Home Sweet Home – Lena and Brian

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.

10 Days. 4 People. 1 Room. – Lena and Brian

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.

Life in Transit – Lena and Brian

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. 

Departure

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.” 

The Flight

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.

Arrival

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.

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Heading for the Hills – Brian

Nature is an anchor for our family. Lena and I share parallel childhood memories of camping and trips to national parks. Lena was a Girl Scout, and I was an Eagle Scout. I spent a university summer at Rocky Mountain National Park as an Environmental Educator, and my first job after graduating was for the US Forest Service. Our honeymoon was camping in Kruger National Park in South Africa, and we first tested the waters of family camping in Sai Kung, Hong Kong when the kids were 1 and 2 years old. Our favorite social distancing activity in Mexico was trekking through the jungle surrounding Sayulita to spend long days lounging under makeshift shelters on empty beaches. Socially distanced urban hikes around San Francisco injected the monotony of shelter-at-home with fresh air and endless views.

By the time we found ourselves in Marin, we were surrounded by incredible outdoor opportunities living at the base of Mount Tamalpais and down the road from Samuel P. Taylor State Park and Point Reyes National Seashore. When word got out that Lassen Volcanic National Park had re-opened, we were ready to hit the road. However, we struggled to find clear information about which campgrounds were open. The ones that took reservations were all booked. Clearly we were not the only family itching to get away. Despite not having a secured spot for our tent, we tossed our gear in the trunk of Mimi’s car and headed to the mountains. In addition to sleeping in a tent and roasting marshmallows, Bug and Noodle were extremely excited to see volcanoes. Of course they were expecting active eruptions, and we let them relish in that excitement before crushing their dreams.

Luckily, we were able to claim a first-come-first-serve spot at the Southwest Walk-In Campground, which is located near the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center in the southwest corner of the park. This was an ideal location because the Visitor Center has a shop selling hot coffee and cold beer, and its on the main park road. Regarding the campsite, we had read about black bear danger so we were prepared with our bear canister, but each campsite comes with a large bear-proof storage cabinet. It also offers a sturdy picnic table and metal-ringed fire pit. Our site had minimal shade, so we were glad to have an extra tarp over our table. Although technically a hike-in campground, the parking lot is a two minute walk from the site. The restrooms were open and offered flush toilets, sinks and soap for handwashing, a utility sink to wash dishes, and secure bins for refuse and recycling. In addition to the snack shop, the Visitors Center also has a ranger station, gift shop, very clean restrooms, amphitheater, and a (closed) exhibition area. Although the Ranger-led programs were canceled due to COVID restrictions, we had informative and friendly conversations with the appropriately-masked rangers as they passed through the campground and greeted us at the Visitors Center.

There are many great trails in the park. We started our exploration of the park by hiking the 3.6 mile round trip to Mill Creek Falls since the trailhead was steps from our campsite. This is a moderate trail that rises and falls gently as it winds through huge red fir trees. Sadly, the white bark pines along the trail and throughout the park are being decimated by blister rust and mountain pine beetles, and many have taken on the orange tinge of dying trees. Nonetheless, Bug and Noodle loved the creek crossings, insect sightings and opportunities to climb on fallen logs. They also got to test out their new hiking poles, which were a short-lived novelty that ended up clipped to our backpacks. By the end of the hike, Noodle was whining on my shoulders and Lena was a fountain of positive talk about perseverance as she dragged Bug up the final ascent. We are still working on pacing ourselves. Due to its elevation and thus late season snow, the most popular Bumpass Hell Trail and Hydrothermal Area were still closed in early July.

Surrounded by nature, we encouraged the kids to notice details and voice their curiosities. These are skills that we believe are important for lifelong learners and should be honed consciously. Without toys or gadgets, the boys noticed everything from beetles to clouds, asked a million questions, and played creatively with the tree stumps, sticks and rocks around us. We also just spent time watching birds and staring at the campfire. Embracing nature has many health benefits, such as increasing attention span, decreasing stress (and thus lowering cortisol levels), and improving the immune system. Quite the antidote for being stuck indoors during a pandemic. 

We were particularly excited that the Junior Ranger Program by the National Park Service was still available during our stay. In its modified form, the kids were able to complete a highly differentiated interactive booklet that included various activities to document observations about geology, ecology, and human impact on the environment. In non-COVID times, they would have participated in Ranger-led hikes, attended presentations in the amphitheater, and viewed exhibits in the Visitors Center. Nonetheless, Bug and Noodle were excited to find and classify rocks, identify features of different trees, match animals with their tracks, and consider how our choices affect nature. Their work was rewarded with an official swearing-in ceremony led by a real Park Ranger. After raising their right hand and promising to protect the park and all natural spaces, each child received a special badge. Of course we bought the adorable Junior Ranger vests.

