Browse Tag by Travel

Posts about our travelling family circus.



 David is doing Portuguese Duolingo on his phone.  A word that keeps popping up is amargo.  Bitter.  He can never remember if amargo is sour or bitter.

Amargo is bitter,” I said.  “There’s another word that means sour.  It’s something kind of like that ama…ami…something.”

I looked it up: agrioAgrio is sour, but oddly, the word for bittersweet in Portuguese is agridoce, a contraction of sour and sweet, rather than bitter and sweet.  It’s the same in Spanish–agridulce.

Bittersweet is my predominant emotion right now.  Everything I do thrills me, but there’s a hum of melancholy underneath it.  For example, I feel giddy with accomplishment when I lug an trunk up 3 flights of stairs to a colleague’s office.  I drop off the trunk and walk back across campus with $20 in my pocket and a sinking sense of loss in my stomach.

I bought that trunk at the Target in Brooklyn shortly after I moved into my studio apartment in Park Slope.  The apartment was tiny, but it was my first apartment all to myself.  Rent alone ate up one of my two paychecks each month, and left me very little to work with when two thirds of my other paycheck went to my student loans from NYU.  Still, I loved my tiny apartment with a brick wall on one side.  It was so compact that I could sit on my couch and put my feet up on my bed. 

When I moved in, I didn’t have a coffee table.  Unlike Manhattan, Brooklyn had a Target, which felt like a good enough justification of my choice to move there.  The day after I moved in, I rode the subway to the Target on Atlantic Avenue and bought the dark-brown woven sweetgrass trunk.  I put a tray on top, and I stored my extra sheets inside it.

I was happy with my purchase, but everything in New York City exacts a price, so I had to carry the trunk home on the subway, sweating and huffing.  Stuffed inside it was a new quilt for my bed and other Target impulse knick-knacks.  By the time I got to my 4th floor apartment and set the trunk in front of my couch, I was swearing and my hands were blistered.

A few weeks later, I got a puppy.  It was the summer after my first year of teaching and I had two months of summer break ahead of me.  I didn’t have a boyfriend, and I’d always wanted a dog.  I rode the Long Island Rail Road out to the North Shore Animal League.  None of the grown dogs seemed like a good fit, and the puppies had almost all been claimed.  I wandered into the sick room for recovering puppies and found a little black and white guy rolling around happily in his cage.  I was told he was recovering from a dizzying list of ailments: upper respiratory infection, vomiting, diarrhea, a heart murmur, and anorexia.  I signed the papers, waited for them to call my reference, and the adoption was approved.  Papers signed, I asked the vet tech about how to get the 10 pound border collie mix home to Brooklyn.  “Most people drive here,” the woman said.  I had taken the train.  When I told her this, she offered me the boxes that they send cats home in, and I loaded my puppy in.

During the train-ride through Long Island, I decided to name him Django, after Django Reinhardt, the 1930s jazz guitarist who escaped the Nazis and lost a bunch of fingers.  Despite this, he was still the best guitarist of his age.  I transferred from the LIRR to the subway, and rode to my stop in Park Slope.  When I stepped onto the platform, I tripped on my own feet, and the box went tumbling out of my arms.  It landed with a thud on the concrete.  “Oh god!” I screamed.  I scooped the box up, ran up the stairs and down the 5 blocks to my apartment.  I raced up to the fourth floor and set the box down and opened it.  Django emerged, dragging his back legs behind him. “I broke his legs!” I screamed.  Then he yawned and stood up, on all his legs.  He had just been stretching in that bendy puppy way.  His fall onto the subway platform left no lasting effects.

In that first week, Django chewed on the corner of the sweetgrass trunk from Target, and I practiced my firm, dog-mother “No!”  It worked, and he didn’t chew it anymore.  After he’d overcome his anorexia and finished his meds, he started running crazed circles around the coffee table in a fit of puppy glee.

