I’ve just returned from two weeks abroad, where the natural splendors of a Croatian island and the man-made beauty of Florence and Venice flanked a visit with my in-laws. We were gone just long enough to have been able to put out of our minds everything stress-inducing about our actual lives.
So, as you can imagine, the return home was like sticking my head into a bucket of ice water. Of course I’m not complaining. I’d go back in a heartbeat and do it again. But re-entry into the real world has been a shock to my system, and I’m not even referring to the jetlag, the laundry catch-up, yom tov cooking, or making my way through aisles of picked-over school supplies.
What I mean, really, is the fact that suddenly, life is back to being about more than just the five of us.
For two weeks, we crammed into a Peugeot sedan with our belongings and made our way from Milan to Zagreb. Three boys with legs far longer than my own shared the back seat. There was no elbow room. One quick turn and chaos ensued. They bickered well and hard as brothers do, but they had only one another. There were no far cooler friends to distract them. They were, to be blunt, stuck.
Meanwhile, my husband and I got to share the front seat and talk above the din. We had more face time than we’ve had in months. We caught up, became reacquainted, shared anxieties and dreams for the future. Sometimes, we rode in silence, enjoying the sound of the wheels on the asphalt and the miracle that we were where we were at all, traversing European terrain from Tuscany to Istria with our three boys in tow.
It was blessing enough that my husband’s pager does not work overseas.
There were even moments when we interacted as a family, undivided by the barrier of seats in a minivan. Suddenly, everyone having his or her own space felt overrated. We played alphabetical geography games. The boys reminisced about which meal they’d eaten in which kosher restaurant in which city on our previous road trips in the US. They planned where we should go next summer.
Each of us has a favorite aspect of our family travels. But one of the things I love most is talking to people we meet along the way and having brief, humorous, serendipitous encounters with complete strangers with whom I share either no common language or experience. We may need to play charades to make our points, yet the exchanges add unique dimension to being away without leaving a lasting impression that carves into family time.
Yet the very best part of traveling is finally getting the chance to talk to the people I live with and love most in the world. Not just about carpool and what’s for dinner. But about what they are thinking and feeling and stressing over, what makes them laugh, and what are they hoping to achieve in the coming year.
All doubts about whether these journeys are worthwhile are dispelled quickly with each tête-à-tête I share with the boys. There are no everyday expectations or demands – like pleading with them to clean their rooms or begging me to buy them another pair of sneakers. It’s just unadulterated human connection and it is one of the natural wonders of the big world out there.
Our summer trips have given the boys a broader world view, at least when they bother to look up from their screens. Most important, though, travel has enabled them to gather unparalleled memories -- of the places they’ve seen, the moments they’ve lived, and not least of all, the undistracted time spent with their family.
That more than any souvenir should carry them a long way down the road.