Europe had the unique experience of encountering the Bottiaux family this summer. Our goal was to expand our kids’ horizons and impressionable young minds on the trip. France and Italy were on the agenda. Some people called us crazy for traveling to Europe for 2.5 weeks with four young kids ages 6, 8, 10 and 12.

…your six year old is too young …what about that long flight …there’s too much walking …what if they don’t remember the trip when they’re older …just wait until the kids are older. 

We did not listen.

There were plenty of sibling throw downs. It all piqued one night in Paris, as we blasted Les Miserables, Do You Hear the People Sing, from our way-too-small rental car. We couldn’t figure out how to use our ticket to exit the parking garage. None of the French signs made a heap of sense to us. Just as the impatient car behind us began to sound its obnoxious horn, one of the kids, who shall remain nameless, smashed her brother’s arm in the backseat. Blood curdling screams, from multiple family members, echoed through the parking garage; people tried not to stare. Bad words flew from our pulsating Peugeot like popcorn.

It was hot. Record breaking heat wave hot. Every day we walked until our legs ached and threatened to shrivel up and fall off. As Nathan stated, “My legs are at 1%”. It was hard work. Not at all relaxing. But, worth it.

Instead of five star hotels, our accommodations consisted of basic rooms without frills. Airbnb helped us locate clean, inexpensive basic accommodations with plenty of space for our family of six. It was a great way to truly acclimate. We hung our laundry out to dry alongside the locals in Sardinia, showered outdoors in our treehouse near Paris and befriended our friendly temporary landlord, just outside of Rome.

We live on an cul-de-sac with kids galore, in a dreamy master planned utopia. There are block parties, swimming pools a-plenty, concerts in the friendly neighborhood park, family activities at the club house and award winning schools. We are living the American Dream. Our kids are safe and sound in our not-so-cultural community. There is life outside our bubble. Life that we want them to experience.

Before kids and a mortgage, Paul and I traveled the world for four months. After scrupulously saving money and planning the itinerary, we embarked on our journey. We were young newlywed backpackers on a shoe string budget. Using around the world airline tickets, we were able to visit 17 countries.

In Africa I helped women paint. There were no brushes, we used our hands to slap wet mud onto huts. Paul paid 50 cents for a questionable haircut in Durbin. We ate a typical African dinner at our tour guide’s home in a poor township, listened to lions roar and elephant thunder on a safari and felt terrorizing fear as we faced a rhino head on while walking through the African bush. We visited a rural school and barefoot children in filthy clothes sang and danced for us.

In New Zealand we floated through dark caves and gazed up at millions of twinkling glow worms. We herded cows on the Australian farm of a couple we’d befriended in New Zealand. We stood in the Virgin Mary’s actual home, in Ephesus, Turkey, explored caves in Cappadocia, experienced painful massages in Turkish baths, rode bikes along the Mosel River in Germany, cried at Dachau concentration camp and spent our first wedding anniversary sipping champagne and eating French cheeses under the twinkling Eiffel Tower.

That trip changed us.

It’s difficult to be ethnocentric when you have traveled the world. Experiencing unfamiliar cultures opens your mind. The world was our classroom, instead of books or movies alone. Our kids lived and breathed the massive Wedding at Cana painting, instead of merely gazing at it on paper. Paul and I walked alongside more than 9,000 graves in Normandy; evoking emotions a book could never deliver. We want this for our kids.

Our kids need to know that life exists outside our shiny suburban bubble.

One of my favorite lines in the movie Good Will Hunting is, “Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that.”

Although the “Sixteen” Chapel, as the kids had thought it was called, smelled like hot, sweaty humans on the day we visited, we basked in the glory of it all. Despite groaning kids asking why they had to go to “boring Nevadacin” City, we ignored our young haters and joined thousands of others for the Pope’s blessing. None of us understood a word of the blessing, but (most of us) received it with great reverence.

Our kids have seen the view from the Eiffel Tower. They have touched the crumbling walls of the Roman Colosseum, said hello to the Mona Lisa in person, walked through the gleaming royal Palace of Versailles. Zachary tasted escargot in France (and to his astonishment, loved it), attended Sunday mass at St. Peter’s Basilica (we could only handle about 15 minutes of it, but still), swam in the warm, turquoise Mediterranean Sea in Sardinia, learned to make pizza and pasta on an agritourismo in Tuscany, lighted candles inside Notre-Dame Cathedral, walked miles and miles in stifling heat each day, rode numerous trains, boats, took several different flights and experienced the chaos of driving a rental car in Paris and Rome.

These memories will stay with us forever. As the kids grow older, they’ll realize how fortunate they were to have seen these wonders of the world. This is only the beginning of our family’s world traveling.

Trains are not a regular form of transportation in Southern California. We drive. Rarely have our kids ridden any form of public transportation. Navigating through the bustling train stations with confusing ticket machines and foreign signs was eye opening. In Italy it’s commonplace to offer your seat to the elderly. When my daughters did not know to do this, a man scolded them in Italian. They learned. All ages, races and socio-economic status’ take the trains. The true flavor of the city is present aboard the trains.

Our kids now know what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t speak the predominant language. It was tough at times and even a little embarrassing for them as they struggled to communicate with locals. Our kids were the outsiders for the first time. It was good for them.

The numerous Syrian refugee women lying prostrate in the middle of sidewalks, outside churches and sitting on cardboard with their families, didn’t go unnoticed. We talked with the kids about the millions of Syrians who had escaped violence in their war-torn country by migrating to Europe. Many of them seeking asylum. Europe has open borders, so the migrants were all over the big cities. It was a bit overwhelming for us suburb dwellers to encounter large numbers of beggars. But, it is part of the cultural landscape.

Now that we are home, we are singing the jet lag blues and longing for the wanderlust days of our trip. Our kids are brimming with ideas about where to travel next. I love that. My hope is that a seed has been planted within each of them. A seed that will blossom into their love of discovering our vast world.