Think you pack lightly? Think again. It’s more than the contents of your suitcase that matters in life’s journey.

When we arrived to National Airport a few days ago, I hauled my pack on to my back. All 18 pounds. The weight felt crushing. I couldn’t imagine how it gained so many pounds during the 8 minute ride from my house to the airport. It was a sobering moment.
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How could I possibly need all this stuff? Immediately, I was strategizing about whom to call that wouldn’t mind driving to National Airport to pick up a bag of cast-off non-essentials I’d glean before I sent my bag through security.

Of course, I didn’t do that. Instead, I unburdened myself with a grateful thud at baggage check at National. And retrieving my bag as it was spit up on the conveyor in Belize City, I became resigned to the next nine weeks.
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I remember over the past few months and how I got to this moment. In anxious fits, I’d go through my bag. For weeks, people have asked me if I’m all packed. I’d say yes, since I was packed…at least for that day. But, I knew that the next day, I’d unload, inventory and swap. Re-sort and switch out. What do I really need for 9 weeks in Central America? What could I live without? It became an obsession.

Clinically, I knew my repetitive packing and repacking was merely indicative of my anxiety about the upcoming trip. A fear of the inevitable loss of control as we made our way from Belize to Panama–what I ate, where I slept, how I traveled, how clean the toilet was, when I exercised, how hot and humid it was. Even just the freedom to leave my wallet or phone (or kids) safely at home would be gone.

I realize now that each item which made the final cut was a weighty visual view into my psyche. Makes me see what I can’t let go of, and what I can live without.

So it’s time for confessions of my 18 pound pack and 4.5 pound day bag.

My first ridiculous transgression is loose facial powder. I’ve never thought to pack this. But I’ve never been 39 before. This choice was completely driven by vanity. No amount of packing or passport stamping can erase the years. I’m breaths away from 40. My complexion needs a little more help these days, as a shiny face magnifies the creases. My only consolation is that the powder will be needed as I sweatily haul 23 pounds.

Next up? A Sawyer brand bite kit which claims to safely and effectively suck out snake venom and spider or other pest bites, providing valuable time before you have to get treatment.20130626-222943.jpgLaugh all you want at this one. I think ‘sucker’ maybe the operative word here. I do have a history of snake and spider issues, bordering on the phobic level. But, I’ve never ever had a run in with either while traveling, or anywhere else for that matter. And the only bit of a snake I ever ran into had a circumference of a man’s thigh, and was lying dead across a jungle path in Thailand. Not sure my little snake bite kit could have helped much had I met the living version of that snake.

But it’s not just a snake bite kit that I’ve packed prophylactically. I must also confess to hauling a small pharmacy of over-the-counter items and prescriptions for everything from skin and sinus infections to traveler’s diarrhea and giardia.
My traveling pharmacy begs to reveal inner fears, even more driving than my snake and spider phobias. As a mother, I worry about things I can’t control–that my child will get hurt or sick and I’ll be left powerless to help. So, I’m hauling a lifetime supply of ibuprofen and Benadryl and enough band aidsy to dress an amputation for days. Perhaps the hardest thing about being a mother is letting go of the illusion of control. Intellectually, I know that no amount of band aids can ever protect my child from life’s hurts, but there’s still a naive part of me that thinks I can.

But it’s more than just my summer back pack that have some excess items. I’ve picked up some mental souvenirs and junk long before I became a mother. Whether I’m on the road or at home, there are still some things I stubbornly guard, stashing in and sorting out. I know I’d be better off shedding most of it.

Fears, whether they are about my kids or long held insecurities, are not as quickly thrown away as expired prescriptions. Resentments and hurts are not as easy to loose as a $15snake bite kit. And awareness of my own mortality and loosing those I love is an anxiety which cannot be left behind on the vanity of a beach front cottage as nonchalantly as a container of face powder.

What if I was able to completely let go of it all? What if I could unburden my mind of the baggage?

