Lisbon, Portugal

We wanted to take the kids on a cool trip for spring break and decided on Lisbon and Madrid. Lisbon because someone told us that it was the best kept secret of European capitals: a smaller, safer, more affordable version of Paris. Madrid because we had never been to the Spanish capital and, well, we really like jamón ibérico?

Ok, Lisbon is a lovely city but it’s no Paris. Not even close. Our first impression wasn’t stellar because we arrived on a drizzly gray afternoon and the smell of urine was the first thing that struck us when we emerged from the underground metro station. Our apartment rental overlooked a centrally located but dilapidated plaza. We liked that so many of Lisbon’s popular attractions and neighborhoods were easily accessible on foot, even with a 5- and 7-year-old in tow. But the cuisine, while perfectly enjoyable, simply did not rival Parisian cuisine. I’m also biased because I prefer larger cities in general.

The key element that made this trip so enjoyable was, incredibly, the company of a 5- and 7-year-old! I couldn’t quite believe it myself. Not that I don’t enjoy the company of my husband, alone. In fact, I expected to enjoy our solo trip to Machu Picchu much more than our family trip to Europe, because parenting while vacationing usually feels more like aggravation than vacation. Anyone who’s traveled anywhere with a kid knows how stressful the experience can be. But my kids really rose to the occasion, so much so that I have to devote the rest of this post, and probably the next, to bragging about them.

First of all, they made everything more fun. A stroll along the waterfront went from being merely pleasant to a rollicking adventure. They raced from one spectacle to the next, chattering and giggling incessantly, while we trailed behind, chuckling at their antics. They were and are so full of unbridled joy, so eager to leap headlong into new experiences, and laughter erupts so freely from their smiling lips, that it’s hard not to be infected by happiness just by being around them. I can’t even explain how happy they make me feel. Sometimes my happiness is so exquisite that it borders on pain. There is something so precious, so beautiful, so utterly captivating about their childishness. They’ve mastered what I’ve been striving to practice by going to yoga for the past year: mindfulness. They live entirely in the present moment, hold no grudges from the past, neither cling to resentment or fear, nor worry about the future. Their innocence is the antidote to our cynicism, allowing us to experience the world with fresh perspective. What a wonderful gift children give to their parents.

I remember my first trip to Europe, when, long before having kids, I first set foot in Paris and felt completely awestruck. Unfortunately, after a while the novelty and luster of traveling abroad wears off, the scenery tends to blur together and you start feeling like if you’ve seen one European plaza or statue, you’ve seen them all. Then you have kids and you’re awestruck watching them. You see the world through their eyes and everything is new and fresh and exciting again, until you remember that they’re not going to be kids forever, and one day they’ll be jaded and cynical adults like their parents, and your heart breaks because you wish you could freeze them in time so they never change. And knowing this is not possible breaks your heart even more, even as you strive to enjoy the present moment, to sear the memory of their wide-eyed faces into your brain, and the moment becomes bittersweet and almost painful because it is so perfect and fleeting. This is how my kids make me feel every day.

They’re definitely not perfect angels all the time. It’s still a pain in the ass to take them to the grocery store. They act weird and embarrass us around other people. But they are truly, unbelievably amazing when they travel with us. I’m not completely biased and delusional because strangers tell us all the time what great kids we have. We went on two tours in Lisbon and our kids proved themselves to be the best kids ever.

The first tour was supposed to be a four hour walking food tour of Lisbon that turned out to be closer to six hours. We met the tour guide, Pedro, and the rest of the tour group in the center of town. The other tourists were mostly older couples from all over Europe and a handful of folks from the U.S. Our kids were the only children in the group. As everyone introduced themselves, I saw a few people eye my kids nervously, and I realized the other adults probably didn’t look forward to spending the evening with a 5- and 7-year-old. When I booked the tour, it didn’t even occur to me that walking to various locations all over town to sample Portuguese tapas and wine might not be a kid-friendly activity. We had never taken our kids on a food tour before but I had just assumed they would be fine. And they were more than fine, they were delightful. By our third stop, the rest of the group was thoroughly impressed by how well-mannered and good-natured our kids were. They were used to walking long distances and sampling new foods, especially the boy. He’s already a foodie and literally makes the “nom nom” sound when he chews. Watching him eat with such gusto makes me laugh, and makes me hungry. I love how he’s so open-minded about trying new foods because he assumes he’ll enjoy it. The girl, on the other hand, can be pressured into trying new foods but she generally assumes she won’t like it. She developed a peculiar habit on this vacation, which was to position herself next to whichever tour guide was leading the tour and stay glued there. Both kids, especially the girl, became very attached to all of our tour guides and would shadow them, often holding hands with them.

The night ended at a secret restaurant cloistered in what appeared to be an office building. We sat across a German couple who marveled at how patient and calm our kids were, and compared them to their same-aged grandchildren who would have whined and pouted and demanded to leave. The couple explained that their grandchildren never would have been able to sit through a restaurant meal, let alone endure a walking tour of the city. I nodded sympathetically and felt sorry for other parents. At the completion of the tour, several members of the group, including the tour guide Pedro, came up to us to praise our kids. Pedro said they were adorable and they both hugged him goodbye.

We had a similar experience on our last day in Lisbon. We booked a full day excursion to tour various famous landmarks in Lisbon as well as Pena National Palace in the neighboring town of Sintra. Due to a booking glitch, our guide Hugo ended up giving our family a private tour. By early afternoon, Hugo had become so enamored with our kids that he was taking pictures of them on his own phone (which sounds creepy but didn’t feel creepy in context), offered to accompany us through Pena National Palace even though that portion wasn’t included in our package, and gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the gardens that other tourists (allegedly) never received. We left Lisbon the following day and upon our arrival to Madrid, received a private message from Hugo letting us know how much he enjoyed being our tour guide, and that he missed our kids.

Boston layover: