When we left home, Lisa was 16 months old. She’d just started walking around on her own. She had a vocabulary of one or two words. She had a personality, but it was a baby’s personality, and there was a lot that she didn’t understand. Our main concerns when we thought about traveling with a toddler were safety and nutrition. Obviously those were (and are) important, but they didn’t wind up being the hardest part of traveling full time with a baby who was growing up into a little girl.
The hardest part is socialization. When we move around, especially in regions where Lisa doesn’t understand the language, making friends isn’t the easiest thing for her to do. In the beginning it wasn’t an issue. Before she could really communicate, other children were more of a curiosity to her than a potential playmate. But as she grew, Jake and I began to think more and more about how she was developing her social skills, and Lisa began to become more and more intrigued with the tiny people who looked and acted more or less like she did.
1 to 2 Years Old
For the first half of our year in Europe, Lisa more or less ignored other children, and they ignored her. The kids we saw who were her age were also too young to interact meaningfully, and the ones who were older were too busy playing their games to be bothered.
In Dubrovnik, Split, Kotor, Rome, Venice, Paris, the South of France and the Loire Valley, Lisa seemed content to keep to herself. We’d do our best to get her to play around, but mostly she and the other children would just get distracted and wander off.
It was in a playground in Avignon, France that Lisa had her first meaningful interactions with other children. One experience was positive, and the other was negative. On the same day, she met two other little girls, one after the other. The first was a little French girl who’s parents encouraged her to play with Lisa. Lisa was afraid to use the little slide, but after watching the other girl a few times, tentatively – and later enthusiastically – climbed the ladder and slid down, shouting “Weee!” in imitation.
Then another girl showed up. She was a Chinese girl whose mother retreated to the corner of the playground to stare into her cell phone. The girl seemed hungry for attention, but after pestering her mother and receiving none, sought it out from the other children. She was a little older than Lisa, and much more aggressive than the little French girl.
At first Lisa was mostly just confused about the attention she was receiving. She couldn’t figure out what the other girl wanted from her. Eventually, Lisa got frustrated and decided to play with a big leaf she had found by our bench. The other girl, also frustrated that Lisa didn’t want to play, decided to take the leaf. Maybe it was supposed to be part of a game, or maybe she just wanted the leaf for herself. Either way, it was Lisa’s first taste of conflict, and it didn’t go down well.
Lisa began to cry. She chased the other girl around the playground, hands outstretched, trying to get her leaf back. The older girl was faster than her and it was no use. The mother was busy on her phone. Jake and I weren’t sure whether or how to intervene. Do we let Lisa sort things out for herself? Do we overpower a stranger’s child just to get our daughter’s leaf back? Eventually, we just gave Lisa a new leaf, and after a little soothing talk, we were able to convince her that it was just as good as the first one.
To our astonishment, and Lisa’s credit, she was now excited that both she and the Chinese girl had their own leaves, and she walked over so that they could do together whatever two little girls with leaves do. The other girl took Lisa’s new leaf, and another meltdown ensued. It was time to go back to our Airbnb for a nap.
Two weeks later in Paris, we took Lisa to another playground with her toy monkey. Disturbingly, whenever another child got near her she would clutch her monkey to her chest and run away screaming “No, no, no, no.” To simplify the situation, I put the monkey in my bag and Lisa went off to play without worrying about other kids taking it. A boy shared his toy frog with her and she was delighted. When it was time for the boy to go, he tried to get his frog back and Lisa clutched it to her chest and cried again.
We were quick to blame the behavior on her experience with that little girl in the playground in Avignon. But a little research revealed to us that she was at just the right age to the the “milestone” of being highly possessive with her toys. A little more time and experience proved that it was in fact just a phase she was going through. Maybe she hadn’t yet reached the point in her life where social interactions were having a big impact on her personality.
In the next month, we’d have a chance to put this to the test.
After a brief visit to London, we started making our way north to Scotland for an entire Summer of tent camping. On the way up, we stopped for a few days in the town of Rugby where we’d been invited to stay with some friends we’d met on Instagram. One downside of being on the road is that it’s harder to meet people and form friendships in person. But the upside is that if you get to know someone online, there’s a reasonable chance you might one day find yourself in their neck of the woods.
The family had a little boy named Marlow who was just a few months older than Lisa. Jake and I were very impressed by how much he was talking and how independent he seemed compared to Lisa, and we wondered if he was so much farther along just because he was older, or if his more consistent lifestyle had enabled him to develop faster. We knew as well as anyone else that kids reach different stages at different times, but it’s hard to stop yourself from worrying anyway.
Lisa loved Marlow. She still wasn’t crazy about sharing her toys (or leaves, or sticks), but there was nothing she liked better than holding hands. And she would imitate him as well, following him around and mouthing his words. Seeing her admiration for him and watching her learn from him was very encouraging to Jake and me, but it also raised questions for us about the future. When we continued on our way, would Lisa be able to find other playmates?
For Lisa, a toddler who had spent six months in European capitals and cobblestone old towns, camping in Scotland was a whole new world. There were no more walls, beds, light switches or doors. Instead there were hills, grassy fields, insects and lochs. For the first month, at our campsite in Dunbar, Scotland, there was a playground where she saw some other children. Unfortunately, they were all much older than her and she couldn’t play in their games.
While camping on the Isle of Skye, we briefly met up with another Instagram family who was visiting Elian Donan Castle. The girls were very friendly and quickly took Lisa in so she felt like one of the little sister of the pack. Apart from that and a few temporary playmates at a nearby softplay, there weren’t many other kids around. We were also excited to see how quickly she was developing. Her vocabulary grew rapidly, and after only a couple months she was talking about as well as Marlow had been at the same age. We heaved a sigh of relief.
