9-year-old finds whole new world

London: Mom delights in her son's discoveries during his first trip abroad.

Destination: Europe

April 23, 2000|By Sheila McCauley | Sheila McCauley,Sun Staff

Most people take their child to work. I took mine to London.

One day last year, a friend decided on a whim to fly to Paris for a few days with his wife. His cheap air-hotel package and my own envy got me thinking about taking my son on a similar trip.

The timing seemed right. Off-season fares were amazingly cheap, my 9-year-old son still tolerated my company, and we had been through a difficult winter and needed some fun.

My friends thought I was nuts to take Owen to a foreign country by myself. My parents prayed and sent newspaper clippings of overseas pipe-bomb explosions. But I was convinced that I could do it. I had been to London several times. With a few decent maps and a little bit of planning, we could manage.

A savvy travel agent found a four-day air and hotel package to London that included a brief stay in Iceland -- $1,232 for two. Right away, Owen's presence on the trip was affecting my decisions and increasing my sense of adventure.

On my own or with a friend my age, I never would have considered stopping in Iceland, which from the air looks like nothing but a lump of rock. But I knew that a 9-year-old who had never been overseas would find it fascinating. And in the end, we both did.

No crowds to fight

London is one of my favorite cities, and I loved the idea of sharing it with Owen -- the elegant buildings, the history, the flowers, the charming shops, the cosmopolitan buzz. In early spring, even on misty days, the clean breeze makes for pleasant walks, and exquisite gardens are in full bloom everywhere.

And because we didn't have to jostle the tourist hordes, we experienced the city in ways that summer visitors can't. We looked so at home that tourists stopped us several times to ask for directions.

Visit London in July and, chances are, you'll fight crowds at the most popular sites. But in early April, Owen was able to stand right at the fence of Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard. One morning, we had the Tower of London almost to ourselves, and in the quiet all its layers of history and blood and betrayal seemed to settle over us. My MTV kid later declared it his favorite place.

Before we left the States, I asked Owen to go through guidebooks and pick things he wanted to see. There were several strategies at work there: He had some say in what we saw, which made it easier for me to sneak in some of my preferences; he had to read the guidebooks to make his list, which helped him learn about London beforehand. And we had to negotiate some choices ahead of time.

We arrived at the pretty Brunel Hotel near Paddington Station exhausted after an overnight flight and about two hours of sleep. Correction: I arrived exhausted. I looked at the little beds in our tiny room with longing. Owen had other ideas.

Because this was his trip, I gathered what energy I had and somewhat grumpily set out with him for a walk.

The small, laminated map of London I bought at home steered us well during our stay. Owen looked at it that first afternoon, put his finger on nearby Hyde Park and said, "Let's go here." Off we went.

I regained my humor in the excitement of being in London again and watching the city unfold to my son. His eyes danced everywhere, and his questions and observations streamed out. ("People dress up here," said the boy whose clothes drawers are full of awful World Wrestling Federation T-shirts. Hallelujah!) For the first few hours, he exclaimed over every double-decker bus and insisted on riding topside when we hopped on, even as the wind blustered our faces a deep pink.

After that first walk, we began every day with a stroll through the Italian Gardens in Hyde Park. Owen started noticing flowers and charming vistas, and it was delightful to see a sense of beauty awaken in him.

Tailoring the trip

Our plans had to be adjusted, of course, but every evening we enjoyed our look at the next day and what was possible. That was always the key -- possibility.

The maze at Hampton Court dropped off the list -- too far from the core of London, and there was too much in London that had to be seen. Even the grisly horrors at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum had to go. I insisted that the Tower of London couldn't be missed.

We kept the visit to the Pepsi Trocadero, an indoor amusement park with high-tech video games. It wasn't the classic London tourist scene, and definitely not my kind of thing, but Owen enjoyed hanging with London kids.

Because my son is indefatigable, we did see most of the things on our list. Trying to pack in as much as possible, he preferred a short break for ice cream over a sit-down lunch.

And he wanted to experience London firsthand, which meant miles of walking every day.

I resigned myself to at least one meal at McDonald's. Though Owen is adventurous about food, he was eager to see a foreign McDonald's. This one had curry flavors, and at London prices, it was one of our cheaper dinners.

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