Tag Archives: Traveling With Children

It’s The Journey

(The following is a guest post written by Ms. Carol Green of San Diego, CA, describing her own working vacations and their impact on her family.  She can be reached at cphgreen@hotmail.com)

When we began our working travels more than five years ago we knew that living abroad would be a wonderful experience. What we did not anticipate was how our cultural perspectives and vision of the world would be forever changed, not only by the places we saw but also by the people we met and the friendships we formed, friendships that continue to this very day.

Anyone who has traveled knows what a superb learning experience it can be.  However, settling into an overseas community and living and working with people from around the world makes that learning experience even more pronounced.  Since it would be impossible to describe our six summers of travel in a single guest post I’ll simply share stories of that first working vacation in 2007 and describe how the impact of our trip continued long after we returned.

My husband Jonathan accepted a two-month teaching position at an international school in England. The school covered a portion of his plane ticket, provided housing and meals, and paid a small stipend. This income made it possible to bring our family of five across the pond and, while it was not exactly free, it certainly qualifies as traveling “on the other guy’s dime.”  (Note:  Coincidentally, England was my first overseas working vacation as well. GMS)

In preparation for the trip we read dozens of books and highlighted places we wanted to see and things we wanted to do. We also had to make travel arrangements, find someone to stay in our house, take care of our dogs, and make plans for schooling our children. (Note:  All topics covered in my book. GMS)  After some frenzied preparations and a few passport scares, we were off on our first working vacation. We arrived at Heathrow and were met by a colleague who took us to our temporary home–a lovely English cottage just a block from the school. It was small but had everything we would need for our stay.  This was our family’s first lesson in living abroad—you really don’t need all that “stuff” we typically have in the U.S.

Early the next morning we awoke to our first look around.  It was rainy and green. The pebbled driveway was puddled with water, and the smell of lavender filled the air.  Ancient brick walls surrounded the school–some of them hundreds of years old. The cottage was quaint and very British; we learned later it was the servant’s cottage for the large main house that was converted into apartments for school staff. There was no television, no radio, a small refrigerator, and a washing machine in the kitchen.

Over the next few days we met the multinational faculty that hailed from around the globe, many of whom stay in touch and still influence our daily lives.  Before the end of that first day I learned another important lesson–the international people we would meet and the stories they would share would transport us far beyond England–to distant lands like Belarus, Latvia, and Kazakhstan.

Our Visit to the “Departure Terminal” of Hogwarts School

Before classes started we took a couple of family trips to London. The first was to Westminster to see the Abbey. Most of Britain’s monarchs were crowned there, from William the Conqueror in 1066 to Queen Elizabeth in the 1950’s. Being there gave both the children and us a sense of history you can’t get from books alone.  We then headed out to Kings Cross to see where the train to Hogwarts left. We found platform 9 3/4 and took turns pushing our trolleys into the world of witchcraft and wizardry.

Over the next two months we leisurely toured many other English landmarks, big and small, famous and obscure.  This was the part of the trip we had envisioned—visiting landmarks, getting a sense of history, and experiencing a new place.  But it was the people we met–neighbors, shopkeepers, students, colleagues–that made the biggest and most lasting impact.

As we settled into our life in the English countryside we learned to live, eat, and shop like Brits–Jonathan became comfortable driving on the “wrong” side of the road. I learned to do laundry in a small washer in my kitchen and put the clothes out to dry in the rain (which meant they did not dry).  I met a lady who grew vegetables in her backyard and sold them to her neighbors.  I learned that eggs are not refrigerated; cookies are biscuits, and the local convenience store closes whenever the people who work there feel like it. The owners were a lovely family from India, and over the next five summers we stayed in touch as their daughters grew and went off to college.

