Bring Your Own Children: South America!

One of the most common questions asked when someone finds out that we spent a year abroad with our children is “How did the kids handle all of this change?”  It is an important question, and I am careful with my answers. Family travel has a multitude of positives, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a few bumpy days here and there. Just like life at home, not everything goes smoothly all the time.

Our next guest is psychologist Robin Malinosky-Rummell, PH.D.  Robin and her husband are travel enthusiasts and hoped that their son might grow up and catch the travel bug as well.  After speaking to her, it looks like they achieved their goal! Robin’s book about traveling with children through South America is a wealth of information for families thinking about doing the same.

Bring Your Own Children: South America! A Family Sabbatical Handbook

Robin  has been working with children and families in a variety of settings for over 20 years. She has written articles for professional psychology journals as well as travel literature. Her background affords an in-depth look at the psychological processes and emotional extremes of adapting to various cultures as well as a year spent intimately with family members on the road.

Here’s what Robin had to say!

We’ve all been there.  A much anticipated family vacation in a beautiful place.  Instead of enjoying the experience, we’re hot, tired, hungry, and annoyed.  And of course, we’re taking it out on each other.

The setting is a beautiful spring day in Venice, the city of lovers and dreams.   Beginning the day collecting information at the Visitor’s center, we connected with another American couple who had just purchased a detailed map and offered to guide us to the gondoliers to share the cost of a ride.  Agreed!  While we ogled the impressive architecture, the couple read off tidbits of interesting information from their map, led us right to the boats, and served as our photographers during the trip.  What a spectacular morning!  We parted ways and congratulated ourselves on successfully completing our to-do list.  We then stumbled upon a museum on the life and inventions of Leonardo da Vinci, which appealed immensely to all of us.  My engineer husband and my engineer-in-training teenage son both loved playing with all the hands-on toys and discussing the finer points of the famous painter’s inventions, while the psychologist in me soaked up the lovely artwork and pondered the mental talents of this remarkable man.  Enjoying the spontaneous fun invoked by the interesting museum, we discovered that we could go to another museum for free due to some daily special. I just had to find it.

Shortly after that, our perfect day started to unravel.

Not only was this our second time in Venice, but we take pride in our traveling expertise.  Equipped with not one but two maps, we snuck down skinny alleyways, crossed and re-crossed cobblestone bridges, and cut through gelato shops.   At first, the adventure started out quite fun, as we stumbled upon the post office (purchasing stamps to add to my son’s extensive collection), browsed colorful shops (trying on grotesque Carnivale masks), and shored ourselves up with an occasional gelato.  But after two hours, our sense of urgency mounted as we encountered yet another dead end and realized that if we didn’t find this d@!* museum soon, it was going to be closed.

“I told you we should have spent the $10 on the other map like they did!” became my husband’s mantra.  “We don’t need to go to the stupid museum!” complained my teenage son.  I repeatedly barked at them to quit whining and to try to help me read the, not one, but two free maps.  They were both right, of course.  But I was on a mission, and a free museum in Venice was, well, a free museum in Venice.  Nothing is free in Venice, or in all of Italy for that matter.

I’m not sure what finally stopped me in my tracks.  Maybe it was the late afternoon sun glinting on the water.  Maybe it was the sparkle of what was sure to be a lovely Chianti in a glass.  Maybe it was the growing realization that my husband and son were totally fed up and wouldn’t like the museum anyway, even if we did find it.  I’d love to say that it was my benevolent feelings towards my family and their interests and needs, but in all honesty, it was probably the Chianti.  At any rate, I finally gave up my quest, corrected course, and suggested that we all sit down at a café along the water and enjoy some refreshments.

When I close my eyes and try to conjure up some nourishing travel images during times of need, the memory of sitting at that café, laughing with my family, savoring the warm atmosphere of an ancient Venetian waterway, and sipping a great Chianti come to mind.  What I can’t remember is the name of the stupid museum I tried so desperately to find.  And perhaps I’ve gained some wisdom from that experience regarding successful long-term family sabbaticals that I can pass on to fellow travelers.

1—Plan only one highlight a day and do it first thing.  Everything else is icing on the cake, and therefore, dispensable.  Overplanning causes most of the stress and frustration of travel.

2—Plan downtime just as enthusiastically as you plan exploration.  The only way to survive traveling with your family members long-term is to build in “Relaxing days” and regularly take a vacation from all of that intense togetherness.

3—Family travel is meant to bring families together.  You should never lose sight of this goal.  It’s the best part of traveling with your family!  To develop enthusiastic travel companions, you must encourage children to express their interests and honor what they want to do.  You will discover all kinds of fun things and create invaluable family memories if you explore their interests.

4—Encourage your children to take up stamp collecting (or a similar travel-related hobby).  Much as you try to fight it, you will want some type of souvenir from your travels.  Stamps are cheap, portable, and light-weight.  Furthermore, the adventure of finding and purchasing stamps can be a memorable part of your trip.

5—Build in little treats for your children along the way, particularly during adult-oriented activities like art museums, hikes or long bus rides.  It is amazing what they will do for an ice cream or a bag of chips.

6—Some of the most successful travel tales come from times of failure.  Be willing to change course and let go for the overall good.

7—Never underestimate the power of a lovely Chianti.

