Our summer holidays are traditionally complicated affairs. In between visits across all the branches of our family tree, we cram in “American” sights and experiences that we hope are impressionable for Bug and Noodle. The whirlwind trip home always leaves our hearts full, as we cherish the time with our families, but we also leave exhausted and ready for a vacation from our vacation. Thus we saw a silver lining in deciding to stay in Tashkent for the summer. As much as we wanted to see our family, it was just too risky to cross borders and potentially get stuck, as happened to so many international teachers last summer.
Until our school director sent the email. Toward the end of the academic year, he informed us that he believed it was crucial for our well-being to be able to leave Uzbekistan, especially since everyone except the new hires had been on lockdown in Tashkent the previous summer and not been home in two years. He assured us that the school would support us should returning prove difficult. This was such a relief because colleagues at some international schools in other countries had received threats of losing their jobs should they leave and not be able to return on time. Unfortunately, not all our colleagues in Tashkent were actually able to go home. Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand were (are) enforcing a strict hotel quarantine at the expense of the traveler. On top of the psychological and financial burden, some were flat out denied because their turn around was too short.
Not only did we make the last minute call to spend the summer in the U.S., but we were actually adding a member to the Wandering Thomsper circus. Our colleague Anna was unable to get into New Zealand, so we offered our extended family and a once in a lifetime trip to America as a consolation prize. Since she had never been to the U.S. before, we felt obligated to make her visit amazing. Thus we spent several late nights sketching out a route and booking accommodations for our five week epic Best of the West Roadtrip.
Our plan was to balance nature and urban, see the major sites, and introduce her to some real life Americans. We began with a few days in San Francisco visiting Lena’s family and preparing for the trip, then headed across the border to northern Nevada for a mix of nature and more family. After a long trek through the vast desert in search of aliens, we ended up in Utah for ample exploration of National Parks. Next, we hit southern Nevada to indulge in all things Las Vegas. Because we love long drives, we backtracked to the “Giant Ditch” in the ground known as the Grand Canyon and pushed on to Central California for vineyards and time with Brian’s family. The final stretch brought us up the coast to Cambria, Monterrey and finally back to San Francisco. The journey ended with nine days of nonstop action in the city by the bay.
The trip was so epic and the photos so awesome that we’ve decided to break up the recap into several posts. Get ready!
Major holidays require significant motivation and carefully consideration when living abroad. Otherwise they will likely pass by unnoticed. The required intentionality is twofold. First, our children are third culture kids (TCKs) who have spent minimal time in their passport country and thus are not growing up immersed in the religious and cultural traditions that Brian and I draw on for memories and comfort. Even when Christmas is acknowledged in the country where we live, it is generally a novelty and doesn’t penetrate into every moment from Halloween to New Years. Without the insidious Christmas music, creepy shopping mall Santas or endless TV commercials pushing cheap plastic toys, holiday season for Bug and Noodle is mostly about slowing down, spending time together, eating delicious food, and going on adventures. Second, holidays can bridge connections with people who live in our current country of residence and deepening our understanding of their culture.
As single expats without children, Christmas once meant solo travel for Brian and trips home for me. Now, the financial hit of four long-haul tickets alongside the time-sucking 32 hours in transit (each way) and soul-crushing jetlag means limiting trips home to once a year for the longer summer break from school. The non-sympathy-stirring caveat is that we often live close to destinations that might be once-in-a-lifetime trips for others. However, given the pandemic and related quarantine requirements, international travel is out of the question this year. Being so far from home during such an emotional and turbulent time globally while actively adapting to a new culture might seem the perfect storm for homesickness, as happened to me last year. But the optimism of our most recent move and the desire to nest in our new home actually made this a very cozy and content Christmas.
Expat teachers usually hop on the first flight out of town the moment school finishes for the holiday break, as we are quite burnt out by mid-December and ready to rejuvenate on a beach or re-energize by plunging into a brand new culture. However, this year most colleagues chose to stay in Tashkent for obvious reasons, so none of us was suffering from expat envy while imagining the adventures of our friends and feeling left behind. Instead, we played tourist by skiing in the nearby mountains, checking out restaurants, and rummaging at antique and handicraft markets. Moreover, it was wonderful to get to know colleagues better without the stress of school looming over us. Highlights included making Christmas ornaments with the kids’ friends, tasting our first pavlova courtesy of our friend from New Zealand who joined us for Christmas Eve dinner, and ringing in the New Year at very small and carefully orchestrated gatherings.
Because the children have now reached an age of unbounded curiosity, some of their questions and our insights can give a bit of insight into our uniquely expat holiday. Here are the gems:
Why do we have a Christmas tree?
First, it’s actually not always a tree. Pine trees often don’t grow in most places we have lived (or they are imported and offer grave financial and climate destruction). Despite the guilt about buying plastic, we have bought and sold several fake trees; they just never seem to make the cut for taking up space in the shipment. In Mexico, we used a cactus. This year we could have done a different potted plant, but we just haven’t gotten to that point of household decor. So we settled for a hybrid plastic beauty that offers two types of needles as well as berries and pinecones. As a former tree guy, Brian believes it to be a cross-breed of holly, white pine and blue spruce. Bug and Noodle had a blast attaching the color-coded branches. And we were humored that the combination of tree, grand piano and formal dining room applied to our own lives.
Second, the branches offer a place to display all the decorations we have picked up throughout our travels. The process of unpacking and hanging ornaments creates a special tradition of recollecting memories. Additionally, Brian and I are darn near giddy as we wrap and arrange presents underneath said holiday plant on Christmas Eve because it sparks our inner child and gives us satisfaction that we have achieved some level of parenting success this year.
Who is Santa Claus? Will he know where we live? How is he going to get in our house?
We have wavered about our strategic approach to the Santa part of Christmas. Both Brian and I have fond memories of the magic and anticipation surrounding St. Nick. Neither harbors the horror story of shockingly discovering he wasn’t real. It was a gradual thing aided by loose-lipped older siblings. We never felt betrayed by our parents for intentionally lying to us. It was just fun. And once we found out the truth, it was still fun to pretend. But wow, there are some strong feelings about the subject. Especially since our parenting and teaching are so deeply committed to respecting and empowering children. Psychologists have written extensively about the harm that lying to children about Santa can cause. This is supported by educators and parents dedicated to the Montessori method, which believes that adults shouldn’t expose children under six to fantasy, including Santa, as it can cause a range of negative effects. Others remind us that honesty and the true spirit of Christmas can be nurtured. The approaches we connect to honor the spirit of Christmas and are shaped most by the children’s questions and play invitations…with a little sprinkling of pretend from us.
