La decision de tomar un año sabático con la familia

Translated from the original post The decision to take a family sabbatical

Hemos tomado una decisión importante. En seis meses mi esposa y yo dejaremos nuestros trabajos buenos y la cuidad que amamos – y que hemos llamado nuestro hogar por los últimos 12 años – Nueva York. Hemos tomado esta decisión para tomarnos un año sabático con la familia en Cuenca, Ecuador.

Todo comenzó el verano pasado mientras estuvimos de vacaciones en el Norte de Europa visitado familia. Nuestros hijos mayores, que tenían 12 y 10 al tiempo, pasaron ocho semanas allí. Mi esposa logro negociar un mes completo de vacaciones y paso el mes entero allí con nuestra hija de tres años de edad. ¡Yo encambillo tenia solo una semana de vacaciones! Mientras se acababa mi semana, recién comenzando a sentir mi cuerpo y mente relajarse, me di cuenta que una semana no es suficiente.

Tal vez si yo nunca había vivido en Europa, donde es común tomarse un mes o mas de vacaciones, no hubiese pensado posible tomarme un descanso extendido del trabajo. Pero si e vivido en Europa, y se lo que es tener un balance de trabajo y vida personal mas saludable. Con eso en mente y con mi única semana de vacaciones acabada, comencé a planificar la manera de lograr mi deseo de un descanso extendido del trabajo.

Hoy en Nueva York ocurre otro fenómeno. Nuestros hijos mayores, hora 13 y 11 años de edad, están corriendo hacia la adolescencia y sinceramente los cambios nos han cogido de sorpresa.  Tal vez nosotros no estuvimos poniendo suficiente atención, pero hemos desarrollado rutinas y círculos de amistades con poca superposición. Nos hemos despertado a la realidad que nuestros hijos se van a ir de la casa mas rápido de lo que pensamos. Como se dice entre los padres – No parpadeas porque vuela muy rápido.

Comencé a pensar – si mis hijos vuelan del nido mañana o si algo me pasaria – que les quisiera dar de regale? Tenderá que ser algo que permita mis finanzas y algo que quede con ellos par el resto de sus vidas y algo que puedan usar para mejorar sus carreras profesionales.  Inmediatamente supe la respuesta porque mi conciencia me a molestado por años que no les dado este regalo cuando eran mas joven, cuando es mas fácil absorber este regalo. La respuesta es otra lengua y mas al punto el idioma de español.

La culpabilidad que siento se lleva a que yo aprendí a hablar español como mi primer idioma.  Aunque nací en Brooklyn, NY mis padres imigraron al Estados Unidos del Ecuador y entonces me hablaban solo en español de muchacho. Ellos eventualmente aprendieron ingles pero hasta el día de hoy hablamos español entre nosotros. Yo les agradezco a mis padres por insistir que les hable en español y me educaron a apreciar ser bilingüe. Sin embargo cuando mis hijos nacieron otro idioma mas fue introducido a la mezcla. Como probablemente han adivinado mi esposa es nacida en el norte de Europa y ella esta determinada a enseñarles a nuestros hijos su idioma native. Por lo tanto teníamos una decisión que tomar – hablar tres idiomas en casa, porque hablamos ingles entre nosotros – o sacrificar la lingua española. Después de mucha introspección y reconociendo que toda mi educación formal fue ejercida en ingles, de mala gana acepte que mi español no estaba suficiente desarrollado para ser el idioma principal que hable con mis hijos.

Ya pueden ver donde voy con este cuento. Combinando nuestro deseo de tomar un sabático, la voluntad de mi esposa y mi culpabilidad, hemos decidido dejar nuestros trabajos por un año para vivir en Cuenca, Ecuador donde mis hijos por fin aprenderán español. Esperamos que esta experiencia cultural nos mejore nuestro español, los permita explorar el resto del Ecuador y el continente Sur Americano y también atrayéndonos como familia. Cada familia tiene una ventana de tiempo fija para crear este tipo de experiencias con los hijos porque solo son jóvenes por un tiempo fijo y nosotros estamos determinados a lanzarnos por esa ventana de tiempo antes que se cierre para nosotros.

Mientras estaba investigando nuestra mudanza a Cuenca encontré varios buenos recursos sobre el tema de jubilarse en Cuenca, Ecuador pero muy poco sobre el tema de mudarse con jóvenes de edad de escuela secundaria. Por esa razón espero que este blog sirva como un recurso y inspiración para familias al rededor del mundo que también sienten que esa ventana de tiempo se cierra. Tómese un sabático con la familia, viva en una cultura diferente, aprenda otro idioma y comience un nuevo capítulo en tu vida.

