Dorothy said it best: There’s no place like home. But what about those people who pick up their entire lives, move to the other side of the world and thus begin grappling with the task of redefining the concept of home? We sat down with four local families who did exactly that.
La bella vita
Slowing down doesn’t come naturally to the Damianis. Between jobs, school, music lessons, play dates, community involvement and college applications, the family of five seems to always have something going on, as is the American family norm. But for 12 months beginning in July 2012, Michelle and Keith Damiani, their three children and the two family cats immersed themselves in a culture that’s more relaxed, more indulgent, more free-form—more Italian.
“Keith and I had wanted to live abroad for a really long time before we had children,” Michelle says. “And then we had children and stopped talking about it. The idea hit us again and we started asking, ‘Could we do this with kids? Why not?’”
In 2007, Michelle and Keith began researching and established a five-year plan that would allow them time to save money, find the right destination and ensure that the timing was right for the kids. The desire to live in a small town where they would feel like part of the community and “not be so anonymous” led to their deciding on Spello, a quaint, ancient town in the Umbria region of Italy. Despite their minimal Italian language skills before moving, Michelle and Keith were drawn to Spello in part because it would push them out of their comfort zone.
“We were cautious not to end up in a town with lots of English speakers,” says Keith. “We didn’t want to have that luxury to fall back on.”
That meant the kids dove headfirst into public school, where they had to rely on Italian-English dictionaries, hand signals and patient peers and teachers to communicate.
Nicolas, 13 years old at the time, “stubbornly refused to speak English” with his friends at school, determined to make Italian second-nature. And it worked—his father says Nicolas was “the first one to dream in Italian.”
Overall, Michelle and Keith weren’t impressed with the education system—Michelle describes the high school curriculum as “extraordinarily intense and boring at the same time.” But even so, they say it was worth it.
“I still believe there’s so much that you learn just by being there that any deficiencies in standard education are offset by that,” Keith says.
Siena, who was 10 at the time and who tends to be more introverted than her brothers, had the hardest time in school, mostly due to the language barrier and teachers who lacked empathy and understanding. Three years later, she’s able to offer advice to other kids who may find themselves in foreign territory.
From a mother’s perspective, Michelle would encourage other parents to be patient if their kids are struggling.
“As a parent, understand that you cannot rush that process. I tried to rush that with her, to make her engage and to push her, and that did not work,” Michelle says. “Rather than that, if I could go back, I would tell myself to just trust her; she’s going to get it on her own time.”
After walking the kids to school every day, Keith worked as a graphic designer for clients back in Charlottesville and Michelle worked on her blog that she later published as a 466-page memoir, Il Bel Centro: A Year in the Beautiful Center (which she’ll discuss in March at the Virginia Festival of the Book). After work and school (which let out at 1pm) the family filled its days with espresso, Italian lessons, visits to the local butcher and fishmonger, homemade pasta and endless scoops of gelato.
Naturally built into their new lifestyle was more proximity to one another. Siena and younger brother, Gabe, who was 5 at the time, shared a room, and Michelle says she wondered how the tighter quarters and extended time together would manifest. Turns out there was nothing to worry about on that front.
“There was a lot more intensive family time, which is one of the reasons I was looking forward to it,” says Keith. “And we all still like each other.”
It’s been two and a half years since they returned to Charlottesville, and sometimes, they say, it feels like they just dreamed those 12 months. Siena would prefer to spend all four of her high school years in Charlottesville, but Gabe, who’s in third grade, is up for anything.
“I want to go somewhere in Japan,” Gabe says. “And I think Brazil because I really want to go to South America.”
Home sweet home
“Amsterdam wasn’t exactly at the top of our list,” Bree Luck says frankly.
People already tend to be surprised when parents announce their plans to move the kids overseas to live in a foreign country for 12 months—and then factor a Red Light District into the mix? Not the most traditional choice for a temporary family relocation. But Bree and her husband Geoff, parents of daughters Camden and Anna Brynn, had long been discussing the possibility of spending a year abroad when a job opportunity for Geoff came up in the capital of the Netherlands. The job appealed to him and the family’s plan all along was to find a home base that would allow them to travel all over Europe. So in August 2014, the Lucks found tenants for their home who were willing to care for their husky, Zeus, packed two bags each and moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the Pijp neighborhood of Amsterdam.