About the author:  As a self-professed travel addict, I have journeyed through six continents and over 90 countries around the world.  My husband and I have adopted a 5-years-on, 1-year-off lifestyle in which our first sabbatical covered the continent of South America, while our second found us on a truck traveling overland across Africa and the Middle East, then on through Eastern Europe and Europe.  Along the way, we have cultivated our own style of budget traveling, with a higher level of comfort and safety than bottom-end hostels yet more affordable and authentic than expensive luxury resorts.  We are actively passing on our passion for travel to our son, Christopher, who just spent his High School junior year learning Mandarin in China.

Given my multiple roles as child psychologist, travel enthusiast, and parent, I am very passionate about traveling as a family. Happiness is encountering novelty and overcoming obstacles, and what better way to develop and treasure each other’s unique gifts than through travel experiences.  Each family member brings something to the table, be it my planning and enthusiasm, my son’s humor and compassion, and my husband’s ability to remain flexible and calm while carrying heavy things.  During times of stress, we lean on each other for help and guidance.  We appreciate each other’s skills in the face of adversity.  As a result, we are closer than any other family I know, and I think that travel has done that for all of us.

In addition, travel is the best education I could have chosen for my son.  Of course, there’s the obvious advantage of direct, hands-on exposure to experiences they otherwise only read about in textbooks.  But travel goes deeper than academic learning by developing a child’s character and connection to a greater good.  How else can you truly motivate children to become passionate about people, endangered  animals, and the struggling environment than by meeting first-hand a little boy in Africa whose only wish is to go to school, or Lonesome George, the last remaining giant tortoise of his kind?  What has more impact than seeing large gaps in the earth where whole ecosystems have disappeared?

I wrote Bring Your Own Children:  South America!  A Family Sabbatical Handbook to give other parents the information they need to determine if family travel in South America is for them.  With my background in child psychology and professional writing, I am curious about the psychological processes and emotional extremes of adapting to various cultures as well as a year spent intimately with family members on the road.  I want to share these experiences with others so that they know what to expect and if they are anything like I am, try to plan their own adventure while expecting the unexpected.  It’s the best way I know to encourage others to develop compassion towards our world that I have tried to nurture in my son.  ¡Feliz viaje!

Our family on the Equator in Ecuador!

Volunteering with endangered leatherback turtle in Suriname.

Rehabilitating animals in the Bolivian rainforest through Comunidad Inti Wari Yassi

Ethiopian boy taking care of his grandmother.

Life viewed from a wheelchair:  Christopher with Ecuadorian friend and travel partner, Alfonso Morales.

Check out our website on, Contact us at, Available on Amazon and Powell’s books


Radical Family Sabbatical

I met the Scherr family some time ago when Diana contacted me to pick my brain about our family’s year abroad. She and her husband, Matt, had a hankering for travel and something was calling them to take their two young children and go on an adventure! Now, there were all sorts of reasons not to go. All sorts of people advising them to be reasonable. 

Of course I cautioned her as well, but I also threw fuel on the fire.

I warned her about how a family sabbatical can be life changing, exhilarating, and soul-refreshing. How it knits family bonds even tighter through such powerful shared experience.

I explicitly remember telling her how pushing past self-imposed limits might be scary, but somehow highly satisfying. That sacrifice would be involved, but so would extreme happiness and pride. She hung up the phone with a lot to chew on as they made their decision.

So it was wonderful when I learned, later, that they had pulled up stakes and moved to Ecuador. I signed up for Matt’s blog Wu Wei We Go and cheered them on as they found their way in a new and exciting culture.

Matt Scherr of Radical Family Sabbatical is our guest for today. I know you will enjoy his words of wisdon~

Psychosis is not usually a rapid-onset disease. It typically takes years to develop and hindsight to piece together the telltale symptoms that confirm a positive diagnosis. And so it was — after we announced our plans to quit our jobs and take our children to Ecuador for almost two years on a “sabbatical” — that a number of our friends and family looked back through our past to determine just how long we had been insane.

For both my wife, Diana, and me, one of the first indications of “drift from normalcy” was our first international travel. Diana had a job opportunity in Ireland (backpacker-style, working in a pub). I took a trip with my family to Thailand and then to visit my sister’s Peace Corps site in a village on a remote island in the Philippines. These trips were transformative for us both and undeniably marked our progress down the crazy path.

It is at least where I began to see everything that I thought was “normal” in a completely upside-down way. Until that time I certainly used the word “conventional”, but I didn’t truly understand what it meant. And I used “unconventional” as a synonym for “abnormal”, but would later come to believe (as only a crazy person can) that it was a synonym for “enlightened”. Diana’s experience was less wonkish, but we had both discovered entirely different worlds of human experience, which in turn made us see our own life experiences in a different way.

Had you forced me to define “conventional” before my travels without the aid of a dictionary, I’d have said something like, “the most common, rational, tested, and agreed upon way to manifest oneself in the world” (one tends to puff things up a bit in college, doesn’t one). Conventional suggested to me a “right” way of being that naturally occurred through something like cultural evolution. The group that coexisted the best wins, and however they “are” is best, and that is conventional. There was a value implied to my understanding of convention.

