Last summer's travels with my son was part social experiment, part field research on how sustainability is viewed through the eyes of a nine-year-old child. What I didn't expect along the way was for me to gain a much better understanding of what he values most from these travel experiences, namely people, adventures and conversation.
Admittedly, it was a big task to organize a seven-week family journey through Cyprus, Greece, Croatia and Scotland. The fact that is was focused on sustainability, which to me means highlighting the cultural and eco-conscious characteristics of a country as well as its green modes of transport, made it even more intimidating. But in the end, it was worth it!
Adventures that focus on a country's history and culture
I decided to plan an itinerary that would include cultural performances, wildlife encounters, adventures such as kayaking and biking, culinary tasting, and history (something that just happens to be a personal fascination for my son).
His passion is learning all about the American Revolutionary War and our Civil War history. So, I expanded the idea, and in the end, some of his trip highlights in Greece were visiting the archaeological ruins in Athens (a few of which could be found even at various metro stops), in Delphi where he learned all about how the Oracle dispensed advice to "worthy" men, and in Thermopylae, which was the site of the 5th Century BC battle between the Persians and Spartans depicted in the movie we had recently seen, 300.
In Cyprus, we visited Nicosia, which is considered the last divided capital of Europe. He played games with his distant cousins and received first-hand accounts of the events in 1974 that divided the island in half. He learned some mythology about Aphrodite who was the goddess of love, beauty and eternal youth, hiked along the Adonis Trail, and marveled at the best-preserved mosaic floors of the Mycenaean Era (12th Century BC) that depicted the life, love, war and personal triumphs of the day.
In Croatia, my son loved walking on the old city walls of Dubrovnik and learning from our guide about the city's use of diplomacy (and payouts to all the empires) throughout the ages. There may have been new rulers at each turn of the century, but the people's willingness to work with them prevented the destruction of their beautiful city. That notion made an impact on him.
In Scotland, he was thrilled to dress up as a warrior at Urquhart Castle and to learn about the mysteries (and science that has debunked the myths) of Loch Ness. We researched his heritage to find his clan colors and he learned the real reason why Scottish clan chiefs created the Highland Games - it served as a way to keep men battle ready in between clan wars.
Learning that sustainability means different things in different countries
Along the way, we witnessed what having a sustainable lifestyle meant. Generally in Greece, Cyprus and Croatia, sustainability translated to a more personal construct of preserving all things local rather than living what we in the United States have come to know as a green lifestyle filled with hybrid car or public transportation use.
For example, in the Istrian region of Croatia, which was once an area governed by Italy, my son thoroughly loved the idea of taking an old train track line and re-purposing it into 123 kilometers of very scenic biking and hiking trails.
The trails meandered through various villages that offered fantastic fare made with locally sourced ingredients. He made friends with the children, whose parents owned the restaurants or small hotels, and learned all about the sentiment that local foods were generally considered healthier than ones imported from other parts of Europe. He even became hooked on the taste of local truffles, especially when they were freshly grated on pasta!
He also learned that in Greece and Croatia, children and young adults were always encouraged to learn local songs and perform local dances so that they would not forget their heritage, and wondered if there were any local songs or dances particular to Washington, DC.
Then, in Scotland, he saw how sustainability was taken one step further to include improving a community's livelihood. My son noticed the emphasis on extensive wildlife conservation and nature reserve programs, re-use of raw materials, and the consistent encouragement by the community for residents to donate unused furniture and clothing so others could re-purpose them.
Finding out that people's kindness and conversations stand out above all
With all of this exposure to different cultures, languages, food and sentiment about sustainability, I would occasionally ask my son what was standing out for him. After a while, the same themes of the kindness of people, his fun outdoor adventures and how he enjoyed our personal conversations would continuously come up.
For example, we rented a house in Cyprus that was managed by a farmer who lived next store. My son remembered how kind the farmer was when he gave him carte-blanche each day to pick all the honeydew, tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, and peppers he wanted.
He remembered the evenings when he playing pick-up soccer with other local children within the old city walls of Dubrovnik and he loved the evenings at the lodge in the highlands of Scotland where the meals were served family-style and the discussions ranged from soccer to conservation to politics (especially since we were visiting just before the vote for Scottish independence).
Also, due to his aforementioned interest in history, we had a fascinating conversation about how since ancient times, Cyprus had changed hands from one empire to another and he began to understand the connection between money, power, and war asking whether it applied to places like the Ukraine (a story that was in the news a lot last summer).
We had insightful discussions about how each national leader has the responsibility to understand history because otherwise, they're doomed to repeat it. He may have only been nine, but he was thinking about issues of social responsibility and the characteristics of good leadership, which I attribute to this extended trip.
My takeaway for memorable family vacations
The main lesson that I learned is that whether you decide to travel to Europe, South America, Africa, Asia or within your region at home, kids remember the feeling of connecting with other people who share a similar interest whether it be soccer, history, biking, or delicious food, and especially appreciate time with you, as their parent.