Category Archives: How-to

Thinking about taking a family sabbatical?

Lake Nahuel HuapiWe had a great experience during our 15-week sabbatical in Argentina.

While I hope you can get some useful information from my posts, I’d like to recommend the web site Radical Family Sabbatical as a resource that is valuable no matter where you are thinking of going. Matt Scherr created the site after his family completed a 21-month sabbatical in Ecuador, and he is committed to helping other families figure out how to make a “wouldn’t it be great” conversation reality. The site includes case studies (aka actual family sabbatical stories), tools for planning and conceptualizing, and lots of encouragement.

Go for it!

Perder chispa

This afternoon a forest fire started on Cerro Otto, a mountain peak in the middle of a residential area. Low humidity, little rain, and less than average snow fall for the last two years make for tinder-dry conditions.

This afternoon a forest fire started on Cerro Otto, a mountain peak in the middle of a residential area. Low humidity, little rain, and less than average snowfall for the last two years make for tinder-dry conditions.

We are ready to go home.

We are done trying to recreate the food we would eat at home (impossible) and unwilling to eat like Argentines.

We are done—for now—expecting that we will make significant improvements in our Spanish (except for Lou, who has a true immersion experience every weekday).

We are done being on vacation and not having the income or the sense of purpose that come from work, nor the comfort and sense of connection that come from having family and real friends nearby.

Our challenge is to make good use of the two weeks we have left and not think too much about home and the dried cherries, peanut butter, black beans, Yukon Gold potatoes, sourdough bread, asparagus, assorted cheeses, and Mexican food we will immediately buy.

Un gran salto adelante

In the early days of this blog I wrote about Lou’s tantrums with a degree of truthfulness that he likely wouldn’t appreciate. So now I feel bound to provide an equally truthful, though more flattering, update.

IMG_00875Lou is an introvert, which means he prefers one-on-one interaction or small groups to large groups. He is also an only child who has spent a lot of time with adults, and in new situations he almost always gravitates toward a teacher or other adult first. When we arrived in Argentina, we described Lou as very shy. He had friends at preschool with whom he played easily, but at birthday parties with those same kids it could take him an hour to get comfortable. At the park he would avoid the swings or slide if there were other kids around. Since he’s bright, talkative, silly and well-adjusted with us, we started to wonder if he might have social anxiety.

Then we threw him into the mosh pit at Primeros Pasos with his untested Spanish. He latched onto his teacher who indulged him with extra attention, but he didn’t really make any friends. Then one Friday Lou’s teacher mentioned that she was leaving to spend the summer with her daughters on the coast. We were worried, but the next Monday was the start of “colonia,” which meant there was a week of fun, distracting activities. Then things changed and the kids began a daily diet of Madagascar 3, Brave and Pinocchio.

We complained to ourselves every day and couldn’t bear to have Lou spend more than a few hours at Primeros Pasos, which meant he got only a few hours a day in the presence of kids his age and only a few hours of Spanish. This past Monday Pete dropped Lou off and got a noncommittal answer to his question about whether there would be recess outside, so he walked straight to a preschool we’d visited in November. They had been closed over the holidays and were starting their colonia that day. A child had just dropped out (maybe the son of some Americans we met recently?), creating a space for Lou in their all-day program. They do not have a TV. It is closer to our casita. It was meant to be.

When we told Lou about the new school, Girasoles, he said, “Aw, why do I have to change?” We mumbled some answers and that was it. He started on Tuesday and immediately made friends with a five year old girl named Martu.

Yesterday Pete and I agreed that we couldn’t remember the last time Lou had a real tantrum. He occasionally whines and adds the zinger “You’re not my friend anymore,” but we’ve seen nothing like the loud, tearful, physical outbursts of November and early December. His newfound self-control is stunning.

In these last two months Lou has become more confident in new social situations. He bounds onto the playground, unbothered by the presence of other kids. The other night he introduced himself (with prompting) to a girl his age eating at the same restaurant and they ran up and down the sidewalk shrieking and playing a terribly unstrategic game of hide and seek until way past Lou’s bedtime (fortunately Bariloche is *very* kid friendly). The same kind of spontaneous friendship sprung up at the beach last weekend and at a playground.

Being uprooted and plunked down in a completely new environment seems to have accelerated Lou’s development in a way that was at first uncomfortable (tantrums to work out stuff that couldn’t be understood or articulated) but ultimately satisfying. We are enormously proud of all the changes Lou has worked through in a relatively short period of time, and really excited about the pleasure he takes in using two languages.

