I had a lot of anxiety about taking my 8- and 11-year-old boys to Italy for seven weeks. Sure, I was worried about how they'd handle being away from their Mom the first month (she would be joining us later), but I was also worried they'd reject anything "foreign" or unfamiliar.

They're American kids. "Foreign" meant any food that wasn't a hamburger, and any cultural experience other than what they'd seen on YouTube (which they'd watch all day if I let them).

How could I make sure their experience in Italy would be something they'd treasure and not just endure? How might this trip be truly life-changing for them?

I hoped my boys would change. Turned out, I changed, too.

I learned that, for kids, pizza and gelato are a great in-road into Italian culture and (surprisingly!) history. I learned how these familiar touchstones bridged the divide between two cultures.

I learned that touchstones can ignite new learning. Our initial plan to try every pizza in Italy ignited a quest in my 8-year-old to try every cheese ever made. So far, pecorino fresco is his favorite.

My 11-year-old became fascinated with language. He graduated from watching familiar YouTube and television shows in Italian to learning the language itself—and getting fairly good at Greek, Japanese, and German, too!

I learned that ancient ruins might be historically significant to grownups, but to kids they're just an ancient jungle gyms.

I also learned that kids always surprise you. A trip to the family mausoleum and a visit to the grave of my kids' great-great-great grandmother—during which my oldest collected lemons in the family grove—resonated deeply with us both.

I didn't realize how important Sicily was to me until I saw my own son start to develop a similar love for the land. I can't even write about it without a little flash of emotion.

Initially, I was worried about their discomfort, but the truth is, I was uncomfortable at the start, if only out of fear and concern for them.

Once I learned to become comfortable with being uncomfortable—well, that's when the world opened up.