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Bring one pair of comfortable walking shoes as well as a pair of sandals or Tevas. Before you leave home, break in your new shoes so you're not uncomfortable on the road.

Surviving Your Homestay by Harriman

Travel Tips

In this article, excerpted with permission from "Take Your Kids to Europe" (1994), author Cynthia W. Harriman offers some down-to-earth advice for packing realistic expectations along with that stack of reading, and coping with the normal stresses of setting up a household overseas, not the least of which deals with deciding who takes the laundry to the Spanish "lavanderia!" The book is available from: Mason-Grant Publications, PO Box 6547, Portsmouth, NH 03802, 603-436-1608.

SURVIVING YOUR HOMESTAY

What makes up a typical day at home for your family? Inevitably there's school and work, shopping, friends, cooking, laundry, and a myriad of other activities.

But what if you stay in Italy for a month? What will you do all day? Surely you're not planning to go sightseeing all day, every day. The laundry only needs to be taken care of once a week. There's no school or work. Exactly what are you planning to do all day? This chapter will share with you some concrete ideas about what to do all day on an extended trip.

It will also touch upon some sensitive problems in interpersonal dynamics that can arise when the whole family is together for weeks or months. Even if your family has always communicated well, you may be surprised at the level of tension that can arise with your spouse or with your kids when your daily lifestyle is completely altered.

WHAT TO DO

As you read the first few lines of this chapter, you may have answered my question in your mind. What will you do all day?

Nothing, some of you responded with relish. It's my vacation, and I can't wait for the pleasure of simply doing nothing. Others had a different reaction: We'll do whatever the French do. We're just going to live like the natives, experience typical everyday life in another culture.

Both of these approaches are actually a little trickier than they sound. And the best approach lies somewhere in the middle.

DOING NOTHING

Prepare to plan ahead if your goal is to do nothing. Don't laugh. Stop a minute and think what "nothing" means to you. If it conjures up lazy Sunday mornings with music on the stereo and the Sunday paper on your lap, you'd better bring a portable radio and plenty of English-language reading material. If "nothing" is long hikes in the country, pack your walking shorts, poncho and hiking boots.

The point here, obviously, is that when you do nothing at home, what you're doing probably calls on equipment or resources you take for granted. If a certain flavor of "nothing" is important to you, pack the ingredients in your suitcase.

LIVING LIKE THE NATIVES

Going local was the group I signed up for, mentally, before our long trip. I'll shop where my neighbors shop, cook what they cook--I'll just blend right in, I remember thinking. For me, living locally was going to be a full-time job.

In reality, three problems stood in my way. The first was my family. Already savoring another culture outside, they wanted our rented homes to be more of a refuge from new experiences. Please make us sweet-and-sour pork, they begged, requesting a Chinese favorite over Spanish paella. Can't we ever have spaghetti? Even though they were, for the most part, adventurous eaters in restaurants, home was different. Eventually I came to agree: building a little home-away-from-home was important to all of us in avoiding sensory overload.

The second difficulty in living like the natives was our lack of language skills. Unless you are completely fluent, it's impossible to live exactly as your neighbors do in a foreign country. If you can't read the cookbooks and food packages, if you can't sit down with the local newspaper or understand what is on TV, you have to revert to doing the things you know how to do.

The third obstacle was life itself. In another country your neighbors are going to work, and their kids are attending school. They're serving on juries, shopping for a new car, getting braces for their kids' teeth and visiting their sick mothers. Even if you speak the language flawlessly, your daily life will still be that of a visitor passing through.

THE MIDDLE GROUND

Perhaps the best approach incorporates a little bit of "nothing" and a little bit of native living. Start by upgrading an empty nothing to some deliberate leisure activity. What have you been meaning to do for months or years? This may be sketching, watercolors, bird-watching, swimming, photography, or any number of activities. Consider your trip a sabbatical, one you'd like to return from with a new skill. Or use it to get back in shape from a life without time for exercise.

