In July of 2016 I found myself facing questions I couldn’t answer at a customs counter in the Prague airport, and I looked at my husband, son, and daughter and realized I knew exactly where I felt most at home in the world.
Tsh Oxenreider, an author and podcaster who has become a significant voice in my life these days, just released a book this week called “At Home In the World,” and as part of her book release launch, she has asked her readers and listeners to consider where they feel most at home in the world and to share their thoughts. When I first heard her question, I had two or three significant places come to mind immediately. My family’s farm in central Saskatchewan. Nose Hill park overlooking the Calgary skyline. Walking our old street nestled under Mount Cheam in the Fraser Valley. All those places hold a special place in my heart and were once places I lived. They are in many ways, places I’m from. But the truth is, they no longer feel exactly like home to me.
And then I remembered this moment last summer when I had my most intense feeling of contented at-homeness. We were leaving Abu Dhabi after 2 years as expats in the UAE. We were eventually returning to Canada, but were first setting out on a 6 week adventure in Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic. We landed at the Prague airport and the woman at the customs desk asked me if we lived in the UAE. Since we had just cancelled our visas and given up residency, I answered, “No, we don’t live there anymore.”
“So, you’re going to Canada?” she asked.
“Well, not for six more weeks.”
“So where do you live?” she asked as if it should be such an easy question to answer.
I looked at Dwayne and the kids and thought, “Where do we live?” We were residents of no country, we owned no home, we didn’t even have a rented apartment. We had some suitcases stored at a friend’s house, but otherwise we were just carrying our summer belongings. We actually lived nowhere.
I thought, though I wisely kept my thought silent, “Lady, right now we live right here in front of you.”
I don’t ever recall a time in my life where I felt so completely grounded in the present moment. I felt peace. I felt free. I felt at home in the world. My home was where I was presently standing, and I knew the next place I stood would be my next home.
The thing is, I’m 41 years old, and I’ve lived in 18 different homes in 4 different Canadian provinces and 2 different countries. All my life, wherever I’ve lived, I’ve felt home there. The truth is, I’m pretty good at creating a home. I’m a firm believer that we don’t have to look for a beautiful place, we make a place beautiful. We make it beautiful with our spirits and with the physical belongings that remind us most of who we are and what we love. I think back to some of the places I’ve lived, and they haven’t always been the most inspiring upon first glance. Even the most recent home we left in Al Ain was a pretty depressing discovery when we first arrived in the UAE. We cried the day we were given the keys to our assigned housing. But, two years later, we cried harder when we had to leave it. It had become home to us. More importantly, we had made it our home. With intention and effort, we had made it our home.
So, as I stood in front of the customs agent and considered our apparently homeless state, I felt such peace because I was confident that home would always come to us. “Us” being the key word. It turns out, wherever I land with Dwayne, Josiah, and Abby is where I feel most at home in the world.
We arrived back in Canada exactly 2 years after we left for Abu Dhabi. Of the 104 weeks we were gone, we traveled for 18. Not including the exploring we did around the UAE, we roamed the planet for the equivalent of 4 and a half months. People often commented on how amazing this must have been for our kids, which is partly true. Seeing so many countries and people and cultures has definitely impacted them, even if it takes them half a lifetime to recognize it. And there were countless interesting new experiences and tons of fun activities for them. But, I’m gonna let y’all in on a little secret, which pretty much every parent actually already knows deep down.
Traveling with kids is about as awesome as living at home with them.
You know what I’m sayin’? Its full of ups and downs. Of expectations, frustrations, and complications. It’s laughs and fights and great stories. It’s moments of amazing family bonding followed by reaching the end of your rope with family togetherness.
Our kids are truly amazing people. Honestly, they are incredibly flexible, open-minded, and patient. In all our travels they handled uncertainty, long waits/rides/flights, and glitches with poise. They agreed to every tour, day-trip, and itinerary we asked of them. Watching my little family breeze through airport security like a well-oiled machine made me smile every time. But they have their limits.
We hit those limits this summer.
After two years of intense travel, they just really didn’t want to see any more cathedrals or pretty views or cool city squares. Seeing street after street of beautiful European architecture just doesn’t make their soul sing like it does mine. They’re happy to be out for a few hours every day, but by this summer, that was about all they could handle. So we embraced that and all found our happy place. Because you know who’s not tired of cathedrals or views or city squares? Dwayne and I. We’d happily spend all day and all night out exploring, but we knew none of us would enjoy ourselves if we asked that of the kids this time around.
So, we found a new family travel groove. Day time plans, regroup at the apartment, night time plans. Kids choose one or both outings. Whenever they opt out, Jen & Dwayne enjoy date time. WIN-WIN-WIN-WIN!! Four happy campers.
