We just spent the day walking around Cologne, Germany — a wonderful, 2,000-year-old city situated on the Rhine River. We started at the Cologne Cathedral which is one of the tallest cathedrals in the world (also one of our favorites in Europe). We explored the rest of the city on foot as we had done in many cities throughout Europe.
We were strolling by the Rhine River when my fourteen-year-old daughter said she just felt something on her shirt. I turn around to see her outstretched hands and a look of disbelief as she realized one of the many pigeons in the area had just pooped on her.
It wasn’t so much that she just got pooped on because that’s, well, not very funny, but her expression and reaction tickled me to the point of tears (she has a history of funny animal encounters). My wife and seven-year-old son had a similar reaction once they saw my daughter’s disbelief and my uncontrolled laughing. So there we were, an American family of four in Cologne soaking in all the culture the great continent of Europe had to offer while my daughter’s shirt started to soak in bird poop. I can only imagine what the locals thought of us.
And that puts our recent European trip in perspective. There were laughs, there were tears, there were amazing experiences, there were a few disappointments, there was awesome food, there were endless miles on the road, and yes, there was even bird poop.
If I learned anything going on an extended trip in foreign countries with my family, you will be dealt some lemons along the way so you better be ready to make lemonade. We didn’t have Griswald Family National Lampoons level problems, but obstacles nonetheless. And while we had some minor setbacks, the closest Black Swan event came at the Glass Palace in Madrid.
But no matter how you slice it, the three months of travel we spent in Europe will be something we never forget. I feel the need to write about it in part so we can revisit some of our fleeting memories down the road, but also to document all the research and lessons we learned while a family of four traveled throughout Europe. Hopefully, it can help someone contemplating a similar trip.
Before I go too far, here are some quick stats about our trips (sorry, but I’m a numbers guy):
- 86 days in Europe (12 weeks)
- 13 countries visited
- 52 cities visited
- 20 different accommodations (16 Airbnbs, 3 Hotels, 1 VRBO)
- 1,222,676 total steps taken (14,217 steps per day)
- 580 miles walked
- 6,757 miles traveled by car
- 16,581 miles traveled by plane
- 0 miles traveled by train (I’ll explain later)
The typical reaction I get to these numbers is: how did you visit 52 cities!?! That does seem like a lot in hindsight, but that was the point of going to Europe. We spent anywhere from a few hours to seven nights in these cities. The biggest challenge with covering that many cities is the amount of research that was required to figure out what to see, do, and eat during the visit. But before I get to that, why did we decide to go on a trip like this in the first place?
The Big Idea
When I was just starting my career at Cisco in the late nineties, there was an executive that took a year off to live in Europe with his family. I thought that was the coolest thing. To be able to take many months off from work and spend time traveling around Europe sounded like a good life goal.
Up until fairly recently, I thought a grand European vacation wouldn’t be in the cards for the Allen family. As of 2021, we had a seven-year-old son that was in 1st grade and a fourteen-year-old daughter that was in 9th grade. Between work, school, friends, and family, it seemed there were too many commitments at home to be able to take much time off outside of the standard two-week vacation.
Then COVID hit.
The second half of 2020 was a complete waste of time for my then 7th grader. No one was ready for virtual school, especially the schools. Unfortunately, 2021 wasn’t much better. Her 8th-grade year was a lost year in terms of schooling. On the other hand, we homeschooled our kindergartener and he did extremely well. I handled math, science, and social studies, and my wife did phonics, language, and reading. He was testing at 1st-grade levels by the end of the year.
For the 2021–2022 school year, we had a choice to make. We weren’t ready to send our rising 1st grader to in-person school since he was doing so well with homeschool, but what about our rising 9th grader? Could we possibly homeschool a high school student too?
Then one day we were watching one of our “vacation shows”. There are a number of these shows on HGTV such as Mediterranean Life, Caribbean Life, etc. The one we were watching featured Greece and we thought it would be fun to visit sometime. Then the conversation escalated from “what if we went and stayed a while?” to even “what if we moved there for a year or two?”
