The parent trap: how travelling forces you to address the generation gap | Johanna Leggatt | Travel
Are we there yet? Travelling with parents is not for the faint-hearted.
When you go home for Christmas, a kind of emotional regression takes place. You could be 40 – 50 even – but something about being back in the family home and sleeping in your old childhood bedroom casts you into teenage petulance. You feel like an adolescent again and you start behaving like one.
When you travel overseas with your parents, something entirely different happens.
You’re in neutral territory at last. You become the all-knowing one, the adult with the firm grip in the world. Travel is your thing, after all. You’ve been doing it since you were old enough to misplace a passport, so welcome to my world, folks. Take a seat. Enjoy the tour.
This Australian winter, my partner and I decided to take my mum and his stepfather and mother to Greece with us for three weeks. We would show them around and prove how capable we were in the world. They would marvel at our conversational Greek. Look on in awe as we decoded menus and dispersed touts. They would feel lucky to have such competent and unfazed tour guides.
Things didn’t quite turn out that way. Nothing prepares you for how rigidly parents will adhere to old habits even as the world is screaming at them that they’re not in Kansas anymore and that they should just adapt. Adapt, they did not.
Our parents’ first shock at arriving in Athens was the drivers’ flagrant disregard for road rules. The Greeks are great multitaskers. They can do it all: drive, read a map, talk and smoke all at the same time.
“Are there no police fines for driving too fast here?” mum enquired of the taxi driver, who was trying to read the Google map on our iPad, while changing lanes and turning up the radio.
We may have been in another country but parents often want foreigners to reflect their own understanding of the world back at the them, and nowhere else is this more evident than when it comes to the local food.
Foreign food was not to be trusted. It didn’t matter that we were staying in a decent hotel, our parents wanted exact details on provenance, stuffing, whether it was cooked in a small clay pot or a large baking tray (tray was better) and ingredients.
“What’s that?” they would inevitably ask, while pointing at a chicken. “Chicken,” would come the reply. “Is it spicy?”
Parents also like to know how things are run, usually so they can inform foreigners of how smoothly things proceed back home. Common lines of inquiry in Greece included the cost of petrol, the city speed limit, the national-versus-regional unemployment rate, why there were no traffic lights and only roundabouts in certain areas, and how much rain does this area receive per annum?
My partner’s parents run a guesthouse and every time we checked into new accommodation they would train their scrutiny on to the ancient apartments of rural Greece and conduct a mini audit of amenities.
The generation gap never seemed more apparent than in a 16th-century manor house on the island of Paros. While my partner and I swooned at the gilded furniture and the beamed ceiling, our parents noted the floor that wasn’t “100% level” and the lack of tea towels.
“Joh, there is no kettle,” came a cry through our bedroom door. “Can you call the owner?”
It was at that moment I realised, as much as I would like it to be different, parental dynamics aren’t inverted when you travel.
There we were – pointing out landmarks and luxury touches, desperate for their approbation – and there they were, withholding approval ever so slightly, careful not to seem overly enthusiastic or lose their status as the hard-to-impress parents with firm ideas of how things should be done.
But then, of course, they surprised us. On our final day in Athens, we all boarded a metro train with a pack of pickpockets, whom my mother immediately detected.
I was none the wiser but mum had caught them red-handed and was handling it with impressive aplomb. They had surrounded her and she was having none of it. “Stop it,” she said, half-laughing, as she slapped at the hand trying to reach her bag.
It was the perfect detonator of my hubris. I had been coddling mum the whole way, assuming I was more street-smart than her and that – finally – now she needed me to handle the complexities of the world in a way that I had once needed her as a child.
Speaking to my brother a few days later, he confirmed that mum had had “the time of her life”.
“She said it was the best trip ever and she told me how she literally fought off these pickpockets on the train,” he said.
Lesson learned. Never underestimate your parents’ ability to surprise you, or fend for themselves.
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