Before Zev was born and just after I left Microsoft, Michelle and I loaded up two backpacks, rented out our house and vagabonded around Europe for three months. We didn’t have an itinerary, only a vague sense of wanting to get to know the world in a deeper way, searching for the “authentic” experience.
It was a fantastic trip: we met new (local) friends through couchsurfing.com, bunking in their spare room or joining them at local bars. We met a fellow traveler at a hostel, rented a Florence apartment for a month and learned Italian idioms from her Umbrian amour. We bought bikes, cooked meals, hosted brunches. We toured, flaneuered, and raconteured. All in all, an epic adventure.
Traveling after Zev was born was different. Very different.
On the plus side, a child can be your passport into personal experiences. Old women will stop you in the street to pinch your children’s cheeks and offer them treats, and when your kid starts playing with other kids on a playground, there’s not much to do but strike up conversation with the other parents.
On the other hand, children don’t like to sit at pubs chatting up strangers. Children don’t like to stroll and marvel at the architecture. Children don’t say “yes” when asked, long after midnight, whether the newly minted sommelier should open the sixth bottle of wine at his private dinner party. Children get grumpy when they’re hungry.
OK, adults get grumpy when they’re hungry, too, but they at least understand what the word “hangry” means.
So, when we decided to pull Zev out of kindergarten and give vagabonding another go, we were under no illusions that it would be the same trip as last time. Still, it was icy water in the face every day when we looked at the gorgeous, medieval cities and towns we were staying in, listened to the boisterous laughs from the tavernas and cantinas, and knew these would be denied us, that we would venture no further or deeper than a six-year-old could go.
It was rough in the beginning (and Zev’s food allergies made it rougher, as did the fact that we left some of his critical medicines in the fridge in Seattle, exacerbating his allergies, but that’s another story). We were tired, hungry, and felt mocked and tantalized by the opportunities that surrounded us, just out of reach.
Eventually, though, we hit our stride and hit on some ideas that made a big difference. So, I thought we’d share them here, should you ponder something similar (and I highly, highly recommend you do.)
Couchsurfing for a Babysitter
Couchsurfing.com was originally conceived as a way to help budget travelers find locals to stay with, both to save money and also to connect to the communities they were visiting. When you stay with someone, or someone stays with you, you are obliged to write a short review. Consequently, it’s become a network of people in local communities happy to interact with travelers, all with reviews written by people who have spent serious time with them. And, because of the budget nature of the system, they tend to be folks who could use a few extra bucks in their pocket.
So there’s no reason you can’t use it to find a sitter and can enjoy some adult time, either day or night. Heck, hire yourself a nanny for a week. Can’t hurt to ask, right?
All major cities or areas have a dedicated message board, or Group on Couchsurfing. So feel free to post a note that you’re looking for a sitter or nanny.
This worked fabulously for us in Lisbon, where we had a half dozen or so responses within in an hour, and we could pick and choose who we wanted by reading people’s reviews (“had a great time getting drunk with him” lost out to “funny, creative, independent, interesting, warm, a good cook, spontaneous, adventurous, strong, vulnerable, beautiful, smart, responsible”). As a bonus, our sitter even offered to act as personal chef, if we wanted.
What a huge difference even a few nights out alone, with uninterrupted adult conversation made to our mental health.
On the other hand, in Amsterdam, where the message board was crowded with pleas from college students shouting for a free place to crash after a night of partying, the locals seem to have tuned it out. Several notes posted there saw no reply. YMMV.
We’re not TV people (we don’t own one), and generally shun the notion of videos as babysitter. We also felt strongly that we wanted Zev to be present with us, experiencing everywhere we went, talking about it with us, not with his eyes glued to a screen (even if that did offer the promise of actually being able to have an adult conversation for more than two minutes at a spell).
Still, when you’re three months on the road without a playmate for your child, and he’s an intensely social kid, perhaps a bit of Netflix can be tolerated.
Unfortunately, due to copyright laws, our US Netflix account was blocked in Europe (and the same went for Pandora, the streaming music service.)