I am completely creeped out by the Foucauldian watchman vibe of a certain approach to Christmas that uses a spying elf or Santa to scare children into good behavior. Gift-giving in our house is inspired by generosity rather than anybody’s naughty or nice behavior. Moreover, Elf on the Shelf requires way to much effort at a time of year when us teacher-parents are drowning in end-of-the-year professional responsibilities.
A dad we know offered to stop by our home dressed as Santa on Christmas Eve Day, and Brian and I wavered. Would it frighten the kids? Or take the lie a tad too far? We decided to accept the offer and see what happened. Although Bug and Noodle quickly realized that it was their friend’s dad, the squealed and reveled in the excitement. Obviously they left the Big Guy a plate of cookies before bed because that was our caloric reward for nudging them through the authentic literacy experience of writing him a letter. And the next morning, Santa’s name appeared on several presents under our tree – but definitely not the best ones because Mom and Dad are taking credit for that – and Bug proudly decoded the gift tags with he new phonics skills. When the children asked if Santa was real, we responded with our favorite teacher question: “What do you think?” And let them lead the way.
Why is Santa in Uzbekistan blue? Who is that lady with Santa?
Uzbekistan is a crossroads in so many ways, and holidays prove not an exception. We noticed that December brought modest holiday light decorations and tree displays that were familiar to our American frame of reference. But the Santa figure was skinny and dressed in blue, and his only companion was a beautiful young woman in a wintry princess costume. After questioning our local friends and a peek at Wikipedia, we learned that the man is not Santa Claus or Saint Nick, but Grandfather Frost or Ded Moroz (Дед Мороз). He made his way to modern day Uzbekistan via pagan Slavic mythology that influenced Soviet culture. He is similarly kind and delivers toys to children. However, diverging from our lore, the supporting character here is his granddaughter, Snegurochka (Снегурочка) rather than Mrs Claus or elves. And horses pull his sleigh instead of flying reindeer.
Who is Jesus? Why are we celebrating his birthday?
Well, Brian and I are a bit loose in our religious discussions with the kids. We grew up going to varying intensities of Sunday school and got the gist of Christianity, but neither of us identifies strongly with the faith today. We talk to the children about God (as he or she). They know that the mosques, temples and churches they’ve visited are special places to pray. We describe praying as mindfulness and listening to our hearts. Things that we emphasis as sacred are family, kindness, acceptance of others and ourselves, and nature. Jesus fits well into this view. Bug and Noodle know he was a wonderful man who was kind and generous and loving to all. The one slightly religious tradition for our Christmas is cuddling up and watching the movie, The Star, which is a very child-friendly depiction of Jesus’ birth.
Admittedly, this was not our best year for strongly emphasizing the giving part of Christmas. We did take each child shopping separately to choose gifts for the rest of the family. Also, they selected items to donate to our school’s charity drive for local children in need (and we involve them in events throughout the year). However, now that we are more settled in UZ and the children are at ages where they can more independently participate in many tasks, we are keen to weave empathy and charity into our family traditions not just at Christmas but throughout the year.
What do you do when you move to a new country, spend a week locked in hotel quarantine, and are suddenly set free to begin your new life? You move in with your boss.
Once we were released from quarantine, we had no place to go. Our options were to continue staying in the hotel but move to a different floor or move into a hypothetical house that we hadn’t actually found yet. Luckily, our principal graciously stepped in and invited the Wandering Thomsper Circus into her home. You know you are at the house of someone who loves messy inquiry when, within five minutes of arriving, she asks your kids if they’d like to dump a bucket of water in her garden to make mud. The perfect welcome for young kids who hadn’t stepped outdoors for a week.
In Uzbekistan, the law allows you three days to register at your new address. We had three days to find a house…except one day was a holiday, so it was actually two. House hunting began with a strategic packing of snacks and entertainment for the kids and a creative installation of their car seats into a well-loved Russian-made passenger van. Support staff from school arranged so many houses that we eventually abandoned photos and note-taking and went completely on instinct. Due to numerous logistical factors, we did not move around the city in any type of order but rather zigzagged back and forth until we were thoroughly confused and had no idea which neighborhood or <mahallah> we were in.
The first day was overwhelming and a bit disappointing. The designs and quirks of homes in every country vary, and it takes time to adjust expectations and decide what matters and what doesn’t. Can you live in a well-situated house with three types of faux Versailles-esque wallpaper in each room, or will that be overstimulating and prohibit any opportunity for personalizing the space? What matters most to us – commute, walkability to conveniences, size of garden, proximity to other colleagues, sunlight, subdued design that allows us to add our own style.
Thankfully, day two started much better as houses had bigger gardens, less overwhelming aesthetics, cozy spaces, and quiet but well-situated neighborhoods. We had hoped to be walking distance to our school but hadn’t seen anything in that area that worked for us. We had also looked in the faraway district where embassy families lived but knew the commute would kill us. So we were focusing on an area about 15 minutes driving from school with pockets of quiet residential areas nestled between massive Soviet-style boulevards lined with shops and cafes.
As soon as we turned onto the quiet leafy street and walked in the front gate, we knew we found our home. Enough grass for the kids, fenced pool, outdoor dining space, hardwood floors, extremely plain white wallpaper, monochromatic curtains, dishwasher, water purification system in the kitchen, and soft sunlight. It also had a grand piano, formal dining room, massive finished basement, and five bedrooms. As international teachers, we have never and will never again live in something this spacious. We canceled the rest of the viewings and arranged our move-in for two days later. We have moved by Vietnamese motorbike, Mozambican pick-up truck, Chinese rickshaw, Mexican golf cart, and now Uzbek school bus.
Normally, when new teachers arrive at a school there is an orientation period that includes getting to know the school and city, going out to dinner with various people, meeting returning staff, and taking care of bureaucratic paperwork like opening bank accounts, setting up internet, phones, etc. It can be quite the whirlwind. Especially with jetlag and pushed up against starting a new school year. Entering as a new cohort this year was very different. First, we all arrived at different times due to travel restrictions around the world. Second, the school year had already started virtually. Third, most restaurants were closed and staff were still distancing. And finally, the administration was completely swamped with the intricate plans of preparing to safely opening our school in midst of the pandemic. Despite all this, it was actually one of the smoothest and most welcoming transition we had ever experienced.
