Often, there is no better way to get to know someone than by traveling with them. You take them out of their everyday lives, away from responsibilities and distractions and into new surroundings. You get to see what they notice and how they deal with unexpected events and unfamiliar circumstances. This phenomenon is even more heightened when you travel to a different country that has its own language, food, and customs.
A week ago, my kids and I left for Spain to spend six weeks in Madrid. My university sent me to teach a literature course for American students who are studying abroad. This weekend, we went to Sevilla, where my two little ones, 7 and 10 years old, were part of a group of 60 university students and a handful of adults. It was a strenuous trip, as they were forced to keep up on a two-day walking tour of Sevilla’s most important sights, the Cathedral, the Reales Alacazares, historic neighborhoods, the Fine Arts Museum, and the Guadalquivir River, which allowed the city to become the doorway to the New World. On top of that, we ate at several restaurants that served authentic regional cuisine, and we stayed out until all hours catching the local culture. Many of the college students were worn down by all the sight-seeing and activity, and I won’t deny that my kids had their moments where they couldn’t walk another step. At one point two girls flagged down a taxi and took the kids back to the hotel where I met them and we headed to a rooftop pool overlooking the city, where they got to swim and splash around with some of the students.
Jonah and Layla are like any other kids in that they sometimes get cranky, especially when they are tired, uncomfortable, or hungry. Nevertheless, they are amazingly resilient and adventurous. Jonah was especially interested in the Andalusian food, as he tried various kinds of fried fish, including sardines and mini squid with their heads on, Iberian ham from special pigs that eat only acorns, and deer stew, which he said was his favorite dish. Layla is partial to the cold cuts (embutidos) that Spain is known for. Last night, at a tapas restaurant, she requested that we order a certain sausage. She ate the whole serving herself, and then immediately put her head on the table and fell asleep. She woke up just in time for dessert and then walked twenty minutes or so to track down a local secret, a neighborhood club that has nightly flamenco shows. We didn’t make it home until about 1 am.
Before we left for Spain, I bought them some journals that gave them several recommendations on how to make the best of a new culture. One of the suggestions was to try the dish that seemed the least appetizing on the menu. I am sure that fish heads would probably qualify in that category. Others were to talk to the locals wherever you go and listen to their conversations as they talk to others. One afternoon we had a waitress that was quite taciturn and short with us. However, I was finally able to engage her in conversation by asking her questions about the food and the neighborhood. Layla looked at me and said that she realized that while sometimes people seem grumpy, they can be very nice if you are the first person to break the ice.
I have always considered Layla to be my shy child, but one of the students commented on how outgoing she was. As we were waiting for the train back to Madrid, another student bought some coloring books of Sponge Bob, Hello Kitty and Strawberry Shortcake. The next thing I knew the kids were on the floor of the station drawing with a group of students, chatting and laughing amongst themselves. It was a very sweet moment, and it made me realize what a great opportunity this trip has been for them, not only to experience a new culture, but also to bond with people of different generations.
I’ve learned a lot about my kids in the last week, and they have learned a few things about me. The other day Layla told me that I am the funnest mom ever, and even Jonah, who has been going through a tween moment of being too cool for his mother, said that he was impressed by my Spanish. I’m sure that when we get back home and he is with his friends, he will once again be embarrassed by me, but for now I am enjoying the love and admiration. And I am profoundly grateful for this opportunity to bond with them abroad.
One of my friends commented recently on Facebook that I am “rocking the single mom life.” We single moms always have our moments of doubt. However, I have to admit that this trip has definitely made me feel like I am doing something right.