Enter the Tunnelbear. Install TunnelBear on your laptop, iPhone or iPad and it will “tunnel” your Internet traffic through a server in another country, such as the United States, making it appear to the host as if you were accessing it from there rather than here. At $4.99 / month for unlimited use on up to three devices, it’s money well-spent.
If you want to get a real feel for a city, know its smells and hidden gardens and side streets, stay out of cabs: they whisk you by things, cities become blurs of avenues and highways, punctuated by photograph-friendly tourist stops.
Walking puts you there, flowing through it all. You catch glimpses through open doors, learn the smell of stone laid when roads didn’t need to be wide enough for cars, and maybe even stop to chat with strangers.
But it can be tough to cover ground unless you have adult legs. And your kid does not have adult legs, as they will remind you at every turn (“I’m tiiiii-urd!”)
Which is why biking is such a great way to explore a new city. And better yet, more and more cities are embracing bike sharing programs: pay a small fee and you have virtually unlimited access to a bike for getting around. Just pick up a bike or drop it off at any of the dozens of kiosks spread around the city.
Awesome for adults, but these programs rarely (if ever) have an option for kids.
Enter the Tyke Toter, a lightweight, easy to pack device that allows you to attach a small bike seat to the front of your own bike seat, nestling your child between your arms as you hold the handlebars.
I prefer it to a rear bike seat, because it let me talk with Zev while we road (I had his ear), and gave him a better view of what we were passing (instead of just staring at my back).
Michelle, clocking in a solid half-foot shorter than me, couldn’t easily see over Zev’s head when he was in the Tyke Toter, though, so it didn’t work for hr. (Fortunately, she was able to borrow a bike with seat from one of our AirBnB hosts and then rented a bike with bike seat for our two week stay in Amsterdam, so she got some company on her bike, too.)
Bonus bike tip: if you’re going to be in one spot for more than a week or two, go into a used bike shop and ask their policy on buying back bikes. We found one shop that offered to buy any bike they sold us at fifty cents on the dollar. For a cheap bike, it works out to less than renting for two weeks.
Bring Something Share
If you want your kid to play with kids along the way, sharing a playground may not be enough. Zev felt intimidated by the fact that the rest of the kids shared a language, and he would shy away from interactions for fear of misunderstandings. (A not unfounded fear, given the propensity for even common-tongued children to turn sharp-tongued.)
Giving your child something attractive to bring to the table can help. Instead of feeling like he’s on their turf (their playground, their games, their language), your child can be the hero, bringing something interesting and novel.
Our friends Debbie and Peymon suggested we bring a blow-up ball, which we did to some success. Every kid wants to play with a ball, it’s fairly open-ended, lending itself to a variety of games, depending on how many kids are around and their ages. And because it gets passed around, there’s less issue with hogging than, say, a remote controlled car.
In Morocco, we bought some extra twirling helicopters from a street vendor (at ten cents apiece), and then shared with the other kids who came to see how they worked. And at one campground in Portugal, I broke out our portable speaker and created an impromptu dance party for the kids, a huge hit.
Budget Extra Time
All told, this had the biggest impact in making our trip a success: we weren’t rushed. We stayed three weeks in Seville, a month in Lisbon, and two weeks in Amsterdam (and shorter lengths in a number of other spots). I wouldn’t recommend three weeks in Seville to adult tourists, you’d run out of things to do and see quickly. But with Zev as part of the equation, there was only so much we could do in a day (even less than you’d think).
If we were trying to cram three cities into two weeks, this would have been infuriating: we would have felt that if we didn’t push him to keep going past his limits, we would miss out, and no way were we going to have spent all this money just to play Legos in a hotel room in Lisbon!
But with a month at our disposal, taking an afternoon and spending it all at one park with an exceptional playground, or even not making it out of the apartment until mid-day while Zev recuperated and assimilated was no problem.
Maybe having that much time is an unattainable luxury, but don’t plan a trip that’s going to leave you resentful at your child for being a kid. Take a break, look at things through their eyes, let go and relax.