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Planning A Family Sabbatical



Thinking of traveling to a different country with your family for an extended period of time? Elisa Bernick’s The Family Sabbatical Handbook will help a great deal. She does a phenomenal job of pinpointing all of the issues and helping guide any family through all of the possible scenarios. -- Renee Estey


Welcoming Visitors: How Long Is Your Mother Staying?

We’ve had a consistent influx of visitors, and it’s been great to have friends and family here to experience Mexico and this gorgeous city with us. It looks like our next sojourner will be Michael’s mother in June for a couple weeks. After that, we’re not sure.

We’re hoping to see Elisa’s brother Dan and family in August, as they weren’t able to make it over spring break, and then Grammy Arlene joins us at the end of the month once school starts again.

In the past few months we’ve had great visits from Michael’s friend Sean and his daughter, from Elisa’s dad, who visited at the end of October, and from Michael’s dad and stepmother who left earlier this week. We’ll still have room for visitors in the new place — in fact, more. So you might want to think about getting on our calendar.”

As you prepare for your journey, the most natural thing in the world is to invite people to come visit you in whatever exotic location you’ve chosen. Most people will excitedly agree to the idea and a few will actually take you up on it. Be careful.

I know it seems like a good idea to invite everyone you know to join you in paradise and it can be a wonderful thing to see friends and family from home. But having visitors during your sabbatical is also a potential minefield.

Chuck Got the Message

Our friend Nancy’s mother-in-law arrived for a two-week visit while they were spending a year in Madrid. Somehow the visit stretched into two months and although the mother-in-law was a nice enough woman, Nancy got increasingly frustrated by someone taking over the living room of their already tiny apartment for so long.

The situation came to a head during a party at a neighbor’s when the mother-in-law asked if they could leave because she was tired and wanted to go home.

Nancy, who had sampled a bit too much fine Spanish wine that evening, told her husband Chuck to go ahead and take his mother and the kids home.

Elisa Bernick
Elisa Bernick

“Your mother can sleep on my side of the bed,” Nancy said, glaring at her husband. “Because I’m staying on the damn couch until she goes back to Cleveland!”

Chuck got the message and called a travel agent the next day. This may be an extreme example, but thinking through your “welcome” strategy in advance can definitely help make everyone’s time together less explosive.

Decide on the Rules of Eengagement

Before that first friend arrives on your doorstep, take the time to seriously consider how you want to handle visitors from back home. The following is a partial list of things to consider:

  • Will friends and family stay with you or in a nearby hotel?
  • If they will stay in your home, are there adequate beds, bathrooms, towels, bedding, and such? Or do you need to set up some temporary accommodations?
  • If they will stay in a hotel, who will make all the arrangements for their stay?
  • Will they need a car? Who will make those arrangements?
  • Will you spend the entire visit together or only meet for specific meals and adventures?
  • Will you buy all the food and liquor or will they chip in?
  • Will you play tour guide or provide them with maps and suggestions and wish them well?
  • What type of visitors are they? What are their expectations of you?
  • Will you interrupt your routine completely or ask them to respect certain schedules you’ve developed?
  • What impact will visitors have on your children and their schedules? Will you need to hire babysitters? Will you need to put additional safety measures in place make such measures explicit to your visitors? (Think medicine kits and poisoning if you have young children.)

“I would think carefully about who you invite to come, which may depend in part on the reasons for your trip. In our case, we were careful not to ask too many people because we only had five months and wanted quiet family time. Still, we probably had guests at least a week out of every month, which was too much in retrospect, though I would have a hard time saying that we didn’t enjoy every single visitor.” – Julie

Timing is Everything

Typically, visitors will want to schedule their visits around specific vacation periods at home, especially if they have children. Christmas, Easter, and summer break are the most popular and you’ll have clusters of visitors, some even overlapping, during these times.

During one Easter break, we had four different groups of visitors with three of them overlapping by a few days coming and going. It was fun, exhausting, exciting, and pure hell all rolled into one.

The kids never got enough sleep and were dragged from event to event and meal to meal. They adored having other (English-speaking) children and adults to play with and played with such intensity that by the end of the visit they were reduced to teary, screaming lumps of flesh equally likely to melt over a dropped piece of candy or a playmate “breathing on me.”

