Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Guest Post: Traveling with Children

by Philip Graham

Travel is rife with unpredictability, and if traveling with family, particularly children, is unpredictability squared, then writing about traveling with family might be described as unpredictability cubed. It's one thing to attempt to describe the Other you've encountered in a foreign countrythe person or event that reflects something about you that you didn't know was thereand it's quite another to write about the emotionally intimate Other that is your spouse or your child: theyre the ones who will follow you home and read the account youve written that you hope balances a need for privacy with a swipe at the truth.

The mix of travel writing with family can also be a multiplier of difficulty because, just as you might find yourself morphed into a slightly altered version of yourself, so too do your traveling companions return out of synch. The challenge for you as a writer is not only to understand that change, but also to realize that it offers a map to the people you thought you knew before anyone ever left home.

I have two exemplary memories of my son and daughter from my familys years of travel.

The first is from when I lived in a small village in West Africa with my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, and our then six-year-old son Nathaniel. That summer in 1993, Alma was conducting research on the baby rearing practices of the Beng (an ethnic group in Ivory Coast that shed been studying since 1979), I was working on my first novel, and Nathaniel faced his first immersion in a foreign world.

Normally a shy boy, the new experience of ranging about the village in search of fun with a score of new friends transformed him into a far more adventurous child than hed been before. While he began learning the language, Nathaniel helped build miniature structures out of left-over mud bricks from a recently built nearby hut, tried more new foods than hed ever given a chance back home, and drew on a sketch pad for hours at a time in an attempt to express his wonder at this new cultural world.

But I didnt know how deeply the village had entered him until the morning I discovered Nathaniel at the edge of our host familys compound with a machete in hand, clearing away the brushjust the way the villagers would periodically do. He hadnt asked to attempt this job, hed simply picked up that machete and, leaning over, circled around the compound, swinging the blade before him in a spot-on imitation of the loping style of the adults who usually performed this task. Though we would only be living in the village for a summers three months, I could imagine the path into Beng culture that Nathaniel would follow if we were to stay longer. And by the time we returned to the U.S., Nathaniel had long since shed his once clingy self.

My second exemplary memory comes from a sabbatical stay in Portugal in 2006-07, when Alma and I brought our then eleven-year-old daughter Hannah along to live for a year in Lisbon (Nathaniel, by this time, was in his second year of college). While I wrote and Alma began new anthropological fieldwork among Cape Verdeans living in Lisbon, our sixth-grader Hannah plunged into a far more immersive engagement with the culture when she attended two different Portuguese schools.

The first school soon proved itself a trauma-filled nightmare, a perfect storm of unsympathetic teachers, raucous students, and relentless bullies. Hannah, a normally vibrant and social child, was so shaken that she began to turn quietly inward. Alarmed at our normally vibrant childs unexpected alteration, Alma and I slipped into fourth gear and found a far better school for her, one that we learned was famous for its pedagogical empathy. Ten percent of attending students were disabled in some way visually or physically, and I suspect we were able to enroll Hannah there mid-semester because her foreign status and shaky Portuguese were considered disabilities.

I remember visiting Hannahs school one spring day for a special performance. The students were studying the short stories of the well-known writer Gonçalo Tavares, and because he was a friend of mine, I had pulled some gentle strings and hed graciously agreed to visit Hannahs school and give a brief reading from his work. A surprise awaited Gonçalo: the students had worked up a few of his stories into performances. I sat with Alma in the auditorium and watched our daughters moment arrive to take center stage and speak her part in Portuguese, her words fluid, her accent locally impeccable. It was hard to imagine that our child was American, her first language English. Hannah's grades had risen to the best in her class, and it seemed as if the cost of her early struggles had vanished.

That year in Lisbon, I found myself writing not one but two travel books, accounts that offered larger glimpses of my two children than I'd originally intended and a greater understanding of who they were as growing human beings.

One book was a second volume of an African memoir Parallel Worlds—that Alma and I had first co-written years ago. This second volume features, among the multiple story lines of village life, Nathaniels six years old adventures at the time. And while I was chipping out a portrait of our grown son's long-ago village incarnation and transformation, the periodic dispatches I was writing at the same time for McSweeneys Internet Tendency increasingly featured Hannah.

