I thought this New York Times Magazine piece was rather poetic. I suppose also in part because I don’t have to partake in the clean-up effort.
I thought this New York Times Magazine piece was rather poetic. I suppose also in part because I don’t have to partake in the clean-up effort.
If you’re lucky, there is one teacher from your years in school who whose lessons become part of who you are. For me that person was Catharine Gill, my high school English teacher whose exacting standards were legendary: from a shabby room at my surf-rat public high school in Santa Cruz, California, Mrs. Gill taught us how to write in the classic Strunk and White fashion, with potent verbs and very few adjectives. “When you do use them,” she’d say, “they will hold more import.” How true! (If only I spoke as well as she taught me to write…) Aside from being a great teacher, Catharine introduced us to literature from around the globe (i.e. Yukio Mishima The Sound of Waves in 10th grade) which was only a natural move for a worldly woman who grew up abroad, primarily in Japan. That country’s influence seems still a part of her. Catharine has a quick but delicate stride like a Japanese woman in a narrow kimono. Similarly, her elegant, upright handwriting always struck me as shodo-esque.
For the purposes of this article, Vigilante Living interviewed Catharine on the topic of moving overseas with children, which she orchestrated on a regular basis for her family from the toddler years up to high school. Their two daughters enrolled in foreign schools, assimilated with the local kids, learned to speak French and Japanese; and as a family, they built lasting friendships that continue to this day. While some things may have changed since their travels in the 1980s and 1990s (i.e. the internet), many issues she addresses here are still entirely relevant and useful to Vigilante families looking to set up shop overseas for a period of time. Living abroad with my family has always been a dream of mine — to escape America for a bit and taste the world for longer than a vacation. Here we have some practical, anecdotal advice from a seasoned expert.
Young Means Flexible
In 1980 when their girls were ages 1 and 3, the Gills moved to Paris where Prof. Gill had a year-long academic appointment. They found a furnished apartment in the 5th Arrendisement with a pre-school, called an Ecole Maternelle, just a fifteen minute walk away. Catharine says everything school-related depends on your address in Paris: the creche near their apartment proved too difficult to get in to, so the Ecole Maternelle became their elder daughter’s school for the time they lived in Paris. The ecole maternelle (paid for by the state) was wonderful and diverse — there were many foreigners from African immigrants in headscarfs to Polish refugees to glossy Parisian mothers — all mingling together at pickup time. With classes taught entirely in French, their daughter began speaking in French without issue very quickly. One of the most beneficial aspects of moving to a foreign country when your children are little, she explained, is how easily they will pick up the language.
Culturally, the children absorbed an abundance too. Catherine tells an amusing story about a babysitter who got lost and arrived late to pick up her three year old, only to find her sitting at a table with the other little French kids calmly eating a plate of fruit and cheese… with a fork and knife! The teacher held the sitter at the door despite the child being due home: “Please wait here. We do not want to disturb her digestion.” (Can you imagine an American preschool passing out knives at snack time?)
The Gills’ neighborhood, the 5th Arrendisement, turned out to be an education in itself. Daily walks to the market required passing an ancient Roman arena, old men playing boule, and funnily enough, Francois Mitterand’s flat. Catharine was actually approached by the Prime Minister one day, as she stood with her children trying to see what the commotion was all about outside his door (a flurry of press had gathered due to an international incident); he came to shake the pretty young mother’s hand and snap, snap, snap, her picture ended up in the paper! These are the kinds of adventures and stories that are the byproduct of plucking your family out of its comfy routines and into someplace entirely new.
Parisian life was not without some annoyances. Their flat was lovely, but on the fourth floor of a walkup building. Getting laundry done meant that Catharine would be required to bring her toddler down the four flights of stairs to the laundromat across a busy Paris boulevard. Clothes themselves sometimes did not last the whole trip as a child grew. But overall, the French were entirely welcoming, remembers Catharine. They made a special elderly friend in their building who became the girls’ adopted Parisian grandmother, writing a book with illustrations for them, and inviting them to her family’s vineyards in the countryside. “I want you to meet one of my peasants” she told them in French. (They stood there, shocked, at this description of her dear employee.) The old woman then introduced them to an elderly gent from the vineyard who shared detailed stories of his WWII experience of the Nazi occupation right there where they were standing. These are the kind of experiences one is not likely to have shuttling to school and back in the safe routine of one’s own country. By taking a risk, and moving somewhere out of the comfort zone, one cannot avoid gaining a wider, more holistic view of the world we live in.
