Back when I was busily planning our sabbatical, I spent some time reading the blogs of other families that had taken similar trips. I returned to one in particular again and again, the blog of an American family that sabbaticaled in Rome. It gave me some practical advice – most memorably, to follow Katie Parla and Elizabeth Minchilli for restaurant recommendations, a tip which absolutely increased the deliciousness of our time in Rome. But more than that, I followed the blog because it conveyed joy- joy to be living in Rome, joy to be traveling in Europe, joy to be sharing such a marvellous adventure with children.
That family’s last post was written on an airplane, returning home. I read that one more than once. Not so much for what it said, lovely and filled with longing as it was, as for the promise that it offered to me back when I was nervous, perhaps outright scared, to take this big leap.
The flight home.
We would come home.
And here I am now, writing this on our own flight home, halfway through what already feels like an awfully long journey from London Gatwick to Victoria International.
(When we first moved to Victoria the “international” part made me laugh – at the time, only Seattle was on offer. Since then they’ve added a few Mexican destinations, so I suppose it’s earned it’s ‘international’ status. Or maybe it’s that, after a decade plus in Victoria and now this year away, what strikes me most about our little airport is simply that it’s home.)
There’s ice outside the airplane window- we’re somewhere over Northern Quebec. The kids are all watching movies – Avi, finally, is old enough to binge-watch videos on a flight, a Glory, Hallelujah milestone if there ever was one. And what I am supposed to do with this trapped time, I am fairly certain, is first summarize our last few weeks of travel- Berlin! Amsterdam! One cursed night in Brussels! London!- and then summarize our year away. The places we saw, the things we learned, the ways in which this experience has changed us.
Well. That’s a tall order at this altitude. But I do know this:
I will always be grateful for this year. I know this already – I’ve known it all along. For the long walks through beautiful, foreign places, for the gorgeous art in gorgeous settings, for the markets and the meals and the many times, countless times, I was able to reach out and touch someone’s arm- Jordan’s or Eva’s or Tillie’s or Avi’s- and say, simply, “Look.”
Because the second best part of this year was all the wonderful places we saw. Especially Rome, where, for a little while, we were lucky enough to say, “we live here.”
But the best part of this year was simply the time spent with Jordan and the kids. So much time.
I felt, as a parent, that I got to hold on to my kids just a little longer this year- I had more of them, and we had more of each other. There were times that I may have appreciated that more than they did, of course. Eva in particular is at the age when she is turning to her friends more and more, and I know it wasn’t always easy for her to be so far away from friends and so often with her parents. But although it may have presented challenges, Eva tells me she’s absolutely taking her children on sabbatical one day, too. I was so happy to hear that, because it tells me that she has really valued this year.
It wasn’t always easy for Avi, either- especially after we left Rome, which meant that Avi left scuola materna and we stopped having any childcare for him. Avi’s ideal day would be spent playing – outside, inside, anywhere with toys. Which is, of course, completely age-appropriate. He used to like museums – way back at the beginning of our trip, he was excited to explore statued corridors and search for, say, elephants hidden in ancient mosaics and frescoes. But a few dozen museums later, he has only to hear the word “museum” to revert to one of those ‘sound and fury’ moans of early childhood- an expression of misery beyond the scope of mere words to convey.
As for Tillie- well, I think sabbatical fit her pretty darn well throughout, excepting her experience in the Roman school, and particularly the social challenges there. But she weathered those challenges well. And she’s since converted them into a string of amusing anecdotes, which I’m fairly certain is the definition of “resilience,” no? Just ask her about the lasagne they served for school lunch, and you’ll get her talking for ages. And I can’t regret that school didn’t work out, because home-schooling became such an unexpected pleasure. As has been traveling with Tillie throughout, to be honest.
And then there’s Jordan and me. Way back when we were in graduate school, we instituted something we called “Wednesday night with Jordan and Ilana.” The idea was to take time, mid-week, to really be together. Looking back it seems a little strange- we had no kids, what was the problem?- but also sweet- I do remember how the work of graduate school could creep into all the hours of the day, and setting aside time for one another was important.
This year, we revived our Wednesday night tradition. Eva and Tillie babysat Avi, and we went out one night each week. Which was, frankly, fantastic. Jordan is optimistic that we can keep those (mostly) Wednesday nights going when we get home. I’m a little more skeptical- there’s my call schedule, for one thing. But what we do know- we have stellar sitters. We’ll see how it works out.
And as for Berlin and Amsterdam and London – there were lots of highlights. Berlin was chockful of inventive playgrounds, each one seemingly better than the last. We also loved the DDR museum there, which Avi conveniently napped through while the rest of learned about life in East Germany. We spent Jordan’s 42nd birthday paddle-boating through Utrecht, the day after biking past the flat fields and tiny villages of North Holland, and caught up with distant cousins in Amsterdam. The night in Brussels was frankly a mistake – why did I think booking a youth hostel room would be “fun”? – but the museums are all free in London, and we caught up with some very special families there. We have Nova Scotia friends who live in Oxford, and we got to see Xander, who is Tillie’s age, sing Evensong at New College Chapel as part of the boy’s choir, an absolutely beautiful experience. Xander’s mom and older sister (conveniently Bea is Eva’s age, and Eleanor is Avi’s age, so we are very well-matched families) also took us on a private tour of Westminster Abbey, where they used to live as part of the Westminster boys’ choir faculty. (Avi used to like churches, too- I joked that we had to watch out for him, because he would kneel all-serious-like on the kneeling pews. [I just made-up the term “kneeling pew”- do those have a real name?] But no need to worry anymore, as he gave our elite Westminster tour the Sound and Fury treatment too.)
We saved the most special meet-up of all for last. I have a brother who lives in Leisterschire, near Birmingham. Richard and I have different moms and didn’t grow up together, and I hadn’t seen him in 15 years. During that time, he and his fantastic wife, Angela, had twins who are Eva’s age, and we spent a wonderful last sabbatical weekend with all of them. Feat of feats, they even managed to plan an expedition that interested Avi. We walked along Foxton Locks, where we were all engrossed watching boats navigate a narrow canal while sheep grazed the green pastures around us – to my mind, a perfectly English landscape.
Of course, these last few weeks have had some lowlights, too. Lots of trains and buses and tubes. Up these stairs, down those stairs, over to that corridor, that isn’t our train, that is our train, who has the tickets, how the hell does this machine work?
But in the end, the hassle of travel all blurs together, doesn’t it? At however many thousand feet, it’s the moments captured below, moments of joy and togetherness, that stay with me.