As Tsh Oxenreider, author of Notes From a Blue Bike, chronicles her family’s adventure around the world—seeing, smelling, and tasting the widely varying cultures along the way—she discovers what it truly means to be at home.
The wide world is calling.
Americans Tsh and Kyle met and married in Kosovo. They lived as expats for most of a decade. They’ve been back in the States—now with three kids under ten—for four years, and while home is nice, they are filled with wanderlust and long to answer the call.
Why not? The kids are all old enough to carry their own backpacks but still young enough to be uprooted, so a trip—a nine-months-long trip—is planned.
At Home in the World follows their journey from China to New Zealand, Ethiopia to England, and more. They traverse bumpy roads, stand in awe before a waterfall that feels like the edge of the earth, and chase each other through three-foot-wide passageways in Venice. And all the while Tsh grapples with the concept of home, as she learns what it means to be lost—yet at home—in the world.
“In this candid, funny, thought-provoking account, Tsh shows that it’s possible to combine a love for adventure with a love for home.” —Gretchen Rubin, New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before
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About the Author
Tsh Oxenreider is the author of Notes from a Blue Bike and Organized Simplicity, and is the founder of the community blog The Art of Simple. She’s the top-ranked podcaster of The Simple Show, and her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, CNN, Real Simple magazine, and more. A graduate of the University of Texas, where she studied English and anthropology, Tsh currently lives in Austin, Texas, with her family and eats tacos several times a week.
Read an Excerpt
At Home in the World
Reflections On Belonging While Wandering The Globe
By Tsh Oxenreider
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2017 Tsh Oxenreider
All rights reserved.
The prayer labyrinth is two hundred feet away and the kids are climbing rope nets on a playground next to a babbling brook. Bare feet are required on a spring day like this, textbook with chirping birds and budding leaves, as is a walk through the village park. After several hours in the car, my legs need to stretch. My husband, Kyle, returns from his loop around the walking trail, so we switch shifts, his turn on the playground bench to supervise the kids and my turn on the dirt. In the distance, the kids take turns on the slide with young locals, a revolving door of squeals and dares, the metal slide proffering a taller and steeper drop than anything found stateside, something more risky, as most good European playground equipment is.
Grass sways in tufts against the early spring zephyr, kelly green and iridescent. I walk across the gravel path and onto the grass, remove my sandals like it is holy ground. The dirt is chilly and there is still a bite in the air, not yet dissipated by the April sun; I have no idea where, specifically, we are, but I know we're in Germany. This is our farewell to the country; we'll soon reenter France a few kilometers away. I walk to the labyrinth.
It's not terribly impressive and looks like it hasn't been used for its intended purpose for maybe a decade. It's a circular concrete interruption in the swath of grass, a winding detour on the way to a makeshift neighborhood petting zoo at the park's opposite end. Cars drive past on one side, heading to the grocery store and dance class; teenagers recline on each other atop the park benches on the other side, examining each other's tonsils with their tongues, oblivious to the fact that this is some sort of sacred prayer space. Ordinary life hums around this ordinary town, and I am here, alone in front of a prayer labyrinth in the Black Forest region of Germany.
I take one quiet barefoot step into the labyrinth and turn left, starting the winding path in and out and around itself in symmetry.
I begin the monastic prayer I learned six months ago at the Ignatian monastery in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where a woman named Nora taught me letting go would do me well: Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me. Rinse and repeat.
We have two weeks left of our journey around the world, and it is time to begin the nebulous process of landing the plane. Prayer in a labyrinth will help.
I pray through the circle's narrow path, stop once I reach the center, look up to the sky in gratitude, then sling my sandals in my hand and walk back to the kids. They'd enjoy this German petting zoo on the other side of the park, but I'll need to show it to them now — we will soon drive away from this village and have dinner in France.
