Trip Tip : Headed for Europe? Leave the Baby at Home

Times Staff Writer

Don’t ever take a baby to Europe.

My wife and I just did, and somehow lived to tell about it. We carted 13 pieces of luggage from San Diego to Dallas to Frankfurt, West Germany, then hauled all of that in a rented car from Innsbruck, Austria, to Zurich and back. We did it with a drooling, sometimes screaming, often ravenous 4-month-old we love more than anyone alive.

I hear thousands of Yuppie couples are doing this sort of thing--having babies and taking them to Europe. Doing the things Yuppies did before they had babies.

Having done it, this Yuppie wonders why.

The stress of a long trip is bad enough anyway, especially in the Year of the Terrorist and Wind Shear Airlines. About the only thing that didn’t happen was, we didn’t meet any Shias.

I’ll have to confess it wasn’t all bad. Ted, our baby, had a way of charming the most curmudgeonly German women, making them smile like schoolgirls. He was our “good-will ambassador,” constantly bringing out the best in people. A woman on a mountainside tram gave up her seat for Ted. She held his head in her hands and talked in furious Deutsch of the wonders of kids. One woman made food for Ted when neither I nor my wife could read the directions. His smile, wider than a catcher’s mitt, was a magnet for good cheer and pleasant conversation.

That part of taking a baby to Europe was wondrous.

The rest was woeful.

Why did we go? you ask. For professional reasons.

My wife, a singer, was on a tour of Austria and Switzerland with a Renaissance music group based locally. The Early Music Ensemble of San Diego travels like a professional basketball team on a runaway road trip--Schonbuhl one night, Stuttgart the next. We ate enough chocolate to consider freebasing the stuff by the end of the trip.

Before leaving, we heard (and read) a lot about what to do and not to do with a baby on a marathon trip. Everyone had an opinion.


Our family doctor: “Don’t do it. Are you crazy? The only things you have to do are pay taxes and die.”

He was right.

Others, the more adventurous (and usually single) types, said, “Oh, don’t worry, it’ll go fine . Better that he’s 4 months old and not 2 1/2 (years), when he’d be dashing after everything.” Still others shook their heads and agreed with the family doctor, whose word I will never discount.

Since we made the trip, and survived, my editor sees me and my wife as experts on a new phenomenon: Yuppies will do anything . Next thing you know, Yups and their babes will be river-rafting down the Ganges and billing it “quality time.” In this space, I’ll examine the myths and meat of how to endure such a thing--globetrotting with a tot, that is--if for some reason you see yourself as a cross between Ward Cleaver and Evel Knievel.

My advice: Don’t do it. The only things you have to do are pay taxes and die.

Nevertheless, let us proceed.

Ahead of time, we were warned about everything from formula to diapers. Those were flares, fired for the most part by Ugly American sympathizers. The clear message: Don’t buy the stuff in a foreign land. For that reason we took a bucket of American formula (for supplements once a day). The rest of the time, Ted breast-fed (the main reason he didn’t stay with Grandma). We also took enough Pampers to serve as an adequate bunker in case we did meet Shias.

Halfway into the trip, we ran out of both. (In case the Guinness people are reading, Ted in 3 1/2 weeks dirtied 311 Pampers.) Much to our surprise, European Pampers were thicker and more absorbent. The Swiss formula we tried seemed to agree with Ted’s palate more than the Yankee mix he sometimes turns up his nose at. Later, I realized those chauvinistic-even-about-formula Americans must have thought we were going to Iraq or Mozambique. If you’re headed on a long trip with a formula feeder/diaper wetter, by all means trust the foreign market. It will save on space like you wouldn’t believe.

We heard many horror stories about airplanes, none having to do with wind shear or tail sections. Everyone insisted we’d have to have bulkhead seats--those near the front of the coach section with a partition in front as opposed to the back of someone’s chair. I suppose the logic here had to do with minimizing the inconvenience. A screaming baby would disturb people on all sides but no one directly in front! The parents would have more leg room, and with bulkhead seats next to a window, which we had “all the way,” you’re guaranteed a sanctuary no other spot on a plane can possibly offer. Score one for bulkhead seats.