In addition to our personal welcome while staying with our principal, returning staff at every level have continuously reached out to take us shopping, have playdates, give us a lift somewhere, or simply stop by to say hello. We have been a bit hesitant to interact because of COVID, but even just the offers helped ease the isolation and uncertainty of relocating to a new country. Thankfully, everyone has seemed to be in agreement about masks, sanitizing, and maintaining distance. Beyond showing us where to find groceries, random house stuff, pizza, coffee, and decent beer and wine, we are so grateful for the outreach and most definitely look forward to growing friendships. It has been a long journey to find a home, school and community that fit us so well. Now we can breathe and unpack.
When we agreed to take the charter flight to Tashkent, we knew a hotel quarantine was waiting for us at the other end. But we were so eager to get started with the next chapter of our lives that it didn’t really phase us. Until the van pulled up to the back of a midsized low rise hotel on a side street in middle of the city. We all hopped out, passed through a sanitation tunnel (which the kids thought was like sprinklers and wanted to do again), entered through a back door, and shuffled through a series of unlit grand marble halls to the lobby…where we were met by several staff in full PPE. There were only a handful of us checking in, and we were quickly led to our rooms.
We were met with a lovely welcome kit. Two delicious fruit plates with fresh peaches, nectarines and grapes. Bags of nuts. Adorable totes. Mountains of toys on lend by teacher families, which honestly saved our lives. And laptops and teaching supplies. Ah yes, virtual school started in two days – the reason we were here.
Luckily, the room was quite large, which allowed for all our luggage and plenty of extra space. Yet we knew we were in trouble when Noodle informed us on the first day, “This hotel room is boring.” He was right. No kitchen area. The TV had one fuzzy sports channel. The internet was spotty. And one entire wall was glass. The upside to the windows was being able to sit in sunlight for our daily vitamin D boost and hang our heads out the window for fresh air. The downsides to all this glass were that we baked during the day and had an amazing view of…the parking lot. So much for catching a glimpse of Tashkent.
About an hour after arriving, the doorbell rang and we opened it to find four plastics bags with to-go meals. Everyone was so tired that we fell asleep without eating. Bug and Noodle woke up hungry around 3:00am, so we set some couch cushions around the coffee table and inspected the cold offerings. They were endless. A big bowl of soup, heaping mound of white rice, a dinner roll, some French fries, and a hunk of meat (for Brian and the kids) or grilled vegetables (for Lena). The food was not award winning but it wasn’t terrible either. Bland enough for the kids and seasoned enough for the adults. But wow, the carbs. Thankfully, Lena had insisted on bringing some healthy supplements from Trader Joe’s, such as chia seeds and flax meal for the oatmeal and kale chips and freeze dried broccoli for snacks. (It was a sad day when the kale chips ran out.) Starvation and malnutrition were not going to happen here.
Breakfast consisted of porridge, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, Laughing Cow cheese, packaged cheese slices, questionable meat slices, cold hot dogs, and apricot juice boxes. Noodle enthusiastically ate all four hot dogs every single day. And Lena’s overpacking was well-received when her preparedness brought forth Starbucks instant coffee on the first day and later a French press and canister of grounds. One cup of fresh hot coffee was worth all those baggage overage fees and a nearly missed flight.
The doorbell rang again, and Brian opened it expecting the lunch delivery. Instead, he was met with two people in full PPE carrying a large metal box. The one with the clipboard announced, “COVID Test,” while the other opened box and began setting up. Bug promptly went into full meltdown, and Noodle volunteered to go first. However, Brian took that honor. He wheeled the office chair towards the door, signed some official papers written entirely in Russian, and sat down. Although keeping calm, his eyes definitely widened when the enormous cotton swab was removed from the package. Later COVID tests confirm that this swab was not thin, flexible, or designed for comfort.
Extremely uncomfortable and burning was how Brian described it. Noodle was up next. Brian enveloped him tightly, and despite some wiggles, the nurse was able to complete the test on her first try. When done, he burst out laughing because it tickled so much. Bug was distraught and cried before, during and after the test. He collapsed on the bed and watched as Lena had her nostrils swabbed. She also was not a fan of the test and ended up with a bloody nose.
We needed to wait three days for the results, which would determine if we could leave our room and split up for online learning. While waited for the results and for virtual school to begin, we drew pictures, played with toys, watched fuzzy Russian League football, and made obstacle courses around the room.
We had not experienced virtual teaching in the spring so this was a steep learning curve for Lena and Brian. Bug and Noodle had finished up their schooling in Mexico online, so that had given a bit of an idea of what to expect. The internet only worked in a direct line from the door to the desk, so after choreographing a delicate internet set-up, we were able to prep and launch the year. Lena and Bug worked at the desk, where kindergarten was happening, and Brian sat by the door with Noodle where he deftly used his mute button to navigate grade four teaching and preK learning. In an effort to make the first day special, we even took the obligatory first day of school photos with the Do Not Disturb sign in the background.
After learning that our COVID results were negative, Lena and Bug were able to relocate to a separate hotel room with much better internet for the school day. They literally packed their backpacks, water bottles and snacks, and said good bye for the day. However, on the first day of leaving the room, Lena was warned by our liaison at school that the military guard working that day was not so keen on the arrangement and she should be cautious. Needless to say, Bug was tutored on being extremely quiet, walking quickly without looking around, and acting like everything was normal as they passed the elevator. He did amazingly well, and the guard was strangely not at his desk for the three minutes it took to scurry down the hallway. The way back in the afternoon was a different story. Bug got curious and forgot to whisper, and Lena forgot our room number since this was the only time she had left the room in several days. Thankfully, Brian opened the door and they ducked safely inside.
Throughout our stay, our school community regularly checked in on us via Telegram, which is a replica of WhatsApp or WeChat. After hearing about the meals, Lena’s teaching partner sent over amazing hummus from a Lebanese restaurant, dark chocolate, and carrots. And after hearing that we were subsisting on water, our principal dropped off several bottles of beer and wine hidden within bags of chocolate, yogurt, crackers, and real cheese.