Naturally, we were all excited to see volcanoes. Lassen is unique because it contains all four types of volcanoes in the world. The biggest is Lassen Peak (10,457ft/3,187m), which is an active plug dome that last erupted between 1914-1917. The park also contains clear examples of cinder cone (aptly named Cinder Cone, at 6,896ft/2,102m, final eruption in 1666), shield (Prospect Peak, at 8,342ft/2,542m) and composite (Brokeoff Mountain – also called Mount Tehama by local tribes – at 9,235ft/2,815m, which became extinct 387,000 years ago). However, these dormant or extinct specimens just looked like plain old mountains to the kids, and Noodle was disappointed he didn’t get to see “Mountain Lassen ‘derupt.’”

The main and only road through the park is the Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway, which begins at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and winds up and down throughout the park to the Northwest corner around the Manzanita Lake Area. This 30-mile drive hits many of the highlights in the park from hydrothermal areas to dramatic views to frigid alpine lakes. 

Our first stop was the Sulfur Works Hydrothermal which we smelled long before arriving. Even wearing masks, the odor was nose-melting. Both Bug and Noodle were amazed by the boiling mud pot, which was located right next to the highway. They couldn’t get enough of the idea that liquid hot magma was making the mud boil. 

After getting back into fresh air, their next excitement was experiencing snow for the first time in their lives. It was just some dirty drifts on the side of the road, but they were ecstatic – until they felt it. They instinctively made snowballs, but Noodle cried when his ungloved hands turned red. His verdict was, “Too cold.” Melting snow means freezing mountain lakes, and I couldn’t resist an invigorating plunge into Lake Helen.

The road’s varied altitudes pass through multiple plant life zones. It begins in the red fir forest, which also includes lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock, and western white pine. Then the sparse subalpine zone, which is the upper limit of tree growth, offers gnarled white bark pine and mountain hemlock growing as “flag trees” (branches growing on only one side) that hint to the challenges of long winters. Finally, it descends through verdant meadows, winding creeks, and red fir covered in lichen. 

The breathtaking drive ended at Manzanita Lake, which is also the location of the park’s largest campground. The lake added another breathtaking component to our endless views of snowcapped mountains and towering trees for the past couple of days. Unfortunately, we couldn’t swim due to warnings about river otter attacks. However, Bug recently learned about fishing and this was his first real attempt. For several weeks, the kids had been practicing their casts with toddler-friendly training poles in our backyard. Alas, no luck catching a fish in Manzanita Lake (though tons were jumping), but they happily reeled in many sticks and aquatic plants.

Since everything was going so well, we decided to tack on a few extra days in a slightly different location. After stopping at Lake Almanor to check out the real estate, we headed east to the shores of Lake Davis in Plumas County. We settled on a US Forest Service campground called Grasshopper Flat and pitched our tent in a huge site with direct access to the water. With no real plan at Lake Davis, we ate slow breakfasts on our private peninsula, swung in the hammock, checked out the quaint town of Graeagle, and took another attempt at fishing. Noodle was over fishing by this point and contently played with “boats” (sticks and leaves) in the calm shores. On the other hand, Bug was determined to catch a fish – a large bass to be specific. I ended up accidentally catching a small sunfish on a test cast after a rod repair, and I went from father of the year to heartbreaker after Bug failed to catch anything and was devastated. He did not like the life lesson that fishing is about patience. After three days of relaxing lakeside, we were ready to head home. The shower blocks were closed and we were caked in six days of dust. Even the kids were begging for a bath. Had we been able to wash, we probably would have stayed longer. 

The week was perfect. We played in the dirt. We breathed fresh air. We went on long walks. We laughed. And we said thank you for all the gifts we share together. It’s been a few weeks since the trip, and we’ve sent off all our camping equipment in our shipment to Uzbekistan (only to learn that we will actually be in California for quite a bit longer), so naturally Bug and Noodle have begun requesting another camping trip.

I Just Want To Go Home – Lena and Brian

“I just want to go home!” Bug sobbed recently as we cuddled his sad little body. We looked at each other over his head, not knowing how to respond. Which home did he mean? Was it China, Mexico, the US, or perhaps even Mozambique?