But then I started to go insane. I began to see convention in a truly evolutionary way. That is, evolution only says that in a given environment, the fitter organism survives. There is not good or bad, right or wrong. I began to see conventional only as “a way” but not “the way”. And I also began to see how limiting it is to see things in “ways” at all. The scales fell from my eyes and unfathomable possibility opened up before me. And I began to talk to myself, giggle inappropriately, and wear tinfoil and antennae on my head.

Well, not really that last part. But as others examined our decision to take a sabbatical, they all pretty much agreed they’d seen us do stuff like that somewhere along the line, and boy they really should have seen this coming, and should they intervene or just hope Matt and Di come to their senses?

I should be honest and confess that my insanity makes me exaggerate a bit. Those who were not absolutely excited about and supportive (and envious) of our sabbatical represented a small minority. Maybe that’s because where we live (Vail, Colorado), unconventional is, well, pretty conventional. You have to be pretty crazy to live willingly in a place with half the income and twice the cost of living. Either way, we actually got a lot of support for our adventure.

The genesis of what we call an unconventional life (and others may call crazy) doesn’t necessarily explain why we would quit our jobs, take our kids out of school, and go live somewhere we’d never been and didn’t speak the language. Maybe to some it does (because, duh, why wouldn’t you?). But we did have to elucidate our decision for many, whether they were supportive or not. If someone asks you why you decided to do this, you can’t just say, “None of your business” or “We’re just pretty sure it’s the right thing for us to do.” Well, maybe you can say the latter, but we tried and it leaves people still looking at you askance as they carefully make their diagnosis.

So here’s my revisionist justification. Diana and I were both transformed by our travel (for the better, we still believe). We believe we are more respectful, open-minded, empathetic, generous, and responsible global (and local) citizens because of what we learned about the world and our role within it. That transformation happened relatively late in life. I often think about how much better a person I might be had I learned a number of things earlier in life.

And so the question for us was, what would it be like to have a more global cultural experience as part of one’s fundamental development — during the sponge kind of learning that happens when you’re young and you don’t even know that you’re learning? Well, we had two prize-winning guinea pigs in our care. (Man, they’ll let anyone have kids, won’t they?) And to be honest with ourselves, we really were experimenting with our children. We believed this experience would be valuable for them in the long run, but ultimately that was just a hypothesis.

We still don’t know. Within months of our return from Ecuador, our oldest, Piper, asked if we could go back to Ecuador, at least to visit. “I miss Ecuador more than I ever missed Colorado while we were gone.” This from she who constantly clarified to people we talked to in Ecuador, “We don’t live in Ecuador, we’re only visiting for 21 months.” She was six when we went to Ecuador.

Duncan was only four, so he doesn’t have the compartmentalized memory Piper does. There is no geography at four, so he can’t yet differentiate his memories of there from home. He just knows what happened. That the people in his memories had brown skin, and that no one eats chicken feet here, will likely be the facts that will help him make a historical timeline for himself later.

We are home now and working to infect others with the crazy with our website promoting family sabbaticals and helping people do them. But different stages of a child’s life represent different stages of learning, and it’s important to impact as many as possible. So once more unto the beach, dear friends; we’re planning on another sabbatical. We will again rip up our children’s tender roots and plant them, for a time, somewhere else. Poor little darlings. But, alas, such is the life of an unconventionalist-in-training.

Matt Scherr has traveled to 23 countries with occasional visits to jobs and the real world. The last real job he quit (to take a family sabbatical) was as executive director of a local environmental sustainability organization. He launched Radical Family Sabbatical to help families live extraordinary lives through travel, learning, and entrepreneurship. He also kept a blog for the family’s
Ecuador experience, called (for some reason) Wu Wei We Go. You can follow Radical Family Sabbatical on Facebook and Twitter, and follow your dreams by signing up at

Being Amazed by Your Own Life is a Wonderful Way to Live

When I saw this series of books and the cover blurb “Laugh out loud funny regardless of which side of the pond you are on… Bill Bryson move over, there’s a new American expat in town with a keen sense of humor.”  I knew I had to contact Michael Harling. He graciously responded with a willingness to be featured on Expat Chat and his post stole my heart.  Especially the last line.

Please enjoy this essay by Michael~

I grew up in rural, upstate New York, an area with more cows than people, and more potato fields than piazzas. While that, in itself, was not a problem, I unknowingly fell victim to a malady that strikes the vast majority of Americans: inertia.

Oh, I knew there was a wider world out there, with cities like Paris, London and Amsterdam, and sights such as the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and the Ann Frank House—we learned about them in school, saw them in movies and read about them in books, but they were “out there,” and of little relevance to me. The sad thing about inertia is it never occurred to me that I could see them; in fact, it never even occurred to me to want to see them. Travel was for “other people,” and so I stayed put and followed the template of normal life: I married a local girl, bought a house, had children, got divorced, lost the house and spent a few years regrouping.

Then I hit my mid-forties and found myself unexpectedly solvent; my children were grown, I had a good job, a nice apartment and enough disposable income to think about doing things I had never dreamed of doing before.

And so I went to Ireland.

Note that I did not suddenly change into a wanderer; I simply wanted to see Ireland. So in mid-August of 2001, I was looking forward to a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, something I could tell my friends about as I continued along my current life-arc. Instead, I found myself, six months later (and we’re leaving out a LOT of details here), married to a British woman and living in a picturesque town in West Sussex.