As it turned out, fears about flights were as groundless as any involving diapers and formula. Ted, for the most part, was fine. He slept much of the way from Dallas to Frankfurt and back, almost 11 hours by air. To make things easier, not only in flight but also in foreign hotels, we carried a portable bassinet that fit easily in front of our feet. Score one for portable bassinets.

We also carried a car seat and stroller, which I’m loath to admit were necessities. Bulky, but necessary. Europeans on autobahns routinely drive more than 85 miles an hour, in small cars, and judging by the way that Fiat kept trying to pirouette, sometimes under the influence. A car seat is a must .

A stroller is unavoidable for long walks and restaurant stops. The motion of the wheels often puts a baby to sleep. Score a big point for strollers.

The bulk, however, often left me feeling like a roadie for Bruce Springsteen. “Where tonight, guys? Munich or Amsterdam? OK, I’ll load the amps if you’ll park the semi by the train tracks. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget the formula.”

Ahead of time, air travel, feedings and diaper changes were billed as the worst of Taking a Baby to Europe. As problems, they were vastly overrated. Why, I got so good at diaper changes I could have a new Pampers on in the time it took A.J. Foyt’s pit crew to change a tire at Indy.

Here’s a list of some of the worst:

- Meals. With an infant by your side, don’t expect to linger over a sumptuous European meal. If the baby’s asleep, great. He can always wake up. When he does, get ready for self-conscious panic. There’s nothing more unsettling than having an infant’s piercing cry shatter the calm of a candlelit dining room. It’s worse than hearing a baby cry in a dark theater just at the moment Clark Gable says, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Big lesson: Don’t take a baby to candlelit dining rooms. Of course, in many European hotels, even the smallest gasthofs , dinner by candlelight is the treasured norm. Waiters for the most part were tolerant, as were other diners. In the summer of ’85, dozens of them were Americans, who, like us, traveled with babies. As much as they seemed repugnant, McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, which dot the European scene, were great places to take kids.

- Time. With more baggage than a golf pro on tour, be prepared for time constraints and logistical nightmares. Trips often took two hours where before, sans baby, one would suffice. This is a problem for any new parent, but in Europe, where the language and landscape are foreign, time disappeared like diapers.

- Confusion. The parents will have plenty, but the baby will runneth over. Staying in one place as much as possible is great advice. Little ones seem to thrive on familiar faces and surroundings. Driving through Austria, and the worst flooding in 75 years, our baby caught a cold. It was at this point that the vacation took on the feel of “Apocalypse Now.”

- Illness. Fortunately, the cold went away once we got to Switzerland and the safe refuge of a friend’s apartment. But it caused many anxious moments. We made hurried plans to take Ted to a Swiss pediatrician, recommended by a friend. If you are traveling overseas with an infant, try to locate a source (preferably one with a child) who can recommend a doctor in case of emergency. As the criers of doom told us (correctly, I think) beforehand, a baby cold can quickly become baby pneumonia.

- Nerves. If a baby’s fussy, as babies will be, even more so when they have colds, try to have patience. I know it sounds trite, but we’re talking about PATIENCE here--the sort San Diego baseball fans had to muster from 1969 to 1984. At one point, the only thing that would quiet Ted was my pushing him back and forth in the stroller, in the cramped confines of our friend’s apartment. It was, as they say, bor-ing .

Hearing my comment, my wife, who has seen one too many sports commercials, said, “Bored or deafened . . . You make the call.”

Of course, not everything about taking a baby on a marathon trip is unpleasant. I got to know him a lot better, and for that I’m thankful. He was my best friend. The kindness in a baby’s eye can do a lot to lighten a bad day. And the first months of getting to know your own baby are wonderful. He is, however, 4 months old. At times, I was sure he was trying to tell me, in baby talk, “Why didn’t you listen to the family doctor? He was right, you know.”

And he was.

As my wife said, on the weary flight home, “You know, all of those books we read kept saying what you should bring , as though the equipment made it all worthwhile. What they forgot is that the baby is still there. And he probably won’t be happy.”