This weekend I’ll submit Lou’s application for Adams Spanish Immersion School. Two months ago I was nervous about him making it in a class of 25 kids. Now I know he can tough it out.


Although our luggage was overweight leaving the U.S., I think we did really well packing, especially since we have clothing for 90-100F weather in Buenos Aires, for 50F and windy in Bariloche, and for Pete’s trip to Ecuador in a couple of weeks.

DSC_0114Things I am glad to have brought along include:

  • inflatable bed for Lou
  • sharp kitchen knife and a pair of scissors
  • plug adapter for Argentina
  • unsweetened peanut butter (four jars is not enough!)
  • running shoes for sunny or rainy weather, hiking trails, sidewalks of all types, and rare visits to the gym
  • trekking shoes for Lou
  • favorite shampoo and cosmetics
  • Ibuprofen, children’s Tylenol, and bandages, because when you need them, you need them
  • Kleen Kanteen reusable water bottles—just like at home, drinking water out of the tap rather than buying it in plastic bottles is probably the easiest way to keep our carbon footprint from getting even bigger
  • my laptop…

The only thing I regret not bringing is our pepper mill. I left it behind for the renters because who can live without fresh-ground pepper? Me, now.

Necessities we could only get here were SIM cards with local phone numbers (Pete got them on a pay-as-you-go plan and added data for one peso—$0.22!—a day) and bus cards.

Reunión con Maia

Our colectivo and the forgetful driver.

We rented our current apartment through mid-December and didn’t see anything in our price range after that time on So we asked Véronica at La Montaña to put us in touch with an apartment hunter she knows.

Luciana not only found us a centrally-located bungalow (two rooms!) in our price range, she took an interest in us and in arranging a play date with her five-year-old daughter Maia, who happens to be in Lou’s class at Primeros Pasos.

During the apartment search and while trying to set up the play date, Luciana and Pete were in frequent communication by text and phone. After a few false starts, we settled on a play date at Luciana’s house on Sunday, when her husband would be on a camping trip.

Maia. Photo by Lou.

Luciana and her family live on Lago Gutierrez, about 20 minutes outside of Bariloche, so the plan was for Pete, Lou and me to take the #50 colectivo to the end point—called Casa Azul—and then Luciana would pick us up. Since we haven’t seen any bus schedules, we just went to the bus stop and waited. When we boarded the bus about 20 minutes later Pete asked the driver to let us know when we had reached Casa Azul.

We rode for quite a while and eventually the bus left blacktop and drove on a rocky, dusty road. Pete and I looked at each other with wide eyes. Then the bus circled a roundabout and started heading in the direction we had just come from. At the next stop, in front of a restaurant and kiosco overlooking the lake, Pete went forward to ask the driver when we would get to our stop. The drive apologized, sort of, for forgetting to tell us to get off at the roundabout where there was no sign or obvious marker, and no blue house. The driver proposed some complicated bus-switching scheme and we decided to just get off and call Luciana. Again.

I was glad that Pete’s Spanish was good enough to explain what had happened and to ask without too much awkwardness for Luciana to drive an extra 10 minutes to come get us. She was very gracious.

When we pulled up to the driveway in Luciana’s car, a friend and neighbor of hers was dropping off Luciana’s nine-year-old son Nino (Valentino) and his friend. Nino opened the gate and ran down the hill to the house, which sits on a wooded slope looking toward mountains and the lake.

Three dogs greeted us. After Luciana’s family lost their black lab and golden retriever (to thieves? to a more interesting living situation?), these other dogs showed up and decided to stay.

One of the dogs. Photo by Lou.

Luciana told us that the first night she met her husband in Buenos Aires, he said that one day he’d take her away from concrete and traffic jams to live in Bariloche, his hometown. After their son was born they started working with an architect in Buenos Aires to design the Lago Gutierrez house, which ended up being a mistake because the architect wasn’t familiar with the log-cabin style of construction that is typical of this area. So they have two supporting beams that weren’t part of the original plan on either side of their Russian stove in order to support the bathroom above. Water for the house is pumped out of the lake, cooking gas comes from a tank, and May through October they heat the house with wood (the bedrooms also have electric heaters). They are at the end of the cable that brings mediocre Internet service, and Luciana says there is no amount of money she can pay to make it better.

Nino and friend. Photo by Maia.

