Wednesday, November 15, 2017

TTT Europe - Setting expectations VS being Flexible

A friend who was in the middle of an extraordinary road trip across parts of Europe lamented that her kids were *shocked* each day when there was something else to go see and do.  Happily absorbing all of her wisdom I decided that we would talk to the kids ahead of time explaining a few of the expectations for our trip. Activities! Routines! Time rushes! Time zones!  Melatonin! Sleeping on the plane! etc etc etc.  I wanted the kids to feel a part of the planning but also to know that we were expecting them to follow along with our planning, too. I knew, of course, that this was not an "automatic fix" but rather just one more little way to tip the scales of willing participation in our favor.

We arrived in NYC on a cold and windy Halloween day, ready to burn energy before our red-eye flight. Adventure Awaits! Dropped our van, picked up rental van! Children's Museum! Park! Picnic! Jumping Jacks! Our Adventure! Walking through the city streets! Mass at St. Patrick's! Coffee! Dropped off our rental van and hauled our circus to the shuttle to the airport! Counting bags and kids the whole way, of course, each kid knowing their job! Expectations of Adventure!

Bursting with excitement and anticipation  we bustled into the airport and right into the check-in line and... the flight was cancelled. CANCELLED. The Flight. Was. Cancelled.

Y'all, I almost cried. I looked at our larger-than-average crew with corresponding baggage and those excited little faces and my heart just sank. Disguising the monumental effort this took, I threw a smile on my face, and said, "Well! Now we have an UNEXPECTED adventure!" I looked my 10-year-old-Control-Planner eldest in the eyes and opened my heart to her. I explained that this is less-than-ideal, that I was of course disappointed, as was EVERYONE there. But we had a choice - how would we respond? We can not change what happened. We can not control the change to our plans. What can we control? Ourselves. We still get to choose our attitude. So we both took a deep breath, said a little prayer, and turned to the others with smiles on our faces. She exclaims "Guys!  We did plan an adventure, but now we have a Surprise Adventure!" Daughter #2, my  Reliably Cheerful Girl turned it into a game and that sad row of airport chairs became Entertainment Central for 5 Bouncy Adventuring Kids as we awaited hotel confirmation and called our Oxford-living friends to let them know we would be a day behind.

And so we have here the lesson in NOT being in control. Travel takes planning and preparation and details, but travel also means being flexible and spontaneous. The world is bigger than we are. Life is full of surprises and mistakes and baggage cars driving into parked planes. The question is NOT "Will anything go wrong?" but rather "How will I handle it WHEN it does?"

I spend a lot of time planning and preparing and organizing for our adventures.  I have lists and systems and lots of mistakes from which to learn. Of course I will continue to do so, as it makes a huge difference in the ease of travel. But taking on adventure means embracing the unexpected, too. Many years ago when travel meant a backpack and a few days off from work the details weren't as important. But reflecting on that "easy" travel time I had not yet learned what it truly meant to be flexible. Oh sure, I dealt with delayed flights and walking to hotels, broken vehicles and remember collect calls from a payphone to your parents for a ride? Travelling with my Travelling Tramma Troop has changed the way I embrace the surprise. It is my example that teaches all these little Adventurers how to handle it; how I respond is how they will.

Our comedy of errors did not end there, either. The following night we arrived for our rescheduled flight, set to depart at 1:30 AM - 1:30 IN THE MORNING!  The gate was packed with nary a seat in view. As it turned out the flight previous to ours was delayed, which meant OURS was delayed, too. We finally boarded at 2:30 AM. Our people and bags and stroller and crutches were all spread out on the floor of the airport until 2:30 IN the MORNING.

Being able to laugh at life and alter your plans keeps travel enjoyable. We can not control life, but we can control our response to it. So we laughed our way to a free hotel stay with terrible food and an extra day in NYC.  Please let me clarify that is was not all easy, all fun and games. Of course we were disappointed, and would much rather have had the day in England with friends. I don't mean to paint a picture of a Miss Merry Sunshine Traveler. Rather, I want others, especially my kids, to know that when "Surprises" arise we have the control over our attitude. We can choose to let the unexpected ruin our trip or we can rename it "An Unexpected Adventure!"

TTT Europe - packing

"There and back again" as Tolkien would say.  We have returned from our first family overseas adventure! It is the morning after, with its equal quantities of laundry and coffee. This is a rough transition day as kids adjust to the time zone and adults are working on far less-than-adequate sleep, and yet we are still smiling! That's just how momentous this trip was!

