Traveling, Family Class

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IT has been two weeks since we returned from a family vacation. The suitcases are back in the attic. Photographs of the trip have been arranged in an album. A videotape has been labeled and stored, and a few small mementos are scattered around the house - visible reminders of the enchanted world of travel. Not that we need reminding. At any moment - in the middle of a traffic jam, a meeting, a deadline, a meal, or a conversation - we are likely to find ourselves caught in a brief reverie, suddenly transported across the Atlantic as we replay a particular scene from a week-long stay in England.

The distraction passes quickly. But it is enough to serve as a reminder that no traveler - and especially no traveling family - ever returns unchanged. The old threads of family routines and relationships are woven into a new context.

At a time when many families find it hard to mesh schedules even long enough for breakfast or dinner, the logistics involved in coordinating a family vacation can make planning an international summit seem easy. Even when two working parents manage to synchronize their own vacations, a trip can be preempted by school calendars and teenage jobs. What has been called a ``family time famine'' is one factor contributing to a decline in the length of family vacations - down 14 percent since 1983, according to Newsweek.

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Our own trip, timed to coincide with spring break, was prompted by a bargain off-season airfare. A rational review of the family budget might have dictated other priorities. But we seized the opportunity, reasoning that by the time offspring reach their late teens, how many more occasions will there be to travel together?

Light rain was falling when we landed at Heathrow Airport, but no matter. The drizzle fit my script perfectly. My own first glimpse of London as a 19-year-old student had come through windshield wipers. It suited my sense of symmetry that our 19-year-old daughter's first impressions should be gray and misty as well.

Robert Benchley once observed wryly that there are two classes of travel: first class, and with children. He is right - up to a point. A trip with offspring is different than one taken alone or with other adults. But he is wrong in his implication that traveling with children constitutes a kind of steerage class. Children, particularly teenagers, can be the catalyst for some of the best adventures, most trenchant observations, and heartiest laughs on any trip.

If parents are the straight guys, they can count on children and teens to inject a little humor. Who else would mug quite so shamelessly for the camera by posing with figures at the Wax Museum? Who else would baa at sheep in the Cotswolds?

Family travel produces a kind of equality. Arriving in a new city or a new country, the family becomes an island of security in a sea of strangeness. As willing captives in a hotel room, a restaurant, or a rental car, two generations find bonds not only in the pleasures of travel but also in its vicissitudes - the flight that is delayed by a faulty warning light, the B & B that fails to live up to its ``quaint and charming'' tour-book description, the downpour that necessitates a day of museuming rather than sightseeing.

Families on the road also learn the importance of flexibility as they forge compromises between what children consider the veggies of travel - cathedrals, battlefields, monuments - and the desserts: zoos, theaters, shops, street fairs. This kind of flexibility benefits everybody, since it is the unpredictable and unforeseen that gives a trip its charm and its memories.

No parent can know which vacation experiences will lodge in a child's memory and which ones will fade. Even now, decades later, I am surprised by the small, casual details of my own first trip to England that suddenly flash across my memory like lost snapshots.

A new sofa and draperies will have to wait until next year. Some acquisitions can be postponed; some trips can't. We'll take the trade-off. In place of furnishings, we have our photos, our videotapes, our mementos - the collective memories that finally make up a family.

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