"You Know How On Extreme Makeover They Drive the Bus Away for the 'Big Reveal'? This Is Kind of Like That, Only Nobody Gets a Jungle Theme in the Living Room"
The kids raced away from the school bus on the final day of the school year, sweat and excitement mixed on their faces. Breathlessly, Paco reported, “Al the Bus Driver is so nice. We’re the last kids off today, so he gave us each TWO suckers to celebrate the last day!”
Just then, Al the Bus Driver, leaning out his side window, beckoned me over to the bus. As I approached, he turned off the ignition, turning the bus into a huge yellow Lego brick blocking the avenue.
“So your kids were telling me you all are going to live someplace else next year—like, you’re going to some other country? What’s that all about?”
Feeling a babble coming on, I made sure not to lock my knees (causes fainting) and then settled my hands onto my hips (an endurance posture) and did a quick saliva check (adequate lubrication being essential to extended nattering).
Brightly, I commenced:
“Why, yes, Al the Bus Driver, we do have a big family adventure afoot! The whole thing really started last January, when I was granted a sabbatical by my college—"
Interjecting, Al the Bus Driver asked, “And what would ‘sabbatical’ mean then?”
Having forgotten that the word “sabbatical” is the jargon of academia and Jews who have wandered the desert for forty years, I slowed down to explain, “A sabbatical is something college teachers can apply for every seventh year. Basically, we put together a plan for professional duties or ideas that we’d like to work on but can never find the time to get to when we’re handling our usual duties of teaching and service to the college. In a sense, we’re being given the time to do some ‘forward thinking’ and work on both personal and professional projects. We get partial pay during the time we take off, and then we have to have completed our promised projects by our first day back. Personally, I have four projects I’ll be hacking away at, but—quite cleverly—I planned them so that they can be done from anywhere in the world because, truth be told, our family’s underlying agenda is always about taking a trip and going somewhere. We do lots of road trips, and we went to Guatemala three years ago, but, heck, when you’re seven years old like that there Paco with a sucker in his mouth is, three years is pretty much half a lifetime ago, so we’ve been itching to get out of the U.S. again, especially because the kids are at an age to take in so much more of what’s around them. The good thing is they’re still young enough that they will cotton to a different language relatively easily."
Having inhaled a gnat, I broke off the stream of babble to hack genteely into my sleeve. Seizing the opportunity, Al the Bus Driver asked, “So what does your husband do, that he can just leave it for a year?"
Wiping saliva-covered gnat guts onto my kneecap, I hopped back in. “When he's not busy cooking all the meals and handling every other aspect of our lives, he sits on the couch and eats bon-bons; he's no bus driver, that's for sure. See, he’s been our stay-at-home parent for the last decade, ever since that there Girl with two suckers in her mouth was born. His former profession was as a naturalist, and he has a degree in anthropology and environmental science, but for the last two years, with Paco in school, he’s also been taking art classes at the college where I teach in preparation for the next phase of his life, so we’ll see what he ends up wanting to do. Right now, though, it’s a perfect time for him to go to a whole new country and tap into their artistic traditions; I mean, light and space and texture are so different around the globe that it’s a rare gift indeed to be able to go feel them in person.”
Looking a little perplexed but still game, Al the Bus Driver attempted to redirect the conversation--but I picked up his cue of distress and swerved back onto topic, thoughtfully saving him the effort of breaking in. “Anyhow, Al the Bus Driver, once we found out I had been granted a sabbatical, we immediately signed up with a couple of home exchange organizations online and sent out about fifty inquiry emails around the world. Almost immediately, our email inbox was flooded with 45 ‘nope, not gonna work for us’ and ‘sorry, already booked’ messages, but then, after a couple of weeks, we got a response from a family in Sicily…”
Asserting himself, Al the Bus Driver asked, “And where abouts is that again?”
“It’s part of Italy—although many Sicilians would disagree with that sentiment as it’s a separate island with a very different history than the main land. So this family was very interested, and after some weeks of really slow, Italian-paced email conversations, they told us they were IN and very much wanted to do an exchange with us, starting in July and running through the following April. There was a bit of a hang-up with their teen-aged son not being able to take the classes he would need here at an American high school; I mean, really, Duluth high schools don’t offer art history, Latin, or Italian as a Mother Tongue, do they? But the family did some juggling around and arranged for the teen to come with them for four months, at which point he would return to Sicily and live with his aunt as he finished out his school year there. However, just as I was gearing up to head to Chicago to get my visa—which has to be done in person, and which I had to do first before I could transfer a power of attorney to someone in Italy, have that person go into a police station and get me declared a resident, and then, as a resident, invite my family to accompany me, at which point they could go to Chicago to get their visas—we got an email from the Sicilian family telling us that they’d had a hostile and confounding meeting at their son’s high school, and they’d been told he would receive no credit at all for study done in the U.S.—the administration must have heard about our schools!—which pretty much meant he couldn’t come along at all which, in turn, was something we call A Dealbreaker.”
