Last summer, while preparing a travel essay about my childhood years in Budapest, I spent some time revisiting my family’s old home videos.
Because we lived in Hungary during the early 1990s, I traveled quite extensively throughout Europe when I was young — to Rome, Paris, Prague, Madrid and a long list of other cities, beginning when I was 4 years old. And because my parents were eager to record our adventures on camcorder, I’ve got receipts (as the kids say) for how I behaved.
Several moments in the tapes stood out to me: my two siblings and I gazing up in awe at Michelangelo’s David, growing antsy at the Louvre, giggling beneath the Eiffel Tower, climbing on the base of a statue outside the Cloth Hall in Krakow, Poland. In one particularly amusing clip, the camera pans across the Circus Maximus in Rome — my dad is operating the camcorder while my mom reads from our Fodor’s guidebook — only to find the three of us tumbling down one of the grassy embankments.
“More than 300,000 spectators could watch chariot and horse races while the emperors looked on from this very spot,” my mom says, solemnly. Then: “They’re rolling down the hill,” she adds, with obvious disappointment (and arguably a faint hint of delight). “Do you see them?”
The videos got me thinking: Had I experienced the great sites of Europe at too young an age? Would I have benefited more if I’d been a little older? Surely there were cultural and historical lessons that had flown over my head.
And yet I must have gained something from all of our traveling, even if only subconsciously or by osmosis.
A few months ago, I aired some of these thoughts during a meeting with my Travel colleagues while we planned a family travel project. The idea for an article slowly emerged: We’d try to find out how children’s travel experiences differed from those of their parents. And to do so, we’d enlist families around the world to share their perspectives — and their pictures.
The idea was simple: We’d send a handful of reporters to popular tourist destinations around the world and have them look for families traveling with young kids. The reporters would then ask the parents and the children to carry around disposable cameras, with instructions to capture whatever caught their attention.
Our first attempt was a bust. Ceylan Yeginsu, a Travel reporter, successfully recruited several families heading into the Louvre — but when we developed the film from their cameras and sifted through the scans, not one of the pictures was usable. The photos, taken inside the museum, without a flash, were underexposed.
We recalibrated and tried again, this time focusing on five outdoor sites: the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Statue of Liberty in New York, Wat Pho in Bangkok, the Colosseum in Rome and the National Mall in Washington. When these pictures came back to us, properly exposed, they told a story.
“There is a beauty in the simplicity of what fascinates a child,” the reporter Derek M. Norman aptly concludes in the essay that accompanies the collections of photographs, which we published this week. At the Statue of Liberty, that fascination proved to be the sculpture’s sheer size. At Wat Pho, it was the little bronze bowls — used to solicit donations and elicit wishes — that lined one of the halls.
A handful of adults offered some analysis. Mary Beard, the British historian, considered the influence of having discovered an ancient piece of Egyptian cake in the British Museum as a child. A neuroscientist shared the way travel experiences can help children cultivate empathy and develop problem-solving skills.
All of this, of course, rings true for us as adults. These ideas have long informed our work as travel journalists.
But to see some of these ideas expressed so plainly through children’s photographs? That was something special. More than anything, it left me wanting to thank my own parents — both for taking me to Rome at the tender age of 5, and for allowing me to tumble down its hallowed hills.
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