Preparing for An Overseas Move
As a family connected to a University, the Gills typically rented their house in the US to a visiting professor for the year that they moved abroad. Getting ready for the new tenant was a massive undertaking in and of itself: putting away personal items and packing heirlooms, setting up beds with linens, emptying kitchen cupboards, and storing good furniture and special possessions in an upstairs bedroom that remained locked for the period of the rental. The Paris end of the planning was not simple either; the housing in France needed to be obtained before they left (this is an easier task now due to websites like vrbo.com and homeaway.com ), and certain visa paperwork sorted out prior to departure. Catharine said it would have been impossible to prepare for moving overseas with toddlers without a babysitter and a serious chunk of time to get everything ready. “At least two weeks to properly prepare,” she said.
Traveling with Elementary School Age Children
About five years after their year in Paris, the Gills moved to Japan for another year’s adventure abroad. Now in elementary school, the young girls were more aware (perhaps a bit apprehensive too) of the forthcoming transition to a new country, language, customs, and a new school away from their friends. One trick Catharine said helped her girls prepare was to play Japanese language tapes in the car while still in America — several months before they actually moved to Japan. “We just made them listen to the language tapes while we wre driving to school or on a long trip to the mountains for skiing.” It worked. As much as the girls resisted having to listen to the tapes, Japanese was much easier to master once they arrived due to the extra bit of familiarity. And just as in Paris, the girls made friends immediately in Sendai and later Toyko, nestling right into their school community. Catharine, having grown up in Japan herself, was likely a very useful cultural guide for the family in navigating Japanese customs — but in many respects, children are children and like to make friends. Play is a language in and of itself.
As a teacher by profession, Catharine took the initiative to supplement her girls’ curriculum while they were living in Japan so they could sit in class and absorb Japanese all day without concern about grades. Asking them to learn fractions in Japanese, for example, was asking too much. So she and her husband taught lessons to them outside of class, while the girls focused on language and being a part of the classroom community when they were in school. It took some charm and finagling to get her kids into the school under the conditions she saught, but once the teachers understood their unusual situation, they acquiesced. School in Japan is Monday through Saturday, and includes a regulation backpack, hat, pencils, and all other sorts of conformity. The girls found this shocking, even a bit oppressive. At the same time, they cam running to her saying, “Can we dye our hair black?” after having been hounded by schoolmates crying out “Shiny gold! Shiny gold!” and touching their blonde hair. But as kids do, they adjusted. The Gills even arranged to take the girls out of school for a month’s vacation to Fiji where they convened with family for the holidays. (These are the kinds of things you can do when you’re already halfway around the world: quick Christmas trip to Fiji!)
Grooming a World Traveler
Over the following five years, the Gills traveled again to France (this time to Clermont-Ferrand in Central France) while the girls were in 7th and 9th grade. This third round of expat living, and second round of life in France gave their daughters some of their most lasting friendships. In looking back on the experience of moving her family overseas for these sabbaticals, Catharine says, “Perspective breeds confidence.” I could not agree more. As children see more of the world, they feel more certain of their place in it, while gaining a fondness (or at least appreciation) for people unlike themselves. Both Gill daughters went to college overseas (in Scotland and New Zealand, respectively) which bespeaks a certain thirst for even more world travel beyond these early experiences.
Catharine’s Tips for Parents Planning a Year Overseas
1. Get your paperwork in order early. Some countries require visas and other paperwork you may not think you’d need. Recently, Catharine was given a hard time by German immigration because her wedding certifiicate was a xerox. Read the fine print!