It had been a difficult decision to return to the US and leave our new life in Sayulita once the pandemic finally reached Mexico. We were just starting to deepen connections and melt into the contours of our lives. However, the truth is the life we loved ended with the quarantine. Before official mandates in Mexico, we chose to social-distance alongside our families in California and Arizona, so the kids had not been to school or played with friends for many weeks. We weren’t going to restaurants or running into friends around town.

Although Sayulita did not officially have any COVID19 cases at that time and the Mexican government was slow to implement social distancing measures, our town was thankfully locked down by The Gavilanes Vigilantes, a group of local citizens who somewhat officially maintain the peace. Energy was positive but uncertain. We were helping to feed families in need and financially support local businesses. We bonded with other isolated expat families through WhatsApp groups. And we escaped to the jungle for magical hikes to secluded beaches. However, the reality of the pandemic began to feel more real as beaches were closed, state checkpoints were set up between Nayarit and Jalisco, international borders closed, and flights were canceled. We started to become concerned about how and when we would be able to get home and onward to Uzbekistan. When the virus first appeared, we watched our international teaching friends get stranded in Asia. With the long game in mind, we knew we could not get stuck in Mexico. We’d already lost one job this year and couldn’t afford to lose another.

Our original plan had been to drive home because we had accumulated stuff and needed a car in the US. But both the states of Nayarit and Sinaloa had closed hotels, and we were concerned about safety. Although we wanted to avoid flying – especially because the airport in Puerto Vallarta had recently been flooded with tourists and expats rushing to get home before travel restrictions – we were running out of time. Within a week, we sold our car, golf cart, kitchen appliances, camping gear, and donated tons of toys and clothes. It was a mad dash to pack and catch the only remaining flight to Phoenix (which was canceled the following week). 

Masked and doused in hand sanitizer, we boarded a nearly empty flight. Including the four of us, there was a grand total of 9 passengers on the plane. We were nervous about entering the US after all the hype, but there were no lines at Customs, no questions, no temperature checks, no interview about quarantine. The airport was dark and deserted, and we wandered around a bit looking for the parking garage where Brian’s mom had left us her car. Due to health concerns in Brian’s family, there really wasn’t any point staying in Phoenix because we couldn’t interact with anyone even after our initial quarantine. Since his family wouldn’t be leaving their homes any time in the near future, they very generously lent us a car. 

Upon finding the car and hidden key, we had our first wardrobe change and began the Tetris game of cramming our stuff – including two huge carseats – into the tiny vehicle. It took an hour. Then we found the SIM cards Mimi had left for us and spent twenty minutes on the phone with T-Mobile so we could be in communication and access maps while driving to San Francisco. When it was finally time to get on the road, Bug and Noodle were extremely unpleased with us. It only slightly had something to do with us breaking Noodle’s toy guitar during the luggage transition. Thankfully, Mimi had packed us a kit, so we pumped the kids full of peanut butter sandwiches and gold fish. Welcome to America. 

Despite the risk of staying in a hotel, we knew the kids couldn’t do the drive in one push. We decided to break up the twelve hours to San Francisco with a stopover in Palm Springs. Not the fashionable getaway one might imagine. A very short stay limited to the car and the hotel room. So after another wardrobe change, we brandished Bug and Noodle with disinfectant wipes (thanks again to Mimi’s kit) and set them loose. Of course Lena was right behind double wiping door knobs, toilet handles and remote controls. But we couldn’t wipe the sheets or the couch. Everything we touched felt like a potential exposure and we were on edge.

Driving through the Sierras the next morning was a special reprieve as they were covered in colorful swaths of wildflowers and capped with snow. Although far away on peaks, the kids were excited to to see snow for the first time and inundated us with questions about the “snow gear” they would need to climb to the summits. Little did they know that their parents had been fantasizing about a long term plan to section hike the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail, a through hike from Mexico to Canada that paralleled some of our driving route) as a family someday. Similar to those hiking in the mountains alongside us, we survived the road trip on junk food and stopped occasionally to run around in fields and attend to nature calls outside the confines of public toilets. As the roads were empty except for trucks fulfilling the frenzy of online orders (which we would shortly contribute to), we made excellent time.