“Taking a year away with the kids was a dream that we had always had as parents,” says Bree. “The timing was right and we wanted to make it work, and the exciting thing about Amsterdam is how easy it is to get all over Europe, and it’s a very livable city,” she says, noting that no one in the family seemed to miss using a car to get around.
Public transit and the fact that bikes seemed to outnumber cars meant the girls could get from point A to point B using two wheels or their tram cards, but it wasn’t until she was accused of being “too American” that Bree began to reassess the helicopter parenting that’s become the norm in the United States.
“At the beginning of the year it was definitely different,” Camden says with a laugh, recalling her mom’s initial insistence that she and her sister call and check in several times throughout the day. “But the more we kind of immersed into the culture, the more freedom we had. That was really nice.”
Camden and Anna Brynn, 13 and 9 years old at the time, respectively, both enrolled in an English-speaking international school, where, despite the fact that most of their lessons were taught in English, the girls shared their classrooms with kids from every corner of the world.
Everyone in the family learned a smattering of Dutch over the course of the year—enough to successfully order Dutch oliebollen (donuts) at bakery counters, Anna Brynn points out. Admittedly it wasn’t the “most practical language” to learn, Bree says, adding that her and Geoff’s combined knowledge of Latin, French and Spanish didn’t help them at all. But by July, when Bree took her final trip to the market and said goodbye to the vendors she had communicated with in a broken Dutch-English hybrid all year, one responded with, “You’re leaving? But your Dutch was finally getting good!”
By the time the Lucks returned to Charlottesville, they were torn between feeling thrilled to be back in their house with Zeus and nostalgic about the life they built overseas. They’re already talking about doing it again, and if you ask the girls where they should go, the answer is: back to Amsterdam.
“It’s weird because when I was there I was homesick, I missed my home,” says Camden. “But now I’m homesick, I miss my other home. I never had that feeling before.”
Brian Wimer’s work has sent him all over the world, from Haiti to Ghana to Iraq, and his wife, Ivana Kadija, moved to the U.S. from the former Yugoslavia when she was in middle school. Having both experienced firsthand what different cultures have to offer, the couple had for years played with the idea of putting their Charlottesville lives on hold and taking their two daughters, Luka and Maya, overseas. Both Wimer and Kadija are deeply involved in the community and devoted to causes like local art and healthy food in schools, but they could never shake the question of whether being immersed in a different way of living would manifest in a different way of being.
“There’s that notion of somebody moving here and assimilating to this lifestyle, but can the reverse be true?” says Wimer. “Can my kids assimilate to another lifestyle? And is that other lifestyle, perhaps, preferable?”
Having switched careers four or five times in his adult life and lived in several different states before settling in Virginia, Wimer says he’s never been risk averse, and he knows that “you can move and life doesn’t end.” So when he and Kadija finally “just dared each other to do it,” they talked it over with the girls—who were 14 and 11 at the time—and settled on Portugal as their new temporary home. In December 2014, the family of four moved into a three-bedroom house with a courtyard, four blocks away from the beach—where it was too cold to swim, Luka laments—in Cascais, “perhaps one of the nicest towns in Portugal,” Wimer says.
Standing at the kitchen counter in their Charlottesville home slicing an apple, Luka, who was a high school freshman when the family moved, sighs nostalgically and says she misses the abundance of fresh, inexpensive fruit in Portugal. Her dad emphatically agrees, adding that the nearby parks were “bursting with rosemary, thyme and bay leaves and you could just go pick it!”
What Wimer misses most, though, even more than the €2 (roughly $2) bottles of wine and summer diet of fresh figs and prosciutto, are the public services that are ubiquitous in so many European countries—mass transit, bicycle accessibility, universal health care.
“There’s that element of not having to worry about your support systems like transportation and health. Food is cheap,” Wimer says. “And we had to come back into a system where we had to pay for health care, had to get a car.”
With that comes a work-life balance that’s the polar opposite from what we’ve grown accustomed to in the U.S., Wimer says. People don’t define themselves by what they do for a living, and, in general, the Portuguese seem more interested in their lives than their jobs.