2. Talk to people who have lived in that foreign country recently and get the scoop on bank accounts, visas, and other logistical things.
3. In terms in daily life, it really helps if one parent can be with/in charge of the children while the other is working. It would be nearly impossible to manage everything with both parents working.
4. For the parent who is with the kids: when they are in school, take a language class in the native tongue and make some friends; enroll in a class at the local university; offer English lessons to other local families in exchange for lessons in their language.
5. When you’re back in the states, offer up your home to a foreign exchange student. It’s another great way to experience other cultures — especially during the more scholastically rigid high school years when overseas travel may not be prudent for your children (SATs, course requirements, etc).
I see this way of living as incredibly expansive: it’s good to get to know your own country, but it’s important get out of it occasionally too. And not just on vacation. A week’s holiday abroad is like smelling a wine’s bouquet. Living abroad for a year is to actually drink the bottle. I commend those who jerry-rig their careers to make these kind of overseas moves possible for their families. It’s not easy. It takes planning. But it’s incredibly Vigilante: the gifts that living abroad brings one’s children cannot be underestimated. Things like a world-view that extends beyond the soccer team roster, a dose of world history, the context of geography, learning another language, friendships… I am determined to make this part of my family’s story too.
Thank you to Catharine for sharing these wise words with Vigilante Living. And Catharine, please do not hesitate to correct my grammar. As I always say, “I am a learning organization!”
There is a Vigilante movement a-brewing of creative, entrepreneurial mothers who are balancing work, kids, self-expression and holding down the fort. These women now have an online home in the invention of SpitfireMom, a place for documenting, celebrating and growing as women, mothers and creative professionals. As Co-founders Heidi Yarger and Julie Schumacher describe the Society, “At SpitfireMom, we’re all about the juggle and the hustle—that balance of being yourself, a creative, a mom, a friend, and a partner. Of meeting the needs of clients and kids. Of pursuing passions with relentless energy. Of taking time to prioritize yourself. Of getting it done, whether that’s a Pilates session or a strategy session. We feature fresh content for and by creative working moms who do things with style. Design, fashion, fitness, career, home, relationships, products, tips & tricks—it’s all here.” I like this movement. I think it’s important.
Check out the feature on the lauded photographer Elizabeth Messina, or how Rena Tom of Makeshift Society has been multi-tasking, or how to make a totally original “campfire” birthday party with designer and photographer Kelly Allison. I even wrote a piece on my experience in The Sandwhich – a reference to being caught in the Sandwhich Generation scenario between caring for little kids and ailing elderly parents all at once. Hint: my saving grace was to ADD something to my life (a business) — not to subtract anything important!
So my hat is off, WAY OFF to these dear friends of mine Heidi and Julie — for creating this community and making my journey feel like that of a killer posse of likeminded smart mothers.
Spitfiremom Society site.
My friend Dana Sherwood is a financial services guru who leverages her digital prowess both in her career and personally for fun. She has a lot of friends and even more colleagues. So when she posted a Facebook video a couple weeks back which proffers that as a whole generation, we are collectively missing out on life by looking down at our phones, it struck me as a dramatic change of heart. Like Anthony Bourdain swearing off pork. But then I watched the video and it struck such a chord that I feel the need to act. I implore you, your kids and everyone you know to watch this film. The video is called Look Up and was written and directed by Gary Turk, an English filmmaker. Naturally, the film went viral. (Yes, the irony of its dissemination is not lost.)
This is not my first rant about cell phones. Not looking up is something we accept as a part of our new reality because we’re all complacent in the technology we swim in: heads down, connecting via these tiny glowing screens while the actual real world passes us by, unnoticed and tuned-out. I immediately felt that Dana and I had a project brewing, a project about being “social without Social” as Dana calls it. This is the new regimen we committed to following for a month, taking note of how it impacts our lives: (1) Making/ receiving iPhone calls is OK, (2) Texts OK (preferably just once a day to respond), (3) ALL other email, social media apps are OFF. In essence, one’s phone becomes a dumb phone for a month –and if a dire need to reference something on Google or check in with Facebook arises, do it while you’re back sitting at a computer. Not on your smart phone. For one month, Dana and I have agreed to take this challenge. Would you like to join us? Who knows what magic awaits us in looking up. I plan to carry a cute little Moleskin notebook. We’ll check in afterward with our experiences and observations. Let’s look up!