Sounds like more than a 9 week journey, but maybe a little bit could be started now, today, in Belize or the next town. Or the next. Perhaps every time I drop my pack off my back this summer, I commit to making a conscientious effort to remember that it’s time to let go. Time to forgive. Time to see that what I haul around in life’s backpack needn’t be a life sentence of burdens, snakes and shiny faces be damned.

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Scrap the Satin and Tulle: Why your wedding day is probably NOT going to be the best day of your life.

[Editor’s note:  While this posting is not directly related to the odyssey of summer 2013, it is a reminder that as we travel through life, we’re better off if we find joy in the journey.]

Ah, June. The magical month that kicks off the nuptial season. Truth be told, I’m actually so beyond the wedding season of life that I’ve even passed the baby shower cluster, quickly approaching the “first born high school graduation onslaught.” Nevertheless, though I find weddings just plain fun, too often for the bride, it can be a day of grand disappointment wrought from unrealistic expectations.

My wedding day–the 'kick-off' for the best days of my life.

My wedding day–the ‘kick-off’ for the best days of my life.


We’ve all heard horror stories of weddings gone awry–raging bridezillas, meddling mothers, overbearing mothers-in-law. While all these things might be simple annoyances on any other day, they reach fiasco proportions on one’s wedding day, tarnishing the “this is the happiest day of my life” image that so many brides feel to be their right and privilege. How do things become so warped, how do nerves become so raw, and how do otherwise rational women morph into raging lunatics?

It’s called conditioning.

It’s because we as women, from the time we get our first Bride Barbie, dream of the moment when we will be belle of the ball, queen of our own prom, princess for our Prince Charming. So we spend hours planning for our wedding day. Savings, which could perhaps be better spent toward a down payment on a house, are instead invested in creating an unforgettable moment in time.

Unfortunately, this obsessive preparedness for a single day often curtails appropriate preparation for the emotional, financial, spiritual, and just plain logistical parameters of marriage—simple questions are left unresolved. How many hours of TV is OK? Will we hire a housekeeper? Whose family will we spend holidays with? To unmarried couples, these seem like small issues. But as anyone married for more than a few hours knows, these seemingly minor concerns can quickly balloon into large issues. These questions are much easier settled, or at least carefully discussed, before couples exchange vows. But premarital counseling, if couples participate in it at all, is often just one more item to check off the ‘to do’ list and usually completed in a few hours.

I don’t think I’m being unnecessarily alarmist to suggest that most brides spend more time shopping for their dresses than they do participating in premarital counseling or practical planning for the realities of married life. And even though its effectiveness is backed by empirical and anecdotal evidence, counseling is often neglected completely or conducted with someone who may have mediocre training or experience.

A friend of mine who was married in Colorado less than two years ago recalls her disappointing premarital counseling. The facilitator scoffed at her concerns about their credit card debt—instead telling her to focus on the strengths in her relationships with her fiancé. Needless to say, the couple is now in the unfortunate situation of being maxed out on their credit cards, and money is a huge issue in the marriage, erasing their ability to focus on the “strengths” of their relationship.

So how many brides actually end up with that ‘happy ever after’ vision they have in their heads? Very few. We all know the divorce statistics in this country. And despite all the work, the wedding day is hardly ever perfect. I’ve been to two weddings where the brides had such big arguments with their future husbands on the day of the big event that they told me later they seriously considered scrapping the walk down the aisle.

In the movies, jittery brides and grooms ditch their intendeds at the altar all the time, but in real life, couples would rather take a chance and spare embarrassment before friends and family, knowing they can get a no-fault divorce later if it just ‘doesn’t work out.’ By taking this lackadaisical view, we are scoffing at the institution of marriage.

So if the day’s not going to be perfect, and the marriage is inevitably going to be more work than you bargained for, here’s what you disillusioned women who’ve tied the knot need to know, along with you soon-to-be brides crash dieting and waking in a cold sweat at 3 a.m. over concerns about the hue of ribbon in the toss-away garter.

First of all, your wedding day is no longer about you and your spouse becoming one beautiful and perfectly harmonized partnership for all eternity.

