The short answer is: Ultimate Home School Field Trip before the kids start leaving for college!
The ridiculously long answer follows.
I didn’t travel a lot growing up. When I was 12, my family started to take yearly (almost) vacations from our home in Ramona, California, up to Oregon, where many of my dad’s cousins had relocated over the years. When I was about 16, I think, we went to Utah and met those cousins at Lake Powell. One time when I was really young, we went down to Ensenada in Mexico with those same cousins. (I remember my dad taking me on my first motorcycle ride. I also remember speaking Spanish to someone, so maybe we went twice, once when I was little and once when I was in high school.)
When I went to BYU, Provo was about as far as I’d ever been from home. I started taking French, because my major required reading literature in at least one foreign language. I chose French because even though I’d taken four years of Spanish in high school, Spanish literature didn’t really interest me, and because the one day of Russian 101 that I took was terrifying.
Soon, a Comparative Literature professor suggested that I go to Vienna on study abroad. This idea had never occurred to me, but it was immediately appealing. It’s possible that I was a little flattered that he thought I should go, but I was also intrigued by the idea of going to Europe, though I hadn’t thought much about it before. I started taking German in addition to French. The language classes are one reason it took me kind of a long time to graduate! Lots of credits that didn’t fulfill any requirements for my major.
I tried to talk my parents into footing the bill for study abroad. I did not succeed. I think they were right to say no. But I kept on with German and French at BYU. And then, I was lucky enough to be called on a mission to Dresden, Germany, where I actually learned to speak one of the languages I’d been studying!
Fast forward (ha) to Jon and me, married and planning how we will live in Europe someday. Jon will work for an as-yet-unknown company that will conveniently transfer us and our kids and our stuff to an ancient, storied, European city, where we and our children will (of course) be bilingual or maybe even trilingual.
Well, that never happened. What did happen is that Jon eventually started working from home (it’s been ten years now!), we had a bunch of kids and started home schooling them. We lived in Virginia for 3 ½ years and then moved to Teton Valley, and somehow we’ve now been here for 8 years. The kids are involved in music lessons and classes, church, Scouts, etc. We’re busy and involved.
A few years ago, we revisited the idea of taking the family to Europe, but with Reality thrown in. We did some math and decided that the airfare for all of us would be way too expensive for anything shorter than a few months. At about the same time (2008), Jon had the opportunity to go to LinuxTag in Berlin for work and I got to go with him. We had a wonderful time — Berlin is a beautiful, friendly city, I discovered that I could still speak German, and we visited Dresden, Prague, and London briefly. Jon also discovered that going to a conference in Europe could be less expensive than some conferences in the U.S. We came up with the idea of Jon taking a European business trip opportunity every year or so (when possible) and taking one kid with him each time he went — the business part of Jon’s trip would be paid for by his company and we would pay for the kid.
In 2009, Jon took Zed, then age 13, to Berlin (where Jon helped staff a booth at the LinuxTag trade show) and Jena, Germany; Prague, Czech Republic; and Amsterdam on the way home. In August of 2011, Jon took our second oldest, Jacob, who was 14 at the time, to Riga, Latvia (where Jon spoke at the YAPC Europe Perl conference); Tallinn, Estonia; and Helsinki, Finland. They also happened to spend one night in Amsterdam on the way home.
Jon came home from that trip determined to move us all to eastern Europe.
At first, he proposed that we wait five years, because by then we’d only have three kids at home and it would be so much easier to find housing for five than for eight. But when I started thinking about actually living in Europe, I knew it would be too sad to go without our three oldest boys. We like them and I’d want to share it with them, too. Besides that, I’m pretty sure they would be mad at us if we took only the younger kids on a great adventure like that. So we decided it had to be soon, before Zed goes away to college. And thus our plan was born. We thought February of 2013 would be a good time to go—it would give us plenty of time to prepare and we could take advantage of cheaper, off-season airfare.
At first, we looked into moving to one place and putting the kids in local schools, but then we thought maybe moving to Europe and suddenly sending all of the kids to a public school in a foreign language might be a couple of huge changes too many. While Zed, Jacob, and Phin have been going to a few classes at our local high school, the younger kids have never been to any school and are pretty used to our home school routine, such as it is. We also thought at first that we would try to get a long-stay visa and move somewhere for good, but when we started looking into the paperwork for that and wondering if anyone would allow us to home school the kids (Europe is generally not friendly to home schooling), we moved onto the next idea: we could just use regular tourist visas (which require no special paperwork) that allow U.S. citizens to stay in the E.U. Schengen zone (their open borders area) for up to 90 days at a time. You can do a 90-day stay twice in a 12-month period, as long as you are outside Schengen for at least 90 days between stays. Countries outside of Schengen include Great Britain, Croatia (until probably 2014), Bulgaria (probably until sometime in 2013), Romania (also likely until sometime in 2013), Turkey, and several even further east. Jon is intrigued by Georgia right now, so maybe we’ll end up there for a while. Americans can stay in Georgia for up to a year without a visa.
Through some convoluted reasoning and speculation, we arrived at Prague, Czech Republic, as our starting point. I’ve been to Prague once, and Jon has been twice. It’s a very old and very beautiful city. When we stayed there in 2008, the hotel we stayed in was in a building that dated back to the 1400s. Down the street a ways was a church built in the 1200s. Unlike Dresden, Germany, where I spent nine months on my mission, and many other Western European cities, none of it had been bombed during World War II, so its antiquity remains.
One driving force behind our plans is that Jon really wants to learn another language. His degree from BYU is in Linguistics, and for that, he learned a little French, plenty of German, and a good amount of Hebrew. He has some familiarity with several other languages, as well, and is especially intrigued by Slavic languages, of which Czech is one. So we’ve been trying to learn Czech. We have been doing Pimsleur audio lessons (there are thirty half-hour lessons for Czech) and using a website called Memrise to learn as much as we can before we get there. (I highly recommend Memrise for lots of other things, too: other languages, geography, music theory, etc. It’s a great resource!) Learning the language is less important to me, but I don’t mind trying, and since the kids are under our control, we can force them! Mwahahahahaha! (That’s supposed to be an Evil Mastermind Laugh.)
Now that I’ve written all of that, I’m not even sure it answers the question. Why are we going to Europe? To live in some old cities, to walk more and get away from using cars (we’ll use public transportation over there), to hear some great music in beautiful cathedrals, to learn at least a little of some other languages, to get to know people from other cultures, to experience living in a smaller space than we’re used to, to see what the LDS Church is like far away from here, to learn some history by actually seeing it, to eat different food (great bread and cheese and of course chocolate!). To get out of our comfort zone.
Maybe I should have just written that last paragraph!