The last stretch of our trip included 4 amazing European cities: Zagreb, Croatia; Budapest, Hungary; Vienna, Austria; and Prague, Czech Republic. Every day we enjoyed some family time out and about, and almost every day, Dwayne and I got to explore these cities on our own. (This piece of family travel heaven is brought to you by comfortable airbnb apartments, wifi, an almost-teenager, and two family cell phones.)
I had moments of wondering if this meant that all this travel was wasted on our kids, but this is just one issue on a long list of things I’m working on releasing control of. My kids’ experience of the countries we visited is just that- their own experience. Me forcing them to participate or berating them for not fully soaking up some amazing venue just isn’t going to help them appreciate it more. If Abby looks back one day and wishes she’d gone out more in Zagreb, she can choose to go back on her own. If Josiah wishes he’d said yes to the segway tour in Budapest, he can choose to go back another day and do it. Or not. Maybe they’ll never get these opportunities again, but that’s their lesson to learn. But, more likely than not, they won’t regret these things. They’re children who will vaguely remember the fun things they did do, the way they felt in each city, and the stories we gathered as a family.
Dwayne and I, however, are grown ups who soaked up all we could of these amazing cities. Zagreb far exceeded our expectations, Vienna was a bit of a disappointment although we managed to fill it with the Hansen version of family fun, and Budapest and Prague both blew us away. I could have done a blog post about each stop, but I’m gonna save those endless photos and stories for my photo album, spare you all the details, and share our highlight shots from each city. (Click or hover over any photo for a description.)
This leg of our trip wrapped up 2 years of world traveling adventures. Individually we all collected new insights and joyful moments, and as a family we made memories I know we’ll cherish and enjoy together for many years.
Sometimes there’s just so much to say about life, it feels impossible to start. I’m just gonna pick up where I left off with my last post. Eventually, maybe I’ll get all caught up again.
After 2 weeks on the Croatian coast (aka. God’s sweet gift to us), we spent 10 days in Ljubljana, Slovenia. We traveled there last year and loved it, so when Dwayne was looking for a spot to take his first level paragliding course, we knew the kids and I could happily spend over a week in that beautiful city. I call this second phase of our summer trip, the brainstorming phase. While we spent Croatia grieving and processing and coming around to immense gratitude, we spent Ljubljana investigating and dreaming of life possibilities upon return to Canada. We knew our goals and priorities for our life upon return, so how could we live those out? How can we focus on building God’s kingdom instead of our own? How can we pursue His joy in our life? How can we live on less than what we earn so that we’re truly free to serve and love and enjoy God’s blessings?
So while Dwayne spent his days sweating and climbing and jumping and flying, I spent my days researching and presenting him with a different idea every day.
We considered a lot of options. Could we live in an RV? How about a tiny home? Or maybe a mobile home? I have to say, I’m super proud of my family for working through this process. We were open to every one of these possibilities and we worked through a lot of ideas and clarified what is really important to each of us.
So. What did we choose? Now that we’re back in Chilliwack, how did it all unfold? Which option did we go with?
I’ll keep you posted.
We didn’t know the answer when we left Ljubljana, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself. We left Ljubljana with our heads swimming with possibilities. But in the midst of all the processing, we enjoyed the delights of Slovenia in an even deeper way than last summer. Slovenia is a lot like BC’s Fraser Valley- parks, lakes, rivers, and caves. But Ljubljana is full of European flair- castles, markets, monuments, and beautiful architecture. If you didn’t catch my recommendation fully enough last summer, let me reiterate: visit this country if you can. You won’t be disappointed.
Dwayne’s paragliding bunny hill. Climb hill loaded with equipment, set up, fly for 30 seconds, repeat.
Skocjan Caves, Slovenia. We couldn’t take photos in the main caverns, so this is all I’ve got. Some sights are too amazing for cameras anyway.
At Ljubljana’s annual beach volleyball tournament, under the shadow of the castle. We happened to be in Ljubljana last year for this tournament too. Maybe this should be our annual summer tradition.
My camera wasn’t out for most of this leg of our trip. It was full of regular life family days and down time. More of what we needed, when we needed it.
If you need some therapy after a sudden and unexpected life change, I highly recommend a couple of weeks on the coast of Croatia.
