By Lucy McCauley
Web Exclusive, April 28, 2008
When my daughter, Hannah, was one-and-a-half years old, I took her with me on a trip to Spain. On day one, at the Prado Museum in Madrid, I found myself waiting behind a crowd that had gathered around The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch's Medieval triptych. I had Hannah in her stroller, and after a while she got fussy. People shot looks our way. Soon she began to cry, the sound reverberating against the walls and lofty museum ceiling. While she was effectively clearing the room, I found her sippy cup, and she began to drink happily. We neared the painting at last, and that's when, with all her might, my little darling flung that same sippy cup into the air—directly at the painting.
I suppose that, for her, the action was a delightful experiment in cause and effect: Throw object. See what priceless artwork object lands on. But for me it was a long, agonizing moment in slow-mo: a half-sippy cup of milk arcing toward the painting, my arm grasping at air to intercept the travesty. Hannah was about to cover Bosch's sublime masterpiece with a Pollack-like overlay of milk-splatterings. I could picture the guards hauling us away to jail or wherever they put art vandals. Mercifully, the sippy cup missed—and the guard was looking the other way.
Lesson learned: Don't give baby a sippy cup near a world art treasure. Better yet, save museum-going for when your child has fallen asleep in her stroller. But the real point of my story is that there comes a moment for every traveling parent, as it did for me that day in the Prado, when you wonder: What am I doing on the road with this pint-sized sojourner? When did travel become nice views and bits of culture sandwiched in between feedings and diaper changes? You think back fondly to your student backpacking days, or to that excursion to Mexico before you had kids—adventure, fun, unfettered spontaneity, pure relaxation—all distant memories now, changed forever by the presence of these small, sippy cup-throwing travel companions.
But what I discovered during the rest of that trip—several weeks of travel on trains and buses, in and out of cathedrals and more museums—was that children do alter many aspects of travel, and not necessarily for the worse. It all depends on how you view it. If travel is about embracing the journey—and let's hope that it is—rather than simply consuming a destination, then surely our little ones keep things on the road interesting. Having kids in tow creates circumstances in which we'll likely encounter that intangible thing I think we all yearn for when traveling: transformative moments.
Children absolutely force us to be in the moment, which is where transformation begins. They make us stop and look around, even when we're intent on getting someplace else. They notice things. They call our attention to what we adults wouldn't see otherwise—that alien-like purple fruit in the open-air market or the polka dots someone has painted on the side of a building—as well as things we would rather not notice ("Why is that man spraying the wall with his pee-pee, Mommy?"). And because kids inevitably draw people to them, we have experiences we wouldn't otherwise have. We talk to locals we might have felt too shy or awkward to approach on our own. Kids force us to slow down, simply because they can't always keep up, or because they need to sleep or play or use the potty. A child beside us ensures that we'll be spontaneous and flexible—and that creates a space where magic can happen.
For me at the Prado that day, given that my daughter's milk didn't actually collide with a precious painting, and I didn't go to jail, we ended up enjoying the afternoon with a Spanish mama and toddler that we met in the museum. The mom had witnessed the scene and, feeling sympathetic to my utter horror at what nearly occurred, struck up a conversation and invited us for coffee and some play in the park behind the museum.
Ultimately, did I have the kind of adventure I'd hoped for, the kind I'd had in college or in the years before I added a Hello Kitty bag to my luggage? No, I didn't. But I did have a wonderful trip that was—yes—transformative. On our final day in Madrid, when I was trying to get us out the door to see some last sites, my daughter stopped me mid-motion. Unceremoniously plopping her little bum on my lap, she sat looking out the balcony windows, contentedly drinking from her sippy cup, as if we had nothing else to do. When I tried to move and get us both up and going, I was stopped by the sheer pressure of her body—and by the view in front of me, which I hadn't taken time to really notice before.
Two windows opened onto a wrought-iron balcony and a clear-skied fall morning in Madrid. Sunlight played on an ancient, five-story, ochre-stained building across the way. Each floor had balconies, and the shades were pulled out and over them—how the Spanish let in the air and keep out the sun. The scent of café con leche wafted up from the streets below, and I could hear people greeting one another in staccato phrases as they passed by.
We sat a long time gazing out that window, my baby and I, taking it all in as if we had nowhere else in the world to be, as if we had come all the way to Spain for just that moment. And in a way, I guess you could say we had.
Lucy McCauley is a travel writer and editor of the annual Best Women's Travel Writing (Travelers' Tales/Solas House).