Instead, here’s what a wedding has become: a wedding is a party for your parents, their friends, and your friends. It’s a multi-billion dollar business. It’s a time to impress. It’s so your niece can be the flower girl in a frilly dress. And your nephew will change out of his soccer jersey for a few hours. It’s so your parents have a formal picture of everyone together. It’s a day that you are giving to honor your parents because you know it would break your mother’s heart if you eloped. It’s a day that recognizes that as much of a liberated woman as you have become, you will still give a nod to tradition and let your father walk you down the aisle.

These elements are all important to your family and to you and your future spouse for varied and often complicated reasons. And I’m all for weddings, and flowers, and cake, and pink Chuck Taylors peeking out from under a pile of silk and tulle. The problem arises when we expend all our energy trying to create the “best day of our life.”

Brides, when anyone tells you that your wedding day will be the best day of your life, examine their motives. More likely than not, it’s an unmarried bridesmaid or a vendor trying to upsell you a dress that’s too expensive and requires $400 foundation garments to make it all hold together or is trying to convince you to upgrade the menu to include a caviar appetizer.

The Perfect Day myth is an emotional and fiscal crime setting up brides for heartbreaking disappointment. Instead of spending months preparing for a single day, engaged couples need to invest their time and energy in preparing for a lifetime together.

And that lifetime, if prepared for properly, could be full of many “Best Days.”

Here’s what I’ve found after 15 years of marriage, acknowledging the stark reality that I’ve threatened to leave my husband at least as many times . I still love him like crazy. I admire him and appreciate him more than I did on our wedding day. I wonder on a regular basis how it was that I got him (and why he sticks around). My life as it is today is certainly not the result of my feeble efforts, luck, or some twisted favoritism people refer to as being ‘blessed.’ It’s been the result of a lot of work and forbearance.

Maybe it’s that I knew from the outset that plenty of perfect $45,000 wedding days end in divorce while plenty of potluck picnic shelter events garner years of contentment.

I did have a beautiful wedding day, but it was by no means the highlight of my life. It was merely the kick-off. Here’s how my wedding day stacks up against the last 15 years: Our honeymoon in New Zealand was everything I dreamed of, but visions of my kids pole boating in the rain at Tuileries Gardens, hiking with my husband through the cool dark caverns that burst open to illuminate the library in Petra, sleeping under the almost blindingly bright stars in the dessert at Siwa, desperately hitchhiking for the first time in a blizzard in Iceland, breathing in the timeless dust at the Wailing Wall as I felt my husband’s hand resting on my back, and reclining against my suitcase on a rocky beach, exhausted and waiting with my kids for the next train in Italy all compete for “best of my life” moments when my husband and I reminisce.

Though I will never forget seeing my husband’s face at the front of the church as I shakily held my father’s arm as he walked me down the aisle, recalling the first moment my daughter’s round little arms reached for me is a memory that conjures up deeper emotions.

I’ll also have to admit that although there was no videographer to capture the moment, the promise of life imparted when I heard my son say “Mama” for the first time still outranks how I felt when I heard my husband promise, “I do.”

In fact, even my husband saying I looked beautiful on our wedding day doesn’t mean as much as when he casually remarked a few months ago, as I was folding laundry while wearing yoga pants, that he thinks I look better than I did when he met me.

And then there was a Saturday last month when my entire family, kids included, worked to clean the house while we alternately listened to Taylor Swift and Joe Jackson. That day was better than my wedding day. We did some yard work and got a dozen donuts. I think we played a game that afternoon, but I don’t really even remember. We just hung out. We were a family. Jorge probably paid some bills, and I may have threatened the kids once or twice to stop bickering or I’d dock their allowance. We put the kids to bed early, letting them sleep in our room. All four of us rested there together, and most likely Jorge was snoring before the kids were asleep. When they were good and asleep, I nudged him awake, and we slipped out of the bedroom to the sofa. I rested my head on his chest, without a thought that this had been the best day of my life. Instead, I dozed off with the secure promise of knowing that there would be many more, just like this.

