Helping My Expat Kids Discover Their Roots on the Ultimate US Road...

Helping My Expat Kids Discover Their Roots on the Ultimate US Road Trip

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road trip
Photo courtesy of author

One of my absolute favorite “Mom stories” comes from a hot 4th of July, when my daughter, Carmen, was 8 years old, and my son Lorenzo, was 2. We were still living in Paris at the time, in our tiny apartment in the 11th arrondissement. I had just gotten out of the shower and was getting dressed, chatting to the kids through the bedroom door. It was the start of the summer holidays, and we were tossing plans for the day back and forth.

Go to the pool? Go to an air-conditioned movie? Go on a picnic?

“Oh, by the way,” I dropped in casually, as it only had just occurred to me. “Today is the 4th of July.”

No response.

road trip
Author with daughter Carmen. Photo courtesy of author

When the 4th of July Became Turkey Day

“Did you hear me? Today is the 4th of July.” By now I was planted in front of Carmen, the only one of the two kids old enough to know anything about this most patriotic of American holidays, combing the snarls out of my damp hair.

“Oh,“ she answered, sounding mildly bored. “Is that the day we’re supposed to kill a turkey or something?”

Good lord, I remember thinking.

To be clear: the fact that my 8-year old thought this was the day we were supposed to kill a turkey (as if that’s what actually happens at Thanksgiving) bore zero reflection on how well she had been paying attention, and total reflection on my efforts at teaching her. What had I done over the years to expose her to the Thanksgiving tradition? What had she ever known of the 4th of July?

The answer to both of these questions was nothing.

July 4th themed tableware
© Steve Kikrow/Shutterstock

American Traditions Overseas

Unlike some American expats, who join forces regularly on US holidays, I had not managed to cobble together much of an American community since moving to Paris from Uganda, where Carmen passed her infancy, six years earlier.

Truth be told, the 4th of July had never been very significant for me either. Having grown up overseas myself, my memories of the 4th circled around the occasional celebration at the US Ambassador’s residence, or not celebrating it at all. Thanksgiving was always more ceremonious than the 4th of July — at least while living overseas with my parents, as US Embassy families did tend to get together for turkey or some local stand-in.

Kristin Louise Duncombe
Photo courtesy of author

Still, when I was 8 years old, I knew the difference – and knew it well – between Thanksgiving and the 4th of July. And though at the time I found Carmen’s comment utterly hilarious, I also took it as a wake up call: I needed to teach my kids about their maternal cultural identity.

But how to teach expatriated kids where they are “from”? What does it mean to be from a place – especially if you were not born there, have never lived there, but hold the passport, speak the language, and even have the requisite accent?

road trip
Kristin Louise Duncombe with children Carmen and Lorenzo, June 2016. Photo courtesy of author.

Why a Road Trip?

And so was born the fantasy of taking my children across the USA, of sharing with them that quintessential American experience: the cross-country road trip. Of course ages 8 and 2 are hardly optimal ages to make such a trip, so it had to wait, and wait it did – until now!

The summer of 2016 has arrived. Carmen is 17, Lorenzo is 11. We have two full months ahead of us, and we are going to cross the United States by road. Our itinerary? Pretty much all we have talked about for the last six months.

road trip
Road trip map. Image courtesy of author.

And We’re Off !

We start in Seattle, that beautiful city in the Pacific Northwest. I lived there from the ages of 21 to 25. And when we arrived on June 19th it was exactly 21 years since I drove out of the city for the last time, also on a road trip across the USA, but all by myself. I drove out of Seattle in 1995 determined to forge my life as an independent woman – one who was not afraid to travel the USA solo. And travel it I did, in a zigzag, paying visits to former boyfriends across the country, in a dazzling display of youthful promiscuity on my way to graduate school in New Orleans.

Twenty-one years later, I will be making a different type of trip, touching down with my two perfectly bilingual and bicultural “American” children – kids who are dying to see this vast country that is theirs. And yet they know it barely any better than their European peers who only know about the USA from movies and TV shows.

road trip
Kicking off in Seattle. Photo courtesy of author

Exploring the West Coast

From Seattle we will head to Portland, Oregon and down the Oregon and California Coasts, camping along the way in different state parks (snuggling up in the three matching sleeping bags I have bought via AMAZON Prime, and had shipped, along with a brand new tent and a few other camping supplies, to a friend’s house in Seattle).

We will spend time in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Los Angeles, before shooting over to Joshua Tree. From there, it’s off to Arizona, where we will camp on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Then we will head to our next campsite, in Monument Valley, Utah.

road trip
Monument Valley USA © Alexis Duclos for INSPIRELLE

Next we’ll head to Canyon de Chelly in the New Mexican heat, through the painted forest and the petrified desert. We will take up residence at an artist’s colony in Santa Fe, where a dear friend lives and works, until heading north through Denver, and then further north still into Wyoming.

Heading Cross-Country

I confess the camping groove will be temporarily shelved in Wyoming – a decision taken when I read all the advice Yellowstone Park’s rangers offered regarding BEARS. (Feeling no need to conquer this fear, I booked us into a YURT on a Llama farm, right outside of Yellowstone.)

From there we head east, camping once again throughout South Dakota and Minnesota, visiting Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, and “Little House on the Prairie” territory. This is where my mother was born and raised on a farm, and where my grandmother was recently buried. Then, we will turn in the tent for a few nights of AirBnb in Minneapolis, before heading to see old friends in Chicago, then Ohio at Kent State University, and onto the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. (Did you know there is a Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania? I didn’t either, until planning this trip!)

Cape Cod
Cape Cod. Photo source: Pixabay

Finishing Up on the East Coast

From there we head to Cape Cod, Massachusetts where a week-long extended family reunion will take place on the Cape Cod Canal. I’ll turn in the rental car in Massachusetts, and the kids and I will Greyhound Bus it to New York City for 24 hours (where we’ll be celebrating my 47th birthday over cupcakes at MAGNOLIA Bakery). From there, we will bus to my parents retirement community outside of Washington, DC… where we will relax for three weeks!

As Jack Kerouac wrote, “Every bump, rise, and stretch in [the American Landscape] mystified [our] longing,” and all we want to do now, after these months of dreaming up of our voyage “home,” is to “sneak out… and disappear somewhere, and go and find out what everybody was doing all over the country… There’s nothing to talk about anymore. The only thing to do was go.”

Follow our voyage on INSTAGRAM @The3ofUSintheUSA


Learn more about author Kristin Louise Duncombe in INSPIRELLE’s interview with her! 

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