It was more than 20 years ago when my parents called my brother and I into the living room. At the time I was 10 or 11 and I vaguely remember being more than a little confused. We were going to go on an adventure. The specifics were still being hammered out, but we’d be packing our lives into backpacks, renting out the house we owned in Sedona, and striking out for a year-long exploration of Europe.
I remember a tumultuous combination of emotions. A mixture of excitement, of confusion, of wonder, and of fear. But what about our cats? The house? My friends? It was all a lot to take in. I knew that there were things I loved – knights, medieval history, mythology, fishing and exploring and as the son of travelers, I’d been exposed to travel before. When I was six we re-located from Southwestern Colorado to Sedona and since birth I’d grown up familiar with road trips and visits to the Sea of Cortez in northern Mexico. But those were month long trips…this? This was something different.
How does a 10 year old wrap their mind around an entirely different continent … one full of alien people, foods, smells and languages? Shadows of sensations stir in my mind as I try and recall that moment nearly 22 years ago. And time? What did a full year mean to me then? I know it seemed daunting…but how daunting? It has softened with time and the glossy shades of fond memories and rich experiences. Yet, it still stands out vividly in my memory – a tribute to how intense the experience was.
It is only as I’ve grown older that I’ve truly started to understand the incredible undertaking my parents chose to take. Sure, they were veteran travelers and experienced educators … but even to consider a similar trip today is daunting, and that with an amazing wealth of technologies, the rise of the internet and a (mostly) unified Europe.
On that spring day in 1995 the world looked very differently. Echoes of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the First Gulf War were still recent history. The nations of Europe were only beginning to contemplate the concept of the European Union and the internet was in an infantile state. Though I know many of my parent’s friends were supportive, I’m sure many others looked on wondering and convinced that their bold abandon was instead dangerous recklessness.
NOTE: This post is Part One of a Three Part series in which I compile and share reflections, independently written and then compiled, from my parents, my brother and myself. Jump straight to Part II in which I share my mother and father’s reflections or to Part III where my brother, David, goes in depth and shares his thoughts, reflections and memories. Have your own personal experiences or questions? Don’t hesitate to post them in a comment!
Over the following months we pulled out an atlas and world map. We sat as a family, my younger brother David and I leaning in and treated as equals as we planned. This was important and an incredible difference between my parents and most adults. We were co-learners and in it together. We were at the center of the trip and they truly meant it when they asked: What did we want to see? Where did we want to go? How silly and naive some of our requests must have sounded to our parents, and yet, they included us and structured our trip in-part around our interests. Mythology? Yes, we’d have to go to Greece. The Eiffel Tower, that stunning feat of architectural accomplishment? Of course, Paris then was a must. And what of Normandy where my Grandfather fought in WWII?
Slowly a plan came together. It was a casual plan, one that was fluid, free formed and largely limited to the first three months during which we’d have unlimited Eurail passes. As ideas erupted before slowly evolving into their final shape we adapted – my father’s sister would join us in France for several weeks, we’d wander Western Europe and then end our three-month sprint in southern Italy at the conclusion of our Eurail pass. Then we’d hop to Greece by ferry, spend a month on Corfu and then continue southward aiming to travel slowly and winter where it was warm. Then from there? It was all uncertain, except for a return ticket booked from Amsterdam 11 months after our initial arrival.
To pay for it we’d dip into my parent’s savings and rent the house, which we owned outright. Rent would roughly cover our accommodation, leaving us with a total budget of $100 a day for accommodation, food, gas – you name it. Even by 1995 standards it wasn’t much money to go on, especially for a family of four. We’d need to cook our own meals, find budget accommodation, and take great care that we didn’t splurge. But, it also made the trip of a lifetime possible.
Since I started writing this post, we’ve delved into the archives and digitized footage from the trip. It captures the early sense of wonder, the uncertainty, the nerves and simultaneously the unfettered wonder as we wound our way through Europe, each new discovery enriching us as individuals, laying cobblestones in the path that would shape the rest of our lives, and weaving tightknit bonds that have been the foundation for an incredibly strong relationship that has evolved and flourished between the four of us even as each of us has grown and evolved as individuals.