This sudden and unexpected change of fortune, plus the giddy proximity of continental Europe, really did turn me around. I found expat life suited me and I had a great deal of fun bumbling my way toward an understanding of the local customs and language. (This is where the books come in, but I’ll plug those later.)

My new wife, a keen traveler herself, introduced me to places and things I had never imagined I would see: Paris, Spain, the Austrian Alps, the Eiffel Tower, Prague, Amsterdam, Normandy, and on, and on. And that doesn’t count Britain itself, which is a beautiful country and an unending source of fascination. We’ve been to London countless times, but have barely scratched the surface, and every year we take at least one holiday “in country” yet entire segments of Britain still remain unexplored.




Becoming an expat was, quite literally, entering a new life, a life without limits (well, okay, there are limits, but they are not defined by the size of a cornfield). Once I stood on the banks of the Thames, on my inaugural visit to London, and looked across the river at Big Ben, I realized that the world “out there” was now, “here” and I could visit it if I wished.


Carfax Horsham

The years since then have always included travel, and I have seen, and gone, and done more than I can catalogue here. But I have also been on another journey: a writing journey.

As soon as I knew I was moving to Britain, I began my blog—Postcards From Across the Pond—wherein I posted vignettes about my preparations, and then my confusing encounters with the locals. This grew into a book, titled (appropriately enough) Postcards From Across the Pond. A few years later, More Postcards From Across the Pond inevitably followed, and then I rounded out the trilogy by writing Postcards From Ireland, the story of my Irish adventure that led to my becoming an expat.

I’m still writing, but I think I’m done with the expat books.

Despite my continuing travels, life, as it must, has fallen into its own routine here. The minutia of daily existence grinds the luster from our lives and can leave a person feeling as if they are leading a mundane existence. And it does, from time to time, but at other times—while I’m sitting on an ancient stone wall in a village with thatched cottages, cobbled streets and a churchyard with a yew tree that was planted hundreds of years before my native country was discovered, or even just walking down a local street and passing an Ironmongers, or Chemists—I realize how far I have strayed from the corn fields and cow pastures of my youth and think, “Holy shit! I’m in England.”

And let me tell you, being amazed by your own life is a wonderful way to live.

Michael Harling is originally from upstate New York. He moved to Britain in 2002 and is the author of Postcards From Across the Pond, More Postcards From Across the Pond and Postcards From Ireland.

His first novel, Finding Rachel Davenport has recently been released by Opis, an imprint of Prospera Publishing.

Visit his blog at

Find his book on:

From Los Angeles to Serbia

Laura Dennis, our latest expat, is a professionally trained dancer who gave up aches and pains and bloody feet in 2004 to become a stylish, sales director for a biotech startup. In 2010, with two children under the age of three, she and her husband sought to simplify their lifestyle and escaped to his hometown, Belgrade. While the children learned Serbian in their cozy preschool, Laura recovered from sleep deprivation and wrote a memoir, Adopted Reality.

Her transition from Los Angeles to Belgrade with two young children had its ups and downs!  Like, most expats, Laura made the best of it by letting her adventure teach and lead.  This is what Laura had to share with us:

Learning Resilience from My Expat American Toddler

To say my two-and-a-half year old daughter’s transition from Los Angeles to Belgrade was difficult would be an understatement.

I have to give the gal some credit; she turned two, and life got busy:

  • D became a big sister, and now mommy had a new baby to pay attention to.
  • We moved to a new home, in the same city.
  • Six weeks later, the four of us flew to Serbia and stayed with my in-laws, who D didn’t remember.
  • Two weeks after that, we went on vacation at the Montenegrin seaside.
  • A month later, we (finally!) moved into our apartment, where we’ve been for the past two years.

I started life as an expat fully expecting I would duplicate my busy stay-at-home mommy lifestyle. I envisioned mommy-and-me classes and play-dates with other wine-loving mommies. Ha.

This was not meant to be.

Most women return to full-time work after a year of state-supported maternity leave, so there were few moms around with whom to socialize. It was hard to find people with matching schedules who spoke English. Worse, smoking (even by moms around their children) is common.

Since there were no “art appreciation” classes for toddlers, or bi-weekly “musical playtime” sessions, I quickly realized I would need to find D a preschool to pass the time—for both her and I.

The first few weeks, D had a temper tantrum every single morning before school. I didn’t fully understand why it was so difficult for her. After all, she was only two, right? How hard could it be? But D was an active, chatty toddler. Back in California, people used to comment that she had “a lot to say.”

Did I mention she knew less than ten words in Serbian, most of them cognates?

What I failed to realize was this garrulous little girl was used to being able to explain her every thought and desire. Here in this cute little Serbian preschool, the teachers were great, but they spoke no English.

It was total immersion. Trial by fire. Sink or swim.

After a short time, D learned some coping mechanisms. We expats could take a few pointers.

Tactics include:

1. Be content to be a patient and active listener. 

We don’t have to talk all the time to make friends. In fact, by just sitting quietly among the group, others will eventually include us by nature of our mere presence.

D could not care less about cars and trains, but if she only has boys to play with, she takes a sudden interest in so-called boys’ toys.

2. Find your own way to be unique and outstanding.

For her first two winters here in Serbia, D insisted upon wearing a long-sleeve leotard and tights to school every day. (Yes, yes, don’t worry; she wore a hat, coat, gloves and leg warmers outside.)