Once school began, the days flew by. We kept as normal a schedule as possible with wardrobe changes, meals, playing, evening baths, and bedtime stories. With jet lag, excessive screentime, and the cognitive load of virtual learning – we were exhausted by the end of the day. The best part of our time in quarantine was when our school liaison called to tell us that we could leave the next day. The government had announced that the time was shortened from ten days to seven (it has since shifted back to ten, then to fourteen, and now to quarantine at home). As homeless newbies with nowhere to go, our principal graciously housed us and our mountain of luggage for several days while we put the details of our life together.
After a roller coaster year that involved losing our jobs, moving four times, and a pandemic – we can finally exhale. Against all odds, we have made it to our new home in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
After a flustered farewell to Mexico, we waited in limbo for several months in California. We hunkered down in homes that our family and friends graciously lent us, as sickness, sadness, and uncertainty raged outside. Within our carefully constructed social bubble, we relished reconnecting with Lena’s family and immersing ourselves in nature. By July our new school began speculating about the Uzbek border partially re-opening, so we rounded up all the stuff of our transit life. Camping gear, winter clothes and most toys went into boxes that Brian drove to Phoenix on a sprint to get our shipment sent off. It had been sitting in a storage unit since August after being intercepted in Hamburg on its way to Moscow. Now it would head back to Europe and then south via train from Eastern Europe through Central Asia. Our Kitchen Aid mixer is extremely well traveled. The stories our stuff could tell. Meanwhile, our passports had been sent to the Uzbek Consulate in Washington, DC with extra fees and followed up with phone calls begging to expedite visas in case we were asked to jump on a last minute flight.
The flurry of preparing to leave coincided with preparing to teach remotely on a twelve hour time difference. We were attending Zoom staff meetings that began at 8:00pm and lasted until 3:00am….and then we had to wake up and function as parents of very young kids. We splurged at Target to create virtual learning spaces where we could record lessons and instruct our own children. As soon as we set up our office, we got an email from the school asking us if we could make a charter flight departing from New York in 24 hours. This entailed packing, saying goodbye to family, purchasing last minute flights from San Francisco to New York, and uprooting the kids with minimal notice. Of course we said yes. We just needed to confirm that our permission to be on the flight had made it from Tashkent to New York City. Just as we began to strategize the ultimate departure plan, we got word that the permissions hadn’t arrived. We were off the flight and would likely not have another opportunity until the border opened up to commercial flights in a month or two.
Until a week later. We were squeezed onto a repatriation flight technically for Uzbeks moving home during the pandemic (which makes sense because Uzbekistan’s COVID response relies on science and social responsibility), and it departed in five days. But we were now emotionally prepared and had anticipated logistics ahead of time. Best of all, we had visas and permission to enter the country. After previous experiences trying to get visas for other countries (and not always succeeding), we were pleasantly surprised at how logical and pleasant our interactions were with Uzbeks. For example, we called the Consulate and spoke to a person….a person who was friendly and helpful. Amazing.
The flight to Tashkent left from New York City, but New York had just instituted a self-quarantine requirement for people arriving from several states, including California. No one could really tell us more than transiting would probably be ok. So we booked a nonrefundable room at the only hotel actually at JFK. We were questioned by authorities from the NY Health Department when disembarking our flight from San Francisco, but they waved us on when we explained that we were only staying one night and leaving the country in the morning. Getting to the retro TWA Hotel in Terminal 5 was as to be expected when pushing three teetering carts stacked with 16 suitcases in and out of elevators and on and off the AirTrain. There were some harrowing mishaps of tumbling luggage nearly concussing our wayward children. Brian also discovered that he was not what one might call “in shape.”
We got to the check-in counter exhausted from the trek only to find out that we must pay cash for our baggage overage fees. We were expecting the fee part but not the cash part. After several trips to the ATM and unsuccessful calls to the bank to waive withdrawal limits, we were still short. The incredibly helpful Uzbekistan Airways employee went out of his way to try several work arounds, but without the cash we were stuck. We had used up our built in time cushion trying to solve this fiasco. It did not look like we were going to make the flight. Then Brian pulled out several money orders that the Uzbek Consulate had returned to us because we hadn’t needed to pay expediting fees for our visas. This would be the first but definitely not the last time that we encountered this type of humbling honesty. In the whirlwind of packing, we hadn’t been able to refund the money orders for cash. It was a Hail Mary for the win. The money orders, totaling the exact amount we needed, were accepted as payment and we sprinted for the security gate.
Security was a nightmare. Crowded. Understaffed. Nothing to protect from COVID (ok, the officials wore gloves….the same pair of gloves to protect themselves but no one else). Multiple rescans of luggage for no reason. By the time we were finally through, the flight was boarding. Naturally, our gate was as far away as possible. We raced through the terminal with overstuffed carry-ons, dragging Bug and Noodle on their Trunkis. We arrived panting at an empty gate and looked at each other in panic. Realizing it had just relocated a few gates down, we quickly spotted the well-masked but definitely not physically distanced crowd. We joined the line and caught our breath for the next hour before we were able to board the delayed flight.
Our introduction to Uzbekistan Airways was the flight attendants greeting us dressed head to toe in full protective gear. The flight was completely full. We hadn’t seen this many people in months and the close proximity with recycled air was beyond stressful. We weren’t the only ones though. Many people, including us, pulled out packets of bleach wipes and scrubbed down every inch of their seating areas. The flight was relatively uneventful, although the unmasked young boy sitting in front of us continuously leaned into our space to try and play with Bug and Noodle sent Lena into a mild panic attack mixed with guilt. In any other situation, she would have encouraged the kids to play. But a potential super spreader breathing in our food was too much. Brian made gestures that the child needed to wear a mask. The family graciously complied and did their best with the cute little wiggler for the rest of the flight. On the other hand, Bug and Noodle did amazing. They kept their masks on for all twelve hours – even while eating and sleeping – and never objected to being doused in sanitizer each time they went to the toilet. However, Lena trying to rub an essential oil concoction in their nostrils was a step too far. Brian’s biggest complaint was his broken movie screen that kept him from watching any of the five Uzbek or Russian movies available. Oh, and the food was terrible.
Watching the map was mesmerizing as we passed over the Arctic, through Russia and over numerous “Stans” that were complete unknowns in our mental imaging of the world. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived in Tashkent. Passport control was slow but undramatic. Luggage collection was another story. The carrousel was packed with not only passengers and airport employees but also drivers and employees from hotels where people would be quarantining. At that time, all passengers arriving into Uzbekistan were required to quarantine for ten days either in a hotel or at a government quarantine facility. As bags began to appear, Brian jockeyed at the non-distanced carousels and Lena corralled the kids in an empty corner of the hall. All the bags must have been sprayed with disinfectant because they were wet even though it was a bright sunny day. Despite Brian’s masterful skill at building suitcase Jenga towers on rickety luggage carts, we did have one small mishap on a crowded ramp.