In 2011, we left New York carrying with us our bed, the trunk, and tons of books.  I was five months pregnant with our first baby, and we bought a bungalow with a fenced backyard.  Django ran in the backyard and the trunk served a variety of purposes over the past seven years, from holding blankets and rarely used winter sweaters, to the Halloween costumes of our first child, our second, and our third.  This spring, as we began shedding belongings for this move, I opened the trunk and gave away the old Halloween costumes and the sweaters–definitely superfluous in Brazil.  Now empty, I carried the trunk out to my car, and emailed the faculty advertising a $20 trunk.

The next day at school, as I set the trunk in my colleague’s office, I felt a pang. I almost told her I’d changed my mind–I couldn’t sell it.  My ten year old dog had chewed that corner as a puppy, then run hyper laps around it.  6 months after I adopted Django, my boyfriend and I kicked our feet up onto it on our magical fourth date.  (Reader, I married him.)  What will I do without that trunk?

It’s taken six months to understand, but I’ve learned that what matters is the memories, not the trunk.  I’m not giving away the memories.  I’ll always have those.  Isn’t it good I had that trunk when I did?  That it served me so well?

Thank you, trunk.

Goodbye, trunk.



For our upcoming move to Brazil in July, we are only taking 15 suitcases.  No furniture, no shipments.  For all five of us, just clothes, books, toys and kitchen items that will fit in suitcases on the plane.  Since November, we’ve been selling, donating, and giving our stuff away, preparing to eventually shed 95% of the contents of our house. 

As each weekend approaches, I start to peer into cabinets and closets. I find an excuse to go survey the basement crawl space. I’m making mental lists: the mitre saw, the Halloween decorations. The old coolers, the potty training toilet, the roasting pan and the ice cream maker. On Saturday morning, my hands are positively itching, and when the baby goes down for his nap, I throw on sneakers and head down into the crawl space.

Like a classic southern crawl space, it doesn’t literally require me to crawl, but it has unfinished dirt walls, exposed beams and a dirt floor. It has some patches of concrete poured onto the ground, but it’s basically a dirt room under my house. The walls show the red Tennessee clay that holds up our 1935 bungalow. I can see where tree roots were severed to dig the foundation, probably done by hand by someone grateful for job digging foundation holes after the Depression. And like a slowly-decomposing work of art, the dirt walls continuously shed a dermis of dust and dirt onto everything down there. The longer something has been sitting in the crawl space, the thicker the layer of red dust.

The dust is a way to date oblivion.

It’s creepy down there. The stairs are rattly and there are strange cricket-spider creatures. I inevitably track dirty footprints around the house when I emerge. But I also love it. That crawl space is living. It’s walls are slowly crumbling, dust to dust. It is the pull of entropy on my house, a measure of the passage of time. I don’t have the energy or desire to go down there and sweep up the dirt that mounds at the base of the earthen walls, but I could. I could fight the decomposition, or at least tidy it up. It would always win, though. And it’s just a room for storage. No one sees it but us. So we feel free to hide things in it, usually things we want to pretend don’t exist. It’s a room of decisions deferred. There’s the antique wood rocking chair that I rocked my firstborn in. I broke the caning on the back of the chair within the first few months. Perhaps I was rocking too vigorously, jamming my shoulder blades back too hard in my first-time-mom agony and exhaustion. Either way, the back split and so it went into the basement.

There’s the cable box we never connected and the landline phone for the line we canceled. The only people who called it were my dad and telemarketers. My fins and snorkeling mask are down there along with my scuba certification. Two camera tripods, even though I no longer own a camera. There’s a gourd that’s been painted to look like Santa. Baking dishes from dead grandmothers’ kitchens. Empty file folders. Ice skates and roller blades. This whole basement ages me. I don’t roller blade or scuba dive anymore. Honestly, my children might want those items before I ever get a chance to use them again.

It could be called the Kingdom of Might down there. I might need that landline again. I might want to rollerblade again some day. I might find someone who can re-cane that rocking chair.

