“No!” my wife said.
Dead-reckon I did. Bruges is on the water, right, and the water had to be to the west, right? I backtracked to the last major road and kept the waning sun in front of us. And then 30 minutes later, emerging in the distance in jagged blue-gray shapes — and unmistakable — were the sharp spires of the medieval city, piercing that orange and announcing that we’d arrived, modern devices be damned.
The episode has become legendary in my little family, one of those moments from our travels that we all recall in short hand — “The crazy Belgian GPS!” — and probably always will.
There are quite a few others.
Like the English couple running a bed and breakfast in Normandy who kept their place shiveringly cold; did not speak French; had never been to Paris; and went on and on, unbidden, about how much they disliked the French.
Or the time, in Shirakawa, Japan, when I asked the man who owned the thatched-roof farmhouse where we’d spent the night if he could provide a discount coupon for the local onsen (hot springs resort). He didn’t understand me, so he called up a translation app on his iPhone. I spoke into it and technology failed us again. Instead of requesting an “onsen discount,” the app told him I wanted “unscented pork.”
We could hear him laughing as we headed down the hill. For the remainder of our time in Japan, whenever we sat down to a meal, “Unscented Pork!” was a family rallying cry.
I’m writing this now because that trip to Japan, in April of this year, was something of a final chapter for Helene, Dean and Paulina and myself. Dean is 17 and off to college. For seven years, we have taken an ambitious trip during spring break. Everyone has had a vote in our destination — Europe four times, Hawaii, the West Coast (spiritually a different country than Brooklyn, where we live, right?) and Japan.
Their public school vacations always lined up, making planning a snap. But that won’t happen anymore with Dean in college. Also, we’ll be broke.
Helene and I went all in on these trips — dipping into the home equity account some years, and letting my American Express travel account grow alarmingly — because we saw a brief window when Dean and Paulina, who just turned 14, would be old enough to get a lot out of these journeys, and be fully mobile, yet young enough that they enjoyed spending time with us. These windows snap close fast.
We developed a model, and certain patterns emerged. We’ve mixed food and history with views and long walks and mastered transit systems. We plan but not too much. We try to fly nonstop, and accept that at some point someone will get sick. We don’t worry about the weather. (April is unpredictable and it’s always April.) And we’ve accepted that togetherness is great, but so is breaking down into smaller units, even units of one.
It seems a shame not to be able to put this knowledge to use; so maybe I can pass it on to other parents whose sons and daughters are nearing the late single digits, and who want to get back there and see the world, along with the fresh eyes of children. It can be done. Debt or not – these trips were worth every penny.
First, the destination.
Serendipity, individual interests and price always play roles. The first trip was to Ireland for the simple reason that we saw an ad for $400 round-trip flights on Aer Lingus. Scotland came next because Helene’s niece was in school in Glasgow, but also because the flight was $1,000 per person, and flights to Paris – Dean’s top choice – were $1,400. Also, I’d learned in Ireland that I’m pretty good at driving on the wrong side of the road, and I wanted to have another go.
A year later, Paris was $1,000 a person, so off we went. Paulina’s dream was Hawaii, so that came next; at $750 a person on Hawaiian Airlines, it felt like a bargain. Japan is my thing, so we’d decided that it would be the grand finale. I booked the roughly $1,000 fare on Japan Airlines nine months in advance on Expedia.
The basic model was to stay in one place and take trips: Paris for 10 days, with a night in Normandy; Amsterdam for five days, Bruges for two. We saw much of Ireland from our bed-and-breakfastbase in Oughterard. But some trips involved more running around: driving a circle route around Scotland and the nonstop, even frenzied train journey around Japan, rail passes in hand.
Sometimes Helene took the lead in researching and booking hotels, sometimes I did. She did better. We’d poll friends and family, search the Travel section and put the internet to use.
We bunked together at the Falls of Dochart Inn in Killin on our first night in Scotland, the falls themselves just audible through the windows; stretched out in a suite at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco (a splurge), the trolley cars clanging on Powell Street; and slept deeply in that Japanese farmhouse (stone cold silence). The former sugar plantation workers’ cottage in Kauai (my find) was cheap at roughly $250 a night, and truly memorable — red sunsets behind palm trees lining the black-sand beach; Paulina in the pool for hours.