Soon enough, everyone knew her as “the ballerina.” Whenever someone commented on her get-up, D would perform her latest choreography.

I think this unique style allowed my daughter to get much-needed attention, without her having to create drama to receive it.

I learned later that her “dancer style” caused some chagrin for the other mothers who insisted on corduroys or jeans over tights, and three+ layers on top. Apparently the mothers could no longer say “No one else is allowed to wear dresses to school in the winter!”

3. Seek out English-speakers when you feel the need to vent

D found a creative solution to her need to chit-chat.

Even though her teachers and classmates didn’t speak English, a few of the parents did. Various moms and dads would stop me on the sidewalk to tell me about the long conversations they have with D each day when dropping off or picking up their own child.

4. Most important: Learn the language as quickly as possible.

This is a no-brainer. During D’s first year in Serbia, I heard her speak about twenty words in Serbian. But after that first year, she was suddenly mistaken for a native Serbian speaker.

We’ve been here for two years, and now she translates when I’m trying to communicate. We meet grandmas with their grandchildren at the park, and it’s D who introduces her brother and me. She always takes the time to explain in proper Serbian, using the “respectful” form when speaking to elders, “My mama doesn’t understand a lot of Serbian. You will need to speak s-l-o-w-l-y to her.”

I’m really proud of my little girl. 

We’ll be in Belgrade for another six months. Then it’s back to “real life” in Los Angeles. My husband and I are wary to leave, if only because D and her brother feel so at home, happy and engaged in their little lives here.

* * * * *

Adopted Reality is a September 11 memoir unlike any you’ve read. This thrilling, psychological adventure brilliantly follows the ups and downs of bipolar. After Laura reunites with her birth mom, a series of life changes spiral out-of-control. When a beloved uncle dies in the Twin Towers, the tension that has been building explodes. Will Laura ultimately find her own Adopted Reality? Now available on in paperback and ebook.

Connect with Laura! Please comment below, follow her Expat Mommy blog and find her on Twitter @LauraDennisCA  or Facebook

Australia? Absolutely!

Our next Expat Chat is with Eve Duddy. I met Eve when I lived in Thousand Oaks, CA., where she regularly pushed me around on the tennis court.  In her elegant manner, she informed our team, one day, that she and her husband were considering a job that would take them to Australia for a few years.  Though we agreed it was a sad thought to see her pack up and leave, we were excited for her chance at adventure as it was an opening door that clearly beckoned.

I have followed Eve’s journey from afar on Facebook and thought of her as someone with which any reader could relate. When I contacted Eve, she was excited to share her thoughts with us from Down Under.

Eve and John Duddy

This is what Eve had to say:

I was born in Switzerland to Swiss parents, who immigrated to the United States when I was about 3 ½ years old.  Growing up I always felt different from my friends – we spoke a different language at home, ate different food and had different customs.  As my father’s job required us to move several more times before I finished high school, I quickly learned how to adapt to a new environment and make new friends.  My husband and I (and our children) also moved several times around the US while the kids were in elementary and high school.  We had also done a bit of foreign travel (with and without the children), mostly in Europe.

There was never any doubt that we would move to another country if the opportunity presented itself.  Australia?  Absolutely!  Never mind that we had never been Down Under.  Or that we knew nothing about the city where we’d be living.  We were ready for an adventure!

My husband John was offered a position in Brisbane, Australia in December 2008.  After a bit of discussion with our children, Alex and Erin (23 and 20 years old at the time), we jumped at the chance to relocate from Southern California for “a few years”.  Although Alex elected to stay in California, Erin decided to join John and I on our adventure.  She was accepted as a Year 1 student (freshman) at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, one of Australia’s top universities, studying Parks and Wildlife Management.

Glasshouse Mountains – Queensland

John started his new job in December, while Erin and I waited until all the visa paperwork was complete, finally joining him in February, 2009.  Fortunately there were several American expats already working at Boeing in Brisbane that had families with them, so we immediately had a social network.  Although the other expats moved back to the US within about a year, having them in Brisbane when we first arrived made the transition to a new country much smoother.  Of course, the fact that English was the common language also made things easy, even though I’m still learning “Australian English” – they definitely have their own words and phrases; who’d  know what it means to “rug up” or what an “esky” or a “ute” was?

We found a beautiful apartment on the Brisbane River, close enough to John’s office so that he could take a ferry into the city in the morning and walk home most days, where I’d meet him halfway.  He says it’s the best commute to work he’ll ever have!


After spending about 2 ½ years in Brisbane John and I moved to Melbourne in August, 2011, starting the whole process of integrating into a new city all over again, except this time we didn’t have an established social network.  Erin stayed in Brisbane to finish “uni”.  We chose an apartment almost in the city, primarily to take advantage of all the cultural events that Melbourne has to offer, including the Australian Open.  We’ll probably be heading back to California at the end of 2013, at which time we’ll have been in Australia for about 5 years.

One of the more challenging things when we came was to keep myself busy on a day-to-day basis.  We knew we would be away for at least two years – this was not a short vacation; John had a demanding job that involved frequent business travel, leaving me on my own (Erin lived on campus at UQ).  Although I was allowed to work in Australia, I chose not to for various reasons.  An expat friend told me shortly after we’d arrived in Brisbane that it was important to establish a routine (how right she was!), so I made a point to find a tennis league and a place to volunteer, and get a library card, things that are important to me.  After some time new opportunities presented themselves, other friendships developed and I became more settled in my new life.  I started learning to play bridge and began rowing again, which I hadn’t done since my college years.