Our next stop on the Thomsper Displaced Tour of 2019-2020 was Lena’s sister’s house in San Francisco. She was not there as her clan was riding out the shelter-in-place restrictions in the isolated winter wonderland of Montana. This meant we had their house to ourselves for a month. The space was kid-friendly, well-stocked and full of natural light. It was also wonderful to just leave the back door open for the kids to run free in the fenced backyard while we were strictly quarantining for our first 14 days back. Socially distanced stoop visits worked well for Lena and Bug’s birthday parties, as we sat at the top of the stairs and guests stayed at the bottom. And we regularly took advantage of urban hikes and open green spaces throughout the city. 

Sadly, we had to relocate again when Tía and family returned. It was decided that two families with four toddlers and one on the way (not ours!) was just a tad too much. It was bittersweet to move 45 minutes away from family and our stoop visits, but we are quickly adjusting to dreamy suburban life in Marin County. After some adjustments to make the space more kid-friendly and copious cuddles as the boys acclimated to yet another home that wasn’t theirs, they have grown to love deer sightings in the large backyard, bike riding on the quiet streets, and hiking through the magical forests that surround us. Treks into town for gelato are also a plus.

This year has been quite the ride. Failed move to Moscow. Scrambling to figure out where we were going to spend our year on not off. Locking down and relocating internationally during a global pandemic. Staying in two different houses once we returned to the US. And waiting to find out when we will be able to get to Uzbekistan. We have learned and relearned about the importance of resilience and focusing on the blessings in the present. But we have also realized how desperately our children are needing a place to call “home.” This is the endless dilemma of the expat life.

You Are Moving Where? – Lena and Brian

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.

Our professional website https://brianandlena.weebly.com

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.

GRC Bangkok Fair, November 2019

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.”

Bug and Noodle mid-flight

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.

Mid-Levels, Hong Kong

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.

Airport Express from Paddington Station, London

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.

From CNN: Best things to do in Uzbekistan, an unmissable gem of Central Asia

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!

’Tis the Season – Lena

Our expat life is often perceived as a longterm holiday because we tend to live where people vacation. The reality is that, while we love living in these places for many reasons, we definitely face the same challenges as “back home”…bills, jobs, childcare, errands, dirty dishes, relationships. Consciously creating a simplified life probably mitigates some of the typical stresses, but here’s a realistic glimpse into what’s actually going on.

Pardon the self-indulgence. But isn’t that what blogs are, really? For me, holiday blues and job search stress collided. Hard. For the second year in a row. And were compounded by culture shock. And very well managed ADD. I have survived and am quite familiar with all of these intense experiences. They have several overlapping features: deep reflection, fluctuating emotions, anxiety about decision-making, constantly streaming internal monologue, careful management of scenarios and expectations, fatigue, and the conflicting desires to simultaneously withdraw and connect.

Let’s start with holiday blues. The weeks leading up to Christmas seem to dredge up social and performance insecurities that I manage much better at other times of year. I am vulnerable because I know I’ll be away from family, and friendships are only slowly developing. I know the first year is always the hardest. But knowing doesn’t make it easier.

Wherever I am at this time of year – I love the music (which we only start playing after Brian’s birthday in early December). I love the food and drinks. I love the family time. When abroad, I usually love the accomplishment of expat ingenuity in the face of culinary challenges and the camaraderie among friends far from home. My blues center around high expectations based on stereotypes and the resulting sense of failure when they are unmet, which would probably be the case whether home or abroad. 

Decision-making paralysis is exacerbated as an expat. Which food and drinks? Where will I find the ingredients? Who will we share them with? How am I going to concoct Pinterest-worthy decorations? What kind of tree in the tropics? Do I kill a real tree, contribute to plastic overuse, or figure something else out? We have way too much stuff, why should I spend money on more of it? What will I do with it when we leave? Should I even bother decorating if we are only going to use the stuff once? Should we be spending money frivolously before we have secured jobs for next year? Oh wait, no offer is ever secure, so we better not travel anywhere this year (there goes a tangent in another direction…) Let’s throw parent guilt into the mix. How do I feel about the creepy Santa narrative? I don’t even need to ponder the elf situation, that’s a no for me. What are my kids missing out on if I don’t make a big deal about this holiday? How will my kids be messed up if I do make a big deal about it? Am I focusing enough on charity? Where do I even find opportunities to do that?

Culture shock can correlate to holiday blues, but really it happens at any time of year and at any point in the expat experience. Essentially, people who immerse themselves into a new culture experience several stages of anxiety and emotions as they adjust to the environment. In 1960, Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg identified four stages of culture shock that are still popularly referenced, which include honeymoon, crisis, recovery, adjustment. The stages are not necessarily linear and change without warning. I studied and experienced culture shock while doing anthropological fieldwork in university. Now as a permanent expat, these stages are the seasons of my life. With every move, I know the highs and lows are coming. Recognizing them is certainly important, but they are intense nonetheless. 