The Wonder of Discovery
Earlier, I mentioned that my parents went out of their way to give us control over many of the places we would visit. It’s only now, as an adult, that I truly understand how incredible this was of them. Yes, they guided us, and I’m sure vetoed as many potential ideas as they signed off on and incorporated, and yet through it we charted a course that was not just interesting, but directly relevant to us. They gave us ownership in the trip, and in so doing ensured that we were invested in it, that we were engaged, and that we had key way-points along the way to look forward to and to anticipate. In so doing, they gained two eager co-explorers braving long train rides, strange foods, and odd peoples and in so doing, they forged us into young adults with a passion for adult conversations and compelling concepts far beyond what we culturally have come to accept as within the capabilities of children.
As I sit here writing this post I vividly recall standing atop the Tower of Hercules in Spain, peering out into the mists as the clouds parted and a three masted schooner sailed past. I remember watching my brother chase a Pigeon atop the Eiffel Tower and I recall standing atop the Acropolis looking out of Athens. I recall the strong stench of local flowers I hated the smell of in Agia Galini, and the oily glasses of our rotund, but love-filled Greek host who cooked us dinner and treated us like family. I remember the time a Swan attacked my brother along a river somewhere in Southern Germany and the realization that humanity has existed on this earth for far more than 2,000 or even 6,000 years as I stood staring at the Neolithic charcoal paintings on the walls of Lascaux in Southern France.
I also remember the discussions with adults, who were our primary companions throughout the trip. The kind hearted fisherman that took us under their wing wherever there was coast to explore. The group of incredible Norwegian women who were wintering in Crete and became a defacto group of Grandmothers for my brother and I during our stay there. I remember the lack of discussion with the old Belgian woman on the train who sat there, pretending not to understand us, for 8 hours without using the bathroom before finally speaking up only to scold us. I recall sitting in a small Greek Souvlaki café watching US Warships intervene to prevent a Greek/Turkish conflict and I remember the relationships I had with adult after adult about the world, about life, wisdom, about youth, about mythology and about numerous other things that were far beyond the grasp of an 11 year old but which were no less powerful footnotes along my path of discovery.
Today I often joke that I’m a stimulation junkie and that my voracious curiosity often makes me restless and makes dating difficult. But, how could I not be? Our journey instilled in me a passion for the world around me. It taught me what a tiny part of the world I was, and opened my eyes to the reality that the world was overflowing with amazing stimulation – mental, physical, and emotional – to experience and explore. And yet, it also taught me the value of family, of diligent work, and that strong roots and ties are nothing to be afraid of.
The Trip’s Many Faces
Earlier, I mentioned that we started the trip with 3 month Eurail passes. But, my parents knew from their past travels that we could not afford the cost or maintain that pace of travel indefinitely. So, once again, they showed wisdom and planned to slow down. They didn’t know how or where exactly, beyond catching a ferry using our Eurail discount from Italy to Greece on the final day of our Eurail passes.
Our first month in Greece was spent on Corfu just around the corner from the Island’s famous little Church in a gas-heated, molding bungalow that looked out onto the estuary/marsh and airport. It was a child’s paradise, full of crabs, rock to fish off, airplanes once or twice a day, birds, and of course a wealth of ancient and modern Greek culture.
From Corfu it was onward and down to Athens and old Sparta before catching a ferry to Crete. Though we spent no more than 4 months there in total, I will always consider Crete one of the places I grew up. Our first month was in a sleepy town of no more than 500 Greeks on the southern coast. We got to know the only other internationals in the town, sang with the locals in the tavern, danced, and watched as brutal winter storms ravaged the harbor. Then, from Agia Galini we continued down the coast, pausing to hunt for Minotaurs in Knossos and explore the slopes of Mt. Olympus before once again wintering in Agia Nikolaos where we learned to fish the Cretan way, I celebrated my birthday, and we were further exposed to the Greek way of life.