We were excited to meet another teacher from our school who had also made our flight, and not only because she helped push a cart. A friendly presence and easy conversation amidst the chaos and uncertainty quickly calmed our nerves. Also, while loading into the hotel van, we caught a glimpse of school staff who came to wave at us from across the parking lot. It was another warm gesture that really made us feel welcomed.
Our new colleague pointed out landmarks and local bazaars as our police escort darted through the empty streets. Although normally congested with traffic, the government had restricted cars on the road to control movement and curb COVID’s spread. After a short drive through the city, we arrived at the Miran International Hotel, where we would would exist in limbo for nearly two weeks. While checking into the hotel, the school director appeared outside a window, waved enthusiastically, and snapped photographic proof that we were on Uzbek soil. We were so touched to see him. On top of everything our school had done to get us to Tashkent during a pandemic, these small gestures really set the tone for what type of community we were entering.
Bewildered and exhausted, we were escorted past military guards and down a dim hallway lit with disinfecting UV lights to our surprisingly spacious and bright room. Noticing the megabed that had been made by pushing two double beds together, all four Thomspers quickly changed into comfy jammies and promptly fell asleep.
Why don’t you work in ________ (fancy country everyone wants to visit)?
Why would you live in______ ? (random country where we were offered a job)
Do you just send one application and then schools pick you?
We get these and many other questions when talking to our family and friends in the US about living and working abroad.
Our parents are beginning to grasp the complexity and intensity of changing schools and countries because they serve as psychologists and babysitters during the crazy process. But to others, it is a mysterious part of our lives. The long story short is that we do not really get to choose to work in a specific country. We try to balance multiple factors regarding the school, community, and country. And ultimately, there are a lot more teachers than schools, so the scales are not tipped in our favor in any hiring situation.
Going through this lengthy and stressful search two years in a row is not an experience we would wish for anyone. To clarify a popular FAQ, we do NOT send our applications to a type of clearinghouse and wait to see which schools are interested. That would save us months of work. There are not international school districts (well, there are some companies that own multiple schools, but that’s a different thing). Anyone can call themselves an international school. It is up to us to find out which ones provide aligning pedagogies, solid packages, a supportive community, and a location that meets our family’s needs. This detective work requires a broad international network, access to recruitment databases, participation on Facebook groups, and some luck.
Schools hire as independent entities, and they do not post openings all at the same time. The window is between October and March, and we can be at different stages of recruitment with different schools throughout that time. There are several recruitment platforms that we pay to belong to, but often positions are tentative or do not correspond with what is listed on a school’s website. So we sometimes spend hours meticulously revising a cover letter and applying to non-existent jobs. Additionally, schools are combing through thousands of applications for each open position. They are so overwhelmed that once positions are filled, updates on the databases and post-interview follow-ups are not always timely. It would be great if there was some way that international schools could set up something like National Signing Day when high school athletes declare their intent to play sports at a university. Maybe there could be a world posting day when all available jobs are announced at once, which might be overwhelming but would level the field. One organization is attempting something like this, but there are a lot of competing agencies and complicated factors.
To stand out, we have a professional website and attend job fairs hosted by the recruiting agencies. They are expensive and stressful, but often prove effective because face time is so valuable. However, they are a huge financial risk and logistical commitment for educators – especially when we are unemployed. While participating in the fair doesn’t cost too much, the flights and hotel to London, Bangkok, Singapore or Dubai sure do. Not to mention taking time off work and arranging childcare. Because we weren’t working this year, we opted to attend two fairs – Bangkok in November and London in January. However, Brian did accept a maternity cover and ended up missing two weeks of his four month gig for us to attend both fairs. The detour to Phoenix to bring our toddlers to their grandparents was also costly but necessary. The pace at fairs is so intense that bringing the kids is not an option (unless we brought a caregiver, but it would still prove a huge distraction). Last year, we had 14 interviews in two days with nine schools. While severely jet-lagged.
The hardest parts of selling ourselves as a package has been that we are two elementary teachers with two dependents. Rightfully so, schools look to hire the hard to fill positions first, such as high school physics or calculus. Once they find the right person, her/his partner typically fills another open position…which often happens to be elementary classroom. So the positions we are recruiting for are frequently reserved for spousal hires, which leaves us waiting to see how schools’ “puzzles” are coming together later in the hiring season. Additionally, many schools allot a certain number of spaces for dependent students because these kids will attend for free. Most allow two kids, although some accept three. Either way, those spaces are often held for that physics teacher who might have three kids. One school told us that their board would not allow hires with dependents until after January. If we had a penny for every rejection email that talked about the “puzzle.”
Unfortunately, we were not lucky at the November fair. Perhaps our self-presentation was off or schools were just not ready to commit to two elementary teachers so early in the recruitment season. Who knows. Analyzing the experience of a job fair is a complete mindf%&#. We did reconnect with wonderful friends and network with recruiters at excellent schools. Plus, we ate a lot of Thai food, saw the Pope (his motorcade drove by our hotel!), and had an amazing 12 hour layover in Hong Kong. So it wasn’t a total miss. But it sure was expensive.
After the fair, online recruitment took over. While Brian was working and commuting two and half hours a day, Lena was holding the household together and spearheading applications. The only common time to interview with schools around the world was in middle of the night. We would get the kids to sleep, take a nap, and wake up at midnight to put on our suit jackets (pajama pants stayed on). Or we would wake up at 3:30am for a 4:30am interview and then Brian would go off to work. We were exhausted. Thank goodness for the world clock function on our iPhones to keep track of all the time differences. We even had one night with 3 interviews in three different countries. We only made one scheduling error which was apparently forgiven because the school did hired us.
However, that school hadn’t hired us by early December. After months of pouring our hearts into applications, waiting weeks to hear back (and often not), and sinking into self-doubt when offers were not made – we were losing steam. Underlying this whole experience was the sadness that Russia would not materialize this year either (there had been a slight possibility). Losing our dream school made it hard to get excited about other opportunities. As Christmas neared, many international teaching friends were posting on social media about their exciting plans for next year while we were still in the trenches, so we decided to try the London fair again since we scored our (since lost) jobs there last year. We bought all the plane tickets, booked the nonrefundable hotel, and located the only two winter(-ish) jackets for sale in all of tropical Puerto Vallarta.