What many people don’t realize is that Australia is almost as large as the US, but with only about 22 million people, approximately the population of Southern California!  John and I decided to travel as much as possible and to see as much of Australia as we could while here.  When possible I accompany John on  business trips and combine them with vacation.  We’ve traveled quite a bit along the coast of Queensland and into the hinterland of both the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast, seen the Great Barrier Reef, visited too many wine regions and wineries to list (Australia has some excellent wines!), cruised from Darwin to Broome to see the Kimberley region of northern Australia, and toured the major cities of Sydney, Canberra, Perth and of course, Brisbane and Melbourne.

Milford Sound — New Zealand

We’ve also had the opportunity to hike in New Zealand and to travel to Hong Kong…

Aberdeen — Hong Kong

…Beijing and Singapore, with more travels planned before we leave.  Being in this part of the world allows easier access to places that many Americans often overlook.

Summer Palace — Beijing, China

I’m often asked what I miss the most about home.  Apart from the obvious (family and friends), here are a few things I miss: our pets (we left 3 cats and a dog with friends and neighbors), a yard, ranch dressing, a good Cobb salad for lunch or dinner, customer service (no tipping here, and it’s evident!), iced tea (not the bottled Lipton kind), Thanksgiving.. oh, and TJ Maxx.  Some of the things I’ll miss about living in Australia are: walking or using public transportation to get around, the many different cultures and nationalities around us, the galleries, theater and concerts, feeling totally safe in the city, the slower-paced lifestyle, and Tim Tams (an Australian chocolate cookie).  People also frequently question me about US politics and the American way of thinking  – it’s very interesting (and sometimes amusing) to see how people from other countries look at the US.

Overall our time abroad has been fantastic!  What’s not to like about living in   this unique and beautiful country?  Sure, there were/are some tough times – we had a couple of deaths in the family, times where I was homesick and when I missed our son, our friends and our home.  But we were given the opportunity to explore and experience new things, with new people in a new place.  I’ve learned that apartment living isn’t so bad – I really enjoy living with a lot less “stuff”.

My daughter called me a couple of months ago and said “Mom, I just want to thank you and Dad for giving me the chance to live in Australia.”  How much better than that does it get?

A Peaceful Mission on a Restored Battleship

I am happy to introduce Sharon Leaf to our Expat Chat community!

Sharon is a writer and radio talk show host who reminds us that “Life is what we are alive to.  It is not length but breadth … be alive to … goodness, kindness, purity, love, history, poetry, music, flowers, stars, the written word, God, and eternal hope.”

We connected via Facebook and Twitter through our mutual love of adventure and travel and have shared a virtual friendship over the past few years. She is a fascinating woman who has chosen, many times, to follow her heart and participate in humanitarian missions around the world. A woman of great faith, she is an inspiration to me and countless others.

Her first novel, Lady and the Sea, is based on her true story of sailing on a restored WWII Battleship to Sochi, Russia in order to pick up Russian Jews and transport them to Israel.

This is what Sharon had to share with Expat Chat:

~You cannot discover new oceans until you are willing to lose sight of the shore~

It was a hot July morning in 1995 when the WWII ship, MS Restoration, entered the Haifa Harbor.  The crew stood on deck gazing at our final destination when an Israeli gunboat abruptly surrounded us with two soldiers aiming their deck-mounted machine guns at our ship.  I suddenly felt as if I were starring in one of those movies that had you paralyzed in your seat. My mind raced as I gazed up at my husband—the man who had brought me on this unpredictable journey—and wondered how we had arrived at this moment.  I had dealt with my fears—or so I thought.  The ship, the crew, and our special passengers—the Russian Jews—had finally reached our destination.  After fourteen months living on board the old ship, there would be no more troubled waters, no more hurricanes, no more delays.  We were home free—or so we thought.

My stomach churned as our Captain was demanded to stop the Restoration dead in the water.  For a moment I thought about my seventy-year-old father and what he had told me after his close call in the China Sea during the war. “At that moment, Sharon, I saw my whole life pass before me.”  Feeling light headed as the Israeli soldiers glared at us through their high-tech binoculars, I knew this was my moment…

…I inherited my love to travel from my father.  My first journey was in 1963 when I was seventeen.  My parents allowed me to take the Greyhound Bus—alone—from Los Angeles to South Carolina to spend the summer with relatives.  Then in 1984 when my marriage of sixteen years ended in divorce, my girlfriend and I traveled from California to Canada in her Volkswagen van with our twelve-year-old sons.  I loved the open road, and I had once dreamed of traveling the world.  But now divorced with two kids at home, it would remain only a dream until 1987. A week after I turned forty-one, I met my prince charming.  We were married a year later, and after the fall of Communism in 1991, my journeys took a new direction.

Our friends in Sweden invited us to join them for a two-week trip to help teach in the new Christian schools in Estonia and Russia.  I was struck with a big dose of fear.  My mind said, You? Go to Russia?  Are you crazy?   But then my heart pounded, Don’t let fear rule you!   I took a deep breath of faith, then blew out every ounce of fear.  In the dead of winter, I was on my way to my first international journey!

