Our Family Christmas Letter (+ a Destination Change)

If you are Facebook friends with me or on our woefully outdated Christmas email list, this may be the second or third time you’ve seen this. But if you missed it, here’s 2014 in a nutshell:

Dear friends and family,

It’s been another year in Florida. Probably the most exciting thing we did was get out and actually see some Florida landmarks. At the beginning of the year we visited St. Augustine, which locals like to call the oldest city in the U.S, although Wikipedia uses rather more adjectives to define it precisely as “the oldest continuously inhabited European-established settlement in the Continental United States.” Whatever its exact claim to fame, St. Augustine is atmospheric, in a Pirates of the Caribbean sort of way. Our first stop when we got there was the Pirate Museum, which boasts a creepy life-sized talking Blackbeard head, as well as a variety of real-life artifacts recovered from sunken pirate vessels off the coast of Florida. Our trip also included a visit to St. Augustine’s main landmark, the Castillo de San Marcos, which isn’t actually a castle, but an impressive fort built out of the native coquina stone, with seashells embedded in it. The highlight of our fort visit was watching the cannon being fired by a bunch of guys in red stockings and tri-cornered hats.
Firing the Cannon
The 4th of July found us in Miami, where we ate amazing ceviche while watching the World Cup with a large, noisy crowd of various Latin American nationalities. On the way home, we popped into the Everglades, which we experienced unforgettably via airboat. The mangrove-lined waterways had a sort of dramatic, unearthly beauty, at least until the still air and reflective water were shattered by the deafening roar and roiling wake of our airboat. We’re still nursing some environmental guilt over that.
    Airboat in the Everglades
Axa and Raj had another great year with Irish Dance, culminating in going to the Oireachtas (the big regional competition) with their team.
Irish Dance
Sarah’s still doing marketing at work, and has developed an obsession with Doctor Who, which has spilled over to the rest of the family in the form of a homeschool history class based on the Doctor’s travels in time and space, and a Whovian Halloween. Tony is still doing marketing from home, as well as managing the homeschooling. He also bought a massage table, and has become quite an accomplished masseuse (yet another reason to come visit us).
Whovian Halloween
Actually, if you want to visit us here, you’ll have to make it soon, since we’ve already begun packing up our house. Yes, the time has come to say goodbye to Florida. Our original plan was to move to a Greek island and start a commune. However, after our prospective co-communists eventually all bailed on us (you know who you are, and how much we’ll miss living on a commune with you!) we decided to try a different plan: Amsterdam! We leave in March. Sarah will keep working remotely for her company, and Tony is planning to do a Master’s program at VU University in Amsterdam. We are excited to get back on the other side of the Atlantic, and start a new international adventure, not to mention ditch our car and start biking everywhere like true Amsterdammers.
We hope it’s been a great year for you, and that next year will be even better. Let us know what you’ve been up to, and have a wonderful new year!
Tony, Sarah, Axa & Raj
Planning an International Move

Planning an International Move

Stock MonkeysYou’d think planning for an international move would be old hat for me since we’ve done it so many times. Unfortunately, we actually haven’t done it that much. The planning, that is, not the moving. We’ve moved plenty, but it’s mostly been on the spur of the moment, and after a mad few weeks of planning. The last time we really took a long time to plan was nine years ago, before we went to the Philippines for the summer. If you’ve read my book, you’ll remember that despite the exhaustive planning, we were such rookie travelers we ended up in the airport with no money and no place to stay, after having spent all 13.5 of the 14 hours on the plane with tomato juice all over my white pantsuit.

I’m pretty much an expert at winging it and improvising, but it’s always been my dream to have at least four months to plan and execute an international move. And this time I do. Now that I actually have the time, though, it doesn’t seem that exciting. Still, now that I’m here, I might as well do it. So here goes: my exhaustive list of

Things To Do Before My International Move:

  • Buy Plane Tickets (I have been obsessively checking Kayak to make sure that the flight we’re planning to take doesn’t disappear or go up radically in price–not that I could do anything about it if it did–but we want to iron out housing before we get our tickets to make sure that the dates work)
  • Arrange travel for sugar gliders (This involves researching how the airline feels about pets, going through airport security with them, which carrier to buy, etc.)
  • Check with airport veterinarian in Athens re: sugar glider importation requirements
  • Get certificate from U.S. vet + letter stating that sugar gliders don’t get rabies
  • Sell stuff on craigslist (lawnmower, old sugar glider cage/aquarium, washer/dryer, computers, Curtis’ desk, other desks, chest of drawers, couch, futon, etc.)
  • Buy International Health Insurance
  • Pack (One little word, but easily the most work-intensive activity on this list)
  • Put stuff in storage (We’re not shipping a container to Greece just yet, so we’re leaving furniture, books, and stuff in storage here)
  • Sell car
  • Stop auto insurance
  • Check passports, American/Italian (I am pretty sure at least some of these are expired, since we haven’t been out of the U.S. in three years. Both our U.S. and Italian passports need to be up-to-date, because we need to present the U.S. passports to leave the U.S. and the Italian ones to enter Greece. Who said dual citizenship made your life less complicated?)
  • Unlock phones/research phone service in Greece
  • Housing (We are considering several different furnished rentals. Renting sight unseen is risky, and we’ve had some rather interesting experiences with it in the past, but it’s the reality of our life)
  • Internet (This will probably end up being via an internet key)
  • Buy laptop
  • Buy luggage (We have an assortment of luggage that we’ve dragged all over the world, but most of it is in tatters and unlikely to survive another transatlantic flight/bus/ferry. Our favorite large suitcase just broke a wheel after having been pressed into service for the past two years as weekly transportation for our library books)
  • Buy homeschool supplies, etc. (You know. All that stuff we don’t want to pay insane international shipping for sometime next year)
  • Plan packing list (Yeah, this should go up before “Pack”)
  • Notify banks/credit cards of foreign travel

And this is just my off-the-top-of-my-head list, so I’m sure I am forgetting some things. If you’ve done a move like this, did you have a list? Care to share, so I can make mine even more unmanageable?

photo credit

Expatting Again

Expatting Again

Well, while we’re on the subject of announcing major life changes, I should probably let you in on where we’ll be moving next. Hint: our destination is neither U.S. nor subtropical. Because let’s face it–we have now lived in Florida for 2 1/2 years, which in Familia time is about two decades. By the time we leave, we will have lived in Florida for over three times as long as we’ve ever lived anywhere else. Oh, the ironies of life. The weird thing is, I think my internal clock is set according to moves rather than time in any specific location. So I don’t feel like more time has passed while we were living in Florida than Tunisia (8 months) or Ireland (3 months). I’m not sure what that says about my existential state.

But anyway, here’s the announcement: next year we will be moving to Greece!


To be more specific, our destination is an island in the Cyclades group called Kea. Bonus points if you can find it on this map:


Did you find it? If not, you’re not alone. It took me quite some time to find a map that actually named Kea. With so many islands, I guess it’s hard to keep track. So let me give you some help. The Cyclades are the darker pink islands southeast of the mainland, and Kea is the Cyclades island closest to Attica, the part of mainland Greece where you’ll find Athens. With it being so close to Athens, you’d think it would be heavily touristed, but it’s not on the main ferry line, so it’s escaped the hordes of foreigners, and mostly serves as a weekend getaway for Athenians, many of whom have second homes on the island. Here’s a google maps screenshot of Kea:


Isn’t it so cute? I am in love. As you can see, there are not a lot of major urban centers on Kea. The population is around 2500, with most of those centered around Korissia, the port, and Ioulis, the capitol.

It’s mostly an island renowned for its natural beauty, both on land and under the sea, where some of Greece’s best scuba diving can be had, including the dramatic wreck of the HRHS Brittanica, sister ship to the similarly unlucky Titanic.  The reason we’re moving there is that our friend Stathis, whom we met while we were living in Florence, is from Greece. His family owns several hundred acres on Kea, and he’s working on developing it for eco-tourism.

That sounded good to us, so I screwed my courage to the sticking place and asked my boss if he would be OK with me working remotely from Greece. And he said yes! So sometime early next year we will be packing it all up and moving to a picturesque little Greek island. I still can’t quite believe it myself.


Now we can turn our minds to the details, small and large. Tony and the children have Italian citizenship, which greatly simplifies our setting up residency in any European country, including Greece. I can come in on his coattails, so in the six years since Tony became an Italian citizen, I have not gotten around to applying for Italian citizenship by marriage, even though I always mean to do it. Fired up by our decision to move to Greece, Tony called up the Italian Consulate in Miami to find out when I could submit my documentation and have my interview.

You know an organization is truly dedicated to customer service when you have to call a 900 number just to set up an appointment with them. Three dollars and fifty cents later, Tony had been informed that the next available appointment to apply for citizenship is not for two years! So much for that idea. I guess my next chance to apply will be from the Italian embassy in Athens. Italian efficiency + Greek efficiency. I can only imagine.

We also need to jump into the Russian roulette of buying plane tickets. Will they be cheaper now? Or in a month? Or in six months? And speaking of Russian, by far the cheapest flights from Orlando to Athens connect in Moscow, and are on Aeroflot, an airline owned by the Russian government. It will still be safe and sane to stop over in Russia next year–right? I mean, yesterday when President Obama coordinated expanded sanctions against Russia with the E.U. and accused the Russian government of “setting back decades in genuine progress,” how many decades did he mean exactly? I’m sure it will be fine, but Russia is kind of wigging me out lately. In the end, though, it doesn’t much matter how we get there, just as long as we end up here:


Map credit

We’re Famous . . . Again!

