November 18, 2011 at 9:37 am , by Cherise Bathersfield
In her new memoir Running Away to Home Iowa native Jennifer Wilson, 38, does what many of us only dream of—she breaks from her hum-drum existence in Des Moines, Iowa and embarks with her husband and two kids on a 9-month long adventure to uncover her roots in Mrkopalj, (pronounced MER-koe-pie), Croatia. While Wilson delves into the rich history of the small rural town to find traces of her great-grandparents, all four of them make friends with some quirky but lovable townspeople, devour the local eats, climb mountains, and find out the true meaning of family along the way. We asked the author about her family sabbatical and how running away changed her and her family.
Q. Why did you decide to take a family sabbatical and not just a vacation?
A. Jim and I had dreamed of living overseas together when we were newly married. We’d both traveled internationally, and we’re big believers in travel as the best way to widen our friendship group and learn new things and eat fantastic new foods. But we got busy with the kids and our respective jobs. Midlife malaise had overtaken us. I felt like I was postponing my life “until the kids are older.” When I realized that I was using the kids as an excuse not to challenge myself, I resolved to make a change. From there, the dream of Mrkopalj quickly materialized.
Q. How did you pitch the sabbatical idea to your husband?
A. Jim was feeling restless at work—he’s an architect—so he was a really easy target! I just floated these ideas to him: What if we picked up that dream to live abroad again? What if we went away to regroup as a family? So often, we talk about what we want from marriage, from friends, from our work life … but how often do we talk about what we want to be as a family?
Q. How did you convince your children—Sam, 7, and Zadie, 3?
A. I did what all good parents do when it’s a tough sell: I bribed them. Sam got a Nintendo DSi, and Zadie only needed the promise of time with her Mommy and Daddy and no daycare.
Q. Your family went from living in a large renovated Victorian house in suburbia to a one-bedroom in a town where cattle roam freely. What was the most difficult aspect of Mrkopalj life for you?
A. For the “Midwestern Mama” who’s all about a tight ship and a busy schedule, landing in a quiet mountain village where I couldn’t even speak the language was a huge shock. I had no busywork! No practices or appointments! No one needed me!
Also, I was lonely at first. When the kids just disappeared into the meadow or headed out to climb a tree, I didn’t really have much to do anymore.
Q. In the book you were very frank in expressing your like or dislike of people, places and things, and you never shied away from detailing the sometimes unappealing attitudes of the villagers. Did you ever worry about readers’ reactions?
A. Jim and I talked about this a lot. In the end, we agreed that the only way I could fail with this book and the amazing story of Mrkopalj was if I didn’t tell it like it was. Robert [The family’s host in Mrkopalj] was a mighty character—but he had his down sides. I’m a good trip guide—but I’m no perfect heroine. Jim is a great husband—but we argue sometimes. That’s just the way it is. The beauty of our experience was in the awesome and the awful—which is the way life feels when we move outside our comfort zone.
Q. In Mrkopalj your kids did things you would never have allowed in Iowa like stay home alone without supervision and accompany you and Jim to the local bar. Did your parenting style change?
A. In Mrkopalj, I was free to parent how I wished, without regard to the judgment of others. So I suppose I grew in confidence as a mother, I just saw how happy we all were, and it made me feel like I was on the right track.
Q. You’ve returned to Des Moines to live. Was that a difficult adjustment?
A. Grant Wood said: “I had to go to Paris to appreciate Iowa.” That’s held true for us. We love our home more than we’ve ever loved it. But I wouldn’t be disclosing the whole story if I didn’t add: We also think of Mrkopalj as home now, too.
Q. What was the biggest lesson that you and your family learned from your time in Mrkopalj?
A. Part of our journey was a time-out to realign as a family. I can’t speak for Jim, but I know I make a concerted effort to slow down, look into my kids’ eyes every day, and talk with them. We draw strength from being together in a connected way.
Q. How is your life in Iowa different today than it was before the trip?
A. Well, we brought a little of the Mrkopolj village with us. I have my own yard chickens—and we live near downtown, so that’s kind of nuts. Our garden got bigger. We shop and live in a very local, small-scale way. We spend more time with our closest friends, and those friendships have really deepened. And there’s some melancholy, too: We miss our family and friends in Croatia a lot. But mostly, the four of us just know one another in a new way. I can’t explain it better than that.
Ready to take off on your own sabbatical? Wilson recommends Family Sabbatical Handbook by Elisa Bernick.
A sabbatical, a new sports car or haircut? What did you do to remedy your midlife crisis?
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