While I was shopping and doing laundry and Jonathan was off teaching, our children were in class making friends.  They met youngsters from Italy, Spain, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Thailand, Kazakhstan, and Korea, and over the years they remained friends with many former school chums.  They listened to stories about what other students did for fun, what they ate, and what their clothes, houses and cars were like.  Religious and political differences were discussed in ways that opened up our children’s eyes to the enormous cultural diversity of our world. (Note:  The effect that working vacations have on children can be even more dramatic than the effect on you and your spouse.  Check out “Do It For The Children.”  GMS)

We left that summer with tears in our eyes.  We knew this had been a special trip and we were eager to go back.  If that had been the end of our adventures it still would have been worth it but, fortunately, it was not.  Over the next four summers we returned to England and took side trips to Germany, France, and Belgium.  Because we were visiting for a few months, rather than a few days, we had a chance to explore interesting sights well off the beaten path.  We scaled the grassy hills of Beachy Head, searched for a sandwich in Sandwich, explored the war tunnels in the White Cliffs of Dover, watched the sunrise at Stonehenge, and got lost on a hike on the Isle of White.

When we returned home after that first working vacation I noticed what I call a “ripple effect.”  First there was the direct impact–when we read a newspaper the places they talked about were no longer strange, far off lands; instead, they were locales where colleagues lived. Natural disasters, political uprisings, financial impacts took on a more personal tone.  Where there were fires in Greece we thought of friends who lived there and emailed them “Are you OK?” When we heard about financial meltdowns in Spain and Greece we knew people personally impacted and sent out messages asking, “How are you?”

Then there were the indirect effects–the dramatic change in the cultural attitudes of our children and ourselves. Both our daughters described their experiences living abroad in their college essays and told how it had changed their view of the world.  Our daughter, Kristen, now 20, spent last summer in Chile on an international journalism grant where she wrote for an English language online magazine.  My husband participated in an educational and cultural bridge program to China and Hong Kong in 2011 and this past summer I worked with international students just 30 miles from home for British Study Centers America.  Because of these working vacations, and hopefully many more to come, our family is far more comfortable interacting with people of widely differing religious, racial, and political orientations.  Diversity is to be savored, not feared.
(If you would like to learn how to have a working vacation experience of your own, take a look at my “how-to” travel book On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.)

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Childless In Africa

Normally, this African adventure story would begin in exactly the same fashion as my first three travel narratives:   “… and the family made its way to the Minneapolis airport for our long flight to Nairobi.”    However, plans changed dramatically when our two children, now 17 and 14, informed us that under no circumstances would they join us on this venture. As I knew must happen eventually, they had reached the age where hanging out with friends, playing video games, and going to the mall were far more appealing summer pastimes than spending a long period of forced interaction with mom and dad on the other side of the globe. I tried convincing them of the wondrous sights they’d see. No dice. I switched to begging, cajoling, even bribery. Still no sale.  We were at an impasse that appeared to have only three solutions: 1) I could drag them along unwillingly and spend three unpleasant months with dispirited, unhappy teenagers—not a pleasant thought. 2) I could cancel the trip entirely, or 3)  I could leave them in the care of responsible adults while my wife and I went on our merry way.  (Question for readers:  What would you do?)

My guess is most people would choose option two and cancel the trip, bemoaning their misfortune while promising to try again in a few years when the kids went off to college. That option did not appeal to us since there was no guarantee this unique teaching and travel offer would repeat itself four years hence—successful cold calls have a notoriously short shelf life. So we asked one more time and, when they refused yet again, met with the parents of their best friends whom we knew well and trusted thoroughly.

These friends agreed to serve as surrogate parents for three months, a move motivated not only by close friendship and our agreement to pay all of our children’s living expenses, but also enlightened self-interest. Their own kids, often bored and cranky during the long, hot summer months, would have full-time, live-in playmates. It worked out well for all parties although to this day our adult children, who now must dive into their own wallets to support a travel habit, lament this lost opportunity for an all-expense-paid three-month holiday in Africa. They still can’t believe we listened to their non-stop whining and complaining and allowed them to remain behind.

Of course I would have preferred that our children join us on this zoological, anthropological, and cultural odyssey, just as you would certainly enjoy having your entire family travel with you. But when that is no longer a viable option, throwing away a once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity may not be the winning strategy. I understand that most parents do not want to leave their almost-but-not-quite adult children behind while they wander the globe; this runs counter to the parental instinct buried deep within our breast. In our case, though, this mutually voluntary three-month separation worked out quite well as each family member got exactly what he or she wanted from their summer hiatus.  The kids were able to sleep in, play, swim, read, watch TV, and even spend a few weeks at summer camp, while we had the cultural experience of a lifetime, an experience I will be sharing in the coming weeks.

