Twelve. It’s an in-between year — a year when one is no longer a child, but not yet a teen. I believe in ceremony. Perhaps it’s the effects of travel and witnessing the way others celebrate worldwide. Ceremonies are celebrations — rites of passage, even. I live in a culture that has few ceremonies, especially for girls, which is why we’ve created some of our own. Including a child-planned vacation.
Our daughters choose a parent-guide and destination for their 12th birthday. They are given a budget and allowed to plan their first trip, with parental input. Cora’s first international trip was to Portugal, Spain, and Italy when she was six-months old. She doesn’t remember it of course, but traveling with children, even infants, leaves a lasting impression on them.
Gifts are not a love language in our home. At least not one we cultivate. When our children have a birthday, they choose one item, which is typically $100 or less. We celebrate Christmas, but they know there will be three things under the tree: a book that we carefully select for each child and write a personal letter on the title page; one gift from mom and dad; and a family gift from Santa that encourages us to spend time together (e.g. a tent, sleeping bag, or new snow sled).
The most expensive gift Cora has received to date was an IKEA desk that she desperately wanted when she turned seven. Therefore, 12 is a big year. Our six year old is already trying to calculate the number of days.
Cora’s eyes got really big when she learned the budget — a total of $3,500. Excited in a way that meant she really had no concept of how little it is when the world is your playground.
As she began thinking of places and looking at airfare, reality set in. She heard me talking about a conference I would likely need to attend in Switzerland only two weeks before her April birthday and the idea struck: “If you have to be in Europe then your airfare doesn’t count toward my budget, right?”
Sure pride. Although I think I veiled it well, I’ll admit that’s what I felt. I’m a firm believer that if you want something in life, you have to figure it out, work hard, and be resourceful. My heart skipped a beat when she said, “Do you think we could go back to Italy?”
Her favorite friend Lucy had been to France last year and Cora knew there was a direct flight from our city to Paris. She would meet me in Paris. That meant flying by herself as an almost 12 year old across the Atlantic on a 10-hour overnight flight. She was giddy — totally nervous, but excited when we booked the flight. Since then, she’s been looking at hotels, writing a list of restaurants from trip advisor, asking about train schedules, and thinking about what she would like to see and do most.
A friend of ours has a family flat in Vernazza, which he generously offered. Cora didn’t know anything about Vernazza, but when she saw photos of Cinque Terre and realized that we could stay as guests, she was thrilled. We decided to spend a few nights in Paris, then journey through Cinque Terre, and finish off in Florence — the place where she enjoyed some of her first foods and sampled a lot of gelato, of course.
I left for Europe one week before her. It’s hard when I leave. She’s naturally gregarious, but when I’m away, she becomes quiet and guarded. She wants to be alone a lot, but doesn’t want to feel alone. It’s a tricky balance and we’ve had to create ways to provide support from afar, but this time was different. The anticipation of meeting me for some one-on-one time kept her spirits up. Probably she was just too nervous and excited to get sad.
Delta’s unaccompanied minor program is sophisticated. An assigned guardian (in this case my mother) must do the following:
- Take the child to the airport
- Show photo identification for child and guardian
- Pay the $150 unaccompanied minor fee (this must be paid for each direction upon check in)
- Provide a code that is to be used by the receiving adult (in this case me)
- The airline attaches a GPS wristband to the child until she is safely retrieved by the correct person
- My mom needed to wait at the gate until the plane departed
Before I left, we had some serious conversations about what she should do in different scenarios. I gave her some cash and loaned her a debit card for snacks or emergencies. We talked about where to store her belongings and to keep track of them at all times. But mostly, we talked about other people — how most people are pretty good, but that there are some who aren’t. And some who specifically are not good for children.
I wanted to discuss things directly with enough time for her to process and ask questions or field concerns. These topics weren’t new to her; I’ve always tried to be open about dangers with my daughters so they know what their options are in scary situations. The most important thing we talked about is how to fight or make a scene if something inappropriate were to happen. Because no amount of TSA agents or GPS wristbands can offer 100% protection.
Cora liked the flight attendants. Although she never asked for anything, she was comforted by the frequent visits to her seat to make sure she was doing okay. Cora loved being served a special meal before any of the other passengers. Upon landing, she was escorted with the attendant through passport control, baggage claim, and customs before I greeted her tired but smiling face. The agent is supposed to check ID and request the code before releasing the unaccompanied minor, but our embrace was all the proof she needed.
Now, we have no intentions to be separated again. France and Italy, here we come!
