Running Away to Home — Our Own American Dream


When we heard about Jennifer Wilson’s move to Croatia — with her family, we knew we had to hear the whole story. We’re friends with many full-time traveling families, families that live on the road and see the world as part of their daily grind. But Jennifer’s family actually moved to a country (temporarily) in search of her history. We’re thrilled to have a guest post from Jennifer — her book comes out today and she’s in hot demand! Here’s more about the adventure:

One time, my young family and I sold everything and moved back to the Croatian mountain village of my ancestors. No, the kids aren’t in therapy (yet).

Here’s how it went…

A few years back, Barack Obama was running for president, charismatically asking Americans to return to our Nation of Immigrants values.

It struck me that many of my generation had no idea what that meant. Like all good writers, I began obsessing on this thing that I did not know.

My obsession was stoked when the last of my immigrant relatives died in the summer of 2008. Sister Paula’s personal papers declared that my old family hailed from the ancient mountain village of Mrkopalj, Croatia.

I’m not going to say that this middle-aged mom had a rational response to learning about Mrkopalj (pronounced MER-koe-pie), but here it is anyway:

In 2009, I sold all our stuff and hauled all four of us back to the Motherland to re-learn our Nation of Immigrant values. I detail our journey in my book, RUNNING AWAY TO HOME.

Funny how I can write that sentence as if it didn’t require some sort of bionic effort. I mean, imagine telling your kids that they’re about to leave their house, the pets and the grandparents—for a country that likely has no decent TV. Suffice to say that having an escape fantasy, and following through on the actual planning of this fantasy, are two entirely different things.

Extracting the Wilson Hoff household from our home in Des Moines, Iowa, entailed the following:

• Purchase The Family Sabbatical Handbook by Elisa Bernick (link: http://www.familysabbatical.com/). We could not have left home without it.

• Apply for a visa. No kidding: The Croatian consulate actually tried to talk me out of getting a visa. But the call of Mrkopalj was strong, and so I persisted. Six months and four digits of persistence, to be exact.

• Tell the kids, then duck. You’ll know if you really want that family sabbatical if you remain resolute through the tears.

• Sell everything. We reduced our earthly belongings by about 75 percent in a name-your-own-price garage sale. What you don’t sell, you pay to store. Even kid toys (they got to buy packable electronics instead).

• Rent/sell your house. We found renters who lived here as if they owned it, which was ideal. But you’ll deal with issues around both renting and selling, so remain flexible and open-minded.

• Get insurance. We canceled our Wellmark policy because the overseas coverage was outrageous and bought a reputable travel policy through Lloyd’s of London. When we got home, Wellmark called this a break in coverage, and we’ve paid for that. Pick your poison wisely.

• Talk to your partner. Talk more. Later, keep talking. If you think a family sabbatical will improve your marriage, you are wrong. Few marriages have to face the strain of extended travel with kids. We were constantly dealing with where to find food, how to deal with money, what’s good (or not) for the kids. Know your strengths and weaknesses as a couple, and prepare for storms. It’s an invigorating experience of a lifetime, but there are dues to pay—most of them in front of a map, in a rental car, while locals shake their fists from Fiat windows.

Jim, the kids, and I, lived in Mrkopalj for about four months, then moved about Croatia and Europe for several more. We lived in one-room pensions. We foraged daily for fresh food. We mostly hung out in the wide-open meadows of Mrkopalj, and frolicked on the beaches of Croatia. We traveled in a compact Peugeot (rented here: http://www.autoeurope.com/; ask for Cameron).

By the time we left Europe, our collective belongings totaled five suitcases.

We’ve done well keeping our lives uncluttered since returning to the States. Sharing a car, avoiding superstores, living as fresh and local as we can—these tips make a lot more room for travel in our budget, and help insulate us against economic volatility in America.

Did we find those Nation of Immigrant values? We found our own version of them: that nothing really matters more than family. Really, nothing. We weren’t any different when we drove one car instead of two. We didn’t miss mountains of toys or all four of our grills (!!!).

More than anything, extended travel in Croatia gave us perspective—when you’ve got it good, be grateful; when you don’t, buck up.

You can call that values, or just the best souvenir I’ve ever gotten.

Jennifer Wilson’s first book, RUNNING AWAY TO HOME, about that time her family ditched the comfortable life for the mountain village of her ancestors, is available at jennifer-wilson.com.