Intrepid Travels with Kids

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.

In Search of an Awesome Summer

Why I’m Decluttering Our Summer

A few weeks ago I sat hovered over my phone, intertwining four summer schedules into my calendar. I had it all figured out. Everybody’s camps and classes were carefully arranged in my trusty phone. 

It certainly wasn’t an easy task to configure the master schedule. But, I’d done it. I should’ve felt content. I thought I’d feel relieved to have my quad of kids actively pursuing an awesome summer.

But, no.

Instead, I looked at that calendar and found myself growing increasingly frustrated. Nearly every single summer day was accounted for. Each glorious, free flowing, lazy summer day — for which we’d awaited since September — was reserved. After our family vacation, we were left with a mere handful of freedom. Those weeks were threatened to be swiftly snatched up by enticing activities. Dance camps, church camps, musical theatre camps, surf camps, swim team and Junior Guards were the culprits.

As a kid, I never had the opportunity to partake in a vast buffet of recreational delights. My childhood summers were low key. My two younger brothers and I spent our endless summer days playing mailman, swimming in the neighbor’s pool, frog hunting in the creek (until my brother unearthed the towering stack of Playboys near the murky water). My friends and I would ride bikes on the bike trail, alongside the canal. We tirelessly perfected our cartwheels and handstands on the cool front lawn at dusk. We’d thunder through front yards during heated games of tag and hide ‘n seek. We built majestic indoor forts — using every single blanket and bed sheet in the house.

There were plenty of boring days too. I remember my dad warning us that if we stayed inside watching cartoons any longer, people would forget that kids lived in our home. Mom bought me a thick “Big Book of Things to Do”, so I’d stop bugging her about it. It worked; for a short while. I developed a love of simple things. Reading. Crafting. These slow days of summer empowered us to entertain ourselves. We learned to decompress from the quicker pace of the school year.

I had to choose.

The proposed line up was impressive. Hours of shuttling over-heated, complaining children in a smallish, motorized rectangular box on wheels, was not. And I was to blame. If I signed them up, it would be nobody’s fault but my own that our summer was over scheduled. I’ve had to convince myself that my kids don’t need these extracurricular activities. They would survive without over-the-top camps and classes galore.

So, I’ve decided not to.

I’m decluttering our summer. It’s going to be simple. Easy. I refuse to make my summer an extension of the hectic school year. I want my kids to have a fun summer. But, I also want my kids to experience a boring summer.

My kids weren’t exactly thrilled when I announced we’d be participating in minimal planned activities this summer. There were tears; and lots of moaning. At first I felt guilty about their disappointment. Not for long. They’re going to have an old fashioned summer; the kind I experienced as a kid. They’ll have to learn to love it.image

I’m not going to omit every single planned activity. A few will remain. Last summer was Sarah’s first year of Junior Guards. It was nothing short of magical. She has looked forward to JG since last summer and will be returning in August for her debut leap off the pier. Bi-weekly swim practice will continue for both boys. Other than that, let freedom ring!image

I want my kids to know what it feels like to play outside all day, barefoot, with toes sticky from Popsicle drippings. They can stay up too late on a hot summer night, with no place to be the next morning. Swim in the pool so long their fingers and toes become shriveled like raisins. I want them to play in the warm sand all day at the beach. Hunt for sand crabs. Boogie board in the salty sea. Learn to surf.imageimageimage

After this summer experiment of stripping away excess, I may find that it wasn’t a good move. Maybe I’ll be going slightly nuts after spending many hours with my kids every day. At the beginning of last summer I’d considered homeschooling. By the end of the summer, boarding school seemed like a better option.

No matter what, we’ll make an abundance of memories. I’m hoping those memories aren’t of sisters tattle tailing on everything that moves and brothers thrashing everything in sight.

I believe that we can pull off a simple summer to remember.image

This was all I saw of him.

Quick. Silent. Deadly.

I sat on the lounge chair by the pool, a mere five paces from where my youngest was perched on the steps leading into the swimming pool. All four of my kids were in the water. But, my eyes were glued to Nathan, my only non-swimmer. He was holding onto the gleaming metal railing while repeatedly dunking his little noggin under and blowing bubbles, which he proudly called his explosions.

The water thing has all been a very recent major breakthrough for Nathan. Besides the bathtub, garden hose and backyard water table, he’d never enjoyed the water. He’d always preferred to merely dip a toe in the water on the steps, while all his siblings swam like fish throughout the pool. I had put off swimming lessons every summer because of his strong aversion to all things swimming related. I just didn’t have the fight in me to force him into the pool to learn to swim. Until last month.

