Keeping it Fresh: Perspectives from a Modern Day Nomad

For four years I drove from Cornucopia, Wisconsin to Coon Rapids, Minnesota.  Four hours in a car along Highway 35.  I would wake up at 3 am on Monday morning and be on the road by 4 am.  On Thursday after school I would repeat the journey only in reverse.  It got to the point that I was on auto pilot. Twice a week I would set the car in gear and either head south or north.  Then one August, I looked at Angie and said I couldn’t do it any more.  We were going to make a change.  Not a small one either.  One that would shake us up and give us a new perspective.

For those that know our family; you know the story.  We headed to the Middle East and spent two and a half years working in Doha for the Qatar Foundation. We went from the Bayfield County, known for its pristine shoreline to the Persian Gulf; from Kodachrome to Monochrome in the blink of an eye.  From Western ideals to Islamic values, the contrast at times left us breathless and yes inspired.

Sometimes I wonder if people get stuck in one place too long.  Their patterns, routines, and perspectives sort of get woven into the fabric of their lives.  Everyday is similar to the next.  Fall has football, Thanksgiving, then Christmas.  February in the north is dreary and many go stir crazy waiting for the snow to melt.  Maple syrup starts to flow in the Spring as we traverse toward Memorial Day, then the Fourth, and Labor day comes to close out the summer.  Children go back to school and the cycles starts all over again. Most Americans can find comfort in a very similar pattern that makes up their life.

After Doha, we needed to make a decision.  Did we want to go back to America?  We certainly could go back and jump into the same routine, but journeys to new places actually made us appreciate our home with a fresh set of lenses.  We used our home on the South Shore as a benchmark for all our new experiences.  The differences really solidified what we loved and hated about home, knowing that there was tremendous variety on how people “did life.”  Leaving and coming back for short spells also changed all of us in ways we are just beginning to be able to articulate.  After the first year abroad, my eldest said to me, “things have stayed the same here, but I’ve changed.”

John Dewey, the father of experiential education, said, “The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs.”  This is especially true when one stays in the same place.  And as Ellen Glasgow so accurately put it, “The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.”

We decided not to go back to America, but we left Doha. (After leaving, I took the Head of School post with Think Global School. TGS is a traveling boarding school.  Each term we move staff and students and land in a new country for 3-5 months.  By the time a student graduates, they will have lived in 12 countries.) Now my family moves every trimester,  Angie detailed the everyday things that we go through in her latest post: Stepping Out Of Our Comfort Zones: Again.

I have found that many people question our intelligence, sanity and safety with the path we have taken. Ours is an outlier life even among international teachers.  Why do we do it? Why do we pick this nomadic lifestyle? What effect will it have on the development of our children? People often subtly pity our children because they don’t share common experiences of other American kids, but other children aren’t experiencing global perspectives that my kids see through direct contact in foreign countries. By age 7 my youngest daughter had traveled to over 15 different countries. I often wonder about the thoughts running through her head.  My middle son, plays Minecraft a lot, but he often plays with five kids he has met abroad.  They login in together and collaborate in virtual space. Five young boys from five different countries working together.  I am quite certain that the experiences they have faced during our nomadic years will have profound impact on who they become as adults.

For Angie and I, the journey has made our marriage stronger.  We are more intentional about our family; keeping pieces of our traditions, rituals, and values in every country we live. Forced to travel light, we have reduced our possessions to the essential items in a true minimalistic way.   We also see the world differently; direct experience is more truthful than the bias we often see in the media.  Living in these countries have given us friends from diverse backgrounds who we cherish, it has opened our eyes to the wonders of our planet, and it keeps the place we call home fresh.

Stories about New Zealand and Costa Rica by Piper

I wrote this when I was in Costa Rica last year.IMG_4525

Hi my name is Piper. I go around the world with my family.  My dad runs a boarding school called T G S. It is a good school. Finn and Charlotte are my  siblings. Charlotte is 12 I’m 7 Finn is 10. We are too young to go to TGS. We are homeschooled.

IMG_4522We went to New Zealand at the beginning of the year.  You can walk anywhere there.  We lived in a city called Auckland.  We went to Hobbiton.  We got to see all of their houses and drink Ginger Beer. It was so good.

