Europe Through Anna's eyes. Traveling with a three-year-old is a new way of seeing

ALTHOUGH American tourists are everywhere in Europe, little tourist children are not. Certainly not blond American children. Italians adore all children, and blond girls -- bello bionde! -- are treated like royalty. Shopkeepers took their ``chiuso'' signs from the windows when they saw us coming. Most of our friends assumed that the presence of a three-year-old would limit the things that we could see or do on a trip to Europe. They were right. But because of Anna, we also had some of our finest moments. Travel with a child, we found, can make a wonderful trip even better.

Friends of ours raced through Florence and Rome with checklists of things that had to be seen or their visit would be ruined. We spent hours watching the shoeshiner snap his cloth at the Turin, Italy, train station, and had a great time.

Without Anna, we wouldn't have visited the playgrounds of each city we toured. But that was where we made dozens of friends, standing around the altalena or scivolo, the swing set and slide, Anna's first Italian words. Parents at playgrounds, more than anyone else, had the patience to let us stumble through our pidgin Italian. And since they almost always lived in the neighborhood, they could offer suggestions about nearby shops and restaurants. Suggestions gained at playgrounds were usually more accurate and useful than guidebooks.

In Venice, a restaurant owner gave Anna pipe-cleaner dolls and free gelati, Italian ice cream, each visit. He poured us free drinks. On our last day in town, he called to a friend, a gondolier, and arranged for us to take a free ride through the canals. He couldn't stand the thought of Anna's leaving Venice without the experience.

With Anna, we were special. Without her, we were just two more American tourists.

Of course, we didn't go to Europe just to see shoeshiners and playgrounds. We also visited dozens of churches and museums. Anna tired of the churches fairly quickly, announcing, ``I don't want to be quiet!'' So my wife, Susan, and I took turns. She would enter a church, and I would stay outside, watching Anna chase the ever-present pigeons. When Susan finished, I would go in. Then we would both wait some more. Anna almost always found the pigeons much more fascinating than we considered the churches.

We expected her to rebel against our visits to the museums, but after introductions to a few Bible scenes and artists, she prowled excitedly through all the rooms, searching for something familiar. ``The Annunciation'' (``That's the angel telling Mary she's gonna have Baby Jesus, and she looks scared'') and ``The Last Supper'' were favorites. In the Siena, Italy, Picture Gallery she identified ``The Last Dessert,'' a pear that had rolled off Jesus' table. (Her unimaginative parents thought it was just someone's foot.) Anna thought Jesus should have been served gelati.

By the end of the trip, she could spot the works of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Picasso, Dali, and Calder. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was especially fascinating, because she had never seen so many pieces by the same artist. She took his green skies for granted, but speculated on the season in which he would have seen them.

We never got very far, though, when we tried to discuss history. She couldn't remember which came first, the Roman Empire or her grandparents. ``When they finish this,'' she said of the Colosseum in Rome, ``they'll probably make it into a bookstore.''

We had heard all the stories about how easy it is for little kids to pick up foreign languages, and for a while Anna did learn lots of Italian words and phrases. Her favorite was Basta! -- enough! -- which should be shouted as if a firecracker has just exploded in your mouth.

When we went to France, she learned some French.

But then she heard Dutch in the Netherlands.

And German in Switzerland.

All sounds, she seemed to realize, were words of somebody's language. Instead of speaking any language, she began to invent her own vocabulary, gibberish to us.

We could afford the trip only by forgoing rental cars. To Anna's delight, we took trains everywhere. In train compartments she always had an audience, and not just her parents. Italians bring more food onto the trains than suitcases, and they readily share it with children.

We told a lot of stories about travel in general and the places we were visiting. I made up a series of adventures about her friends back home taking trips -- ``Beatrice and the Bear on a Desert Island'' was popular for a while.

