Q&A: One Family’s Sabbatical—Plus, Win the Book!

Admit it. You’ve considered it. Chucking it all and taking off, kids in tow, the world your classroom? I sure have.

Travel writer Jennifer Wilson not only considered it, she saved her pennies and did it, abandoning her cushy Iowa life for the tiny Croatian mountain village her ancestors fled decades earlier.

She chronicled her family’s adventures in “Running Away to Home,” just published by St. Martin’s Press. Wilson agreed not only to a frank Q&A on her family’s sabbatical, including tips on how to take your own, she’s also promised a signed copy of her book to one lucky Love & Diapers reader. (Details below.) Her graciousness may or may not be attributed to the fact that we’re friends—she comments here at L&D under the handle anti-jen.

A story-setting excerpt from the book:

“Jim and I looked at each other across the shopping cart one Saturday afternoon, both of us holding the Starbucks that accounted for $150 of our monthly household budget, SUV idling in the parking lot, kids grousing that the Lego set they’d chosen was somehow lacking, and asked ourselves: Is this the American Dream? Because if it is, it sort of sucks.”

 L&D: Did you at all feel somewhat loony, lifting your family up out of its comfy Midwestern existence and plopping them into a relatively desolate Croatian mountain town?

Jennifer Wilson: Often times, yes! I appreciate how delicately you put that, Berit. We were at a point in our lives where we had everything we supposedly wanted—good jobs, nice house, sweet kids—but things felt weird. We didn’t feel very connected to any of it. I think we spend a lot of time talking about what we want from marriage, from work, from friendship. But how often do we talk about what we want to be as a family? We wanted a time-out to recalibrate, and frankly, the fantasy of the Croatian mountain village just hit at the right place at the right time in our lives. And off we went for some family recalibrating!

How did the kids feel about that?

Weeeeeell, my son Sam, who was 6 at the time, flat-out refused to go. We had to blatantly bribe him. Zadie was almost 4 and had no idea what “going to Croatia” meant. So of course she agreed—she’d be spending all her time with her family, and so it was awesome!

What was the reality of village life like?

The village was small … and quiet … and that intimidated me a lot at first. I describe it in the book as a handful of gnome houses in the crease between mountains. The backyards all melded together into giant fields and meadows, and my kids got to run free all day every day for the first time in their lives. For them, it was heaven, from climbing trees to eating wild strawberries in the field. They were more independent than they’d ever been, and I realized just how much face time parents and kids are forced to have these days. Sam and Zadie really thrived with the freedom, knowing that we were always close by if they needed us.

Sounds as if you hit the jackpot in the simplicity department. Was it the cure-all you hoped it would be?

Having a much smaller place was great. We live in a big renovated house here in Des Moines, and it can be a bear to keep up. So having just one big dorm-like space was pretty heavenly. It was also great to have our own schedule—no playdates, no practices, no real work deadlines. The simplicity of time was so freeing in that way. Our time was all our own. It made us realize how much we sort of manufacture our own schedules, and how overscheduling separates us from connecting with each other.

On the other hand, simplicity can also be a nice way of saying “boring.” Having huge tracts of uninterrupted time was weird for me. The kids and Jim relaxed right into it. Sam and Zadie were so happy to have nowhere to be, ever. When Jim got bored he’d pick up the atlas and plan a drive, or embark on an epic cooking adventure, or just accept the boredom. One day he decided to make burgers, and it took him all day just to find all the ingredients.

But for the busy mom here, huge tracts of do-nothing time made me feel almost agoraphobic. I am the captain of our home schedule, and when nobody needed my services anymore, I didn’t really know what to do. I admit I had my fair share of panic attacks at the beginning. But the more we became enmeshed in the village, the more things I had to do: Learning old recipes with the neighbor ladies, interviewing people about history, learning how to be really good at hanging up laundry on the line, sleuthing down old family members. Still, this experience made it very clear that I’m the restless one in the family. I don’t do downtime very well. It’s just my nature.

In what ways did these revelations change your family life back here?

It’s more of a priority to stay connected, as a family. We still have activities and tend to run around, but I’m quicker to put on the brakes and make everyone get in pajamas to read “Hatchet” together on the couch. Being present with each other is a daily priority.

Being connected to our food source has remained a priority and gotten more important. We eat clean local food as much as we can. We have our own garden and chickens. We buy fresh food daily, in season. Although the kids won’t appreciate that lesson ‘til they’re older—they want junk, and can’t figure out why we have to eat things that look so close to original form. So we still take plenty mac and cheese or fast food intervals.

Any advice to a family thinking of taking their own similar type of time-out?

Get “The Family Sabbatical Handbook” by Elisa Bernick. It is essential, comprehensive, and we followed it to the letter. It was infinitely helpful.

Also, take a scouting trip first if you can. See the lay of the land, make some contacts that you can email with questions, whether it’s the tourism person or a landlord or friends you meet while visiting.