This started a long discussion over many meals about whether we could pull off homeschooling both kids and doing an extended trip to Europe.
Moving to Europe is easy, right?
Initially, we thought about just getting the kids into an international school and living in Europe for a year. Maybe in Italy since that’s where we got married. No big deal, right?
Admittedly it had been a while since I looked into getting a visa in Europe, but you can’t just go live in Europe for a year. You can’t even do it for 6 months unless you get a visa. Turns out, the Schengen Treaty allows for US citizens to stay in Europe for up to 90 days during any 180-day period. More than that and you need to get a special visa or be sponsored by your employer or university.
I called the Italian embassy in Philadelphia and left a message to get more info on my options. No response. I learned that some countries like Spain and Portugal offer a “Golden Visa” where you can obtain a visa if you buy property over a certain amount or invest a significant amount in a company. But even that isn’t an easy or timely solution for what we wanted to do. The school year was fast approaching.
Ultimately, we decided three months would be plenty of time to spend in Europe so we scrapped the idea of moving there for a year and started to prepare to homeschool both kids for the 2021–2022 school year. I would still do Math with my son, but my wife would take the rest (she has a degree in Elementary Education after all) and I’d take on my daughter’s 9th-grade curriculum.
One trip or two?
Before we set off to Europe, we wanted to make sure everyone had the COVID vaccine, but that presented a problem. The vaccine hadn’t been approved yet for kids under 12. My daughter was able to get hers during the summer, but my seven-year-old wasn’t eligible yet in the fall of 2021. It also wasn’t exactly clear when 12-and-under would be eligible. It could have been October 2021 or not until early 2022.
We decided it was a shame for our fourteen-year-old to have to stay home and wait on our seven-year-old to get vaccinated before she could travel. So we split the Europe trip in two. I would take her to Europe for three weeks on a shorter trip and then once my son was vaccinated, we’d do a second, longer trip with the whole family maybe over Christmas or in early spring.
First stop, the United Kingdom
For my daughter’s first semester of homeschool history, we decided to do British History with the idea that we’d visit the UK during our travels. After we decided to split up our trip, doing a three-week trip to the UK seemed like a good choice. We’d leave on November 1st and get back right before Thanksgiving. By that time, hopefully our son would be vaccinated and we can head to mainland Europe — maybe even meet them in Paris for Thanksgiving.
One of the advantages of traveling to the UK is it isn’t part of the Schengen Agreement so time spent there doesn’t count against the 90-day limit.
We got busy with our homeschool curriculum (including British History) and researching everything we needed for our three weeks in the UK. This was my first time traveling to Europe in almost 10 years and of course COVID had made it dramatically more complicated.
Fortunately, things had just started to open back up after a prolonged COVID pause. Entry requirements were changing by the week. COVID cases looked pretty good in the UK during the month of October with cases hovering around 40,000 per day.
It was fun to learn about British history and research the cities we were going to visit. We watched every episode of the Secrets of the Great British Castles. We started watching all of the Rick Steves UK episodes. I probably got just as much out of it as my daughter. Besides the occasional work trip to London, I hadn’t spent much time in the UK since I did a study abroad at the University of Manchester in 1997.
T-minus one week to UK
As our departure date quickly approached, it felt like time started to speed up. Everything was falling into place. I had all the customs and COVID documentation ready. We started planning out our luggage. I booked all of our accommodations and the rental car. We also started sleep training. We were flying from RDU to Boston to London to Edinburgh. In Edinburgh, we’d rent a car and wind our way around Scotland/England and end up at London Heathrow three weeks later for the flight home.
To be continued…
In Part II, I’ll review our trip to the UK, how a new COVID variant delayed our second trip, and how we almost didn’t make it home for Thanksgiving due to a mystery illness my daughter got in London.