A new year

A year to the day ago, Hannah, Margaret and I visited their amazing school in Jerusalem for the first time. Later that afternoon, we experienced the city sliding into the peace of shabbat, and we waited for Terence  to arrive so we could officially kick off our family’s sabbatical, the “year on” which we would collectively squeeze for every drop of experience and adventure.

This week Hannah headed back to school, starting first grade, in a uniform, on a yellow school bus. The highlight of the first day seems to have been the cafeteria (“you get a tray! and strawberry milk!”). It’s a Real American public school experience. Most of the time Hannah is focused on fitting in with all the other kids but sometimes she cracks, and we see glimmers of the unusual, the residue of her year on. At a juggling show the other night, the performer wanted to know who could count to 10 in a language not English. He expected Spanish, perhaps, but not Hebrew and Arabic.

This week, Terence also heads back to school. It’s a crashing wave of commitments that basically won’t end until June, a job so rigorous that it justifies the extraordinarily generous vacations and sabbaticals. And after Labor Day, Margaret and I will complete the quartet, starting a new pre-K  and a new job, respectively. We’re trying to plan ahead, to figure out how we can switch gears from 0.0 to 1.8 FTEs in our family, and learn the ropes of three new organizations. We’re all excited but understandably wary. And cultural adjustment is still going on in the background of every experience, every encounter, making us susceptible to sudden exhaustion or overwhelm or nostalgia for all we have done and seen and felt.

It’s an emotional roller coaster. I have moments of feeling like all our adventures are over, everything interesting about us has vanished. No one looking at us now would imagine we saw the sun set over the Monastery in Petra, or accidentally stumbled on the Holy Week festival in Nabi Musa, or raced to the Old City one Friday after dinner to usher in Shabbat, and paid a quick visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on our way home. I find myself doing something so predictable: romanticizing and exoticizing our experiences abroad, which were often very quotidian, as this blog can attest. For every peak moment, there were at least five supermarket freakouts. And mostly I was confused.

At other times it feels good to be home, to be operating in a situation in which (even accounting for cultural confusion) we more often know what the heck is going on. It was a huge relief to discover that people had not forgotten me, personally or professionally, and to be able to wrap up a job hunt with only a touch of stress. And our little home state is charming us. Totally the opposite of Jerusalem, this place has never been on the front pages. But yesterday we went to the Olde Tyme Peach Festival and saw almost all our elected officials in the parade (along with marching bands, cheerleaders, beauty queens, antique tractors and representatives of many, many  churches. I reminded the kids of the Lag B’Omer fair we went to in May — different religion, same outreach strategy, down to the bouncy castles). And then last night Terence and I went out to the movies and saw our senior senator for the second time in the same day. It’s all so coherent and peaceful and effective. Again, unlike the Holy Land.

I’ve been debating whether to end this blog officially, or just let you know I’m not sure how many and what kind of stories I will be telling from here out. I’m not good at endings and I don’t know what the future will hold. Do I officially close out our “year on”? Rename and relaunch a new blog? I feel like almost every entry this year ended with some version of this sentiment: I’m not sure what I think. And I suppose this one is no different.


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Travel and privilege


Lucky ducks

Hannah is missing six teeth, and likes to recount to anyone who will listen:

I lost this one on the Mass Pike and this one in Jordan and this one in Jerusalem and this one in Italy and this one in Massachusetts…and only one in Delaware!

Family and close friends laugh at this routine, but I can never tell what others are thinking: 

…that spoiled kid!
I’m jealous.
Where are those places, anyway?
Would you hurry up and grow some big-kid teeth, please?

I’m starting to feel a little awkward about advertising all the places we have been. Our year on was a ridiculous privilege, and I hope I’ve always named it as such. It required two financial sponsors, as well as family savings, and the security of knowing that we had shelter and at least one job waiting on the other end. We had previous travel and expatriate experience; on my side of the family, my daughters are in the fourth consecutive generation to live abroad as a child or adolescent. Terence had been to Israel twice and studied and taught about the region (though I was flying blind). We had family support, educational attainment, good health, local contacts, every advantage you could wish for except Hebrew or Arabic language skills.

