Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I Wish I Had Expat Kids

When I was eight, my family moved to Belgium.  You knew that about me, right?  No?  Well, we did, and we were there for a little over a year (not the three to five it was supposed to be, but that's a different story).  Honestly?  It was my favorite place I ever lived.

In Belgium (at least at the time), non-citizens weren't allowed to own houses, so we rented a 500 year old farmhouse.  We had a huge backyard with apple and pear trees and lived on a one lane cobblestone road - gloriously named Chemin du Bas Ransbeck in the tiny village of Ohain just outside Waterloo.  I remember the stone floors and the root cellar, the chalkboard on the kitchen wall for the daily shopping list, the lack of screen on the windows because there are no bugs, and the lack of closets in the house.

It was eye opening for an eight year old.  Not every country has closets built into the house?  You have to purchase wardrobes instead?  People go shopping on a daily basis instead of stocking up for the week (that was my mom's favorite - and she never made it to school to pick us up with a loaf of bread intact)?  And wait... they eat horse meat?  That one we discovered when my mom cooked a roast that just wouldn't bake.  It stayed pink/red and never turned brown.  After three hours, she finally threw it out, only to discover later that "cheval" means horse in French.  She was really careful about what she bought after that.

French grammar book and verb conjugation dictionary

My sister an I attended St. John's, an international school not too far from our house.  It was taught in English, but every student learned French.  I don't mean "studied" or "had a half hour class once or twice a week."  We learned it through songs and slideshows and conversations and more.  Apparently I was pretty fluent by the time we left.  And had I stayed into fourth grade, that's when they added a third language aside from English and French.  And a fourth language followed.  Did I mention that they followed the block schedule even in elementary school so that we studied our subjects in big blocks of time to get through the material without having to rush to get to the next subject?  I found that fascinating, and it was a hard adjustment when I moved back to the States.

I would move back in a heartbeat, but my husband's job isn't made for us to be expats, so the wee ones will never have the same experience I did - driving through Europe on weekends to visit Poland and Spain and West Germany (hey, it was the 80s - there was a West Germany) and more.  I saw so many things that were just normal to me that made a lasting impression.

I'm grateful that Little Miss is in a Spanish immersion program and will have the language - and a little culture - that most Americans don't receive in elementary school.  I'm happy that Mister Man takes a Spanish class once a week to at least expose him to the language.  And one day, I hope we'll be able to spend the summer renting an apartment in Europe so that they can have some of that experience.  Regardless, I'll encourage them to do a study abroad program in college if not in high school.

Because this understanding the rest of the world and where we fit into it ? It's kind of important stuff.  Have you ever lived abroad?  Would you want to - with or without kids?

Cover for The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

In the interest of full disclosure, this post is part of the From Left to Write book club where we write posts based on books we read as opposed to traditional book reviews.  I received a copy of "The Headmaster's Wager" by Vincent Lam to facilitate my post, but I was not compensated.  All opinions remain my own.


Alicia November 14, 2012 at 2:40 PM  

I would have loved to have that experience too! What great memories you have. I have similiar memories of a vacation to Mexico where my dad is from. Nice post, I like the way the book inspired you to share this with us.

Mel S. November 14, 2012 at 3:15 PM  

What a wonderful experience! I wish we could pick up and live in another country for awhile. Alas my husband's profession does not allow it as well. Your post made me smile--I have the same French Verb book. I actually should take it out. My daughter is learning French. We are taking her to France this summer, so I really need to brush up! It is so great for kids to learn languages so young!

Anonymous November 14, 2012 at 6:10 PM  

fascinating!! I had a similar experience, although I was a bit younger, and it served as a grounding for the rest of my life. when I was 4yo, my family moved to my father's homeland of Sri Lanka, and we ended up staying for about 18months. I learned the language, and I started school there. realizing that there are other cultures is so important to developing a sense of membership in the larger world.

Jen @ BigBinder November 14, 2012 at 6:51 PM  

That makes you even more interesting, which, you were already pretty damn interesting.

I loved reading about this; my friends moved to France for 2 years with her husband's job and I am insanely jealous, especially about the shopping every day thing and the way the educate kids. Think we can get some kind of blogging gig that lets us move for a few years?...?

Unknown November 14, 2012 at 9:16 PM  

i'm so envious! i want to be an expat just for myself right now. i was very interested in living abroad until we had kids. now, i just hate to take them away from their grandparents. i love the idea of giving them a broader perspective, however!

Unknown November 14, 2012 at 9:22 PM  

I loved your descriptions of life in Belgium! The years my family spent in Europe and Asia are years I know I'll treasure. It's truly a life changing experience!

Thien-Kim aka Kim November 15, 2012 at 1:18 AM  

What an amazing experience! I hope that you'll be able to give your kids the same experiences as well. And, horse meat!

Kristin November 15, 2012 at 6:37 AM  

I loved reading your post! My father was I the military and we lived in Belgium for four and a half years, which was also my favorite part of child. We currently live as expats in Dubai and it is an absolutely amazing experience for our kids.

Eva from November 15, 2012 at 9:16 AM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eva November 15, 2012 at 9:17 AM  

I'm trying to get everyone a passport so that we can travel - but that isn't so easy for one of my kids. I traveled outside of the country quite a bit as a kid, and I'd love for them to have the experience too.

Laila @OnlyLaila November 16, 2012 at 8:22 AM  

I've been thinking about this a lot! I lived in Morocco as a child and would love for my son to have that experience. And I've always wanted to visit Belgium, we'll have to talk about that!