This idea has several benefits. Most obviously, it keeps you from getting bored on the days you're not sightseeing. More subtly, it gives you a "job" not unlike the real jobs your foreign neighbors hold. Your chosen activity gives you a focus for your days, and a real reason to interact with other people. If you're seen sketching everyday in your village, you may be more apt to meet other people. And you'll force yourself to learn a whole new vocabulary buying paints in an art-supply store, or figuring out how to get a pass for the city pool.

At the same time, look for opportunities to pursue some everyday activities "like the natives." I was extremely let down in Spain when I realized I couldn't create a little Spanish home in our apartment. But things perked up when I realized what we could do.

We spent a whole day, for example, getting supplies to fix a broken window. We learned that window-glass isn't sold at hardware stores, but at cristalerias, or glass shops. We learned to read the yellow pages of the phone book to locate a cristaleria, and explored a new part of the city to find the shop. Finally, Lew picked up several new vocabulary words (and some practice in metric measurements) in buying the glass and putty. We could have left the window securely patched with cardboard. But it was more interesting to take advantage of a real-life experience, humble as it was. Living like a native doesn't have to be all or nothing.

TEENAGE TENSIONS

No matter what you find to do with your time, you'll end up with more family togetherness than ever before. All in all, that's a positive thing--isn't that one of the main reasons you wanted to take this trip? But intense family togetherness can contribute its own unexpected tensions, especially when it comes to teenagers.

Why is this a special problem? At home, "together" means in the same house, each of you with his own room and each room with its own door. During an extended trip, together frequently means sitting in a car for six hours followed by sharing four bunk beds in a single hostel room. Or being in a small apartment with no friends and no TV.

Libby's reaction to all this, at age thirteen, was probably quite typical. At home, she had begun to spend more and more time in her room with the door shut. Now in Europe, with no physical doors to close, Lib resorted to shutting mental doors. It took us all a long time to understand this: we interpreted the unanimated expression she often wore as proof of boredom at best, and misery at worst. We didn't realize that her emotional "shades" were simply pulled down temporarily.

Compounding the problem, the trip forced our daughter into increased dependence at a time when growing independence would have made more sense. When only Lew and I spoke the right language, knew the right way to turn or had the right currency on hand, Libby felt dependent in ways she couldn't begin to imagine at home, where she operated competently in her own sphere. This made her feel uncomfortable--and caused us to slip back into old habits of treating her more like a child than we had in months.

Put yourself in your teenager's shoes and try to minimize the inevitable inequities as much as possible. A few ideas may help:

--Hand out some foreign currency to your child in every country. The ability to buy snacks and souvenirs without asking permission is important.

--Leave your teenager alone regularly. Don't insist that the whole family do everything together. Figure out what you want to do, then go do it, leaving your son or daughter behind. What seems like a wasted day to you may be essential to the ongoing sanity of an adolescent.

--Other times, you be the ones to stay home while your teenager goes out. Older kids will want to go to the movies or to discos, or just hang around in public places, either by themselves or with local kids they've met. I wouldn't advocate this in a city you're just passing through, but you should quickly feel comfortable with this kind of freedom someplace where you've settled in for a few weeks.

Ironically, while the trip put added strains on our family's adjustment to adolescence, it also helped us get through the tough times more quickly. We had our clashes with Libby, as any teenager and her parents will. But we had nowhere to hide. Lew and I couldn't cut an argument short to rush off to work. Libby couldn't slam her bedroom door and sulk when she didn't have a bedroom. By the end of four months we had evolved pretty good patterns of talking out our differences--patterns that have stood us in good stead throughout her teen years. I'm convinced that the pressure-cooker of growing up on the road helped us bypass several years of less intense fury.