Writing about the preparation for a trip is essential drudgery. Drudgery because we have myriad other more exciting stories to tell and the logistics of suitcases does not make the list of interest at this point. However, it is essential to work through the practical preparations so that I and others can learn from this AND to encourage anyone else contemplating an adventure that YES! You CAN do it!

First, a word about weather - you can't predict 100%, so stop pretending. Layers, y'all. Short sleeve, long sleeve, sweatshirt/sweater, windbreaker. Leggings can go under jeans for the Chilly Girl, and Miss Summertime wore her skirt and kept her jacket tied around her waist for most of the trip.  November is rainy season in Roma, and it's always Rainy Season in England, so windbreakers with hoods served as perfect rain gear. We did have one umbrella which was left at home on the one day it poured, of course. 

In preparation for the trip I became obsessed with the kids' feet;as in, what about their shoes?! Ironically, we had 2 pair of shoes fall apart in the course of our trip and had to buy a new pair. So much for breaking them in and trying them out. My takeaway lesson is that kids' feet are tired when they are tired but are otherwise much more forgiving than our old toes. For adults? Bring the best supportive shoes you own. At the end of the day your feet will thank you and at the end of 2 weeks they are all done thanking me. As I type this they are happily wrapped up in my slippers. 

Outfits take a healthy level of obsession in the packing process, but they are not complicated. I mentioned layers, and choose wisely. I had the kids try on each pair of pants to make sure they were favorites and comfy. No weird colors; everything had to match everything, everyday. Oh, speaking of which: If you have pre-teen girls or other children who tend to go through a lot of laundry this would be a good time to introduce them to wearing the same pair of jeans multiple times. I had NO idea this was a problem until we were packing. Oh the horror! My girls, ages 8 & 10, do most of their own laundry and thus I was regrettably unaware of just how many pairs of pants come through each load. Guys, this is travel time. Pick something you love so much you could wear it every day. Because you will. Conversely, the conversation with my boys was the opposite. Yes we DO need to pack enough clean underwear. And we'll be throwing that shirt away by the end. 

1 suitcase for the middle boys to share
1 Suitcase for girl + disposable room
1 suitcase for girl + toddler's clothes
1 for Mama and 
1 for Daddy
1 for diapers, shoes, and Toddler's pillow in case he wouldn't sleep
1 for Gram

Mine was my camera case and diaper back combined, and ain't nobody messing with that. It was perfect.
Daddy-Man can carry anything, so he did. Souvenirs, jackets, umbrella, water, whatever. 
The 4 big kids each carried their own size-appropriate with their own jacket, water bottle, sunglasses, pencils/crayons, notebook. They were light and spacious because once they carried them they were stuck. I was not going to accumulate heavy backpacks in the middle of the day. 

The Lessons:

The suitcases were all carry-on because we couldn't check bags. We paid for 8 seats, so we could claim the baggage space! This of course has downsides, mostly the spectacle and chaos of making it through the airports/trains/shuttles. However, it was more than enough room for everything we needed, so I don't regret it for a second.  Which begs the mention that yes, this was more room than we "needed" but I chose extra room intentionally. I am not a big souvenir person, but I made the conscious decision that I would say yes to the kids when they found something special. We had room for their special finds without going overweight on anything. We could easily have condensed our space if desired. 

Carseats are a necessary evil of car travel with your children, like it or not. We have never used them on the plane, or taxis, or buses... but or the first week of our adventure we had a van. That meant we hauled them around otherwise, but had no opportunity to check them or send them home. It just was what it was. But MAN! what a pain. 

SNACKS EVERYWHERE. At home snacks are reserved for very active days and weird schedules. But on the road they were with us at all times. The moment someone started complaining we put a granola bar in their mouth. This serves 2 purposes of course; food solves a lot of grumpy attitudes, and if they are chewing they can't whine. A double-win! And Toddler didn't eat much, as seems to be pretty normal for his age in a new environment, so snacks bought us a lot of happiness and perseverance. 

I'll probably think of more as I go along so I might come back and edit this post later. For now, however, my brain is done. Time to slather some peanut butter on crackers and shoo the I'm-Not-Tired! kiddos into a siesta. There's no need to abandon our European traditions ;-)