We made the mistake of saying yes to everyone who wanted to come when sometimes we should have gently said no or at least suggested an alternate time for the visit.

We probably should have put more people in a hotel rather than sticking them on mattresses on the floor as was often the case (or sleeping on those mattresses ourselves and giving our beds over to our guests).

We Smartened Up

One book I read suggested you urge your guests to come visit during the first part of your stay abroad, before you’ve gotten all your routines down. This makes a great deal of sense, if your guests will cooperate. If they won’t and make plans to show up throughout your stay (as ours did), making some of these decisions beforehand and sticking to your guns can make everyone’s experience more pleasant.

We eventually smartened up and realized that we had to stick to our routines somewhat, regardless of visitors, or else the kids got ornery and so did we.

We also started to help people “pitch in” on costs by asking each visitor to bring us a care package of specific items that we emailed ahead. That way, we could buy all the basic supplies for visitors and provide most of the meals (except restaurant meals where visitors inevitably pick up the tab) without breaking the bank or feeling taken advantage of.

“We encouraged visitors to make their plans early, because inevitably they wanted to all come at spring break so we had to space them out. We rented a house for family that stayed for two weeks and friends offered their house to our friends who stayed one week at spring break. Other times, people stayed at hotels and B&Bs.” – Kim

Eventually, after a few sets of visitors had come and gone, we had the routine down pat. We’d hand them a map of the city and a key to the house. We’d make a few suggestions about what to see and which adventures to take and then we’d wave goodbye as we pushed our friends and family out the door (sometimes with our children in tow).

This way, not only did we manage to find a bit of privacy amidst all the extra bodies, voices, trash, laundry, and so on that visitors bring, but also our visitors got the chance to experience the place more as we did when we first arrived.

They’d arrive home breathless and excited by the morning’s discoveries.  If we’d gone with and just led to all the waiting wonders, the sense of adventure would have been much diminished.

Mi casa es su casa?

It’s actually not a bad idea to choose a house with visitors in mind if you know they’ll be coming and intend to stay with you. If your house isn’t set up to lodge visitors comfortably, be sure to make potential guests aware of that ahead of time and help them find suitable lodging nearby.

We had four bathrooms in our first house and although we had only two bedrooms, each had its own bath. So, we gave one bedroom to our guests and had the kids join us in ours (king-sized bed) and the visitors who shared our house were usually so grateful for the free digs and hospitality that they went out of their way to be helpful and unobtrusive.

But still, it’s tiring to have extra people in your space all day and night long. The routines you’ve fought so hard for are inevitably messed up and once the guests are gone, you have to work out bedtimes, naptimes, and study times all over again.

“Try not to have visitors come in the beginning of your time abroad. My mother came about two months after we had been in China and while it was great to see her, I still didn’t have good language legs yet and I felt frustrated that I could not show her around as much as I would have liked.” –Rachel

Look Who's Not Coming to Dinner

It can be surprising who actually does make the trek out to see you and who, ultimately, doesn’t. In our case we were surprised at who didn’t. Almost none of our friends made it down despite having made noises about doing so early on. Why? Their lives were too busy, it was too expensive, it seemed too far away.

We felt a combination of sadness and relief when, by the end of our trip, the guests have dwindled to nothing. For the last six months of our trip we didn’t have a single visitor other than people we’d met on their own sabbaticals earlier in our trip who were returning for a brief vacation.

People who are travelers, travel. And people who aren’t often don’t — ever. No matter how wonderful they think you are or how exotic and exciting the place that you’re offering promises to be, they’ll find a reason (often a good one) not to come.

It’s not altogether surprising, given that we’d kidnapped their grandchildren, niece, nephew, or cousins, that our visitors were mostly family. And it’s also not surprising that those who do make the trip will have a better sense of adventure and that upon your return you will value their relationships that much more.

You’ll have to explain it (or not) to everyone else. The folks who lived it with you will be a part of your sabbatical story for a lifetime.

Buy This Book From Amazon The Family Sabbatical Handbook: The Budget Guide To Living Abroad With Your Family


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