Si tienen preguntas o comentarios déjenlo en este blog y podrá ser la inspiración para un articulo futuro.

Traducido de la versión original The decision to take a family sabbatical

Family Sabbatical or Mini-retirement

Given the title I chose for the inaugural post of this blog (The decision to take a family sabbatical) I clearly thought of our upcoming move to Cuenca, Ecuador for a year as a family sabbatical.  However, in the past month I met Tim Ferris – not in person but through his books, blog, TED talk and podcast.  I’ve consumed so much content from Tim that I feel like I’ve know him for years.

It all started a couple of months ago, I was thinking about what to do with my time next year so I picked up Start Something That Matters, the story of Blake Mycoskie and how he started the shoe company TOMS. For those not familiar, Blake started TOMS in order to provide shoes to children in need in Argentina. Today for every pair of shoes sold (and now other products too) TOMS will donate a pair of shoes to someone in need around the world. While inspired by Blake’s story, what caught my attention were the repeated references to another popular book called The 4-Hour Workweek (4HWW) by Tim Ferris. While the 4HWW has been a NYT best seller for years, I never picked it up because the title sounds gimmicky.  Thank you Blake for getting me past that title.

In the 4HWW, Tim opened my eyes to an entirely new way of life and introduced me to mini-retirements. According to Tim the difference between a sabbatical and a mini-retirement is that a sabbatical is a one-time event, while a mini-retirement is by definition recurring. On that basis alone I’m tempted to redefine my upcoming experience as a mini-retirement instead of a family sabbatical. In fact, soon after my wife and I agreed to leave our jobs and NYC for one year to relocate our whole family to Cuenca, Ecuador, I started thinking of the possibility of moving someplace else the following year. On Tim’s recommendation I read Vagabonding by Rolf Potts and discovered an entire sub-culture of digital nomads and life-style designers. I imagined a life sojourning from city to city around the globe (I still haven’t opened-up to living full-time outside of a city, but I am still evolving).

As I described our future life to my wife she smiled and asked me just one question “how many kids do Tim and Rolf have?”  So I looked it up and it seems like neither of them have any children – yet.  The hard truth is that vagabonding and life-style design becomes exponentially more difficult with children, especially school-aged children. Raising children requires parents to provide them with a level of stability that’s not possible moving frequently. While in graduate school I was fortunate enough to meet classmates who moved frequently while growing up as the children of missionaries, diplomats and US foreign service officers. Back then I had not traveled much or lived abroad, but after speaking with these classmates I came to appreciate that parents need to carefully balance the stability and change in their children’s lives, especially during the adolescent years.

Luckily I stumbled across a great article in the Harvard Business Review titled “A Gap Year for Grown-ups“. It discusses the trend of high-school students, mostly in the UK, taking a year-off before starting college.  The gap year is used to apprentice, travel, volunteer and, in general re-energize before the next phase of life.  Sounds like a wonderful idea at any major milestone, assuming you can afford it. Best of all the article introduced me to Stefan Sagmeister, a designer living in NYC, who has re-popularized the concept of taking a sabbatical every seven or so years. His Ted Talk on taking a sabbatical has changed my perspective on life so profoundly that I’d like to share it with you in its entirety (only 17 minutes).

Ironically, I don’t think Sagmeister has any children either, however as someone with three children of my own ages 13, 11 and 3, taking a one year sabbatical every seven years or so strikes a nice balance between providing my school-aged children with some stability and the entire family with a gap year to explore another part of the world and expand our horizons. While I received priceless business advice from Tim Ferris and wonderful traveling tips from Rolf Potts, I’m going to continue referring to this adventure as a family sabbatical because 1) I am experiencing this with my family and 2) contrary to Tim’s assertion, sabbaticals are not one-off events. Strictly speaking a sabbatical means a 12 month rest taken every 7th year. If all goes well, I hope to stay true to the meaning of the word sabbatical and look forward to enjoying future gap years.

Now tell me what you think: Have you taken a sabbatical with kids? How old were the kids? Would you do it again? Do you have any other reading recommendations on this subject?

Regulations proposed for foreign residents in Cuenca

Today I read the disturbing news that the Foreign Ministry of Ecuador is considering the introduction of regulations on foreign residents in Cuenca. The reason for this heighten concern is attributed to new estimates that over 8,000 Americans are now permanent residents in Cuenca. Including foreign residents from Europe, Canada and Australia the total population is estimated at more than 12,000. Until recently it was thought that the population of foreign permanent residents in Cuenca was only about 5,000.