Itemizing all this, I see how truly fortunate we were, and are still. And yet, and yet. It bums me out that international travel is such a luxury. I can’t tell whether it’s an actual or just perceived luxury. I mean, plenty of Americans believe they can’t afford to go overseas, but drop thousands on a trip to Disney World. Here perhaps it’s a question of priorities. My kids are advocating for a trip to Disney, but it’s not in the cards right now. (This year taught me a lot about budgeting and values). 

I wish more kids could travel overseas, even if that meant fewer saw Epcot. What will it take to make that happen?

Global awareness. Cross cultural competency. Twenty first century skills. These are such buzzwords in American education, and schools aim after these concepts in various ways. Educators fret over the OECD data, showing American students as at best average among our global peers. Our home state has just started a world language immersion program, which starts kids on Mandarin and Spanish as early as kindergarten, and imports instructors from China and Spain. Other schools here look abroad for curricular models, like ‘Singapore math.’ Independent schools enroll more and more international students. Friends hosted an exchange student for a semester.

All of this benefits American students and helps them understand the world and appreciate other cultures. But there’s no substitute for getting on a plane and experiencing it, and I wish more resources could be directed at that. Of course there are school exchange programs and similar opportunities, but other countries seem to have figured this out better. When we were passing through airport after airport en route home, we kept bumping into huge groups of school kids on summer trips. None of them were American. Almost all of my friends from London took “gap years” before university. I think only one of my American friends did that. Of course, it’s easier and cheaper to go abroad with Europe as your starting point. But I’ve met tons of Australians and New Zealanders while traveling, so it’s definitely possible to do it from anywhere.

This past year re-ignited my passion for international travel and turned it from a “nice to have” to a “non-negotiable” for me, and for my family. Yes, we have plenty of privilege. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy to incorporate international trips into our lives. It will limit other options and expenditures and shape our professional choices. But we will make it happen. We need to go abroad in 2013 to make the habit stick; otherwise this ‘year on’ could turn into a lovely memory, a cool thing we once did. And in addition to bringing my own kids abroad, I want to give some thought to how to extend these travel opportunities to more kids in more schools.

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Global parenting

I made a very “American parent” mistake the other day. Hannah was invited to a new student pizza party at her new school. All morning, I dreamt of pizza. We’ve been trying to eat really healthily and I was excited for some grease.  It didn’t even occur to me that this event might be “drop off” — that well-meaning parents like me would be cheerfully but forcefully blocked at the door, with instructions to return at 1 p.m.

I blushed and had leftover salad for lunch. I don’t consider myself a helicopter parent, but I might be a big, big kite.

I doubt any Israeli parent would ever make a miscalculation like that.


This is a phenomenon I saw many times in Jerusalem, that I doubt I’d ever see in New York or any US city. A woman gets on a crowded Egged bus via the back door because she’s laden with a baby in a stroller, plus potentially other children and bags. Before fighting the crowd up to the conductor to pay, she deposits her infant with a complete stranger for safe holding. It was one of my best moments in Jerusalem when I was the chosen one, and got to cuddle a tiny Israeli infant for several bumpy bus stops.

One of the things I loved about our year abroad was watching and learning from parents of other nationalities. That’s plural, because I saw Israeli and Palestinian family styles, and actually the folks with whom I interacted most were the parents of Hannah and Margaret’s friends. Between them they must have represented 15 or more countries from Europe, Asia, Australia, North and South America. So there was a lot of range.

I’m not sure how I feel about the recent surge of international parenting books — Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Bringing Up Bebe, and so on. On the one hand, the more Americans can learn from other countries, the better. I’ve read both of these books and other similar articles, and they make me think about how parenting decisions and styles are conditioned by national identity (and other identities: ethnic, class, educational…). But the books also irk me because they oversimplify the situation, painting both American and foreign parents with too broad a brush, and they capitalize on women’s insecurity about ourselves as parents.

Our experience of parenthood in Jerusalem was so polyglot. Perhaps that’s for the best. I didn’t emerge with a strong sense of us vs. them in the parenting stakes (a question on my mind all year: who is ‘them’?). It was more like a grab bag of techniques I’d like to emulate. I long for the kind of casual collectivity I saw on our local playground, where big groups formed and it wasn’t always easy to match the parents with their own children. Whether for economic, religious or other reasons, people in our neighborhood seemed to make more time for their families than I see at home. I was also spending way more time than ever before just hanging out with Hannah and Margaret, and finding new value in it. Yet paradoxically I also admired the way other parents gave their kids more leeway and autonomy than American parents (at least parents of my background and inclination) tend to. There wasn’t a lot of micromanaging. All but one of Hannah’s friends was ‘dropped off’ at her birthday party; the parent who stayed was, you guessed it, American.

