The girls and I have not been back to the USA for almost a year. Dan has returned a few times in the last year for business but there was no need for the expense and hassle for the girls and I to go with him. But when Dan’s grandmother turned 100 last week we knew it was time for all of us to head to California for the celebration.
We made it a quick trip – a Thursday to a Tuesday – for multiple reasons. It’s expensive to travel, rent a car, live in hotels and eat at restaurants for every meal, especially when you are already paying for a car and house in another place. In addition, the IRS (FEIE) tells us that we can only spend 35 days in the USA in a rolling year in order to receive enormous tax benefits. So we are a slave to the calendar. And finally, going back too often for too long can really mess with our adjustment to a new culture.
But off we went to see Grandma and family. Oh and do some shopping. So. Much. Shopping. Dan was having a heart attack by the end of the trip with all the shopping. Haley and I aren’t finding the types of clothes here that we’d like so we save up our needs for when we are in the USA. And growing teenage bodies and expanding 40-something bodies need new clothes. Not to mention a hot, humid climate combined with hard water and very industrial laundry services which all break down clothes quite quickly. So we shopped. And we ate. And we visited family. And we shopped and ate some more. #redrobinrocks
But something else happened that we weren’t really expecting. We turned a corner in 3 different areas:. Education, Family Time and Packing.
Corner #1: Education: We are technically on a little break from homeschool. The girls have finished their math books that coincide with their grade level and we have a lot of activities going on, along with another trip for another family event in 10 days. So we are keeping the schedule fast and loose for right now. And other than the online writing class they are taking, we had no expectations of homeschool during our trip to the USA.
But we notice that the girls are starting to learn stuff – and WANT to learn stuff – all the time. It seems like now that we’ve relaxed on the curriculum-type learning where we dictate what they learn and when, they are starting to relish the learning from their surroundings. When we ask them questions or take a moment to teach them something, we no longer get groans, but more questions. When we suggest using a real life experience as a research question, they agree, not argue. Asking them to learn from their surroundings isn’t a new concept. We used to do it even when they were in public school but it usually elicited so much strife that we gave up. The difference now is that 1) we are not asking them to learn things that do not interest them 2) we have a LOT of days when we are not doing anything resembling homeschool, although the adults know that there’s still learning going on, and 3) we are learning things along with them. Those things seem to make all the difference.
Here are just a few moments that happened on the trip that surprised and delighted us.
- We put Zoe in charge of map and directory reading. She read the airline schedules and gate departures, the maps at the mall, and did a lot of the navigation in the car. And she didn’t complain about it but did it all enthusiastically.
- On the way to the Golden Gate Bridge we told Zoe to pull up some facts about the bridge. This is why we get the kids data on their phones wherever we go. When Google is your teacher you need it with you at all time! Zoe then proceeded to read details about the bridge aloud to the rest of us. Not to be outdone, Haley then launched her browser and delved into the different types of bridges and how they are built. That got a little detailed for the car (we didn’t have our beloved whiteboard!) but we bookmarked the topic for a later date. Zoe’s carsickness from reading in the back seat then prompted her to switch places with me, which then lead her to become Dan’s navigator. History, Physics and Map Reading. Check!
- During the 100th birthday party we took a tour of Grandma and Grandpa’s property and saw where the grapes were planted. They are leasing much of their ranch to a company that produces many varieties of wine. The grapes on their property will most likely end up in Mondavi wine. Fun Fact: Grandma actually went to school in Lodi, CA with Robert Mondavi, the man that founded the Mondavi label. They also grow pistachios on their property. So we heard all about the process of planting the pistachio trees from Dan’s Uncle Mark. Did you know that pistachios do not depend on bees for pollination? They are pollinated by the wind. There is a male and female pistachio tree. The females produce the nut and they plant a very scrawny looking male tree for every 25 female trees. Then the breeze and wind blow stuff from the male to the female (not sure what it’s called – tree sex, maybe?). We also learned very interesting things about the contract negotiation with the wine company for leasing the land. Both girls declared it the best part of the party. “Happy 100th Birthday, Grandma. Now where are those pistachio trees?”
- We took a day to explore San Francisco and head down to the wharf. We ended up having bread bowls filled with soup for lunch. The restaurant is also a famous San Francisco baking company so we took a tour of the bakery production facility attached to the restaurant. They also have a small museum showing the history of San Francisco as well as the process of making their bread. The girls begged to go into the museum. What!? OK! So off we went to the museum! The girls loved it. I did not force them to read anything but just let them explore on their own. Zoe loved the fog machine and Haley could watch bread being made all day long. That was $3 well spent.
