It’s been over five years since we returned from our year in an Italian village. If you’ve read Il Bel Centro: A Year in the Beautiful Center, you know that it was a transformative experience, changing us in ways small and profound. Some of those changes I chronicle in IBC—we got used to relying on each other, to slow down and appreciate small moments of connection with other people, our palates broadened as we tested our strength on foods such as snails and lung stew, and we grew almost comfortable making complete fools of ourselves.
Some of the shifts were so underground that they are only now rising to the surface. Nicolas can grow wherever he is dropped, likely an outgrowth of all the change inherent in a year abroad. Siena decided to study Italian language and fresco in Italy for two weeks last summer— I can’t imagine she would have had the courage or the interest without that year of battling her insecurity in Italian public school (her recent love of modern Italian music and TV shows is another outgrowth of the year). Gabe asked to attend a camp in Italy to get some language skills back (or to have some friend time on vacation rather than trotting about with his parents, maybe). Keith quit his job because he realized happiness matters. And I decided that paying attention to itchy feet is not such a bad idea.
After I launched IBC, I started getting frequent messages from parents wondering how they could have their own international experience. I hit on this idea of asking traveling families to contribute to writing a book to help others realize their travel dreams. I figured if I illustrated that the possible paths ahead were myriad and limitless, it would embolden families to dust off their own dreams and step on their own path. And The Road Taken: How To Dream, Plan, and Live Your Family Adventure Abroad was born.
The ripples just keep coming.
Because you see, in writing about how to create a family year abroad, and weaving together stories of families that RV’d through Europe and backpacked through India and settled in Kyrgyzstan and road-tripped through Western Asia, it dawned on me that I wanted another adventure. I noticed the number of hours that Gabe spent sprawled on the floor, head in hand, as he traced roadways in his giant atlas. I realized that Keith’s new job as a developer gives him the same location independence as his old job as a graphic designer. It also occurred to me that like many of the parents who contributed to my book, I could use my strength-based therapy skills to make a living on the road. Inspired by the stories I was lucky enough to be able to tell in my book, it suddenly became clear—
It’s time for the next chapter.
A new chapter.
One defined by what we crave now.
But first, we had to decide what that meant. Gabe and I both have a strong need to see as much of the world as we can. We want a real understanding of inflection and manners and what people eat for breakfast. We want to feel like global citizens. We want to remember how the wind smelled in Botswana when someone mentions the African savannah.
Keith, though, wondered how much we’d lose by not settling somewhere like we did in Italy. It took about nine months for Italy to become home, if we don’t give a place that kind of time, will we really know it?
Ultimately, we decided that no, we probably wouldn’t, so that couldn’t be our goal. Our goal is to travel deeply, but not feel necessarily rooted. To gain glimmers of understanding, while always being aware of how little we know. We want to see landscapes, taste spices, watch people interact. We will be observers, perhaps, rather than contributors, to communities, but there is a value there, too.
If you are wondering what happened to our other two children—did they drop off the proverbial map?—let me bring you up to speed. We decided that the best year to do this is Gabe’s eighth grade year, leaving the summer after Siena graduates from high school. It’s an easy enough year to miss, as it won’t monkey with Gabe’s high school experience, which he wants wholesale. As did Siena. Leaving then allows Siena to join us for a kind of gap year if she wants to. At first, she blew off the idea. But then over the summer, I asked her over lunch at our new favorite Tibetan restaurant in Charlottesville, where she would want to go if she joined us. She waved off the question with derision as has been her habit, like, “Whatever Mom, I have no opinion.” Usually, I wheedle her at this point with enticing descriptions of cheese shops in Paris or beaches in Thailand. This time, though, I was far too curious about the herbs in my dumpling to respond.
I should probably sock this parenting information away for later, because when I didn’t step into her vacuum, she filled it herself. She lifted her chopstick in thought and said, “I’d want to got to Xi’an I think. You know, the place where the terra cotta warriors are from. After four years of studying Chinese, it would be fun to use it. Plus, it’s such an interesting location, so far west in China. Maybe a Chinese city, too? I’d like to go to lots of places we’ve never been. It’s weird that we’ve never really been to Mexico, just right over the border when we visit our grandparents in Arizona. Mexico…yes I’d want to go there, too.”