Yeah, I think that was the best day of my life.

And it didn’t cost much. And it will happen again and again. And there weren’t months of anxiety or planning, and my husband didn’t need to buy me diamonds, or make brunch plans, and I didn’t have to go on a crash diet, or worry that my eyebrows were not perfectly shaped or that I had a blemish on my cheek. I didn’t worry about a menu or linen colors or a perfectly clean house. I just woke up and went to bed, but I did it with the best people in my life.

That’s why we have weddings for a day, but live marriages for a lifetime.

 Originally posted at http://www.deborahhuso.com/?p=1475

An adventure is…

An adventure is misery and discomfort relived in the safety of reminiscence.–Marco Polo

Looking back on all of this, I hope the kids think it is has been an adventure. I sometimes fear we are only creating therapy fodder.

We leave for 10 weeks on June 22, 2013. Five days from now. Between now and then, we’ll have a Spring Concert (complete with 3rd grade recorder chorus), 5th grade promotion (for which I still need to hang 91 photo posters of the ‘promotees’), awards ceremony, dance dress rehearsal and recital, two end of year celebrations, and a dog, turtle, four zebra fish and one beta fish to find homes for (animals are given as summer ‘loaners’ with the option to renegotiate in the fall). Of course, we’ll need to pack and get the house prepared for our absence.

This summer will be not include sleep-away camp, lazy afternoons by the pool, long bike rides, tennis lessons, campouts or sleep overs.

Instead, we’ll have nine weeks in Central America and one week in Florida. Nine weeks feels like a long time. I’ll be alone with two kids for four of those weeks as we wind our way down Central America, traveling from Belize to Panama.

Before we started planning this trip, I don’t think I could have even recalled all of the countries in Central America. Now as we plan the itinerary, study the map, decide between this city and that, each country is becoming more than an amorphous colored splotch on the map.

I’m nervous and sleepless and edgy and worried. I woke in a cold sweat the other night thinking that everything I need for 10 weeks needs to fit in a 35 pound pack. But, it’s more than just leaving the comforts of home. I’m worried that we’ll get lost or kidnapped or killed. I’m sure our packs will be too heavy and I’ll probably gain 15 pounds (it’s happened before on these summer trips). We’ll likely encounter spiders and dirty busses and bed bugs and get caught in rainstorms. We’ll freeze on over-air-conditioned buses, and I’m sure there will be lots of grumbling about being hot. No doubt someone will get sick, and I have limited knowledge about how or when to use the myriad of prescriptions we are hauling around with us. There will be tears from overtiredness, silly fights from nerves. The kids will make me promise to never, ever take them on a trip this long again, as I promise at some point every summer.

But we’ll also meet unforgettable people and hear their stories. From these chance encounters, we’ll briefly weave our lives’ threads with others. We’ll forever change our perspectives on life and love and family and politics and God and right & wrong. We will stretch and grow and change.

We’ll create family memories that only we will share. Intimacies and inside jokes and stories-turned-legends which we will relive again and again with each other as the years pass. These shared adventures and hardships and laughs will bind us together, if not for the mere need to relive a time in life when we were together and life felt like a winding road ahead of each of us. And as the years pass, and life gets more complicated for the kids, and Jorge and I lapse into the forgetfulness of the years, we’ll return to these memories. And in that safety of reminiscence, we will find each other again and relive the adventure.

(c) Not At Home Mom 2013. All Rights Reserved

All Roads Lead to Rome: Finding the Courage to Go On in the Holy City

Europe 2011

With the kids in St. Peter’s Square
With the kids in St. Peter’s Square

I finally succumbed to sitting on the grotty stoop of the apartment building by the bus stop. I leaned away as residents pushed by me to enter their building, muttering something in Italian. Looking directly up from my perch was another striking old building. By this point, I was less into the architectural details and more interested in how the little overhang protected us from the drizzle, which had progressed well past the tolerable early evening mist. It was well past dark. The kids and I were damp, and although it was July, we were getting chilly from sitting still as we huddled in a residential neighborhood a few blocks from the Vatican.