We went on a road trip for three weeks in New Zealand.  We were in a IMG_5017Jucy Lucy campervan.  I rode in the front seat and I slept on the floor in the kitchen. We saw Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings (you should watch it, it’s a great movie).  We went to make knives but I was too young to make knives so I went horseback riding with mom. But I couldn’t run on the horse.  Mom’s horse was named Finn and my horse was named Prince.  The person who took us on the ride, her horse was named Jade.  

IMG_5649My favorite campground had a petting zoo.  There were hamsters and rabbits and the peacocks weren’t in a cage.  They wandered around the campsite and at night they would make a lot of noise and I couldn’t sleep.  

Now we are in Costa Rica. It is very buggy here and I don’t like that. I got eaten alive by sand fleas.  Especially on my arm. We went on a four week trip.  We went to a place called Punta Mona.  We got there by a boat.  There were no cars whatsoever. There were people living there. They were Hippies.  They grow their own food to live.  

I met this really nice lady at Punta Mona.  Her name was Christina. She wasn’t a Hippie.  I helped her alot.   I helped her clean the floors of the houses. I also helped her clean the kitchen. She was very nice to me.  She helped me with my bug bites. She put her cream on me.  It helped my bug bites to not be itchy.

IMG_6935At Punta Mona we we made chocolate and I was so excited about it. The first step was roasting the cocoa beans. Next we peeled them  and ground them. We mixed the cocoa with ingredients then we rolled them into balls. I just wanted to eat some chocolate.  But mom said no, you have to come to the ceremony.  It is a thing that they used to do and these ladies made all these chocolates a long time ago.  It would take them five days to make chocolate for IMG_6855the whole village.  We did the same ceremony they did.  First they would take the trays of cocoa and pass it around to everybody.  Then you had to hold it in your hand and we had to look at it and  think about this chocolate.  How long it took you to make it. I said to my chocolate, “Sorry but I’m going to eat you in one second.” And then I put a bite into my mouth. I thought in my head “this is crappy.”  I swallowed it and I went to my mom and I said to her, “This is the worst chocolate I’ve ever had mom.” And I gave it to her.  It felt like I tossed my cookies in my mind. It was horrible. It was the worst chocolate I ever had.

Stepping out of our comfort zones. Again.

So here we are in Sweden.  We have begun our second year with Think Global School, traveling along with them to three different countries in one school year.  It’s an unusual experience for a family living abroad.  Most families have a country they can call home-away-from-home.  We did this when we lived in Qatar for two years.  Jamie and I both worked for Qatar Foundation Schools and the kids went to school there.  We had a house provided for us in a compound with other Qatar Foundation employees and their families.  It was an expat community experience working and living in the Middle East because we were all in the same boat.  We were from different countries, but all living in the same place, experiencing the culture and the day to day living, figuring it out together.  But it’s different this time. Now, we move in, start to get to know a place and then BAM! Time has flown by and we are on the move to our next country.

In order to do this, we are beginning to see the patterns of transition we go through as a family.  We have to re-learn certain things and get used to a new culture each time we move.  Way back when (say 25 years ago) I used to be an Outward Bound Instructor.  One of our favorite sayings was “It’s time to step out of your comfort zone” meaning, it’s time to feel uncomfortable, confused, maybe even a little frightened.  And that’s OK.  It’s what propels this family forward.  It’s part of learning and growing.  We have to do it. Here are just some of the things we have to do over and over.  Sometimes it’s daunting, but at the same time it’s exciting and fun to figure out the pieces of a new puzzle.

Languages

I’m talking from the viewpoint of an American English speaking citizen of the world.  From my experience, I can’t assume that everyone will be speaking English throughout the rest of the world.  Depending on the country, it usually is not the first language spoken.  I brace myself for this.  I have to be prepared to feel uncomfortable and silly at times.  Like the time when I had to purchase a plunger for our toilet in Orosi, Costa Rica.  Without going into too much detail, lets just say I resorted to IMG_9343charades (which clearly wasn’t working) and finally finding a picture of a plunger on my iphone. The salesman found this to be quite funny, because plungers are embarrassing, right?  I mean, we use them to unclog a toilet.  What could I do? I laughed right along with him.
Not only is speaking the language tricky,  but reading it as well can really throw us off. Print is all around us. When I see it every day in my language, I don’t really pay attention to it because I know I can read it.  But when I can’t read it, I seem to notice it even more, because I can’t access it.  Thank God for Google Translate.  I can use this nifty application on my phone to translate text when I need it.  I’ve used it to translate menus and items at the grocery store.

Transportation

Waiting at the Ombunksvägen bus stop.