‘Lil land dweller.

I’d avoided it for four summers, but this had to be the year. Like it or not, he was going to learn to swim. Becoming water safe was the main reason he had to learn to swim. Living in Southern California, we are constantly in or near the water. It’s a way of life. We live seven minutes from the Pacific Ocean and two minutes from our closest community pool.

I signed him up for private mini sessions twice a week at the local aquatic center. He was bitterly angry with me for doing this. I could tell by the way his tiny chin quivered when he asked me why?, that he felt that I’d betrayed him.

On the first day of class, he cried for hours before it was time to head to the lesson. I had to peel him off of my body, unclamp his hands from my t-shirt, and hand him over to his new swim teacher, Kayne. Although Kayne is a well respected swim teacher, I had my reservations.

Kayne is nothing short of a drill sergeant in water. At about 6′ tall, she’s tough as nails, her deep, gruff voice can sound a bit intimidating, and she wastes no time letting her students know who’s boss. She wasn’t having any of Nathan’s sprinkler fest. It was time to turn off the tears, get in and get to work.

It felt so wrong. I felt so guilty. It was awful. I fought back tears. His little face kept looking at me, pleading with me to rescue him. I forced the corners of my mouth to curl into a tight smile, in hopes that it would help encourage him, if ever so slightly.

For the next few weeks, he’d ask if he had swim lessons that day. If the answer was yes, he’d cry until 11:30, when his lesson began. It wasn’t a whiney cry. It was a frightened cry, and he would tremble uncontrollably. He was terrified of those swim lessons, and maybe a little scared of his coach too.

Soon enough, I began seeing hints of happiness creeping across his face. Little laughs here and there. He even floated on his back one day…unassisted. He’d climb out of that pool, at the end of the lesson and his little green eyes would flicker with delight. I was so proud! He was so proud! It was happening. His fear was slipping away.

he started having fun

He started having fun.

this was a huge day!

Huge day!

I sat there, warmed  by the May sunshine, clapping, and flashing the thumbs up for his small accomplishments. I watched him on those steps that day, squealing with excitement each time he plunked his head under, knowing this summer would be different. I’d have to really watch him closely in the pool and ocean this year. He was no longer terrorized by water.

I must’ve looked away. Maybe I’d glanced around the pool for my other kids. But, when my eyes returned to Nathan, I saw only his two hands wildly flailing. He had gone under. I bolted over to the steps, in what felt like slow motion, threw myself into the water, and yanked him up by his hand. He sputtered water, gasped for air and was shaking with genuine fear.

this was all I saw of him

This was all I saw of him.

My heart refused to slow. It remained beating wildly out of my chest. I’d been so careful, so aware. Yet, this had happened. I’m guessing it took me 8 seconds total; to realize what had happened, jump up, and get over to save him. What if? What if…

Initially Nathan wanted out of that water. I envisioned all of that hard work to overcome his fear of swimming, reversing itself. We sat on the lounge chair together. I held my little burrito, wrapped tightly in a beach towel. I hugged and kissed him. I reminded him of a promise I’d made to him when he began swim lessons. I’d promised him that I would always jump in the water, even if I was fully dressed, to save him if he started drowning.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the #1 cause of death in children ages 1-4. Drowning can be quick, quiet and can happen anywhere. Bathtubs, pools, buckets and even toilets are common places young children to drown. Sadly, most drownings happen at home, in backyard swimming pools.

this is what drowning looks like

What drowning looks like.

When we told Kayne about Nathan’s near drowning experience. She scoffed. “Why’d you jump in?” (I couldn’t reach him without jumping in up to my torso!) She added, “I take my time rescuing them, because I know that I have three minutes. I want to give them a chance to swim to the safety wall. I want them to learn from it.” While that may sound harsh, it’s coming from a woman who’s been teaching babies, adults and everyone in between, to swim for decades. Thankfully, he’s not scarred too badly from his experience. Getting him right back in the water afterward was the best thing to do.

It’s preventable. Risk of drowning can decrease significantly with swimming lessons. I’m hoping to have all four of my kids water safe by summer. Nathan’s improving with each lesson. So, sign ’em up. Even if they scream, kick and complain. Sign ’em up. The sooner the better. I was weak, and waited. But, it could’ve ended up costing my child his life.


K.I.S.S. (Kayne’s Instructional Swim School): A year-round private swim lessons program offered through the city of San Clemente, for ages 3+, at the San Clemente Aquatic Center. Please call (949) 429-8797 for details, or visit