Getting married in Puerto Vallarta in 2013

Honeymoon

When we lost our jobs unexpectedly, Brian and I quickly replaced that gut punch with a huge adrenaline rush of impulsively by moving to another country (the ultimate fight-or-flight response). Mexico is my psychologically “safe” country that I often imagine fleeing to when life feels tenuous. This is where I first stepped out of my ethnocentric bubble in university. I got married and literally honeymooned here. So the timing was not ideal, but in some ways, it was a dream come true when we ended up in Sayulita. The anxiety of an imminent job search constantly simmered below the surface, but we tempered it with tacos, margaritas, and warm ocean waves. Now that the job search is full on, whatever figurative honeymoon we were on is fully over. 

Crisis

The crisis is multifaceted. Our charming jungle cottage has tons of challenges (and tiny visitors that live in our roof and poop a lot). Financial stress has been exacerbated by needing to purchase a car because Brian began working maternity cover at the American School of Puerto Vallarta. It was an opportunity we had to take, but it means he leaves at dawn and returns at sunset. While he struggles with a long commute through the jungle and teaches two grade levels each day, I get our kids to school, keep house, apply for jobs, cook, etc. We also took a marathon business trip to Bangkok last month to attend a job fair. And will do another one to London in January. With Christmas approaching, we were still jobless. And tired.

Our newest wheels

I am not doing yoga, having lunch with friends, or spending time at the beach. What I am doing is drinking a lot of coffee and feeling lonely. That is hard to admit because I carefully curate a life in photos that looks amazing. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of positive moments where I’m very happy. However, the social anxiety of being new in a very small expat community has put this introvert way out of my comfort zone. Sayulita expats seem to split into long termers who don’t need to invest in relationships with short termers, and short termers who are far more extroverted than me and my clan. We are low key. We are definitely social and love a good time with friends, but we often hold back until we have the lay of the land. Family playdates are reliable social endeavors, but incompatible age ranges and busy schedules make those infrequent. Since we only have one year here and did not benefit from a ready made cohort of colleagues, more effort is required and the timeline is rapidly shortening.

Beach time with Babo

Recovery & Adjustment

After a few weeks of feeling underwater, I finally called home. And contacted friends from afar. And thanked my husband for recognizing and facilitating my need to just curl up in bed and give up occasionally. My parents graciously dipped into airline miles, and within a week my dad was here. And my sister’s brood was coming for New Years. Recovery was rapid because my dad’s arrival also brought luck. We landed multiple interviews while he was here, and he guided us through the pros and cons of various scenarios. Before he flew back to San Francisco, we were able to toast to a new future. 

I ended up loving our intimate and very sweet nuclear family Christmas. I searched on Pinterest  for “Boho Christmas” and realized that decorations were not problem. Sayulita is a mecca for boho chic clutter; I bought garlands of pom poms, felt trinkets, and mini cactus motifs to my heart’s content. I even managed to transport a toddler-sized cactus in the golf cart, carry it up a flight of stairs, and only sustain minor puncture wounds. It’s not plastic and it doesn’t shed. And it’s year round decor so I don’t even have to take it down. (Update: Chad the Cactus did suffer a minor setback but appears to be recovering with sunlight and rockier soil.)

Brian and I traded shopping days, so we simply hit the local market for all the tourist stuff that we otherwise overlook because we live here and don’t need that stuff. (And then regret not buying when we leave.) Santa delivered art supplies and beautiful felt animals. Owen was worried he wouldn’t come because we don’t have a chimney, but he did. My dad left them a zillion matchbox cars wrapped up next to the Christmas cactus, so they were plenty excited. And he handed me a gift certificate for a massage before leaving. Because dads just know. 

I focused on small victories. Neither of our families do a full-on traditional holiday meal, so Christmas Eve was homemade Chinese and Christmas Day was take away tacos. I didn’t even have to change out of my pajamas. I found Betty Crocker Gingerbread Cookie Mix (which in my heart is totally cheating, but I had zero capacity to locate molasses). We managed to bake the day after Christmas. Unfortunately, we failed to hand them out to friends and ended up eating them all ourselves. I’m not going to beat myself up too much over that minor fail, though it would have been a good friendship initiative. My major success as a parent this particular season is that I finally purchased an advent calendar (I ordered one on Taobao – aka Chinese Amazon – last year, but it never arrived), and the kids ate a piece of chocolate every day as they practiced counting to 24.