Its important to keep in mind that while this latest estimate more than doubles the number of foreign residents in Cuenca, in a city of 580,000 inhabitants, this represents only 2% of the total population. Its hard to believe that 2% of the population could cause so much economic havoc that it would require regulation.  Its concerning that Ecuador would risk discouraging more foreigners from moving to Cuenca since they help grow the economy. Unlike the United States, where Americans fear competition from foreigners for their jobs, the vast majority of the immigrants moving to Cuenca are retirees.

As a New Yorker, I’ve always viewed diversity and immigration as net positives. Of course there will be people who benefit less and some who are hurt by these forces but as a whole the society becomes more dynamic and resilient. New York City is the best example of this process.  Its no coincidence that at 37%, New York City has the highest percentage of foreign born residents of any other city in the world.

Given that New York has been so good to my parents, who immigrated there from Ecuador over 40 years ago, I hope Cuenca will be as welcoming to me and family.  Just as other countries have taken in Ecuadorians for decades, Ecuador should now be proud that it attracts foreigners from all over the world to live and retire in their beautiful country and welcome them with open arms.

Looking for a school in Cuenca, Ecuador

Once we made the decision to move to Cuenca for a year the most immediate need was to figure out where the kids would go to school in Cuenca. Given that one of the primary goals of the family sabbatical in Ecuador is for the kids to learn Spanish and immerse themselves in the culture, we felt strongly that they should attend a school with Ecuadorian children.

I asked all the Ecuadorians I know, starting with my parents, for recommendations, but most of the people I spoke with had left Ecuador decades ago and they were not up-to-date on the best schools in Cuenca today. Surprisingly, I also had trouble finding information online about middle schools in Cuenca. It quickly became clear that most of the content online about Cuenca, in English, is geared towards retirees and they are not interested in looking for schools for their kids. When I did come across information about expat families with kids they were often about home schooling. That said I did stumble onto a one very helpful article about  bilingual schools for expat kids in Cuenca.

The article introduced me to a few schools which I looked into. Then one day my mother calls and tells me that she was discussing the school issue with another family member that has a friend with school-age children in Cuenca. She quickly put me in contact with her friend so we could schedule a call. In addition to naming a couple of the schools I already knew about, he mentioned a school that I had not come across in any of my research – Unidad Educativa Alborada. The term “unidad educativa” means the school covers all grades from K-12.

With a short list of schools in hand and finding little information online, I decided to visit Cuenca to tour the schools personally and talk to the administration about our plan to enroll our kids in an Ecuadorian school for one year. Besides academics I wanted to get a feel for which schools would be most receptive and willing to support children who had never studied in a Spanish language school.

At the end of the day the choice was easy because we had to eliminate all the schools we considered for various reasons, except for one. Although I’ve heard many good things about the Colegio Aleman Stiechle (the German School) our kids do not speak German and we thought one new language would be enough of a challenge. For similar reasons we eliminated CEDEI, the most international of all the schools I visited. CEDEI is a dual language school with a strong focus on English, however beginning in the 4th grade the students also start to study French. This meant that in addition to learning Spanish, our kids would also study French for the first time with kids that have been studying French for years.  That left Santana and Alborada as two viable options.

It was easy to see why Santana is the most popular school among expats. Compared with the other schools I visited, both formally and informally, the facilities at Santana were impressive: multiple soccer fields, an indoor basketball gym, a rock-climbing wall and a large computer lab; just to name a few. However the school is so popular that they did not have any spaces available in next year’s class for either of our older kids. We were welcome to start the admissions process but there were no assurances that any of the kids would be offered a place. Additionally, I was informed that if a spot did become available all the kids wait listed for that spot would take an exam, and the spot would go to the student who performed the best. Given that the entrance exam would be in Spanish we did not think this was an option with a high probability of success.

Luckily, we had been introduced to Alborada. Unfortunately, there isn’t much information available about the school because it doesn’t have a website or a normal street address. After asking multiple people for directions we were advised to drive west on Av. Ordóñez Lasso as if we were leaving the city and after passing Via a Buenos Aires, to look for a small bridge crossing the Tomebamba river on the left-hand side. It took a couple of passes because there are no street signs in these outskirts but we finally noticed the tiny bridge down a little dirt road. Once we crossed the bridge the unpaved road got bad and all of a sudden it felt like we were in the middle of a forest. Then just as quickly the landscape cleared and we saw horses and cows as we drove past a farm. Just a bit further we reached a large gate and a security guard approached. Once we confirmed we were at the right place we were directed towards the parking area and shown the admissions office.