If you’ve been reading along lately, you know that we spent three very stressful and emotional weeks packing up our life in the UAE and saying goodbyes. In the midst of that storm, Dwayne accepted a teaching job back in Chilliwack for the fall and we had to decide what to do for the summer. Because we had anticipated still being in Al Ain this coming year, we had already planned and booked another 6 week European adventure. This year’s itinerary included Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Our flights and the deposits on 8 different apartments were non-refundable, so when we found out we wouldn’t be returning to the UAE, we had to decide quite quickly whether we would cut our losses and return to Canada for the summer, or use the money we’d already saved for the trip and carry on as planned. We figured it was highly unlikely that our family would ever get an opportunity to do this trip again, and hey, we’d need place to stay all summer anyway….so, Europe it is!
And honestly, the reality of our return to Canada was still sinking in, and we really felt we would benefit from some space and time to grieve the life we were leaving behind and prepare for our new life back home. Europe seemed like a pretty appealing buffer.
So we flew to Croatia and spent five days in Dubrovnik, aka the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” five days in Jelsa on the island of Hvar, and five days in Zadar, voted one of Europe’s best destinations of 2016, for good reason. We swam, scootered, hiked, ate, and strolled inspiring city streets. We slept, read, wrote, played, and talked. We bantered back and forth about what we’ll miss about the UAE, what we’re looking forward to about returning to Canada, and how our new life might look.
I sent a few of my friends a photo of me on the sea wall watching a sunset in Zadar and some of them commented on how relaxed I look. And that’s exactly how I felt. Relaxed. Content. At peace. That’s no small matter, all things considered. I feel blessed to have had the life experience we’ve had the last two years and ready to return, with new perspective and altered priorities. Croatian therapy. Worth every penny.
London is impressive. \im-ˈpre-siv\: deserving attention, admiration, or respect.
I know all my British friends are thinking, “Yes, of course it is, darling.” I’m adding fuel to the centuries old “Britain-is-the-center-of-the-world” fire, but seriously, I was so impressed.
I was impressed by the landmarks. Big Ben stopped me in my tracks, my jaw hung open the entire time I was in Westminster Abbey, I gaped at the crown jewels, I took dozens of photos of the Parliament building from the top of the London Eye, and I marveled at the unique beauty of the Tower Bridge.
I was impressed by the incredible scope of the museums and galleries. We only went in the Science Museum, the British Museum, and the British National Library, and there was simply too much for our brains to take in. Granted, I’m a westerner, but I was so struck by the vast influence this little nation has wielded over world history.
I was impressed by the coverage of London’s public transportation system. Underground, overground, trains, buses, and trams. There were multiple ways to get everywhere and we rarely waited more than 10 minutes for the next vehicle. It’s a fantastic system, and oh, oh, oh, how I wish Canadian cities were this easy to navigate without a car!
I was impressed by the musical, literary, and general entertainment history. The home of the Beatles, Sherlock Holmes, and Harry Potter. Every corner reeks of someone or something famous, from the past or present, fictional or non. London is a powerhouse of great creative thought.
London really grabbed my attention, admiration, and respect. \im-ˈpre-siv\
But even more impressive than London is the friendship that brought us to England this year. We started our trip with 3 nights in Bristol, visiting our friends Jon & Angie and their boys. They showed us the highlights of their great city and we caught a glimpse of their new life in the UK. We’ve known each other for 20 years now and each of our lives have taken so many different turns in that time, but I absolutely love sitting down with old friends and realizing that with all that’s changed, much is still the same. So much history. So much understanding. After 2 years of living in a new country and starting from scratch with every new relationship, it has become a sweet reprieve to be with good friends who know who we are and where we’ve come from. That kind of friendship also deserves attention, admiration, and respect.
For all our travels and the opportunities we’ve had to see new places and new things, nothing in our lives is more impressive than the beautiful people we’ve come to know and love.
Some of the beautiful sites of London.
At the Harry Potter Studios where all 8 movies were filmed. I could totally nerd out and write a whole post on this piece of awesome. I love HP and this was one of my trip highlights, for sure.
The fam soaking up the fun of London. Sherlock Holmes Museum, on top of the London Eye, at the Apollo Theatre after seeing Wicked, at the Tower of London hearing tales of real British history, on the Millenium Bridge, at the Alice In Wonderland exhibit at the British Museum, underground with the tube map, and with the actual Rosetta Stone.
My favorite London shot. My happy family at Piccadilly Circus, loving life.
It’s been a while, readers. I’ve thought of posting so many times, and never felt I could publicly say what was on my mind. So, it’s been a quiet stretch. But we went to Thailand for Christmas and it was so beautiful that I had to come and show you. 🙂 We Hansen’s have a bit of a reputation for travel mishaps, but these 10 days went off without a hitch. Well, there was that one bit with our ferry tickets taking us to the wrong part of the island and not having a ride or a phone number or an address.. But, that was a small glitch and nothing that a taxi and some Amazing Race skills couldn’t solve.
