If they were not such interesting characters and such good friends, I might hate them. Each year about this time I receive news of their family vacation at a mountain cabin in Vermont.
"This summer we all learned Polish," the letter will say. I envision the five of them chatting with locals on the street corners of Warsaw, or reading Chopin's secret diaries in his native tongue.
Last year it was Chinese. When the kids were younger the family immersed itself in more familiar languages. This is their summer game, their family sport. I don't know if they ever played in Little League or knew one end of a tennis racket from another, but they could best all the neighbors in French and Italian.
Of course, I am envious. To be able to eavesdrop on every murmur at a Roman ice cream parlor is my idea of heaven. To be able to translate the gossip at a hairdresser's in Hungary would be bliss. To be able to talk to a shepherd in the hills of Morocco or a tribesman on the Tanzanian plains. . . . To be able to follow foreign films without rolling the eyes between action and subtitles. . . .
Dabbled in Languages
I am grateful that I lived for a year in Argentina so that I have keys to the Spanish-speaking world. I am glad that I know enough French to translate headlines, to follow the how-to-get-out-of-town directions of provincial gendarmes, to order with some confidence in bistros--if I can decipher the hand-written menus or the smeared purple mimeographs posted by the door.
In my book, to have dabbled in a different language each summer since childhood would be even better than knowing the taste of all the world's bittersweet chocolates. Do I mean that?
Those bright young linguists in Vermont popped into mind when a University of California professor asked if I thought her 8-year-old was too young to appreciate a trip to China. My guess was no. If parents have the money and time and patience for such adventures, the rewards are many.
The simplest test of a trip's worth is to ask older travelers what they recall from early journeys. Children often remember statues and fountains, people and pets, costumes and foods and towers that are unlike any back home. Vast museums may be remembered for a single dinosaur bone or a bashed-up suit of armor. Concerts may be replayed as the night that the fat man sneezed seven times in the row ahead and made your sister giggle and drop her purse. But who wrote the music and who performed? No clue.
Young travelers don't cling to as many historical facts as parents might like, but that does not lessen the wonder of a trip and its later impact.
He's Been There
A friend of mine took her stepson to England three years ago. He did not learn the names of all the poets or kings, but when a picture of Buckingham Palace or Westminster Abbey flashes on television, he smiles wisely and turns up the volume. He has been there; he has seen the double-decker red buses roll by and heard the clop of horses in the mounted guards' parade.
Travel experiences seep into daily life and enrich it, adding new questions and perspective to the business of growing up.
In New Orleans recently, CBS commentator Andy Rooney reminisced over gumbo at Broussard's about trips he made to that city with his dad, a doctor from Upstate New York. "We always went to the Acme Oyster House. It was so great in my memory that I wondered how it would be when I went back. It's terrific. Did you ever think what a funny name Acme is?"
My family plotted summer vacations as if we were the first ever to venture to our destinations. We read and dreamed and marked our routes in pencils with fat erasers. We unfolded huge maps and measured the miles. We packed the car till it fit.
When my parents first drove us to New Orleans they had several learning experiences in mind: We would learn to love crawfish, oysters and other Gulf and lake treats to expand our taste for seafood beyond the tune of school-lunch sandwiches in Oklahoma. We would learn about Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans, and the trek of the Cajuns from Nova Scotia to the bayous of Louisiana.
Or so they thought.
That TV Contraption
What I remember most is that we gathered around to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on a wonderful contraption called television. And there was a man in Pirate's Alley next to the St. Louis Cathedral who would take your copper penny and roll it through a machine and hand it back to you with the entire Lord's Prayer pressed onto it. And there was a huge window in a French Market candy shop where you could watch pralines being made from batches of brown sugar and pecans.
And hidden down an arcade off Royal Street was a restaurant called the Court of Two Sisters, which, my dad insisted, had been named for my sister and myself. Sure, we believed him. It was more fun that way.
Was that childhood trip worth it? You bet. The laughs and mysteries and mix-ups of a family adventure are as important as history lessons. That trip not only made me love New Orleans but it left me eager to go to England, to see for myself the palace where that lovely woman lived, the one in the white dress and sparkling crown who was heralded by trumpets in a magic box in my New Orleans hotel room.