Traveling is a big part of my family’s life – one part necessity – due to Greg’s work and having a global family, and a big part, for pleasure. Greg and I both have family in different parts of the world. Greg is originally from Ireland, and much of his family is still there. (Yes, not only did I marry a doctor. I married one with a hot accent.) My parents both came to the US as teens. So, I have a good bit of extended family in Italy.
Greg and I both share a love for travel – seeing the world, exploring new places and tastes, shopping. Well, the last one is all me. Yet, I must say, I do excel at it. We traveled a good bit before kids – through a combination of visiting family, general pleasure and my riding my husband’s coattails when he was invited to lecture or had a meeting somewhere. I would choose which locations to join him for – Shanghai, Amsterdam, Grand Cayman Island. And the ones to take a pass on, like Tupelo, Mississippi. As we discussed starting a family, we wondered how having children would impact our travel. Some would often point out the frequency of our sojourns and say, “You know that you won’t be able to do that as much with kids. Right?” We thought children would very much limit traveling, too. And then we had one.
Our daughter, Elly went on her first flight at two months old and had a passport at four months old. By the time she was a year old, she had already been three times to Ireland, once each to both Italy and Spain and twice to Aruba. Sprinkle into that a handful of US destinations and that was her first year. So, at least with an infant, our travel had not been curbed at all. The way I see it is having children should not preclude you from doing the things that you love. Of course, the way that you do things changes when you travel with kids. But one can still travel. Was it easy? Not always. Would I still do the same exact thing again? Absolutely.
For adults and children alike, I can think of no better way to broaden one’s mind than travel. One minute you are in your familiar world. You have all the comforts of home – a known routine with familiar faces and sights. In a matter of a few hours, you are transported somewhere different with, sometimes, an entirely different roadmap. You are bombarded with the unfamiliar – sights, sounds, smells, tastes. Travel can be exhilarating. It can also be a little intimidating, too. That is exactly where the personal growth comes in. I always make it a point to learn a little about the culture of the place that I am visiting before I go. A pet peeve that I have about Americans is when we behave as if the world should cater to us whether it be in language, currency or behaviors.
Our latest trip was a daddy/daughter trip to Rome and Istanbul. I traveled by myself with our eldest daughter, Elly. Greg, knowing that I get an itch to visit my roots and to explore new places, was gracious enough to mind our toddler, Lila.
Italy was an easy one. I’m a first generation Italian-American. I’ve been to Italy more times than I’ve been to church this past decade. I love espresso. I love to eat. And I love wine. Check, check and check. The only tricky part is having a daughter who never feels cold. Because the calendar said “November”, Italians are donning parkas and scratchy but stylish wool scarves, boots and sometimes even a hat. Elly, on the other hand, preferred tank tops and capris. If I had an espresso for every Nonna that cast me a look of disgust and dismay, I wouldn’t sleep until Spring. But, still, I let her do her own thing. First, it wasn’t a battle that I chose to pick. And secondly, I’ve always been a fan of “you’re responsible for your own comfort.” I supply her with warm clothing. She can choose whether to wear it or not.
Turkey, on the other hand, was a bit different. We were going to a country with a large Muslim population as a gay man with his daughter. Before we got there, I told Elly, “Girls need to cover their shoulders and knees in Turkey.” Her response, “What about boys?” I opted not to get into a discussion on the double-standard though she did raise a good point. Elly was respectful of what I asked her to do. She would ask me, “Can I take off my sweatshirt? Or are the police going to arrest me?” I would have to explain that nobody would arrest her. That covering her shoulders, particularly in certain places, like mosques, was a sign of respect. Because of my tumultuous relationship with the Catholic church, Elly hasn’t been in a lot of churches. She has lit candles in Notre Dame and has attended the occasional Christening or wedding. But we haven’t gone to church much. I’m still feeling a bit wounded – but that’s a whole other story. The point is, it was a foreign concept to Elly as to “why” one would have to dress differently in certain places.
When we left, I asked Elly about the trip. Her take on Istanbul was interesting:
“So, Elly,” I asked, “Tell me some of the things you learned about Turkey.”
“When you go into the place where you see dead people, you have to take off your shoes.” She was referring to people entombed in mosques.
“That’s right. What else?”
“Girls have to cover your arms and legs.”
“True. Anything else stand out to you?’
“Some women dress like nuns.” This, of course, referred to women in burqas. I explained in terms a six year old would understand, that these were not nuns. They dressed like that for their religion.
“What else did you notice?”