After a few lazy days, my beautiful sister whisked in with her kids and kicked the energy up a few thousand notches. Four toddlers. So much life. And love. Although her visit was short, it punctuated a very long year with exactly what I needed. Brian and I rang in the new year cuddling on our front porch equally amazed and at peace with this life we’ve chosen to lead and all the directions it’s taken us. 

Oberg, K. 1960. ‘Culture shock: adjustment to new cultural environments.’ Practical Anthropology 7, 177-182.

Life and Death Decisions – Lena and Brian

A major motivation for moving to Sayulita was access to amazing beaches. Our favorite and the quietest is called Playa de Los Muertos, which translates to {Beach of the Dead}. This has nothing to do with anything bad happening at the beach itself, but rather that the entrance is located adjacent to a cemetery. At four years old, death is a concept Bug is beginning to contemplate. The first time we walked to the beach, he burst into tears after learning that dead people laid within the elevated concrete graves. He now loves riding in the golf cart over the jungle dirt track, but he’s still is a little unsure about the interred neighbors we pass on the way to the playa. We have offered to stop and explore the colorfully decorated site, but both boys are hesitant. Bug verbalizes his fears of death. He doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t want to live to be 100. He is afraid of shadows that could be ghosts. But he does want to walk like a skeleton someday. I wonder if this has anything to do with Héctor in the movie Coco?

Charro {cowboy} on a dancing horse in the Día De Los Muertos parade.

Celebrating Día De Los Muertos showed the kids a different approach to death. Leading up to the three day festival, we did watch Coco again (it was too scary this summer) and found many similarities in Sayulita. They loved all the skeleton statues and painted faces. They loved the alebrije {spirit animal} crouched on top of an ambulance in the parade. And the dancing horses (except when mommy dropped a piece of candy that got squished by a hoof. Oops.) They loved the marigold-covered tunnel in the plaza that represented crossing over, which was shown as a bridge in the movie. They loved the curlicues on charro costumes, booming tubas and engraved guitars. They loved the street food and energetic playmates zipping around the mayhem.

Reactions to death vary greatly across cultures – from stark, solemn funerals in the US to the celebratory Famadihana {turning the bones} in Madagascar where ancestors remains are exhumed. In Mexico, Día De Los Muertos is a multi-day festival for remembering and celebrating deceased loves ones. Although adjacent to Halloween, it is fundamentally very different. We encountered devoutly Catholic Mexicans who were offended by the ghoulishness and dark tone of Halloween. Outside religion, many villagers in Sayulita rightfully defend the indigenous cultural roots and sacredness of Día de Los Muertos. Nonetheless, scary costumes and trick-or-treating have seeped into Mexico and skulls have become quite kitsch in the U.S. as a result of global popular culture and transmigration across the northern border. The international school in Sayulita is very careful to honor both traditions.

Our own cultural tradition for Halloween with a twist – pumpkins carved as a vampire, spider, alien, and cyclops.

As a hub for expat culture, the biggest Halloween event is at the school. This was the first year our kids really understood Halloween and the whole costume thing. We spent time leading up to the event discussing all the pretending. They practiced wearing costumes and needed reassurance that friendly faces hid behind scary masks. We watched videos of face painting to see how people could look like monsters. We were proud of Bug that he agreed to wear a costume this year because last year he completely refused. Brian was even able to take them through the haunted house put on by the secondary students, although they still talk about how frightening it was. After ample treats and games, the party ended in time to head to the plaza to launch the Día de Los Muertos Festival. Along the way, children stopped at local businesses to trick-or-treat, but it was very low key (fine with us, less candy). Also, instead of spiderwebs, witches and bats, Sayulita was decorated in colorful Ojos de Dios {Eyes of God}, papel picado {colorful flags}, and elaborate alters called ofrendas. The only shared decoration was skeletons. But even the skeletons in Mexico have more personality with distinctive shapes, elaborate outfits, and detailed biographies.

A key aspect of the festival was the ofrendas built around the plaza, at businesses and in private homes. The tiered shrines displayed photos, clothes and favorite foods of the deceased, and they were decorated with Catholic symbols, marigolds, skulls, and candles. The children’s school built one for a teacher who died several year ago. It was a moving experience to participate in that, even in our very small way of placing marigolds.

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react.”