So, before throwing in the towel when children balk at joining you, consider option three, traveling without the kids, either using family members or trusted friends in loco parentis, or sending them to summer camp for the duration of the overseas stay. No one will think you’re a bad parent, and everyone, parents and children alike, will have a wonderful time. Certainly you will enjoy it more than sitting home moping about what could have been.

The Thoroughly Modern and Beautiful Downtown Area of Nairobi, Kenya, One of The Most Lovely Cities In East Africa

So this working vacation story begins in a slightly unexpected way:  “For the fourth time in eight years, on May 22, 1987 Ruth and I, but not our children, trekked to the Minneapolis airport to begin our next working vacation–this time an East African safari adventure.

Pay It Forward

My mother (and probably yours) told me always be nice to people because, if you are, they will be nice to you.  Oh, the wisdom and prescience of motherhood!

Even though I would not be teaching in Australia I still wanted a place where I could retreat from home, family, and refrigerator to do my writing.  To that end I sent an exploratory email to the computer science chair at the University of New South Wales asking if the department could provide an office. I did not expect an enthusiastic response since I was not working there but, to my utter surprise, I soon received a letter inviting me to join the faculty for three-plus months and including a lovely office with all the accoutrements–telephone, copier, and mail.  It seems that a few years earlier the chair had a sabbatical in the US where he was treated quite graciously by the faculty and staff.  He saw my visit as a way to repay some of the many kindnesses he experienced on his own “working vacation.”   Pay it forward, Scene 1!

We touched down in Sydney after two wonderful weeks in Fiji and New Zealand and drove to our new home in Rose Bay, one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods.  We located these accommodations with the assistance of Dr. Tony Gerber, a young Aussie academic whom I had met for a total of one hour five years earlier.

At the time Tony had just completed his Ph.D. and decided, as do many new graduates, that he and his wife should see the world before settling down.   He arrived in Minneapolis where I was an untenured Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota.  Knowing he would soon be accepting a comparable academic position, he thought it a good idea to meet some of the junior staff.  Great idea, but it turned out that every young faculty member was too busy chasing tenure and promotion to give this overseas “newbie” the time of day.  Except for me, that is.  I thought it might be enjoyable to meet someone from such an “exotic locale” and chatted with him for hour or so in my office, although to be honest, I really don’t remember much about the details.

Obviously, though, Tony did remember, and he was extremely grateful for that small kindness.  Not only did he help us locate superb accommodations, he stored our considerable baggage while we toured the South Pacific (we didn’t want to schlep suitcases, books, and research materials), picked us up at the airport on our return, and stocked our refrigerator with the essentials for a first meal–although I still don’t understand how anyone can consider Vegemite a nutritional item!   Tony and his wife Kim introduced us to their friends and colleagues, and we soon became an integral part of their community.  They even invited us to a bagels and lox Sunday brunch–so much for the exotic locale!

Twenty-five years later Tony, Kim, and their children are still the closest of friends and were in New York a few weeks ago visiting our family.   We plan on returning to Australia and traveling with them (Tasmania and Lord Howe Island) in the not too distant future.  The moral of this post is to listen to what your mother said:  Be kind to people and they will be kind to you.  Pay it forward–Scene 2!

What We Learned

By the time our family returned from Israel after three enjoyable months of work and play I had learned a great deal about overseas life that would stand us in good stead on future trips.

I learned that it was no longer necessary to sit back and wait for an attractive offer to fall into my lap; instead, every newspaper article, TV show, radio program, professional interaction, or chance meeting has the potential to generate a short-term working vacation. A magazine story about the construction of a new university in sub-Saharan Africa could, with the appropriate inquiries, lead to an invitation to join the faculty. A casual conversation about consulting positions could, with a timely and well crafted email, turn into a personal offer. A TV feature about a new clinic in Southeast Asia could be a clarion call to health professionals working in the area of tropical medicine, and that exchange teacher visiting your school from South America could become the source of a reciprocal invitation to teach in his or her home country. Whenever you hear about an overseas opportunity that might be applicable, initiate a personal contact or e-mail conversation to determine if there is any way for you and your family to take advantage of it.