When I was dating Tony, one of the interesting things that he told me about himself was that he had lived with his family in Indonesia as a teenager. While living there, they spent a summer visiting family in a little town in Idaho, where their exotic expatriate exploit made them instant celebrities. An article even appeared in the local newspaper about the American family who were living in Southeast Asia, and had now brought their international selves home to grace tiny Aberdeen Idaho.

It became an even better story after the same thing happened to us. In 2008, we moved our little family to Chiusa di Pesio, Italy so that we could reconnect with our Italian roots and claim our long-lost Italian citizenship. It was the first time such a thing had ever occurred in Chiusa, and our very existence there  caused something of a sensation. It seemed that everyone had already told everyone else our story. Still, in due time, we were visited in our home by a local reporter, who wanted to publish an account of us in the weekly paper, just in case someone had missed it.

We were flattered, but a little embarrassed, especially after we read the article, and she gushed so liberally about us. Still, it was quite a novelty to read a story about ourselves in the newspaper in the first place. I mean, how often does it happen that you end up in the paper just for being you?

Well, not as infrequently as I thought, apparently. A few weeks ago I was contacted by a reporter from the Daytona Beach News Journal. He had stumbled upon my blog, and remarked that he thought we didn’t really fit in here in Deltona. In fact, he went on to speculate that we probably weren’t going to be around long. I guess reporters can say anything.

Mark turned out to be very nice, though, and we spent a lovely morning chatting. It’s not every day that a captive audience spends an hour and a half listening to your life story, acting really interested and even taking notes. I found I enjoyed it thoroughly. Yesterday, we bought a paper so we could clip it out for our scrap book. And since our family scrapbook only exists in the form of this blog and our family website, here it is:

If you can’t read the small print, the full article is here. Mark took some liberties with the quotes, and bit more with the facts, so if you know us well you can amuse yourself by spotting errors. But at least when he quoted my mom he got it perfect.

Welcome Home, Part 7: The Tornado Fun Zone

Yes, we’re currently on tornado watch, due to tropical storm Debby (note to self: find out if they usually get through a whole alphabet of storm names in a season). I didn’t know we had tornados in Florida before we moved here (among other things. This was obviously not the most well-researched move). Someone was killed by a tornado in south Florida yesterday, and when I saw the picture of her house, I freaked out a little. Or a lot.

Fortunately, this was not the first time I had heard of tornados here. Mormons in general are known for being a bit fanatical about disaster preparation. Not only are we enjoined to have a 72-hour-kit full of necessities like high-energy food, flashlights, emergency blankets, solar/hand crank radio, etc., but also a three-month supply of the normal foods we eat, and a full year supply of longer-term food storage like wheat and dried beans.

I don’t know if it’s because this is a high disaster area, or just because people have useful hobbies, but our Ward here is the most disaster-prepared ward I’ve ever encountered. Just a month or two ago, we had a Ward activity centered around preparedness. The lights in the Church building were off, and everyone was supposed to bring an electric lantern to light their family’s table.

We brought a Coleman lantern, since that’s what I found in our camping gear, but I was informed that the fire code proscribed its use, so we sat at a more prepared person’s table. The really hard-core members had been living for the whole week as if a disaster had struck, and refraining from the use of electricity, hot water, and other accoutrements of modern life.

It was a potluck, and everyone was supposed to bring food made out of stuff from their food storage. It was an interesting meal, to say the least, with lots of reconstituted soups and T.V.P. I was not even able to guess what some of the food was made out of. I brought refried beans. Probably the most creative menu item was the fish cakes, made of canned fish rolled in corn flakes. Um . . . yum?

The missionaries turned up late, without any investigators, which was probably a good thing, because sitting around in the dark eating semi-edibles and talking about various calamities of the “last days” might not have been the best introduction to the Church, whatever its ultimate practical value.

After we ate, we sat in the eerie glow of the electric lanterns and people shared their disaster-related expertise. There were presentations on solar cooking, getting water out of sycamore trees (you can get five gallons a day if you tap the tree like a sugar maple), and storm preparedness. I was in charge of talking about how to entertain children without electricity. Most of what my children do all day is not electrically-related, so that wasn’t too difficult.

Somebody had made a little oven out of a cardboard box that would cook a full dinner with just three briquets. Someone else had a ham radio set up. Our Ward has a total of 23 certified ham radio operators, who are organized to keep in touch during a disaster and check up on the various sectors where members live. Even in a church with a culture of disaster preparedness, that’s got to be some kind of record.

And someone else talked about getting your home ready to weather a hurricane. After hearing the talk, Tony and I decided that our method of weathering a hurricane would be to leave town. The presenter also mentioned tornados. My personal experience with tornados is limited to watching The Wizard of Oz, so I raised my hand and asked what we should do if a tornado came through, since we haven’t got a root cellar.

