By Kara Williams, on August 19, 2015

Making lasting memories in Europe

“Hey mom! Last year at this time we were in Russia,” my 15-year-old daughter called out to me the other day. Her Facebook account’s “On This Day” feature had reminded her of our family adventures in St. Petersburg, where we navigated a highly unfamiliar public-bus system, got scolded for not buying fruit after sampling some at an open-air market, managed to order food in an off-the-beaten-path restaurant where none of the staff spoke English, and laughed through many of those same moments.

Last summer, I was the communications coordinator for Semester at Sea, which meant I got to spend three months living and working on board a ship alongside college students and professors while porting at 10 different countries in Europe. The best part? My husband and school-age children got to tag along.

With a year passed since our European vacation (well, not exactly a vacation for me, since I worked my butt off in that short-term communications gig), I thought it would be fun to reminisce about our summer of exploration. I wanted to see what “stuck” with my kids after this once-in-a-lifetime experience (neither of them had been to Europe before). Not surprisingly, my silly family had some cheeky, yet sometimes poignant, things to say.

Are you glad we spent the summer in Europe?
Q (husband, who had taken a sabbatical from his job): I was happy to visit cities I’d never been to, but more importantly, I got to hang out with my children a lot. We don’t have that same time together at home now.
K (daughter, age 15): Yes. It was a cool experience to be outside our country, to find out what other cultures are like—what they wear and eat, what they talk about, and what’s important to them.
B (son, age 13): Yep. I didn’t have any chores.

Viewfinder Tip: Have your children document their trip with a journal of some kind. They will remember things later they might have forgotten!

What was your favorite country/port we visited?

B: Ireland, because I liked the activities we did. The Guinness factory was cool, and the one long hike we finished in the rain [Glendalough, pictured at top] was my favorite hike of all time. And that’s saying something.
K: Scotland, because I liked hiking Arthur’s Seat and the views of Edinburgh from the top of Camera Obscura and Edinburgh Castle. I liked how nice the people were. People were very, very sweet.
B: I liked the haircut I got in Scotland.
Q: Ooh, that was one of my best haircuts ever. We just stopped in a barbershop on the street. I got a shave, which I never do. The barber burned off little ends of hair on my neck; I think it was kerosene on the end of a handkerchief. Like a fire wand. 

Did that make Scotland your favorite spot to visit, for the haircut?
Q: I liked all of our ports for different reasons: the art in Russia, the scenery in the Ireland countryside, and the huge beach near Bilbao, Spain.

Sometimes you guys had extra time to explore ports while I had to work. Do you have any secrets? Did anything happen that Daddy said, “Don’t tell Mommy”?
B: Sorry, we were sworn to secrecy.
K: Just that time I got served at the Jameson Distillery.

Cartwheeling in front of the State Hermitage Museum in Russia

Do you recall any bad” parts of our summer?
Q: Nothing bad. We just made some tourist mistakes. Like when the kids and I planned to go to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, but it was closed on a Monday. And of course when we got on the wrong train in Scotland because it was so hard to understand what the train conductor was saying, even though he was speaking English.
K: That happened in Norway, too.
B: No we just didn’t know we had to get off.
Q: We definitely had some transportation troubles. On our last day in St. Petersburg, we got on the bus and we didn’t see a woman taking money for tickets, like on all the other buses we’d been on. For that one, for some reason, we had to pay the bus driver. So I did, and I got our tickets, but then he wouldn’t let us off because he didn’t remember me paying. We finally worked it out, but it wasn’t easy when I didn’t speak Russian and he didn’t speak English.
B: We had some food issues, too. Like when Dad suggested I get the pintxo with ham on it, so I pointed to it, but it was toast with octopus. Dad ended up eating that one.

What was your favorite food we had?
B: Pintxos, fish & chips.
Q: Smoked whale in Norway.
B: Those little desserts with the powdered sugar in Portugal.
K: Pastel de nata.
B: Pancakes in Russia at that restaurant we went to three times because they had a menu in English.
Q: And Indian food in London.
B: That was so good.
K: I’m hungry.

At any point during the trip, did you want to come home?
Q: Nope. The time flew by. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything at home. It would be waiting for us when we got back.
K: Only when I looked at Instagram and saw my friends doing fun things.

What’s one takeaway that you got from spending the summer in Europe?
Q: That our kids are really fun to hang out with. Well, I knew that before we left.
B: That it’s important to learn a little bit of the local language. It was easy to learn a few words, and I could tell that people liked when we said “please” and “thank you” in their language.
K: That you’ve got to do everything that you can do before you die. There’s a lot to see. We really only scratched the surface.

What are some of your favorite recent travel memories?