These scattered impressions will never form a bestseller. I’m unable to generalize about who does what and why. Yet in parenting, as in everything else, living abroad constantly confronts you with how many ways there are to do it, whether “it” is big (set boundaries for a child, teach about values and ethics, develop systems of support and childcare) or small (choose snacks, style toddler hair, handle a potty emergency at the park).

Some of these ways would work for me and my kids; some of them don’t. But you can’t possibly live for a while surrounded by another culture (much less numerous other cultures) and believe you have it all figured out. International travel is a great cure for parenting self-righteousness. On the other hand, it’s also a confidence booster. If I can get my kids across the Allenby Bridge, how hard can it be to make it to school on time? (In another week, we’ll find out).

When Terence and I were neurotic new parents, we quizzed our pediatrician with a gazillion questions including many about what I could or couldn’t eat while breastfeeding: spices? strong flavors? He grinned at us and said, “well, babies do live in Indonesia.” Precisely.

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Last Friday, with both kids in summer camp, I wandered around our house and the surrounding fields, documenting its many beauties. I’m trying to notice things at home the way I eventually began to do in Jerusalem, to slow down and freeze the frame. I remember driving up our steep driveway in a U-Haul for the first time seven years ago, thinking: Wow. I get to live here? 

And this pond is across the field behind our house.





Hmmmmm…a pile of rocks in the desert-like sand. This looks like something from Israel or Jordan but I found it on a point overlooking the pond. I found myself wondering: what civilization put it here? Bored five year old boy?



Above one of our windows, there’s even a line-up of barn swallows, reminding me of another bird in our window in Jerusalem.




As I continue to struggle over what learned this year, and what exactly I’m bringing home, I’m looking for the little things.

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What you see

I haven’t written about my trip to Lebanon in June. (What a year — that I could have whole trips I haven’t yet had time to reflect on. I continue to be ridiculously grateful). I could tell about so many things : the Jerusalem – Beirut journey that is 141 miles as the crow flies, but took me nine hours,  required a second passport and wasn’t easy to discuss with my Israeli friends.  The strange clash of decadence and high fashion (“babes from Beirut”) and bombed out buildings. The mystery of why no Beiruti taxi drivers have a clue where they are going. Impressive ruins, an amazing museum, fabulous wine.

But what stands out in my memory is walking around the gigantic archeological park in Tyre, taking pictures of snails, lizards and flowers.

Tourism seems to be way down in Lebanon, and parts of the country are not really ready (or not still set up?) for prime time. So these ruins in Tyre had only minimal explanations. We bought a guidebook that committed the opposite error: too much incremental detail about every civilization to pass through Tyre (and there have been a lot). So while my family members puzzled over the book and wondered about the historical purpose of all the rocks, I took my opportunity to just go for a walk.

I don’t want to sound anti-intellectual. I love history. But on this day, what moved me was  climbing over and onto and even into rock formations. It’s fun to have total physical access to antiquity. Old tombs were piled high, and a riot of grasses and wildflowers bloomed in and around them: new life from old.

There were signs of other kinds of new life, also. The laundry flapping in the breeze over the ruins. The yellow Hezbollah flags that one sees all over the south of Lebanon.

And when you look closely, the ruins teem with animal life. Lizards, some of the pretty gigantic, run up the ancient Roman arches and columns and hide in crannies.



And there are even tiny snails clinging to the rock face in these gargantuan ruins, built to impress. I kept thinking of Annie Dillard: It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

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Bringing it Home

I used to run an amazing educational non-profit, Breakthrough Cambridge. Our centerpiece program was an intense academic summer session in which college students taught low-income middle school students. These college kids poured themselves into it; for many, it was their first classroom experience and got them hooked on teaching. They lived, breathed, ate and (occasionally) slept the experience. Total immersion. At the end of eight weeks, I always conducted ‘exit interviews.’ After listening to the teachers dissect, mourn, celebrate and vent about the summer, I would ask: “so, how will you bring all that back to college? How has this experience changed how you think about your ‘real life’?”