Those three months in Israel demonstrated that my family and I could do quite well on our own, without requiring an extensive support system. Having a large circle of friends in the host country is wonderful, and having locals help with housing, banking, and shopping is a nice benefit. However, although useful they are not essential. Never let the lack of contacts or family ties stop you from planning and carrying out a working vacation. You will meet people and, at a minimum, have yourself, spouse, and children to fill up your days.

Finally, I learned that even in a country undergoing serious problems, such as the extreme hyperinflation encountered in Israel, these concerns should be seen as learning opportunities, not impediments to travel. Experiencing these problems yourself, as long as they do not threaten personal health or safety, can result in a better understanding of the financial, political, and cultural plights affecting much of the globe.

The beaches of secular Tel Aviv where we would spend many a Saturday afternoon when religious Jerusalem would close

Most importantly is that in those three plus months I started my transformation from, perhaps like many of you, a person who had grown far too comfortable with his local surroundings into, if not yet a sophisticated world traveler, at least someone open to new experiences and not afraid to venture beyond self-imposed boundaries. After my wife and I absorbed the lessons of this most recent sojourn we came to realize that our set of potential working vacations destinations had widened greatly. England opened up our eyes; Israel opened up the world.

Do It For The Kids

Jason Rehm, a fellow blogger, recently posted a comment about his family’s travel adventures. (Read about them at http://bodeswell.org) What I found fascinating is that he and his wife have been living and working in Mexico, Central America, and South America since August 2009, with their 5-year old son Bode.

One of the goals of this blog is to refute the “ready-made” arguments for not making that trip of a lifetime–exactly what my wife did for me when I began spewing excuses why we should not go to England. (Those fears and doubts are described in “My London Epiphany.”) I have already shot down a number of cop-outs such as “I don’t have the resume or the reputation.” (in “Negative Vibes”), “How will I ever find a place to live?”, (in “It Really Wasn’t All That Difficult”) or, most recently, “I don’t know anyone over there.” (in “Making Friends, Meeting Locals.”) I now would like to counter another all-too-common argument for postponing, or even forgoing, your dream trip–”Excuse me, Michael, I have young kids. What would you propose I do with them!” My answer is simple: “Take them along, just as my wife and I did many times!”

In the last post, “The $64 Question: Why?”, I gave three reasons for working vacations, including the joy and excitement of becoming part of a new culture. These joys are certainly not limited to adults; in fact, the personal growth and maturity that accrues from living overseas can be even more pronounced in young children. Just as we know that youngsters are far more adept at learning a foreign language or mastering a musical instrument, they are like living sponges soaking up the lessons and experiences of overseas life. Being part of another culture, even for a few months, is not only an exhilarating experience for parents, it can be a truly transformative experience for parents and children alike. So, let me now add reason number four for working vacations: 4) Do It For The Kids!

Some parents may fret about pulling children out of school during the academic year. Personally, I think travel is a fabulous learning experience, as valuable as anything presented in a classroom. However, if that argument does not hold sway, then I suggest taking your short-term working vacation during the Northern Hemisphere summer–June, July, August–when school is not in session, exactly what we did on our first three trips. There are other options including 1) home schooling, especially appropriate if one of the parents is a teacher, 2) attending private school in the host country (although a potentially expensive option), and 3) sending them to the local public school.

Whichever option you choose, though, please don’t use your children’s education as the cover story for not getting off your duff and seeing the world. My own kids, 10 and 7 years old when we started traveling, are now 40 and 37 and long removed from the experiences described in my blog. However, they still remember and relish their living, learning, and playing time in England, Israel, and elsewhere, and they hope to provide their own children with similar adventures. So please remember that fourth reason for planning and taking working vacations: Do it for the kids!