Taking school-age kids to Europe's fine capitals and enjoying their sophisticated reactions to all things chic, elegant and different is one of parenting's greatest pleasures.
In preparation for my family’s summer vacation to Europe, I made a list on my computer of all the places I wanted to visit with my 8-year-old daughter: the Eiffel Tower, Westminster Abbey, the Louvre, Big Ben and the list went on. I had been to Paris and London several times in the past and couldn’t wait to share these fabulous cities with her.
But I knew that seeing the sights would only be part of our vacation experience. My daughter’s enthusiasm for European culture took me by surprise — and what a great surprise it was. Not only did she enjoy playing tourist and learning the history of each city, some of our most treasured moments and memories were totally unexpected.
Parlez Vouz Francais?
One warm Sunday in Paris we were hoping to do a little shopping after exploring the Arc d’Triomphe and Eiffel Tower. But with the stores closed, we ended up at Luxembourg Gardens. Here we found great amusement in the many pieces of artwork spread around the park. Then we stumbled upon the playgrounds, where I knew my daughter would easily find hours of entertainment.
The vast play areas were awash with children, and a small entry fee gave us access to a fenced-in playground with plenty of seating for parents. This area also included a snack bar, carousel, pony rides and other child-like indulgences. A group of adorable French girls, who were so thrilled to exchange their language and games, befriended my daughter.
After this precious afternoon, a long discussion of the world’s languages, origins and questions such as “Why can’t we all just speak the same language?” ensued. My daughter was very frustrated in Paris by not being able to understand what was going on around her. She promised us she would learn at least four foreign languages in her lifetime!
After long days of touring, we regularly enjoyed relaxing evenings watching TV. It was great fun to compare our programming with that in Europe. We definitely got a better understanding of each country’s sense of humor. We witnessed side-stitching, hilarious game shows in France and home design shows in England that gave us a glimpse into their light-hearted way of thinking and living. We were a bit disturbed about Great Britain’s obsession with their version of “Big Brother” when we witnessed middle-school-aged children playing out the TV show’s roles in a playground one day.
Money Makes the World Go ‘Round
Despite a terrible rate of exchange between the US dollar, British Pound Sterling and Euro, we still enjoyed some shopping, especially at the famous department stores in Paris. The buildings themselves are worth a visit for their architecture and design. The lack of any decent values left us with little to buy, but gave my daughter a great introduction into world economics and currencies. We talked about rates of exchange, about the new Euro, how Europeans are traveling cheaply to America, and more. Perhaps on her next visit to Europe, the dollar will be stronger and the shopping will be more fun!
Mind the Gap
My daughter especially loved figuring out the methods of public transportation. It was like a game to her to determine the different options to get from one place to another. She used the colorful maps posted on every wall in the London Underground and Paris Metro.
Since we live in a city with little public transportation, she was fascinated by all the methods and ease of travel. It certainly made traveling around to see the sights a more favorable experience.
Finding affordable food and smoke-free restaurants was a challenge for us. We weren’t too adventurous in trying a variety of cuisines, but managed to eat more than pizza on a few occasions. My favorite Moroccan restaurant in Paris did not go over that well with my daughter, but I loved it. She was particularly enthralled with tasting candy not found in the U.S. This led us to pay more attention to the fact that there were so few overweight people wherever we went. The number of trim, fit Europeans was so noticeable that it gave us something to think about. Luckily, all the walking (I was amazed that my daughter could walk so far each day) helped us keep fit during our trip.
Overall, our European trip was a great success.
We were fortunate to stay in a rental house in Wimbledon, outside London, where my husband was working for a few weeks. Here, we really got a feel for suburban British life. We scoured grocery stores for new and interesting foods, ordered Chinese take-out and played in area parks. We went to the city often: to the theatre twice, strolled through Covent Garden, rode the London Eye, took a tacky tourist bus ride (not recommended in a city with so much traffic!), did an audio tour of Westminster Abbey, watched the guards at Buckingham Palace, and more. We loved dashing into London’s red telephone booths, and looking both ways several times before crossing the street.
In Paris, it was very hot. Without air-conditioning at our hotel, we had to use the bathtub for cool water rinses each evening. Despite the heat, we managed to take a bateau trip down the Seine, visit the Louvre and Eiffel Tower, climb to the top of the Arc d’Triomphe for a nice view of the Champs Elysees and stroll the streets of the Latin Quarter. We even took in a movie to get out of the heat. And, we fell in love with fresh baguettes and the kid’s meal toys at McDonald’s that played French pop tunes.
Our trip on the Eurostar, the high-speed train crossing the Chunnel under the English Channel, made linking the two cities a breeze.
The most important lesson I learned was that everywhere we went, we could have a wonderful time by just soaking in the culture. My family can’t wait to try it again, in another new destination, soon.
Travel specialist Lauren Goldenberg, fondly known as “The Family Traveler” to her clients, tends to her agency and family in Atlantic Beach, Florida. Learn more about her vacation-planning services at this link.
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