Every once in a while, someone had a fully formed answer, but mostly I got blank looks. They hadn’t had a chance to consider that yet.

This is kind of how I feel right now, even though our Year On was not as up-to-our-eyeballs intense as a Breakthrough summer. It had more breaks, more time for reflection, built in. Yet despite how much time I have had to think about this question, I’m still not exactly sure what I’m bringing home with me, how I’m going to apply all I learned.

It’s simpler or at least more concrete for Terence. He just wrote a grant application for alumni funding, so had to crunch out goals and objectives for bringing his experience home and making it relevant to his students and colleagues. Design a new class in “Religion and Politics.” Publish an article. Develop an interactive presentation and share with diverse educational and faith communities. Remain active in scholarship and professional development about the Middle East. 

I’m jealous of that kind of applicability. My takeaways seem so much more fleeting and piecemeal and stream-of-consciousness. Off the top of my head, the list goes something like: Walk more. Keep reading Haaretz and 972. Figure out how to get our family abroad again in 2013. (Make and save some money so we can). Stay in touch with Jerusalem friends. Find falafel in Delaware. Prevent boredom in the kids and in myself.

The kids aren’t aware of this concept, per se, but I have been fascinated to see how their experiences last year (wow! is it already last year?) resonate in their minds.

Margaret, upon discovering a pair of black Mary Jane shoes that now fit her: “I could wear these on Shabbat, with thick tights!”

Hannah, looking at her new school calendar: “Why don’t we get Rosh Hashanah off?”

Margaret, looking at photographs of Olympic athletes: “Germany. Milla and Yunis could be on that team. Great Britain. Miss Yvette could be on that team!”

Hannah, wondering where the nearest synagogue and mosque are to us, and using Google Maps to find out.

Although I’m still feeling disoriented and unsettled most of the time, hearing comments like that from my kids reassures me we did something good and important last year, something worth all the disruption and all the boxes still to unpack and all the things I seemed to lose along the way. I guess I’m still in Stay at Home Mom mode, because mostly I’m focused on how to keep my kids having these observations, thinking these thoughts.


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Cognitive dissonance

These boxes arrived yesterday, brought to our door by an incredibly friendly and effective staff person at SAS. (I am really reveling in American customer service, can you tell?!) They contain all the things we shipped from Jerusalem to Delaware. It’s a mixture of stuff the kids would not let us recycle or toss (books, toys, etc.) and stuff we did not want to discuss with interrogators from Ben Gurion Airport security. It’s a drag to entertain two little kids while your bags get painstakingly searched. So anything with the word “Palestinian” or any kind of Christian reference or symbolism went in these boxes, just to be safe.

It was weird to see the boxes appear out of the ether and I’m not ready to open them yet. This has been an odd week, full of dislocation. Most of the time, our “year on” feels a million miles and months away, even though we calculated it’s only been 43 days since we mailed these boxes from Jerusalem, and we’ve only been back in the US for three weeks. Half that time doesn’t really count towards “settling back in” since I was so sick.

Living here seems so easy, cheap, friendly, functional, local. Most of the time, that makes me happy but it can also frustrate me. Last Friday, I made good on a promise to take the kids to “Pump it Up,” a play center full of giant inflatables. I figured after a year of churches and archeological ruins, they deserved it. There I was, bouncing around with lots of laughing kids and moms, and suddenly the party pooper in my brain got going: you guys have no idea what’s out there in the rest of the world, the complexity and pain that other kids and families go through.

Of course, that’s a completely unfair reaction. I have no idea what burdens my fellow bouncers may be carrying. For all I know, they come from or have family in or have traveled to equally fraught environments. But my visceral reaction was: they don’t know how lucky they are.

Our next stop was that American icon, the shopping mall, to get birthday presents for Terence. We parked among gigantic SUVs and trucks (why is everything in this country so big?) and I was thinking about the fact that the mall would be open for business all weekend. If we were in Jerusalem, people would have been racing around to get shopping done before Shabbat. But then the very first person I saw at the mall was an observant Jewish man wearing a kippa and tzizit. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that Delaware before. This sounds so simplistic and cheesy, but I felt like it was a sign: not everything you saw and did is lost. 