Suddenly she wanted to know—are we actually doing this? Or just talking about it?
She’s engaged now, excited about the prospect, but we all realize that there is a chance that the lure of college may propel her to do that instead. I hope not. We’ll see. But we can’t make giant decisions like settling in one place for a year versus globe trotting based on the opinion of a family member who may or may not be joining us. Which works out fine because she claims to be game for anything.
Nicolas will have just graduated from college (gasp) and be joining the work force (double gasp). So he’ll have to remain Stateside, which does mean we have someone lined up for cat-sitting duty.
So it’s decided. Summer of 2020 we’re flying the coop. As long as no impossible obstacles detour our path.
I have this image of looking back at this blog post two years from now and sighing at my naive optimism. I hope that’s just my inner self girding against disappointment, and not some heretofore undiscovered talent at fortune-telling.
So here’s what we are picturing for the year—a month in each of about twelve destinations, with some detours between places. It’s an attempt to balance Gabe’s and my need to see and experience as much as possible, with Keith’s need to soak up a place, to feel it in his bones. Gabe and I also have that, but it can often grow quiet in the face of the shiny bouncing ball of novelty and adventure.
Just recently, it hit me that a huge and obvious difference between this trip and our last is that the kids will not be in school. Which means two things 1) homeschooling (or worldschooling as it’s called when you use the world as your favorite teacher) Gabe, and 2) not getting up at 6:30 AM to make breakfast and pack lunches. I may be more excited about that one than about the idea of popping into my new favorite tapas bar.
But as for homeschooling—Gabe is a learner. He already watches Numberphile videos for fun, and Siena and I regularly zone out at dinner when Gabe and Keith launch into excited math concepts like proving Digorella’s Rainbow Scented Theory (I’m making that up, I’ve paid so little attention, all I know is that the names sound like playground games but with disappointing details). So the two of them are excited about delving into math together.
I’ll be supervising Gabe’s reading and writing, which I’ll do via the history and folklore of wherever we are. I’m thinking fairy tales, royal stories, religious iconography.
We won’t try to plug into the home curriculum. Our experience in Italy helps with letting that expectation go, as the kids missed an entire year of learning and didn’t skip a beat. Not sure what that says about the American educational system.
So we’ll learn based on what inspires us. I’m picturing reading together in the evenings and Gabe and I spending some time writing during the day. We’ll come up with some assignment for him based on whatever we’re reading and thinking about. And I’ll work on my blog, with the intention of another book.
A book that will be different this time because I want to use the prism of our studies and our travel to understand people in different places. I’m picturing taking cooking lessons in each location. Maybe Gabe will take music lessons. I’m pondering a way to refine and connect the beads in the necklace we’re making from each experience.
One more hope for the year. I was so intrigued by what the contributors said about International Schools that we’re going to look into Gabe attending one for a month. Where? Who knows! Maybe some place where meeting people is more challenging so we’d like to interact with expats. China, perhaps? The where will no doubt be dictated by which schools would allow him to just drop in for a month. Though my sense from my contributors is that this is something International Schools are quite used to.
As for Siena, I suspect she’ll be in detox mode from high school for the first month at least. High school in America is a lot of work, people. At least the way my kids do it. Full throttle, all the time, it’s exhausting just watching it. She’ll need time to catch her breath, to feel her leadings again. I’ve offered her the opportunity to backpack through Europe on her own or with a buddy (easy for me to say, with my feet over here on terra firma. I’m sure if she decides to do it there won’t be enough Aperol spritzes in the world to deaden my jangled nerves). So far, she’s declining, saying that our plan sounds plenty fun to her. I like to think she’s remembering what I’m remembering—about how our year together in Italy bonded us together with threads made of jokes and pain and learning and wonder. Maybe she wants some of that for one last time.
Part of me secretly hopes she writes a book about it. I, for one, would love to read about the experience through the teenage lens.