Today when I had my tornado-induced freak-out, I used what I’d learned at the Ward activity to set up our very own storm shelter, aka Tornado Fun Zone.

The first thing we had to do was decide which room of the house would be the safest in case of a tornado. It’s supposed to be an internal room without windows. Our first thought was the children’s bathroom, since it’s technically three walls deep and somebody at the activity told a story about a friend of a friend who ran into the bathroom and grabbed the toilet during a tornado. After the tornado had passed, the only thing left of the house was the toilet and the person clinging to it. I made a mental note to clean my toilet.

But then we remembered that the bathroom has a skylight, and of course I immediately pictured us all getting sucked out through the skylight. Our bathroom is even worse, since it’s on an outside wall with two large windows, and tons of other glass in the room from the shower and mirrors. So yeah. The only room in our house without windows is my walk-in closet. Here’s the entrance, right next to my Mommy Wall in my bedroom. Doesn’t it look so inviting?

Here’s the inside. Excuse the clutter, but it really does spend most of its time functioning as a closet.

Here’s my blanket stash, in case we have to spend the night in it. Not that we would need blankets if the four of us were all snuggled in here together.

Behind the blankets you can just see the back of the mirror that Tony has promised to move to another closet so it doesn’t shatter on top of us.

Here’s our stash of bunny crackers, sardines, and oysters, in case we get hungry while the tornado is passing over us. Below are some books and crayons to amuse us, and a flashlight in case the power goes off.

Here’s the water in case we get thirsty, our 72-hour-kit, and the bicycle helmets that I read on some website that we should wear in case of flying objects (such as all of the containers and boxes stored on shelves above our heads in the closet).

Does it look like we’ll survive the tornado?

Pregnancy, Adoption, Learning to Breathe, and Jane Austen with Magic

The Pregnancy ProjectThe Pregnancy Project by Gaby Rodriguez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a unique memoir of a high-schooler who faked teen pregnancy for her senior project. Gaby Rodriguez is a remarkable woman. Born into a low-income Hispanic family with three generations of unwed pregnancy, she was a high achiever determined to be the first in her family to go to college. So it was a shock to everyone in her school to find out that she was “pregnant.” During the course of her project, she experienced societal stereotypes and how they influence the feelings and behavior of unwed mothers. She also gained special empathy for her own mother. When she unveiled the project at the end of the school year, it suddenly became more influential than she ever imagined.

I ended up pretty much convinced of her conclusion that the way we treat pregnant teens has as big of an impact on where they go in life as the pregnancy itself. The perspective she shared about her (wonderfully loyal and long-suffering) boyfriend’s experience was also illuminating. As Rodriguez reminds us, empathy can be a powerful force for social change.

The Complete Book of International Adoption: A Step by Step Guide to Finding Your ChildThe Complete Book of International Adoption: A Step by Step Guide to Finding Your Child by Dawn Davenport

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yep, we’re thinking about adopting. And this is a witty and information-packed guide that does about what it promises. There’s a bit of hubris to the title, but as far as general information about every step of the process, the book actually is pretty complete. The author is obviously one of those super-organized people, so her readers benefit from comprehensive lists and charts of everything from what to pack for a transatlantic flight with kids to 50+ questions to ask when interviewing an adoption agency.

As well as her own experience as an adoptive mother, Davenport draws on dozens of stories from other adoptive parents about every aspect of the adoption process. The only caveat I would include is that the book was published in 2006, two years before the implementation of the Hague agreement. If you are adopting from a Hague country, there will be significant changes to the process that are not addressed in this book. That said, it’s still an extremely informative resource, and well worth a read for anyone contemplating adopting internationally.

Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My LifeLearning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life by Priscilla Warner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The past few years have been a little difficult on me. Things are getting better, but I have some residual anxiety that surfaces every so often. Like Priscilla Warner, I’ve been trying “to bring calm to my life.” The personal narrative format of this book really worked for me. I loved accompanying Warner as she met with people from different faith/spirituality traditions, learned their ways of finding peace, and incorporated them into her own journey of the soul.

She includes quite a few beautiful quotations worthy of posting on the bathroom mirror, as well as beginner’s instructions on meditation. I was fascinated to see the included CAT scans, showing that regular meditation actually produced physical changes in her brain chemistry. I would recommend this book to anyone struggling with anxiety, depression, panic attacks, or just finding that spot of calm in a hectic life.

Shades of Milk and Honey (Shades of Milk and Honey, #1)Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not familiar with the genre of Jane Austen imitations, but this one caught my eye at the library, because it was in the fantasy/scifi section. Plot and character-wise, it borrows very heavily indeed from Jane Austen. Unfortunately, Austen’s subtle, wry humor and sharp perceptiveness are conspicuously lacking, as is her effortless eloquence.

