“You’re going to Spain with or without your kids?” That was the question friends always asked when I mentioned the upcoming trip. And why not? So much of my social life these days revolves around my children that I regularly receive emails identifying the sender, after the signature and always in parentheses, as So-and-So’s mom or So-and-So’s dad. It’s like a reversal of the Russian patronymic, which identifies people by their father. In this case adults are identified by reference to the little people they chauffeur to soccer games.
I would have preferred to say that our vacation was going to be an escape from the servitude of parenting. But the sad truth was that our firstborn was coming with us. To begin describing her I will say this: When I asked her if it was okay that I write about our trip, she earnestly reminded me that she hates to be called Madeline and that the correct spelling of her “real name” is M-A-D-D-Y. Then she tried to raise an eyebrow, a family skill she has not yet mastered, this to remind me that her preferred name rhymes with Daddy.
Dammit, I thought as I took my seat in coach, I am one of those pushover American parents you read about. My wife, Cynthia, was one seat away, and Maddy sat like a wall between us. Once in Barcelona, we dropped our daughter off for two nights at her aunt’s apartment—where she slept very hard, her usual high spirits knocked flat by jet lag. But after that, Cynthia, Maddy, and I were together every minute of every day.
And it wasn’t bad. What I came to appreciate—and, granted, this was much easier to notice while Maddy’s two younger brothers waited for us back in Virginia, spending the time with family and friends—was that an energetic 8-year-old is perfectly suited to many of the challenges of travel.
It takes stamina and a light heart to walk a large city and absorb the sights and sounds for hours at a go. And if Maddy would not have passed for an architecture aficionado as she hammed for photos at the gates of La Sagrada Familia, she was a quick study at finding pleasure in the sight of a doorknob in the shape of a hand or a row of giant Spanish hams hanging in the window of a butcher shop. It helped too that Spanish art, from the better advertisements to the paintings of Dalí to the elaborate graffiti embellishing doorways around the city, is some of the least subtle in the Western world. And it helped even further that the other great Spanish art is food. Culture that is eaten Maddy could understand. To get her to try squid, however, we had to bribe her—bribery being a low trick I disapprove of only when employed by other parents.
Resting at a café one afternoon, we discussed a possible excursion to an olive grove. It was a hot day, and I, the moody one, thought of a favorite line from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: “Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness?” Maddy, meanwhile, was busy describing her own vision of paradise: lunch in an olive grove with her chair directly under a branch full of olives that she could pick and eat at will. She then played out the scene for us, hands flying up and down as she grabbed imaginary overhead olives and ate them in a great rush while making loud gobble-gobble noises.
This became her running gag for the rest of the trip. I admired her instinct for overworking the material—playing the jamón was part of the joke—but it was jarring that I had never before noticed this Spanish-level goofy streak of hers. I mean, who was this child who looked kind of like me and behaved the way I do after a third martini? Separated from her brothers, alone in the parental spotlight, here was my daughter: cute, uncomplaining, very silly.
And she was thrilled by all the things that were new to her, such as riding the Barcelona Metro, mojito-flavored Mentos candies (which she’d never seen in the United States), and airplane food. As the dinner trays of cold rolls, gray meat, and soggy noodles came out on our return flight, I did not even bother to sigh, but a row or two back someone grumbled. This had Maddy twisting in her seat. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “I just want to see,” she said indignantly, “who’s talking badly about this food. Did you try it? It’s so good!”