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When your guide is under 2

THE slug was a good five inches long, black, and textured like a piece of rain-washed tire. It was lying near the hedgerow bordering a small field, biting the leaf of a potentilla. Its mouth was very wide, a half inch, I would guess, and its jaws were powerful. One swift bite broke off an inch of leaf, which it slowly and methodically chewed and swallowed. I watched, fascinated, wishing I could get over my squeamishness and poke my finger out for the slug to snap at. How seriously it took its supper, how stolidly it ate, and how precarious the life of that little unloved bit of nature. The sight delighted me.

I would not have made the time to watch slugs if we hadn't brought our 18-month-old daughter with us on vacation to Austria. We slowed our steps to match her toddle; she quickened our perceptions and our memories.

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In Vienna, she paused in front of every figure on every baroque building. Greek gods became daddies, the Empress Maria Theresa, resplendent in her chariot, a mummy taking her cherubic babies for a ride, accompanied by their kittens and their horses.

She caressed the grillwork on basement windows I didn't know existed and led her father three times into St. Stephen's Cathedral to see the votive candles and recite for her again Beatrix Potter's ``Ninny-Nanny-Netticoat.''

Through her we learned that Vienna is a city of poodles and German shepherds, of storekeepers and restaurateurs who provide bowls of water for their patrons' dogs, of diminutive old women who scatter birdseed on the barren ground between the chestnut trees on the Ring.

Mornings in the Alps she would take her grandmother by the hand and lead her into the wet grass to look for snails. She walked head down, then suddenly she'd lean over, wave, and say, ``Hi, snail.'' The unmowed meadow by our hotel, we quickly discovered, was alive with snails, just as the lawn of the house we stayed at in London was with spiders, and those, too, she greeted politely.

Trailing up a mountain at her pace, we saw an intricately patterned brown and yellow lizard, a motif from the Book of Kells come alive; and I remembered walking through the parched hills in the south of France with my grandfather when I was little older than she to look for dragons and seeing green and gold lizards lying on the rocks and being disappointed that dragons were so small.

Some afternoons we lay on the grass and the games of my childhood came back to me. I made the daisies she picked into chains for her to wear around her neck or wrist. We held buttercups up to each other's chins, telling from the echo of their yellow on our skin whether or not we liked butter. I taught her how to tell the time by dandelion clocks.

Her schedule prevented us from spending our evenings on sophisticated city pleasures. Instead, we took walks in the hills behind the hotel and in the gathering dusk saw deer grazing on the fringes of the forest and a fox scurrying across the road between the meadow and the wood.

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``She must have slowed you down when you were traveling,'' people say to me. I smile. Yes, she did. Thanks to her we had time to admire grillwork and delight in slugs.

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