We had crossed the street back and forth and jumped around the block from bus stop to bus stop. Most of the drivers were kind, and though their facility in English was about as good as my knowledge of Italian, they each assured me that their bus went nowhere near our hotel. How that was possible puzzled me since our little hotel was in the historical center just off a major thoroughfare. Isn’t there some saying about all roads leading to Rome? I guessed Rome was just bigger than we realized. I tried not to complain as it was futile. We were so hungry for real food, not gelato or street cart popcorn. I missed my husband and his planning. I longed for the chipper young Parisian women donning perky green uniforms that we had met a few weeks prior in the Paris metro, with ready smiles and pens and maps in hand.

Honestly, I just wanted to cry, but every time my eyes welled up, my children looked all the more hungry and tired. I was alone with them. I knew that had Jorge been here, he would have figured out our transportation home long before we had even left our hotel for the morning. And if he hadn’t taken care to plan, I could gripe and complain to him, as unjust as I knew that behavior now was.

The stark truth was that after more than 2,000 years, Rome was clearly tired of accommodating tourists. And after a nine-week odyssey in Europe with my kids, I was ready to go home.

 

Abigail and Dylan waiting for the bus as the rain starts to fall in Rome

Abigail and Dylan waiting for the bus as the rain starts to fall in Rome

We were stranded, hungry, tired, and cold. Later when my husband asked why we didn’t just do the obvious and take a cab home, I explained that it hadn’t even been an option for me. When he and I travel, we have a hard and fast rule about walking or public transport whenever possible. It’s cheaper, you see more, and you are given a better glimpse into the lives of the people that a cab can’t give. There were chickens under the seat in Bali, a uniformed school boy traveling alone who was almost too small to make it up the bus steps in Japan, and an interminably hot bus in Egypt by the Libyan border that stopped at a roadside shack with the best ground meat kabobs I have had ever had, along with scary looking big men with big guns, lots of flies, and a yucky hole-in-the-ground toilet. Give up these experiences in exchange for the comfort and security of a cab? I’d rather stay home.

I also confess I had something to prove. I could do this trip alone. I wouldn’t take the easy way out. After a month with my husband in Spain and Morocco, I had five weeks alone with my kids to see a bit of the rest of Europe and I was going to show the kids, myself, and my husband that this life of a gypsy was in their blood. Wanderlust would become a part of their psyche by nature and nurture.

But I wasn’t thinking all those lofty thoughts as I cursed the bus schedule under my breath.

Then the moment of responsibility came to me and I was released from my paralysis. I stood up, looked at my two raincoat-hooded children and knew what we must do. Though I have a habit of making broad proclamations, I knew I couldn’t force anything. At this moment, I asked them if we should start walking. I genuinely wasn’t sure if they had it in them.

They knew it was through the rain, in the dark. I didn’t know how far we would have to go or how long it would take us. We were all dead on our feet. Our legs ached from the long day of walking and standing in our extended tour of the Vatican, preceded by many long days of traveling.

The consensus was to strike out into the dark and start walking in the direction of what we thought was our hotel. We went a block and then another. Soon we had crossed the bridge over the Tiber. Our paces quickened in our soggy shoes as we started to recognize a few landmarks. We had been walking for no more than 15 minutes at that point. We soon became giddy with excitement as we realized we were close. And we had been so close all along. Within less than half an hour, we were back in our neighborhood and looking at the al fresco dining options. The rain had stopped, and though we were still wet, we couldn’t help but notice that we were actually late enough to experience dining with the Romans instead of our usual habit of eating in quiet restaurants that were barely open for the evening hours.

As we were seated with our wet bags and jackets hanging off our chairs, I looked at both of my children. I was so proud of them. Proud of their bravery, their willingness to take that first step away from the security of the bus stop, and their sense of adventure, not just today, but every day on this journey we had taken them on.

