How to Have the Perfect* European Vacation, Part II (*Nothing is Perfect)

Last week I told you about my personal philosophy of travel: no mishaps, no memories. After several decades of foreign travel, I’ve realized that memories, those experiences that stay with you long after the trip has ended—the things you relate when people say, “So, tell me about your trip”—are never the things that go right. We remember the things that go wrong.

            Now, I didn’t always think this way. When my sons were twelve and fifteen, I planned a family trip to England. No more wasting time languishing on the beaches of Florida for the Berry family. Now, I naively imagined, we would experience as a family the wonders of ancient Stonehenge, the Tower of London, Stratford-on-Avon, and Ironbridge Gorge (the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution). The eyes of my young offspring would be opened to the rich history and culture of the Old World, and the once-dry pages of their history textbooks would miraculously spring to life.

            Traveling with children of any age, of course, predisposes you to disaster. But as yet unaware of the positive virtue of mishaps, I planned a trip that would be perfect in every way. Since the spring weather in England is unpredictable, I kitted us out with warm wool sweaters, waterproof macs, and matching Goretex boots. Nothing would stand in the way of our walk through history. And I mapped out an itinerary that kept us hopping—the best of the best—covering the panoply of English history from the Queen Boadicea to Winston Churchill. Each boy was given a disposable camera to capture for himself images that would be cherished reminders of his personal awakening to the world beyond our shores.

            The trip began on a doubtful note. Following Rick Steves’ method of conquering jet lag by getting plenty of sunshine and activity on your first day, I had scheduled one of the Hop-On-Hop-Off tours of London in the morning, followed by lunch in Covent Garden, a walking tour of Notting Hill, and dinner at The Cheshire Cheese, the favorite pub of Dr. Samuel Johnson. (Did you know there are two pubs in London called The Cheshire Cheese? I didn’t, but that’s another story.) A bit too optimistic, you’re thinking? In reality the day turned out to be a kind of forced march, my husband and I leading two teenage zombies by the arm around London, much to the amusement of passers-by. It was the first time I realized that it really is possible to sleep while standing—and maybe even while walking.

            After a couple of days the boys woke up, just in time for a tour of the Shakespeare properties near Stratford. My hopes were high. But what captured the sponge-like imaginations of the boys had nothing to do with Shakespeare or the guide’s witty and informative tales of life in Tudor England. It was the ewe in one of the barns giving birth. Yes, we had told the boys the facts of life (in broad terms), but we hadn’t gone into many of the actual details. Now they stood transfixed for an hour and a half, watching the earthy process with horrified fascination.

            None of us remembers a thing about our visits to the Tower of London and Stonehenge. Things must have gone too smoothly. We do remember our drive through the Forest of Dean, though. I had planned a mini-lecture on the famous English oaks whose stout timbers built the English naval vessels of the 16th and 17th centuries. But there was no time for that. A dispute had broken out in the back seat over which boy was taking up more than his fair share of the common armrest. It ended when my husband took desperate measures and allowed our fifteen-year-old to drive the rental car for several miles. Hopefully there is a statute of limitations on poor parenting.

            I believe our most cherished memory of England is our visit to the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site—no, not the tour of Blists Hill village, nor the trip into the eerie tar tunnel, but lunch at the reconstructed Victorian pub. Our younger son, unbeknownst to us, was amusing himself by finger-lobbing bits of “authentic pork pie” at his brother. One of the shots went wide, smacking a prim-looking older woman on the cheek. He ducked under the table as she turned around in her chair, proclaiming in that withering tone that English people do so well, “He’s flicking food!”

            We’re still laughing about it. Of course, we do have the photographs–twelve of the poor laboring ewe and the other one hundred and thirty two of Volkswagens. The trip was perfect.*

4 thoughts on “How to Have the Perfect* European Vacation, Part II (*Nothing is Perfect)”

  1. Andrea Rahlf says:

    A delightful story. Reminds me of our adventures in England when our daughter was studying at the University of Wales. It’s all the random “unplanned” things that we remember years later.

  2. I loved this post, really – the hopeful tone, the smart mommy with all her ducks-in-a-row and then all of them going astray. I took notes. Lots and lots of notes about what NOT to do. The trip to Ireland in 2014 to celebrate my 25th wedding anniversary? Definitely will be just the hubbie and I.
    The girls can stay home and make their own disasters.

      1. say it isn’t so! Okay, now you’re gonna have to post about that one next! (please?????)

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