In the meantime, I’m just really hoping she sticks with her current plan of joining us. I’m trying to convince her that a year off between high school and college allows her to get centered, which may well help her land in college with a clearer sense of what she wants to pursue. Right now, it’s a gorgeously muddled mix of all things Humanities—art, history, language, music, philosophy. But who knows where the wind will take her.
Keith will work, and likely on Chicago time. How that will impact our year I can’t predict. We had a bit of a practice run this summer, as for a week in Spello Keith needed to work. He was pretty flexible about it, still joining me on trips to the butcher and volunteering to run and pick up Gabe from camp. But it did mean that Gabe and I had a lot more time together. We had a blast. Though that was in Spello, when I could send Gabe to Paola’s shop so her son Gopala could teach Gabe to macrame. Or I’d give Gabe permission to play cards with Giorgio at the art shop. Or even go on a hunt for chips he’d like for a snack. No doubt, that allowed our hours of playing Hive at the bar to feel sweet and cozy.
For now, we’re following the advice of the contributors in The Road Taken to figure out how to budget for such a trip. We’re trying to get clearer about what’s important to us, and how not to get sidelined by “fear of missing out” as we make choices to settle and dig into where we are, rather than scan the horizon for novel waters.
The kids don’t care about this next part, but an aspect of our couple calculus is trying to figure out where we want to retire. We assume Italy, but while we’re tossing out assumptions as so much intellectual static, why not really wonder what place fits us now? At a more basic level, I’m wondering if anyplace will hit us with the immediacy that Spello did. Sulmona certainly came close, but I’m wondering if a place outside of Italy could feel that instantly “right.”
I’ll be blogging in the next year and a half about places we’re considering, in the hopes that you all can offer the wisdom of your experience. One thing I’ve realized is that places I don’t know much about have a kind of haze over them. I can’t picture them enough to crave them, to want to put them on my list of possibilities. Which is why I love talking to people—I inevitably wind up with new ideas. For the record, this cursory list is uneducated, predicated on a lot of assumptions (and enchanting Google images) I’ll expect you all to chime in and correct. This is a learning process. Sometimes we don’t even know where we are making assumptions, since those assumptions stitch together the holes in our understanding. They have the barest illusion of truth. So please use the comment section below to fill me in on destinations I have inaccurate assumptions about, and places you’ve been that you love for us to consider.
And make sure you sign up for Contorni (A little something extra on the side). That’s my newsletter that I use to spread the word about book promotions and giveaways, as well as update readers on important blog posts. Historically, I’ve sent out a newsletter once every few months, but as we get cooking here, I’ll likely send them out when we add a possible destination to our itinerary. I’m hoping you chime with your thoughts, as no matter how much time Gabe and I spend poring over atlases and Google images, I don’t pretend we have more than cursory information. Would love your input! We’d also be grateful for ideas on towns or places to live or other recommendations! I’d love our trip to feel collaborative, bringing you all along for the ride, as it were.
I’ll be writing posts about places we’re considering (starting with Scotland), with the hope that you will share the wisdom of your experiences. And obviously, once our adventure begins, I’ll blog more often about where we are and what we're up to. I expect it will be amusing to look at our brainstorming posts alongside the posts when we are boots down so we can laugh at all the times we were dead wrong. I predict there will be plenty of those.
So here is our provisional list of places we’re considering, for at least a transitional swing through, if not a full month. They are mostly places we haven’t been, but some places we have been but felt a tearing sensation in the leave-taking, we want to dig a little deeper.
Our list of possible destinations:
Serbia: I read The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold: Adventures Riding the Iron Curtain for our Travel Book Club and something about the description of Serbia made me completely hung up on it. So much that I started sending Keith images of Serbia at random times. Pop! Oh, look. It’s Serbia. One thing that appeals is that I’ve heard that Serbians make Italians look like wallflowers. That, I’ve got to see.
Amsterdam: We’ve never been! Plus, I asked on The Road Taken Facebook page (join us!) for ideas of good locations for the US 2020 election. Somewhere with enough English spoken that we understand the vibe, someplace with an international citizenry, and preferably even more progressive than our family for a bit of perspective. The advantages of Amsterdam became apparent. Plus, there was another contributor who lived in a Dutch city for a few months and her description of post-dinner bike rides along canals were very beguiling.