I told them that they must never forget what happened that night. Never forget how far away we felt from home, how dark the night seemed, and how discouraging the rain felt. Never be afraid to take that first step away from the complacency of a bus stop into the dark unknown. Avoid the trap of letting the temporary situations of life, like rain and darkness, hunger and fatigue, overwhelm them and keep them from making their way. I wanted them to know they always have the strength to make the journey, to remember that more times than not, we are much closer than we think. Just remember Rome.

And yes…my children do sometimes roll their eyes when I remind them of this night. But I know that as they grow, there will be many moments in their lives that they think that they cannot go on. It’s then that they will remember that night in the dark and the rain in Rome and, I hope, take the necessary steps toward their dreams, whether those dreams are as simple as coming home again or launching themselves onto a completely foreign road in an untried direction.

(c) Not At Home Mom 2013. All Rights Reserved

Originally Published on http://www.deborahhuso.com/?p=1411

 

How I Stopped Hating Paris…and Started Loving the Unscheduled Life

Europe 2011

My daughter drawing leisurely in Venice

My daughter drawing leisurely in Venice

As I sat on the steps outside the Musee d’Orsay, listening to the click and swish of the street performers’ roller skates, it sadly dawned on me that I would once again miss the inside of the museum. No wandering through the majestic corridors or getting lost in the muted colors of Monet, Manet, Degas or Renoir.

Instead, just a few yards away from the museum entrance, I was sitting on grotty steps, watching a pair of street performers, one testing the limits of roller skates and the other whose gig was to mock innocent passersby. My kids were reduced to falling over in giggles every time an unsuspecting tourist was victimized. It was entertaining, but I couldn’t deny the call of the French Impressionists. I was counting down until closing time. Thirty eight minutes left. How had inertia anchored me here, in Paris of all places?

You see, I had never liked Paris. The only reason I came this time was out of a sense of duty. My husband loved Paris, and since he couldn’t join us on this part of the trip, I felt compelled to include Paris in our summer itinerary. It was a nod in his direction, a feeble recognition of what he had done to make this trip possible. After we had traveled together for the past month in Spain and Morocco, he flew home, and the kids and I headed off to get a taste of the rest of Europe, wandering through five weeks of Germany, France, Italy, and Austria. My husband acted as our ‘stateside support ,’ researching hotels, making reservations, and paying the bills, of course.

So it was just the kids and me. And Paris. Which I hated. I hated the rainy weather, the expensive food, and the unfriendly shopkeepers. And I hated the promise of Paris. The romance. The lure of the Eiffel Tower. This was my fourth trip to Paris, and I again swore it would be my last.

 

My kids with crepes in Paris

My kids with crepes in Paris

 

The first time I was in Paris, I was in high school. It was the spring break language trip. The weather was chilly, and my experience couldn’t compare to that of my Spanish-studying classmates who were spending a fabulous time on the sultry Iberian Peninsula. Not yet 21 and under the constant scrutiny of chaperones, I and my classmates couldn’t even find much pleasure in the realization that wine was, in fact, cheaper than Coke. And it was more than just the Coke that seemed expensive on a babysitter’s budget. Even though it was the 90s, and the Euro had not yet taken over, I probably only had a few hundred bucks for the week. That could last one meal in a metropolitan city like Paris and wouldn’t get me very far in the much anticipated French boutiques. Even kitschy souvenir shopping, which suite my budget better, was a lackluster experience. The unaccommodating shopkeepers rebutted my attempts at speaking diligently practiced high school French. Either I received a blank stare or a curt, tight-lipped, “Excuse me?” in perfect English.

My second foray among the Parisians was definitely a notch up. It was a 21-day, whirlwind tour of Europe with my mother and sister. I could enjoy the cheap wine, had a bit more money to shop, and relaxed at many mediocre pre-arranged meals. But my memories are vague. It was a quick trip. Eiffel Tower, Monaco Casinos, Coliseum, Venice Canals, the Alps, Schoenborn Palace, Goldenes Dachl, Neuschwanstein Castle. . .just like the movie.