We started off with 2 days in Bangkok. We rode along the Chao Phraya River, visited the Grand Palace, enjoyed some delicious street food, rode a tuk tuk, and walked through the stimulating markets. We even topped off our visit by seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, complete with Thai subtitles. Bangkok was not really what I was expecting. I didn’t feel like the traffic was as scary as I’d heard. I never had to shade my children’s eyes from in-your-face sexual exploits. And I was never once more than a stone’s throw from a 7-11. It felt like a normal urban center, with it’s own claims to fame, of course. For example, that is one Grand Palace.
It’s a low res photo, but seeing this flick was a huge highlight. This experience included about half an hour of previews and Thai commercials, as well as standing to honor the king of Thailand. Memories.
After Bangkok, we took a 12 hour overnight train to Surat Thani. I wasn’t really sure how that whole situation was going to go down, but it was SO FUN! I mean, we slept like crap, but SO FUN!
Our cabin with the beds folded down. Pretty impressive. I was actually quite comfortable, it’s just that the train made a LOT of stops in the night and made very loud train noises. I should have seen that coming.. No matter- I highly recommend it. It’s a fraction of the cost of flying to the islands and it includes a night of accommodation. Deal!
After a night on the train, we took a bus, a ferry, and eventually a taxi to our island home for a week on Koh Samui.
Chillin’ on the boat enjoying our Christmas Lunch.
We climbed up to the 500 meter viewpoint to see the spectacular view. It was muddy and steep and took a lot of family encouragement, but we were pretty proud of ourselves. We’re sweaty, salty, sandy, and muddy in this photo, but the view was so worth it.
I have so many photos, over the years, of my kids playing in water, but I can’t help myself. These crashing waves were one of the best parts of our day.Christmas dinner: pizza, pasta, chicken cordon bleu, mashed potatoes, veggies, and fruit shakes. Those are 4 happy Hansens right there.
One of the restaurants on the Maenam beach lets you paddleboard for free on Sundays, when you enjoy a meal or drinks there. So, we gladly ordered some lunch and spent hours playing around. Eventually, we just ordered dinner too. I’ve been wanting to try paddleboarding for years, and it went a lot better than I expected. I didn’t even fall off! Dwayne, on the other hand, hardly stayed up, but I managed to catch this photo, so I could have kept that a secret from you all.
Our kids took to it right away. Josiah probably stayed on for 2 hours straight. He was even giving out free rides.
On our last day, our host, Ron, took us on a day trip around Koh Samui to see both the popular spots, and the lesser known places that he loves. We experienced an early morning market, beautiful temples, mountain top views, elephants, waterfalls, and a lot of lovely people serving us delicious food.
Ron thought a family photo with this famous rock that looks like a penis would be a perfect shot for our Christmas card next year. 😉 Now if you can possibly ignore that poor rock, you’ll see the 4 of us at the end of a vacation where everything went right. We’re so grateful for what we hope is only our first taste of Thailand.
We ended our first European adventure with 5 nights in Germany. Though we were initially looking to stay in Munich, we soon discovered that accommodation there was also a bit out of our price range, so we moved our search to nearby Augsburg. I was telling Mel about our trip planning progress and she reminded me that she has a good friend who lives in Augsburg. To make a long story short, we connected and made arrangements for our family to use her lovely home while they were away on holidays. Though we stayed in apartments instead of hotels all summer, there was something exceptionally welcoming about coming to an actual lived-in family home after a month of traveling. Lots of toys, a fully stocked kitchen, board games, and even family bikes. In a way, it felt like we slipped back into our Unity Drive life for 5 short days.
We took two fantastic day trips, and spent the other half of our time exploring Augsburg, biking by the river and around the neighborhood, playing at the park, and having some down time at the house. It felt like summer back at home. (Except for those visits to the castle and the concentration camp…)
As we packed up to leave our beautiful Augsburg home I was full of conflicting emotions. I was disappointed that our vacation was coming to a close. It felt hard to imagine returning to real life routines and making our own dinners. I was nostalgic for Canada, BC, Chilliwack, and specifically, our house, which is no longer our house. I was tired. Five weeks is a long time away from my own space and personal things, but it’s also a long stretch full of daily activities. Which meant that mostly, I felt ready to go home. And home for me meant our little apartment in our little desert city in our little middle eastern country. It’s pretty great how our hearts find ways to plant themselves, even in very arid soil.
Back in the airport after a summer of trains and buses. We took a short flight from Munich to Rome where we connected the next morning to Abu Dhabi. These two have become super skilled at navigating airports, train stations, bus stations, and ferry stations.
This truly was a trip of a lifetime. So many visions and dreams turned into reality. Gratitude. I’m all full.