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Packing Light: Trading Our Possessions for Experiences

The kids were young explorers, and we were always trying something new. Here we are in front of the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue.

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Some of our friends thought we were having a midlife crisis. Others thought we had simply lost our minds. We weren’t even quite sure​ ​ourselves, but we were united and unequivocal on this point: we would leave our country.

Let me back up a bit. I was a school principal in a small town in Wisconsin, just outside of Madison. My husband worked full-time in a school, plus part-time in the county jail. We loved our jobs and made a killing. We made so much we felt a little bit guilty sometimes, so we saved. When the kids reached school age, we decided to move just outside of Madison so​ ​that our two youngest children could attend the school in Waterloo where I worked. I had worked in this school for many years and knew it was a great place for them to learn and grow, but the transition process wasn’t easy. We first became lifelong friends with a realtor, toured countless houses, made offers, counteroffers, and lost sleep. After months of searching, we finally bought a foreclosure that was in very rough shape (though the realtor did spray paint over the profanity that​ ​was on the walls before we got there). Legend has it that the previous owners never paid even one month’s mortgage, and in the end had several “foreclosure parties” to get their friends to help trash the house. They crossed fixture wires to cause the lights to short out and unplugged the sump pump​ ​to bury us in feces. We spent nine months remodeling – every window, door, trim and molding was replaced. Every room was painted and the floors were replaced. The entire kitchen and all three baths were remodeled with acute attention to every detail. We spent hours studying kitchen counters and in the end bought the very best​ ​- quartz – because I was sure this was the last countertop I would ever buy. We paid extra for the cherry-lined drawers and the extra-tall solid maple cupboards and the spring-loaded mixer stand. We followed the interior decorator’s recommendations on paint colors, including the bright orange bathroom which hurt your eyes a little bit in the morning.

Another day on the beach in Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Another day on the beach in Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In April we moved in. After several months, the kids were playing in the yard and we were talking on the deck. “Aaah, last stop” I said wistfully, finally so happy to be in the house after years of looking, laborious renovations and months of settling in. My husband’s response was visceral, involuntary and bordering on fright: “No. No. What?! This is not the last stop.” I was dumbfounded. “But… the counters. What about the quartz counters? Why did we spend all that time?” I asked. “I don’t know,” said my husband. “All I know is this is not my last stop.” As we talked more, we reminded each other of our ancient dream to move abroad. It had been impossible for so long, as Brian had one set of children (with a custody situation), then we had a set together. But the first set of boys were in college and the second set was school age now (four boys, two sets exactly 20 years apart – the boys love that part!). We could do this now. And​ ​it would be so great for the kids to learn languages and learn about the world. We talked and dreamed ourselves into a state of unrest, anxious to launch our new life.

The political climate in Wisconsin was also favorable for a move. The governor had gutted the power of the unions and the morale in schools was charged with anger and grief. My husband and I began to assemble our profile on an online website that connects candidates with schools. When the profiles were complete, it was still a little unnerving to actually apply somewhere, not to mention that my husband had never been out of North America. On one of the more rancorous days of politics and fallout, I hit the button to register my protest, sending our resumes to Shanghai. It simply sounded so exotic and improbable. I never heard from them, but​ ​the raw possibility that rushed upon me as I pushed the button compelled me to keep pushing it. After several more applications, I received an email from the American School in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Perfect! I studied in São Paulo for a year when I was in high school and I knew Portuguese. I set​ ​up a Skype account and we interviewed – both at once, sitting on our couch, clutching and clenching out of view of the camera. We were crazy with excitement and disbelief. The Headmaster was attending the Iowa Fair and said he would visit my school, which he did the next week. He paced the halls of my school and we talked about the school, about me, and then he shared his greatest worry: people freaking out in the Rio traffic. After he left I couldn’t sleep for the excitement and hope, and then suddenly we received offers of employment, immediately followed by endless paperwork to begin the visa process. There was a flurry of pros and cons list-making and conversations with everyone we knew (most of whom said NO), culminating in the announcement to our four and six year-old children: We are moving to Brazil. The kids were too young to be anything but excited.

Our journey through three continents: North America, South America, and Europe.
Our journey through three continents: North America, South America, and Europe.

Having decided against storing our​ ​possessions (we were committed​ ​to being open-ended), we set about selling 98% of all we owned. We put expensive acquisitions on eBay, ran ads, sold much of the furniture to family (so we could use it until we needed to move) and had several garage sales. One of the more infamous scenes that has been recounted endlessly was selling the lightsaber out of the hands of the children as they played with it. But we were all excited and it was funny, with no hint of trauma (really!). The kids were all-in for adventure. Weeks before the move, my husband spent endless hours in the basement carefully packing, unpacking and repacking all of the possessions we would take​ ​in 16 bags, all carefully balanced and weighed. We would mail nothing and ship nothing. The house was rented. The good-bye parties were over. It was time to go and my husband was elated. “Brian, you might hate it. Things don’t always work and things aren’t always safe. You might not like it,” I cautioned. Nevertheless, on July 16, 2012, we arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was sweltering and a little dirty. We couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. The children turned out to​ ​be champion travelers and bounded through the airport. I was bleary-eyed and subdued, contemplating my husband’s initial reaction and preparing for the worst. Yet when Brian stepped off the plane, he tilted his head up, looking around mainly with his eyes, and choked, “I’m home.”

