When it comes to traveling and experiencing the world as a family, sometimes we just don’t have the time, the funds, or the ability. Yet, our hearts still long to hop on a plane and become immersed in another city, country and culture. There are ways we can get a sense of travel, though. We just need to use our brains, or more specifically, our five senses.
1: A Taste of Local Flavor
Every destination has its own flavor. Whether you’re going to a particular city in the U.S., Europe or elsewhere in the world, you’re sure to find foods particular to local culture. Luckily, many of these unique flavors can be enjoyed even if you’re grounded in one place.
Local Support, International Flavor
Depending on where you are, you may be able to find local shops, restaurants and bakeries offering international foods. A quick online search is all it takes. Just type in fare you and your family crave, such as “French bakery,” et voilà!
In the U.S., a chain of houseware stores offers a small variety of prepackaged items from across the globe. We’ve tried some prepackaged spätzle and potato dumplings to make with German-style meals at home. They aren’t the same as what we’d have in Munich, but at least it’s a taste.
Major cities around the world usually have international markets as well. A walk down the aisles of these wonder emporiums can transport you to faraway lands, even for a moment. Try picking a few foreign snacks to taste at home with your family. The kids might be picky, but it’ll still be a fun family experiment.
Even our current home city of Denver, Colorado, small compared to others in the U.S., has international flare. If we want to experience the flavors of Brazil, for example, there are a couple of options other than the popular rodízio (steakhouse) chains. Little Brazil in nearby Wheat Ridge, Colorado, is double the fun in that it’s both a restaurant and a market.
Check local bakers for international flavors, too. Beatriz Bucchi of Bucchi’s Handmade Chocolates recently treated us to Brazilian sweets with some Pão de Mel (Brazilian honey cakes). The spicy gingerbread cakes are filled with dulce de leche and covered in chocolate. One taste was a brief trip to Brazil. They were delicioso!
Have It At Home
Even if you live in an area with limited international restaurants and shops, there are ways to bring the world to your taste buds.
Cookbooks, and often some of the unique ingredients their recipes may call for, can be purchased online. Whatever your cuisine of choice, you can easily find a book that suits your needs at your local bookstore or even from amazon.com. Get the kids involved in choosing, too.
- Brazilian — The Food and Cooking of Brazil: Traditions, Ingredients, Tastes, Traditions, 65 Classic Recipes, by Fernando Farah
- Italian — Tasting Italy: A Culinary Journey, by National Geographic
- Spanish Tapas — Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain, by Penelope Casas
- Japanese — Japanese Cooking Made Simple, by Salinas Press
- Australian — The Great Australian Cookbook: The Ultimate Celebration of the Food We Love from 100 of Australia’s Finest Cooks, Chefs, Bakers and Local Heroes, edited by Helen Greenwood
You don’t have to commit to whole books of international cuisine to get a taste. Do an online search for foods that are popular in a particular country. Poll the family on which ones they’d like to sample. Then, find and print individual recipes.
Prepackaged foreign products can also be shipped to your home. Australian favorites, for example, such as Tim Tams, Cherry Ripe (a family favorite here) and if you dare, Vegemite are available on Amazon. Try searching for other culturally specific food, too, such as “Brazilian food,” or “German food.” This will yield a variety of interesting options as well. Just make sure you do your research on the items, their reviews, and their sellers before you buy.
2. It Makes “Scents”
Have you ever opened sunscreen for the first time after a long winter and, when smelling it, immediately recalled the previous summer?
Smell is the sense most closely linked to memory. So closely, in fact, that when I purchased and applied a new face lotion (to my over-40-and-aging-quickly-skin), I was immediately transported back in time and to a far-off place. The smell of the lotion is similar to the scent of bath products used by a major international hotel chain. Each time I use it, I long to be traveling again.
As I walked downstairs into the family area, my 6-year-old daughter commented, “Something smells like a hotel lobby.” When I told her that it was my face, she confirmed the fact by sniffing my cheek. (Repeated each day after that.)
The smell is a powerful reminder for all of us. It evokes memories of vacations and adventures past. Of hotel lobbies and family fun. Of our freedom of movement that we now know we took for granted.