From Stockholm to Tallinn, from Leningrad to Moscow, I was like a little girl in a candy store, soaking in new traditions, unfamiliar languages, delicious foods, snow-covered countrysides, and best of all, meeting warm and loving people along the way.

Surprisingly, upon our return home, we felt God calling us to attend an international Bible college in the university town of Uppsala, Sweden.  I tried reasoning away these unfamiliar thoughts.  We can’t leave our jobs, our ministry, our family, our home for a year!  But then one night as I struggled for sleep, a thought a came…Isn’t this your dream?  I smiled as peace and faith, swept over my tired body.

So in the summer of ’91 we leased our home, sold the cars, resigned our jobs, left our safe shore, and dived in to a new ocean.

Our year in Sweden was full of learning, from books to museums, but it was the people who taught us a valuable lesson when they reached out to help the two Americans who had moved to their country.  I’m grateful to the Swedish woman who took me shopping at the centrum market and showed me that mayonnaise came in a tube instead of a jar.  Later that evening after Rob brushed his teeth, he informed me that Swedish toothpaste was yummy…tasted like mayonnaise.  Oops.

After graduation Rob and I toured Israel, then we joined a mission team in St. Petersburg to live for a month on the former youth Communist propaganda train to distribute humanitarian aid throughout Siberia.  There we were—twenty-five Russians, twenty-five Swedes, and the two Americans.  English was the main language through interpreters, but there were moments when I had to flee to our tiny cabin to escape the constant blending of Russian, Swedish, and Swenglish (a humorous combination of Swedish and English) to keep my head from spinning off.  And heaven forbid if I left the train without my day’s supply of toilet paper tucked in my pockets!  It was on those days when I learned the value of used newspapers, which most hospitals, orphanages, and homes supplied upon request.

The kindness of the Russian people we met throughout Siberia erased my doubts of traveling in the once-feared country.  Knowing them made every inconvenience fade.

After a year away from family and friends, I couldn’t wait to touch American soil and return to home-sweet-home.  There would always be short trips, but to live abroad again?  Never.

Two years later, a flyer crossed our paths asking for volunteers to work on a WWII ship that was moored in Seattle, Washington, whose sole purpose would be to rescue Russian Jews from the Black Sea to Israel.  I buried the flyer under a pile of magazines.  I didn’t want anything to upset my comfortable lifestyle, much less live on an old troop transporter ship the government had stored in mothballs after the war.  She had only 48 running days, so there was no guarantee that she could even make the journey from Seattle to Stockholm, much less sail to the Black Sea and Israel.

But could this dangerous assignment mean an adventure of a lifetime?  I guess this is where faith must kick in…again, I told myself.  My mind kept saying, No, don’t go! but my heart always responded, You must go.  In spite of my fear of water and the unknown condition of the ship, my heart won.  Once again, we packed up, leased the house, quit jobs, sold cars, and said farewell to our safe shore.  God had new oceans awaiting us.

As we sailed the seven seas on the Restoration’s maiden voyage, it didn’t take this lady long to fall in love with the coming-of-age Lady Resti, as I soon nicknamed her.  However, it was sometimes a stretch to love-thy-neighbor while living in such close quarters…a cabin large enough for a bed and four gym-size lockers, sharing dining experiences three times a day with a thirty-plus crew in a small troop mess that often smelled like engine oil.  I often asked myself while faithfully cleaning stained toilets and hairy showers, what am I doing here?  Then a still, small voice would always whisper, You are here for a purpose.

Fourteen months on board the Restoration taught me life’s simple lessons.  To name a few: You don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy.  Instead of criticizing people for doing and saying such silly things (why do Swedes serve pancakes and green pea soup for lunch?), take time to learn and understand their customs and where they are coming from.  Practice patience towards those you would rather judge (why is she staring at me?  What is her problem?) And one of the most important lessons I learned was that no matter how small or boring or unthankful your task, it is a very big and exciting and thankful event in God’s eyes.  I remind myself of this as I faithfully clean my own toilets and showers.

You’re probably wondering why I had to live on a WWII ship for a year to learn these simple lessons.  I asked myself that question more than once until one night while we were sailing across the Black Sea.  As I gazed up at the stars, I suddenly realized that God had chosen me to be a small part of His big plan to help bring His people home to Israel in these last days. From that moment, I felt honored and privileged to be on this journey.

The Titanic was called the ship of dreams.  The Restoration was the ship of miracles. Miracles showed up on the gangplank every day…food, ship parts, bedding for bunk beds in the holds below for the Russian Jews, donations for fuel…the list goes on.  But the greatest miracle of all was our changed hearts.  Living on the Restoration truly restored everyone’s faith in God, in human kindness, in relationships, and twenty years later, He is still restoring faith for forgotten dreams….

…As I stood on the deck of the miracle ship Restoration in the Haifa Harbor, recalling my life, especially these past fourteen months, I knew that we would make it safely to shore.

Read Lady and the Sea for my complete story about a special mission to transport Russian Jews from Sochi, Russia to Haifa, Israel.  Until then, I wish you smooth sailing and oceans of blessings … and enjoy the journey!

Since turning forty, Sharon Leaf has traveled to over fifteen countries, including living in Sweden while attending Bible college, traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and volunteering on a WWII ship, whose sole purpose was to transport Russian Jews to Israel. She received a degree in theology at sixty, proving that it’s never too late to fulfill another dream. Sharon lives in South Carolina with her husband. You can follow her on Facebook and find her at

You can listen to Sharon on the Gate Beautiful Blog Talk Radio Show.

