July 17, 2014

Profiles in Vigilante Living: Catharine Gill Overseas with Kids

PVL_GillIf 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.

A 1981 birthday party for her girls on the banks of the Seine, Paris.

A 1981 birthday party for her girls on the banks of the Seine, Paris.

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.

In Sendai, Japan with friends, 1985.

In Sendai, Japan with friends, 1985.

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!)

Catherine & her girls bicycling in Sendai 1985.

Catherine & her girls bicycling in Sendai 1985.

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.

With French friends in Clermont-Ferrand, 1991.

With French friends in Clermont-Ferrand, 1991.

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!”



May 9, 2014

Profiles in Vigilante Living: When in Doubt, Move to France


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?


Jennifer co-founded Sixty Vocab in 2013. One year later, Forbes named it “one of the top 5 start-ups to watch in 2014.”

MAIN_Jennifer Hill

France agrees with her, non?

Jenn Simon selfie 5 5 14

A selfie with her son this winter in Strasbourg.

Press a button

Cafe Berlin

Cafe Berlin, a favorite spot in Jennifer’s new adopted city.


Minimalist living in their Strasbourg flat. Roaming toehead toddler at bottom.

Mommie Son Coffee selfie

Cafe life.

Strasbourg Bateax Mouche

Strasbourg Bateax Mouche


April 24, 2014

The Expats of Tangier

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)









April 2, 2014

Vintage Vigilante

Vintage_Vigilante_6I 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.

August 14, 2013

Northern California Dreaming

coral_illos_Olivia JoffreyA few months back, I posted about Tiny Atlas Quarterly, a new online travel magazine that is revolutionary in it’s spare layout and poetic photography. San Francisco Bay Area photographer Emily Nathan founded Tiny Atlas Quarterly as an online project to collect new, sumptuously photographed work from locations all around the world. As it happens sometimes in the universe, I was subsequently invited by Tiny Atlas to provide custom illustrations this summer for this piece featured here called “Demystifying Abalone.” Shot in Jenner, California north of San Francisco Bay, Ms. Nathan tapped writer David Prior (formerly Director of Communications at Chez Panisse and the Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project) to explain the culture of abalone diving and the mollusk’s unique status as rare delicacy and skilled diver’s prize. It’s a private world, and Prior does a wonderful job cracking it open.

blue_geometry_Olivia Joffrey

NorCal House_Olivia Joffrey

canoe_geometry_Olivia Joffrey

Cutting the abalone_closeup

marine_overlay_Olivia Joffrey

Iso_Rabins_Olivia_Joffrey lettering

lettering2_orange bus_OliviaJoffrey

As a native Northern Californian (I’m from Santa Cruz, a surf town on the Monterey Bay) this project was an utter joy to work on. I’ll spare you a tome of Proustian memories of barking elephant seals that served as my alarm-clock through my bedroom window — but suffice it to say that I know this majestic landscape of ice plant and rocky coast like I know my own family. Emily Nathan has done it justice by capturing the messy seaweed waves, the unfinished, unfancy, salt-worn wood beach houses speckled along the cliffs, and the ruddy faces of surfers and divers who spend much of the day in a full wetsuit in the Pacific’s icy waters. I guess I am a bit homesick for Northern California. But at least I can spend some time on Tiny Atlas’ Jenner piece and let my eyes soak in the beauty. And dude, I am all over that orange WV bus.

July 2, 2013

Vigilante Television: VICE tv on HBO’s “Basketball Diplomacy”


I just watched the best television of my life. In general, Vigilante Living  does not find much of inspiration on the tele. But that was because we did not know about VICE tv on HBO. I stumbled upon VICE’s brilliant episode Basketball Diplomacy last night. This was hands down the most intelligent, creative and ballsy television reporting I have ever seen. Featuring none other than: The Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un, Dennis Rodman, the Harlem Globetrotters, and VICE’s irreverent non-basketball playing reporter. I don’t want to spoil the experience for you by describing it too much. But watch it. This is how VICE describes the Basketball Diplomacy episode:

“U.S. relations with North Korea have been strained to the breaking point by the country’s disturbing nuclear-weapons threats, backed by “supreme leader” Kim Jong-un’s anti-American rhetoric. Fortunately, Kim shares one of his late father’s passions: American basketball. With that in mind, and through official and backdoor channels, VICE organized an unlikely, highly publicized trip to North Korea, hoping to thaw out relations through some hoops diplomacy. With NBA great Dennis Rodman and a trio of exuberant Harlem Globetrotters in tow, VICE traveled to the capital of Pyongyang for a surreal tour of the city, a basketball clinic with under-18 players, an exhibition game witnessed by Kim and 10,000 adoring fans, and – most surprising – a first-ever meeting between the baby-faced leader and an American delegation.”

Where else can you get schooled in international relations, observe a monumental toast by Rodman face-pierced and all, and view a window into the world of the last communist stronghold? They even get drunk together after the basketball tournament. This is what Vigilante Living is about too: seeking substantial meaning, having cojones, thinking rebelliously, and finding yourself attracted to things that seemingly don’t go together until you actually mix them yourself.








All photographs courtesy of hbo.vice.com

May 24, 2013

Tiny Atlas Quarterly in a Big World


Tiny Atlas Quarterly is an online lifestyle travel magazine unlike any other you have seen. The brainchild of photographer Emily Nathan, Tiny Atlas began as the team effort of all the creatives Nathan had worked with during on-location photo shoots and projects over the years — the art directors, stylists, models, tech people — everyone who comes together at a shoot destination. As Nathan describes on Tiny Atlas, “As friends we work for clients and as friends we dine and travel the world together. It is rare that we come together professionally for projects of our own devising.” There are two things that I find unique about Tiny Atlas: the truly exquisite large-format photography (“stunning” is a fitting adjective) and the amount of heavy editing they do in their recommendations for each destination’s best lodging, restaurants and attractions. It’s like your best friend’s curated travel advice on the most original places to see when traveling. Not the Fodor’s version that will take you to places with other tourists watching a band of Peruvian pan flute players — when you’re nowhere near Peru.  If you are not currently suffering from wanderlust right now — Tiny Atlas will surely land you with a major case of the travel bug.












All photographs via Tiny Atlas (Photography by Emily Nathan. Collin Erie and Fiona Conrad.)

May 16, 2013

The Grand Bazaar – a Spitfiregirl’s Adventure

Hello Vigilantes!

I’m so excited to be back on Olivia’s blog, sharing something that is so near and dear to me – Istanbul. As Olivia alluded in our joint posts last week (seen here and here), I once lived in Istanbul. While it was many years ago, I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was just 23 when I arrived, spending almost 6 formative months learning not only about this amazing country, but about myself too.

From the sparkling Bosphorus, the impressive Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia (my art history favorite), to a new culture, cuisine and religion…Istanbul is truly a magical place. I spent a lot of time exploring, and one of the places I enjoyed the most was the Kapalıçarşı or The Grand Bazaar.  The Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets with a staggering 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops.

A few times a month, I’d jump in a dolmus (shared van/taxi) or the city bus and make the journey to Eminönü, part of the walled city of Constantine – where the Grand Bazaar is located. Looking back, I’m pretty darn impressed that I did that alone…so very vigilante of me!


Eminönü (now part of the Fatih District) is my favorite part of Istanbul.

The entrance to the Grand Bazaar

The main entrance to the Bazaar, which sees between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily.

Inside the Grand Bazaar

Inside the Bazaar, the national flag and banners of Atatürk – the first president of modern Turkey – are everywhere.


One of my first memories of the Bazaar was of all the mosque lamps. So enchanting.


Pottery, Tiles and the Turkish Eyes.


So much to experience at the Grand Bazaar.

If this post has whet your appetite for all things Turkey, check out Olivia’s post on Spitfiregirl, for a beautiful roundup of turkish textiles!

Heidi  / Spitfiregirl

Images found here