Two family realities jostled within me as I wrote that year, my son of the past teaching his African friends how to whistle (and they in turn teaching him how to catch the fleeing chicken that was destined for dinner), while my present day daughter learned the subtleties of grammar and, as she began to enter adolescence before our surprised eyes, the grammar of make-up.

In a downtown Lisbon cafe I wrote and rewrote the fraught scene of the madman of the village kneeling before a small wooden box--one of his hoarded treasures--and stripping it to frayed sticks with a broken scissors while sing-songing the name of our son. Though I wrote that scene of Africa from the safe distance of fourteen passed years, I was composing my Lisbon dispatches in real time and could only imperfectly observe the still unfolding narrative of Hannah's deepening journey into the culture, and her desire be accepted by her thin Portuguese girlfriends. My wife Alma and I may have arrived in Portugal with a child, but we found ourselves being left behind by a newly turned twelve year old daughter as she traveled farther into the land of adolescence, as she embraced a different kind of foreignness and eventually stumbled at its unexpected consequences.

Our culture lies to us, with its quiet insistence on the ultimate primacy of the physical world. "How was your trip?" a friend asks, the question posed in the past tense because that is the way the assumptions of our language are structured: since you have returned, you are no longer there, any GPS system can prove that easily enough. But any trips fundamental revelations settle into your present moments, and that foreign country may indeed still be over there, but now it's inside you, too.

For our son Nathaniel, he transferred his village escapades to his American friendships, and never again allowed his shy side to take the lead. For Hannah, her new bi-lingual and cosmopolitan self and her hard-won triumph over what at first overwhelmed her has made our daughter far more mature than her actual years. As for my wife and me, we have been brought to a more humbling understanding of how travel's unpredictability can shape ones children and set them on a trajectory that will become the rest of their lives.


Philip Graham is the author of two short story collections, The Art of the Knock and Interior Design, and the novel How to Read an Unwritten Language. His most recent book is The Moon, Come to Earth, an expanded edition of his series of dispatches from Lisbon for McSweeneys, now published as a paperback original. He is also the co-author, with Alma Gottlieb, of a memoir of Africa, Parallel Worlds; the second volume of this memoir, Braided Worlds, will be published in 2011. Graham teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His short essays on the craft of writing can be found at


  1. What a beautiful piece! Not at all what I expected from a "traveling with kids" essay. Definitely a breath of fresh air!

    My husband and I don't have children yet, but I find myself identifying with this line "...any trip’s fundamental revelations settle into your present moments, and that foreign country may indeed still be over there, but now it's inside you, too." I can already imagine countless encounters with friends back home asking, "How was living in Switzerland?" As we are returning to California this summer after nearly 2 years here, and we'll no longer be living in Switzerland, I can confidently say that Switzerland lives in me. I am forever changed by this experience, and I imagine an awareness of just how much I've changed will reveal itself for years to come.

  2. Hi Amanda,

    We'll miss you in the Swiss expat blog world. Good luck with your move.

    I also identified with the thought about another country living in you. Switzerland will forever live in me as well. "How is Switzerland?" is and always will be a strange question to try to answer.

    Thanks again to Philip Graham for sharing this essay.

  3. AnonymousMay 19, 2010

    The foreign country living inside you resonated for me, too. Though I think it's interesting being a permanent expat versus a traveller. I think the experience of living abroad is brought even more into relief once you go back home (though your conception of home has probably completely changed, too). I feel myself changing here, but I bet a move back would highlight even more just how profound these changes have become. Coming up on 4 years in Paris and knowing I intend to stay here indefinitely means I've made the Other mine, the Foreign home. These are ideas and feelings that will forever be with me.

    Thanks for a great essay. Philip, I'll be looking to speak to you at Vermont College's MFA residency next month!

  4. Sion--I'm coming up on 4 years away too and I'm scared to go Home now. Because I fear Home has become the Other.

    And that is just weird.

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