Susan came up with the tale of two boys named Marco and Stefano, who dropped a ball from the top of the leaning tower of Pisa. We spent much of our time in Pisa wondering which of the Italian kids we saw might be Marco or Stefano.

Other people, especially children, were, of course, required. We visited people with whom we had the most tenuous of relationships -- one friend's sister whom we had never met, the high school classmate of another -- particularly if they had children. We brazenly wrote American friends in Geneva and asked if we could come celebrate Anna's fourth birthday with their two sons. Language differences among children, we found, offered no problems -- they just played freely, each babbling in his or her own tongue.

We often traveled with friends from the States -- two months with one woman, a couple of days with several. Anna clung to each newcomer, and I think the three of us stayed good friends partly because of their presence.

In Zurich, Anna and I were on our own for 10 days. I saw the city through the eyes of a four-year-old, and had a ball. Mostly, we did whatever she wanted -- visited the zoo and swam at the wonderful outdoor swimming pool complex called the Dolder-Wellenbad. We traveled by funicular, boat, and aerial gondola, and we took the tram system everywhere. Anna was in charge of watching for our trams; this was how she learned to identify numbers. ``The No. 12 is coming, No. 12!''

At the Kunsthaus, Zurich's beautifully designed modern art museum, Anna discovered that the square benches slid easily along the polished wooden floors. She spent an hour rearranging the furniture. A guard showed us the button that turned on a bizarre Jean Tilinguey sculpture of spinning feathers, flashing lights, and rotating coffee cans. Anna wouldn't leave it, waiting to demonstrate how it worked to each approaching visitor.

Anna's favorite restaurant was Zorba the Buddha, which offered some of the best desserts we found on the trip -- mountainous ice cream and pastry sculptures. And she especially liked lunch and dinner in Italy, when pasta was always on the menu. She loved it all, with Bolognese sauce, or pesto, or just parmigiano, which she spooned on in great quantities. Pizzas were dinner-plate size, so Anna could gleefully have one all to herself.

Whenever possible, we picnicked -- long loaves of fresh bread, thin slices of prosciutto crudo, chunks of bel paesa and asiago, juice drinks, and whatever fruit was local and in season. Lunch became a party, and she never had to worry about making too much noise.

But of course there were also problems, the same kinds we would have had at home -- disagreements, moments of stubbornness, frustrations. They seemed worse simply because we were in public so often. Her crying embarrassed us by echoing through the halls and across courtyards.

We unashamedly used gelati as a bribe. Italian ice cream is every bit as good as it has been reported. Or better. The threat of no gelati was usually encouragement enough to straighten out any behavioral problems. Its offer could produce actions that otherwise seemed impossible. But we had to make sure we didn't overdo it. We tried to eat gelati no more than twice a day. Well, sometimes three times.

Anna adopted strangers like stray cats. On our seven-hour flight home from Paris, we couldn't get three seats together. Instead, we were strung out, one in front of the other, along an aisle. We explained to Anna's seatmate what had happened, encouraged her to change seats with one of us, and tried to get Anna to sit on our laps at times. They stayed together the entire trip.

After our arrival, we marveled to friends that Anna had ridden the entire way by herself. ``I wasn't by myself,'' she insisted. ``I was with my friend.''

Before our trip, we told friends that to a great extent we were going for Anna. We knew that, a year from now, when she is in school, it will seem impossible. We wanted her always to remember, somewhere in the back of her mind, that millions of people talk, look, and eat differently from the way they do in the United States. And that this diversity is wonderful.

``Ah, she'll never remember that,'' they replied.

Maybe not. But while we came back with stories of paintings and architecture, she remembers most of all her friends: Cristiano in Turin, Nico and Noe in Nice, Eli in Paris (with whom she made ``mud and green apple soup''), Polly and Joe in London, Austin and Evan in Geneva. People, not places or things, made the biggest impression on her.

Of course, if she still forgets about this trip, we intend to tell her about it every day for the rest of her life.

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