No. No I won’t. I know that for sure now. It’s amazing to clear away all that might clutter. Now I focus on can. I can finish my next novel. I can move to South America in July. I can go blow bubbles outside with my kids instead of reorganizing all the crap I’m storing in the crawl space. And now that I’ve given away the rollerblades and the mitre saw and the empty folders, I am no longer burdened with the weight of all the things I might be doing, all the things clamoring for my attention.

I know now what deserves my attention. My family. My teaching. Travel. My writing. I don’t need a mitre saw or a snorkel. Those are not the things I wish I was doing. I want to be writing. Or reading a new book, or playing Memory with my kids.

And I can.

Teaching, Travel

In the bowels of bureaucracy

In the past 6 months, we have gotten: new passports, new drivers licenses, TSA precheck, Global Entry, FBI background checks, and Brazilian visas.

Applying for our Brazilian work visas was by far the hardest part.  We had to go through a process called apostille, which is basically an internationally recognized certification of documents that is recognized by other countries.  You have to get a document notarized by a notary, then certified by the county clerk, then apostilled by the secretary of the state you live in (not the national Secretary of State).  That’s three confusing government buildings and their correspondingly obscure parking lots.

But we did it!  After we had all of these documents apostilled, we mailed them to Brazil and eventually our visas were approved.  Then more paper work (and FBI background checks), and we sent all of that to the Brazilian consulate in Atlanta.  It’s a little scary to put your passports and your kids’ birth certificates into a mailbox.  But they got there, our visas were affixed, and they got back to us safely.

Everyone loves to have an opinion about bureaucracy, but I have a few thoughts of my own, now that I’ve spent some time navigating multiple levels within two national governments.

The Tennessee county clerk and secretary of state offices were clean, well run and easy to navigate.  People were kind and moved with efficiency.  I kept asking about where to go for an apostille like I didn’t quite believe it was a real thing (it is) and every time they knew exactly what I needed and how to give it to me.  It was also cheap, costing only 80 bucks to get 10 documents done.

The harder thing to apostille was our NYU and Columbia transcripts.  We have to submit those for our work visas because we are applying for a work visa as someone “highly qualified.”  We aren’t in NY state anymore, so we paid a company $150 (each, for David and me) to go get our transcripts and have them apostilled (notary –> county clerk –> secretary of state) and then mailed to us in Tennessee.

Oh, and once our visas were approved, and we mailed our passports to the Brazilian consulate in Atlanta, we had to include $1,450 in money orders .  Yes, $290 each for our visas.

I told a co-worker in a professional development session on mindfulness that we are becoming immigrants to another country.  That’s how Brazil sees us, and it’s correct.  But it’s a strange thing to think about as someone with an American passport, and may strike some as surprising.  She asked me how it felt to be an immigrant to another country.  That’s an interesting question.

First, it’s made me feel even more compassion for immigrants to the US.  We have a company guiding us through this and doing some of it on our behalf and it is still hard.  And I have 2 degrees, a solid income, and a support system.  The school in Brazil is reimbursing us for all visa-related expenses.  This is so hard in the best of circumstances.  And not the kind of thing you enter into lightly.

Second, I feel so lucky that I happened to be born in Ohio and was able to have the opportunities that led another country to consider me “highly qualified.”  It was the luck of the draw that I was well educated and was able to get 2 degrees from great universities and 11 years of teaching experience.  If I’d been born elsewhere, it’s likely that as a woman I would not have been educated or offered those same opportunities.  I’m very, very lucky.

And yet here I am leaving it.  That’s not lost on me.  I’m a very privileged immigrant with a passport to a country that exists and that I can return to and making a living in.  I’m not destitute or desperate.  I think about the images of bombed out buildings and people fleeing Syria.  They don’t have the luxury of smooth bureaucracy and duplicate copies of all their vital documents.

I feel fortunate to have bureaucracy.  Yes, the DMV took an hour and a half, but I got a license.  I have ID.  I can show someone who I am.  How many millions of refugees don’t have any records like that?  How many people live without documents?  Maybe these documents are lovely and this bureaucracy is a sign of privilege.  If so, I’ll take my labyrinthine hallways and always-full parking lots, if I get what I need at the end.