Exploring the Peruvian Amazon

I have long been a fan of Lynn O’Rourke Hayes, the founder of Family   Journalist, traveler, mother of three, she is the first to pack a suitcase and grab a camera when adventure calls.  I know you will also enjoy getting to know her through this thoughtful essay on travel and risk.

Thanks for joining us here on Expat Chat, Lynn!

Travel involves risk.

I think we can all agree on that.  How much each of us is willing to lay on the line is an interesting question to ponder. And do the stakes change when we go exploring with our children? Or once they reach a certain age, should assessing the range of possibilities become a part the education we hope to impart?

By mere coincidence,  I was in Hawaii with my sons Alex and Ted when the effects of the Japanese earthquake and Tsunami rolled through the islands. Thankfully, the worse that happened was that we were evacuated from our rooms and slept in the more elevated public spaces. The giant slumber party was actually interesting  and made for a good story.

Alex and I recently went swimming with whale sharks in Mexico. Both the destination and activity raised more than a few eyebrows.

My friends and family who take an interest in my travels often inquire or express concern for my safety. And I have to say, beyond the basics, I don’t think about it too much. Perhaps it is my Midwestern upbringing. By nature, I am trusting and  optimistic that things will work out in the end.  I believe people are basically honest and want to do the right thing.

Still, every now and then, I tell myself I should shore up the program. Lock the doors. Look over my shoulder. But, the effort soon wanes.

When I think about changing my ways, I am always reminded of our trip deep into the Amazon.

 ( Forewarned: this tale involves snakes!)

                                                                        ~ ~ ~

Our dug out canoes, landed smoothly on the sandy filled river bank.  We carefully disembarked and  hiked up a short path to meet our host family. 

We had come to this home on the secluded banks of the Peruvian Amazon to search for the elusive poison dart frog in the adjacent jungle. The woman before me, her husband and four children cooked, dined and slept beneath a thatched roof, covering a raised platform. There were no walls.

 No doubt they received a small fee from our guide’s lodge to allow us to slide our canoes on to their riverside beach and to welcome us for a short visit in their home.  But the woman’s demeanor was in no way welcoming.  Did she resent our intrusion?

We soon learned it was not our presence that veiled her eyes.  It was this: a few weeks prior the couple’s oldest son was sent 100 yards down to the river to collect water for their cooking. He did not return. Soon they went searching for him and discovered he had been struck by the deadly fer-de-lance snake. This creature, deeply feared by the river people, is sometimes called the “three-step snake” – so deadly you can only walk three steps after its bite.  

The family had no way to get their son to modern medical treatment. The local shaman was called, but the boy did not survive.

                                                                              ~ ~ ~

With this story thickening the already hot and humid air, we wandered into the jungle and located many small, colorful frogs.  We were told their poison is still applied to the tips of darts used for hunting within the region. We returned on the path, crossing near the family’s home, climbed into our canoes and paddled back to our lodge. 

During our stay at the jungle lodge, my sons and their friends were asked to join the local villagers in their soccer matches. The games took place at sunset. I, somewhat sheepishly, felt compelled to warn my sons not to venture into the jungle for the ball. We were told this was prime time for the deadly snakes to hunt.


With the grieving mother’s pained expression still haunting me, I studied the natural floor during our jungle hikes, determined to spot the mottled skin of the exotic, mysterious snake. It didn’t happen. Within a few days, after fishing for piranha, visiting a native village and zip lining through the canopy, we returned home to the States.

                                                                                         ~ ~ ~ 

Within weeks after our return to our Scottsdale, Arizona home, we were enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon. Teddy was watching a movie in the study.  I was finishing some work at my desk. As my husband walked toward the hall powder room, he stopped to chat with me for just a moment. Fortunately, as he spoke, he put his hand on the door, moving it in slowly. In doing so, a loud noise erupted. Was it a gurgling water pipe? Some sort of electrical malfunction? 

No. It was the rapid tail movement of an angry Diamond back rattlesnake. Stunned, we realized that the rattler had done his part. He had warned us with surprising  vigor, an alarm designed to be heard in the desert.  It now echoed strangely off thick, slate floors.  

My husband and son wisely stuffed towels under the bathroom door so the snake would not disappear into the house. I called the fire department.  

The firefighters arrived quickly, amazed that the snake had slithered into our home. Using their cleverly designed extraction tool, they removed the Diamondback to the natural desert beyond our patio.

 Later, we discussed how easy it would have been to have an unpleasant encounter with the poisonous rattler as he meandered within a few feet of each of us.  We spoke of our rigorous planning and preparation and the safety measures exercised in the wild places we explored.

And how ironic it was that our closest call came within the “safety” of our own home.

Author’s note:  I have read many stories about Grizzly bears in the wild and have gone to great lengths to avoid being in their habitat. Thus, it was a surprise to encounter a 500-pounder within six feet of our Montana cabin late one night this summer. Yet, another  example of how we can attempt but rarely succeed in controlling our environment.

Lynn O’Rourke Hayes 
Syndicated Columnist – Dallas Morning News
Editor –;
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All Photos in this post by Susan Cook.