Naturally, two days after we tossed a ton of money into attending the January fair, we finally landed an offer at a school that we were genuinely excited about. Since the money had been spent, we decided to travel to London for a kid-free mini-holiday. Although we did not attend the actual fair, we did support dear friends and further build our professional network. And see a West End show. And visit incredible museums.
Now that the huge pressure of finding jobs has lifted, we have entered the transitioning stage. Schools know they have elementary openings, but current teachers can opt to switch grade levels for the following year, so new hires need to wait to find out their actual grade assignment. Also, we are receiving mountains of information about obtaining visas, work permits, health insurance, finding housing, and sending an international shipment of goods – which involves all kinds of paperwork, official stamps, trips to embassies, and communication across timezones – and simply fills the space once reserved for finding the job.
At this time, we are excited to announce that The Wandering Thomspers will be moving to Uzbekistan – a travel destination currently receiving tons of positive media attention. Lena will teach Kindergarten and Brian will teach Grade 4 at Tashkent International School. Given the current state of the pandemic, we have no idea if we will be teaching in person or remotely starting in August. At least this #YearOnNotOff has hammered home the need for flexibility and open-mindedness about all the possible life trajectories we might find ourselves on. We are just grateful for the opportunity to join a special community and grow in a new experience.
Anyone interested in more details about moving into international education can leave a message below or contact us via this website. We are happy to share what we have learned!
Apologies that our fledgeling blog has been neglected. Aside from unreliable internet, we have completely lost ourselves in the job search for next year. This involves hours of searching on databases, strategizing for job fairs, researching about schools and locations, revising cover letters to address the specifics of each school, completing detailed applications on individual school websites, maintaining communication with former colleagues and potential employers. Taking breaks to mop the floor, do laundry, organize the pantry. And parent. Oh, and Brian is now a longterm substitute at the American School of Puerto Vallarta (woohoo!). And I am supporting a family in beginning the journey of homeschooling (yay!).
Our #YearOnNotOff just got a little more ON. We’ve hardly recovered from the intensity of last year’s job search and were looking forward to not doing one for a long time. There’s also unease after putting forth so much effort and watching the results slip through our fingers. But we love what we do and are very eager to dive back in.
Reflecting on our job search experience last year, we think our ultimate success was due to in-person interviews at a job fair. No doubt, we also bombed a few. But overall, we felt that face-to-face conversations brought our CVs to life (quite literally). Where we struggle is standing out on paper. Each school receives thousands of applications for one position. And most applicants have equal years experience, share our pedagogies, and feel the same passion.
How do we set ourselves apart? After revamping our CVs last year with an updated look, the new message we are now receiving is that they should be basic for software scanning. Additionally, we are vacillating about how to handle this big gap at the top. Do we mention being hired and released at no-fault? Do we add our current short term positions? We’ve decided that the cover letter is where we can tell our story about truly making this year count. We hope that our positivity and creativity in response to this detour demonstrate why we would be great employees. But we also need to paint a more vivid picture of ourselves as experienced educators.
Researching how to refine our message led to Kerri Twigg’s website which is full of nuggets on “using your story to find your strengths.” We felt that reflecting on her ten prompts could help us get past “being passionate” and better define which skills and assets we actually offer.
We’ve decided to post the questions and our answers for multiple reasons. First, we do offer links to our social media outlets to help recruiters get to know us beyond the bullets on our CVs or the two paragraphs each in our joint cover letter. Second, the portrayal of teachers in the media and by politicians is often negative and flat, so we hope this more positively and deeply illustrates our professional identity. And finally, our friends and family from home don’t actually know much about our lives as international educators. They know we live far away. Hopefully this post will explain more about why.
1. What are three things you get complimented on?
Building connections with disengaged students
Efficiently managing my time and keeping meetings on track
Staying calm and unflustered amidst hyper students, report deadlines, concerned parents, etc.
2. What do you get asked to be a part of?
I’m the go-to guy for planning and leading nature activities, science experiments, or field trips.
3. What do you end up doing in any role regardless of the sector?
In my “past life” I was a researcher for the US Forest Service and then an environmental educator at national parks, which ultimately led to teaching. The skills that tie all these roles together include:
Taking a systematic approach to identifying and addressing challenges in the environment (tree illness, inclement weather, student behavior challenges)
Collecting, sorting, and analyzing data (tree measurements, animal tracking, assessment outcomes)
Utilizing a variety of environments to keep learning stimulating
4. What work feels effortless?
I love guiding students in identifying, planning and implementing projects that address authentic problems in their lives. I’m energized when my work has deeper purpose.
5. What work comes easily to you, but others struggle with?
I think some teachers feel overwhelmed by the details of organizing and leading field trips, but this actually allows me to combine my calm nature, organization skills, and pedagogy framed around experiential learning.
6. What do you research all the time?
I am always looking up random facts, usually in relation to a nonfiction book or article I’ve been reading.
7. What action needs to be part of the work you do?
My work needs to be connected to the reality of our classroom, the school, local community, or current events in the world – and it needs to have a positive impact on one or more of those places. I need students to realize how important they are for the future of our world.
8. What makes you feel alive?
I am happiest when I am outside, in the woods or at least accessing natural elements of wherever we are living. In urban environments, this can even be a patch of grass or a cluster of trees.
9. What are you the proudest of doing in your career?
In a grade four unit that inquired into goods and services, the students designed and implemented businesses on campus. Once they began earning profits, we researched and selected female entrepreneurs within our local community and provided microloans through Kiva.
10. What are you most introduced as having done?
Colleagues tend to talk with me most about the projects I am currently involved in, which could be service initiatives involving teachers or some type of creation that my students are making.
1. What are three things you get complimented on?
Displays of visible thinking and students’ learning in progress
When students I work with are building confidence and showing improvements in other classes
Contributions I offer during collaborative planning meetings
2. What do you get asked to be a part of?
I often get asked to attend curriculum development and unit planning meetings to ensure that differentiation (especially for language) is being addressed. In this bigger picture, I want to look at content, process and product and ensure that both content and language objectives are defined and accounted for throughout the learning journey.
