The world on eight square meters – road trip with two small children

“I think I forgot how to pack,” I say to my husband, shrugging. Spread out on the bed in front of me are blouses, T-shirts, bathing suits, sunscreen, plasters and insect repellent. On the floor in two piles are the children’s things – shorts and sleeping bags, diapers, bodysuits, baby food jars and wetsuits. “If necessary, we’ll look for a children’s bazaar again,” says my husband affectionately and hugs me. “We always come up with something.”

Two years of the corona pandemic, in which we hardly ever traveled, are behind us almost to the day, six weeks of a joint trip to the south are ahead of us. We are two adults on parental leave, a toddler who is almost four years old and a baby who is eight months old. Since our first parental leave together in Australia in 2019, we have dreamed of repeating such an experience.

On the beach in Liguria

We want to dare the road trip adventure again, not quite so far away, not quite so extraordinary. Suitable for children and corona, that is the motto. With the car to Italy – but the concerns are also driving along. What if it’s broken open, someone drives us in, or we can’t fit everything in the trunk? I’ve never worked with packing lists before, but this time we need to use the storage space wisely. We have to condense our semi-detached house into the area of ​​an SUV, our world into eight square meters. The little son needs a buggy, the big one his scooter. The little one needs diapers, the big one doesn’t need them anymore – but more pants than the rest of us put together. The little one needs jars and a blender for home-cooked food, the big one needs a case with Lego, books and crayons. And we adults? We don’t need anything – apart from a few clothes and the headphones for our mobile phones. After many trips around the world together, seven years of long-distance relationship and almost four years of parenthood, we have long since learned to improvise.

And so we set off – without a fixed itinerary, without pre-booked accommodation and without a fixed return date. Via Bolzano to Ancona, then crossing over to Corfu, that’s the initial travel plan, but we already get anxious when booking the ferry. Being in Ancona for a fixed date, having previously been invited to a big wedding? What if we get infected with Corona and have to be in isolation for two weeks? Twenty hour ferry ride – will that be cool or hell? It’s better to start first and then see how it goes, we decide.

Munich-Bozen-Wedding-Ski Day-Padua. We’ve only been on the road for a week and the four-year-old is already showing signs of exhaustion. “When are we going home?” he asks every day. He misses his friends, his kindergarten. When he’s supposed to go to bed in the evening, he throws a tantrum like he hasn’t had in a long time. I google “What to do against homesickness?”. Recommendation: throw yourself into the holiday! We decide on a spouse splitting: My husband is going to Venice with our little son for a day, Max and I are doing a mom-son day in Padua. We start with cakes in the pasticceria around the corner, go to the playground and take the bus. Children’s program – and everyone is happy.

But my husband and I realize that we need to slow down our travel pace and find better routines. When are good travel times, when are the children fit for activities, when do they need time to rest and settle down, when do they just want to play? How should the suitcases be packed on the day of departure? What belongs in hand luggage? And what do we expect from each other?

A road trip is an existential experience, even if it’s “only” Italy. Keep on packing, unpacking. Where are the night lights, the cereal, the sleeping bag? We always have to look for new places to stay, carry the children to strange beds while they are asleep. Who gets sick in the switchbacks? Who needs food and when? Everyday life is concentrated on the nuclear family. There are no distractions, obligations, preoccupations, or enough space to avoid each other. It’s a balancing act between being prepared for at least a few eventualities (we need winter jackets and boots as well as swimming trunks and neoprene) and letting go. We improvise and dry laundry on hangers that we hang on the cupboard handles in the kitchen because there is no drying rack. Buy super glue to fix the toy dinosaur’s broken leg and splint it with a band-aid. Swaddling the baby on the trunk cover of our car in the supermarket’s underground garage and spending afternoons building with the Big Lego in the cafe. We look for book and craft stores and buy new shoes when the big one outgrows his.

We carry, comfort and dance, we feast, stroll and marvel. We argue – and we shine.

We enjoy unforgettable hours on the beach, the little one reaches into the powder-soft sand, the big one shouts with joy in the ice-cold waves. We’ll have a picnic by the pool, jump on a trampoline and ride a cog railway. We hike through the Cinque Terre and pick oranges from the tree. We feel how the landscape changes during our car journeys, how spring breaks and bathes the houses in a warm golden light. We experience the love for children of the Italians, who burst out enthusiastically about our children even in the smallest toilet building, stroke their hair in the supermarket and give them sweets. A love and affection that strengthens our backs and transfers to the children. As a matter of course, we all go together to restaurants and cafés, to markets, to churches (“but it’s spooky here”) and through children’s eyes get to know a completely new view of the country that we thought we already knew so well.

How lovingly the Italian children take our son into their games, even though they don’t understand each other. How varied the playgrounds are designed and how diverse the nature that connects the cities. How good it feels to drift and just let the children play. To discover something new in each accommodation and to end up randomly in the most beautiful places, such as the hills of Florence with a view of the Duomo or the vineyards of Tuscany.

We discard our Corfu plans and drive to the sea. The weather is fantastic, a look at the weather app confirms that we are in exactly the right place. We buy mussels at the markets and cook them on the gas stove in the evenings. We bake pizza in the wood-fired oven, which isn’t ready until the sun goes down. We lie in the warm sand and squint in the sun while the little one crawls over us, following the big one. We don’t read a page in our books, yet we flood our heads with new things.

As our route slowly leads north again, we are melancholic. Our journey has become a state that we wish we could have continued. “We can still do it,” I say to my husband over the last glass of red wine on the evening before the last stage. Eight accommodations, six weeks and 3126 kilometers are behind us when we drive back into our garage yard in early May. Summer in Germany is ahead of us. The next adventure is already waiting.

Tags: parental leave, family, travel