Thursday, 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 and ), 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!”



  1. Devon Simone says:

    As a former student of Ms. Gill, I LOVED reading about her adventures abroad. It makes me want to pick up and run… basically anywhere!

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