The internationally acclaimed artist journals his year in transit as a family of four
The art of traveling as a family has never been so assorted. From city breaks to coastal camping underneath the moonlight, the ways and shapes of journeying have no fixed formula for guaranteed success. Often the most memorable experiences are ones shared when a little spontaneity comes into play, something picture book legend Oliver Jeffers found on his voyages. Belfast-raised and Brooklyn-based Jeffers went on the road for a year with his family to bond over new encounters and cultures. Writing in Family Adventures, the renowned artist reflects on exploration with two young, mischievous accomplices.
Oliver Jeffers: We were entering our seventh month in what was supposed to be a year of travel with our two young children when a global pandemic hit. We retreated to Belfast—not where we usually live—to enter lockdown closer to family and have isolated ourselves in an apartment for three months now. Reflecting on our voyage, I don’t think travel will ever be the same again.
For one thing, will we ever again be comfortable to the point of blasé sitting in such proximity to so many strangers in a contained environment for the duration of, say, a trans-Atlantic flight? Or happily use public bathrooms in a restaurant or hotel?
There were early signs of just how quickly the planet responded to the lack of emissions from car commuting and air traveling: mountains visible in the distant horizon that had before been obscured by smog, the water in the Venice canals becoming clear enough to see the bottom. You wonder how the next generation will travel. How do we go about creating a responsible tourism industry so our kids can travel when they grow up to the sorts of places we do (or did) without wreaking havoc (locally and globally) that we have?
Looking at the empty skies, deserted roads, and left imagining all the barren hotels, it seems a world ago that we set off from Brooklyn—our home for the last decade. When we sailed across the Atlantic to begin our voyage, we had not planned our exact route. We were going into the unknown. As we prepared for departure, clearing our home consumed all of our time, as opposed to figuring out where to go once we left.
There were moments when it felt like we were dragging our kicking and screaming children across the world (frankly, that is often what we do—a one-year-old and a four-year-old don’t have much patience for anything other than what they want “right now”). Despite the frustrating times that caused us to question why we were doing it all, we learned to be grateful for our initial lack of a solid plan. This was because we could move depending on our mood, but mostly because we realized the most beautiful moments happened not from solid planning or from ticking the box of seeing all the things that are supposed to be seen. They came instead from the small, accidental moments, in not very obvious places, where things fell into place and contentment settled upon us. Like the time we arrived in southern Italy and we drove for three hours to a rental house and realized we had not thought about dinner. We drove around a small, closed up industrial town on a Monday night, looking for anywhere that would feed us. The only place open was a small pizza cafe. We sat ourselves down for what turned out to be the best (and cheapest) pizza we had ever eaten, in what also turned out to be the social center for retired men in the area, coming to life around us as we ate.
Another time my son and I cleared out of the motel we were staying in along the Oregon coast so my daughter could take a nap. We found our way along the rocky shore to a perfect sandy alcove that sheltered us from the late winter wind. We huddled and played there, watching the waves crash nearby, and an hour later, somehow, my wife and our daughter wandered the same way. I went back to grab a bottle of wine and makeshift picnic, and we stayed in our little hidden spot to watch the sun go down. We recognized enough to just sit and savor these moments. We were noticing that it didn’t take very much to make us happy.
One thing this pandemic has taught us is that maybe we travel too easily. Too thoughtlessly, over vast distances to chase a feeling, without asking ourselves why, or considering the consequences global movement like this has on local culture or ecosystems—and who or what we leave behind when we do. The joy of a simple home-cooked meal with family doesn’t require traveling halfway around the world. Perhaps it wasn’t the world we had taken a year off to see. We’d taken it to see ourselves.