Day 1: March 19 - Paris Arrival
Based on the number of in-flight movies watched, I calculated approximately two hours of actual sleep on the overnight flight. I knew we would be in for a treat. Our first couple of hours were spent learning to navigate the train and subway system while she talked a million words a minute. She was so giddy and excited, like all the endorphins had finally found their release in our embrace.
Instead of letting her rest at the hotel we jumped right into it. We were busy finding the main attractions. As she began to slump, we found pastries at La Patisserie Des Reves, which spiked her spirits and her blood sugar. The rest of the evening was a roller coaster.
During the conference I’d attended in the days before Cora’s arrival, I had received a few invitations to visit properties and enjoy some beautiful meals. I told Cora about each opportunity in advance and asked if she was interested. I wanted her to feel like she was in control of our itinerary. With her budget always in the back of her mind, she happily agreed when she understood the unbeatable prices of these opportunities. She’s always interested in the best experience at the most affordable price.
Half way through tonight’s dinner, I could tell she wasn’t going to make it. It felt too late even for me, and I’m an unrepentant night owl. Prior to being seated, she had presented herself as so grown up — charming and delightful — to the other members of the dinner party. Observing her, I felt grateful for the transition in process before me — her maturing from child to young lady. And then, as an after starter amuse bouche arrive, she excused herself. I followed her into the hall. Her glazed, what-is–happening-to-me state expression confirmed the arrival of jet lag, accompanied by headaches, the bit of nausea, that sense that the world is spinning uncontrollably.
Somehow she managed to make it through the entrée, walk to our hotel, brush her teeth, and change clothes. Then, she went into a deep, unshakable sleep.
Airfare – $1,438; unaccompanied minor fee – $150; travel insurance – $68
Hotel – $231; food and beverage – 16€; tours and transportation – 32€
*We have converted Euros throughout to USD for daily totals.
Day 2: March 20 - Magical Paris
I promised her she could sleep in, but at 9:30 I feared she would sleep away the morning and her ambitious must-see list. It was Sunday and although many areas are closed in Paris, we knew Palm Sunday at Notre Dame would be something special. We hired a private guide for a walking tour of the city. Our guide was excellent; she explained the city’s tapestry of history in an accessible way, providing meaningful context, and pointing out places that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.
We explored Notre Dame and witnessed the procession of palms after Mass. We ate delicious pastries and explored La Marais. The streets were full of music, antiques, shops, and delicious food like the falafel we ate as we strolled.
After a two-hour nap, we were ready for another long invitation — the nicest dinner of Cora’s life. Our friends at Le Bristol made Cora feel special and presented her with the most delicious birthday dessert of her life, Millefeuille. They even topped it with extra salted caramel — her favorite.
Still in a state of euphoria, we headed to the Eiffel Tower to see it twinkle at midnight. Yesterday, I thought, “Paris. Nice city, but I’m not sure I understand all the hype. Why do people love it so much?” By the end of today, I was a believer.
Hotel – $231; food and beverage – 59€; tours and transportation – 164€
Daily total: $488
Day 3: March 21 - The Humanities
It was hard to wake up, but we had a spectacular breakfast appointment at Le Royal Monceau and then were off to the Louvre. Even during low season the lines were astonishing. As I reached into my pocket to pull out my ticket, I was so grateful for our hotel concierge. I purchased the ticket for 20 Euros. Based on the ticket cost of 15 Euro, I paid approximately $5.65 to avoid two hours worth of lines. Sold. Our security line was 11 minutes and the line for the audio guide was another 8 minutes.
The first ten minutes of the Louvre were frustrating. The audio guides were state-of-the-art 15 years ago, but when they failed to show us how to find even basics, we felt our 8-Euro investment would be a waste. The toilets (all three locations we visited between exhibits) were really in need of a good scrub. Unfortunately, our noses were better predictors of location than the guided map.
Despite the mob, the Louvre is spectacular. So many works of art and sculpture in such a magnificent setting. No wonder it was on Cora’s list. After 3.5 hours we had seen the most significant pieces and wandered through most of the building. I’m not proud of this, but we started to just zone out. Our brains were on information overload and we needed food.
We grabbed an early, quick dinner at the underground mall and then ran as fast as we could to the metro so Cora could visit the Eiffel Tower again. She was anxious to climb. I was not. But I also didn’t want to wait in that ridiculous line for the tram; advance tickets are no longer sold off-site. We had time to reach the second level before running down for today’s highlight.
Thanks to our guide from yesterday, we learned that the best way to see Sainte-Chapelle, the royal chapel, was to purchase tickets for an evening concert. All year long the lines for Sainte-Chapelle wrap outside the Palace of Justice and down the street. The chapel itself was consecrated in April of 1248. Its footprint is compact, but its design gives the interior a sense of soaring weightlessness. The nearly 360º stained glass is filled with delicate imagery, and the ceiling is a field of blue studded with gold stars.
