One of the answers to that question is that travel changes us for the better. We learn more about the world, understand cultures or environments that differ from our own, and discover personal biases, predilections and fears as well as new joys, passions and people. "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness," wrote the globetrotting Mark Twain.
The value of travel is one of the big lessons I want to impart to my children. I don't have that many agenda items for the kind of people I'd like them to be when they grow up. Kind. Self-reliant. Funny. Creative. Educated. Appreciative of great story-telling. And lovers of travel.
Travel is -- my wife and I remind our daughters -- an integral part of their origin story. Before getting married we lived overseas and then traveled around the world together, getting engaged in Paris on that trip. And when my older daughter was a toddler, I worked for The New York Times Travel section, and we took her on reporting trips around the United States and to Europe and the Caribbean. She had been to more countries by the age of 3 than I'd been to by 23.
She's now 10, and my younger daughter is 6. And I got it in my head last year that we had eight years until the older one was away in college. Time for family vacations is running out. And now my younger daughter is able to pull her own luggage and retain memories of travel. So my wife and I started mapping out the places we want to travel with them. We told them about our planning, and my younger daughter declared the place she most wanted to go (for reasons that still aren't entirely clear to us): Paris.
We're returning from that trip as I write this, having spent a week in the southeast of France followed by five busy days doing the greatest-family-hits tour of the City of Love. It was our longest family vacation yet, and -- like all travel -- it had its headaches and missteps, but they were eclipsed by the benefits of spending fun, concentrated time sharing experiences, meals and sometimes beds.
I also tried to boost the benefits with a fun game I invented or, rather, dreamed up.
Dream a little dream with me
In the early months of our dating, I had a dream too presumptuous to safely share with someone I wasn't even calling my "girlfriend" yet. In it, we were married, had three teenage daughters and were visiting a foreign city. I explained in the dream that while we were there, we were going to have a scavenger hunt.
But we weren't going to search for objects to buy or attractions to visit. This was a scavenger hunt for emotions and experiences that could be found throughout the city and simply needed to be noticed. They included "happiness," "truth" and "love."
I did tell her about the dream. And 17 years later, we lived it. While in line to take a tour of the Seine, I pulled pieces of paper out of my bag and handed them out. On them were 10 categories (which I read aloud for the sake of my semi-literate younger daughter), pointing to the emojis and clip art I had added next to each so they could keep track themselves.
Happiness. Beauty. Kindness. Funny. Cute. Sad. Imaginative. Yummy. Joy. Love.
By the time we got off the boat, the girls had each completed half the list, but they spent the next five days, on and off, adding more to each category and eventually completing all 10. I filled out nine (nothing was ever really funny to me), and my wife completed eight. It was a fun and deceptively simple game we'd revisit over dinners or lunches. It was not at all time-consuming.
Smile at the good, frown at the bad
There are a number of ways to deepen engagement when traveling. You can volunteer with a humanitarian or environmental organization. Become fluent in the language before you go. Take local classes in some creative or physical endeavor associated with the place, such as sailing, biking or cooking. Study the local history or literature. I personally like to go for runs through neighborhoods and draw sketches in my journal. Or you can stay for a month or longer and begin to navigate and eat like a local, discover non-tourist attractions and make friends.
But the scavenger hunt is something you can do with just a few days of travel and starting at age 6, I'd say. It doesn't require you to go out of your way, skip any sights or spend more money. And yet, like writing in a journal or a letter to a friend, the act of doing it forces you to engage at a deeper level. It's about noticing the details, some quite subtle, that make travel rewarding.
I didn't just want to take my daughters to the top of the Eiffel Tower; I wanted them to notice details, like the cute pigeons taking shelter from the rain underneath, as one daughter did. I didn't want to just float along the Seine but notice the brass band playing on a bridge near the Louvre, as my wife did, and the couple sitting romantically together under the willow tree at the tip of Île de la Cité, as my daughter did. I didn't just want them to learn to navigate the Paris Metro; I wanted them to also notice the act of kindness of my wife giving a homeless woman and her son our lunch baguette, as we all did.
"They smiled at the good, and frowned at the bad," Ludwig Bemelmans wrote in the Parisian children's classic "Madeline."
My own engagement deepened, as well. Had I not recorded it, I might have failed to note the beauty of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim bridge, with its lower pedestrian level of lights and upper deck for Metro trains, and the Belle Époque lavishness of giant class ceilings at the Grand Palais, as well as the imaginativeness of the Parisian who trained her dog to do his business in the street, on top of a copy of Le Monde.
Next time you travel with your kids, give the scavenger hunt a try. Crib from my list, but make it specific to your own. I'm going to change "joy" (since it's too similar to "happiness") to "surprising" at my wife and older daughter's suggestion. If this scavenger hunt idea catches on as a family travel tradition -- after all, I dreamt of three teenage daughters, not two young girls -- I'll probably swap out "cute" for "truth" as a category when they are older.
"A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life," wrote Thomas Jefferson. But also cuteness, yumminess and kindness, if you pay close enough attention.