Looking pensive, Al the Bus Driver asked, “Dealbreaker? Isn’t that a reality show on Fox?”
Undeterred from the babble, I inhaled deeply and continued to spew: “While we were really bummed about the Sicilian plan falling through, it seemed like fate that we received an email just then from a family in Prague, asking if we’d be interested in an exchange. After some backing and forthing (the husband in that family was an economist who, himself, was trying to arrange activities for his sabbatical year; for him, and for a long-term visa, this required that he obtain a letter of invitation from a local university), and after our neighbor extended herself to work her connections in the economics department at one of our local institutions of higher education, we thought the pieces could fall together nicely and make this thing work. And Prague! How beautiful that city is; I went there in 1985, before The Wall fell, and it was fascinating to see how we were assigned a guide whose job it was to keep us out of trouble; on one memorable hot, hot day, the guide took us on a five-hour walk around a cemetery which was, as you might guess, not this 18-year-old’s idea of a rockin’ afternoon in Europe. However, it did bring the term 'Prague Walk' into my personal lexicon as a term for anything painful and unending. Like, right now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, ‘This conversation has turned into a real Prague Walk.’”
“No,” Al the Bus Driver noted, “I’m actually wondering about The Wall you mentioned. Was that an actual thing, or what do you mean?”
“Oh, yes, Al the Bus Driver, it was an actual, literal thing—but really a metaphor, too, for significant divisions between economic and political systems post-World War II. If you get on the Internet at all, during the hours you’re not safely chauffeuring loud-mouthed children around the city, you might do a search on the term ‘Berlin Wall’ and even input the year 1989. You’ll find lots of information that way, and then next year on the bus you could create a ‘Sucker Challenge’ game with the kids on the bus; make them answer questions about Stalin and Reagan before they get candy!”
“Yea, I’m probably not going to do that,” Al the Bus Driver said, plucking out a particularly long nose hair.
“No, no, of course not. That would be expecting too much from the first graders. All right, so the Prague family suddenly went quiet on us, not returning emails, not responding to the contact information I’d sent them at the university, until one day, we received a message from them that announced, ‘We’ve decided to go to Berkeley and rent there. However, if you’d like to rent our house in Prague, that would still be an option.’ Even though I grumbled a fair amount about how it wouldn’t have killed them to be up front all along, I finally managed to type back a message asking about how much rent they’d be asking. That was in April. We’ve still never had a reply. That whole thing was daunting in its own way, but we did luck out again and find hope in the form of a lovely Australian woman who contacted us and was looking to do a 6-month exchange—and get this: during the winter months, as her 14-year-old son likes to snowboard and play hockey! So we had a flurry of emails with her over the course of a few weeks, and she seemed both convivial and interested, if unaware of the concepts of complete sentences and capital letters…she was really going gangbusters until my husband sent her a lovely and helpful email full of links to the ski areas and hockey rinks around here…and until I sent her an email saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes, we’d love to do an exchange with you.’ When she didn’t reply to either, I waited three days and sent another message, noting that often emails to get lost in the ether, but that yes, yes, yes, we’d love to do an exchange with her. Three days after that, I sent it again. Then again. That was in early May, and we have yet to hear back from her. Shortly after that, I began some crabby muttering that ended with me yelling ‘Citizens of Earth, you are a bunch of flakes; would it kill you to be forthcoming and regular in your communications?’”
“By ‘flakes,’” Al the Bus Driver wondered aloud, “do you mean like dandruff?”
“Not really, Al the Bus Driver, but I did wish that upon them, too, in my more punitive moments. At any rate, when Ms. Australia disappeared, we decided it was time to switch things up and stop trying to hinge our plans on those of others. It was time to do what we could do, under our own power. Pretty quickly, we decided to play the visa game, switching visa areas throughout the year and dodging the need to get any long-term permissions. We found out we could stay in the UK up to six months, so we thought we’d start there, and then we’d head to the Andalucia region of Spain for 90 days, and then maybe we’d head into a non-Schengen region country like Bulgaria or Croatia to round things out. It got so I was cruising online rental agencies at 2 a.m., trying to see where we could rent relatively cheaply, for about what our mortgage here costs us per month. Let me tell you, that’s a tough thing to do in Europe, as it’s expensive there! But we figured it if we could rent our house here, we’d have some money to apply towards rent elsewhere, and we could make it work.”
“Can you pay for a visa with Mastercard?” Al the Bus driver mused.