Despite these deficiencies, the novel worked well enough for me, especially since I’m also fond of fantasy. The “magic” that lands this novel in the fantasy genre is a cleverly conceived artistic pursuit called Glamour. In Kowal’s alternate-reality Regency period world, Glamour is just one more of the accomplishments demanded of well-bred young ladies. It’s a very clever premise, really, and a highlight of the book.

At times, I felt like I was truly reading a cut-and-pasted collection of Austen scenes, but I guess that’s kind of the intended effect. This is not a polished novel (even apart from the obvious errata that mark it as a first edition), but it’s a fun, light summer read, and as squeaky clean as Jane Austen herself.

Glamour in GlassGlamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[Be advised, the last paragraph of this review does contain spoilers.] This sequel to Shades of Milk and Honey is an improvement on its predecessor. For one thing, Kowal is not particularly adept at nuance or witty dialogue, so a little more action is a welcome distraction. If she weren’t inviting me to constantly compare her to Jane Austen (to the point of using a reference list of all the words from Austen’s works while writing the novel), I would probably be able to judge her a little better on her own merits.

While the first book was for all intents and purposes an Austen knock-off, this one is more of a historical fiction, breaking Austen’s habit of never mentioning any of the interesting events going on in the world outside of rural England. As well as putting Jane into the thick of some exciting events in Belgium during the Napoleonic wars, Kowal also delves productively into marital relationships. I enjoyed reading about Jane’s progression from timid, insecure newlywed to equal partner in a healthy and beautiful relationship.

Jane’s inability to use Glamour during her pregnancy allows her to grow into the person she really is, and realize how much she had previously defined herself by her abilities. And how often do you get a pregnant woman in a book performing heroics like this? Go Jane! I really appreciated the way Kowal dealt with the themes of balancing marriage, career, and pregnancy. And kudos to her for including the subject of miscarriage, which I feel doesn’t come up in novels as much as it should. I’ll definitely be reading the next books in this series.

View all my reviews

photo credit

Best Places I’ve Never Lived

I realized the other day that there’s not enough time in a lifetime to live all the places I’d like to live. In fact, it’s a good thing inter-planetary space travel has not yet been invented, or I would be completely overwhelmed by possibilities. My blogger friend Amira (who presently lives in Kyrgystan) is doing a series on all the cities where she’d like to live. Some of them are so obscure I have to look up what country they’re in. Of course, I had to look up Kyrgystan when I first “met” her too.

It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who can’t help viewing every international vacation (and every National Geographic article, for that matter) as a house-hunting trip. My travel dreams might not be quite as exotic as Amira’s, but in the course of the last several years since we decided we were an international family, Tony and I have researched mundane things like housing, raw milk availability, and homeschooling laws in quite a variety of different possible destinations. Besides the ones where we’ve actually ended up living.

Here’s my shortlist of places I’ve never been but know I would love to live.


I hope this doesn’t sound morbid, but I first became obsessed with Norway last year, following the horrific shootings on Utøya Island in July. Although I’m not really a party person, the Norwegian Labour Party might possibly come closest to a political ideology I could feel comfortable espousing. Norway is full of natural beauty, both in the countryside and wild places and in the many urban green spaces. Norway also has a high standard of living, a Scandinavian sense of organization, and a cool climate. What’s not to love?

Costa Rica.

I watched this little video and was sold on Costa Rica. Besides the fact that I already speak Spanish, and it’s pretty cheap to live there, 99% of their energy comes from renewable resources. If that’s not the wave of the future, I don’t know what is. Costa Rica is the go-to destination for retirees and other sun-seeking expats looking for a quaint paradise with good infrastructure. I really love tropical fruit and tropical beaches, but there aren’t that many tropical countries I’d like to live in long term. Costa Rica might be an exception.


Well, technically I have been to France. Nice is the preferred airport for international flights out of our little corner of Italy. So I’ve glimpsed the fabled pebbled beaches of the French Riviera out of the window of a bus various times. My most vivid memory of Nice is sitting on a huge cardboard box (filled with my belongings) in the train station, with seventeen pieces of luggage piled around me, deathly ill in the middle of a move from Ireland to Italy. So no, I don’t consider myself to have really visited France.

But who hasn’t dreamed of living in Paris? Ever since I read Paris to the Moon, I’ve pictured us there. I’ve even found my perfect apartment, in the 8th Arrondissement, right next to Parc Monceau. Now all I need is my perfect income to support a Parisian lifestyle.


