After more than two weeks of traveling throughout Italy and Greece – a long-planned and saved-for trip – we’re back and I’ve tallied some of the practical lessons that I learned from traveling overseas with kids.
- Learn about the tipping culture in other countries. We’re used to American wait staff working for pittance wages and making up the difference in tips and we consequently tip well so that the folks can hopefully make a decent wage. What we didn’t learn until the third day in Italy was that European wait staff draws a regular wage and a tip is appreciated for very good service, but not expected, and about 10% is par for very good service. With the cost of a meal in a decent European restaurant, three Italian waiters made their nut in one fell swoop and they are now lighting votive candles to the patron saint of wait staff in our honor.
- Even if the kids are a bit older, and our youngest will be entering fourth grade, pay particular attention to where they are since the crowds can be simply overwhelming. Take proactive measures, such as dressing the kids in identical brightly colored shirts or hats, wearing your own piece of distinctive clothing to stand out in a crowd, assuring that the kids know in what hotel they’re staying so that they can tell police, and having a rally point in the event they realize that they’re separated. In our case, Youngest was separated three times – and honestly, none were due to his wandering – but in each instance, he used his head and stayed put instead of panicking and wandering. Thank God that he’s the one with the strong streak of common sense. Even when the kids are older, you have to maintain some vigilance since teens are insular and many aren’t used to paying attention to what’s occurring around them.
- If the kids are old enough – and you can afford it – they’ll want their own room to share and that’s honestly a good thing since they will make you nuts. However, they need to know that the “small sink in the bathroom” is actually called a bidet and isn’t used for washing feet. Editorial note: they weren’t my kids, thank God.
- Even if you’re nervous, take the time to try the local life and that includes riding the local transportation. Knowing how to figure out the local subway system is a good exercise in reading and deciphering maps, as is finding the local laundromat. Spend time with the map and then do your best, sharing the mistakes with the kids as they occur. It takes more time than just doing it yourself, but the kids need to learn and that’s simply a part of being a father.
- If at all possible, have some ground rules on souvenir spending. In our case, each kid decided what he or she wanted to spend and if any additional spending was needed after their funds were exhausted, then they could either pass on it or borrow the money and pay it off on the backyard project at $5/hour. Two of the three kids now owe me hours and one steadfastly refused to spend anything as he’s saving for an electric guitar. The second part of our souvenir spending is that the kid can buy anything with their own money, but if he has to borrow, then it has to be on something that is endemic to the place; I can always buy a fedora in the US but not something that’s italian or greek made.
- Be ready for an extended period at breakfast. Young children and preteens will generally awaken earlier than teenagers and if there’s no press, then let the kids make their way down on their own. That said, I will graze through breakfast like a hobbit, sitting down first with the younger one and then sitting down again for second breakfast at tensies with the teens. While my own intake is less, it still makes for a pudgy hobbit-like father.
The last lesson for now is that it can take days for a youngster’s body clock to get back into synch. I started the notes for this article at 4 AM this morning when I awoke and was then joined by Youngest at 615 AM. It’s now going on 1030 at night and my own case of jet lag is kicking in viciously. The day has been one of cleaning and unpacking, writing and riding herd on the occasionally cranky youngsters and it’s now time for the hobbit father to turn in for tomorrow’s tensies with the Eldest.