Charles R. Swindoll

Mexicans choose celebration. Of course they are devastated when their loved ones die. All humans feel that. But they choose not to make it taboo. The choose to remember. They choose to let the dead live again through laughter and memories. They remember people in their entirety, which includes and surpasses the moment of death. It was an honor to share in that experience this year.

Blending of indigenous and Catholic belies, as a priest offered blessings at the end of the symbolic tunnel.

For us and our current situation, losing a job is so small. But the lesson is the same. Do we choose to mourn the broken dream? Or do we choose to celebrate everything we’ve gained along this journey? The bigger picture needs time to reveal itself, but we are working on putting the pieces together in a new way and moving forward. The humor and cheekiness of this holiday speaks to our dry sarcasm. Death is painful? Dress up as a skeleton. Life sucks? Go to the beach.

“Todos somos calaveras.” {We are all skeletons.}

José Guadalupe Posada

Celebrating Halloween and then Dia De Los Muertos validated so much about being expats and raising third culture kids (TCKs). We value the traditions that belong to our own culture – the small ways of understanding what it means to be “American” (which is a contentious term in Latin America anyhow because members of both continents consider themselves American) – while simultaneously embracing our identity as global citizens. We immerse ourselves in other cultures to develop empathy, connect with people who appear different but fundamentally aren’t, and ultimately learn more deeply about who we are and why. There are so many perspectives and exploring them truly enriches our lives.

Job Search…Soul Search – Lena and Brian

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.

Brian

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.

Lena

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?

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.

The Art of Starting Over – Lena and Brian

As international educators, we are well-versed in moving to new countries and starting a life from scratch. The idea of packing our bags and flying off into the unknown is nothing new. In truth, we were once addicted to it. However, it takes a huge physical and emotional toll to transition, and we were looking forward to putting down roots until the kids finished elementary school.

Moving to Mexico has been a dream of Lena’s for decades. But this was bittersweet. It wasn’t a move we had planned. We weren’t heading to new jobs. No one was waiting for us. No principal picking us up from the airport or new colleagues checking to see if we needed anything. No welcome picnic or tour of our new city. And certainly no settling in allowance. 

We arrived in Sayulita in an emotional fog with some vague expectations and a lot of questions. Where would we live? Would we be able to enroll the kids in school? How would we get ourselves around town or into the city? When would we start making friends?

The nervousness of not having answers was tempered slightly by the fact that we are familiar with Mexico. Lena spent summers during university conducting anthropological research and backpacking around the country. We even got married down the highway in Puerto Vallarta. Our challenges were softened by her ability to speak (rusty) Spanish and, as she says, Brian’s willingness to “learn with enthusiasm.” With minimal language distance, positive feedback from native speakers, and the immediate need to set up our life – this felt way more surmountable than previous experiences learning to communicate (with varying degrees of effectiveness) in Arabic, Vietnamese or Mandarin. 

Essential needs were narrowed down to the top three: a house, a school, and transportation. Further down on the list were food and friends (true sustenance). Eating was not an issue, as we could buy amazing street food, tortillas hot off the press, and fresh fruits and veggies for unbelievably cheap prices. And we knew friendships would develop once we were more settled. 

First step: House 

During our furious 48 hours of research prior to moving to Mexico, we uncovered a fascinating subculture of nomad families who trek around the world with admirable success. But we were hesitant. First, we were still uncertain about our budget. And second, during previous moves, the kids struggled much more than we anticipated. We had been bouncing around the US for weeks, sleeping on family members’ couches and living out of suitcases. Although we wanted to explore this amazing country, we knew that establishing a “home” was important. 

Most international schools either provide housing or a stipend, and some even assist with the search. Therefore, our first independent challenge was finding a last minute, long term rental in a tourist-centered beach town. We arrived during the “off season” when many businesses were closed and home owners were away. Nor could we locate any actual community bulletin boards. Plenty of short term rentals could be found through websites like AirBnB and SayulitaLife, but renting one of those for a year would have been prohibitively expensive. 

Our two-pronged strategy involved word-of-mouth and Facebook. Every time we met someone new on the street, at a restaurant, or in the park, we mentioned that we were looking for a place. Also, we got some leads by posting a plea on the community Facebook page. Unfortunately, we soon realized that Sayulita was going to be way more expensive than we initially thought. After looking at some very small and dark apartments in our price range, we bumped up our budget and got lucky. A single family house with a verdant garden, mountain views, and most importantly air conditioning in the bedrooms. It is round with a thatched roof, which reminds us of places we stayed in southern Africa. And it even has a name! Although a bit of a fixer upper, we hadn’t seen anything nearly as spacious or bright.

