It is said that the best way to teach is by example. In our more than 30 years each as educators, we found that this could not be more true than in the case of adolescent education. What a teenager learns by direct instruction from a teacher, parent, or book can be easily forgotten in a relatively short time. What they learn by example or experience can easily last a lifetime.
It is on this precept that we strongly recommend that parents consider giving their children what many, including ourselves, consider to be the ultimate learning experience and summer vacation -- foreign travel. It is adventurous and broadening and it demands cooperativeness and fosters a benign dependence upon each other. In short, it provides a busy family, with multiple schedules during the year, the opportunity to bond and enjoy that precious "quality time" together.
And speaking of quality, we believe that it is well worth the splurge to take your children to as many luxury/charming accommodations as possible. The examples and experience which they will absorb at these venues will most certainly have a positive effect on their senses, and in turn, their attitude, behavior and manners.
Sounds great in theory, but does it really work? We decided to test it out on our first vacation abroad with our 16 year old son. But everything in this article would apply to a daughter as well.
We had long dreamed of taking our son to Italy, not only to visit the land of half of his heritage, but also to bring him to the country in which he was conceived. We decided that 16 was the perfect age to take him; young enough to room with mom and dad, if necessary and old enough to remember the experience for the rest of his life. Next year we would be all wrapped up in college plans and the year after that, well, we felt that at 18, he would be a little too old to room with his parents. And who knows, he might not even want to be on vacation with us at that point. So it was settled -- a summer vacation for us in Italy. For you, it can be any destination of choice.
The Planning Stage
From the very beginning it is important that both parents and teen be involved in planning the trip and the first order of business is to decide whether you are going to take a chartered tour, go independently, or a combination of the two. If you have never been abroad, we recommend that you consider a charter. Otherwise do what we did, which was to rent a car, travel independently, but in some heavy-duty sightseeing cities, take a chartered tour. In cities where the tourist sites are closed to traffic except for buses and taxis, this is really your best bet. You can book these charters in advance or wait till you get there.
Next, it's time for the family to hit the book stores for guides, maps, language books, and travel diaries. The Red and Green Michelin guides are indispensable -- they are a must in our opinion. We also picked up Frommer's and Pauline Frommer's Spend Less Guide. (We’ll tell you why, later.) Another beautifully written and descriptive guide is Karen Brown’s. We also strongly advise bringing a GPS unit and maps from www.googlemaps.com and www.viamichelin.com to go along with the red and green guides. There are many language guides, but we found two excellent ones. The “10 Minutes a Day” series (available in many languages at www.bbks.com/products.aspx), is great as a study guide before your trip. It has these neat little stickers that you can put on objects around the house to help you learn vocabulary before you leave and comes with a CD-ROM. The pocket-sized Berlitz for Travelers is concise, comprehensive and well-organized. You should carry this book with you and keep it handy. Good travel diaries are hard to come by, but we found Complete Trip Diary by Marlor Press to be excellent. Marlor Press also publishes a Kid's Vacation Diary. If you can't find one on the shelf, you can write MARLOR PRESS, INC. at 4304 Brigadoon Drive, Saint Paul, MN 55126. You can also find a list of sites on the internet at http://isbndb.com/d/book/marlors_complete_trip_diary.html. Everyone in the family should be encouraged to keep a diary of the trip. It's a great keepsake.
The most important factor in the success of your trip is that everyone has a designated responsibility. Categories might include packing and luggage, itinerary and reservations, driving, navigating, sightseeing and photography (still and video). Of course, responsibilities can be shared or rotated. In our case, mom and dad shared the driving, mom was in charge of packing the luggage; our son was in charge of organizing it in the car. Dad made the reservations, our son was the navigator and photographer, and we shared the decisions regarding itinerary, sightseeing, and places to eat.
The vacation really begins with the planning stage, and it was a joy for us to come home from the book store, open up the road map of Italy and the guides, and begin to decide where we were going to go and how we were going to get there.