Last, prepare for a challenge. A family sabbatical isn’t for the weak of knees. As with all travel, it’s 90 percent work, 10 percent glory. And of course, buy “Running Away to Home” to get some idea. I write about the good, the bad, and the in between. I don’t sugarcoat it, yet you’ll get an idea of the unique beauty of taking this kind of leap with your family.

Win your very own SIGNED copy of “Running Away to Home” by leaving a comment below by the end of the day on this Friday, October 28th. Anonymous comments and those without a valid email address will be disqualified. The winner will be chosen at random, then contacted via email. If I don’t hear from a winner within five days, a new one will be chosen. Please enter/comment only once. Good luck!


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  1. by Jackie Flaherty

    On October 24, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    No one I know has a $150.00 coffee budget. Or an SUV for that matter. I’m sure your adventure was ever so sweet for your family. And I’ll read the book eventually. But most of us create our own “villages”, on our own blocks, in our own homes. Running away is not an option for a Walmart clerk or a railroad worker. Hopefully your book suggests wanting what we have. It’s all so fleeting.

  2. by jennifer wilson

    On October 24, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    Hi, Jackie, and thanks for commenting. I think for people who love to travel, travel is a way to meditate and consider change. For me, as you’ll see in the book, the road has always been where I went to think. (I have never, by the way, been wealthy. But I’ve always stowed away money for travel, as I consider it a form of education.) This time, however, I wanted to take a time-out and think with my family along. It seemed a little audacious, but for me spiritually, it felt necessary. I address the escape for the wandering soul–not for the general public for whom travel isn’t necessarily appealing.

    My husband and I are home renovators in our “free time” from being an architect and a writer and parents. We’d been socking away pennies for our entire marriage for an overseas sabbatical when the time was right. We are solidly middle-class, and took a very frugal trip, largely because I wanted to prove the point that travel isn’t only for the wealthy, and this is a doable thing for the middle-class family. Not so much “running away,” but taking time out of a frenzied life because, yes, it all is very fleeting. And we must follow our hearts as well as our pocketbooks.

  3. by Kate

    On October 24, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    I would love to read this book!


    On October 24, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    Jennifer’s book sounds like a real winner. The exerpt and answers to Berit’s questions make me want to read the whole thing! Since I’m not a world traveler, it would be exciting to read the escapades of this family and what they learned in Croatia.

  5. by Eve

    On October 25, 2011 at 10:01 am

    Berit, I’m excluded! I just wanted to say that I have loved reading this book. I applaud Jennifer and Jim for being honest. While not everyone has a $150 Starbucks budget, they were able to recognize what they were wasting resources on. In all the years I have known Jennifer I can only recall one time she bought something new for herself. She called me to tell me what she had bought and without letting me get a word in, she realized she didn’t need it. She immediately returned it. Jennifer and Jim have been instrumental in my own quest for honesty, integrity, hard work and finding what is important to me.

  6. by Nancy Virden

    On October 25, 2011 at 10:42 am

    I’m the office manager at the elementary school where Jim and Jennifer’s children go, Sam and Zadie Hoff. The whole school was excited about this trip that they were going on. We kept a spot open for the children so that when after a year they could return to their grade level. Jennifer kept a blog, which I read constantly, keeping in touch with what they were doing and where they were staying. I was so enthralled with their trip, wishing I had the opportunity to go do what they were brave enough to do! When the children did return to school, it was like they had never left, they fit right back in! A wonderful opportunity for the whole family – going to Croatia!

  7. by Sarah Farrand

    On October 25, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    I am so excited about the release of this book! I followed the family blog from the beginning, and felt as though I was living vicariously through their travels. What an amazing adventure (and one that I think EVERYBODY, no matter their budget, can save up for in their own time)!

  8. by Roni

    On October 25, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    I think it sounds like an amazing experience for the family. Just seeing the pictures makes me want to read the book and live vicariously through you, “anti-jen”. Berit, is this who you wanted to go visit when you were pregnant with Roy?

  9. by Jayne

    On October 25, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    I just finished this book and loved it! It made me laugh, cry and reflect on family. My grandpa was born in Mrkopalj, Croatia and I have enjoyed Jennifer’s blog and gallery of photos.

  10. by Berit Thorkelson

    On October 25, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Roni: Yep. Still so bummed that didn’t work out. At least I can read about the experience. Maybe the family can hop on their eventual return trip instead.

  11. by kathy

    On October 25, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Beautiful. We did this in peace corps and were connected. Now with almost grown kids we would love to leave all the stuff and connect on a real level. Something that is hard to do in our culture. No CEO job can reward you like a true feeling of being connected and loved.

  12. by Jessi

    On October 26, 2011 at 6:54 am

    I am very jealous, I would love to just runaway with my son to some obscure corner of the globe.

  13. by A.

    On October 28, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    I would love a copy of the book!

    Berit, your questions were thoughtful and brought on thoughtful answers. Great interview!

  14. by Laureen

    On October 29, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    Berit! This sounds so interesting it was fun
    reading the interview. The thing I love most is the idea of just taking time out with your family and
    putting the rest of the world aside for a minute.
    Those are the best moments.