Teaching, Travel


The Griswolds have big news!  In July 2018, we are making a big international move.  Below is something I’ve written and shared with my students and colleagues at my current school.  NB: All of the seniors at my school give a speech during their senior year.  I’ve been here seven years, so I’ve heard roughly 700 speeches.  I decided that as I am moving on to my next chapter, it was fitting to write my own “senior” speech.

This semester I’ve been teaching my students about the Hero’s Journey.  Developed by Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey is a way to describe the pattern of stories throughout different cultures and eras.  Even across oceans and millennia, there is a pattern to the stories that we humans tell, and Joseph Campbell studied it and described its features.

The first stage is the hero in their normal world.  The status quo.  But something happens: an inciting incident occurs, and the hero receives the call to adventure.  It’s the moment that turns a regular day into an extraordinary one, one that kicks off a journey that takes the hero far from home.  

How fitting that just as I’m teaching this story structure, I write to share with you that the Griswolds are heeding the call to adventure.  In July we will be moving as a family to São Paulo, Brazil to teach at The Graded School, an American International School.  

Many of you know that I grew up overseas with my family.  When I was 10 we moved from Cincinnati to Mexico City, and at the end of 6th grade, we moved to Caracas,Venezuela, where I lived until I graduated from high school.  I attended an international school in Caracas where 27 languages were spoken.  I became fluent in Spanish and conversational in Portuguese.  And I always thought that some day my life would lead me back to an international life.  

Now that our oldest, Calvin, has started Kindergarten, we started thinking about the educational experience we want for him.  We also started to think about the next adventure and challenge for us as educators.  Now that our family is complete, the time feels right to set off.  

But none of this would be possible if it hadn’t been for Harpeth Hall.  When we moved here in 2011 from New York, I thought seriously about leaving the profession.  I was coming from 4 challenging years of teaching in New York City public and charter schools.  I was approaching burn-out.  Borders Bookstore had just declared bankruptcy and I thought, “Well, there went my back up plan!”  

I was so lucky to get hired to teach at this amazing institution.  Far from burning out, I reached new heights as an educator because of Harpeth Hall.  Collaborating and learning with my amazing English department colleagues was a transformative experience.  Their experience and expertise, their commitment to the students, their reflection and openness on their own teaching: these things inspired and uplifted me.  I became the educator I was always meant to be because of Harpeth Hall.  I learned not just from my department, but from all of the faculty and staff.  I learned about what a team of people can do when they are all united to work for a common goal.  From our administration I learned about grace, about strength, about humanity.  And all of these lessons have been formative.

Perhaps most importantly, I learned from teaching amazing students.  The students at Harpeth Hall let me be creative, let me challenge myself, let me learn more than I thought possible about teaching and learning.  Over my seven years at Harpeth Hall, my students’ dedication, effort, and creativity have made this such an amazing place to work.  I will always carry with me the earnest desire to learn and grow that they brought to school each day.

Moving to Brazil and teaching at an international school would not have been possible had we not spent these 7 years at Harpeth Hall.  When we were told that we were attractive candidates, I knew that Harpeth Hall was to thank.  

So, I feel that I am now writing my own senior speech.  I imagine that I am looking out at a theater of my chosen family.  I feel gratitude for each and every one of you.  For how you’ve pushed me, supported me, questioned me, cheered me on.  Our departure, our call to adventure, is not an unhappy ending, but the beginning of an exciting new chapter.  It is bittersweet for us, to know that we will be leaving a fantastic place filled with wonderful people.  But it also feels right.  

We will take each of you with us when we go.  Your ears will burn next year with tropical heat because we will be singing your praises and carrying your lessons with us.  We hope that we can keep our connection to Harpeth Hall alive, and see this new chapter for us as a new chapter for you as well.  A new partnership with the southern hemisphere.  Come on, I’m sure Harpeth Hall will spring for plane tickets to Brazil so that you can come check out what we’re doing!!

From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.  

With Love,

Meg Griswold, Class of 2018