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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The family that goes places

Heading towards the Abbey; sweet relief from the beach

My friend Launa wrote beautifully about her own family’s year abroad and how it defined and strengthened their identity as a family of four. She used the metaphor of a shopping cart; when one wheel wobbles, the others can pull it straight. (Of course in any year abroad, there were times when all four wheels are wonky…).

Maybe because of Launa’s experience, I’ve had the same expectation for ourselves or the same question: what will this year reveal about who we are as a family? And the honest answer is (as it is so often this year), I’m not sure. And I certainly don’t have a metaphor in mind. But I did get a little insight last week at the beach in Italy.

Terence and I get antsy easily. For our honeymoon, instead of lying on a tropical island, we accepted invitations to two weddings on consecutive weekends, one in Belfast and one at Disney World. We spent three days in each place and the intervening time on an island off the coast of Georgia. Staying still is not our style.

I think that holds for our kids, too. I’ve always felt a tension here — on one hand, I believe the conventional wisdom that kids thrive on structure and routine. But on the other, I think they too can get bored, and benefit from new stimuli. I will never forget bringing eight-week old Hannah from the quiet of Delaware to New York City for the first time. As we stood in Flushing, under the 7 Train and the LIRR and the airplanes thundering towards JFK and La Guardia, with traffic honking all around and every language on earth being spoken, she looked at me with wide eyes as if to say: all this was here, and I never knew it.

We spent last week at a charming small town by the sea in Italy. It was scorching hot. We did the evening passeggiata, ate gelato, made sandcastles, swam in clear, refreshing water. But after a few days, we had itchy feet. Terence and I researched and found a Cistercian abbey that was accessible by public transportation. We were so excited. We are such geeks.

Of course I come from a long line of geeks. Another title for this post could be: “My Father’s Daughter.” All throughout my childhood, my dad packed us up for Outings. The point was to get out of the house, go somewhere, discover something new, with extra points for historical importance or cultural value. The family photo albums Dad painstakingly created are full of evidence of Outings all over New England and Europe. We visited so many churches we created a family acronym — ADC, Another Damn Cathedral.

Now I’m the adult, dragging my kids to ADC instead of spending another day on the beach. We sweetened the deal with hot chocolate and cornettos. As the train pulled away, the whole family seemed to relax. Margaret grinned up at us: “where are we going?”

That isn’t the point my love. The point is simply to go.

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