I don't mean to leave you with the impression that life on the road with a teenager is impossible. It can be difficult, but the same maturing forces that cause problems also show up as increased thoughtfulness, vivacity and wit. One day, for instance, I asked Libby if she'd like to go to Oxford the next day. Without even blinking she replied, "Sure. I'd love to. But do you think they'd accept me on such short notice?" And just when we were convinced she would prefer to be an orphan, she'd overwhelm us with love--like the time in France when she planned a lovely picnic for our anniversary, and purchased all the ingredients at the corner grocery without a word of French to call on.

MARRIAGE TENSIONS

If your marriage has lasted this long, you and your spouse have almost certainly arrived at a complex series of tradeoffs and compromises for everyday situations. Some of these are the product of edgy negotiations, while others have evolved totally unconsciously.

Lew and I are probably typical. I've turned off the lights he leaves on for about as long as he's closed the bureau drawers I leave open. But I seem to recall that we sulked at each other for about six years before we agreed to trade bathroom-cleaning for laundry. After twenty-two years together, though, we've sorted out life pretty fairly between us.

Over the years, a good marriage becomes soft and well-worn, shaped to fit so closely that it rarely rubs the wrong way. Completely changing routines can be in many ways like starting over with a new marriage. You'll have to break in your relationship all over again, and put up with the blisters it causes in the meantime.

Where are you likely to encounter these sore spots? Here are a few areas to watch out for:

--Household chores: If you and your spouse split housework along traditional lines--she does the cooking and cleaning, he does repairs and yard work--renegotiate the chores for home-stays. The reason's obvious: cooking and cleaning are much more work than usual, while there may be little or no "men's work" to do. Even if your usual split is more even, beware of differences abroad. Lew had to take our laundry to the lavanderia when only he spoke Spanish, and I reluctantly agreed to scrub the toilet in return.

--Shopping: Avoid any arguments about shopping by treating it like a special kind of sightseeing. As a general rule, our whole family goes to the grocery store when we're overseas. This helps everyone agree on the menu, and lets each person in the family choose new and different foods.

--Driving and navigating: Driving in a strange country is a two-person job: one to actually steer the car and the other to watch maps, guidebooks and road signs. Don't automatically split the time in the driver's seat with your partner. It took weeks for us to discover that Lew really liked to drive while I handled the maps--but that both of us felt uncomfortable the other way around. Usually it's best for the person with the better language skills to be the navigator, not the driver.

--Planning: Share the planning for sightseeing trips, whenever possible. If one person takes on this whole responsibility, he or she will soon be resented by the others if the entertainment isn't up to par. Take turns being in charge, so everyone--even the kids--can take an active rather than passive part.

--Finances: If you're watching your budget, make sure that everyone agrees on this goal. Don't let one person end up being the heavy, always reminding everyone to keep it cheap.

Lew and I found ourselves squabbling about the most unexpected and inconsequential things--how to translate a menu, whether to navigate by street names or by landmarks, when to stop for gas. It took us a few weeks to realize the problem: We had begun to assume, after almost two decades of marriage, that we both saw everything the same way.

A long trip made us realize this wasn't so. Once we were alert to such differences, we usually managed to find them before they caused a crisis. We discovered that Lew picks up a new language orally, while I must see it written down. I need to see a map of any new city, while Lew prefers to find a central landmark and explore, mentally recording patterns. Aware now of such basics, we could profit from them: I'd take over translating if we had a phrase book, and he'd navigate when we couldn't find a good map.

Discovering (or rediscovering) each other's strengths leads not only to a more peaceful and productive trip, but also to an increased closeness that can last long after your trip has ended. Facing scores of daily differences just when you have time to discuss them at length can result in the emergence of Great Truths that help you understand each other so much better.

Lew and I might have made the same discoveries in a summer at home, or we might have taken another twenty years to find out how different we really are. But these revelations were bound to happen on an extended trip. With so many new experiences and emotions happening in such a compressed time span, we could hardly fail to see some patterns emerge. Our trip stretched the fabric of our relationship in ways that introduced unexpected strains--but that eventually enlarged our marriage and left it in one piece.