Clearly, although I’m crazymad for exposition, it was time to move past the backstory. “In general, Al the Bus Driver, cash will be your best bet if paying for a visa at the airport. So here’s what finally has happened: after asking everyone we know for ideas, my husband’s parents mentioned how my father-in-law’s boss’ daughter has lived in Turkey for some years and that we probably could contact her. Feeling pretty desperate, we sent off an email her direction, and guess what? While I always want to believe in the idea of ‘whatever’s supposed to happen, will happen, and the universe will hand you what you need,’ I had gotten so frustrated and put off that I merely felt bitch slapped by the universe—hey, incidentally, is this the first time a parent of a kid on your bus has used the term ‘bitch slapped’ to you?—and was really down about the idea of possibility. But guess what, guess what, guess what? My father-in-law’s boss’ daughter wrote back immediately and has been amazing. I think of her as the hospitable expat, as she’s lived in Turkey since 2003, now in the Cappadocia region where there are all sorts of fairy chimneys and cave homes and underground cities, and all she wants in the world is to share her love of the place with anyone who’s interested. We’ve had a slew of emails with Hospitable Expat, some chats on Facebook, and she’s already put out feelers for rentals for us in the villages in her area, along with negotiating a good rate for us at a pension in her village (we’ll base out of there while we find a rental for the year) and telling us where the shuttle driver will be standing to meet us when we get off the airplane in Keysari. Within a week of communicating with her, we knew this was the answer we’d been seeking for five months. We bought plane tickets a few weeks ago and leave August 3rd. The cost of living is significantly lower—our rent there may equal our monthly Sam’s Club bill here—and we can exit the country every 90 days (hopping over to a Greek island) and come back in and get a new visa easily. So that’s it. We’re going to Turkey for a year, we’ll home school the kids, and we can’t believe how fortunate we are.”
Bracing myself for him to use the line every lame jokester in our social circle had trotted out in response to our announcement (“I’ve always liked chicken better than turkey”), I was caught off guard when, after a moment of silence, Al the Bus Driver’s final question was, “And so what exactly would be your purpose in doing this again?”
My immediate reaction was one of “Duh and HELLO, Al the Bus Driver: living in another country? Experiencing a new language and culture and people? Seeing what it is to live as an expatriate? Watching my kids and husband and myself wade through the challenges of not having friends, security, and the same-ole same-ole around us all the time? Getting the reality check provided by being out of one’s element? Gaining a perspective on our place in the larger order of things, something that is awfully hard to keep in place when one is an American?”
I tempered my reaction, of course, and simply pointed out the cultural and linguistic benefits. Looking dubious, Al the Bus Driver started up the engine again, preparing to drive the bus to the garage one last time. Just before pulling away, he braved a closing remark. “Those kids of yours? Great kids. Nice kids. I wish all the kids on the bus behaved like they do. They’ve been a real pleasure.”
For a parent hearing those words, there is no thank you large enough. But I did manage the rejoinder of “Yea, that’s why we’re pulling them out of school next year; we hope to keep them like that a bit longer!”
Brakes squealing, the bus made its way down the road. I stood in place for a second, though, mulling over the wisdom in Al the Bus Driver’s question. Holy Whirling Dervishes, but what is our purpose in going to Turkey? How will we fill our days when no one is ever heading off to school or work? Yikes. Crikey. Jimminy. That could stack up into a whole lot of empty hours of staring at each other, thinking, "Sure, there are kebabs, but where did all the playdates go?"
I’m guessing, as with figuring out the plan for my sabbatical year, we’ll have to make our own opportunities, figure it out for ourselves, shape our own directions.
Newly in awe at what we’ve wrought, I turned to my hopscotch-playing kids and teased, “So what are those bulging backpacks full of on the last day of school? Textbooks and toilet paper you stole from the school? If so, great. We’re doing to need both in Turkey.”
(As of last week, our house is rented for a year. As of four days ago, our mini-van is sold and gone. As of right now, we’re overwhelmed and freaking out, trying to sort through and pack up our household; the renters are allowing us to store our things in the basement and will let us leave the main floor furniture in place, but the second floor furniture needs to be moved out, and all other belongings are going into tubs and boxes, a process that would be infinitely easier without bored children hanging around--a foretaste of life in Turkey?-- wanting help in finding amusement [makes a parent want to relax long-standing rules banning daytime use of electronics]. Even when we’ve gotten their friends over, in the hopes that they’ll hie off to play, they end up standing in front of us, saying, “What should we do? Will you play a game with us? It takes four people to play this game.” Thank Yogi Bear that we’ve stuffed July full of camps for them; then can go kayak, swim, and do fiber art while Groom and I participate in the boot camp known as Driving Garbage Bags Full of Old Shoes to Goodwill and Then Stacking All the Rest of Everything in a 12’ x 20’ Space)