Signing a year lease was slightly scary, but it also released so much stress about immediate plans. Our luck and choice were reaffirmed after meeting several other recently-arrived expat families who couldn’t find long term places and will have to move around throughout the year. The trauma of our recent packing-and-moving spectacles is too raw. If we hadn’t found our house, we probably would have scrapped Sayulita and settled somewhere else.

Second step: School

School was a huge factor in our decision-making. We looked at a few other expat-friendly locations (San Miguel de Allende and Merida) but were not impressed by the schools. We also stumbled into the idea of unschooling and world schooling during our research blitz. Very intriguing but perhaps not what our toddlers needed. Definitely a tabled discussion for a future adventure. Despite debates about the institution, we felt strongly that Bug and Noodle needed to be in an actual school. And it needed to be a school that we believed in.

We shelled out tons of money in China for them to attend school and weren’t about to let go of that principle now. Creating protégées is not the motivation. What drives our conviction is the importance of socialization and the power of play. The kids needed to interact with peers, develop social-emotional skills, and engage in a stimulating environment. Plus, they were desperate for a routine. And mommy and daddy were desperate for time to quietly sit in a restaurant, swim without stress, and actually get some work done. Essentially, we all just needed space and time to grow beyond our tight-knit unit.

Another blessing of this year ON not off is that we can explore a completely different type of school than is our norm. As mentioned previously, we were excited about Costa Verde International School. The very small, low-stress, highly active vibe is exactly what we need. Bug and Noodle have 9 students in their joint 3-4 year old class. Their teachers are wonderfully child-centered in their approach. We have no doubt that they truly know our children as individuals and strive to meet their social-emotional, psychological, intellectual and linguistic needs. Moreover, the curriculum and community population is inclusively bilingual and 40% of the students are locals on scholarship. This is a place that is deeply committed to its community in terms of culture, language, and the environment. The sustainability focus is so compelling because this is something we are consciously modeling and always improving on as teachers and parents.

Third step: Transportation

Summers in Sayulita are beyond hot and humid. We walked around town for the first few weeks, but finally hit our limit on shlepping withering children and sweating through three outfits each day. The most popular mode of transportation is golf cart. However, rental prices average around $50USD per day. Crazy expensive. After finding our house, which is located at the top of a steep hill, we decided to blow a huge portion of our annual budget buying a golf cart. We ended up finding an advertisement for Riviera Golf Carts, which builds custom carts meant to handle the hills and cobblestones here. While the price was steep, we ran the numbers and it worked out to less than half the weekly rental amount if we spread the cost over the year. And it’s electric, so we are proud to be environmentally friendly!

We were feeling confident in our decision until we needed to rent a car to get to Puerto Vallarta (golf carts can’t go on the highway). We found a highly rated, superbly honest rental company in nearby Bucerias called Gecko Car Rental. The owner, Adam, mentioned he was selling low mileage 2014 cars for the exact same price we just paid for the golf cart. We’ve come back to that missed opportunity while riding the local bus over potholes for 45 minutes into the city or cramming Costco loot into an expensive taxi. But a car in Sayulita, where spend the vast majority of our time, is not necessary. The town is tiny, parking is limited, and cleaning sand off golf cart vinyl is super easy.

The wrap up

The list was complete. We were officially Sayuleros. Easy peasy. Just don’t arrive in a New York state of mind. We have cut our teeth in countries where there is no urgency to get things done and communication is indirect at best. Inshallah {God Willing} was often heard in the Middle East and basically means that the deadline is loose. Vietnamese has many shades of yes, and yes can actually mean no. Amanhã {tomorrow} in Mozambique and the cognate mañana {tomorrow} in Mexico mean that something might happen tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. This as a fact we know intellectually. But it was a shock to the system after living in a massively entrepreneurial Chinese megacity that evolved at lightning speed. 

While trying to sort our lives in Sayulita, emails would dangle without response for days…or forever. When searching for a house or trying to get the kids into school, delays and evasive responses caused anxiety. We wanted to know what our life would be like, and we wanted to know now. Hot tip: phone calls, WhatsApp or showing up in person are most effective. It’s not that people don’t care. They do. Actually, many people have been extremely friendly and helpful. It’s just that the sense of time and the order of priorities are different. Families are more important than mobile phones. And people tend to trust that everything will work out in the end. Two lessons that have been very good for us to embrace.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts about the golf cart remodel, the joys of our charming house, making friends, and all the delicious food!