Why Turkmenistan? I’m not quite sure. It just really fascinates me. We want to adopt internationally someday, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching different countries, during which research Turkmenistan appeared on my radar. Unfortunately, it’s well-nigh impossible to adopt from Turkmenistan. In fact, it’s hard to even get a visa to visit Turkmenistan. Maybe that’s why it attracts me: the lure of the forbidden. And the interesting tidbits I’ve read about the country. Bizarrely, the former President-For-Life (who died in 2007) authored his own book on Islam. Just like Qaddafi! The book forms the basis for the educational system of the country, and knowledge of it is required to even get a driver’s license. The Akhal-Teke, a beautiful breed of horse with a metallic-sheen coat, also originates there. Turkmenistan is one of those countries that feels like a “black box,” tantalizing in its mystery and oddity. I’d love to see what it’s really like there.

Will I ever live any of these places? Who knows? But this is my favorite kind of daydream.

What’s your dream destination?

photo credits: Norway, Costa Rica, France, Turkmenistan

Halloweening, Familia Style

When I was a kid, there was a minister who lived next door to us. He refused to pass out candy to trick-or-treaters. Instead, they got little Christian tracts on how evil and satanic the holiday was. At the time, I just thought he was weird. But I could do without Halloween now.

In fact, not seeing spider webs, creepy masks, and gravestones all over people’s yards and store windows every October was one of the things I loved about living abroad. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t have to either let my kids gorge themselves on candy for the entire first week of November or be the “mean” mom who takes it all away.

Unfortunately, this year we moved back to the U.S. just in time for Halloween. So I am faced with my Halloween dilemma.

I don’t know why this is, but Mormons in the U.S. really love Halloween. Most wards host a “trunk-or-treat” at which people decorate the trunks of their cars, park them in the church parking lot, and hand out candy to costumed children from them. The sugar orgy usually continues inside the church with additional games and treats. I remember being absolutely thrilled one year to win a hideous chocolate spider cake in the cake walk.

The “trunk-or-treat” concept was originally developed in response to all the concerns about Halloween safety. It was felt that it was important to provide a safe place for children to gorge on candy. However, since the church party was typically held a few days before Halloween, I knew many families who went trick-or-treating too, at least to the houses of family and friends. So in my candy-hating mother mind, trunk-or-treat actually makes the situation worse, not better.

We skipped the trunk-or-treat this year, but my kids got plastic gloves full of popcorn and candy corn today at church, and candy at library story hour yesterday. Still, I don’t want them to feel like they’re missing out on Halloween, so I’ve looked around for alternatives.

One of my Protestant friends recommended having a “Reformation party,” since Martin Luther nailed up his 99 theses on All Saints Eve. I love this idea, but I think I’ll wait until we’ve been through the Reformation in our history readings, and the children have some context.

Charlotte, a mom on one of the many homeschooling email lists to which I subscribe described her family’s Halloween tradition like this:

We live out in the country. We meet with two other families on a predetermined evening. The children, (5 in all), exchange gifts, (usually books or craft supplies). One of the moms, (the most organized of us 3), has our route planned. We visit 6 homes. The owners are aware that we are coming in advance. Two homes are widows, two are elderly and two are grandparents of our small group.

The children wear costumes and we spend 15-30 minutes at each stop. Some offer candy, others homemade treats, (safe because we’ve known these people our entire lives). One stop always serves us supper, another always has cake and ice cream for dessert. Sometimes, an activity has been planned at a particular stop. The children often have made drawings/ cards, or have picked bouquets of wildflowers to leave.

This has been a wonderful outreach. One widow in particular looks forward to our visit all year. She lives miles from town and can’t drive and feels isolated I’m sure. Before us, she never had trick-or-treaters because she lives on an untraveled dirt road. She loves decorating her porch and entryway for the children.

I loved her idea of turning Halloween into a service, family, and community outreach evening. Maybe sometime I’ll get that organized.

In the meantime, what we have planned is a family Halloween party with Grammy and Pampa. We’ll carve our pumpkins, bob for apples, decorate (healthy) cookies (with my honey-cream cheese frosting, nuts, dried fruit, etc.), and play games.

Yeah, I’m a spoilsport. At least it only happens once a year.

photo credits:

1. Our newlywed Halloween, back before I had kids and became such a wet blanket. If you look closely, you’ll see that the earring on Tony’s pirate pumpkin is his wedding ring.

2. My awesome brother Samuel, who when his firstborn son arrives in January will most likely be naming him Yoda.

Casteluzzo Academy 2011, Term 3

My personal bibliophilia has not been the only thing we’ve been feeding with our weekly library trips. We are back in the swing of homeschooling, with a vengeance. We even have a very simple “school corner” set up. It contains a kid-sized table with two chairs, an adult-sized chair, and a few shelves with all our school books and paraphernalia. We are using Ambleside Online’s Year 1, Term 3 as our curriculum base for this term.

