“There is no better time than now to do the things you want. So save up your money, keep your vision true and clear before you, and release your fate to the wide road. It’ll reward you for your faith every single time, in ways you can’t imagine from your desk at home.” Jennifer Wilson.
Living in the ‘now’ is regularly held up as the path to a more fulfilled life. But how many of us actually stop dreaming and chase what we want? How often do we break outside our comfort zone?
Award winning author Jennifer Wilson was living the so-called suburban American dream – couple of kids, lovely home, technology at their fingertips – but felt there must be more. Rather than stay on the uninspiring treadmill Wilson and her husband courageously pressed pause on their busy family life, packed up their two little ones and moved from Iowa to an ancient mountain village in Croatia.
It wasn’t an easy ride but it delivered an excellent souvenir … a greater appreciation of how wonderful it is to live a simple life. Their kids got the chance to be kids.
Meet engaging expat Jen Wilson…
MH: Jen your two children were very young; “are we there yet” must have been on mono track throughout many of your road trips. Why didn’t travelling with young kids terrify you?
JW: Maybe it should have, but I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more than a chance to be away from the bustle of things, just to sort of check our progress as a family. I think we spend a lot of time calibrating what we want from our work, from our marriages, from our friendships – but not so much with our idea of how we want to be as a family. I wanted to take this time together to pull us all out of a comfort zone that wasn’t necessarily working – spending a lot of time driving from place to place, more time in front of a computer than in front of each other, that sort of thing – and re-set what we were to each other. It was really an amazing chance to start over, in a place where my American family essentially began.
That said, the trip wasn’t without its tough parts. I mean, we were together nonstop for almost a year, and a good chunk of that was spent inside a compact car, trying to navigate foreign road signs and figuring out what the kids would eat (french fries and bread, by the way, are the universal staples). But they weren’t whiny about it. The message was always this: We are together, we are healthy, we are free.
And in the village itself, the kids were happy as they’ve ever been. They roamed the way children from last century roamed. They climbed a mountain, climbed trees, picked wild strawberries. What’s not to love? I feel like our generation does more face time with their children than any before us. It’s tough on everyone. Because here’s this mom with a master’s degree who spends her days cleaning up Cheerios and having full conversations with a rear-view mirror. That’s a good thing, yes, because kids rock. But there’s so little separation between kid world and grownup world, I think it hinders the independence of both.
That freedom pretty much trumped any complaints. That, and the care packages from home containing Kraft macaroni and cheese.
MH: Why did you chose the ancient mountain village in Croatia, why not Tuscany?
JW: Three major events in our lives converged that propelled us to Mrkopalj. The last of my immigrant relatives. Sister Mary Paula Radosevic, passed away and I inherited her personal papers. In them, I read about this little mountain village tucked away in the northwest corner of Croatia. At that same time, the economy was unraveling, and then-candidate Barack Obama was telling us all we’d have to return to our Nation of Immigrants values to get back on track again. It struck me that my generation doesn’t even know what that means anymore. Lastly, my husband Jim and I were feeling disconnected from each other, and from our two little kids, Sam and Zadie. Mrkopalj, Croatia, this faraway place that seemed like it had been suspended in amber for the past 100 years, with its little gnome houses and wide meadows and forested mountains, became my obsession.
MH: What was the most daunting aspect when you first arrived at your new home?
JW: You’ll read all about it in the book. We arrived after 48 hours in transit. Exhausted, worried, it was getting dark, starting to rain … but we had rooms waiting for us. Or so we thought. After that … disaster. It didn’t get much better for a while, either!
MH: What was the most unexpected, lovely surprise?
JW: The women of the village really took me under their collective wing. They decided they wanted to teach me the things my great-grandmother may have passed down, had I known her. We studied how to make tea from the flowers in the mountain meadow, how to make sarma, how to knit. And, in the end, they taught me what it meant to be maternal, how to be a better mom.
MH: What advice do you have for other fearless potential expats?
JW: I would say that your doubts are only your mind’s way of keeping you from what you want to do in your life. That there’s always a reason not to go. That living your dream is supposed to be hard, or everyone would be doing it.
There is no better time than now to do the things you want. So save up your money, keep your vision true and clear before you, and release your fate to the wide road. It’ll reward you for your faith every single time, in ways you can’t imagine from your desk at home.
MH: Have you planned the next trip? Outback Australia appeal to you?
JW: That’s one of the places on my bucket list. I wish I had relatives there! I’ll certainly do another travelogue. I’m working on a novel while I wait for the next journey to waylay our lives.
MH: Have your children been infused with wanderlust?
JW: Actually, the complete opposite. I caution anyone who believes the idealism of the travel books. I thought we’d take our kids overseas and they’d return bilingual citizens of the world. But they picked up maybe 10 words of Croatian and are reluctant to even get in the car with me, after the last time when we were gone for a whole year. You can’t control your child’s temperament. You can only serve them up a wide feast of experiences. They’ll love what they love, they’ll reject what they do.
But I will say this: My children are more flexible, and more appreciative of what they have, than they’ve ever been. When I say we can’t afford something right now, they get it. When we say there’s been a change in plans, they just sort of shrug and go along for a ride with us. And they are never daunted when someone doesn’t look or sound or speak like they do – travel teaches more than just spoken language. It teaches the language of the traveler: pack light, expect changes, and stay open to anything in your path.
MH: Thank you for speaking with Engaging Women Jennifer.Terrific yarn! I look forward to a glass of good Australian wine with you if you ever get to Australia. Martine