When I saw the form-fitting t-shirts, square-toed shoes and tie knots thicker than peanut butter, I knew I was headed back to the Continent. Five years ago, I quit my job at the American Embassy in Budapest and shortly thereafter my wife and I had our first child. Two years later, we had another and before we knew it, we’d been ensconced in North America for nearly five years without a trip across an ocean in between.
After having spent at least a few days in Europe every year since I did a study abroad in Galway, Ireland in 1993, the five-year absence felt like a drought. We’ve done a fair amount of traveling with our kids, but after taking a few fairly unpleasant 4-5 hour flights with our kids to the west coast and Mexico, the idea of taking the whole brood to Europe wasn’t particularly high on my agenda.
Over the last few months, my wife and I decided to move out of our home in Northern Virginia and realized that since we both work from home, we could probably get away with working from Europe for a few months. I’ve been looking forward to the trip but dreading the flight. My sons- Leo, 4, and James, 2, are pretty good boys, but when they’re deprived of rest they can be a challenge.
Here are some excerpts from how we survived an 18 hour travel ordeal that included a flight from Dulles to London, a two hour layover, then a connecting flight to Frankfurt, followed by a train ride to Heidelberg, with a transfer in Mannheim.
18.41 The stewardess asks us to fasten James’s seatbelt for takeoff and he throws a fit. The boy cherishes his freedom and cannot stand to be restrained.
18.42 I ask my wife if she would mind sitting next to James. She agrees and Leo comes to sit next to me.
18.43 Leo asks “Are we up in the air yet?” He wants to know because we promised the boys that they’d get to open special presents once we were airborne. Leo wants a villain named Clayface.
18.44-18.46 Leo asks “Are we up in the air yet?” approximately 54 more times.
18.47 I ask my wife to administer our special “children’s travel vitamin” AKA Benadryl.
18.48 The guy in front of me reclines his seat to its full extension and then somehow manages to will it even further back with brute force. My T.V. screen is now approximately 3 millimeters from my face, because my seat only reclines just a bit.
18.49 Leo and I switch seats because he enjoys watching T.V. from a distance of 3 millimeters.
18.50 We get our first dirty look from a square jawed man who is apparently not amused by James’s whining.
18.51 The reclining man begins to give us the half-turnaround look, where he doesn’t actually make eye contact with us, but sends a clear signal that he doesn’t want to listen to James anymore.
18.53 Leo asks if he can have his toy for the 412th time, and I warn him that if he asks us again, Clayface will be decapitated. He ignores us and continues to ask until the plane mercifully departs moments later.
18.55 The boys play with their new toys and then watch a movie on demand.
20.40 James curls up on his mom and falls asleep. Jen and I watch The Descendants.
21.01 Leo gets vertical and crashes. Economy class really works when you’re three feet tall.
00.30 Just as I’m finally getting drowsy, the cabin crew elects to turn the cabin lights on full blast. We have 75 minutes to go. Why?
00.45 We’re offered muffins and coffee and the stewardess wishes us a “good morning.” We have to wake the boys up to get them in their seat-belts. What happened to last night?
01.45 We land in London. British Airways stewardesses have no clue where we should look for our gate-checked stroller. “Maybe it’ll go straight through to Frankfurt,” one hopefully suggested.
08.00 (GMT) I expect the boys to be in an ornery mood, but somehow they find the energy to scamper around Heathrow as though they were on a field trip at a zoo.
09.30 I manage to get about 20 minutes of rest, my first winks of the night/morning while the boys watch the Muppets movie.
11.05 (CST) As we wait to go through immigration at the Frankfurt airport, the boys decide to play tag and wrestle while we hold our place in line.
11.20 Our bags arrived but the stroller didn’t. I join the baggage customer service line only to confirm what we already know: the stroller didn’t make the connecting flight.
11.59 We miss our train to Mannheim and, after waiting in a long line at the Frankfurt Airport train station, find out that we have to pay a 31 euro supplement to take the next train, which leaves an hour later. The original tickets we bought online cost 37. If we had just walked up and bough the ticket, it would have been 50 euros. But instead, we planned ahead and paid 68.
12.54 We board the train to Mannheim and can’t even make it down the aisle, as the train is jam-packed. We tried to pack as light as we could, but we have two big suitcases, which weight a total of about 100 pounds for all four of us and I could barely hoist them onto the train, let alone wheel them through a jam packed train. Thankfully, a kind conductor invites my wife to sit in first class.
1.39 The connecting train to Heidelberg is almost as crowded but we find seats. But I practically break my kneecap hoisting our all-too-heavy suitcases off the train. The boys fall asleep in a heap on their mom’s lap. Remarkably, after the first hour of the trip, I complained much more than they did.
2.25 We arrive at the Hotel Hollander in Heidelberg. I haven't been this exhausted since pulling an all-nighter when James was born. The place has been here since the 1500’s and our room has a beautiful view of the Neckar River and the Karl Theodore Bridge. (see accompanying photo) We collapse in our beds and snooze for four hours.
All in all, a remarkable performance for Leo and James. They had every right to act like homicidal maniacs, but they didn’t. Leading me to wonder why we waited so long to hop the pond.