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Road Scholars : Part II

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Eiffel TowerOn the way to the shipping office, we had a cab driver who spoke French, Dutch, Flemish, German, and English. By now I think the utility of knowing another language was beginning to sink into the girls’ minds and their games had a mixture of French and pretend French. They could see how ineffective I was with only minimal French, but how well their mother—fluent in French and Italian—could communicate. To be monolingual is to be socially hobbled, no matter how much of the world speaks English. The next morning, Wenda asked them if they wanted to wash their hair, and the three responses were, “Oui, bien sûr,” “Weird, bien sûr,” and “Oui, bien sure.” Clearly progress was being made toward the parental Holy Grail of bilingualism.

Once in our van we sallied forth again, crossing Belgium and Luxembourg to the Alps and Chamonix, where we were to meet friends for a week of skiing near Mt. Blanc. Our often-prescient oldest daughter suggested that this was the town we should live in. The people were friendly, it was the right size, and even though there were tourists, the outlying villages were appealing. But adults are a thick-headed lot, and we said no, there were other places more appropriate (sniff) than a ski town. The fact is, we were on a driving jag. The autoroutes were empty, the hotels still empty, the prices off-season low, and the children were seeing more of France than many French do in a lifetime.

There is a great joy in seeing how your children learn.By now we had hit upon our best tactic for ensuring the girls’ cooperation in exploring historic and religious sites—we bought postcards before entering and had the kids look for what was on the cards. It was also becoming clear to us, the more we roamed, that parents too routinely surrender the job of teaching to schools. There is great joy in seeing how your children learn, in a way you can’t when you just help with homework at night. We also gained renewed respect for the work teachers do.

We had been driving for more than four months with only a week’s letup here and there in a gîte (a country place for rent), and everyone’s nerves were fraying. One night our three-year old shouted in a restaurant at the top of her lungs, “I hate menus! Just bring me food!” We, slow-to-learn grownups, began to wonder—perhaps we were overdoing this.

We rented an apartment in Paris for a week, an expensive proposition at first blush, but cost-effective for a family when you consider meals not eaten in restaurants. Our place was directly across the Seine from Notre-Dame Cathedral, which filled our living room windows.

We never did find a home on that first trip, but we’ve since returned to France many times. And of course, my daughter was right. We returned to a village in the Haute Savoie a few kilometers from Chamonix, where she and her sisters attended a public school. PE included instruction in downhill and cross-country skiing and they are now correcting their mother’s pronunciation. Mine, they just laugh at.

James O’Reilly is the publisher of the Travelers’ Tales series of books. This story was adapted from Family Travel: The Farther You Go, the Closer You Get.


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