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.