One of the best gifts from my mother is one she actually gave to … – The Boston Globe

The Grandmere Trip is a tradition started by my mother, a savvy travel agent. She invited each of her grandchildren to choose a trip anywhere in the world to go on with her.
She had four conditions. First, the grandchild had to be 11 years old. This was in the misty past when children under 12 flew for half price, a huge plus. She also felt it was the ideal age because they were old enough to be self-sufficient, but not yet ruled by hormones. Second, the grandchild had to think about where and why that particular trip — and pitch it to my mother. How did the proposed trip connect to a current interest, or better — a passion? My older daughter was in a dual language program and chose Spain. My younger daughter was a serious ballet student and chose Russia to visit the Bolshoi. The only time she nixed a potential site among her nine grandchildren was after returning from her second safari, telling the younger grandchildren, “You can go anywhere else, but I don’t need a third safari.” Third, while the grandchild was encouraged to think about the selection for several years, the final choice had to be presented to my mother a year in advance so she could plan accordingly.
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Her final condition was the most important. It made the trip. The grandchild had to come alone with her on a tour with adults. No siblings, no friends, no parents. She avoided family tours. “If there are other kids, they’ll be off with them. This is our time together.” It was brilliant.
My mother died seven years ago at the age of 92 and was able to take eight of her nine grandchildren on a trip of their choosing. Now a grandmother myself, I am continuing this tradition.
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I told my oldest grandson, Callum, about the Grandmere trip when he was 4. He surprised me with his answer: Japan. “I love sushi and I want to see the temples.” Temples! I pressed him why temples. “Because of the Ninja warriors.” We embarked on six years of learning about Japan. Visiting the Japanese house at the Children’s Museum. Attending the Japanese cultural festival hosted by Showa students in Jamaica Plain. Birthday gifts included books about Kyoto. And of course, he devoured sushi when given the opportunity. I was excited to find a week-long Japanese study tour organized by the Japan Society of Boston that included a home stay, and allowed me to bring an 11-year-old. I had a plan.
A year before our intended travel date, I asked him again. “Are you sure it’s Japan?”
“Mimi,” he began, “I have changed my mind. Is that OK? I know we’ve done a lot of studying about Japan, and someday I do want to go there. But not for my Grandmere trip.”
“You can go anywhere that’s safe. No war zones,” I said. “Where would you like to go?”
“Denmark.”
Privately I felt some relief as this was my first Grandmere trip, and Denmark meant less travel time and no language barrier since most Danes are also fluent in English, and I felt I could go without a tour. But why Denmark?
“I love Legos. I want to see where they were invented.”
We visited Aarhus and Copenhagen, but nothing could compare to Billund, which calls itself the capital for children, the site of LEGO world headquarters. The star attraction was LEGO House, built in 2017 as a multi-level immersion experience for each guest to become a LEGO designer, with 25 million bricks at one’s disposal. Each floor resembles a LEGO brick, stacked off-kilter with outdoor climbing sculptures on each level. Inside visitors of all ages collaborate on elaborate, sprawling LEGO creations which are assembled, then later dissembled to start anew, just as any devoted LEGO fan does at home. Callum built a bridge to connect to an intricate city under construction using only yellow bricks. The single brick color made the architectural elements pop. Callum was in heaven.
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My granddaughter Carys has always loved sea turtles. She saw a movie about the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and declared that to be her Grandmere trip wish. “I have to see it before it’s gone,” she told me, after reading about the destruction of the coral reef. I was nervous about the trip, which had morphed into Australia and New Zealand, as Carys decided to try to learn Maori online during the pandemic. I worked with a travel agent to identify child-oriented sites (a backstage tour of the Sydney Opera House!) but we couldn’t find a tour that matched our dates, hit our spots, and allowed children. I would need to take her on my own.
When decision time came, we spent a day together plotting out the actual trip. We were both daunted by the lengthy travel time. I asked if she might consider another place to see sea turtles, suggesting the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. “Ecuador?” she said. “I think they are famous for ceviche, and I love ceviche!” We dove in learning about the wildlife on land and in the ocean and Darwin’s five-week visit, out of which his theory of evolution developed.
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It is possible to visit the Galapagos Islands on your own, but given that 97 percent of the land is a national park and you can’t enter national parkland without a National Park guide, it’s difficult to organize from afar. I wanted to be on the islands as much as possible, so we chose a land-based tour that would allow me to bring a child.
The Galapagos Islands did not disappoint. We snorkeled with white-tailed sharks and green sea turtles. We learned about chocolate production, watching demonstrations on how it is made, and had many chocolate desserts, including at an artisanal chocolate shop overlooking the San Francisco plaza in Quito. Sipping hot cocoa and looking beyond the balcony, Carys told me, “I feel like a princess and this is my kingdom.”
Callum and I experienced the Danish concept of hygge when we happened into a coffee shop on a rainy Sunday afternoon and played board games for hours with other patrons looking to cozy up. Carys savored ceviche every day of her Grandmere trip — some days at more than one meal. Both Denmark and the Galapagos Islands provided a glimpse into the future of sustainable living. Although water is not potable in Galapagos, no single-use plastic bottles are allowed. In Copenhagen, people of all ages cycle in wide, designated lanes, even in the throes of winter.
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Having taken two Grandmere trips, I’m adding a fifth condition to the four my mother started with: Go someplace new so you are not the expert. Make new memories together. Puzzle over maps, discover foods, and try new activities. My eyesight is not great, and I admitted to Carys I couldn’t see the penguins she was spotting on the black lava rocks. “I can be your eyes,” she told me, and described them in detail.
A Grandmere trip doesn’t have to be international or expensive. It could be an exploration in your city or state, ideally with a few overnights away from both of your homes. Its focus is on learning, not entertainment, though it is certainly fun. For me, theme parks and all-inclusive resorts were off-limits. One purpose of the Grandmere trip is to underscore a child’s sense of agency. Another is to model and share curiosity. The essential feature is the child chooses a place, connected to the child’s interest, to go with you. A Grandmere trip will bring you closer starting with the invitation, which itself is a vote of confidence in a 4-year-old.
Let’s start thinking about your Grandmere trip. Where would you go?
Meg Campbell is a former lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is a founder of ELEducation, Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, Codman Academy Charter Public School and the Margarita Muñiz Academy. She can be reached at mimiinthecity@gmail.com.
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