The Most Superlative Road Trip Ever!: Traveling Abroad With Your Parents

South Island, New Zealand

Kaikoura, New Zealand

It’s my parents’ fault that I’m an expat.  Not because they traumatized me as a child, but because they encouraged me to go abroad from a very young age.  When I was nine, they let me live with a French family for three weeks in Paris. By the time I graduated from college, I had backpacked through Europe, gone on Spring Break to Central America, and exploited my Jewish heritage for a free trip to Israel. My parents also led by example, having themselves been to places like Brazil, Russia, China, and Finland.

Interestingly, even though I always traveled with my parents’ blessing and often on their dime, I almost never traveled with them.  When I was a kid, family vacations involved a van large enough for my brother and I to each have our own row of seats, books on tape, and a national monument.  Admittedly, those trips were a lot of fun, but you don’t get a stamp in your passport when you enter Disneyland. The problem was my brother, whose comfort zone doesn’t extend past North America.  He even suffered culture shock during a business trip to Montreal.

However, during my semester abroad in Barcelona, my parents and I spent a long weekend together in England.  Then, while I was living in Argentina, the three of us met in the middle in Colombia; and my mother came to Buenos Aires three times. Most recently, my parents joined me for two weeks in New Zealand.

Having your parents visit you abroad is stressful, the way high school reunions and annual performance reviews are stressful.  There’s pressure to look your best, demonstrate that you’ve accomplished your goals, and prove that you’ve made something of your life.  Because long-haul flights are expensive and unpleasant, you feel personally accountable for everything from the weather to their health to how much things cost.

In the past, I had alleviated my sense of duty by convincing myself that I was an excuse to travel to exotic locales.  This time, I knew that New Zealand was only on my parents’ radar because I live here.  I worried they would grow bored of New Zealand, fast.  My parents aren’t exactly nature lovers; they would rather analyze paintings of landscapes than actually go outside. Entertaining my parents without the aid of art museums, architectural masterpieces, and historical sites is like throwing a children’s birthday party with no cake, games, or presents.

I wanted to show my parents what makes New Zealand special, so I decided to take them to the South Island. Our first destination was Kaikoura, a stunning beach town north of Christchurch, where an abundance of marine wildlife feeds in the nearby waters.  We booked a whale-watching tour, and had the good fortune to spot a number of albatross, six Sperm Whales, a pod of Dusky Dolphins, and an Orca Whale.  Sadly, thanks to an unfortunate combination of rolling waves, the lamb pie she ate for lunch, and my dad’s driving, my mother spent most of the trip vomiting off the side of the boat.

We spent the next day in Christchurch, where my parents finally got their culture fix – the impressive art gallery, the lovely Botanic Gardens, a production of “Anything Goes”, and dinner at a Greek restaurant owned by an actual Greek couple (and their mothers).

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

The following morning, we drove through Arthur’s Pass to Franz Josef Village.  With the help of a pair of crampons and a young Kiwi wielding a pickax, we climbed part way up the face of the Franz Josef Glacier, a mountain of moving ice that resembles a Baked Alaska filled with windshield washer fluid.

Murchison Lookout Point, New Zealand

On the way to Nelson, we stopped to see the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes at Punakaiki, and the seal colony at the aptly named Cape Foulwind.  Near Murchison, we hiked to a lookout point and contemplated the verdant, pastoral landscape.  “I would love to see what the impressionists would do with this,” remarked my father.

We dedicated a day to sampling Sauvignon Blanc in the Marlborough wine region. Astoundingly, my father was sober enough to

Abel Tasman National Park, Coast Track

drive us back via Queen Charlotte’s Drive, a short, curvy stretch of highway with incredible views of the haunting Marlborough Sounds.  In New Zealand, driving between destinations is a noteworthy activity due to the majestic scenery. The next morning, we walked a few hours of the famous Abel Tasman National Park Coast Track.  In the afternoon, we called in at the Ngaru Caves, situated under the summit of Takaka Hill, before watching the sunset over Golden Bay.

Then, we returned to Auckland, where my parents left me while they went to Rotorua to see the geothermal parks, soak in the hot mineral baths, and eat grass-fed New Zealand beef behind my back.  At the weekend, we scoped out the art galleries in Parnell, and took the ferry to Waiheke Island, where we had a fabulous lunch at Stonyridge Vineyard, and made one final pilgrimage to the beach.

To everyone’s surprise, my parents loved New Zealand.  Before they left for the airport, my parents lamented, “I can’t believe

Sheep, New Zealand

we’re leaving already; it feels like we’re just getting started.” During the drives, my mother would hang out the back window and take pictures of sheep, and my father interrupted every conversation with an involuntary, “Wow!  Look at how pretty that is.”  Personally, I couldn’t get enough of the road signs, which espoused such indispensable driving tips as, “Too close?  Back off.” “Too fast?  Slow down.” “Have to pee? Pull over.”  My parents were charmed by the Kiwi hospitality, and I was amused by the ubiquitous use of superlatives.  Everywhere is the best, biggest, first, or highest something or other. The New Zealand tourism department must have a team dedicated to handing out paper plate awards.

Yet, of all the must-see, can’t-miss things we did, what I enjoyed most was the novelty of being in the same city as my parents.  I used to reason that if I didn’t live abroad, I wouldn’t be in touch with my parents much more than I am now, because I wouldn’t live in my home state of Michigan.  Of course, that’s not true.  You can’t use free nights and weekends to call New Zealand, not least of all because we don’t have the same nights or weekends. There’s no rationalizing my way out of it: homesickness is one of the unavoidable costs of living abroad.

If it’s hard for me, I can only imagine what it’s like being the parent of an expat.  My mom, bless her heart, still can’t work out the time difference.  She has to confront subtle attacks on her parenting, like, “How could you let your daughter live in South America?” (As if moving to Argentina was equivalent to getting pregnant and dropping out of high school or as if my parents could do anything about it.)  And it can be a challenge for her to trust that my choice to live abroad is nothing personal.

Parents always have an image of what their children’s lives will be like. My parents certainly never fantasized about me living permanently in the Southern Hemisphere and earning money as a temp.  Even though they raised me to be independent, they didn’t intend for me to be so distant.  I used to get annoyed when my parents tried to guilt-trip me into a trip home or talk me out of my next crazy move.  Now, I appreciate that they miss me, worry about me, and want me closer.

I’m lucky.  My parents might have different plans for my life, but they both defer to my wishes.  Not only do my parents support my lifestyle, they also make a concerted effort to be a part of my life. Even though I wish I could see them more frequently, and for fewer hours at a time, I’m grateful we get together at least once a year.  We have a new tradition and amazing memories to hold us over.  I’m not sure how interested my parents will be in a trip to Sydney next year, but I wonder if I could sell them on Bali?

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