A swipe right on my mobile display, while trying to access my camera, led me to the news feed for the day. We were in our fourth week of travelling in Europe and had just left Barcelona to meet up with friends on Pico Island, The Azores. One third of the way home to Canada, a thousand miles west of Portugal, we were suspended in the almost middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Next to a nineteenth century stone boathouse that housed a long table with benches, our host Mario was preparing for his annual fiesta. Grilling fish he had caught over the season, I could sense his love and pride to be able to host us.

My gaze panned over to where lava fields meet the ocean. There, San Miguel Island, one of the other nine Azores islands was ghosted out in the distance. Our children laughed and jumped from lava boulder to boulder. Yet I stood paralyzed, strangely bracing myself underneath the boathouse’s door archway.

The news of a terrorist attack on La Rambla, an area of Barcelona we had just visited days before, shook me to my core. Like my own personal earthquake, I viscerally sensed the panic of the people…the tourists, the Barcelonians.

A tingly feeling overcame me thinking of all the families, like ourselves, visiting the Barrio Gotico. We were feet away from the scene of the attack days prior. How were the families we met on our guided family tour? I silently prayed they were all safe.

How to talk to children about terrorism?

We were at the right place at the right time. I trusted that we would be guided towards safety in all our travels.

I don’t believe we are born resilient, it is a skill that is bred, honed in the discomfort of the unexpected.

When their father’s mental illness took over and claimed his life, it became even more clear to me that it was my responsibility to teach this skill to my children. As amazing as it is to experience the beauty of travelling, it comes with a mother load of zigs and zags. You just never know when you will be thrown a curveball.

Our travels have been the best micro test lab of life – breeding resiliency every step of the way. And it is this truth that leads to trust. My trust. My, and now my children’s, deep inner belief that we will be safe.

Showing my children that the world is filled with people that do far more good than evil is the single best gift I can give my children.

My eldest son is the most intuitive person I know. His little antennas picking up on every single one of my subconscious and conscious thoughts.

The day after news broke, walking in the village, my friend warned him to stay close. “Stay away from the dog by the fence. He looks a bit vicious. Maybe that’s why his owners named him Hitler.” Without missing a beat my son called it out. “Why would anyone want to name their dog Hitler!”

Of course, this led to hundreds of questions about Hitler. Why did he want to kill the Jews and other people? Why do people do bad things and want to kill people? Such timely questions, given my concern surrounding how I was going to speak to my kids about what happened in Barcelona.

I was always told to answer my kid’s questions truthfully. What information could I share that was age appropriate? The details of war seemed too gruesome.

So instead I shared with them that war is a like a bigger scale of conflict that we experience every day and with each other. Except that unlike us and our friends, sometimes people and countries can’t resolve their problems peacefully.

I told them frankly that I wasn’t completely sure why people want to hurt other people on purpose. But, I told them in my lifetime I have met more people with big hearts than evil spirits. I sensed they agreed when their eyes lit up, obviously recalling something funny.

Such random encounters with kind and generous strangers didn’t escape them. It became a game. Who were all the nice people we had met in our travels.

“Boys, remember the line cook at the Montreal airport who kept his grill warm for us after the airport restaurant officially closed. Can you believe that he cooked for us even though the restaurant was closed? And that he even offered us free deserts? Can you believe that he refused our tip?”

My eldest jumped in. “Remember the books we got as presents from our hosts”? When we arrived in Barcelona, our home exchange family not only welcomed us by sharing their home and car, but greeted us upon our arrival with gifts. A full itinerary with guide books and maps to Barcelona spilled over their dining room table. Sourcing food for my hungry travellers was all taken care of as they had thoughtfully stocked all our favourite comfort foods into their fridge and pantries.

Their generosity didn’t end there. Later in the day, connecting on WhatsApp, I opened a text saying, “Help yourself to our wine collection in the sidebar, and boys can help themselves to all the toys. Here is my sister’s contact info. They would like to take you and your family out.”

Later in the week, we met up with our host’s sister. In a square in the Barrio Gotico by the Saint Maria Cathedral, their kids in their broken english exchanged Minecraft tips with mine. We watched over, drank wine and exchanged stories of Canada and Spain.

This time it was my youngest’s turn. “Oh mom, remember when Sienna peed her pants”? We had a good giggle. A fellow single mom traveller Emily @shinealife and I had connected on Instagram. We had never met but I was looking for things to do in Lisbon with my boys and she had just relocated there from the UK. A simple comment/question led to an invite, a reunion dinner, toasting our adventures with green wine. Sitting on a terrace by the Se Cathedral in the Alfama, my boys made Emily’s daughter, Sienna laugh so hard that she eventually couldn’t hold her liquids.

We had been walking for half an hour and had to end our ‘good people’ memories as we had arrived at our Airbnb.

No sooner did we kick off our shoes did we get a knock on our front door. It was our Airbnb host’s parents, an elderly Azorian couple in their seventies holding a basket of freshly made sweet bread. In their broken english they welcomed us and explained how they had made the Azorian treat especially for us. Scoffing down the bread, my boys noted in amazement how kind the couple were to have gone out of their way.

“I can’t believe how nice people are mommy,” my youngest said to me in between gulps. And at that, my shoulders dropped and I could see one of the hardest parenting questions had been answered – not by me, but through witnessing with their very own big eyes and hearts, all the kindness that protects them in this vast world.

In the end, for me, the opposite of love is isolation. And if I want to be a good teacher and role model for my boys, I have to teach them to always choose love over fear.

Days after the terrorist attack, half a million Barcelonians, from all faiths and cultures, stood in solidarity wholeheartedly proclaiming, ‘NO TINC POR’ or ‘WE ARE NOT AFRAID’.

Travelling is a testament of love and we will always choose it over fear.

I reached out to my home exchange host to make sure her and her family were safe. She assured me they were. Sharing our sorrow, we shed tears over WhatsApp text.

“Before you go, wait!”, I told her. “We left something for you in Barcelona!” Accessing my phone camera, I sent her a photo. “My boys discovered this heart in the sidewalk just outside your home. We left a piece of our heart behind in Barcelona.

We hope you can go on a scavenger hunt to find it!” Leaving her with clues, the tone of our chat changed. Between the lines, we understood we were teaching our children some very important life skills. Without ever meeting, our families had stoked a friendship due to our kindness and respect for one another.

Days later, upon returning home to Montreal, lying in my bed, exhausted from all our travels, I was awakened by a BING. A WhatsApp text read, “PAULA, she found the heart! We searched for over half an hour. She is SO happy!”


  • Paula Toledo

    Social Play for Well-being, 'Where Discovery Meets Gratitude' ©

    Ode to Wonder

    Paula Toledo is a TEDx & WE Day Speaker, writer & founder of Ode to Wonder blog, published singer-songwriter, influencing change by raising awareness for mental well-being practices via play and social good. She shares hope, resources & communicates the need to eliminate the stigma surrounding Mental Illness, as a Mental Health Correspondent for Global TV Montreal and as a Certified Canadian Mental Health Association Advisor for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. 

    She discovered ‘H.A.T.S. Off’, her mental well-being rituals based on self-compassion & discovery through play, following the mental illness and suicide of her late husband when her children were just two weeks and twenty-three months old. ‘H.A.T.S. Off’ an acronym for ‘humanity’, ‘arts and awareness’, ‘travel’ (discovery), and ‘sports’ (fitness recreation) - pillars of her mental well-being practice that she engages in on a daily basis - has received recognition and been featured by the Dukes and Duchesses of Sussex/Cambridge’s, Mental Health Charity, ‘Heads Together’, calling her story, one of 'hope'