Vacation dilemma: the must-sees vs. the wanna-sees

On a European vacation with a child, do you concentrate on the 'important stuff,' or let him choose the activities?

I recently took my son on a pleasant arc of a trip to Iceland, Germany, and Poland. It seemed the perfect time for such a journey: First, Anton's age. An 11-year-old is still attached to his family, yet is independent enough to pull his own weight and make his preferences known. Second, he isn't yet mortified by the idea that he has a parent. And third, we would be staying with friends, all of whom have a child around my son's age.

I had anticipated introducing Anton to many wonders: the rugged, "dawn of the earth" landscape of Iceland; the fast trains and quaint marketplaces of Germany; and the glory of Warsaw's reconstructed Old Town, to name just a few intended goals.

When making a trip of such sweep with a child, a parent runs the risk of trying too hard to make it "just right." This might erupt as a maddening rush from one museum to another, capped by the spectacle of the parent pleading with his child to at least glance at Beethoven's piano while the little one stares longingly at another kid sitting cross-legged in a corner, sucking on a lollipop with deep satisfaction.

What I learned – and very quickly at that – was to allow Anton to lead as much as possible. Of course, when one is in Berlin, seeing the place where the Wall once stood is obligatory. But if one tries to do everything, museum overload soon sets in, and the entire operation grinds to a halt.

Having said this, I was often unprepared for the things that captured Anton's interest. In Iceland, for example, as I tried to direct his attention to a historical marker, I turned to find that he had escaped me. A quick search found him scaling a rocky slope, waving to me to join him at the top. I did so, and the effort paid off by affording me a view of an endless, lunarlike landscape that reflected what the world must have looked like when it was young.

An Icelandic friend of mine repeatedly invited us to visit the museum where he works. This place had been the home of the late writer Halldór Laxness, Iceland's only Nobel laureate. My personal interest was great, but I braced myself for Anton's response.

When we got to the museum, I felt that a cursory look-see would do. My friend, however, agitated for our taking the full audio tour. "I don't think Anton will last five minutes," I suggested with utmost tact.

But to my surprise, Anton donned the headset and began the tour on his own. Something about the house – who knows what it was? – had caught his attention, and he completed the entire circuit. The icing on the cake was the ride my friend gave him in Mr. Laxness's Jaguar.

The story repeated itself from there. I would suggest something, and Anton might go along. In Germany, he liked Bremen's science museum and Mainz's marketplace.

All of my activities were the products of design. His were the result of impulse: scaling a mountain in Iceland and casting rocks into a crater lake; walking an ancient wall in Heidelberg, Germany (which later compelled me to jump into a paddleboat with him in Oldenburg, Germany); and riding bikes in Warsaw. It was always a friendly competition between my "We should do this" and my son's "But I want to do this."

These thoughts didn't coalesce until we were traveling from Berlin to Warsaw. The Warsaw Express is a wonderful train. It's a little careworn, but functional, and it passes through some beautiful countryside.

Although I had packed sandwiches for our rail trip, Anton's senses were soon tantalized by the aroma from the dining car. He began to lobby for eating a full meal there. I hedged. He asked again – and again. "Anton," I said, "it's really expensive to eat on the train. Especially when the zloty [Poland's currency] is so strong."

My son looked at me. "Dad," he reasoned, "when will we ever do this again?"

His statement hit home. Of course, he was right. I suddenly felt ridiculous for being cowed by the strength of the zloty.

We went to the dining car – some eight small tables adorned with heavy, white cotton tablecloths and plastic flowers in slim vases. All the other passengers were Poles.

We sat and ate (chicken cutlets with fresh salad) while the endless green plain of Pomerania slipped by under a brilliant sky. The man sitting next to us looked just like Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland.

In the middle of our meal, I looked over at my son. He was staring out the window, as quietly contented as a kid sitting in a corner with a lollipop.

In the benign tug of war between my goals and Anton's desires, I was once again reminded of the benefit of occasionally letting my end slacken a bit. Having arrived at this understanding, we continued on our journey east, while the train clicked along and the Polish conversations around us filled the air in quiet counterpoint.

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