“Grown ups kiss kids and grab their cheeks even when they’re not part of your family.” This one was the hardest for both of us to get used to in Turkey. But, it also brings home the point of understanding where you are. In Turkey, it is not unusual for an adult to kiss a child’s cheek. They mean no harm. They’re not predators. It is, however, highly unusual as Americans because it is not what we are used to. My way of handling this was explaining to Elly, that yes, she is correct that this is not what we do back home. But in Turkey, it was commonplace. Though it did freak me out a little, I shouldn’t expect a culture to change its ways because it makes me uncomfortable. I am the visitor. It is my responsibility to adjust.
One of the most interesting things to happen on our trip was an encounter with a Muslim family staying at our hotel. They were Iraqi born and later moved to the UK. The grandparents had met up with their daughter, who now lived in Belgium with her husband and four children. The grandmother, mother and eldest female child all wore hijabs. They were a lovely family. Elly enjoyed playing with the children. I spoke with the grandmother about my roots. She said that in the UK, she had many friends who were Italian. And in her experience, she found there to be many similarities to how Italian families and Iraqi families engaged with one another. She found there were much bigger differences between how Iraqi families and British families related. We laughed about how we are all more similar than we think. That our food and traditions change but many of our values are the same.
One morning, we got into a conversation with the family and other tourists from the Netherlands on wearing of the hijabs. The granddaughter, who was thirteen, spoke with an eloquence that I have not heard adults speak. She explained how it was her choice to wear the hijab. Nobody forced her. She described how she prefers that boys see her first for her intelligence and not her looks. The family all noted the difference between burqas and hijab. They spoke of how the extremists in any religion are generally not the devout. The extreme are the way for a more self-serving purpose. Typically, Muslims and gays do not mix well. In this case, these people with whom we shared a breakfast table, and meze in the afternoon, were not people of whom I feared judgment, but people with whom I felt fortunate to have met. It was a classic reminder of the childhood lesson, “never judge a book by its cover.”
In the wake of the events in Paris, I have had many people say, “I hope you’re not going THERE anymore.” Paris is like a second home to me. I am blessed to have been able to spend some part of the past three summers there ranging from two weeks to one month. (My husband was both shocked and impressed when I texted my sales person at Louis Vuitton to be sure that they were all OK.) Terrorists will not prevent me from going to Paris or anywhere else for that matter. While I will not go somewhere that is clearly a hotspot for trouble, I won’t avoid somewhere because it has been a place that a terrorist attacked. When my sister begged me to go to Epcot instead of Turkey because Ankara had been bombed. I reminded her that Ankara was the same distance to Istanbul as Boston, my former home is to NYC where the Twin Towers were struck down. Not to mention, when the Boston Marathon bombing occurred, we didn’t move because of it. If we change our habits, the terrorists win.
Still, we can’t fear those who are different from us. There is more good in this world than evil. I hope that our traveling broadens not only our minds, but those of our daughters. I hope that it helps them to view people in a different way. And to understand that different is not bad. It is in what is different that makes travel interesting.
A few asked of Elly, “Doesn’t she have school?” She did miss a few days of school. My view? It’s first grade. And I didn’t pull her out of school to go to Disney. She visited two major European cities. We tried new foods (well, mostly me, but she watched me try them), we spoke about cultural differences and saw historical sites. We saw our share of poor people. I often reminded Elly how unusual this type of experience is and that we are lucky and blessed to be able to do this together. And every day the city provided lessons for us – some language, some history, some life. One time, she saw a shoe shine man on the street and asked me to get my shoes shone. I did, partly because they needed to be done. Partly because it was a novelty and finally because it was under $2. About ten minutes later, we were walking down the street when I noticed a man walking towards us had dropped his shoe shine brush. I let him know it had fallen from his bucket. He gracioulsy thanked me a number of times. He then put his kit down and pointed for me to put my shoe there. I said, “No, thank you.” But he insisted. I naively thought he was thanking me for saving him from losing a tool that he makes his livelihood with. Seconds later as he spoke in broken English of his baby who needed a surgery, I realized he had scammed me. But of what? A pittance, really. When Elly asked me why would I have him shine my shoes when I just had them done? I explained that he was working hard to help his family and reiterated how lucky we are. I paid the man and wished him well with his baby. Besides the gift of being able to spend a week together, I think Elly learned some lessons. What she will take with her is too soon to tell. But the world is a big classroom, and there are many more lessons for us to learn.
“Daddy, where are we going to go next year?”
“I don’t know, Elly. Where would you like to go?”
“I don’t know. Let’s think about it. Can we come back to Istanbul like a family and then send Lila home with Papa so you and I can go somewhere together? Like maybe Hawaii?”
“That might be a bit tricky. But we have plenty of time before next year to talk about where we want to explore.”