VISITS FROM RELATIVES

Many of those nearest and dearest to you will see your trip as a great opportunity to do a little traveling themselves. "You're going to be in France in June? You're renting a house? That's great--we'll come over and join you for a week!" They think it's a great idea, and you agree. After all, you'll all be homesick by then, and these are people you dearly love.

But how can I say this so my mother won't be upset when she reads it? Be very careful about inviting your parents or any other relatives to meet up with you in Europe. Dan and Wendy sum it up this way: "Tell people not to invite family. You get things working as a unit, and you don't want to upset the pattern. We wanted our family to be with us so much--but then we felt uncomfortable until they left. I think if they'd been with us the whole time, though, it would have been fine."

Our experience was identical: a confounding awkwardness, despite our joy at seeing family. I'm still glad we did it. All four of the kids' grandparents managed to meet up with us during our travels, and all had a great time. But I wish someone had warned me--as I'm warning you--that it's very difficult to change emotional gears in the middle of an extended overseas trip.

Oh, go ahead and do it anyway. You know you want to, and how on earth can you say "No"? Just listen to one piece of advice: Logic says you should get together with relatives later in your trip, when you've been gone long enough to really miss them. Contrary to this, our collective experience suggests that joining up with relatives early in your trip may work out best. The longer you've been functioning as a self-contained unit, the more your loved ones may seem like outsiders to you.

EXPECTATIONS

In addition to acting as a magnifying glass on the normal pressures of marriage and family, a trip can introduce its own pressures. The worst of these often stem from expectations.

Your expectations may be a lot like ours. We were betting our all on this trip. We'd spent almost two years planning it and even longer saving up. We'd left our house and all our possessions with strangers and had abandoned our business clients, no matter the consequences. We knew we were unlikely to take such a trip again soon, if ever. Though we planned to pack light, mentally each of us carried an extra suitcase loaded with expectations.

I was the worst offender. My expectations, in fact, would have filled a steamer trunk. I was sure I could learn fluent Spanish in a month if I tried really hard. I was convinced the kids could make friends wherever we went if I just engineered it carefully.

I knew we could pick the right routes and see the best sights if I just studied enough guidebooks. And I knew it could all be done within budget if I watched every expense. I was the one who would claim the glory if our adventure was a success--but I was the one to blame if the trip were anything short of brilliant.

Expectations are like chemicals in a laboratory beaker. On their own, they can range from harmless to highly volatile. Mixed with the rest of the family's expectations, explosions are almost inevitable--it's just a matter of when. Your daughter may equate vacation with sleeping late every day and doing exactly what she wants. Your son may think vacation means ice cream twice a day. Your husband may want to see every museum on the continent. All these expectations can't co-exist for long.

They certainly didn't in our family. Less than a week into the trip, on a miserable rainy day, I was ready to give up. Why did we ever decide to do this? What were the kids actually going to learn? The whole adventure seemed so futile, so stupid. We'd already gone way over budget, even though we'd stayed in rooms with sagging beds and peeling paint. We were cold and uncomfortable and regularly snapping at each other. I was tired of feeling cut off from everything around me by the language barrier. Sure we'd had a few pleasant experiences, but nothing to overcome the brutal feeling that the whole thing was a huge mistake.

What goes up must come down. My expectations were just too high to begin with, so my tumble into depression was inevitable--especially the first week, when we were still adjusting to constant togetherness. (All of us took a few such tumbles in the course of four months--but luckily, one at a time, when the rest of the family was usually calm enough to put up with a little ranting and raving.)

How can you avoid the same problem? Just knowing the problem exists will help. Talking about each person's expectations will help even more. Just before you leave, ask everyone in the family to write down ten things they're most looking forward to on the trip. Exchange lists, and talk through several of the choices. What is it about Paris that you're looking forward to? How much Italian do you think you'll learn? Will you be really disappointed if we don't get as far as Legoland? Each point you discuss helps lessen the explosive potential of the family chemistry.

Is there any way to avoid family arguments entirely? Certainly not. And if you think there is, you definitely have unrealistic expectations!

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