We have been home from our whirlwind Russia/ European tour for a month and we are still wrapping our head around all our wonderful experiences. Great travel makes you realize how small the world really is and how interdependent we are. All of us came home with new found perspectives on our daily lives as well as our role in the global world. Will is leaving for college next week and his experiences on our trip have made him decide to add studying the Russian language to his education. Jonas had many encounters with other tourists that made him aware that kindness is a super power. Sasha has a level of confidence in herself that wasn't there before. My kids have come home fundamentally changed for the better because they experienced new cultures, new foods, old history and different transportation.
Josh and I still can't believe our self planned/ self guided trip went off so smoothly. The most difficult moments all revolved around accessing our different Airbnb's. Most of the houses we rented felt like a reverse escape room, instead of trying to get out we just wanted to get in. The kids were 18, 15 and 12 and had an amazing appetite for whatever the day brought them. They learned so much about themselves and their place in the world. I think they left hungry for more travels and an excitement for new culture. I have thought a lot about why things went so well and have come to the conclusions below.
1. Give them a camera to capture the world as they see it (and don't interfere with your adult perspective.)
Each one of the Watkins 5 had a different camera that fit their personality and the way they like to capture the world. It was amazing to watch what my kids documented and truly see the trip through their eyes. Sasha, at age 12, has proved that video is her format. Each day of our trip she made a short video on her GoPro of her adventures and uploaded them to Youtube. Every night before she uploaded her video she would have us huddle around the laptop to relive our day. Ever single video she made showed me things I had missed but she had loved. One day her video was about riding the Russian metro. Her video showed me what it was like for a 12 year old to be surrounded by this great big world. The day we went to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg she took video of a ceramic collection of animals dressed up in period clothing playing instruments. Again, something I hadn't even taken the time to see but captured her eye.
Jonas and Will were both carrying our old google pixel phones that have amazing cameras. Will was so excited to capture hours of footage inside the Russian metros. Watching Jonas feel empowered to finally create photos of his own was very rewarding to me. He is very conscience of what he is photographing and takes his time composing the image. Since we have returned home he has changed his screen saver often to images he captured. All the kids had a much more engaged view of the trip as they looked through their lenses.
2. Find the balance between sight seeing and adventure
Finding the right balance between educational experiences and immediately fun adventures is important to teens. I feel strongly that you can't have long stretches of "seeing" things, there must be a good balance of "doing" too. We found great balance after walking all over Red Square and Moscow but then sitting and experiencing the Russian National Circus. Our feet had a chance to rest and our hearts had some great laughs. When we went to the Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg we road the hydrofoil to and from the Peterhof so the kids could have a new mode of transportation and rest from walking the miles of fountains and gardens. Finding that sweet spot between adventure and exhaustion is a challenge. We balanced the museums of St. Petersburg with a hot Russian straight edge shave and manscaping for Will and Josh. Each city we went to I had a list of the things we wanted to see and do. We stayed flexible so that if the kids were wearing thin we could pivot in a new direction.
By the time we hiked up to the entrance of Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria we made the decision to skip the tour and continue to hike to a higher vantage point. We didn't need more history at that moment, we needed more adventure, and we have no regrets. Jonas will admit that his favorite town was Grindelwald, Switzerland because it was one epic adventure after another. From the gondola rides to the cliff walk in the clouds to the mountain carts down the Alps, he was glowing all day. Jonas is my kid who needs adrenalin the most and Grindelwald delivered.
Finding that balance between immediate fun and long term educational impact is tough but worth the extra effort.
3. Keep treats handy at all times
Finding the local candy store at the beginning of a trip has become standard routine for me. These foreign treats become my ammunition when people start to bonk during large times of sight seeing or walking. In Moscow we were staying right next to a brand new candy store. Teens love exotic candy stores as much as little kids. We found black licorice army tanks and bombs and mojito flavored gummy's to name just a few. Each day I would remind them to pack their candy bags for those moments when they needed a little something to get them through. As we were walking though the miles of gardens and fountains at the Peterhof the fun bag of treats helped get everyone through the walking. Watching the Russian country side roll by through the train window, the candy bags made for good laughs and good memories. I also made the kids carry their own "emergency" granola bars from home for those moments when they needed a pick me up. Having a comfort food protein bar saved us from food melt downs and teenagers have food melt downs as much as toddlers.
We had been warned that food in Switzerland was extremely expensive... actually everything in Switzerland is pricey. Every morning we would head to the grocery store and each person was responsible for picking out and carrying their own nut or protein, cracker or chips and a bakery item or 2 to last during the day. These snacks were extremely useful as we went up and down in altitude in the Alps. I loved all the bakeries in Russia and Europe because they don't seem to be like the sugary sweet bakeries in america. Fresh made breads, croissants, pretzels, cheese and yogurt helped us navigate expensive tourist food traps. But as Sasha will proudly tell you, ice cream makes the world go round.
One of the greatest mental shifts that occurred in everyone was a renewed sense of gratitude for our daily lives. We travelled across the globe and we returned to a world class town and a great home and a life we love. Everything looks a little brighter and a little bit more valuable and treasured just a little tighter. Sometimes we must step away from the daily routine so we can see the beauty in it when we return with fresh eyes.
Give us another couple months and we'll be ready for a our next adventure.
Our travel itinerary-
Moscow, Russia 3 nights / St. Petersburg, Russia 3 nights / Fussen, Germany 1 night / Interlaken, Switzerland 3 nights / Chamonix, France 2 nights / Troyes, France 1 night / Paris, France 2 nights.
Sasha's Highlights: Moscow, Russian National circus. What she learned: Ice Cream is better in Europe
Jonas's Highlights: First Mountain in Grindelwald, Switzerland. What he learned: Kindness makes everything easier.
Will's Highlights: Russian Metros What he learned: The Moscow metro system is extremely efficient and well designed.