Charlotte Mason believed in a curriculum that was both wide and deep. This is the first term I have managed to fit in just about all the subject areas she recommended covering. The list of subjects looked a little daunting at first, but in the end, we only spend about an hour and a half each morning “doing” school. Some of our scheduled learning does fall outside that time, as does all the informal learning that happens organically as a natural result of children being children. I view our homeschool as a classical (or in my terms “renaissance humanist”) education from 9-10:30 in the morning, and unschooling for the rest of the day.

As usual, we’re a few weeks into this term already, since I like to test it all out and tweak it before I tell you about it, lest there be anyone who actually reads this and follows me into an excessively unnavigable educational morass. So this curriculum plan has been tried and tested for at least three weeks by one very exacting but good-humored six-year-old. The four-year-old is welcome to participate in anything he likes (he listened to the story of King Alfred and the Cakes this morning and did a great unsolicited narration), but he generally pops in and out all morning. Fortunately, he’s a brilliant self-entertainer, so we rarely hear from him when he’s not participating with us.

Devotional – We begin with a Primary song (sung during the children’s classes at Church). Grammy procured us a cd with all the songs for the Primary Program, so we are playing catch-up, since we spent most of the year in Tunisia, where we just sang whatever songs we wanted in our informal Primary. Then we read/recite together our current family memory scripture (2 Nephi 21:6-9). As soon as we have it completely memorized, we’ll rotate in another scripture. Then we read a few verses of scripture together at the place where we are reading in the Book of Mormon, and discuss what we’ve read (if we think of anything we want to discuss). Last, we have our family morning prayer, and then Axa and I go into our school corner.

Per Charlotte Mason’s instructions, I have a schedule of school subjects that mixes things up so we don’t get bored or wiggly. For instance, some days we’ll start out listening to an Italian cd, then do copywork (penmanship), then read aloud from a history book and narrate, then watch a math video. Each subject takes from 10-20 minutes. If you’re skeptical that things can actually get done that quickly, try it out. I did not think it would work, but I tried it, and I’m now a believer. Making the time short effectively eliminates dawdling, so we accomplish things very quickly.

These are subjects we do every day, although I do different activities each day to make it interesting:

Math – Our “spine,” inasmuch as we have one, is Khan Academy, which I reviewed in more detail here. We watch a video one day, do the related exercises two other days, read some math literature on another day (usually a library picture book from Dewey decimal number 510 or so), and play a math game on the last day (from Family Math, which I remember fondly from my own homeschooling days, and borrowed from my mother when we were up there last week).

Italian – We checked out some language cds from the library, do Livemocha together, read a book in Italian from the International Digital Children’s Library, and play a simple game with the words we’ve learned. Our Foreign Language program could use a bit of beefing up at the moment, but at least we’re doing it every day. Maybe I need to re-read some of my own suggestions.

Phonics – Axa can read Easy Readers, but it’s a bit laborious and tedious. She loves listening to audiobooks (and parents reading to her). I really want her to enjoy reading, so I don’t want to be too pushy. But at the same time, I do want her to learn to read. So we got a copy of Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. The first few lessons are a little strange, but the book has been highly recommended to me by several people, and it takes all of 10 minutes a day, so we are persevering.

Copywork – Axa taught herself to write quite some time ago, and her writing is becoming more legible on its own with time. But I just love the italic handwriting that most Charlotte Mason homeschoolers use, so I got her a Getty-Dubay book.

These are subjects we do once per week:

Artist Study – During snack time on Tuesdays, I show Axa and Raj a painting. Ambleside Online schedules a specific artist for each term, and this term we are doing Jean Honore Fragonard. We look at the painting for a few minutes. Then I put it away, and we take turns describing it from memory. Then we look at it again, see if we missed anything, talk about thematic and stylistic elements, the story of the painting, how it makes us feel, etc.

Composer Study – Again, we follow the Ambleside schedule. This term’s composer is Mozart. I downloaded the selections on the German site linked to from Ambleside, and I put them on for the children during snack time. They usually get up and dance to it for a while after they’re done with their snack.

Handicrafts – Grammy is very artistic and crafty, so she does these with the children. Last week they made little leaf elves with fall-colored silk leaves. I think Grammy has a little circular loom she’s going to teach them to use sometime. I’m not sure what other projects are in the works, but I don’t mind outsourcing this one, since Grammy is much craftier than I am.

Nature Study – We took our first nature study outing for the term yesterday. I packed up a lunch, and we drove to a wild-looking spot. Since we currently live in Bakersfield, most of the flora consisted in dry grasses and sandy-colored tumbleweeds. But we did find a lot of insects, including a dragonfly, praying mantis, grasshopper, different kinds of ants, butterflies, and moths. Axa was delighted to see her first black widow “in the wild.” We took their new nature journals too. Axa didn’t want to draw anything, but she wrote the things we saw in different colors.

Art – We have just started Drawing with Children by Mona Brooks, and I am so excited. She maintains that while children naturally draw symbolically, they can be taught to draw realistically, just like they can be taught to play the piano or dance. I am excited to see how this helps us with our nature journals.