How can you enjoy your past vacations with a whiff? The toiletries. Every vacation we’ve taken, we always remember to bring home any travel-sized shampoos, conditioners, and lotions. We save them for house guests, mini-breaks and short getaways, or even donate them to women’s shelters. Mostly, I save them for the memories.
Many hotel chains are now eliminating the little toiletry bottles, but you can still order some online. Check out this article by Caroline Costello, “10 Hotel Chains with the Best Free Bath Amenities,” on SmarterTravel.com. Not only does she include information about each, but most importantly, she provides links to where you can buy them.
3. Sound Advice
Even if you can’t hear the hustle, bustle and energy of a new city, you can tap (or “t-app”) into it.
My latest obsession has become the app, Radio Garden (radio.garden on the web). Just spin the globe, focus on any city in the world, and listen to one of the various stations offered. I’ve tagged stations in France, Germany, and even Ibiza as my favorites. Mostly, I listen to German news radio to help me learn the language, but the EDM stations are great for housework and family dance breaks.
Even on the pop, rock and more eclectic stations, there are songs that may contain lyrics not suitable for younger kids. I found this out the hard way. Of course, Mac and Miss V felt the need repeat the inappropriate line over and over again before falling into hushed giggles.
The fun part, though, is that you and your kids may discover artists you hadn’t heard of before. I seem to recall a story about 1990s boy bands being huge in Europe while remaining unknown in the U.S. (This would’ve been a few years before they became global sensations of course.)
If you’re more into island beach vacations, spin the globe and find stations in Jamaica and the Caribbean. Dreaming of Bali? There are stations broadcasting from there as well. Wherever you want to go in the world, I’m pretty sure this app has a station for that.
Don’t forget about CDs, mp3s, and streaming music and sounds, too. You can relax with the sounds of rainforests, sounds of ocean waves, or even the sounds of the mountains. Or, you can engage in traditional Caribbean music, African music, Brazilian music, or even German folk music.
It will never be exactly same as being there, but everyone is bound to learn and get a sense of whatever city or culture you choose.
4. See It and Believe It
When it comes to acquiring new information, many of us can be considered “visual learners.” We need to see how things are done or what things look like to truly get a sense of them. There are a few ways you can do this with your travels.
More Than A Search Engine
If you want to see the world but you’re grounded at home, Google can get you there.
Google Earth offers users the ability to go just about anywhere with a few clicks. Fly over Paris, for example. Get 3D views of the Louvre Museum, the Eiffel Tower, or the Arc de Triomphe. For more information, Google Earth even provides quick links to Wikipedia.
One of my favorite features of Google Earth is “I’m Feeling Lucky.” Click the die icon and off you go to some random destination around the globe. In a matter of a few minutes, I’ve learned new information about a lake in Romania, an island in the Philippines, and a national park in Indonesia. See where it takes you. Maybe it’ll become the site of your next family adventure.
Google Arts & Culture, is another amazing way to explore from home. You walk virtually through museums and examine individual works of art, of course, but there’s more. Google Arts & Culture offers you the opportunity to tour famous sites across the globe or even see Paris from atop the Eiffel Tower and other rooftop locales.
Google Arts & Culture even encourages learning and artistic exploration opportunities as well. For example, they connect works of art, the artist, and you through things you can do at home. Currently featured is the artist Barbara Hepworth and her sculpture titled, “Spring.” A video shows you how to create a similar work using a potato and cocktail sticks.
When you’re finished exploring where you hope to go, you can always focus on where you’ve been and the all the memories made. If you’re like us, you’ve got the memories of vacations past floating around in some personal digital universe. Why not turn your digital memory lane into tactile visual travels by creating albums of your past adventures.
Louise Carey and Kerrie Hughes compiled a list of “The Best Photo Books in 2020: Create A Personalized Picture Album Online,” for Digital Camera World (digitalcameraworld.com) that will give you some ideas on where to start. Or, maybe more accurately, which to start with.
My family has been using Shutterfly for ages, but Amazon has gotten into the picture game as well. You can upload photos to Amazon Photos, then use Amazon Prints to customize artwork, gifts, and, of course, albums.
Albums are a wonderful, physical (rather than digital) visual way to preserve, show off, and share your family’s adventures.