I haven’t thought of my third trip to Paris in years. I guess I’ve blocked it out. That time, I was in my final semester of college, doing my student teaching at an English-speaking school in Germany. A group of us drove to Paris for the weekend. Imagine that. Driving to Paris for the weekend. I do remember being distinctly impressed with the compactness and ease of travel afforded to the Europeans. But I was once again not impressed with Paris. This time, I was too hung up on love. As I stood on the precipice of Place du Trocadero, with a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower at night, I was with a man with whom I was less than in love. As I tried to force a meager enthusiasm for my date, I vowed never to return to Paris without genuine love. I can’t remember the details, but there were probably a few forced kisses. After all, we were in Paris. It was our last date.

My daughter boat pushing in Paris

My daughter boat pushing in Paris

 

But this trip was different. Finances and weather weren’t going to put a damper on this journey. I was ready to take on Paris. I was armed with a rain coat, a few umbrellas, and weather proof shoes. I had plenty of cash and credit. Of course, with two kids, I was not remotely interested in sitting through a five-course meal for three hours or shopping in expensive boutiques, but I could comfortably order a meal in a restaurant for the three of us and buy as many Eiffel Tower key rings as we could carry.

The rudeness of Paris didn’t faze me this time either. Paris is just another big city. I don’t think Parisians are particularly more discourteous than those residing in other big cities of the world. Sure, there’s a bit more snobbery in Paris. Though, at this point in my life, after having crossed the globe a few times, I would give a bit more leeway for Parisian snobbery. It is an impressive city. I guess I also have a tougher skin. Curtness doesn’t bother me as much anymore. I myself have become more practiced at stone cold stares. I was an eighth grade school teacher, have been married for thirteen years, and have a ten and an eight year old. Sarcasm, silent stares, and snooty looks are just a few of the nasty tricks that I’ve acquired. I can raise an eyebrow with a snide lip as good as any Parisian.

And finally, love was no longer an issue. I had traded in my glass slippers for Saucony running shoes, with an occasional high-heeled black leather boot slipped on for fun. Stability, fidelity, and the rewards for working at love were now my priorities. It’s not that my life had become devoid of romance, but that it no longer needed the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. A simple Saturday morning when the kids slept past 6:30 and we had a few more minutes together would kindle a romantic trajectory that would last through waffles, soccer, an afternoon birthday party and grilled burgers, until the kids were tucked in for the night. At that point, Eiffel Tower or not, we may or may not find ourselves too tired to go on.

So that’s where I found myself in Paris for the fourth time. My conditions were different, but in my estimation, the city hadn’t changed. Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur, Tour Eiffel, and of course, the Louvre.

We had spent a morning in the Louvre. It was a brief visit. We rented the museum guides, walked around for a few hours, and ended up in the Louvre café. I knew the next five weeks would be full of museums, cathedrals, palaces, and long walks. Spending only four hours in the Louve felt like a travesty to me, but the goal of the trip wasn’t to present a concise history of Eastern and Western civilization gleaned from a museum. Instead, it was merely to launch the kids on a life of travel. Two days or even one full day in the Louvre is certainly not the most effective way to infect them with the travel bug.

We walked out of the museum and found ourselves in the Tuileries Gardens. Little did I know that this path would set the tone for the rest of our summer.

Slinging wet pea stones in their wake, both children raced down the garden path to the man with the toy boat cart. They begged for a boat. Exhausted, I collapsed on a chair by the concrete pool. I knew there was a lot more of Paris to see over the next five days, and I suppressed the nagging guilt I felt about ‘giving up’ for the afternoon.

It was two Euros to rent a boat for an hour. The children were given a pole and a boat with a sail. The French-speaking boat peddler, a strange but satisfyingly friendly cross between a gentle grandfather and a homeless man, was accommodating, letting the children choose their boat, suggesting the fastest boats among his collection, and helping them with their first launch.

At that moment, although I wanted to keep hating Paris, I felt my grip loosening. This distaste had taken years to cultivate. I wouldn’t even deign a meal in a French restaurant back home if I could avoid it. It was simply a principal to me now: a snobbery about being snobby.

