This summer I spent almost two months traveling around Europe with Jordan, my 10 year-old daughter. This was her first time out of the US, excluding an afternoon border crossing as a baby to Tijuana (a story for another day). Convincing husband, who’s still adjusting to married life with solo traveler, proved to be a bit of a challenge.
I promised to be on guard at all times, to do everything to keep my girl safe even if it meant missing out on shooting in that perfect late afternoon light or passing up once in a lifetime adventures and chances at great stories. I promised to say no if strangers invited us out on their boats, into their cars, or their homes. This trip would be about Jordan, it would be her chance to get a glimpse at the big beautiful world out there, to take a peek into different cultures, to broaden her young mind and show her what life outside of our tiny little St. Augustine town is like.
Since I normally travel without much planning, this set itinerary I was forced to make was a learning experience for me as well.
Italy was our first stop and where we met up with husband who spent ten days traveling with us and helping me ease into international travel with my girl. We spent days hopping trains and hiking the mountainous coastal trails and villages of Cinque Terre, something I probably wouldn’t have done alone with Jordan, who we occasionally call Klutzy Karla as she tends to trip over air.
During the first hour of our first hike, we spent time huddled under a tree on a narrow mountain edge somewhere between Vernazza and Monterosso waiting for a hailstorm to pass. We picnicked on an Italian hillside with a French family who spoke no English and spent our mornings wandering through the villages in search of the perfect cappuccino and pastry.
In Siena, we strolled through the windy streets each day crowded together under umbrellas in search of the perfect Gelato, not overly sweet or artificial colored or flavored, “Ho bisogno di gelato” became my girl’s most frequently uttered Italian sentence.
Passing through many churches, we paused taking the time to light candles and say prayers in each. Later this became one of our favorite things to do in all of Europe and I found myself drawn to each and every church where we could be still for a moment reflecting on what we’ve seen and done, thankful for a quiet place to pray for what was next and for our people back at home. Mostly though, I just prayed for help keeping my girl safe.
In Venice, we squeezed ourselves in with the crowds and marveled at the surrealism of the city- Italy’s New York with canals instead of streets, gondolas instead of taxis, with an endless number of shops, restaurants, and people to see, a month’s worth at least. I instantly regretted not splurging and staying here instead of opting for the quiet, less expensive town outside of the beautiful chaos- Castelfranco Veneto, where after a few nights Jordan would hug her Padre goodbye before we continued on to Switzerland.
In Lugano the Italian speaking town in Southern Switzerland, we spread out in our apartment with the million dollar views of the lake and mountains. We frequented a six level store called Manor but pronounced Manure, which set my girl into giggles every time she said it. Manor sold everything ranging from household products to clothes, shoes to groceries and after suffering sticker shock from the outrageous restaurant prices, we became very chummy with the grocery section buying most of our meals there. We spent hours wandering up and down the aisles trying to identify items and buying unusual fruits, vegetables, cereals, and cheeses.
One sunny afternoon, I splurged on a gourmet lunch cruise around the lake for us where I quickly learned the importance of knowing the difference one little word can make- e/o in Italian, and/or in English. The tiny miscommunication meant we were served an 80€ cheese tray for lunch, something we thought was only our 1st course. Later with our bellies still grumbling, we laughed at our misfortune.
Our train arrived in Interlaken on a cold rainy afternoon when my girl announced, “The sun must be away on vacation.” Indeed it was. It stayed cold, gray and rainy for most of our remaining days in Switzerland. We fought off pangs of homesickness as we spent more than half a week in a town heavily populated with both Indian and Asian tourists. Having hoped to immerse ourselves in Swiss culture with Swiss people, I couldn’t help but be secretly disappointed while I don’t think Jordan even noticed. We stayed in Wilderswil, a quiet authentic town just outside of Interlaken. We walked along the river, hiked snowy trails in Harder Kulm and thanks to the pitiful pleading eyes of my snow-deprived Florida-girl, spent a very expensive day traveling to and from Jungfrau, the tallest mountain in Europe.
Our last day was spent sipping afternoon tea and watching parasailors land in the park before taking part in a chocolate making class, a surprise gift for Jordan.
By June we were cozying up in a tiny two-room Parisian apartment tucked away in an alley beside Notre Dame. We walked and walked, miles through art museums, to the Eiffel tower, and through the lively Latin Quarter, a photographer’s dream and sadly a place I only discovered on the eve of our last day. Each night before turning in, I stood next to Notre Dame cathedral and watched my girl beam with pride as she stood as still as possible, arms stretched to the sky while dozens of tiny birds circled and took turns landing on her. I wish I could have bottled her happiness.