Waiting at the Ombunksvägen bus stop.

Getting around in different countries has been varied. Driving in Qatar, the key was to drive defensively.  I had to drive without hesitation in my decision making.  This is the key to surviving round-abouts in Doha. When on the highway, drive in the right lane so that the race cars can easily pass you on the left.  Seriously, they will run you off the side of the road while flashing their high beams at you, so always be looking in your rear-view mirror.  In New Zealand we rented a car.  This was perhaps one of the biggest traveling challenges of my life.  I had to re-learn how to drive – on the other side of the road, on the other side of the car.  I was pretty terrified.  It took me a good two weeks to get used to retraining my mind to everything I was doing.  I often would talk out loud to myself, or Jamie would narrate exactly what I had to do next as I made my way through city streets or on the highway.  In Costa Rica, we put our trust in the skills (sometimes lacking) of other drivers of buses, boats and army jeeps. Your bus is about to scrape the side of a mountain road? No worries.  Avert your eyes and pray that it won’t happen.  Riding huge swells in a metal boat on a stormy sea and wondering if you’ll make it to shore alive?  We had no choice.  It was the only way out of Punta Mona, Costa Rica that day. In Greece we became experts at riding the rails in Athens.  We made a few mistakes, but you just get off and turn yourself around and get on the next train.  In Sweden, we are without a car again.  The buses here come every 5 minutes in either direction. Google Maps helps us get to where we need to go in every country.

Groceries

IMG_9326

Lättmjölk vs. Filmjölk

New country, new grocery stores.  It’s not too hard.  Almost everything has pictures on it.  Many things are self evident, like a loaf of bread, fruits and veggies.  It’s things like milk, or a specific dairy item that can get tricky.  Once I thought I was buying milk and I ended up with a yogurt milk. No worries.  I saved my receipt and brought the Filmjölk back.  The cashier was really helpful and let me exchange it for a Lättmjölk.  See the difference there?  Some items are really hard to find and you just have to go with a substitute when what you really want is not available.  I needed some vanilla extract and had to settle for crushed vanilla beans instead.  Here in Sweden we have discovered a grocery store that delivers right to our doorstep.  We use this service once a week and order our groceries on line.  This way we can see all the items translated to English and we can take our time and not feel rushed.  It’s also easier to order all the heavy stuff, otherwise we are walking our groceries home.

Banking and Money

IMG_9327Every time we move we must get to know the new currency.  I am terrible with conversions in my head and I am constantly using my conversion app on my phone to figure out how much something is worth in US dollars.  In Sweden I am facing sticker shock.  Eating out is something we won’t be doing a lot of.  On one of our first days here the kids and I went to check out the climbing gym in Sickla.  It’s inside a beautiful building with a library, a museum and a cafe.  We decided to have a little lunch break there and spent $30.00 on 2 muffins, 1 latte and 3 soft drinks. Needless to say, we pack our snacks and lunch on our rock climbing days now.

Libraries

Finding the library is important for our family because we love to read.  We also homeschool so finding resources about the country we are in is helpful.  This can be difficult at times.  The library in New Zealand was awesome because the books were in English.  Even the Maori literature was translated to English.  In Costa Rica, we were on the go the entire time.  We had access to books at the libraries of the Research Centers we were staying at.  In Greece there were not many libraries close to us.  I did find a book about the Odyssey in English at a tourist book stand near the Plaka in Athens.  I grabbed it right away.  Sweden is another case where most of the books are in Swedish.  They do have sections of English books, but not many for researching the county.  Most of the available books are fictional here.

Haircuts 

Don’t laugh.  Jamie and I both have very short hair and need haircuts often.  Thankfully the woman who is renting us our house has left us some suggestions of places to get our haircut in town.  Jamie’s haircut is Thursday.  Cross your fingers for us.

Doctors and Clinics

Thankfully we have been pretty healthy and have not had to use the clinics much.  A  few times people have actually told us “just ask the pharmacist” and we’ve had pretty good luck with that advice.  We save our yearly check-ups and teeth cleanings for our time home in the summer.

These are just some of the things we have to get used to each time we move to a new country.  I’m not complaining at all.  I’m just giving you a little insight into the life of a global traveling family.  Sometimes we feel a little crazy re-training our brain yet again, feeling uncomfortable yet again.  Stepping out of our comfort zone one more time.  But we do it, we adapt.  It’s all part of the adventure.