“This was the first time in years that I could stop working so hard. It was a very big shift in myself. I’ve always had this need for projects and constant productivity,” he says, adding that around the six-month mark he began feeling like he was transitioning from vacation to living in Portugal. “I finally was assimilating to more of a Portuguese way of ‘Let’s just chill, have an espresso and talk for two hours.’ I really didn’t think that I was able to live in a different gear.”
One element of Portugal that didn’t impress the family was the girls’ experience in public school. Their classmates were friendly and welcoming, Luka says, but the language
barrier and overall cultural divide made it a challenge to settle in and find friends. One of the biggest differences Luka and Maya found was the absence of extracurricular activities at school—no football team, no drama club, no pep rallies, no prom.
“They don’t have sports teams, they don’t have a school mascot,” Luka says. “School is very much just to go learn math, science, literature and such.”
The disconnect with the Portuguese education system led the girls to be homeschooled during the fall semester, which Luka says gave her more time to focus on things like exercising, practicing yoga and spending time with the family, like when she and her mom would walk along the beach nearly every day. And when they weren’t reveling in the fact that they lived in a beautiful beachside town with so much art and culture that even the sidewalks were made of mosaic tiles, they were taking advantage of the access to cheap train and plane tickets, visiting places like Rome, Copenhagen, Paris and Croatia.
The family returned to their Charlottesville home in December 2015, so they’re still adjusting and reassimilating into their American lifestyles.
“I’m really torn being back,” Luka says. “I have such a great community here, but at the same time I really want to get out again and explore. There are so many options and so many different places, and now everything seems less set in stone.”
IF BY SEA
After cruising as a couple in the mid-1990s, Nica Waters and her husband, Jeremy, took their two kids, Julian and Maddie,
on an eight-month sailing trip. We asked her a few questions about the journey.—L.I.
Where did you go? Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and the Dominican Republic
How old were the kids? Julian was 10; Maddie 8.
How did the kids react to the news? “I’m not going” was the initial reaction.
Did the family already have sailing experience? Did you already have a boat? Jeremy has been sailing since he was 4; I started in college. The kids have been sailing since they were tiny (Maddie’s first sail was when she was 2 weeks old). We have owned our sailboat, a 28′ classic design called a BCC, since 1992. We still have her and plan on future cruises.
How did the kids keep up with their schoolwork? We took school books from their elementary school and did school on the boat. They had to do certain amounts each week. By the end of the year, they had both gone through all their texts.
How long was your trip? We left in October and returned in June.
How much time did you spend on the water as opposed to on land? We slept on the boat every single night. We spent maybe three nights in a marina or tied to a dock and the rest were at anchor. We went ashore most days (except for a couple of really windy days when getting in the dinghy would have been tough).
What was most challenging about the trip? The kids had their challenges in terms of being away from friends, and that was hard and relatively unexpected.
What was most rewarding? Being together as a family. Discovering new places that so very few people have ever been. Meeting new friends (who we still count among our closest friends). Just spending time living at our own pace.
What advice would you give to parents who want to do something similar? If you have any inkling of wanting this kind of adventure, and you have the background and knowledge to pull it off—go. If you don’t yet have the background and knowledge, start getting it. Life is for living, not for dreaming of living. Go do it.
Think this sounds like fun, but not sure where to begin? Michelle Damiani says, unfortunately, there’s no magic formula for success with moving abroad. But she does have some tips for families who might want to try it.—L.I.
Set a deadline and create a budget. The Damianis came up with a five-year plan to save up, find a destination and
make sure everything was right for their kids.
Choose a location. “I’d advocate for scoping out towns ahead of time,” Damiani says. “We thought we’d love this one town because it was small, but it ended up being full of English-speaking people, which we couldn’t have known from our online searching. Other towns high on our list were just dead and unappealing.”
Research visa requirements. If you’re moving for work, that’s not too complicated, but if you’re getting an elective residency visa (or the equivalent, based on the country), you’ll need to explore what kind of visa you should apply for. “Some people make the decision about what country to live in based on the difficulty of getting a visa (we were denied the first time around),” Damiani says. “We’ve heard of people moving to another state during the visa process in order to be eligible to use a consulate that’s more willing to grant visas.”
Find a place to live. The Damianis explored where to move by combing vacation rental websites to find houses that met their needs. Says Damiani, “If you know someone where you are moving, they can help find a more local (and inexpensive) choice, though those are often unfurnished.”
Connect online. Each country has its own expat communities on the Internet.