3. What do you end up doing in any role regardless of the sector?
I’ve had some interesting jobs! I’ve worked in sales at a wine store and for a company selling boutique doggie wear (my puppy came to work with me). I’ve served gourmet meals at fine dining restaurants. I was a project manager for nonprofit that researched ethical culture in the workplace. And I’ve taught everything from preschool summer camp in the woods to adult English classes in the West Bank. The unifying factor in all of these is that I truly believed in what I was selling (cute dog collars, delicious wine and food, improving work environments, joy of learning), and I was able to convince people why. These jobs also required setting goals, maintaining timelines with lots of moving parts, taking pride in presentation, communicating effectively, and managing a wide variety of expectations.
4. What work feels effortless?
Building relationships with students is everything to me. When a student is struggling, my immediate thoughts are, “What need isn’t being met to cause this behavior? What can I do to meet that need?”
5. What work comes easily to you, but others struggle with?
I love breaking down the big picture of a unit or lesson to anticipate challenges (especially for language learners) and then planning/creating scaffolds to make the learning experiences more accessible.
6. What do you research all the time?
As a parent and as an educator, I am always looking for ways to become even more child-centered in how I respond to behavior challenges, make space for purposeful play, or support social-emotional development. I am a regular at Janet Lansbury’s website, Fairydust Teaching blog, and Ashley’s Conscious Life…and many other education and parenting blogs.
7. What action needs to be part of the work you do?
I need to see systems and best practices that demonstrate equity; students and teachers need to be given a voice and they need to be supported and celebrated as works-in-progress. I need to see collective effort to bring out the best in colleagues and students, and I need to hear CAN DO language.
8. What makes you feel alive?
I am most alive watching children (my own and students) engrossed in meaningful play and sharing excitedly about their discoveries.
9. What are you the proudest of doing in your career?
I am most proud of the shift toward inclusion that I initiated at my last school. It was challenging to change meeting agendas, classroom practices, and deep-seeded beliefs about language learners. I led the EAL team in advocating for, planning and implementing these changes at many levels. Although this will remain a longterm project for the department – and we learned as much from our mistakes as our successes – I believe my contribution was significant in shifting the essential culture of the school toward a more inclusive mindset.
10. What are you most introduced as having done?
Colleagues often stop by to see my classroom because it is such a flexible environment filled with visible learning. I’m also known as an advocate for language learners because I am constantly asking questions about how we can improve our practice to better meet their needs.
We have had serious discussions about the role our children would play in the evolution of this blog. Their very existence underpins all our decision-making, and this blog is essentially about the decisions we make as an expat family, so clearly they need to be acknowledged. Using pseudonyms was an easy agreement, and if you know our kids, Bug and Noodle are apt names. Yet we did not so easily agree on how to visually represent them. Photographs are integral to a blog, as the images capture readers’ attention and create an immediate stimulus to accompany text. If we are writing about our kids, we need to show them in some way.
We ultimately decided not to show our children’s faces but were uncertain about exactly how and what impact it would have on the blog. Can mood be created without seeing their faces? How much emotion is lost? What if we blurred them? Would that be distracting? Is blurring enough protection? How about putting shapes over their faces?
But wait. This isn’t only about our amateur blogging aspirations. Our children’s identities will be impacted by having an online presence. Each time a photo is uploaded to the internet it leaves a digital footprint that can never be fully erased. How will this affect our toddlers? Or their future selves? What could happen to a photo once it is downloaded off our blog and we’ve have lost control of it? Consider the Tweet we shared about losing our jobs. It was seen by nearly 12,000 people and almost 1,500 did something with it. Do Bug or Noodle want that many people seeing a photo of them playing in the park?
They deserve ownership of their sense of self. It is important that we allow them to develop this identity outside the confines of a forced online one that they didn’t create. We want them to have the freedom to explore and experiment without worrying about how they appear to others. That is the innocence of childhood, and we don’t want to steal it. We do capture precious moments and occasionally share them on our closely controlled personal social media accounts, but that is not the intention of this blog.
We also want to give our children voice and choice about how they are portrayed to the world. It is unfair for us to make this decision for them, and they are too young to give informed consent, so we are including them in deciding which photos they are comfortable using. Although they may not fully understand the significance of the choice, they are learning that it is a choice that exists and we feel it is important. Hopefully this understanding will stay with them as they grow older.
The immediate dangers go beyond disrespecting the kids’ ownership of and autonomy over their identities. There is also a very real risk of online role-playing and digital kidnapping, where photos are stolen from social media and used for other purposes, such as advertisements or on explicit websites. The Thomas family experienced this when they found their family photo being used for a local political campaign without their permission, which then led to them discovering its use in ad campaigns in many different countries. They have never consented to or received compensation for the photo’s use, and getting companies to take it down has been a nightmare. Even more concerning, the BBC warns that photos easily linked to an abundance of personal information could make our children vulnerable to future financial fraud.
Research for this post made Lena and I realize that we needed to check out our own media footprints to ensure that geotags, contact information, and location-identifiers in photos were removed enough to keep the children safe. We started by self-Googling and were comfortable with the results. Except for one picture. We had originally opted to blur the kids’ faces, but seeing it appear in a Google image search gave us pause, so we decided to re-edit the photo and add shapes over their faces. Perhaps more distracting and detracting but better for our children. As an additional safety measure, we will also watermark the photos.
Parents make a million decisions every day in the best interest of their children. We try to be as informed and intentional as possible, but ultimately we go with instinct. Are we perfect parents? No way. Do we make mistakes? Most definitely. Are we comfortable with the level of anonymity that we’ve attempted to maintain for our children? We think so.
We can’t prevent “right click, save,” but we can take measures to protect our images and the people within them. What decisions have you made regarding your own, your children’s or students’ digital footprints? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
We’ve always known that we have too much stuff. Every time we struggle with a million suitcases and spend thousands of dollars to ship our possession to our next port of call, we swear we will have less stuff next time. Our last two moves have nearly done us in.
The issue of too much stuff compounded with the birth of our children. In Mozambique, we lived in a single family house with lots of space and storage, and even had a detached garage. We truly wanted it to be our home, so we invested in nice furniture and artwork. Living in a malarial country with limited resources also made us nervous parents, so we stocked up on “necessities” during shopping trips to South Africa every few months. This sense of urgency led to an oversupply of groceries, medicine and baby goods that we ultimately had to purge when we finally moved to China.
The boys were 7 months and 2 years old when we departed Mozambique for China. Talk about a life change. Although we did our best to sell and donate much of our baby gear, kitchen supplies, furniture, camping equipment and old technology, we somehow ended up with 17 suitcases and a shipment of 62 boxes. And we were downsizing to an Asian apartment!
