All parents know that occasional one-on-one time with kids is a good thing.
But when you're a single parent, the parent-and-child vacation is a compulsory affair, and not always desirable. You alone must make all the plans and take care of every detail on the road, and you can't even hit the bar to unwind at the end of the day. (Tip: The savvy single parent will budget for heavy mini-bar use.)
Without proper planning, the exercise can be a disaster. Separated, with one daughter, I've made every single-mom-vacation mistake possible, feeling like the world's biggest loser at nuclear-family-infested beaches and ski resorts and feeling ridiculous alongside my daughter on toddler rides at foreign amusement parks.
Then, when I finally did figure things out, the rules changed. Suddenly, my pliable child - once content with the penguins in Central Park, a ride on the Eye in London, or watching Wedding Crashers in Paris with a French audience who laughed at all the wrong parts - had become a world-weary teen with a year of art school under her belt. At 15, Eliza is actually a complex and surprisingly reasonable person, but let's face it -- Facebook held much more appeal for her than spending endless hours of enforced quality time with her mother.
It was time to consult the experts.
A quick search showed the single-parent family vacation is now a firmly entrenched trend, with resorts waiving singles supplements (though usually in the off season), and major outfits like Beaches offering single-parent packages. Websites such as singleparenttravel.net (founded by Brenda Elwell, author of the Single Parent Travel Handbook) offer advice that ranges from insultingly useless ("Make a packing list") to a helpful stating of the obvious ("Have kids memorize the name of the hotel").
But virtually all the information was for people with kids, not for people with post-kid, pre-adult aliens. So I turned to a specialist: clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf, this newspaper's columnist on parenting teenagers. His first piece of advice made sense: "Have stuff planned out, have a structure you can play off, but be flexible."
The second was unexpected: "During the entire time of the vacation, you are not allowed to change noticeable character flaws. For example, if the child walks too fast, or too slow, or uses a crabby bratty tone, don't pick up on it."
My second expert was Diane Moody, a family and child therapist in Toronto, whose advice also touched on attitude: "Expect some very bad moments travelling with your children. I used to remind mine that travelling can be difficult and that we will have grumpy times as well as good times, as there is no such thing as a perfect vacation."
Fine. But the question of where to go remained, so I interpreted their advice as follows: 1) Pick a destination guaranteed to please at least one of us, i.e., me; 2) make sure it intersects somewhat with her interests (at least the legal, respectable ones); and 3) schedule events so as to avoid any pressure on her to engage in meaningful mother-daughter communication.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe fit the bill perfectly, with three days in Glasgow to start - mainly because of its famous native son, architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. His world-renowned Glasgow School of Art was completed in 1809 and its main building is every bit as fairy-tale-ishly cute today.
We even went on a touristy tour, but this one was led by a charmingly quirky art student (a beautiful brunette in form-fitting woollens with little Nordic boots, like some kind of sexy hobbit librarian) and the building was not only filled with Mackintosh's trademark whimsical details and custom furniture but was also alive - a real, working art school, with exotically raffish students and a jumble of statues and paintings to navigate. Eliza started asking if they took foreign students and how soon she could apply. (She never bothers to mask her desire to leave home as soon as possible, but this time I took it as a victory.)
Along with the GSA, we hit an art museum; made a pointless expedition to a global-franchise-filled mall called Buchanan Galleries; and a more satisfying jaunt to music stores and vintage shops in the city's leafy west end.
I knew I was pressing my luck, but we were in Scotland, dammit, and the World Piping Championships were on, so I insisted we attend "Girls & Gracenotes" at St. Andrews in the Square church. No one was more relieved than I to discover that audience members were allowed to take drinks from a bar in the basement into the church, which everyone did, two pints of beer at a time.
And Eliza thoroughly enjoyed the performance, which turned out to include contemporary folk musicians rather than traditional pipers.
Unfortunately, while our jam-packed schedule in Glasgow was a success in terms of artsy content and zero time for meaningful conversation, it did not account for jet lag, which hit us full force in Edinburgh. The first morning, halfway through a flagging crawl down the Royal Mile, I remembered Dr. Wolf's advice to be flexible, and we returned to the hotel to rest. Our schedule immediately fell apart as we took turns having five-hour naps and eating at all hours, often from the mini-bar and never together.
Our inertia was exacerbated by the fact that our hotel, The Bonham, once a magnificent private residence and then a hospital for orphans, was a rabbit's warren of twisting corridors, endless doorways and grand stairwells. Every time we left the room, it took ages to find our way back. The place was absolutely perfect.
I knew things had gone too far when we I found myself hovering over a hotel staffer who was trying to get the TV Internet to work so Eliza could log on to Facebook. Perhaps it was the fact that the hotel person was a gigantic Hungarian in a Black Watch kilt that jarred me out of my complacency.
"Okay, Eliza," I said after he lumbered out of the room, "forget the TV. We're going to find you a proper Internet café, dear, and see a bit of Edinburgh while we're at it!"
We stumbled off into the misty city, and discovered not only Internet cafés, but the Fringe in full swing on the High Street, with crowds of onlookers jostling performers as they juggled lit torches, busked, struck dramatic poses or simply dashed around begging strangers to see their next show.
I have to admit, part of my sloth was due to intimidation: The Fringe alone featured 2,500 acts at hundreds of venues. I succumbed to momentary parental idiocy: How to choose? Good God, what if I picked a show that did not facilitate parent-child bonding?
Besides, it was easy to avoid the issue and still take enjoy the city: shopping, catching up-and-coming bands at a bar called Whistlebinkies, and visiting the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art to see controversial British artist Tracey Emin's retrospective (involving used condoms and endless rough-sex references - I mean, what art-school teen wouldn't love that?)
Eventually, I picked random shows for our four final days, making sure to leave time for a quick visit to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society while I was at it. There, as an old Edinburgh friend and I sampled various casks identified by numbers and phrases (e.g., "Fire, smoke and thunder" or "Linseed and menthol"), Eliza did as she was told, and sat in a corner with her hair over her face, wearing my glasses, trying to look 19.
She even deigned to join the laughter when our friend Gavin got confused and asked the barmaid for a Scotch called "Audrey Hepburn in silk stockings." (She quickly deduced that he meant "Sophia Loren in a silk negligee.")
But my dear daughter really laughed at the last show we went to - a comedy group called Idiots of Ants (say it fast) who killed with absurdist, very British humour. As I glanced over at my super-cool teen in stitches beside me, I knew it was one of our best trips ever.
Air Canada flies to Glasgow direct from Toronto and from other Canadian cities via Heathrow. Edinburgh is a one-hour train ride from Glasgow.
Check out www.visitscotland.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Malmaison Glasgow 278 W. George St., Glasgow; 44 (0) 141 572 1000; www.malmaison-glasgow.com. Rooms from $308. Offers ultramodern luxury rooms inside an old church.
The Bonham 35 Drumsheugh Gardens, Edinburgh; 44 (0) 131 2747400, www.thebonham.com. Rooms from $300. A blend of ornate, old-fashioned luxury and technological convenience.