Northern Lights: Would love to see them, not sure where or when.
Scotland: We’re thinking this will be our first spot. Seems like a great entree into the a year of travel. We were deciding between Ireland and Scotland, but Gabe and I just felt more pulled to Scotland (close, though), and Keith hemmed, but then realized that we’ve been to Ireland and it would be fun to be someplace different. He also remembered…Scotch. Siena is now saying she kinda wants to be in Scotland for a whole year, so it feels like a good spot. (Edited to add: We’re now pretty sure it WILL be our first stop, ready why here)
Dolomiti: Yes, this is a repeat from our year abroad. But a whole month of skiing seems pretty fabulous for the rest of the family (including Nicolas, who would come for Christmas), and a whole month of an Alpine village sounds pretty fabulous for me. Global warming has eliminated our white Virginia Christmases, so that would be nice to have again.
3-4 Spanish speaking destinations to work on our language skills: Spain (Seville is another repeat. Kinda don’t care), Cuba, Argentina (skip down to Antartica?), Mexico.
Paris: We’ve been here multiple times, but I feel like it’s a place that would be totally different with a longer term stay. Plus—cheese. And pastries. But mostly cheese.
Somewhere else in France: Nell Goddin, my dear friend and contributor to TRT who has written a cozy mystery series set in France has aspirations to live there again soon. We’d love to stay where she is.
Xi’an: I’ll admit that I’m a bit obsessed with the Silk Roads. For food history reasons.
Uzbekistan: See above.
A major Chinese city, for a short term stay or maybe a month. Neon and hubbub and language and food.
Japan: Expensive though, right? Maybe just a pass through.
Australia/New Zealand: I feel a sense of kinship with a remarkable number of Australians I’ve “met” via IBC (readers who have contacted me), which makes me think it is the land of my people.
South Pacific/French Polynesia: I’m terrible. I’m not even sure if these are the same thing. I do know that Gabe found an island called Raivavae that looks pretty idyllic for a month. I kind of want to learn to sail. Another side effect of writing TRT, which had two sailing families contributing.
SE Asia: We loved our visits to Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. Probably worth digging deeper into. People keep telling me about Cambodia.
Capetown plus a safari: Keith is decidedly not into the idea of a safari, but I think he’s just wrong. A dear friend of mine went to Botswana and the way she described the nature made me realize that I had been thinking of a safari like an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I completely neglected to take into consideration the 360 aspect. The smell of wild air, the stars at night, the twisting trees.
Sicily: We only saw a tiny sliver of it and yet we fell head over heels, despite the pneumonia and bronchitis. But Gabe and I are intrigued by Malta, too, and it doesn’t make sense to go to both. Does it? You tell me.
I’d love some rail adventure. Trans-Siberia, maybe? Is that a thing? It feels like a thing.
EDITED TO ADD
I just talked to my friend who fell in love with Tokyo, now we are all feeling like a month there might be something special.
When I made this list, I forgot about Israel. It wasn’t a place on our list, but the guy who rented our house when we lived in Italy came back from Israel for a visit, and we had him over for dinner. He was adamant that a trip around the world wouldn’t be complete without a stay in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. I have to say, he really sold it, particularly thinking about the intersection of world religions.
I also forgot to mention Turkey. Years ago, my kids’ school had an International Day and Siena and I fell in love with Turkish food. It prompted us to look Turkey up and think about Istanbul. I love the idea of straddling Europe and Asia.
Keith got me “Duck Season” by David McAninch for Christmas, and I am loving the description of Gascony as this untouristed, farm-laden section of France. i wonder if there are towns with canals. I love a canal.
What do you think dear readers? Any places you think we should explore? You can see we have FAR TOO MANY so help us out!
And do sign up for my newsletter, Contorni, so you can be the first to know how we whittle this list down! Or more likely, add to it first. I’d love for you to know where we are thinking of going so you can share your wisdom.