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So, we are well and truly home now. We did the “we’re HOME!” song and dance and the girls had joyous reunions with books and toys that had been stored all year. I’m still unpacking but, totally predictably, already have wanderlust for the next trip and nostalgia for the one we just took. So I scrolled through Flickr and iPhoto and amused myself with a bunch of silly photos, outtakes from our year, if you will. They’ll never be ‘framers’ but do show the silly, exhausting aspects of foreign travel with young kids.

There are way too many photo opps in a “year on.” Someone always refuses to pose. (Here, first day at JAIS)

Terence wasn’t sure the elevated Urn Tomb at Petra was a good place for a pig pile. The girls and I respectfully disagreed.

Despite the faces, we really loved each and every visit from grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends! THANK YOU all.

Lighting candles, making wishes = 5 minutes of peace so the other parent can visit the church

Contraband bacon all the way from the US (oh, the things we missed!)


International language of ice cream

Transitions exhaust adults, too








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Reconstructing a life

Dipping our toes in the water of being home

We’re taking our time with re-entry, by necessity. The mysterious illness I picked up in Italy turned out to be not strep but pneumonia, or maybe one morphed into the other. I’ve been flat on my back for four days with plenty of time to think about  reconstructing our lives Stateside, but little energy to do any of it.

On our first morning back in the US, jetlagged and exhausted from our odyssey home, we packed our car in the Gilheanys’ garage and nearly started driving, before realizing that it had no license plates. We scratched our heads, digging deep into memories from last summer…there was something about de-insuring the car…sending the plates to the DMV for safe keeping…. We didn’t realize that the plates would end up in Delaware, the car in New York, and our family in Massachusetts. Delaware bureaucracy is a lot friendlier than the Israeli version (“we’ll have someone calls you who speaks English” said the water company. Imagine my surprise when they did — three weeks later!) but it’s still a hassle.

We’re dealing with deferred maintenance. Clearing out my lungs, for starters. The girls finally got haircuts. I caught up on People Magazine. We went to Target to stock up on underwear and sunblock, and I couldn’t believe how big and bright and clean and empty and cheap it was. It was lovely, but I confess to the tiniest flash of missing Rami Levy, where the prices are kept (comparatively) down by doing everything during opening hours, around the hoards of shoppers: stocking shelves, moving pallets of cargo, buffing the floors. There’s just no challenge to shopping at Target. I think back to my Jerusalem shopping days, and already wonder how on earth I did it.

While I’m moving slowing, dipping my toes into the waters of re-entry, the girls are jumping right in. Hannah climbed on the yellow school bus to YMCA camp — could there by anything more American? — where she knew no one and would spend all day canoeing and swimming and going on nature walks, her beloved books many miles away. She loves it. Margaret is running around, rediscovering long-long coloring books and stuffed animals. Both girls are peppering us with questions about the precise location of this or that beloved toy. I can’t remember what I stored in the attic vs. brought to Goodwill vs. sold on eBay, a long 14 months ago. The girls don’t seem susceptible to this mental haze, or maybe theirs just hasn’t hit yet. They also reject outright any hint of change. We proposed having them sleep in bunkbeds in one room, using the other as a play and work space, and they scoffed in our faces. “Everything has to be just like before!” insisted Hannah. We will see about that.

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So, you want to take a sabbatical?

I don’t like giving unsolicited advice. A friend once called me, stressed and postpartum, her newborn wailing in the background: “you never told me!” Well, I thought, you never asked. But someone planning a sabbatical abroad with young children did just ask for my advice, so here are some nuggets of hard-earned wisdom. Take from them what you will.

1. Your desire to go [for an excursion, an overnight, the whole sabbatical] has to be greater than the hassles you will face along the way. It’s always easier to stay home; easy isn’t why you are doing this. Kids don’t magically get simpler once you transplant them to another culture. Quite the opposite, in fact. They still need ‘tricks’ to entertain them on bus rides or at border crossings (books, crayons, whatever) and now they probably need other stuff as well. We shlepped water, hats, sunblock and sunglasses wherever we went in Israel/Palestine. Oh, and toilet paper. Your backpack is your friend.