Towards weeks end, a Florida friend and native of France picked us up early one morning and drove us to her quaint home town of Milly-la-Forêt where we spent the day watching glass sculpturing, shopping the markets and eating pastries before driving a short distance to tour the Fontaine Bleu palace.
Not wanting to say goodbye to Paris, I watched as a few tears escaped my girl’s eyes as we boarded the train for Amsterdam. We arrived on a rare warm sunny day with residents loitering in the streets, with children and pets splashing roadside in plastic pools. The week was spent dodging bikes, cruising the canals, and riding the trams throughout the city. We spent one afternoon exploring the Northern countryside and another wandering around the most amazing zoo imaginable.
We visited wooden clog and cheese factories and fields of windmills, but sadly for my photographer’s eyes, we missed the blooming tulips. We dined in several unusual restaurants, one much like the Swiss Manor, but mostly we ate at home with our indigenous Dutch grocery purchases. I learned merchants in Amsterdam are not fans of American credit or debit cards and oddly enough some not even of cash.
After making the call to skip over Germany because of severe flooding issues, we said goodbye to Amsterdam and boarded a night train to Florence where I realized Jordan was once again sad to say goodbye to a new place. “I’m really going to miss Amsterdam,” she said climbing into the top bunk in our closet-sized compartment. Me too.
After spending 19 hours on two trains, passing back through the snowy Swiss Alps we finally arrived in Florence where we welcomed the bright sunshine and stifling heat, a full 25 degrees warmer. After checking into a lovely family-run castle guesthouse, we wandered the busy streets eating Gelato and watching the performers and musicians play for tips. We shopped the street markets and bought stacks of leather and linen, both as gifts and for ourselves. In one market, we studied the meat display cases filled with animal organs and parts we would never see in an American market. We talked about Jordan’s dreams of becoming a surgeon and of the wastefulness of our American society.
On Father’s day, we traveled first in a terrifying taxi ride through downtown Naples, then on a massive black smoking ferry heading to the volcanic island of Ischia. The seatbelt-less taxi ride reminded me just how different we are, my girl and me- While I struggled with my decision as a mother putting us in danger like this, I said at least a dozen prayers for our safety as my girl laughed and yelled at the top of her lungs, “Woohoo.” We sped through the streets of Naples, past hundreds of men standing knee-deep in clothes, garbage, I don’t even know, only slowing as we neared the port we drove through leering crowds that separated only enough for us to pass through, so close they could have reached in through the open windows. I prayed they wouldn’t.
In Ischia, a beautiful inexpensive island known for its healing thermal pools, we spent the better part of a week swimming, sunning, and recuperating from our thousands of miles of walking. Our room included breakfast and a three-course dinner every night, which we quickly too quickly, grew accustomed to. As Ischia is mostly visited by Italian vacationers, the language barrier became both a blessing and a challenge. One of my best memories was watching my girl perched on a rock in the sea with a group of newly made friends. I smiled as I watched them laugh and struggle to communicate, it was like watching a game of charades. We spent an entire day touring a rather deserted Medieval castle and its grounds and another day touring the island with Silvana, an amazing local English-speaking guide. We ate and ate so much good food, too much and vowed to visit again in a few years when our Italian vocabulary held more than 100 words.
Lastly, towards the end of June we took the hydrofoil, a fast ferry to Sorrento where I had rented a mountaintop apartment in a villa in Sant’ Agnello, a stone’s throw away from the crowds of Sorrento. We traveled to the ancient unearthed city of Pompeii, endured the hair-raising bus rides through all of the Amalfi coast towns, and spent time high above the touristy town of Amalfi strolling through the postcard perfect streets of Ravello. We spent a day in Positano first sitting along the waters edge watching a boisterous Italian fisherman sing his heart out while cleaning his boat, then visiting the rental house of our newly made Australian friends. (So much for keeping promises). I convinced them to have lunch with us at one of my favorite places in the world in Montepertuso, a town high above Positano.
Breakfasts and dinners, coffee and wine (for me, of course) were had on our terrace in Sant’ Agnello, overlooking the mountains and sea. We also spent many warm afternoons lounging by the Hotel Mediterranean’s pool making new friends.
As our trip neared the end, our homesickness a distant memory, I realized both how precious this time with my daughter was and how fast it had gone by. While I was looking forward to returning home to St. Augustine, a town I loved as much as anyplace in Europe, I was sad, we both were to have to say goodbye to both Sant’ Agnello and to all of the big cities and tiny villages we visited. “Don’t worry,” I told my girl. “Maybe I’ll bring you back someday.” “Oh I’m not worried,” she said. “As soon as I turn 18, I’ll be back.” And I bet she will.
(This is just a little overview and a few shots of our trip. I’ll be sure to post some more detailed pieces on all of the different places we visited soon).