And look at these walls! You can see the massive Roman sections down at the bottom, and they’re 16 feet thick – 16 feet thick! And, 2000 years old – isn’t that…

No one was listening.

They were chasing a cat through the shrubs. “There’s a cat, dad! He went that way!” Anthony pointed and ran in the direction the alleged cat had taken. The other two kids followed in pursuit.

Here we were, at the most important Roman ruins in all of Spain, Tarragona, and no one cared. I mean, I’m a history teacher and administrator, and I am used to no one listening to what I have to say, but somehow, I envisioned the experience with my own children to execute a bit differently.

Now, it wasn’t that I had seen the story of this family trip to Spain play out with me as some sort of Pied Piper of Barcelona, marching obedient (and singing) children around the city on adventure after adventure hanging on my every word and direction and eating every and anything for the sheer opportunity of trying it.

Let’s stop here, kids, and get a bite to eat. How do calamari croquettes stained black with squid ink and these grilled octopus tentacles sound for lunch?

Great, dad! We’re excited to push the boundaries of our comfort zones and recognize that trying new foods is an exciting and fun way to do it!

Early on, I learned that I had to meet them where they were rather than dragging them along the path I wanted to carve myself.

Come on, Norcini, that’s parenting 101, you say. Yes, it may be, and for those who traveled with kids before, this whole thing may seem like a silly over-complication of a routine experience. But for me, this introduction of children into our summer travel was a breaking of a cherished routine, and I can be stubborn and slow to adapt.

The Sagrada Familia – in chocolate!

What I realized was that I had to see the city of Barcelona and the trip differently. Kids forced me to slow down and to dig through the easy checklist of must-dos and must-sees and look more at the vacation through their eyes. Yes, that meant a lot more dessert, for sure. But is there really anything bad about a taste-test of every local gelato shop? They challenged me to slow down rather than speed up, and to appreciate the journey. But it also challenged me to look deeper into the city to find things that appeal to 10 and 11 year olds.

Thankfully, there was no David Bowie in this labyrinth, though I may have called myself the Goblin King.

We spent an afternoon getting lost in and then racing each other through a hedge labyrinth. Another morning, we toured a Gaudi house with an overpriced and bizarre VR-driven tablet experience where tortoises swam out of windows and doors appeared where none appeared to exist. Around station #6 I asked the kids if we’re all looking around the room and seeing things that don’t appear to exist as real and the things that we see with our own eyes, including each other, disappear, how are we to determine what is real and what is not?

“This piano plays music, daddy!”

if we’re all looking around the room and seeing things that don’t appear to exist as real and the things that we see with our own eyes, including each other, disappear, how are we to determine what is real and what is not?

Fair enough. Let’s continue with the tour then, shall we, and we can return to existentialism later. Sound good?

We explored museums where everything was made of chocolate and your ticket was a chocolate bar. If only Wonka had known about QR codes, think of how much more efficient and less dramatic his process could have been? It’s still likely that Augustus Gloop got sucked into the chocolate river evacuation system, but Charlie Bucket and his Grandfather could have saved some significant emotional energy during an already trying time for the family. Another day, we tromped through a replica Amazon forest, dropped coins in street performers’ hats, and wandered markets looking at everything from candy to cured pig legs. One time, we got a drink – orange juice for them, magic blue drink for dad – at an ice bar on the beach. Judging by the disco ball hanging from the ceiling, my guess is that much crazier things happened at night in that meat locker turned ice palace. But for now, juice!

We made meals at home and found our favorite local grocer and fruit stand. We played board games at night and took advantage of the siesta most days.

And the kids helped me see my own past practices with a fresh perspective and innocence. Backpackers carrying a bag on their front AND their back? Insanity. Eating nothing but cheap bread and cheese throughout Spain to cut costs? Unfathomable. Well, ok, that’s extreme because I dream of cheap meals of bread and cheese, but traveling with kids made me realize we couldn’t do it every day.

At the Montjuic funicular, the man in the ticket booth turns off the mic. “Siete,” he says in a barely audible voice. “She is seven.” I’m about to motion that I can’t hear what he’s saying, when it clicks: this guy is trying to help me save money and he doesn’t want the Russians, his boss, or whomever else might listen to the recordings of Funicular station 132 to know it. If I knew how to say “I’m picking up what you’re putting down” in Spanish, I would. But I don’t, and it’s more likely to come out like, “I’m picking my nose and going to put it down here,” and that would be troubling. And awkward. So instead, I give him an extended wink. A wink is always how you show you’re in on something, right?

We process the payment and move on. “I’m so glad that you guys didn’t say anything,” I tell the kids. Like when Gracie ratted us out at Sagrada Familia by sharing that her siblings were 11, not 10, and therefore disqualified from children’s ticket prices.

“Wait, what happened?”

“That man let you go for free, Grace. He just needed me to say that you’re seven.”

“But I’m not seven.”

“Right, I know that and he knows that. But I needed to say you were seven when the mic was turned off and he let you go for free.”

“But isn’t that lying? And why did the mic have to be off? And how did the man know you knew he was letting me go for free?”

“All good questions. I winked at him and it was cool. The wink was the signal.”

“That’s weird, daddy.”

“Maybe. But you know what’s weirder? The word Funicular. Let’s get on this thing and get up the mountain.”