If ever a couple were to embody the unconventional joie de vivre of rebel stationer Vigilante Paper it would be Abigail and Nathaniel. The bride, Abigail, is a twin: it was her sister Rachael, who contacted Vigilante Paper and ordered two sets of invitations for her as an act of sisterly love (or perhaps to remove one less task from her plate). It occurred to me that only a twin, this sacred co-inhabitant of the womb, could possibly know a person well enough to select her wedding stationery. For two events! This weekend the couple was featured in the Chicago Sun Times’ Chicago SPLASH Magazine for both the unique story of their union and the cool, unfussy way they celebrated their marriage. The Chicago Sun Times piece says it best, but in brief, this is a real-life, hold-the-cliches story, which touches on the following topics in roughly this order: two young people living abroad in their twenties doing exciting work benefiting the others (she as a medical social worker and he as an English teacher), then fall in love in Vietnam, travel together more until Abigail must return to the States. She is quite sick. It turns out to be cancer. They remain together, she beats cancer (YES!), they become engaged (YES!) and together make a commitment to share a lifetime together in two joyous, unconventional celebrations in both Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin (they are both graduates of University of Wisconsin, Madison). The bride wore a stunning Mary Katrantzou dress which, does bear a likeness to Vigilante Paper’s Kaleidoscope suite (sample pictured below). My very best wishes to a lovely,original couple who had their wedding their own way! (Photography courtesy of the Chicago Sun Times.)
Entrepreneur Jennifer Hill, today’s featured Profile in Vigilante Living, looks like an international Bond girl but is actually a JD/MBA who’d crush 007 in any meeting of the minds. In short, Ms. Hill is as capable as she is gorgeous. She is also a sucker for Europe. So it did not surprise me when this New Yorker ditched her high-powered legal career to launch the language startup www.sixtyvocab.com. Sixty Vocab (named by Forbes as “One of the Top 5 Startups to Watch in 2014”) is a smart new online (soon-to-be-mobile) foreign language vocab building tool that gives flashcards a facelift to get users conversational faster. The site is already hot in education, volun-tourism, and with travelers. And who do you suppose is walking the walk, living in Strasbourg, speaking French, while she builds this business? Oh yes she is.
As capable & skilled as Jennifer Hill is, one might expect this working mother who (1) just launched a startup, and (2) whose New York City condo is being gutted (3) all while she is pregnant to be a wee bit daunted by the amount on her plate. Hell no! Why? She moved to Strasbourg in the middle of all the flux: “I wanted to change everything at once,” explained Jennifer. “Work, house, commitments .” “So…. we moved to France!” The family took a flat in Strasbourg temporarily, and employing the flexibility of the internet, Jennifer manages her duties as Co-Founder and CEO and keeps tabs of the remodel all from her computer overlooking a sunny courtyard outside her Strasbourg home office whilst her son plays and learns French. “The goal was to reduce stress while I was pregnant,” Jennifer says, “so getting out of New York, and my day-job, pursuing my dreams, and not micro-managing the remodel was how we solved for that. I know, it’s counter intuitive!”
Everyone who remodels says to not live through the experience. But they don’t usually suggest leaving the country. How Vigilante is that? LEAVE the country while your contractor rebuilds your home. “It forced me not to monitor the project too closely and choose a contractor who was communicative and savvy with technology.” Jennifer explains. “Leaving everything created more focus. My husband and I are each living out of a single suitcase. Life is so much simpler! I look better every day because I brought only a few nice things.” It’s a lesson in editing: living with less can make you happier. Letting go of control can keep you more focused. Less is more.
