In my effort to anticipate problems, I over-worried, over-planned and underestimated my kids' resourcefulness. I stressed when I should have been serene. I tensed up when I should have settled back. And then my kids messed up my plans. And the trip got better.
Here are some things I learned from my kids that will serve me, and perhaps others, well on a next trip abroad.
Getting to Point A is a plan. What you do there is an adventure.
There was no way we would pass up the works of Picasso, Miró, Gaudí or the historic sites in Spain. But I knew we'd need to break up the museums and tours with other activities. Callie wanted to shop for clothes. Zeke had packed his skateboard: He knew from YouTube that there was an active skateboarding scene in Spain. I tried to plan ways we could split up so no one would be bored while the others were doing what they wanted to do.
But we didn't expect that our son's passion for skateboarding would give us all a piece of Barcelona that we might have missed. The plaza in front of the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, is popular with skateboarders. Perfect, I thought: Zeke would skate, someone would keep an eye on him, and we'd take turns visiting the museum. We didn't realize that, of course, the reason skateboarders are allowed to jump the steps at MACBA on Tuesdays is that the museum is closed that day. We grabbed a table at a nearby cafe, started with coffee, eventually ordered lunch and later some vino tinto, or red wine. As Zeke skated, Callie and I explored another nearby museum and shops, and my husband photographed the growing crowd of skateboarders. Four hours of a Barcelona afternoon spent doing very little except enjoying the scene.
Some things are nonnegotiable. But let the kids negotiate. We had told the kids that there were some things they must do with us. We paid for a tour of the Alhambra in Granada, and we were going to see every inch of the place even if it was 100 degrees in the shade. I wouldn't budge on that one.
When we could, we let the kids check out a museum themselves and decide what they wanted to see -- even if that meant the gift shop. There were a few exhibits we thought were must-sees, and my husband and I would track down the kids to make sure they saw them, but most of the time they were on their own. Even if they were browsing in the bookstore, they were looking at art.
Let the kids sleep late. And the husband. It took me a few days to relax on the "we have to beat the crowds" rule. But once I did, everyone was happier. So, except for the days we had to get up early to make a flight or a tour, I decided not to rouse everyone to get up and see the sites. The saving grace: Not a lot happens in Spain before 9 a.m. Yes, we had to wait in line at several sites because we weren't there when the doors opened, but for the most part, it wasn't an issue. And, once we were ensconced in our Barcelona apartment rental, I would still get up early, and take a walk around our new neighborhood. I would explore the quiet streets, find a place to buy fresh bread, and return to the apartment for some quiet time before everyone else was up.
Bedtime, schmedtime. On a one-night stopover in Ronda, a small town in the hills outside Málaga, everyone was overtired and a bit cranky. It was time for bed. We said good night, but 10 minutes later, there was a knock on our door. The kids wanted us to join them on the roof patio, one flight up from our room. It was a beautiful night, there was a cool breeze, and we could see for miles over the hills. We would have missed it if I had insisted that everyone needed a good night's sleep.
Food is an adventure, but sometimes it's OK to eat something familiar. I was quite surprised that the kids were willing to try so many new foods, especially Callie, whose diet usually consists of bread and pasta and rice. Tomatoes tasted better in Spain, and new varieties of olives and melon became favorites. Zeke discovered new ways to eat eggs, and you could order jamón and it would never be the same thing twice.
But after several days of adventure, they wanted the familiar. When we arrived in Barcelona, one of the first things we did was go to a little grocery to stock our rental apartment. Zeke came out of the cereal aisle holding a box of Cocoa Flakes -- comfort food for a 12-year-old. For Callie, it was cookies and yogurt. Breakfast was a little more like at home. Lunch and dinner were still about trying new things, or new favorite things. And we said no to the Chinese takeout near the apartment.
You can never plan memories. One of the silliest moments we carry with us, six months later, is my son doing an imitation of my husband asking for la cuenta, the bill, in restaurants throughout Spain. It's not funny to anyone but us. But we still ask him to do it. And when he does, I remember why we take family vacations.