It amazes me that he always felt that way. When we would sit for six hours in the bank to make a transfer, enduring impossible requests and mysterious commands, he would shrug it off easily. When we were at the school, he would open his bullet-proof glass windows overlooking the favela and turn off the air, his shirt darkening with sweat, precisely because that was home. When we were lost, he got out of the car and spoke with several men for 10 minutes, arms waving and pointing, map spread out over the car, laughter ringing in the air. “So which way do we go?” I asked when he returned. “No idea,” as we burst into laughter.

Finding a Christmas tree while living abroad was always a challenge. My sister gave me this idea to paint a 12-foot tree in the corner and we really liked it!
Finding a Christmas tree while living abroad was always a challenge. My sister gave me this idea to paint a 12-foot tree in the corner and we really liked it!

In Brazil I developed a stomach for confusion and surprised myself at my tolerance for the unexpected and my love for Plan B (really, it is often better than Plan A). On the school side, it was about trying to get processes in place, trying to understand what happened before, what was happening now, and trying to help the teachers and students. I developed an appreciation for the many laws and regulations I had come to hate in the U.S., because I realized their incredible stabilizing power. When you don’t have to have processes and procedures in place, you suddenly appreciate the need. However, in that space where there are fewer requirements, amazing things can happen – 4th graders can go on a week-long trip, you can zipline across the athletic fields, and staff can take greater ownership of initiatives from inception to finish. In the end, our appreciation outweighed our frustration with international education. On the family side, we battled our neighbor’s dog who ate five sets of our windshield wipers, navigated the impossibly narrow single street through the largest favela in the Southern Hemisphere​​ (in a car we purchased sight unseen) and enjoyed long weekend days in the pool, at the beach, and on the mountain trails. Despite what you may hear about safety in Brazil, we were never mugged and for the most part relished our time there.

We returned to the U.S. when my mother was diagnosed with cancer, all with a mess of mixed emotion. With a prognosis of two years and how close she was to my sons, it seemed like the only choice. Professionally, I was in good shape: I came back for three interviews and received four​ ​job offers. My mother declined much quicker than expected, and we barely made it back to see her. It occurred to us that we could move back to Brazil, but that faded as the economy moved into sharp decline; in many respects we left at the right time. We​ ​discovered that we were not ready to resettle in the U.S., and after a short while we started to look again – casually at first, not in a hurry at all, just seeing what was out there. I was a finalist for a​ ​job in India. They flew me there, first class. At every stoplight on the way​ ​to the hotel, impossibly impoverished children clung to the car. The air was the worst in the world, but the school was among the very best. While I always wanted to go to India, I was​ ​not prepared for the underside – the dirt, the heat, the desperate poverty, the sheer number of people. There were people for every menial task such as opening your car door and handing you toilet paper. Despite the obvious challenges, India is a vast and beautiful country and the education​ ​at the American Embassy School of New Delhi is world-renowned. Though I was excited about the possibility, I did not get the job. When a job came up for Valencia, Spain, I checked the map and could not even imagine​ ​what life must be like in a place like that. Valencia, with its quality of life, beautiful architecture, clean air and water, offered a stark contrast to New Delhi. It was very easy to get excited about Valencia. We set again to listing pros (language learning, travel in Europe, adventure) and cons (European salary, nothing else). I had been looking for a job that would start in a year, but this one came up quick and the process moved rapidly. We had already told the boys we were planning to stay another year in the U.S. and they were enjoying their time there and though they were open to moving, they made it clear that they wanted to know in advance. So I made a fancy steak dinner and announced to the children: “We are moving to Spain in five weeks.” I expected excitement, like when we went to Brazil, but the kids were older now (9 and 11). One burst into tears, and after momentary confusion, the other followed. No one was in the mood for steak, and we had a lot of explaining to do. And a lot of work to do as we again sold off all the furniture, rented the house and completed endless paperwork.

Our first Paella! Paella is a traditional Spanish rice dish from Valencia.
Our first Paella! Paella is a traditional Spanish rice dish from Valencia.

While it is so very much easier to be in Spain than in Brazil, and so much more functional and safe, Spain didn’t wring our hearts as Brazil did. We missed the warmth of the people, the willingness of all to just head to the beach when things didn’t work out, the constant need to work on a Plan B, the rice and beans, the stunning natural landscape, and the daily discoveries that blew our minds completely (Carnaval, the favela Rocinha). After two weeks the boys stopped crying daily about missing their brothers, family, friends, and Cheez-Its, and as they made new friends and met their teachers, things began to settle. In time we grew to treasure what we now have: Fallas, the small towns and bodegas, cheap European travel (40 dollar round trip airfares to Mallorca), paella, the dynamic tension between being direct yet civil, the pace of life, intense language learning, and the escape from American politics (and a grateful ignorance of Spanish politics). The children fully embrace opportunities that would have been unimaginable to me as a child: choir festival in Brussels, soccer competition in Barcelona, class ski trip in the Pyrenees, friends in Saudi Arabia, Finland, everywhere. But for me, some of the conversations I relish most as we sit down to dinner are the life-changing interactions with teachers. The power of an amazing teacher is one of life’s great gifts, and I feel​ ​so lucky that my children have had some of those in every school where we have been. Our moves have been dictated by where we can get jobs and excellent schools, so it only makes sense. Much of our life centers around the school community and this has served as a stabilizing anchor from which to explore from. Each country has its pros and pitfalls, and we have learned the most valuable lesson of culture-tripping: appreciate what you are seeing, experiencing, and living. Soak it up.

Ann Kox, Ed.D. is a principal in Spain, where she lives and works with her husband and two sons. She has worked in Brazil and Wisconsin as a principal, superintendent, director of curriculum and director of special education.

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