Not quite so successful was the apartment I rented through a friend near the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, where the heat was out for three days and where I broke the washing machine.
The flights and hotels booked, the preparation phase began.
The DVD player went into overdrive. Before Ireland, we watched John Ford’s “The Quiet Man,” with John Wayne — the stone bridge glimpsed near the opening is outside Oughterard — and David Lean’s epic, “Ryan’s Daughter,” with Robert Mitchum. Paris was previewed in Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows”; Hawaii with Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants.”
In the weeks before Amsterdam and Bruges we watched “The Fault in Our Stars” and — bad parenting alert! — “In Bruges,” Martin McDonagh’s R-rated, blood-soaked hitman comedy.
And we read. Paulina tore through “The Fault in Our Stars” before Amsterdam, and Helene read us the opening pages of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Movable Feast” before Paris. Dean finished “Giving Up the Gun” — a slim but fascinating volume on how the samurais reverted to the sword in the 1600s — just before we took off for Japan.
I’m not sure if these little culture dives enhanced Dean and Paulina’s experience, but I’m pretty sure they gave some depth to the vistas they saw — a three-dimensional understanding that these were not just places to view and photograph, but to experience as others had before.
There is no way to sugarcoat it — the first flight is always a misery. Coach seats are plenty big for children, and the entertainment options keep them busy for a while, but Dean and Paulina slept fitfully if at all on our trans-Atlantic flights and were weary by the time we landed. My wheels-on-the-ground exclamations to cheer them up — “We’re in Amsterdam, start of our Grand Tour of the Low Countries!” — drew only sleepy eye-rolls.
Dean was looking pretty green as we headed down the aisle to get off the double-decker Air France A380 Airbus that had delivered us to Charles de Gaulle airport. It was while we passed through first class that he threw up. To this day I’m thankful for the flight attendant’s nonchalant charm and grace in the face of Dean’s and my mutual mortification; she was either the kindest person who’d ever lived, or an actress on par with Catherine Deneuve, to whom she bore a not slight resemblance.
Now, for all parents — hear what I say: if at all possible, book a hotel room for the night before you arrive so you can go right in and take a three-hour nap. Otherwise, you might find yourself waiting with two exhausted children for several hours for your room to be available, as we did in Scotland.
Because when that nap is over, the fun truly begins.
To see Paulina’s eyes widen as we stepped out of our hotel into Shinjuku, in Tokyo, with its rushing crowds, flashing neon and bird-tweets emitting from the walk signs was to see a child’s world expand exponentially. “Oh my god this is like another planet.”
Same with Dean as we first walked across the Pont des Arts over the Seine in Paris and his brown eyes took in the Pont Neuf, the Ile de la Cite, the towers of Notre Dame and all the rainy-gray and muted brown stone buildings arrayed before us.
The key to making plans is not making too many.
Too little structure and we’d end up wandering the same neighborhoods; too much and the trip becomes a forced march. We always book a few restaurants and, in more recent years, as the crowds have increased, a museum or two.
But that’s all. We reserved a specific time at the Rijksmuseum our first day in Amsterdam, and it was a great morning. Enthused, we decided to try for two museums in a row but balked when we saw the long lines at the nearby Van Gogh Museum. So we had a rijsttafel lunch at an Indonesian restaurant we stumbled across. Then we spent some time in a Tesla showroom, for no particular reason.
We don’t have to be together, all of us, every minute. Dean started taking long walks by himself in Japan, especially along the river in the mountain city of Takayama, and Helene and I sneaked out to a jazz bar in Kyoto one evening while the two of them luxuriated in their yukata robes back at our ryokan (Japanese hotel).
In Paris, after the unfortunate first-class throw-up episode, Dean was laid low for a day, so Paulina and I went up to Montmartre to take in the views and have lunch at a cafe on the Place des Abbesses. Two days later, Dean and Paulina went off on their own with a friend of Dean’s from school. We met them for at Berthillon, the famous ice cream parlor on the Ile St. Louis.
That night I decided to go have a drink at Le Select, my favorite of the grand cafes. I invited Dean, and the two of us spent the next 45 minutes negotiating the quiet streets of the Left Bank before emerging into the bright lights of the Boulevard du Montparnasse.
We sat at a small table inside. (It was an especially chilly April.) I had a Calvados, and he had an elaborate virgin cocktail. He asked about my drink and I let him dip his pinkie in and try it. He winced.
“Do you drink that because you like it, or because you want to be a cool guy?”
“Hmmm. I guess a little of each.”
The next night I went back myself — he was exhausted — and I sat at the bar, the waiter with a rag over his shoulder telling his colleague as he cleaned a glass, “Il etait ici hier soir avec son fils.” (“He was here last night with his son.”)
But even if you only make a few plans, there comes a moment to let them go. The pattern is familiar. At some point, Helene starts to wind down. I have come to strangely enjoy watching her vacation energy arc switch from Let’s-get-going exuberance to exhaustion.
On our second to last night in Ireland, we took the kids to a pub to hear music. I detected at least one other pub goer, perhaps a grandmother herself, looking askance at us. Did she mutter under her breath to her companion, Shouldn’t those wee ones be home in bed?
The next day, our last, Helene had planned a boat trip to Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands off the coast. She had seemed really excited about it. But I’d begun to see familiar signs: the blank expression, the decreasing eye contact, the inability to engage in a coherent conversation. I suggested that we instead return to Aughnanure Castle, which was nearby and had been a hit with the kids on our first day.
She agreed, and we sat beside a glass-clear stream on the castle grounds as Dean and Paulina played with the resident Shorthaired Pointer. Helene fell asleep on the grass -– the start of an epic nap that, after a brief interruption, was continued back at our bed and breakfast. I went in to check on her several times to make sure she was alive. Then I took the kids back down to the pub.
Various members of the family can also stage mini revolutions. In Kyoto, looking for a restaurant for our penultimate dinner, we walked past an Italian cafe and everyone’s eyes lit up. Pizza! I objected forcefully – We were in Japan! When would we all be in Japan together again? We have to have Japanese food. How about okonomiyaki? Or ramen? Or yakitori?
I got three dirty looks and we were soon taking our seats, English menus in hand.
Paulina said what was on everyone’s mind.
“Do they have unscented pork?”
And so, despite all the great food, and the spectacular views, and the visits to pubs and grand cafes, and the museums, the most rewarding parts of these trips have been the explorations of my own family.
As they’ve gotten older, acquiring friends and devices, Dean and Paulina have become less the little team they used to be. Their main interaction when we are all together in our house seems to be about who stole the other’s headphones, or keys, or MetroCard.
“I hate you!” she’ll tell him with steely eyed rage at the dinner table over this or that imagined slight.
“Hey!” I’ll jump in. “I don’t want to hear that word. Don’t say ‘hate.’ Just say, ‘I really, really, really, really don’t like you.’”
“Ok – I really, really, really, really don’t like you.”
But not on our trips. They revert to the wee ones who played with that Shorthaired Pointer on the castle grounds.
What sounded like an argument in the backseat as we drove up the Pacific Coast Highway — Our Grand California Road Trip — was actually some game they’d invented. I forget if they were trying to touch the other’s arm, or grab something the other had, or win a thumb war — it didn’t matter. Given time, children fill it.
But they are old enough, too, to enjoy the fine meal we had in candlelight the night before at Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, or the ricotta-stuffed roast chicken we had the next night at Tosca Cafe in North Beach. Opinions, insights and observations fly around the dinner table. We’d talk about past trips each of us remembering details that the others had forgotten.
Those trips were a time of perfect balance.
And I got to check off some important boxes for myself, too.
I’d first seen Deetjen’s as I drove along the coast with friends the year after college, in 1988, and swore I’d go back one day. I’d read about the Waimea Plantation Cottages on Kauai in a travel magazine in the early 1990s. It took 22 years to get there. I’d never imagined then being able to share them with my family, or even of having a family.
It’s a shame these trips have to end, that spring breaks will cease to line up, that life is so expensive, or that we never made it to several places we’d all wanted to go — Kenya, Germany or Istanbul or Cairo.
Although, then again …
We’ll all still be free around Christmastime, right? And isn’t that the off-season in places?
Excuse me a minute while I check prices on Expedia. Where’s my credit card?