Looking back on my childhood, I’m struck by how often the experiences that delight me still took place on family trips to Europe. There was the insanely swell day in 1970 when, driving along a rainy mountaintop in Norway, we stopped our rented VW Bug literally in a cloud. My mother had just stepped out when two sheep trotted out of the mist straight into car, snuggling their soggy, grubby bodies on top of me and my brother in the backseat while we—3 and 5 at the time—shrieked with glee. Hanging out our hotel window on a warm night in Amsterdam eight years later, I looked down drop-jawed as young dudes swarmed out bars, stripped off their pants, and stumbled into the fountain below to thrash and bellow wearing just their teeny totally un-American bikini underpants. Holland had just lost the World Cup to Argentina. These guys were in pain, apparently. But, man, I thought, Is Europe great or what?
More than sampling new cheese-intensive cuisines (which weren’t actually all that different from what I grew up eating in Wisconsin) and more than touring intimidatingly masterpiece-packed museums (which my mother always included many of on our itineraries), I loved the gently mind-blowing feeling that being someplace similar to yet oddly different from home created. Tramping on cobblestones laid down before my country was even an idea, puzzling over inscrutable traffic signs, huffing that deliciously piney omnipresent Vitabath soap—all this textural novelty electrified my kiddish self, putting me on happy high-alert during our European adventures in a way that, I am convinced, helped etch the memories.
Which is why, when my son, Charlie, turned 3 last year spring, I began fretting over the trickier reality of traveling to Europe today. I wanted to get Charlie over there—and my husband, Tim, who’d been to Europe just once before—so we could start our own family ritual. But being of the generation famously more cash-strapped than our parents were when we were kids—and watching the dollar nosedive against the Euro while airline prices soared ridiculously—I didn’t see how we could swing a trip.
Then I got word that my parents would be traveling to Holland a few months later; while my dad sailed on the coast, my mom would spend a week kicking around Amsterdam by herself. My scheming brain went into overdrive. If we could meet up with my mom, she could help us look after Charlie—on what would be, it also excited me to think, the thirtieth anniversary of my last visit to the city with her. I discovered, with the help of an unusually crafty ticket agent, that Tim and I, cobbling together the many thousands of frequent flier miles we each stockpiled dating long distance eons ago and buying several thousand additional miles for about $400, would have enough altogether for three “free” tickets. Combing various apartment rental sites, I found plenty of trippy, acid-green-appointed crash pads geared toward tourists coming for Amsterdam’s notoriously legal giggle-bush. But eventually, through a rental agency that had a variety of family-friendly properties (houseboathotel.nl), I found an Ikea-decorated duplex in the low-key Jordaarn district where my mom could have her own room. When I pointed out that sharing rent for a week would cost less than even a middling hotel—and allow us to save money by cooking for ourselves—my mother gladly signed on.
I couldn’t help worrying on the plane ride over, though, that my grand plan—penny-pinched down to about what it would cost us to spend a week in California, I reckoned—was still overambitious, considering the long flight, time difference, and usual fears (compounded now by traveling with a young child) of finding decent affordable food in a foreign country. Dutifully following doctor’s orders, we gave Charlie his last dose of prednisone (for a rattling chest cold he’d caught a week earlier but showed no more symptoms of) somewhere over Nova Scotia, and, flying high on the medicine, he belted out garbage truck songs across the entire North Atlantic. I’d forgotten in my planning fever that we all need to actually relax on vacation.
But after we landed—coming down in more ways than one—things started to look up. Riding into the city on the airport train, Charlie pressed his face against the window, rapt by never-before-seen trucks driving beside us and windmills in the distance. He spotted his first genuine Amsterdamese houseboat—a ramshackle barge with a scruffy couch and mismatched dining set on deck, docked beside a stylish, glass-box high-rise—as we crossed a bridge approaching the train station, and whispered to himself, approvingly, “This is one strange city.” I began to relax.
After we stashed our bags in the apartment and headed out with my mom (who Charlie was thrilled to see—nothing like a familiar face in a far-away place), I quickly rediscovered that Amsterdam is a truly great walking city; thirty years ago, I wouldn’t have even noticed its stroller-readiness, but it seemed like a godsend now. The central canals, ringing the city center in roughly concentric semi-circles, are feasts for the eyes: lined with skinny cornice-topped houses and brass-rooster-topped churches built in the 1600 and 1700s; crossed with gently arched bridges; teeming with tall, handsome Dutch people zipping every which way on their sturdy upright black bikes. While we ambled, Charlie seemed unusually content to kick back in his MacLaren, legs crossed, soaking in all the newness (“Even the kids on bikes aren’t wearing helmets, Mom!”), but also, I imagine, particularly enjoying as a small person Amsterdam’s (still) refreshingly human scale.
To buy time in museums, which, as my mother’s daughter, I’ve grown up to appreciate, we promised Charlie morning and evening romps in the two excellent playgrounds in our neighborhood. Our daily division of activity—slide time followed by some museum-cruising, with a pit stop for lunch at a canal-facing cafe somewhere along the way and chestnut-gathering sessions whenever we happened across a shedding tree—worked surprisingly well for everybody. It also helped that, unlike many American museum guards who specialize in staring daggers at young children, the Dutch guards at the world-beating museums we visited in Amsterdam seemed genuinely pleased to see a little boy clutching (tight!) a sack of chestnuts. At the Rijksmuseum, I swear that even Truck Boy himself grooved on the quietly commanding Rembrandts and Vermeers—or maybe Charlie was just beaming beatifically because a kindly aged guard took it upon himself to stroke Charlie’s hair while we adults swooned over the paintings.
No, we didn’t end up cooking for ourselves—that was a zealous aspiration of mine that seemed pointless once we realized that we could find relatively quick, cheap, tasty food on the street whenever our feet gave out at the end of the day. (This was a vacation, after all.) We had great Thai, Indian, and Indonesian meals, and, in a pinch, were quite happy to grab another sandwich for supper. (The Dutch, expert bakers and mustard-makers, excel at simple sandwiches; we had marvelous aged Gouda sandwiches at several of the dark, homey “brown cafe” bars our neighborhood.)
When I ask Charlie now about his favorite memories of Amsterdam, he talks about the playgrounds, the salty black licorice, a gray heron we saw sitting calmly on top of a car parked beside Prinzengracht, and the moment when, standing on a bridge with his grandma, he finally screwed up the courage to wave at an approaching boatload of lads out for a Friday cruise and every guy on board beamed and shot up his hand immediately to wave back. Bless those Dutch boys! But if I have to choose a favorite moment myself, it would be standing with my mom on our last night watching Charlie and Tim chasing each other in circles around the same fountain where I saw those defeated football fans prancing in their underpants thirty years earlier. The scenes stayed separate in my head for a while. Then, weirdly—but in good-weird way—they overlapped to form their own new kind of doubly-rich memory. I won’t ever forget it.