It rained a lot in Glencoe, and as the end of September approached, we decided to spend our last two nights in a camping pod instead of our tent. The camping pod had heating, mattresses, and even a kettle and a microwave. It also had a television. We found a children’s station for Lisa to watch and Jake and I enjoyed a little relaxation while she indulged in Peppa Pig time. Lisa loved Peppa Pig. The episode they aired that night was the one in which Peppa and her best friend, Suzy Sheep, had a quarrel and eventually made up. It made us happy to see Lisa at least learning indirectly about the joys and challenges of friendship.
Then, when the episode ended, Lisa turned to us and asked, “Who’s my best friend?” She’d just started stringing words together into sentences. We’d heard so much about the phase where children ask nonstop questions, and in a way, we’d actually been looking forward to it. This wasn’t the kind of question we’d had in mind. I thought I was going to cry.
We didn’t know exactly how to answer, so Jake came back with another question. “Who do you think is your best friend?” Maybe she would say “Mommy” or “Daddy.” Maybe she would remember Marlow…
“Suzy Sheep.” She said.
2 to 3 Years Old
October in Prague was beautiful, and we resolved to give Lisa as much time in the playgrounds as possible. We also resolved to strike up conversations with parents whenever we found out they spoke English. Lisa made a friend named Lena, and we even arranged a playdate.
Lena’s parents were both expats too, and everything seemed smooth enough. Both little world travelers had similar personalities – Lisa loved calling Lena her “best friend” they’d hold hands and walk around the park. Lena’s mom introduced us to a wonderful kid’s cafe with daycare and we revelled in the chance for Lisa to form bonds with another child. We made notes to ourselves about how we could make this happen in the future., and we decided to seek out the places that expats go with their kids.
By this time, we had decided that once our year in Europe drew to a close, we would spend the next year in China. We were optimistic about our time there, but memories of that one Chinese girl in the playground in Avignon still weighed on us. Kids are kids all over the world, but we wondered if a larger cultural differences were at play. We didn’t know what to think, I was horrified by thoughts of Lisa being bullied by bigger kids, or even turning into a bully herself
Despite the challenges, Lisa had somehow developed a brilliant and outgoing personality. She had almost no fear of strangers, and even though that caused us worry at times, it meant that she didn’t shy away from playtime. In Budapest, she made another fiend. A boy named Nico who came to the local playground at the same time as us most days. For the first time, Lisa was the older child, and it was interesting to see her taking the lead.
In an amazing coincidence, we found out that Nico and his family were planning on moving to Xiamen, China by the end of the year. This was the same city where we were going to begin 2018. Before we left for Vienna, we exchanged contact information so that we could meet up again on the other side of the world.
In Vienna, playgrounds were hard to find, and basically empty. It was cold and windy outside, and Lisa had more fun inside… pulling the decorations off the christmas tree.
And finally, it was time for something new. I had tried over the last year to teach Lisa a few Chinese words, but she was nowhere close to fluent. She wasn’t going to be able to talk to Chinese children when we arrived in Xiamen, so we just crossed our fingers and hoped that the universal language of play would bridge the divide.
It did. We were really surprised and delighted by the way Chinese toddlers got along with Lisa. During our stay in Xiamen, a small vacation city on the southern coast of China, we weren’t staying in the touristy areas, and Lisa stood out a lot, but there was a common cycle of interaction that we inevitably went through.
The children would look at Lisa suspiciously, and we could tell that she sort of felt like an outsider. As a mixed baby in Europe she definitely looked different, but there is a certain level of diversity in the West that just doesn’t exist outside the biggest, busiest parts of China. But the parents, for the most part, were eager for their children to spend time with the little foreign girl, and the little children, for the most part, were eager to please their parents. The parents would tell their kids to say “hello,” and once the ball was rolling, they would get along just fine.
Lisa helped a girl decorate her sandcastle with leaves while toddler chatting about Dora the Explorer (in China Dora speaks Chinese and teaches phrases in English). An older boy taught Lisa fancy kung fu moves, which Lisa copied joyfully. On the ferry from Gulangyu, Lisa and two little girls exchanged flower headbands and giggled together.
When we went to Taiwan in February, our street was crawling with children, most of them spoke to us with basic, very polite English and they loved playing with Lisa. We got her a big box of Hello Kitty chocolates as a present for the Lunar New Year, and she was determined to share them with the other children on the street. That made our hearts melt a little.
And finally, we have settled into Dali, China for the foreseeable future. Our community has two playgrounds and lots of friendly, well behaved children, most of the parents lives in our area speaks a little bit of English. Lisa seldom has trouble finding someone to play with, as long as the weather is nice, a quick run on the slides and swings with other children is great for Lisa.
In Dali, there is always a lot to do with children, even though it’s more popular with backpackers than family travelers. The local parents are very friendly and they love to recommend activities. The photos in this post were taken at a children’s farm we were invited to by another family.
Last week, she and Jake spent 45 minutes sitting with another father and daughter. They couldn’t converse very well, but the other father had a guitar. Lisa and the other girl were singing and dancing together on a big rock, clapping their hands and requesting their favorite songs. Lisa knew a few Chinese songs, and the other girl knew a few English songs. They couldn’t get enough of each other, and they were both completely in the moment.
I’ve been teaching Lisa to draw, reading her story books in Chinese, and Jake loves going over numbers and letters with her. At night we take turns to read her favorite English books on Kindle. Her vocabulary has been developing rapidly in both English and Chinese. But no matter what lessons we try to teach her, I’m glad that she’s been learning to play well. She’s come to realize that she can join other kids at play, and she even seems to understand that sometimes other kids won’t be interested, and that’s ok. It’s clearly dawned on her by now that every little face in this very big world has the potential to be her next friend 🙂