It was there that we met a Canadian family halfway into their trip, who had bought a car at the start with plans to return it at the end of their trip. Due to pre-EU regulations, the car had to be returned to Belgium, but the family had decided that they were ready to end their trip early. Faced with the dilemma over how to return the car to Belgium, we quickly made a deal. Days of bureaucracy and stamps later, with no small amount of help from our wild and crazy new Italian friend, Salvatore, who was straight out of a Godfather movie (without the Mafia) we took possession of the car and they were free to return to Canada.
From there it was back through Greece, this time by car, enjoying all of the added benefits of our own vehicle. We camped, we utilized cheap bungalows perched beside the sea in sleepy seaside towns, and then we criss-crossed Italy striking back through France and then up to the Black Forest in Germany to meet and stay with a family we’d met on Lake Como in Italy.
The car brought with it a very different set of experiences. The campgrounds had more children in them, more places to play, but also removed us from the city center where we’d previously been. It meant we saw more of the countries but often felt less immersed. It was a strange but enlightening point of differentiation. One which still shapes how I understand and relate to my travel experiences today.
We also listened to tapes – two in particular stand out: Glenn Miller and Queen. I also remember learning a powerful lesson about the power of careless words. I still remember the sense of embarrassment and confusion I felt when, somewhere along the way, we’d met up with several older local boys. They asked us what we listened to, and we answered – Queen. Only to have one of the boys make a snide remark that Queen’s music was for queers and Miller’s for old people.
I still vividly remember the sense of confusion and embarrassment. For a while, I think it even left me, as it would with most youths, loath to listen to the music or to share my appreciation for either band. It also foreshadowed some of the experiences that were to come when we returned to the US and were forced to attempt to re-assimilate with children our age. But, it also taught me an important lesson, one about the power of our words, of baseless comments meant to empower ourselves at the expense of others, and of the impressionability of people – both young and old. Oh, and for the record? I still absolutely love both bands.
In the evenings our education was simple. We’d discuss what we’d learned about during the day in the experiential part of our education, I’d tally our expenses and then convert it from the local currency into dollars, before journaling about the day briefly. Then we’d settle in and read together as a family. Often this meant reading and re-reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Eventually we returned the car to Belgium and then made our way to the airport in Amsterdam. From there, we returned to our “real lives” in Sedona. To the cats, to the dog, to a life lived in a house and not out of our backpacks. Dinner was no longer rice, green beans and pork loins with lunch sardines, French bread or a rotisserie chicken. It was great to be back, to attempt to re-integrate into my friendships and to leave the road behind…but it was also difficult.
The Return to “Normal”
Depending on who you asked, some would have likely described me as a smug little shit. Other students regularly would have opted for teacher’s pet or just “strange”. Re-integrating wasn’t easy. In no small part because while I had spent a year with adults, I had missed out on a year of the nuances you learn in middle school. Where I could figure out or identify these nuances, I looked on with disdain or frustration. Caught up in the childish drama of learning how to date, and performing for each other, intellectualism was shunned. My passion to share what I had learned was only appreciated by and encouraged by the professors, while to my other students it seemed like one-upmanship or arrogance. Meanwhile their obsession with Gameboys, their new pair of Nike Pumps, or some new band or other seemed utterly irrelevant boring and superficial to me.
We didn’t understand each other and in some ways we were speaking entirely different languages. It was difficult, particularly because the adults, which I had previously been able to converse with as a near-equal, were no longer accessible. I was once again just a 12 year old middle school student with an apathy for sports, fashion, music and playground drama. There were a few exceptions – teachers that worked to engage with me, but I was also quite shy.
Luckily, through the internet and online video games I gained access to communities where age was irrelevant. I founded and led gaming guilds, learned about leadership, resolved conflicts, and in turn gained a peer group that could offer insights and guidance as I worked to learn the rules of the playground.
But, much of that would only come after life’s second great interruption and adventure came.
To The Road Again…
In 1997, less than a year after we’d returned from Europe, my parents decided they’d had enough. The local schools were dreadful and we remained young enough that another trip seemed like the perfect solution. This time we loaded up our (already somewhat old at that time) 32 foot fifth-wheel trailer. Dad customized it, creating a bike rack on the back and converting the closet into a computer cubby for our desktop computer.
