Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 15, 2011

St. John: Children adjust, learn as family makes its way through Europe

VENICE, ITALY— When one tells another that he is going to Europe for a year and bringing his wife, 14 year-old daughter, and 10 year-old son, there are two typical responses that are tendered: “That will be such a wonderful learning experience for the children.” Or, “Are you out of your mind?”

The former response is usually delivered by a sweet, well-meaning octogenarian who is so far removed from parenthood, that he or she has forgotten what it is like to live with a teenage daughter and/or a 10 year-old hellion, um, son. The latter is a direct quote from someone who currently has troops on the ground and is in the middle of the battle.

The following are tips, pointers, and observations for anyone who wishes to travel with their children for longer than one week, to places father away than the beach or a weekend soccer tournament.

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For those who do not have children currently residing in their home, you have two options: 1.) Take notes, you will likely have grandchildren one day. 2.) Read on and savor the schadenfreude.

The rule before we left on this yearlong sojourn through Europe was: No video games, no chicken nuggets, and no television.

When I purchased the car that we would be using to drive all over the continent, I made sure that it didn’t have television screens in the backseat. Back in the United States, the backseat screen is a valuable commodity— actually, I think if I ever met the man who invented the backseat DVD player, I would kiss him square on the lips— over here though, I wanted the children to be looking out of the car windows, not staring blankly at a screen.

So far, no one has missed being excluded from the latest Kardashian drama, or felt deprived from not being able to watch the same SpongeBob episode for the 975th time. Chalk one up for dad.

The challenge is keeping the teenager awake in the car. The first time we drove through the Brenner Pass— one of the most scenic and breathtaking drives in the world— we were 45 minutes in, and past the Dolomites, before I looked in the backseat and realized my daughter had been asleep the entire time. When I asked the boy, “Why didn’t you tell me she was asleep?”

He replied, “I didn’t know she was asleep, I was looking out the window like you told me.” She has subsequently slept through Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Greece, the Grand Canal in Venice, Sicily, Croatia, Hungary, Montenegro, and— during one long day’s journey— the entire length of Italy.

Lately, I’ve been waking her up during the highlights.

The “no-chicken-nuggets rule” was really an all-encompassing way to say: No American fast food. Our kids have pretty sophisticated palates, and don’t really eat a lot of chicken nuggets, but they love junk food. This rule, however, has been the easiest to enforce. Margherita pizza and Bolognese pasta are in plentiful supply over here.

Early on, we would pass an American fast-food franchise, and the kids would jokingly beg me to stop. Now, whether they have just surrendered their fate, or they’ve lost the desire, it goes unsaid.

My two children are the Hansel and Gretel of Europe, as they have left a trail of mismatched socks, t-shirts, shoes, and iPods in hotel rooms and villas all across the continent.

Lessons Learned:

1.) Kicking pigeons is not a sanctioned European sport

2.) Never turn a 10 year-old loose with a laser pointer at the crowded Trevi Fountain at night

3.) The Vatican is not “that Catholic preacher’s parsonage.” Though when you think about it, technically, it is.

4.) No matter how long one stares at a puffed-up pigeon, it will not explode (the boy still doesn’t believe this).

5.) Using broad, sweeping hand gestures and speaking loudly in English is not a way to communicate in a foreign language

6.) If you’re going to homeschool 9th Grade Algebra, bring a tutor— One night in Tuscany, a single word problem took four adults (with a combined 214 years of life) three hours and two telephone calls to friends in the States to get an answer (Thanks, Chef Jeremy).

7.) A bidet is not a “midget sink”— I don’t know how long my son thought this before asking. I’m just praying he didn’t brush his teeth in it.

8.) When staying in Vienna, jokes about street signs with the word “wiener” get old, quickly.

9.) Bath towels are not a suitable replacement for washcloths— they don’t use washcloths over here. I am not sure why, but it answers many questions.

10.) Never walk into a mosque filled with hundreds of Muslims and loudly comment, “It smells like feet in here!” Of course it smells like feet. It’s summer, and hundreds of people are walking around inside with their shoes off.

Column Bonus: The infamous word problem (you’re welcome): A grocer wants to make a 10-pound mixture of cashews and peanuts that he can sell for $3.64 per pound. If cashews cost $5.80 per pound and peanuts cost $2.20 per pound. How many pounds of each must he mix?

(Restaurateur, author and self-described “world-class eater” Robert St. John is with his family on the third month of a yearlong trip to Europe to expand his culinary traditions and conduct research. Contact him at