We brought a dozen facturas (pastries) and some temporary tattoos with us, and used eating and tattoo application to help break the ice between Maia and Lou. The turning point came when Maia took an interest in our camera and Lou showed her how to use it. After that they chased each other around (and collided and cried and bled) and, with ongoing encouragement for Lou, played in Maia’s room where she fortunately had a Fisher-Price style construction toy among the dolls and tea cups and pink fluff. Lou occasionally came to us and asked how to say things in Spanish, but it seemed like his real challenge was the usual one of overcoming bashfulness.

Luciana with a My Little Pony. Photo by Maia.

Pete and I talked with Luciana or, more accurately, Pete and Luciana talked and I listened. Her parents divorced when she was five and her father went to live in LA, where she visited him every summer. She speaks English “cara dura” (shamelessly, or in my estimation, pretty well), but I didn’t want to force the conversation into English too often. Her father eventually remarried and moved to Mexico, so she’s spent time there, and she has traveled to other places including Singapore and Brazil, where her family took a two-month vacation last summer. She is an economist by training and worked for banks in Buenos Aires. When she moved to Bariloche she knew she couldn’t find the same kind of work, so she took a year to think through her next career move. During that time she started to manage a few rental properties for friends and family—while she was renting out her apartment back in Buenos Aires—and now she has her own property management company and has acquired additional properties in Buenos Aires. She also arranges car rentals and excursions.

We stayed for several hours before we asked Luciana to call a remise (taxi) to pick us up. A sweet gentleman named Luis drove all the way from Bariloche to get us and charged only $12 for the trip.

Primero paso

Tonight we cooked one of Lou’s precious boxes of macaroni and cheese in celebration of the first day of school. A little before 9am I walked down the hill to La Montaña Spanish School, and Pete took Lou for a warm-up session at Primeros Pasos, a jardín maternel (day care and preschool) one block away.

Lou y los amigos nuevos, con las lupas

Lou has seemed tickled to hear Spanish all around him, and over the weekend I listened to him playing school in Spanish. Pete and I were confident that he would be glad to be with other kids once he got over the initial discomfort of being in a new situation. After asking around—the pizza server, our landlord, the director of La Montaña, women on the street—we had identified several guarderias/kinders/jardíns in our neighborhood. In most cases, they were full. The one that wasn’t full seemed kind of sad. So we crossed our fingers that Primeros Pasos would take Lou.

We visited the school yesterday morning and the directora, Patricia, said there was no way to catch Lou up academically, but they would work on integrating him socially over the next few weeks until the start of summer. (Primeros Pasos offers a colonia de verano, or summer camp, while some jardíns simply close until the start of the next academic year in late February.)

The school day begins with all of the kids in a big room loudly singing the Argentine national anthem, complete with prideful fist thrusting, as the flag is raised. Then the kids disperse to their classrooms. There are about 20 kids in Lou’s class—more in the afternoon—and one teacher with an aide. We’re used to a lower teacher-student ratio, so I tell myself it’s like kindergarten, which is only a year away.

The morning snack consists of cookies and tea (mate, sugared to taste) or warm milk with sugar. Lou already knows that “cup down” means he’d like mate and “cup up” means milk. Kids bring their own cup and a small towel to use as a placemat. Kids who stay beyond 1pm eat a lunch they bring from home.

During his hour and a half at school, Lou met Valentino, Tomas, Jeremia, Tobias and Isabella, a little girl who tried to give him a hug. Pete will stay with Lou again tomorrow as part of the transition to a five-hour day. Lou has a new Spiderman cup, two towels, and a cuadreno (notebook) to take in his mochilla (backpack). We will also buy him a Primeros Pasos t-shirt to wear during the colonia (during the academic year kids wear smocks embroidered with their names).

We will pay $130/month for five hours a day, Monday through Friday. This is the first example of something costing less than we would pay at home, but it’s a dramatic one.

No “next time”

Thanks to Pete’s ability to communicate in Spanish and his willingness to approach and chat up anyone (cab drivers, restaurant servers, the cleaning lady, women with children on the street), we have local phone numbers, data plans (un peso por día!), bus cards, and school for all of us.

When I pointed out the obvious—that we would not be able to advance beyond tourists without his fearlessness—Pete said he’d wasted enough opportunities in Spanish-speaking countries, leaving a place saying “I can’t wait to go back” and meaning “Next time I’ll try harder.”

“Next time” sums up how I felt after a year in France in my early 20s. My French could’ve been a lot better, but I was too afraid to make mistakes, either social or linguistic. With more travel and life experience behind me, and less obsession with perfection (thank you, middle age), I aim to become the kind of Spanish speaker Pete is.