Each of the books in this last group gets read two to three times per week, except the bedtime stories, which are every day;

World History – Discovery of New Worlds, by M.B. Synge. This is Book 2 of 5 in a series that covers history from ancient times to the end of the 19th century, in an engaging story form. We spent the year before we started the Ambleside curriculum reading Book 1, which covers ancient Greece and Rome, since Ambleside doesn’t cover classical history until 6th grade.We are also reading 50 Famous Stories by James Baldwin, which are shorter stories of famous events in history.

British History – Continuing with Our Island Story by H.E. Marshall. We’re currently at the time of King Alfred. Also reading from Viking Tales by Jennie Hall, which is another book that was read at Charlotte Mason’s own schools.

Geography – Holling C. Holling’s classic Paddle to the Sea, a charming story about a little carved boat that slides down from the mountains into the Great Lakes, and eventually out to the ocean, in the process giving the reader an excellent view of the geography of the region.

Science – We did our first lesson out of Bernie Nebel’s Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding last week, and it was awesome. I can already tell that this book will help my children figure out the answers to all those questions they have about how the world works. I talked about this book in more detail here, and plan to devote an entire post to our implementation of it after we have a few months of it under our belts. I’ve also already learned a lot from the associated email group.

Natural History – The Burgess Bird Book, Thornton Burgess’ account of how the birds return to the forest in the springtime. He gives each species of bird an unforgettable personality. I get really fun narrations of this book from Axa.

Literature – Parables from Nature by Margaret Gatty. Wise and beautifully written stories that take spiritual lessons from the lives and habits of plants and animals. Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb. We have Twelfth Night and King Lear scheduled for this term. Aesop’s Fables. I found this in 12 volumes on librivox, and we listen to one every day. I think I like them as much as Axa. Always a good pick-up when she feels like narration is “too hard.” For Daddy’s literature read-alouds we are doing The Wonder Clock by Howard Pyle, which is a collection of fairy tales. At bedtime he reads The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting. Grammy also got us audiobooks of James and the Giant Peach, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and Pippi Longstocking, all of which Axa has loved.

Poetry – We are reading through Ambleside’s Poetry Anthology, with one poem per day. Our memorization poems for the term are The Owl and the Pussycat, I Think Mice are Nice, and Wynken, Blynken and Nod.

If you’re a homeschooler, do you have your curriculum posted? I love reading other people’s ideas.

photo credit

Apocalypse Over

Jet-lag has been vanquished, but I’m still making those last lingering adjustments to post-expat re-entry. (you know, finishing up the spontaneous incineration of the ablative heat shield, also known as “trailing clouds of glory . . .”) So far, I’ve been to Trader Joe’s, the Library, Macaroni Grill, and even (gasp!) Wal-Mart. But I didn’t actually buy anything at Wal-Mart. So does that make it O.K.?

I still don’t have a good short answer (or even a good long answer) for the ubiquitous question, “where are you from?”

I’m not sure what to do about that. Lately I wish I had something prosaic to say, like Wisconsin or Palo Alto. Something that wouldn’t involve explaining Italy, let alone what I’ve been doing for the past eight months in a little post-revolutionary Muslim country in Africa. Because I’m tired of trying to explain my life and inevitably seeing myself reflected in other people’s eyes as something unspeakably inexplicable and exotic. They’re not sure what to do with me, and I’m not so sure what to do with myself either.

Things are getting better, though, a little at a time. At present, Tony and my dear mother-in-law are taking care of my sweet children while I spend a week at my absent parents’ house in Woodland. Yes, for the third time in the past five years, my parents have bought plane tickets to see us, and we have moved before they arrived. In fact, I’m afraid we’ve reached a new low. This time it was tickets to Tunisia, and we left a bare two weeks before they were to arrive. Embarrassing, I know. They are, however, presently enjoying London and Spain, and are still, incredibly, on speaking terms with me.

I’m getting back on speaking terms with myself too. After two days here alone, I finally was able to sit down and write some feelings and analysis of what’s going on in my head. It’s amazing what some time away from everything can do. Felicitously, my time away included the evening of the L.D.S. General Relief Society Meeting, an annual inspirational event by my Church’s women’s organization. In company with every other woman with whom I’ve discussed the meeting subsequently, I felt like Dieter F. Uchtdorf was speaking straight to me. Even if you’re not Mormon, you might find the 20-minute address I linked to inspiring and uplifting. He summarized his five key points thus:

It’s hard to explain, but as I listened to his words, and as I have reflected since, I have felt life open up again for me. My goals seem a little more attainable, my problems a little more manageable, and my thoughts a little brighter. I guess the sun is finally starting to shine through.

photo credits: forget-me-nots, graphic