Travelwise and Gary D Travel have two recommendations regarding the planning of the itinerary. One is to keep the travel distances reasonable -- 3 to 4 hours driving time between cities, max. Figure on 80 kilometers an hour, although you will probably do a little better than that, especially on the super highways. If you are traveling to Italy, as we were, the second recommendation is to fly to Geneva, Switzerland first and pick up your rental car in Geneva. There are several advantages to this strategy. You can fly Swiss International, which in our opinion is a superior airline -- punctual with excellent service. Geneva airport is user friendly, civilized and organized. You will get your luggage in record time and be on your way. And lastly, renting a car in Switzerland is less expensive with the advantage of having your car insurance covered for free if you use your American Express Gold Card. American Express will not cover insurance if you rent in Italy (or six other countries).
Renting a car is pretty straight forward. You can get a list of companies off the internet. You really have to shop around, sometimes the European based companies are less expensive than their American counterparts, and we got the best deal from “Europe By Car,” which offered a discount for a cancelable reservation at the time of the phone call, plus an additional 5% for educators. But if you have the American Express Card, you may do better with Hertz, depending on your destination. We would strongly advise renting a car with air conditioning (most come standard with AC) and making sure your vehicle will have enough space for your luggage to be hidden from view and to accommodate your passengers comfortably. We were surprised to see the number of large cars and mini vans being used in Italy. After finding out that our car was going to be a Volkswagen Passat, a nearby Volkswagen dealer allowed us to bring our empty suitcases there to see how they would fit in the trunk. Sound extreme? It isn't. It was one of the smartest moves we made. When we arrived at the car rental in Geneva with full capacity luggage, we knew exactly how they were to be placed. No guesswork, no shifting around of heavy bags, no wasting time.
With your itinerary set and your car reservations made, you need to turn your attention to hotel reservations. Get out your Red Michelin, Frommer and Karen Brown guides and go through each city on your itinerary, one by one, making a list of two or three hotels in each which strike your fancy. Make a note of their fax number and/or email address and details which the guide books mention, like, air conditioning, breakfast included, parking, particularly nice room numbers or rooms with views. We made our reservations by using a combination of travel agent, personal email, and fax. Since we are travel agents, we did all the correspondence ourselves. Having a travel agency like Gary D Travel, who specializes in independent tours like this one is invaluable. They can check over everything including reservations.
Gary D Travel sets up a personal relationship between you and the hotel they are then able to be really specific about what you want -- double room with extra bed, junior suite, room 202, balcony with view, newly renovated room, etc. They will get specific information regarding parking or non-smoking rooms, for instance. They will get any special rates available and can you send specific driving directions from each location. Sometimes they will know things your GPS doesn’t. This will wave save money on room rates and time traveling.
Contact Gary D Travel at 516-300-9924 and discuss your travel plans with them. They will go over every detail of your travel plans and secure reservations. Make sure to include your teenager in all the discussions and correspondence.
Make Luxury Accommodations
We recommended earlier taking your teenager to luxury or "charming" accommodations. Isn't luxury and "charm" a waste on this age group? Not at all. Think back to some of your family dinners. Ever wonder as we have, where, on earth, your kids got their table manners from? We were both brought up with European table manners, and yet many times we would look at each in dismay to see our son's eating habits and how he handled food. For teenagers especially, teaching by example means needing more than the example of your parents. It means needing confirmation from a whole lot of other people. And this is exactly what luxury/charming accommodations provide -- mass confirmation that there is a demeanor, a gentility, a politeness, a propriety, an orderliness, a quiet dignity without pretentiousness, which is practiced by many. By being in luxury/charming accommodations, teenagers not only get to witness this first hand, they are immersed in it, surrounded by it, gently forced, at least to observe it and consider it.