And France, as it turns out, is a perfect place for Jennifer to be more focused. Away from her positions on tech company and non-profit Advisory Boards in New York, and a bustling social life, it’s a more serene existence. She walks to the local Strasbourg markets, takes her son to neighborhood parks, and sits in cafes admiring the historic architecture. There was more to be gained by letting go and gaining some perspective. “I’m building my company and using the product every day. I’m trusting that our home will be done in time, and just savoring these moments with my son. I have a sitter and work when he sleeps. “You can change your life!” says Jennifer. ” Press a button and you can have a whole new life.” Sometimes we forget that we are capable of dramatic change. Thanks for reminding us, Jennifer, to let go a little and have an adventure. A very Vigilante notion, non?
In case you missed the last issue of the Sunday New York Times’s T Magazine (April 13, 2014) there is a most remarkable article about the eccentric Expats of Tangier. Their homes remind me of my parent’s way of decorating a house: consisting primarily of books, colorful mismatched paintings, textiles, prints, trinkets and gifts given to them over the years — and most importantly mementos from their travels and years living abroad. Homes like these feel real to me: they are accurate reflections of the people living in them rather than the vision of an interior designer (who provides his or her own ideas of what “interesting” look like.) In the Editor’s Letter in this same issue, Deborah Needleman does a superb job defining what is so anemic about the term “personal style” and why is is so meaningless. Nobody says this, but you really have to read, travel and DO something to have style. You don’t have to have money, but you have to be interested in the world. You can’t just go to a store and buy real style. Those are the hard and fast rules, it seems. These expats are immensely appealing. I wonder if Moroccan Tangerines living in the US would have as much to soak in and make their own? It would be an interesting experiment. Maybe they would turn their two-car garages into lush courtyards with tiled floors.
The Times also made the video (above) which captures what brought these expat individuals to this famous Moroccan city of light. There is certainly a lot in the piece about how they live. Much can also be gleaned from the unbelievable photography of these peoples Tangerine homes, shot by Will Sanders. The Times also put out the video, above, which leaves me breathless for a trip to this North African city. (All photography by Will Sanders)
Sometimes I really do get lucky. Last week I had the great fortune to bump into the photographer Paul Lange and his wife Jennifer in the cafeteria at the Chicago Botanic Garden. They were visiting from New York, having been invited by the The Botanic Garden to exhibit a series that Lange has been working on for the last few years entitled Big Blooms. The Big Blooms series (on exhibit at the CBG through April) is as much a celebration of the miracle of flowers as fine art portraiture. Each flower is captured on a white background, as to illuminate the insane color palette of nature. I found the transparency of each subject’s petals to be mesmerizing. The scale of these pieces is dramatic. Each flower piece is enormous, as big as a tabletop, the bloom being centered on the piece like a face. Jennifer Lange explained to me that each flower is named after subjects (often models) that Paul, a longtime fashion photographer for Conde Nast, worked with. The Bette, for example is a straight-up Bette Midler. I mean dead- on, with such personality! The Paulina is very much evocative of Paulina Porizkova, the Czech model.
It’s a Vigilante-esque story, Paul’s transition from fashion photography at the highest levels in the field (on contract with Vogue, etc.) to a more personally-directed fine art career based on his passions. He now does what he loves. I asked Paul about it, and we joked that it was nice to have the freedom to work with people you like. One of their early collectors has been Aerin Lauder of the Estee Lauder makeup empire, whom they have enjoyed working with. I will have to post separately about his Fowl Portraits series, which, like Big Blooms, captures the personalities of chickens and roosters, illuminating their majestic colors and plumes but against a black background that given them a certain gravitas.
On a sidenote, why is it that brilliance often occurs when an expert in his/her field attempts something slightly off-topic? Like the seasoned fashion photographer turning to nature as his subject (Paul Lange) or the experienced New Yorker cartoonist turning to illustrating children’s books (Ian Falconer), etc. There is a nugget in there. Like, own your field but then shift just slightly off center to find your sweet spot. I just have not sorted out just what this formula is. But in the meantime, soak in some beauty on Paul Lange’s site and get yourself primed for the budding of spring.