Meagan Francis November 16, 2012 at 1:06 PM  

yes! We are embarking on an expat adventure in early 2014 and I can't wait for my kids (and myself!) to have that kind of life experience. I think it'll be so valuable - but it is interesting how many people just don't *get* why we would want to uproot our lives and our kids' lives in that way. I'm writing about it over at if anyone is interested!

tiarastantrums November 16, 2012 at 1:16 PM  

we lived in China in 2005 (was supposed to be for three years as well) - LOVED it!! I'm with you on the language issue - the USA is greatly lacking! We had an exchange student in 2010 and she knew 4 languages! My kids are studying latin now and hopefully this will help them later in life b/c you know- most languages derive from latin!

Pat November 16, 2012 at 3:23 PM  

What a fantastic childhood experience you had! I lived with a family in a suburb of Dublin, Ireland in 1968-69 for my junior year of college...I attended TCD, Trinity College Dublin.

I lived with Jack and Pam Gallagher and their 3 young children, Jill, Nigel and Andrew, the baby, in a small attached house. I, too, was surprised that houses didn't have built-in closets, but rather a piece of furniture called a "wardrobe." And Pam, the mom, did shopping every day. They had a tiny little refrigerator, a tiny little stove all in a tiny little kitchen. Though their house was small and only had one bathroom for the six of us, it had a good-sized back yard. I just loved my 9 months there. Everyone was so friendly and wanted to show me around and show me a good time---most had never met anyone from California before...and oh the preconceptions they had about California and Californians--learned from the movies.

I have had fond memories of Ireland ever since. I've been back there twice to visit.

Michelle November 16, 2012 at 3:44 PM  

Alicia - We will vacation in Mexico with the wee ones at some point, too - especially with the Spanish for Little Miss. I love seeing other places - even in the States.

Mel - I know. I'm sort of bummed that I know I'll never live abroad, but ... I still dream. And that French verb book? I think everyone who ever took a single French class has that one, right?

morethanfoursides - Oh Sri Lanka is far more different than Belgium. It's really interesting as an adult to reflect on the differences in education that as a child you just accepted, isn't it?

Jen - Aww, you're so sweet. YES, let's look for a blogging gig that takes us abroad. I'll keep any eye out, and you, too. Deal?

Melanie - It would be really hard to take them away from grandparents, that's very true. But when we lived there, my grandparents came to visit a couple times and stayed for three weeks when they did, so it was a huge chunk of really quality time. And we hadn't lived near them before we moved anyway, so....

Emily - Thanks! It really stuck with me. I wish we'd had more time there, but such is life. It is definitely life changing.

Kim - I know I won't be able to replicate the experiences, but we'll find a way to do something fun one day. But we'll skip the horse meat. For sure.

Kristin - Thank you! Belgium was such a neat place. I've heard really interesting things about Dubai and have questioned whether I really really want to go there or really really want to avoid it - but that's awesome that your kids love it.

Eva - That was actually one of the first things we did for the wee ones when they were born. Except I think they've expired, oops. I need to renew them. Here's hoping you manage to get them for all your kids!

Laila - Morocco is another really neat place. A good friend of mine was there and near there for Peace Corps and had so much to say about it. It's definitely on my list of places to go.

Meagan - Oh yay for you! Where will you go? And my husband's family didn't understand why he would be willing to take a job in another part of the state, let alone another state or - heaven forbid - country. I say go for it (and do it in the middle of the school year - see another post on my thoughts about moving). Have fun!

Teresa - Yes, they certainly do - or at least the romance languages do! Will you kids do the Latin competitions then? That's big in our district. Where in China were you?

Pat - Yes, that is absolutely right on all counts. I've never been to Ireland, though it's on my wish list (my dream vacation is a riding tour across Ireland). I greatly regret not doing study abroad when I was in college, but it's advice I'll pass to the wee ones one day.

Brandie November 16, 2012 at 5:39 PM  

I have not. I would love to. I have family doing it right now and I'm SO SO jealous. Maybe someday. Le sigh.

Emily November 16, 2012 at 6:51 PM  

I did know this about you and I think it's why you are a foodie today!

Robyn Wright of Robyns.World November 16, 2012 at 8:46 PM  

Do you watch House Hunters International? I love that show and seeing how different the homes are all over the world - it makes me want to try out new places too!

northsidefour November 16, 2012 at 10:38 PM  

I would love to live overseas, for me and our children. We travel, they spent two weeks in France this past summer and we were amazed at what they picked up, but it can't compare to immersion. I think the benefits of language are so vast, and now here I am, trying yet again to find a way to live in Europe. Thank you!

Michelle November 19, 2012 at 11:30 AM  

Brandie - Oh that has to be hard having family overseas right now. I'll cross my fingers for your someday!

Emily - I do think it probably plays a lot into it. EVERYthing about food was a different focus there, and I believe it at least part of it stuck with me.

Robyn - Shhh I don't have cable. I've never seen it, but I can imagine some of the neat places they showcase. I'll have to look it up.

northsidefour - Two weeks is way better than nothing. Good luck getting overseas longer. It really is about the right attitude and experiencing it, not creating a Little America there (which I've seen a lot of). Keep traveling!

anymommy November 23, 2012 at 11:38 PM  

This made me feel all longing-y. I did live abroad and moved a lot as a kid and I learned so much from it. I love my world view and I've struggled lately with how to find that for our kids. Clearly, we should pack them all up and travel the world together ;-)

Michelle November 27, 2012 at 9:46 AM  

Stacey - Oh I remember your stories from living abroad, and I was so jealous of you every time I read it. YES go travel the world with your kids. And let me hide in your suitcase!

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