The preparation and the serving of food in Italy, for instance is an art form, an act of love, which commands attention and makes an impression. We'll never forget the look of wonderment on our son's face at his first dinner in Italy at Emiliano's in Stresa as our courses were placed in front of the three of us, covered, and then, in perfect unison, the covers were removed to reveal our entrees. We noticed that our son's slightly slumped posture discreetly became erect; the nape of his neck took on a very dignified contour, as he quietly realized that he was in the presence of something to be respected -- not because his parents said so, but because the ambiance commanded it. We noticed also, that he began watching more carefully how we ate, to ensure that his manners would be correct. It was an amazing metamorphosis which began at that first meal, and continued throughout our journey.
Walking into a luxurious room had a similar effect. This was just not going to be a place to throw your stuff around. It too, commanded orderliness (neatness) (cleanliness) and respect.
This is not to say that every accommodation must be a luxury or charming accommodation. Lesser accommodations will provide some financial relief (although luxury and charm do not necessarily mean more expensive), as well as a means by which your teenager can compare and further appreciate the various life style levels.
Maintaining Intimacy While Traveling with your Teen
Just because we planned this trip with our teen in mind, does not mean we had to give up our intimacy as a couple. Obviously, when making accommodations, you have to keep this in mind. When we wrote our letter to the various hotels, we explained the purpose of our trip and asked, when possible if a separate or adjoining room could be supplied at the same rate as a triple occupancy. Most obliged us. Some provided a suite with a separate bedroom. So we were able to enjoy our intimacy. But of equal importance on this trip, was for our son to see his parents treating each other romantically and tenderly – to see us holding hands; for dad to hold mom’s chair as we were seated in a restaurant; to stand out of respect when mom left and approached our table; to hold open the car door for her; and to dress for each other elegantly at dinner.
In the finer restaurants, the “boys” enjoyed wearing their white dinner jackets with black bow tie as if we were James and James Jr. Bond escorting a beautiful James Bond lady. This, of course, inspired mom to dress “to the nines” as well. It is interesting that after the first few times, our son initiated holding the chair and car door for his mom and he loved doing it. We’re sure that when the time comes for him to escort his date, he will enjoy performing the same elegant manners and so will his young lady. Again, all this can be extrapolated from a daughter’s perspective. Children watch everything parents do, and in this day and age of a 50%-plus divorce rate, it is comforting for them to see their parents as a solid couple, who respect one another and even in their “old age,” are romantic with one another. You may think their reaction would be “ech,” but it’s not. They love it and sets it up as a standard for the future.
Teens Need Activity
Teenagers need to be active, especially on vacation, and another plus that luxury accommodations provide is the benefit of extra activities. Most have beautiful swimming pools, which is a wonderful refresher for you and your teen after a day of sightseeing. Kids can occupy themselves for hours in the water, and it’s a great place for them to interact with peers, and make international friendships. Other activities might include gym and health spa, tennis, nearby golf, horseback riding, biking, hiking and parasailing (in the mountain regions). And for those hotels which are on the water, most luxury hotels provide water activities, such as boat rentals, (motor, sail, paddle, kayak) as well as water skiing, snorkeling, wind-surfing and paraskiing. The concierge of a luxury hotel is an invaluable resource in your search for activities within or in the surrounding environs of the hotel. This person can gain you access to: music festivals with classical, jazz and rock concerts; seminars and workshops; film festivals and cinemas; soccer games and other spectator sports. Our son is a musician, as we are, and we tried to plan our trip around musical events that were going on. If your teen has a particular passion for an activity, you might want to get detailed information in advance and plan your itinerary around it. There are some good web sites to consult, which are easily searchable on the internet.
Our son came home with several "first" experiences that he will never forget: befriending and later attending a jam session of Nigel Kennedy (renowned jazz and classical violinist) and Lalo Shiffrin (composer of Mission Impossible) in Verbier, Switzerland; water skiing on Lake Como; snorkeling in Positano in the grottos of the Mediterranean; golfing and parasailing in the Dolomites; synchronized diving at the Lido in Venice, hearing a performance of Vivaldi's Four Seasons in a truly baroque setting, and of course the absolutely, not-to-be-missed gondola ride.
