Our Transatlantic Journey to a Closer Family

A trip to a remote village in Croatia where my ancestors are from taught us a lot about what really matters. When you're feeling overscheduled, overwhelmed, and out of touch with the kids, these ideas will bring you back where you belong. 

Little Girl in Croatia
Back in 2008, the recession knocked on my family's door to the tune of half our life savings. At that time, my husband, Jim, an architect, was working late hours and missing our kids. And as a writer, I was dealing with the rise of the Internet, and suddenly "a good living" became more like "scraping by." So, after saving for about ten months, Jim and I called a time-out. A massive, yearlong, transcontinental time-out.

We sold many of our possessions in a garage sale, got our hands on every penny we possibly could, found tenants to rent our house in Des Moines for the next year, and decamped to the ancient Croatian mountain village of my ancestors. I wanted to see what the Old Country might teach us about surviving hardship and connecting with what's truly important.

brother and sister riding bikes in croatia
We lived in Mrkopalj, a deeply forested region near the Adriatic Sea, for four months, and traveled throughout Europe for several more afterward. In Croatia, I wrote; Jim homeschooled the kids, Sam and Zadie, then 7 and 4. They roamed in the mountain meadows, climbed apple trees, and zipped on bikes along the tiny streets of a place that seemed like it hadn't changed since my ancestors left 100 years ago. We were free, and we were together, and now the recession didn't seem so scary anymore.

It wasn't perfect, of course. The zigzagging mountain roads caused the kids to spend the majority of any car trip reaching for the barf bags. The language barrier was real, even though before we left Jim and I had taken an adult-education class to learn Croatian. And as we lived in one big room on the third floor of our landlord's house, our lack of privacy became a village joke. The bathroom door, which was broken, was right near the door that everyone entered. In other words, you'd be on the toilet and someone would walk into your "home" and see you (nightmare). But in Mrkopalj, a village of about 800 people, we cemented as a family in ways that made those six head-banging months of visa applications worth it. The kids seemed calmer. We listened to each other more. Put simply, we knew each other better.

Croatian Food Spread
I am certain all those things came from taking a long, thoughtful break from work, soccer practice, ballet rehearsal, marathon shopping trips, and mobile phones. (Ever tried to use a Croatian cell phone? It's harder than Jenga.) The kids could just step outside when they wanted to play. Or they could head to the meadow nearby and run far but still remain in sight; for them, that freedom was powerful. And it was refreshing to shift our conversations from the logistics of getting everyone from Point A to Point B all day to talking about what we did while we were all apart. But not everyone can chuck it all and temporarily remove themselves from society. Now that we're back home in Iowa, I've realized how much I've learned about what it takes to slow down and savor your family's bond. I'm hoping that the lessons will be useful to you too.

Limit Activities

Little Girl in Croatia Jennifer Wilson
I want my kids to be sort-of busy. If I don't keep watch, we end up running around like nuts, and that only gets me a giant gasoline bill and an exhausted family. I had a friend recently remind me of this, when I was worried because I wasn't enrolling Sam in winter swimming. She said, "Quiet time is underrated." I believe she's right. The kids only get to pick a single after-school activity, but even that feels overwhelming sometimes.

I limit playdates too. Sam and Zadie see their friends at school all day. That's about 30 hours a week of socializing, on top of birthday parties, neighbor kids, and cousins. Now that we know the kids can survive without a steady schedule of playdates, we just don't do many.

Stop the Noise and Snuggle In.
In Croatia, when I was feeling down or in over my head, nothing could fix me like gathering my family together for a big snuggle. I saw the kids and Jim doing the same whenever they were homesick. It became a habit, turning to each other, and it has stayed with us. Now that we're back home, if I start feeling like we're all missing each other, I have no problem with calling everything off at night and piling onto the couch together. We'll watch a movie or play Hedbanz or read Hatchet (best read-aloud ever, by the way). Physical contact reminds us that we're together. This is our unit. These are the people who are charged with getting us through life in decent condition: Hug them often.

Boy in front of waterfall in Croatia
Talk About Where Your Family is From.
You don't need to actually travel to the ancestral land to teach your kids about where they're from. Tell them the stories you heard from your mother. Don't have any? Google some recipes and create new memories yourself. Or teach the kids a few words in the old language. My kids walk a little taller knowing how to count to ten in Croatian. They're pretty proud of Croatian inventor Nikola Tesla (you can thank him for stuff like the remote control and the electric motor); Zadie even dressed like him for her school science fair. When we forget our roots, we forget what it means to be American in the first place. My kids are more resilient now that they better understand what our ancestors went through to get here.

Insist on Face Time.
With all manner of screens dominating the world, there's a lot of competition for my family's attention at home. I use my position as benevolent dictator to lead by example, demanding we put down the screens (I'm often the biggest offender). Then we talk together in the analog world, just like we did in Croatia. Most days, I make it a point to look my kids in the eye and ask how things are going. The look is important—it tells everybody that I mean my question. Then I stick around for the answer.

Even with Jim, I'll reach over, grab the remote, turn off Homeland, and ask what's new. It's easy to forget in the rush of days that he's my boyfriend at the root of all this. If we're not running smoothly, the family doesn't either. (Then I turn Homeland back on, because Claire Danes is awesome.)

Mom with two children in Croatia
Take Mini Time-Outs.
It's good to steer away from the ruts sometimes and look at things in the refreshed light of travel. Recently, we headed up to Minneapolis for a stay at The Depot, a Renaissance Hotel complete with an ice-skating rink and a water park. We walked in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and ate at the Chatterbox Pub, which had old-school Nintendo, Atari, and Sega Genesis games at the tables. Exploring new places—whether near or far—is a great way to see your family differently. You haven't lived until you've watched your persnickety kid bite it on the ice and then laugh hysterically when you expected him to have a full-on tantrum.

I don't know a lot of things, but I do know this: If it weren't for the bond we formed when we traveled far from home, interrupting our overly comfortable lives, I wouldn't have these two kids who will still tug at my sleeve at night, asking for another chapter of Harry Potter (yes, still). Off to snuggle and read. I hope you get to do the same.