As I sifted through the stack of names of family travel writers, and checked out their websites, one stood out immediately. I am so excited to introduce to you our new Family Travel Expert, Powell Berger. The reasons Powell caught my eye were personal as well as professional. The professional–I loved the lively writing style Powell shows on her own family travel site: Family Vagabonding and the depth of family travel experience she has. The personal has to do with many parallels in our past history that would be of no interest to you whatsover. Powell now lives in Hawaii, but for many years she has traveled the world with her daughter, Emmi, and son, Austin, “road-schooling” them along the way. They still go to Paris every summer and travel is still a big part of their lives. But let’s see what Powell has to say.
A Traveler’s Library: Which came first–the travel or the writing?
Powell Berger: Both I guess! I’ve been writing since I was a kid – first creative writing and poems and heartfelt stories of life-gone-wrong as a teen, then on to papers and client documents and “grown up stuff” in my career. When we started our road-school gig, I wanted to capture it in some meaningful way, so the creative writer came out of hiding after all those years.
Like writing, I’ve been traveling since I was a kid, mostly road trips in the family Cadillac, then eventually on planes to exotic places like LA and Boston, where we had family. I didn’t travel internationally, though, until I was in my thirties, a business trip to Paris and London. I saw Buckingham Palace and the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben, and I knew instantly. If the little girl from Mississippi could see those places – places she’d only heard about – then she could see the world.
ATL: How does your family travel style differ from the way your parents (and siblings?) traveled when you were young?
PB: Our family travel was all domestic, and was almost all to see family. We did a lot of road trips in the family Cadillac, and my mom always said “swimming pool” were among my first words, my announcement that I’d seen a Holiday Inn sign along the highway and that it was time to stop for the night. My mother’s wanderlust was passed on to me, though, without me even realizing it. She left the farm in Mississippi to work as a civilian during WW II, riveting airplanes just like Rosie the Riveter, and eventually landed at Hickham Air Field in Hawaii. Like so many of that generation, her eyes were opened to a much larger world, and while she returned to Mississippi after the war, her love of place and people in the world never diminished. It’s no coincidence that both of her children now live in Hawaii, some sixty years after she returned to Mississippi to continue her life.
ATL: Have you made the travel plans and decisions, or has it been a democratic process?
PB: I believe travel works when everyone is vested in it, so we all get involved. Once we settle on a region, everyone picks something special they want to see or do while we’re there, and we build the itinerary accordingly. On a family trip to Paris once, my now-grown son really wanted to see the D-Day beaches. I was slightly irritated since that’s not exactly Paris and took some Houdini work to make it happen in our already over-packed schedule. But we did it, and you know what? It was everyone’s favorite part of the trip!
We’ve discovered the beauty of Western Australia because Austin (16 year old son) wanted to swim with whale sharks. We know the ends and outs of Germany’s King Ludwig’s and his distant cousin, Austria’s Empress Sissi because Emmi (13 year old daughter) became fascinated with their royal lives and castles and antics.
The kids and I also create a “Trip Book” for every adventure, where they dig into each destination and write about it – what to see, where to go, what’s cool and what’s not. In doing that homework, they become experts of sorts on the destination and become the de facto family tour guide once we get there.
ATL: Where would you like to go WITHOUT your kids?
PB: I’ve never done any of the great wine tours, since there’s not much fun in that for them. I figure I’ll get that done with girlfriends one day.
I do believe in solo travel, too, though. I try to do something solo every year. It’s my ‘me” time, where I read, meditate, make long term business plans and goals. Last fall, I spent five days on Lanai at the glorious Four Seasons there and loved it. I’ve also done a couple of cruises solo, including a Pacific crossing where I had no conversations with another human being – other than “yes, I’ll have a glass of wine,” or “yes, please turn the room down for the evening” – for six glorious days.
ATL: What do you wish someone had told you about family travel before you went on a trip with your kids?
PB: I think I bought into the mainstream media hype that traveling with kids was difficult, that they need constant entertainment, and that I was restricted to “kid friendly” destinations. We’ve done our share of Disney and kid friendly, but I had to learn on my own how to really travel with kids and broaden their world view in the process. Treat kids like partners in the experience, vest them in the itinerary, and set guidelines and expectations for everyone, and the experience is a much more rewarding one.
Americans share a belief that travel is difficult and expensive. We find it exactly the opposite. There are places in the world where we live much more cheaply than we do at home, and once you have a grasp on DIY travel logistics, it’s all pretty simple.
ATL: What have your kids taught YOU about travel?
PB: My kids have taught me that we can find home anywhere in the world. They’ve taught me to slow down and enjoy playgrounds and fountains and street art just because it’s there. They’ve reminded me again and again that meals don’t have to be in restaurants, and that every experience doesn’t have to be guidebook perfect.
ATL: How has “book-larnin'” fit into your vagabonding life?
PB: Our roadschool curriculum is pretty similar to a standard school’s, just with our travel experiences layered on top. [Note: Powell wrote about her home schooled family in this magazine article.]They have their standard grammar, math, literature, etc and are expected to do their work every day, regardless of where we are. That doesn’t mean we don’t have days where the books are tossed aside for some magical experience, but the time is made up later. (Long plane trips are great for that.) We then build their curriculum around where we’re going. Literature might come from the region, or be steeped in the history of the culture. History and Global Studies bubbles up organically based on our travels, and the curious learner in all of us is sparked when we come upon a new place.