By that fall I found myself sitting in the back of a four door pickup truck, sharing the back seat with my brother and our border collie Mandy. Over the next year we traversed the US’s outer states, one dog-breath filled mile of road at a time. I was older which made the trip more challenging in some ways. At some level I think I knew that my few friendships would suffer significantly. I suspect I also cried a bit. But, I was also excited by the opportunity to return to the road and to what I knew. A place to thrive, to develop myself and to feed my curiosity.
As with the first trip, my brother and I had a heavy say in where we would go, what we would see and do. Though unlike the first trip, our curriculum was to be more rigorous. As we were both older, our homeschooling needs had evolved. We had math and science textbooks to work off of, coursework to complete, and papers to write. So, write and read we did, all the while bolstering each page read with real-world learning.
The industrial revolution came to life along the banks of the Erie Canal, while the trials and tribulations of the Native Americans were brought into harsh clarity in the open plains of the Dakotas. We learned about the Presidents while marveling at the (rather small) heads of Mt. Rushmore and learned important historical lessons that would later come to color our understanding of life events – such as the Statue of Liberty’s status as a French gift (of particular note during the conservative rhetoric about “freedom fries” and the like after 9/11). We also learned about music, about American cuisine, and we learned to respect and treasure the incredible value of America’s great museums and National Parks.
Of course, my brother and I fought, primarily when we were bored or clowning for Mom and Dad’s attention. I suspect we often drew blood, or at least, managed to coat the other in dog drool as we jostled poor Mandy back and forth in the back seat during long and short drives alike. And yet, as those miles crawled by our relationship was cemented – a relationship which remains incredibly strong to this day.
Nearly a year later we returned to Sedona and I think to a family member, we were tempted to keep going. My brother and I returned to school that year which, for me, meant once again immersing myself in the trials and tribulations of middle school – this time 8th grade. If anything, I found it even less enjoyable than 6th grade had been and yet, looking back I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But, as 8th grade wound to a close and I prepared for High School my parents looked at Sedona’s abysmal school situation and found themselves with a difficult decision. Move the family to somewhere with a better education system, or once again take to the road? We read books about sailing, looked at the price of small sailboats, and explored the idea of navigating America’s protected waterways…but just as we did so, an opportunity for a house in Prescott arose. Home to one of Arizona’s few exceptional High Schools it was too good to pass up and so, we moved and I began High School.
Re-integrating and its Challenges
As I write this post, I think it is important to discuss the repercussions of the trip because many of the biggest benefits and ramifications of the trip took years to experience fully. They’re also the part which is not commonly discussed, or in the case of families currently immersed in the experience, not possible to discuss. It’s only now, 20 years later, that I can look back and truly digest the costs, the benefits, and the drawn-out process that resulted.
When discussing my return from Europe, I began to touch on the challenges I faced when interacting with other students my age. This continued well into High School, but became increasingly more nuanced as I got older. Where, in 9th grade, my classmates were in many ways quite similar to those I encountered in 6th grade, by the end of High School the gap between us had narrowed. This, in part, was because they grew up developing more diverse interests, different priorities, and we could begin to find common ground. At the same time, the gap closed because I evolved as an individual. I started to work to understand the social rules they played by, I worked to develop some shared interests, and to not just observe and despise the social games that shaped High School, but to, at least some extend, engage with and embrace them.
Through it all my online gaming outlet fostered great opportunities to grow. It allowed me to explore grand digital worlds, meeting people form all over the world, while coming together to undertake great challenges and obstacles. I also continued to learn organically – from economics in Everquest, to basic business and governmental politics via Guild Leadership in Age of Empires. It was through these games that I also met and fostered friendships with my best High School friends.
We dated some and as I look back on it, were actually far more socially eligible and capable than we (or at least I) thought at the time. True, it wasn’t easy. I still struggled to connect with most of my fellow students, often bored in classes and frustrated by the trivialities that shaped the fabric of High School’s social fundamentals. But, at the same time, much of that struggle and my own condescension towards it also stemmed from a lack of aptitude or the lack of financial resources for it.