2. We had to change our standards of “success.” A friend, an experienced expat, told me that to live abroad is to be in a constant, low-burn state of anxiety. Everything you used to do on auto-pilot, you have to learn again from scratch. While incredibly interesting, this is downright exhausting, and you will screw up: get lost, get ripped off, offend someone, choose a bad babysitter/repairman/restaurant. There is no way you won’t. It’s an interesting lesson for kids to see their parents as eminently fallible. For a few months, any family excursion resulted in tears. That is OK. The goal was that we wouldn’t all four cry at once.


What counted as adventure, fall 2008

Your range of motion will increase. I will never forget the first road trip we took as a family of four; one day I looked up from nursing six-week-old Margaret and told Terence: “get me out of here.” So we packed our car to the gills with a double stroller and a Pack and Play and all the other accoutrements we saw as necessary, and we went to a hotel in Philadelphia for one night. We felt so accomplished! And then I got an email from a British friend who worked in the Foreign Service, how his wife had to be airlifted from Cameroon home to Northern Ireland because of problems in her pregnancy. Suddenly our adventure seemed a little lame. But this year we got our game back. The more you do, the more you can do. This year made us braver as a family, more willing to take risks and push ourselves. I’m praying we can keep this mindset now that we are back in a comfier existence.

4. If the kids are happy at school, everyone wins.


5. If you can afford it, a scouting trip is a good idea.

Terence came to Israel/Palestine six months before we moved, primarily to visit schools we were considering for the girls. That seemed like overkill to some, and certainly it was a luxury, but the trip helped us get a concrete sense of what life abroad would be like for our whole family. Planning our year around JAIS turned out to be a great decision. Both girls loved school, I had a place to apply my expertise, and every member of our family made friends. School was a true “home base” for us. This was especially important because Terence didn’t really have a host institution (true, he was affiliated with Hebrew University, but in practice this didn’t mean much). Finding some there there to give focus to your life abroad is critical. In my experience, many people use international schools for this purpose. (As a side note,sending the girls to Israeli schools would have yielded a completely different year. My own parents believed strongly in sending us to local schools, and I admire that choice. But given that we only had ten months, that the girls really couldn’t continue Hebrew upon return, and that we wanted to expose them to Israeli and Palestinian influences equally, international school was an easy decision for us). Terence’s scouting trip also allowed him to visit apartments; we got lucky and chose the first and only place he saw.

6. Travel light but strategically, and rent from people with children if you can.

We brought seven suitcases to Israel and shipped nothing. I did a lot of research beforehand about what products were absurdly expensive or unavailable in Jerusalem (e.g. contact lens solution) and we persuaded our insurance to fill a year’s worth of all prescriptions. We also brought stuff that we would need immediately and I wasn’t sure we would be able to locate so soon: a cake mix for Margaret’s 3rd birthday (one week after landing), lunch boxes and backpacks for school. The best way to feel “at home” is to bring something small and light that you will see and use every day. In our case that was a tablecloth. Also bring photographs of people from home. We did bring a ton of toys and books for the girls but we were able to stockpile most of these when we discovered that our landlord had left the place stocked with board games, stuffed animals, dress up clothes, art supplies….If there is any way to rent from a family with same-age children, I strongly recommend it! On a side note, it’s worth investing in a nice apartment with room for the guests you will hopefully have. Especially in the Middle East, where daily life is an assault on your senses, it’s so nice to have an oasis to which to return.

7. Budget ruthlessly, and go every place you can.

Israel is expensive. We had to draw a bright line between experiences we wanted to have, and things we didn’t care about. None of us bought clothes for the year, and we ended up looking very ragamuffin. We went out for dinner maybe five times all year, every time with visitors or friends. We economized on babysitters. We only bought a few souvenirs (embroidered pillow covers, antique photos of Jerusalem). We rationed energy use (as virtually everyone besides Americans does anyway). But we spent a ton of money on travel, all over Israel/Palestine, to Jordan, London and Italy as a family and solo trips to Bavaria, Egypt and Beirut (twice). We traveled as reasonably as possible (stayed in B&Bs or youth hostels, packed picnic lunches, etc.) but never turned down an opportunity to travel. We ended the year with empty suitcases and full passports, which was just the way we wanted it.

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