A word of caution about navigation. At some points, you are going to get lost, while walking through streets and driving -- it's inevitable, even with GPS. It's a bit frustrating, and everyone at this point naturally wants to chime in with his or her opinion as to the direction in which to go next. We made this mistake early on in our trip and our son was rightfully upset to have his responsibility usurped. To avoid arguments and bad feelings, it is imperative that the navigator and the navigator only make the decisions as to which path to follow. And if some of those decisions are wrong, so what -- just think of it as part of the adventure of the vacation. The navigator on the other hand should not become too proud to ask for suggestions or to stop someone for directions. In Italy, though, you are going to find that the answer to almost any directionally question is sempre dritto (straight ahead) -- which is really funny considering the amount of circles (roundabouts) and turns there are. But if you learn to roll with the punches, and become comfortable with being lost, as we learned to do, you'll be okay. It's a good idea also for the driver and the navigator to confer before traveling from one location to the other.
Driving through Italy, even on the autostrada (superhighway), will provide you with endless new vistas, each one more beautiful, unusual, and unique than the next. It is unreasonable, however, in our opinion, that on these extended journeys, that your teen will be remain fascinated by every one of them. So make sure, that your teenager takes along activities for the car; perhaps a portable CD player or iPod with some favorite playlists, or a hand-held electronic game or even laptop computer. And for when you or your child need to nod-off for awhile, a little inflatable neck-pillow comes in handy. (It's great for the plane ride as well.)
Snacks and drinks for these journeys as well as for picnic lunches can be purchased at the supermercato supermarket or Autogrill off the autostrada. We recommend this method over stopping at a roadside restaurant, because it is not only cost effective, but it allows you to experience to some degree, shopping as a "native" rather than as a tourist.
One of the highlights of our trip was filling our collapsible cooler with authentic parmesan cheese and prosciutto (ham) from Parma, along with local bread and wine and picnicking in the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Earlier, we told you to pick up a copy of Frommer's Frugal Traveler's Guide. Here's why. It is an excellent guide for finding an inexpensive (but good quality) place to eat, shop or stay. While sightseeing, consult this book so that you are sure not to pass up the family-owned drogheria (grocery), salumeria (deli), and panetteria (bakery), for they truly are a wonderland for the senses and masterpieces of art in their own right. The pasticceria (confectioners) was our son's favorite "masterpiece" because it housed the most magnificent gelati (ice-cream), he or we had ever tasted. Before leaving Italy, he was determined to sample the gelati of every town on our itinerary! We, of course, being "enlightened" parents, supported him, well, actually, joined him in this quest. [Remember; when you want to see "only one more basilica," with its "must-see" frescoes, and your teen is whining, "No more!" just bribe that adolescent with the promise of gelati.]
Final Food for Thought
Adolescence is a delicate and often difficult period of transition for families. Teens are placing spaces between themselves and their parents, as stepping stones to eventual adulthood, while parents are trying to pour in every last bit of their wisdom in the form of advice and experiences, before the window of responsibility "officially" closes. Traveling to Italy or other foreign country with your teen can provide a most wonderful opportunity and setting with which to find mutual ground. Sharing a common adventure, being strangers in a distant land, bonds you together and fosters a feeling of unity, almost equality. Shared decision-making empowers a teen with confidence in the ability to make decisions in the future. Taking on responsibilities which immediately impact on the rest of the family affirms a teenager’s action and allows for a "taste" of what may one day be parenthood.
We are delighted to say that the result of our effort has exceeded our expectation. We wanted to share some of the details that we believe were contributing factors to our success and also provide some information in the hope that it will encourage and help other parents have a similar positive experience.
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Gary de Sesa & Kita de Sesa are travel agents and owners of Gary D Travel. Contact us at 516-300-9924 or
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