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A couple of years ago, my wife, Bridgit, and I had our first child, a 7-pound anchor who ended our days of carefree, long-distance travel. After Libby was born, it seemed more important to be around the house to figure out how to keep her alive and healthy and (if possible) happy. None of which is as easy as it seems.
But the road calls, and when we were reasonably sure Libby would survive, we started taking her on long car rides. Then we ramped up to some short plane trips. But we both wanted to go farther.
Airlines play a cruel trick on new parents. For the first two years, your child is seen more as an appendage than a person. And while these first two years can be rough traveling, it's a lot cheaper to go on two tickets than three.
So when Libby was approaching her second birthday, we decided to go to France. I had a good friend there, and she had a daughter Libby's age. So we did the math and bought our tickets. Then we had a sinking feeling: How were we going to swing this?
Fortunately, these days a growing number of guidebooks address exactly this question: "Lonely Planet's Travel With Children" (which highlights the perks of traveling with young kids, among other things); "Frommer's 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up" (which includes "500 thoughtfully chosen places that will enchant and beguile both the young and the young at heart"); and "Travels With Baby: The Ultimate Guide for Planning Trips With Babies, Toddlers, and Preschool-Age Children" (covering a range of issues, from jet lag to travel gear).
Unfortunately, having kids also makes running even the most minor errands a gigantic pain. So by the time I actually got to the bookstore just before our trip, the only one on the shelves was "Rough Guide's New Travel With Babies and Young Children," so I bought that. It's full of decent, no-nonsense tips. It lists some good websites and offers practical reminders (get a visa, bring toys, stay calm if you get separated). But sadly, the juicy bits weren't there: Is it safe to drug your kid on the plane? What if your kid's eardrums explode from cabin pressure? What if your child fills her entire airplane seat with vomit?
Our plane trip turned out to be not that bad, thanks largely to "The Aristocats" on the seatback movie screen. When we arrived in Paris, we headed for the countryside. After staying a few days with some relatives, we went to St. Amand-Montrond, a nondescript French town with winding streets, an old fortress, a medieval abbey and several nice pastry shops. Not much of a tourist destination. My friend and her family lived there.
But our agenda was different than agendas past. During daylight hours, we laid low, staying at my friend Elisa's place, where her daughter, Lucy, and Libby played, fought and eventually came to an amicable détente.
We did take some day trips. One day we walked up to the abandoned fortress. Another day, we drove to the abbey. And on other days, we wandered around town. The abbey was locked, but it didn't matter, because Libby and Lucy had a blast running back and forth across an old bridge. At the fortress, the history was interesting, but more important, the kids had a great time bashing a pile of leaves with sticks. On the walk home, Libby fell asleep in my arms, and I can still remember the peaceful look on her face.
The criteria for a successful day of traveling, in other words, had changed.
That night, after the kids were asleep, we sat drinking wine, eating dinner, trading war stories about the early years of child-rearing. Elisa talked about how badly Lucy had slept early on.
"I don't know," she said. "I have no idea what I'm doing. Looking back, I probably didn't help the situation."
"Well," I said, trying to make her feel better, "as far as I can tell, a lot of parenting is just trying to take credit or avoid blame for things that are totally beyond your control."
The next day, Libby and I were walking outside when she heard a bird. She looked up at me.
"It's a crow," she said.
"Yep," I said. "You're right. It's a crow."
Then she looked at me again and said, "It's kind of different."
I hadn't even noticed, but it was true. This crow sounded different from the crow she knew at home.
I stood there for a second, as if I were watching the world grow before her eyes. I wondered if she would remember this, if part of her would always know there are different crows out there, if this was the beginning of the opening of her mind. Or if it was just a crow. Either way, I'll take whatever credit I can.
In the end, I didn't use my guidebook at all. Paging through it later, I realized why: Guidebooks like that are good for giving you an idea of what you're getting yourself into. But not much more.
The world is full of surprises, and to travel, whether with kids or by yourself, is simply to get out there and find out what they are.
Frank Bures, who lives in Madison, Wis., writes for national magazines such as Outside and Harper's and is a contributing editor at the travel website www.worldhum.com.