Ultimately, I felt sorry for myself periodically, wished I dated more, cried myself to sleep a few nights over unrequited crushes, got into a few scuffles in the locker room setting boundaries with bullies, and had a strikingly normal High School experience which was, in all probability, actually far better than your typical geek or nerd.
Looking back, would I trade it for anything in the world? Most definitely not. Oh, of course I wish I could have dated the Cheerleading Queen, or been a bit more social, but ultimately, the friendships I formed in High School were wonderful ones that stretched well into college and beyond. The experiences I had were also formative and paved my path to where I am today. Many of the deficiencies that stemmed from my time spent traveling, have gone on to become my greatest strengths, precisely because I was motivated to tackle them and resolve them based upon the experiences I had in High School…a trajectory that I suspect my brother would also say he’s followed.
Beyond that, the academic and intellectual foundation laid by the trips was equally valuable, if periodically challenging. While many teachers recognized my passion, curiosity, and burning desire to share what I had experienced, only a few went out of their way to nurture that desire while with a few, a select and shameful few, I was perceived as a threat and competition.
Ultimately, because my parents had invested in sound educational practices while homeschooling me, and taught me real science, real math, and real history – a powerful distinction from many religiously fundamentalist parents who do immeasurable harm to their children by homeschooling for the sake of instilling dogmatic falsehoods – I consistently scored near the top of my class and was able to participate in advanced placement courses.
My one burning regret is that while, on one level, I embraced my intellectual curiosity consistently, the profound anti-intellectualism present on campuses in the late 90s and early 00s was something that I let influence me. Instead of fully and publicly embracing my curiosity and intellectual interests, for the sake of social conformity, I re-directed some of that energy elsewhere. This meant that while I performed well in school, at a subliminal level I rarely worked hard and actively projected a partial air of apathy often aiming to be a B+ or A- student instead of embracing my full potential. A bad habit which, even today, flavors elements of how I relate to and discuss purely intellectual and academic topics…despite my active awareness and desire to re-align those behaviors.
Reflecting 20 Years Later
In a few days I’ll turn 31. As I reflect on where I am and who I am, these two trips are core pillars that shaped the essence of who I am. They crafted my world view and exposed me to realizations and perspectives that even adults twice my age still lack. These experiences inspired me to dream, to fall in love with the unknown, and to get lost in the wonders of the world. They taught me to reflect on who I am, who I want to be, and how I shape myself. They taught me about culture. About adversity. They provided me with incredible mentors and gifted me with the opportunity to speak across generational barriers. Ultimately, these two trips came with many of their own challenges, but were two spectacular gifts and I attribute much of the incredible relationship I have with my brother and parents as well as my personal success to these trips.
So, if you’re considering traveling with your family – even if it’s only for a few weeks – I encourage you to do it. And, if you have traveled with your family, I encourage you to pause and reflect on the experience. A challenge I’ve put to my parents and brother.
Alongside this post, I’ll be publisher reflections about the trip written by my parents and my brother. I’ve asked them to sit down, independently, without having read this in-depth reflection, and to write up their thoughts in brief as they reflect on the trips. These posts, I’ll share and link to from here.
I’ve also interviewed my parents on various parts of their trip prep, concerns, and what their takeaways were. You’ll find that interview here:
If you found this post interesting, I would love it if you’d share your thoughts in a comment. Either in the form of reflections, parts you found interesting or inspiring, or your own personal experiences. I’ll also be happy to answer your questions, so don’t be bashful.
If you want a more vivid insight into the trip, I’ve also decided to put up the video footage we filmed during both trips. It’s long and for some, perhaps, extremely boring. For others, it provides an insight into the realities of the trip with an authentic look at two years of family travel, raw and unedited. As well as footage of Europe in the mid-90s and the US in the late 90s – an interesting insight and reminder of how much the world has changed in these past 20 years.
Just joining? Jump to Part II in which I share my mother and father’s reflections or to Part III where my brother, David, goes in depth and shares his thoughts, reflections and memories. Have your own personal experiences or questions? Don’t hesitate to post them in a comment!
Thanks for tagging along and letting me share this story.