Bringing Abroad Baby: An ABC

A is for ARGUMENTS: Just exactly how horrible would it be to drag a three-year-old on her daddy's research trip to Europe? How disoriented would that kid get? Just how ungrateful would a mother be who felt AMBIVALENT about doing all the daytime child care in some exotic spot?

B is for BABYSITTING. There would be none. And for BUSMAN's HOLIDAY. This would be one.

C is for CHILDREN PREFER THE FAMILIAR at this age. The one in question spent her upstate summer vacation asking, pitifully, "Can I go back to my old home?" Wouldn't she miss other kids? Videos? Wouldn't she freak out in strange hotels? What sights could possibly interest her? I mean, we're talking three.

D is for DEAD RAT. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. It wasn't the canal boat ride she liked till it left shore. It wasn't the Van Gogh museum she didn't like at all. But on a dull and confining bus tour of windmill country, one little girl found her level. And other things were on it - DOG POOP, DUCKS, not to mention the DOMESTICATED ANIMALS whose DENSITY made train or car travel throughout Europe far less disasterous. And each fit into the time-space discontinuum that makes travel such a monster, and our little girl who by thorough examination, as "Where's that dead rat? Can I see that dead rat again?" made the subject familiar not only to herself but everyone in every bus or train we took.

E, speaking of own level, is for ELEVATOR buttons a 35-inch-tall person can reach. Not to mention those Parisian light switches that go off just as you're putting the key in the lock, then you run back down the hall, punch them on again, run back to the lock, and the same thing happens. They could have had a three-year-old in mind when they designed them.

F is for the six-hour FLIGHT over to join Dad, who'd started the trip without us. She used up every toy I'd brought her before takeoff, but it didn't matter. We spent most of our time going to and from the bathroom. And throughout Europe, FINDING AND FLUSHING THE TOILET were major activities. You never knew where to find the flush - underfoot, overtank, dangling from ceilings. Did you pull or push them? How about the no-hands unit where the entire toilet tilts up by itself as you leave via automatic door for just two francs a go, Jardins Botaniques, Paris, France?

G is for how many fewer GRIPES we had about sharing parental responsibility when technically we didn't. The arrangement was like a trip to the Colonial Williamsburg of family structure, deeply inauthentic, and that was its charm. Father goes interviewing left-wing academics and cultural journalists, while mother and child go to cafes and zoos and no one cooks a meal or washes a dish or makes a bed.

H is for HADLEY, Leila's Europe With Children, a big book to lug around. Designed for richer parents and children who like fried eggs, vague on how to get places, but reassuring with its suggestions for child care, medical emergency procedures (and, for parents of real babies, sources of babyfood, etc.) And H is for HOME, which once the show was on the road nobody missed at all, and for HEAD LICE, which we thought we'd left there after a raging daycare epidemic and a week of Nix, fine-tooth combs, incredible laundry loads.

I is for ITCHY, which I began to feel, or IMAGINE I felt, in Glasgow -- and this wasn't Holland, where every time you scratched your head someone came up and said, in perfect English, "Can I help you?" But I is also for my gradual INSIGHT that my basic anxiety about the trip was a fear that, burdened by a normal badly behaved American child, I would no longer be able to do what I always hope to do abroad - pass - and I was right. When one's constant companion is kicking the fellow passenger on a bus or washing charcuterie windows with spit, it's so hard to be discreet that I gave up and let my hair down, where as it turned out nothing was living. I ended up having the best European trip I've ever had.

J is for JET LAG.


L is for the LANGUAGE PROBLEM, no big deal, the English speak English, so do the Dutch, and in France our little girl would go up to kids in playgrounds, announce, "I'm getting a captain's bed," and leave them stunned, which is about how it works at home. It's the attitude that counts. My own language problem was a little worse. Among the items I accidentally left at home were certain brain-tongue hookups. I found myself literally open-mouthed, waiting for words to pop out. Yet the French, who I've always found put up with a great deal if you just get the "r" right, have never been more understanding. And L is also for LATIN COUNTRIES TEND TO BE A GOOD BET WITH SMALL KIDS.

M is for MERRY-GO-ROUNDS right in the middle of Paris, and for special MEALS of salade verte restaurants made up for our small companion, sometimes without charge (and by the way restaurant meals were not as wild as we feared so long as we gauged the ambience and brought a lot of candy), and for MADELINE and MADELINE IN LONDON which, in lieu of guidebooks for small children, were fine preparations for Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. And for MITTERRAND, because it's hard to know why a foreign place is in a good mood. National character? Is it national health insurance? (See T for Thatcher.)

N is for NUTELLA, the French version of peanut butter -- sugar, cocoa, and a hint of filbert. NUFF SAID.

O is for OTHER CHILDREN, whom we sought out whenever possible. I'm not sure three-year-olds understand each other any better than we understand them, in any language, though one six-year-old Francophone did exclaim, after about 20 minutes, "Mais, vraiment, je ne comprends absolument rien qu'elle dit!"

P is for PUB LAWS. In Scotland you can't bring a child to lunch in a room where the bar can be seen. (You can drink if she can't see the bar.) And for POUSSETTE, French for stroller, recommended, as is the inflatable POTTY we bought for $3.99 back home.

Q is for the QUEEN's guard change, not recommended. Said I, "Well, you were very patient." Said she, "No, I was scared."

R is for REGENT'S PARK ZOO, best London sight, except Someone's need for the familiar meant we saw Dodo the orangutan take his little cape on and off four times while Someone Else never saw the gorilla, the lions, the panda. And for RETURN, a melancholy and confusing event. We staggered into the kitchen, with its September calendar page reminding us how we had marked off every day we'd waited to hook up in Amsterdam. Someone seemed startled. "I missed you Daddy," she said.

S is for SEX, not much. The one true liability of sharing hotel rooms.

T is for THATCHER, and the ways her England is and isn't different from anybody else's, always an interesting question. Were the English particularly grumpy and depressed because services were being slashed? Or does a child force encounters with the English attitudes toward helplessness - the suspicion that help causes it, and the total lack of interest in the peculiar way it may come, as with small children, suffused with charm?

U is for the UNDERGROUND, which had definitely deteriorated in the past few years, except for one technological advance, those many-buttoned ticket machines any child would love.

V is for how VERY HARD it was to get her to do anything but buy tickets when she saw these machines, especially the day we left.

W is for WHY? Why did it work out? Why did she climb miles of Metro steps without asking to be carried? Why was she O.K. in restaurants, unlike here? Why was she thrilled each time we left for a new place? Why was she sorry to be home?

X is for XYLOPHONE. Some things never change.

Y is for YOU THINK JET LAG was hard going East, try going West, it runs on and on and on. . . .

Z is for ZZZZ'S you try to grab when, next thing you know, Someone's up with another dream about a house, her own house. Breakfast at dawn. Who would she like to see? What would she like to do? She hesitates then asks, sweetly, "Can I go to my old home?"

Village Voice, ?