We shared the space with about 100 others while transfixed by Vivaldi, Albinoni, Schubert, Caccini, and Pachelbel. Cora rested her head on my shoulder while we journeyed through music in sacred space. My thoughts kept returning to the joy of raising her, my eldest child. I love all my children and feel blessed and honored to be the mother of four strong daughters. But I will always cherish this one-on-one time. My hand and hip are usually occupied by her younger siblings. It’s a joy to be enveloped in her goodness and beauty without distraction.
Hotel – $0 (third night free); food and beverage – 18€; tours and transportation – 113€; other – 8€
Daily total: $155
Day 4: March 22 - Cliff Side Dwelling
The morning was spent traveling: metro to Charles de Gaulle, flight to Genoa, train to Vernazza. We arrived in the afternoon, but it was easy to see it was worth the journey. Although we will miss our French pastries, good gelato is our love language.
We are staying in the family-owned flat of expat Italian friends we met in Argentina. The home is basic. It’s important to me, on every trip, that there is an element of authentic living. I hope my children experience different ways of life and comfort so that they are better prepared to create a life that works for them.
Although it can be frustrating to live a simple lifestyle (one without 4G, strong Wi-Fi, Costco, and personal space) I love how simple living slows my pace. Actions that would be unconscious at home become deliberate. Her reality cannot be built on spectacular hotels and Michelin Star restaurants. She needs a foundation of honest interaction, a sense of her role in the world, and a love for others.
Airfare – $76; hotel – $0; food and beverage – $48; tours and transportation – $53
Daily total: $177
Day 5: March 23 - Vernazza
Today, we rest. My schedule before the trip, during the conference, and while trying to see the sites of Paris left me exhausted. I was grateful that Cora’s request for the day was to sleep in and spend a lazy day around the tiny town of Vernazza.
By the time we left the flat, breakfast was no longer an option. We grabbed a couple of fresh juices and a Nutella crepe from the Lunch Box – just enough to sustain us until our first gelato.
We spent the day climbing rocks and towers. We got lost in the maze of tiny side streets to discover where and how they connect. We visited the church and listened to a woman sing in its old walls that can be dated back to the end of the thirteenth century.
Hotel – $0; food and beverage – $80; tours and transportation – $3
Daily total: $83
Day 6: March 24 - Cinque Terre
Five beautiful towns. They all have similar qualities, but they range in energy and size. We hiked to Corniglia and explored the fortress walls and churches. We found ourselves happy to be staying in Vernazza — a much smaller town where only an occasional car drives the main street to deliver supplies to the local shops.
We compromised and took a train to Monterosso where we spent a couple hours laying on the rocky beach. The water was cold, but the sun on a crisp spring day felt amazing. We talked about all kinds of things. I find it very satisfying to build a relationship with my daughter that is no longer dependent on my ability to care for her physically. Although she still lets me do her hair on occasion, she doesn’t depend on me the same way her younger sisters do – for food, clothing, and constant reminders.
I loved this time to connect emotionally. Even laying next to her in silence was a treat. Unpsoken ideas and gratitude and the opportunity to just be present.
Hotel – $0; food and beverage – $71; tours and transportation – $6
Daily total: $77
Day 7: March 25 - Ciao, I Think
This morning started with an epic fail on my part. We ate breakfast and ordered lunch for the train to Florence. We had another early gelato to give a proper farewell to this Italian destination. Then, we went back to the flat to finish packing our bags and carry them up and down flights of stairs to the train station.
As I went to purchase the train tickets, I reached for my phone to check the time. It was gone. Although I proceeded to unpack all of the bags, I knew the phone was waiting for me in the very locked flat. It’s a story for another day, but our arrival into Florence was delayed; however, my experience on a tiny Italian ally was one I will always cherish.
Once we arrived in Florence, I was back in, for the most part, familiar territory. John and I had traveled together as a couple in 2001 and then again with six-month-old Cora in 2004. Sometimes revisiting special places helps you enjoy them more. Without the pressure of feeling like we needed to visit every church and every museum, we were able to roam without stress or pressure.
Hotel – $209; food and beverage – $74; tours and transportation – $18
Daily total: $301
Day 8: March 26 - Dead or Alive
We started the day with a beautiful breakfast at the Relais Santa Croce Hotel – another invitation from the conference a week before. Cora ate the most scrumptious croissant of the trip. It was so flaky — impossible not to leave a trail of crumbs on her scarf and the hair around her face.
