“When you’re old enough, we’ll take you to Paris…” is a common refrain of Francophile grandparents to their grandkids, followed by the senior thought: “while we’re still active enough to go.”
Well, what are you waiting for?
Among the most endearing travel experiences I’ve helped organize over the years are those involving couples or individuals traveling to Paris with their teenage grandchild.
These grandparents typically choose Paris as their destination for international, intergenerational travels because of their own love for the city. They return now—5 or 10 or 20 years after their last visit—with the triple aim of revisiting a beloved city, transmitting their appreciation of culture, art, history, and beauty to their grandchild, and enjoying quality time with the child on the road. Indeed, a grandparent-grandteen trip abroad makes for one of the most memorable gifts a traveling grandparent can offer.
Here are 6 important tips to help smooth the ride so as to get the most out of this intergenerational trip with the least worry for you, for your teenage grandchild, and for his or her parents at home.
1. Get everyone involved in the planning. To get off on the right foot, everyone should be involved in the planning: you, the teen, and the teen’s parents. You needn’t have a detailed itinerary, but everyone should know what to expect from the trip and from each other. Once in Paris, you should go over the following day’s general itinerary every evening. Planning doesn’t mean having every step mapped out, hour to hour. Better, in fact, to keep your schedule loose—there are too many worthwhile distractions on the way, and you’ll want to leave room for yourself to rest when necessary.
2. Know your limits—and make sure your teenage travel companion knows them as well. Paris is a small, dense city that should be explored as much as possible on foot, with walks punctuated by use of the metro system (with its many stairways). You might take a taxi to or from a restaurant or a museum, perhaps a car service one afternoon if your budget allows, but for the most part expect to be on foot. You’ll also spend time standing in museums. All of which points to the importance of proceeding at your pace, not that of your energetic grandteen. As you plan the trip, you and the teen’s parents should help the child understand your physical needs or constraints, whether that be a tendency to sore feet or achy knees, a slow gait, a frequent need to rest, or simply a need to be in bed by 10pm.
Once in Paris, you’ll likely find that some of your grandteen’s energy rubs off on you. You’ll find that you walk more than you thought you could and that you stay up later than usual. Still, in all the excitement of the city, don’t forget your own limits. The extra push may be worth the extra aches, but you don’t want to pay for one long walking day by spending the next two in bed.
You’ll both learn to compromise on this trip, but you needn’t compromise on everything—your health comes first.
Luckily, what makes Paris especially attractive as a city destination for senior citizens is that in addition to being a relatively safe walking city with so much to see, this is also the world’s greatest sitting city. So you needn’t think of being on your feet and on the go all day. Between cafés, park benches, restaurants, and river cruises, a seat capable of pleasing both generations is always just around the corner.
3. Review health, emotional, and legal concerns before you leave. Just as your grandchild should be aware of your needs, you should be aware of your grandchild’s. Therefore, in addition to preparing for your own medical needs before leaving home, speak with the teen and with the teens parents to be fully aware of the child’s specific medical, nutritional, and emotional needs.
No matter how frequently you visit or get visited by your grandchild, chances are there are many things about him or her that you may not know, some of which you should know before setting out together. Once on the road you’ll have a chance to discover many of each other’s quirks and dreams and notions and interests as you deepen your intergenerational bond. But it’s better not to be too surprised by the child’s “normal” needs and behavior. This is particularly important when traveling with younger teens. Be sure to get the lowdown from the parents concerning his or her eating habits, sleeping habits, behavioral quirks, energy limits. It may well be that your grandchild will act differently when traveling with you than he or she does at home, but you want to have a sense of what “normal” behavior is for that particular child. For example, you needn’t baby a cranky 14-year-old by leaving your favorite museum just because she says she’s tired, but if your granddaughter suffers from hypoglycemia that’s important to know.
Since you aren’t the minor’s legal guardian you should have signed authorization from both parents to travel abroad. Having the parents’ notarized authorization for medical care will give you clear, legal responsibility in case of necessity when traveling abroad with a minor. This is particularly important if the parents are divorced. The authorization should contain the information about the child’s insurance coverage (including photocopies of a parent’s insurance cards front and back), the phone number of the child’s pediatrician, indications of medical conditions and allergies, and lists of any medications that the child is taking.
4. Don’t forget your own interests. Grandparents seeking my personal assistance regarding travels with teenagers often begin by asking what I recommend for keeping their bright, active teen interested. The request is typically accompanied by a list of the child’s interests: soccer, music, shopping, etc. Yet I’d rather know what stimulates you, the grandparent. It’s your sense of wonder, curiosity, and beauty that should lead the way. You’ll (we’ll) find time and place for your grandchild’s interests (after all, you wouldn’t be traveling to Paris together if you weren’t already good at spoiling the kid!), but the gift you’re giving isn’t only Paris, it’s also your company—and that includes your knowledge, curiosity, interests, hobbies, and passions, as well as your past experiences in Paris and elsewhere. So without ignoring what your grandchild wants, you should often aim for what excites you about the city. Transmitting to your grandchild your appreciation for Paris and for foreign travel in general is a large part of what this trip is about.
5. Encourage your grandchild to take up the foreign challenge. You can lead an American teen to European culture but can you make him take up the challenge of getting curious about it? If you’re bringing your grandteen to Paris, you’ve already decided that it’s worth a try. Remember: You aren’t taking a 7-year-old to Disneyworld, you’re bringing a teen to Paris.
The best place to start is by helping the teen observe (discuss how Parisians eat, dress, talk, how French history differs from ours, etc.) and by encouraging him to participate (figuring out the metro system, choosing a café, handling money, trying unfamiliar dishes, etc.). The goal is not to turn your granddaughter into Audrey Hepburn in “Sabrina” or to transform your grandson into a chain-smoking intellectual, but rather to encourage him or her to understand how others live. Before long he or she will want to be leading the way. In fact, by day two your grandteen may want to put you to bed and hit the town on his or her own. I leave it to you to handle that question.
6. Take pictures or videos. This may be an obvious piece of advice, but it’s worth emphasizing that photographs (and/or videos) are always important souvenirs from travels with children, especially on grandparenting trips. Even if you aren’t normally a shutterbug, be sure you take pictures of your little traveling group—not simply standing frozen in front of monuments, but also sitting in parks and cafés, showing off a new purchase or an old hat, hugging on bridges, anything with all of you simply enjoying being together. Those pictures may well be the most wonderful souvenirs you’ll bring home. You, the child’s parents, and the growing child will savor them for many years to come.
Happy grandparenting abroad.
© Gary Lee Kraut
For personalized advice on intergenerational touring in the spirit of France Revisited see here.