Travelling to Europe with Small Kids

Before the memory of our family vacation fades too fast in the wake of getting back to work and school for my oldest, I wanted to take a moment and talk a little bit about some of the things I have learned about travelling with kids as a result of this Euro trip.

Background: I haven’t taken a vacation in 7.5 years. The last time I truly had a break from work, school and the hustle was my very first trip to Morocco in 2011 to visit my husband, meet his family, and check out the school he was building. I spent six weeks getting to know everyone and seeing some sights around the country including a trip to the Sahara through Marrakech, Ouarzazate and Merzouga, and side trips to Casablanca, Mohammedia and Rabat. Even though we travelled around a bit, it wasn’t a super touristy trip because we didn’t have our marriage license yet and so paying for two hotel rooms everywhere we went wasn’t feasible for extended periods of time. I spent most of the time between his family’s places in Marrakech and a small village 60km north called Attaouia. This was followed by a month in Florence six months later where I spent most of my time buying and devouring dozens of books from a boutique English bookshop just off Piazza Duomo. Shortly thereafter, I actually moved to Morocco to continue building our school and running classes for small children in it.

Since that time, I’ve had two marriage celebrations (one in Canada and one in Morocco, same marriage!), taught for three years, endured a horrific birth trauma with my firstborn, immigrated with my husband and daughter back to Canada, built a business, completed a masters degree, delivered dozens of lectures/workshops on Islam and anti-racism work to literally thousands of people, and had a second baby. Between motherhood, grad school and the pressures of being a veiled Muslim  woman activist in an era of rising Islamophobia and misogyny, it’s safe to say, I have felt burnt out for a long time. So much so that burnt out has been my new normal…for a while.

selfie
Well rested on the last day of our trip.

Fast forward to August 2018 when we decided to use our good ol’ Canadian parental leave to take five months in Morocco and you have me still juggling kids, full time work (business has been busier than ever, thank God) and everything else in between -only now, I’ve had all the uniquely Moroccan stressors added, ones that I won’t get into listing much but which involve weather extremes, bugs and cultural divides, especially in the village where we are staying.

Because Canadian passports only entitle you to three months in Morocco without a residency card, work permit or visitor’s visa extension, November started to loom on the horizon. I had zero intention of going through the hassle of getting my papers for a (relatively and comparatively) short stay so I decided we should do a visa run on a cheap flight to Europe.

I am one of those moms that cannot leave her children for long periods of time. My oldest – who is now a spirited and eternally stubborn five year old – has only ever spent two nights out of my bed: the night her sister was born and the night after. I haven’t been away from my new baby for more than an hour in the ten months since she was born. As a survivor and someone who lives with PTSD, this is what I need to do to feel secure and safe and I am alright with that. What it means though is if I do a visa run, my family is coming with me.

So I started scouring for flights anywhere in Europe from Marrakech and checking out sights and accommodations in each place. As I looked more and more, it suddenly dawned on me: why not take an actual two-week vacation? One where you set an email auto-responder and legitimately don’t check your inbox. One where your phone is set to airplane mode and you only open the Wifi to update your Instagram. Could it really be possible? Do I dare to eat a peach? Do I dare disturb the universe?

alcazar of seville
Tile detail in the Real Alcazar de Sevilla

In the end, my love of history and my husband’s indifference won out and I booked us for five days in Berlin followed by ten days in the south of Spain running the Malaga-Cordoba-Sevilla circuit. I only had mild nerves as I gleefully packed our bags, carefully estimating how many diapers and how much formula I could cram into the two smaller checked bags the budget airline allowed. But ultimately the nerves were for nothing: we went on to have one of the best trips of my life and I will savor its memories for the rest of it.

What made it so great?

People we know couldn’t believe we were attempting a Euro-trip with two kids. People called us “heroes”and “troopers”. I honestly didn’t know what all the fuss was about and I still don’t. With enough careful planning and some important things to remember, traveling with super small kids can be fun, rewarding even. Were there meltdown moments for everyone involved? Of course. Did they happen often enough to destroy our enjoyment? No. And in the process we had the time and energy to learn more from our kids about what they need and when they need it.

berlin
Guten Tag, Berlin

Timing is everything. First of all, lap babies fly free so why not take advantage of that fact? Go when your baby is a bit bigger but not too big that they want to walk around all the time. The perfect middle ground for us was almost 10 months.

Also, when you’re checking flights, try to pick ones with good check in/departure times as well as being mindful of when they will land and how long it takes to arrive at your destination. We found that booking early morning flights to destinations worked well because we could rouse our kids to get on the plane but then they would be so groggy as to pass out as soon as the flight took off, waking off somewhat refreshed on arrival. Baby was a bit fussy on the flight to Berlin but still napped most of the way.

Check your booking carefully. We booked holiday apartments and even a hostel instead of pricey hotels. But it wasn’t just a budgetary decision: we also needed access to a small kitchen everywhere we went so we could prepare kid-friendly foods and wash bottles. Two out of four places also had baby cots for us and the other two had furniture arrangements that allowed for safe sleeping regardless. Also, many bookings have specific check-in times and won’t allow entry before then – make sure you time your flight/travel to allow for you to get to accommodations as soon as you arrive. There is little more anxiety-producing scenarios than dragging a stroller, two de-planed kids and suitcases down narrow cobblestone streets. If you have to, request early entry and pay slightly extra if you have to. There was only one occasion where we had to sit around so we found a playground and parked the baby, her stroller and the luggage while our oldest got her pent up energy out.

malaga
View over Malaga

Hit the supermarket. Honestly, as much as I am a closet foodie and wannabe chef, culinary tourism isn’t really my bag. Especially since becoming Muslim when finding halal or even vegetarian options is nearly impossible. We were so touched that the breakfast at our hostel in Berlin actually had certified halal breakfast sausages and we occasionally hit a shawarma shop, but most of the trip involved getting fresh bread, produce, instant coffees and yoghurts at the corner shop. It was infinitely cheaper than attempting restaurant eats with a picky kid who prefers fresh veggies and simple food, and our pocketbooks were happy the whole trip.

Let go of the Euro-trip stereotypes. When a lot of folks think of backpacking across Europe, they think of late nights at pubs and days spent rushing from one sight to the next. Obviously as Muslims we have zero interest in clubs or bars, and ultimately we let our kids set the pace for the day. We booked enough time in each place to do one or two major things a day, interspersed with supermarket runs, playground breaks or outright Legoland visits. Having kids with us also meant hitting the sack when they did at 8pm after clocking 15-18,000 steps a day together.  And that was alright. In fact, it was ideal. We got so much more rest than we were used to and rising early to have a fresh breakfast and plan our route for the day became a beautiful routine for us. There were some days we just didn’t make it to all of our destinations either and instead we wandered around, taking in neighbourhoods outside the center and seeing different things.

Ultimately, you know your own family best. These are just some of the things we found helped us have a much-needed rest and to make the most of it together. Alhamdulilah for that.

IMG_20181124_193000_293
Plaza de Espana, Sevilla

16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. 

 

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