Afterward, we visited a bunch of old guys’ tombs. It’s surreal to be staring at the tombs of Michelangelo, Marconi, Rossini, Galileo, and others. Many of these names were known to both of us. Others were faintly familiar from my liberal arts education. I used a 2G Google connection to dust off distant lectures.
We spent a good portion of the day exploring. We walked the Ponte Vecchio, chuckled at the name Pitti Palace – an obvious example that Pitti and pity are entirely different. We visited the statues around the Uffizi, and people-watched in the Piazza della Republica. I loved telling Cora about what she was like on that first trip to Italy – a cheeky little girl who flirted and blew kisses to the locals, who as a result, gave us priority access to everything.
We window shopped and loved looking at the prices of the most famous brands. We thought of all the things we would like to do with the 7,800 Euros from the Dolce and Gabbana dress. And we consumed half of our food budget at Vivoli because even after that first visit in 2001 and flirtations with Neri and others, Vivoli remains my favorite. Their riso (rice) gelato will be at the top of my favorite treat list forever.
I’m not sure what I was thinking planning a surf & yoga retreat for a bunch of women a month after consuming nothing but bread, cheese, pastries, and gelato, but I’ll deal with that later. For now, this is life on vacation.
Hotel – $209; food and beverage – $72; tours and transportation – $6; other – $42
Daily total: $329
Day 9: March 27 - Easter Farewell
Today was our last full day in Italy. We could have flown home today so we could be reunited as a family and Cora could be ready for school on Monday. We are missing the rest of the family. Every little girl we pass, depending on age, reminds us of one left behind. We plot schemes to have the little ones learn Italian or French, because what could be cuter?
But leaving a Catholic country on Easter Sunday just felt wrong. Instead, we lingered to watch the morning procession from the Florence Duomo, a flag exhibition at Piazza della Repubblica, and then the Bursting of the Cart at the Piazza Duomo. At 11:00, at the point of the Mass when the Gloria is sung, a fuse is lit, igniting the skillfully-arranged fireworks.
If you’ve found yourself a good spot between the front of the Duomo and the Baptristry, you will see a kaleidoscope of color from fireworks and from the reflections on the colored marble of the Baptristy. The sound is deafening. The Duomo becomes obscured in smoke. It seems as though every last person in Florence is squeezed into the small space. So, as the fireworks came to an end, Cora and I decided to quickly go to the Uffizi for a visit.
Apparently, not everyone was back at the Duomo because the Uffizi already had a four-hour line for entry. Four hours! Longer than we intended to stay inside. But Cora really wanted to go and as it was Sunday, our hotel concierge could do nothing for us. The reservation office was closed.
I did the next best thing and paid 40 Euros for tickets online. The surcharge was huge, but time was precious and I considered it a good investment. I would recommend planning ahead, but at that point, I didn’t understand the priorities. We still had to wait in line for the actual tickets, but we were assigned a visit time and only had to wait 10 minutes for entry.
It was a good day. We connected through art and history. It’s one thing to read about a place, a piece, or a culture. But it’s entirely different to see it in real life – to experience it firsthand.
We probably should have flown home today on account of Cora’s budget, but we went over because she wanted to stay at the Grand Hotel Minerva. How could I refuse when her request was after the name of her youngest sister, especially when we got such a great rate?
Hotel – $209; food and beverage – $37; tours and transportation – $42
Daily total: $288
Day 10: March 28 - Going Home
We got a much-too-early start today, but we’re ready to go home. I’ll remember these days forever, but it’s hard to be away from the others for so long.
We went over budget, but I was grateful Cora offered to help with the difference from her “points” — an allowance system we use at home. Although I think we could have figured out a way to stay within budget, she was grateful for the serious advantages like not having to account for my flight and some travel-industry perks. Travel was a priority before it was a profession and we’ve done Europe on less, but every job should have advantages. If you work retail, it should be at a shop you enjoy for the employee discount. If you’re in a trade industry, you make friends and exchange services. If you work for the government, you pay less taxes, right? (If only.)
The point is, get resourceful and make things happen because these are the memories you’ll cherish forever. In our home, we never talk about a “travel budget” because it really is an “education budget” or an “experience budget” and although we try to keep it within our means, it’s an investment with immediate and long-term rewards.
Who knows, maybe someday I’ll get a photo of one of my granddaughters sitting on the edge of the Arno River with the Ponte Vecchio in the background. I’m pretty sure that would make the $404 we overspent totally worth it.
Hotel – $0; food and beverage – $26; tours and transportation – $30; other – $15
Daily total: $71