Our parenting anxiety waned a bit in China, since the futuristic city of Shenzhen was essentially an enormous, endlessly stocked shopping mall. But considering Brian is an Eagle Scout (Be prepared) and I am a natural worrier (What if), we still held onto some of our vices. For example, strollers seemed to multiply in the entryway to our apartment. We had three. It was embarrassing but justified, we felt. First was the BOB, perfect for the broken sidewalks and unpaved roads in Maputo and jogging on Shenzhen’s beautiful boardwalk (which we each did maybe ten times total in two years). Second was the UppaBaby Vista, perfect for two kids at once, which we used enthusiastically for dinners out because the boys slept beautifully while we had a few more glasses of wine. And third was the Joie umbrella, the one we actually traveled with and used the most because it was lightweight and incredibly durable (cobblestones of Lisbon, hills of Hong Kong, and countless haphazard gate checks). We won’t even get into the Deuter Baby Backpacks which were hidden in the closet.
Unbelievably, our living space is actually quite tidy. We just seem to end up with stuff despite periodic purges and regular donations. Donating in Mozambique was wonderful because expats settled for longer and we had relationships with people who were extremely resourceful and eager to take our things. In China, expats were noncommittal in many ways and everyone wanted things that were shiny and new. As mentioned in our previous post, leaving China with toddling little people was a great opportunity to ditch the last of our baby gear. Moreover, we have always seen part of our responsibility as world travelers to help those who are less fortunate. Although the purge was a challenge, we did end up donating the money raised to an organization we care deeply about called Captivating International, which is committed to sending rural Chinese girls to school.
We also knew our apartment in Moscow would be smaller, and we wanted to create a more “European” lifestyle. To us that meant less junk and overall just being much cooler people. But how do you pack for a country that has a temperature range from 80°F/27°C to -40°F/-40°C? We were leaving China’s 90°F/32°C humidity, visiting family in the Phoenix desert (110°F/43°C) and San Francisco fog (60°F/16°C), and then not receiving our shipment until it would already be snowing in Moscow in October. So our streamlining was rather derailed.
When all that packing was rendered useless with the cancelation of our teaching contracts, Lena was ready to burn it all in a spectacular bonfire. Moving to Mexico without a plan forced us to strip our stuff down significantly because we really didn’t know where we would live or how long we would be there. The glitch was that Lena wanted to be in the temperate highlands and Brian wanted to be on the tropical beach. Due to proximity to an international airport, the presence of a great little eco/international school for Bug, and ample opportunities for community involvement – Sayulita won. But a few cooler weather pieces still made it into the packing in anticipation of side trips to Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende and Ajijic. Nonetheless, many items that were deemed necessities when packing in China didn’t make the final cut and were donated in the US. And it felt good. Which is the point of this twist – strip down and refocus.
The dream of arriving with only one luggage cart had always been there but never been realized. It finally happened!
We have acquired a lot of things throughout our travels and living abroad which are meaningful to us. Our life is international and our home is where we are living. We don’t have a location in US where we can display things we have bought, so they come around the world with us. For us, stuff is familiar – an identity, comfort for our children, and sense of home. What does your stuff mean to you? And how do you manage it?
We have spent the last decade intentionally building our careers as international educators. Gaining experiences with various curriculum, developing departments and programs, and financing professional development opportunities. The goal has always been to land a stable position at an established school that shares our pedagogical beliefs. We would grow as professionals and our children would receive a fantastic education in a nurturing community. This past winter, we shelled out thousands of dollars to fly to London for a week and engage in the highly competitive meat market/job fair for international educators. The investment worked in our favor, as we walked away with our dream jobs. Champagne on the flight home. Months of excitement and preparing our kids for the upcoming transition.
It would be an understatement to say that wrapping up the school year, packing up our lives, and managing all the paperwork of moving to a new country were stressful. Once we arrived “home” in the US, where we planned to visit family for the summer, we were finally able to relax. Although we had no news about our pending visas, we were not concerned. We’d heard stories about them being approved at the last minute. It had never crossed our minds that we wouldn’t be hopping on a plane in a few short weeks to put down roots in our new country, settle into our new jobs, and enroll our children in their new school.
Until we got the email. Our visas were not going to be approved. Not just ours but the majority of the other new hires, as well. The school was releasing us from our contracts. We were in a state of shock. How could this be happening? What were we going to do now? Were there any jobs still available at the end of July? Or ones that were a good fit for us professionally, financially, and as a family? We had many deep discussions about our path forward. We had wanted to settle somewhere for the long term. Four moves in ten years had taken its toll, and we truly wanted the boys to have a community of relatively settled third culture kids.
The idea of taking a year off had been circulating through our lives for quite some time. Several colleagues with families had recently begun or were planning to embark on carefully budgeted and well planned gap years. However, we had decided that this wasn’t right for us. Our life was already full of adventure and travel. Of course, life often gives you exactly what you have not asked for. The idea of moving to Mexico came up early in our decision-making, but was always the second option. We spent the week after losing our contracts scrambling to find last-minute jobs.
Finally, a solid prospect came through. But we both had doubts. As the kids played happily with their grandparents, we stepped outside to clear our heads. We decided to walk through the city in silence. For two blocks, we convinced ourselves that we were accepting the job offer and allowed all the thoughts and feelings to bubble up. For the next two blocks we convinced ourselves that we were halting the job search and moving to Mexico. Finding ourselves at a bar, we ducked in to reflect over a pint or two. Still not talking, Lena wrote down her reflections on the exercise. Then Brian had his go. As we drained the second pint, we arrived at the realization that although we had chosen not to pursue a year off, it was actually the best option.
We left China with 13 suitcases and a shipment of 63 boxes. Then we walked in the door of Lena’s parents house to find a mountain of Amazon and Zappos orders – winter parkas and snow boots – that we had meticulously chosen for our new job in northern Europe. Once we decided to head to tropical Mexico with as little stuff as possible, the excess was shoved into suitcases that Lena’s family graciously agreed to store for us. Then we worked for days sorting, deciding and purging our China detritus and got down to 3 suitcases (and a couple small backpacks). With a limited budget, we bought our flights with airline miles that we had been saving for years and began our transition from a fancy life of excess to a much simpler life focusing on what truly matters – experiences and each other.