Alborada looks like something out of the Swiss Family Robinson, with log cabins dotting a hill surrounded by tall tress and a lush green landscape. At once I felt so far from the hustle and bustle of New York City and also like I had found a wonderful school for our kids. I don’t believe in fate, but when I met the lovely Admissions Coordinator and she told me that not only were there spots available for both our older kids, but there was also a spot available for our youngest daughter in their pre-K, I knew my search was over. I immediately gave her all the required information for the kids and even offered to leave a down payment to secure their spots. I was told not to worry and assured that they would be offered a spot as long as we provided notarized and translated school records from their current school, copies of their visa or proof of residency, vaccine records and photos of the children. Tuition per child will be $170 per month for 10 months. Additional expenses will include: uniforms, books, lunch, insurance and transportation, if we need it. When I know more about these expenses I’ll update this post.

There is still a long way to go, but knowing that we’ve secured schools for the all three kids brings the dream of our family sabbatical significantly closer to reality.

Let me know if you have any questions about the schools mentioned in this post and I’ll try to see if I can help.

The decision to take a family sabbatical

Williamsburg Bridge
Leaving NYC…

We’ve made a big decision. In six months my wife and I will both leave great jobs and the city we love – and have called home for the past 12 years – New York. We are doing this to take a one year family sabbatical in Cuenca, Ecuador.

It all started last summer while we were all on vacation visiting family in Northern Europe. Our older kids, 12 and 10 at the time, would spend eight weeks there. My wife managed to negotiate one month off from her employers so she and our youngest daughter would stay there for a month. I, on the other hand, had one week! While nearing the end of my week, just starting to feel my body and mind unwind, I concluded one week is just not enough time.

Maybe if I never lived in Europe myself, where month long vacations are the norm, I wouldn’t have seriously considered the possibility of an extended break from work. But I have lived in Europe, and there I experienced the benefits of a more healthy work-life balance. With that in mind, and with my one week vacation over, I started planning a way to actually achieve my goal of an extended break.

Today back in New York, another dynamic is occurring. Our older kids, now 13 and 11, are barrelling towards teenage-hood and quite honestly the changes have caught us by surprise. Maybe we weren’t paying attention close enough, but we’ve all developed routines and independent circles of friends with little to no overlap. This has awoken us to the very real fact that our children will be leaving the nest sooner then we think. Like most parents will tell you – don´t blink because it goes by quickly.

I started thinking – if the kids leave the house tomorrow or if something were to happen to me – what would I want to gift them? It would have to be something I can afford; something they could keep for the rest of their lives and something they could leverage professionally. I immediately knew the answer because, for years, I’ve carried the guilt of not imparting this asset earlier, when its easier for children to absorb it. The answer is another language – specifically the Spanish language.

The guilt comes from the fact that I am a native Spanish speaker myself.  Although born in Brooklyn, my parents were Ecuadorian immigrants to the United States and therefore only spoke Spanish to me as a child. They eventually learned English, but till this day we speak Spanish among ourselves. I am thankful that my parents insisted I speak Spanish to them and taught me to be proud I was bilingual. However, when my children were born another language was introduced into the mix. As you may of guessed my wife is from Northern Europe and she is determined to teach our children her mother-tongue. Therefore, we had a decision to make – speak three languages at home, since we spoke English to each other – or sacrifice the Spanish language. After some soul searching and admitting that all my formal education has been in English, I reluctantly faced the fact that my Spanish was not strong enough to be my primary language spoken to children.

You can see where this is going now. Combining our desire to take an extended break, my wife’s openness to change and my guilt, we’ve decided to leave our jobs for a year to live in Cuenca, Ecuador so our children can finally learn Spanish. We hope this immersive cultural experience will help all of us improve our Spanish, explore the South American continent while bringing our family closer together. Each family has a finite window in which to create familial experiences with their children, because they only stay children for so long, and we are determined to jump through that window before it shuts down on us.

While researching our move to Cuenca, I found many helpful resources regarding retiring in Ecuador, but very little regarding moving to Ecuador with middle-school children. Therefore I hope this blog serves as a resource and inspiration to families all over the world, who feel that window coming down, to take a family sabbatical, explore a different culture, learn a new language and create another chapter in your life.

If you have any questions feel free to ask and they may become the inspiration for a future post.