A Family’s Life in Exile

I write this column not from my usual perch: a cramped corner desk in our kids’ playroom, atop an inflated Swiss ball to ease my middle-aged back, overlooking our backyard trampoline and weed collection. Instead, my laptop sits on a balcony on the Island of Elba in Italy. I can see a huge steel cross atop a craggy red ridge. The sounds and smells of Porto Azzurro waft up the street on the warm Mediterranean air. I could get used to this.

Before we caught the ferry here, all I knew about Elba was that Napoleon had been exiled to the Italian island after one of his defeats. Nine months later, he escaped to try to regain control of France. Why he wanted to leave is beyond me.

Our family is here in “exile” of our own. In early September, we abandoned the routines of home and work and school. Elba is one stop on a seven-week jaunt through Italy, France and Spain. We have been living out of carry-on suitcases as we hopscotch our way, from Rome to Barcelona, around the northern rim of Europe’s Mediterranean coast.

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As a teacher, I usually can’t travel in the fall—my favourite time to hit the road—but this autumn we had a unique window of opportunity: a study leave, a job hiatus for my wife, and our kids both in those malleable middle-school years when they are old enough to remember the trip and young enough to want to spend two months with their parents 24-7. A few years from now, their increasingly independent lives will leave us behind.

Immediately after I booked the flights, though, I had second thoughts. Would our extended time away from Victoria disrupt the kids’ progress in school and music and sports? (Their teachers all agreed: go forth and learn on the road!)

How could we justify the expense of seven weeks travelling through Europe? Think of what we could buy with the money we’d blow on train fares and museum tickets. A new-ish car! A weedless backyard! (But psychologists all agree: spending money on experiences, rather than things, is the key to happiness.)

And would we all get along? How would we react as a family when scrambling to catch connections or squeezing into hobbit-sized rental suites? When we were cut off from friends and the comforts of home? When nobody can escape daddy’s snoring—ever?

Those are questions we’re still working out. But as we enter week four of our travels together, the trip feels less like an extended vacation and more like something different—a formative experience that is deepening our relationships in ways we won’t understand until we’re home. Exile can give you a new perspective on life.

Yes, our family still has difficult negotiations: how many museums and galleries the kids are willing to visit, how many gelatos we will let them eat in a week. But our collective curiosity deepens with each day.

To keep up with school, the kids are researching our different stops and writing a travel blog. They are picking up bits of Italian, learning heaps of history and experiencing a culture distinct from their own. Their highlight so far has been a four-hour cooking lesson, in which they made fresh pasta and pesto and tiramisu, while listening to the complex history and philosophy of the Chianti region from our garrulous guru in a kitchen that overlooked her family’s olive groves. Their jaws dropped when they learned that many Italian middle-schoolers socialized over an hour-long, three-course lunch every day. Yum!

And after my pre-departure jitters, I feel more relaxed than in years. It’s a such a pleasure to slow down and watch closely as these suddenly-not-so-little people—at 13, our son no longer qualifies for the bambino discounts in Italy—absorb the world around them and develop distinct passions and opinions.

I’ll miss our life in exile. But I look forward to returning home so I can listen to what new stories our kids will tell from their time on the road.

David Leach
David Leachhttp://davidleach.ca/
David Leach is a professor in the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria and author of Chasing Utopia.