Place in a blender: a skateboard, 1970s shag carpet, color-saturated Pantone color, and the grit of a former Olympian. Blend until the you’ve created the most Vigilante sports company in recent memory, Shaggo Skateboards, the world’s first shag carpet-embedded deck mini-cruiser. Today in Profiles in Vigilante Living, we feature Jeff Atkinson, whose company Shaggo offers a funky, unconventional take on a traditional skateboard. I personally have not ridden one yet, but I’m tempted to buy one to just hang in my living room — Shaggo boards look like the love child of Eva Hesse and Stacy Peralta. Jeff himself is a Stanford-educated former Olympic runner (Seoul 1988) who grew up surfing and skating as a byproduct of his Manhattan Beach sunny-weather sport upbringing. “Lots of people made a shag board when I was a kid,” he explains. But when Jeff started making carpeted skateboards for his own kids and their friends, people started asking him to make them one. Soon it became evident that the seed of a business lay in this hobby. He tinkered with the design, enlisting several fabricator until the Shaggo could be made with the carpet embedded into the wood deck itself. In fall of 2013 Shaggo launched a successful Kickstarter campaign, and now –boom— the company is alive, kicking, and showing up all over the skate scene.
Skateboarding itself is rebel sport. Remember the iconic bumper sticker “Skateboarding is Not a Crime”? Skateboarding’s eau de parfum is Rebellion. Ever since little kids began shredding in empty pools in backyard suburban houses, it has been a sport of risk takers. But what is supremely Vigilante to me about about Jeff’s invention of Shaggo Skateboards is the whimsical, “go barefoot”, be wacky and happy vibe of Shaggo. This seems to fly in the face of skateboarding’s hardcore persona. Meanwhile, the Shaggo is constructed as a serious piece of sporting equipment with all the elements a skater would look for. Atkinson explains the sensation of riding a Shaggo as very smooth. Shaggo’s “cushy shag treated decks actually reduce vibration and road noise, are plush under foot, and provide an ultra-fluid glide.” I mean, who needs a safety-pinned earlobe? I’d prefer my unconventional rebellion to provide some comfort. And in a loud color. And beckon me to stay barefoot all day.
I came across this 1968 Life Magazine at a used magazine shop — the Vintage Vigilante cover spoke to me. Two Californians on the cover look like they were snapped today, hipster beard and all. The main article is called “Young American Nomads Abroad” and covers anti-establishments young adults living in a cave in Crete, among other European destinations. The piece highlights the movements of the restless young people of this period who sought to escape the horror of the Vietnam War, the rise of American materialism, and maybe just to cut out on responsibility. But I find their search for something different admirable. Even if they came back and took desk jobs in the end. Settling can be OK as long as you’ve examined the alternatives. Like living in a cave. How can you know the nuances of your own culture if you’ve never experienced the context of the larger world?
How many of you wonder what might have been had you taken a wild leap off the career path? Like all my friends, I took a great job after leaving college: a corporate job in New York City where I got to wear a suit, act glamorous, and pay off college debt. And cry at 1:00am in my cubicle, exhausted, because my spreadsheet wasn’t done. What a waste of youthful exuberance! I wonder sometimes if at that tender age after college, I’d have taken the road less traveled and done something more Vigilante. Something my friends and college professors would have deemed careless and irresponsible: like postpone the debt payments to see the world a little and draw. Sure, I lived abroad later in my 20s, and I’m loving my career now with Vigilante Paper, but wish I’d taken a larger leap away from Western culture right then at 20, if just for a few years. My advice to my own children will be to ignore what is “expected” or “normal” — that stuff is just fabricated. Instead, I’ll tell them, pay attention to your passions, your unique eccentricities that make you YOU and dig deeper into themes and topics you’ve always found interesting. And most of all, do something a little bit scary: write your role model a letter, get on a plane to somewhere very different from the US, and do something that challenges you and your thinking. Because that is where growth is born. The Vintage Vigilantes in this 1968 piece were on to something; if you widen your scope of experiences, you’re sure to widen your own mind. This is the Vigilante mindset.