The Old-Fashioned Ways
Back before I could travel, when it was all just a dream I had for my future, I watched movies. Sometimes, I would watch foreign films. Other times, I would indulge in good old Hollywood classics. Always, the films would take place in a foreign country, and I could get a taste of what life was like there.
- Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) — Italy
- Only You (1994) — Italy
- The Very Thought of You (1998) — England
- French Kiss (1995) – France
- Chocolat (2000) — France
- Charade (1963) — France
- National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985) — Multiple Countries
- Amélie (2001) — France
- Run Lola Run (1998) — Germany
Like movies (and often the prelude to them), books are another great way to escape and explore. Lately, my literary choices have been more rooted in parenting, but I have my favorite travel books and authors. I love getting lost in them when I can.
- Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert — Italy, India, Indonesia
- The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton — Various
- Neither Her Nor There: Travels in Europe, by Bill Bryson — Various
- Various travel-related books by Bill Bryson
- My Twenty-Five Years in Provence: Reflections on Then and Now, by Peter Mayle — France
- Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, by Pamela Druckerman — French culture
There are travel books for children, too. The folks at fullsuitcase.com offer a great list in their post, “Best Travel Books & Fun Destination Guides for Kids.” My personal favorite is the “This is…” series by Miroslav Sasek. I just love the information and the artwork.
No doubt you have your personal favorites. Please share them in a comment below.
5. A Touch of Travel
Last, but not least, is our sense of touch. We can’t travel, so we can’t feel the cobbled streets of some ancient city beneath our feet or island sands between our toes. It’s a sad truth for those with wanderlust in our hearts. Yet, the reality is, when we travel with our family, we rarely notice the tactile nature of our surroundings.
Amid the hustle and bustle of travel, do we ever stop and marvel at the smooth feel of an airline seat? What about the slightly rough texture of the wooden restaurant chair? Probably not. We aren’t usually mindful of what we are actually touching in any given moment.
Engaging your sense of touch mindfully, though, can have an extremely calming effect for you and your youngest family members. You don’t even have to travel to enjoy it.
Outside of your home, take a moment to walk barefoot together. Notice how the grass or concrete feels beneath your feet. Is it warm? Cold? Wet? Rough? Breathe in the fresh air. Notice the breeze and how it feels on your skin. If you can, dip your toes into some cool local waters, like in a creek or lake. Take a moment to note how it feels, even down to the tiniest detail.
At home, you and your children can practice being mindful in other ways. Take a moment to note how modeling clay/dough/foam feels in your hands. Kinetic and play sand are other textures you can notice together, as is water from the hose or faucet. Acknowledge together how these things feel on your skin.
A Touch More
To learn more and help teach young children about mindfulness, use books. Check out this list of picture books, compiled by Melissa Taylor for readbrightly.com, “Namaste, Young Readers: Picture Books That Introduce Mindfulness and Meditation to Kids.”
For children ages 4-8 (or even older and willing), I found the book, Mindful Games for Kids: 50 Fun Activities to Stay Present, Improve Concentration, and Understand Emotions, by Kristina Marcelli-Sargent on amazon.com. In this book you will find wonderful, simple ways to help children practice mindfulness and use their senses to calm their bodies.
If you’ve got older children, I found these “Mindful Games Activity Cards: 55 Fun Ways to Share Mindfulness with Kids and Teens,” by Susan Kaiser Greenland. There are a lot of activities designated for “all ages,” so they can be done together with the whole family.
When we take the time to become mindful of how things feel, our bodies relax. We get that sense of serenity that’s often associated with “taking a vacation”. A few minutes practicing meditation, or even just a couple of mindful moments in our day, can have a positive effect on our health.
With enough practice, and when we are able to travel, maybe we’ll find ourselves acknowledging the smoothness of the airline seat. Better yet, noting the softness of fine sand between our toes.
Even if you can’t travel physically, you can still get a sense of it by engaging your brain. Whether you focus on just one, or a combination of sounds, smells, sights, tastes and textures, you can experience new places and cultures and have an escape even if you can’t leave home.
For more on the brain and family travel experiences, check out my previous post, “What’s Good for the (Family) Bond Is Good for the Brain.“