each other (and us). A scavenger hunt in a museum you just can’t miss (but that may not be so kid-friendly). When things begin to deteriorate, ask them what they’d like to do. Stop at a playground, stop at every playground! Have apples and nuts at the ready, all the time. They’re available everywhere! And finally, when you’re on this trip that you’ve been saving for, and have been looking forward to for months, and you just want to be home, that’s okay too. We’ve all been there. You’ll get your reset and hopefully sooner than later. Perhaps in the form of a slow late evening sunset over the piazza while you hold hands with your husband and drink a cold glass of wine looking on at your children who are giggling while running around playing chase with a little Italian girl, smiles on their faces, smiles on your faces. You’ll be reminded that traveling with kids, while tough, is also awesome. Reset. La bella vita, indeed.