I thought I would take my daughter Katie overseas and teach her about the world. Instead, over the course of a decade, visiting 12 European cities, she taught me about life.
On our second day in Paris, then-eight-year-old Katie and I went to a café near the Eiffel Tower where babies were not welcome, but dogs were fine. A waiter brought Katie a hamburger that was like nothing she’d ever seen at In-N-Out. On top of the meat patty was a sunny-side-up egg. I was a bit nervous because absolutely everything she had experienced in the last two days was different. Now, even the familiar hamburger was weird in France. But Katie looked at the burger, shrugged and said, “I guess you get breakfast with your lunch in Paris.”
Lesson #1: Hold your nose and focus on the beauty in the world.
Later during that trip to Paris, Katie and I had the unique…um, opportunity to sleep at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore on the Left Bank. The bookstore graciously opens its doors to “Tumbleweeds,” broke young travelers, who can sleep on cots in the store in exchange for a few hours of work during the day.
At Katie’s request (begging), the store let us sleep in its Writer’s Studio, where it is said Henry James once stayed. When we saw the room, it was pretty clear that the sheets hadn’t been changed since James’ visit. We turned on the faucet, and out flew a tornado of gnats. In the corner was a box of Ritz crackers with a picture of a very young Andy Griffith (Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry.) Katie’s makeshift bed was a door resting on two uneven file cabinets. Cushioning the door was a yoga mat.
It was broiling hot so I opened the window as far as it would go, four inches. Then Katie and I simultaneously shared our thoughts. Me: “Yuck, I smell hot garbage from the dumpster below.” Her: “Look at our view of Notre Dame!”
Lesson #2: When life presents an opportunity, don’t over-think it; just walk through the door.
Three years later, Katie was 11 years old and we were traveling through Italy. As we were on our way to see Michelangelo’s David in Florence, we heard magnificent music coming from a building. We walked over to check it out and, just as we reached the entrance, an Italian man with black curly hair and red pants opened the enormous carved wooden door.
I asked what loosely translated to, “What is music?” and he explained that the building was a music school and the opera students were taking their final exams. He asked, “You have-a come to watch?”
While I was busy wringing my hands, worrying about whether he meant did we want to watch, or were we expected guests, or if this was an existential question, Katie just chirped, “Si, grazie,” and walked through the door.
We spent the most wonderful, unscheduled two hours watching twentysomethings in Motley Crue t-shirts and eyebrow piercings singing Puccini.
Lesson #3: Let go of the quest for perfection and get a little perspective.
On the same trip to Italy, Katie taught me what was possibly the most important lesson of my life.
She had been looking forward to visiting the Ruins of Pompeii for more than a year. In fact, it was what she had looked forward to most in Italy. But our day in Pompeii did not go as planned. Our train broke down. We had to roll our suitcases about a mile over cobblestone streets in hellish heat. And we wound up giving our bags to gypsies instead of the government approved luggage check.
Instead of spending the day in Pompeii, we took a 45-minute jog through and saw very little. We had to rush to catch another train, which was of course, an hour late. I felt awful that I’d disappointed Katie and got a little weepy. She turned to me and said, “A trip doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.” And then for good measure she added, “People have had worse days in Pompeii, y’know?”
Really seeing the world
Our children teach us about life every day. It is often in the most mundane situations that kids offer us beautiful insights, but travel offers us a unique opportunity to see each other in a different way because we face new challenges and situations. When Katie and I share that we have traveled to 12 European cities together, people always turn to her and ask if she knows how lucky she is. She definitely understands that travel is a privilege and she is grateful. But really, I’m the one who has learned the most from these trips.
(Guest blogger Jennifer Coburn is the author of We’ll Always Have Paris: A Mother Daughter Memoir.)