- We found the sea lions at Pier 39 and spent way too much time there for Dan’s tastes but way too little for our tastes. Since sea lions don’t talk all we could do was watch the body language and see how they interact. This prompted quick research into why they were there, why they lay in piles, etc. And we bookmarked the sea lion webcam so we can watch them later without hearing all of Dan’s sighing.
- We passed some art galleries with some really interesting paintings so we popped in and asked a few questions. Of course artwork is not in the budget nor in our spatially-challenged travel life but it was really interesting to see some of the stuff people create. Dan and I drooled and mentally bookmarked the galleries for when we have a house once again in the not-very-near future. We compared some of the more colorful pieces to some common artwork seen in Mexico. The girls learned a bit about how art sales work including galleries, auctions and limited prints versus original works. We didn’t set out to have art class that day but we saw something that interested them and we went with it. Haley loves Salvador Dali and they had some of his work on display. She was over the moon.
- Haley wondered about the turbulence in the airplane and decided she needed to research it and know more. Zoe was very interested in the in-flight magazine that showed the different types of planes so she studied that for awhile.
- We found a penny glued to the sidewalk in front of a tour company. This led to a discussion on marketing techniques and how to lure tourists into your business. Haley was fascinated and suggested that the guys on 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen should use this.
So we are noticing now that we’ve really relaxed the “box checking” of learning and just encouraging the girls to explore their own interests. Its great to see them stepping up to the task so joyfully. They aren’t complaining when we do a little education on the fly or ask them to research something or ask them to calculate something in their head. They recognize that it’s part of the process and they are really embracing it. It’s teaching them that we should always be learning. Not just trying to get by on our existing knowledge. This is a lesson we could all benefit from.
Corner #2: Family Time: One other thing that seems to be happening is The New Normal for how much time we spend together. We love hanging out with family and friends but both Dan and I noticed that after a long day with others, we are so happy to be back to our little family of 4. It feels normal. Or, if some members are gone for awhile, it’s always a sigh of relief when we are all back together again. And even a few hours with other people will prompt a nice feeling when it’s just us again. I don’t recall feeling this prior to now. It’s not all day and it’s not every day, but it’s there when it didn’t used to be and we love it.
The girls are also enjoying each other more. Ages 10 and 14 are much closer than 6 and 2 or even 12 and 8 and I think the girls are realizing that too. A few days before we left for the USA Zoe came down for breakfast and found that Haley had eaten the last piece of pizza. Zoe was already very fussy so with this new discovery of no more pizza she stormed upstairs to her room and was very angry with Haley. Haley went upstairs and apologized and said “Zoe, we are all we’ve got right now. We really can’t be mad at each other, we really have to get along. Will you forgive me?”. WHAT????? Did that just come out of my teen’s mouth??? Indeed it did.
Corner #3: Packing: We love to tell the story of how we left for Panama (with an intended stay of 2 years) with 13 suitcases and 4 carry-ons. I even packed my blender and two of my favorite Saladmaster pans. And an entire suitcase of homeschool books. Those suitcases became the bane of our existence, requiring special travel arrangements and more than one vehicle for every move. When we left for Mexico we narrowed it down to 6 suitcases which was much better but still requiring some extra assistance at the airport.
On this trip we each had one small carry-on bag and one suitcase. And all of our suitcases had extra room both going to the USA and coming home to Cancun. We quickly learned now nice it was to not need help at the airport, to not need large transportation, have no need for a bus boy or a cart at the hotel and be easily mobile while transiting through the airport. In fact, we are now thinking of how we might reduce our luggage even further. Less luggage is a beautiful thing. We are realizing which items we absolutely must have with us, which clothes we wear and which ones we don’t need and even the stuffed animal quota is down to 2 (small animals) per child. Technology still takes up a bit of room but so far everyone is in agreement that we need our Amazon FireTV box and fancy wireless router.
So the trip to the USA was a wonderful time to see family and friends and get some much-needed wardrobe updates, but more than that it was a chance to step back and see that we are all changing in ways that we really like. But lest you think that all is rosy, you can be assured that we still have our challenges. It’s really hot in Cancun right now. We ran out of water the night we came back requiring a climb to the roof on two ladders in the dark to reset the water pump. The living room is a mess and the floor makes our feet turn black with dirt no matter how much we clean it. Dan’s bathroom sink still doesn’t work. And last but not least, my hair looks like crap in this humidity. The struggle is real. #badhairmatters