But this moment challenged every bit of Paris that I found detestable. It was friendly, accommodating, and an undeniably good deal. I had more than two content children, a reclining chair by the fountain, and a spectacular view in every direction. As I sat there for the afternoon, sometimes lost in my thoughts and much of the time thinking nothing at all, I realized I had never let myself completely go in Paris. I had posed for pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower, bartered for the prerequisite Eiffel Tower key rings, and had hung on to a Sorbonne University t-shirt, buried somewhere in my bottom drawer at home. But I had never released my Type A American intensity to become a part of the scenery.

As I melted into the background of tourists photos, I began to see how unimaginably beautiful the city was. How had I missed this on my visits to Paris? I started to look around, to notice the architecture. I absorbed the dampness of the gardens, imbued with the graceful sculptures and aged trees that have literally seen history unfold. And as I sat there, I even began to dismiss the quirky ways of the Parisians, and appreciate the annoyance of the pandering demanded by tourists.

Of course, it did rain for a few minutes that afternoon, but somehow it didn’t matter. The wind and brief moments of pelting rain made the boating all that much more exciting.

I realized that traveling with children affords a certain amount of freedom. Freedom to sit and watch the street performers instead of wandering through high-ceilinged galleries. Freedom to eat crepes for lunch. Freedom to skip the afternoon at the Louvre with the great masters, and instead, become one of the scenes of the great masters: Boy Pushing Boat at Fountain.

As I sat there, I also realized I had never really thought of the goal of our trip. After all, what goal do you need when you’ll be spending the summer in Europe? Pictures of us for the Christmas card in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Canal, and at the top of the Alps? But maybe it was about more. As I watched tourists take photos of children, my children, push-boating in the fountain, maybe this trip was destined to be one where we didn’t see everything, but we instead became a part of everything.

I never did make it into the Musee d’Orsay that afternoon, but I did make the conscious choice to become a part of every place we visited. No check lists, ‘top ten’ lists, or ‘must see’ sights.

Instead, we visited the same little pizza shop in Rome almost every afternoon and got to know the owner’s name and all about his family. Each kid had their favorite stool and type of pizza.

My son drawing in Venice

My son drawing in Venice

 

We went hiking in the Alps with a German family that my daughter had befriended on the train, spending the next two days sharing meals, Prosseco, and the common struggles of raising kids, balancing work and family, and the German perspective on the dilemma in financial markets.

We fed the pigeons at Notre Dame, scattering our leftover baguette from lunch. We never made it to the top of the bell tower in Notre Dame, but no one complained about missing it. They did complain when we ran out of bread, and then the birds wouldn’t eat the gummy candy they foisted on them.

I did my share of eating too—from croissants to gelato. I even ate brats and drank beer at a playground in Kaiserslautern, and at every other playground I found after that day that served them.

There were poignant moments, too. Things came up that I wouldn’t have necessarily brought up with my kids. At the bus stop for the Appian Way, we talked with a Roman who was fiercely racist, protecting his job and lifestyle from North African immigrants. The children listened quietly, and after we parted from him, we spent many hours talking about racism, prejudice, jobs, and country, as we walked from one catacomb to the next.

In Venice, we passed an afternoon with a researcher who was working on an international project on chickens. She was studying how interbreeding chickens actually made them more resistant to disease, more attractive, and provided a lower mortality rate. The children didn’t miss connecting her research to our Appian Way talks about racism and prejudice.

Of course, I could go on. There were so many moments of connections. But this year, although our Christmas card did contain the requisite posed picture in front of a recognized site, it also showed a snapshot of my daughter sketching by the canals of Venice and my son pushing his boat with a pole, raggedy boat-man in the background. I’m not in the photo of course, but I can see my empty green chair, reclining by the fountain pool, where I was sitting when I became a part of the background of Paris.

(c) Not At Home Mom 2013, All Rights Reserved

Originally Published at http://www.deborahhuso.com/?p=871