* * *
I have lived in twenty-two homes in just under forty years; the vast majority as an adult, having spent age two to eighteen in the same house. In my university years, friends joked that if you wanted to get married, you should live with me; almost all my roommates got hitched the summer after moving into my place. It wasn't really my college goal to keep cardboard boxes at the ready in case I needed a new living situation, but this is what happened in my early foray into independence. I'd finally settle into the nooks and crannies of an apartment or rental house, only to hear the squeal of a roommate bursting through the door after an eventful date: "He asked me! And I said yes!" A few months later, I'd drag out the boxes and change my address at the post office again.
In hindsight, this was a good thing — I now know I thrive on change, and five different pads in five years of college saved my sanity and kept me going during the bookish years of study all-nighters and shifts waitressing at the local diner. In the thick of it, though, when the lights were off and I was alone in my twin bed, roommate snoring nearby, I'd wonder, What sort of jinxed roommate potion did I drink? It became an annual assumption that I'd need to find a new rent-sharing companion every May, a new place where I could hang my growing collection of gently worn bridesmaid dresses.
I was happy for my friends who found lifelong love so early, but I was also relieved I hadn't. I hoped the person for me was out there somewhere, but in my early twenties, I felt as young as I was. I did the math, calculated how much time I had to enjoy being called wife even if I waited a solid decade to marry. When it was my turn to graduate, there were blessedly no suitors on the horizon.
Instead of settling down into family life, I applied for a teaching position that required a move to Kosovo, a war-torn pocket in former Yugoslavia, a country fresh from a genocide spearheaded by the dictator Slobodan Miloevic. This was my resistance against registering for tea towels and gravy boats and settling into picket-fence suburbia.
* * *
This postgraduate season of teaching English to Albanian teenagers, conserving water by taking weekly showers, and cursing a spotty, generator-powered Internet connection in a tiny Albanian village was, somehow, dreamy. I lived in a second-floor apartment on a nameless street in a village of a thousand people who seemed suspended in time. Cars had rolled in only twenty years earlier, and those same cars traveled these streets. My landlords and employers were an American family helping repair the devastated land and its inhabitants, and I took my cultural cues from them. That year I learned how to sit with my thoughts and go without English-speaking companionship in my age bracket (quite the change from university life, mere months before). I learned how to start a wood-burning stove and felt like Ma Ingalls with a navel piercing. I learned to make do without a clothes dryer, as most of the world does, and I learned to burn my trash instead of carting it to the curb on garbage day.
I also learned home mattered to me more than I thought it did. After a childhood spent under one roof, I blossomed in the hodgepodge experience of college, and was convinced that normal things — like predictable water output from the bathroom sink — weren't my highest priority. I categorized myself an Adventurer, someone who flies by the seat of her pants, who needs the next thing around the bend so long as it isn't settling down. I sought out experimental food from the local hole-in-the-wall café — fish still with its head, rabbit casserole — and shunned any resemblance of a self-initiated menu plan.
But after months of daily work in the village, riding the bus into the capital city once a month to call my parents from an international phone, and sleeping under a borrowed blanket I'd never pick for myself, there it was, an innocent little truth staring me in the face six months into my life in Kosovo: I liked the idea of home. Things like wall colors and candles mattered to me more than I had guessed, and it felt freeing to admit it. I wanted to sink into the unpredictability of a cross-cultural life, yes, but I also wanted a bona fide home. This was a season of refinement, of acknowledging there were multiple sides to me that were equally true.
I was infected with an incurable sense of wanderlust, but I was also a homebody.
I matured into adulthood when I acknowledged this truth.
* * *
We may not have soul mates in this life, but most of us have my-Godif-I-don't-walk-through-the-rest-of-my-life-with-that-person-I'm-an-idiot mates. Kyle was a like-minded American living a few villages over, rebuilding houses for widows who had lost everything during the horrific genocide instigated by Miloevic. We hit it off instantly. There was someone else in the world willing to work a horribly paying job in order to play a small part in restoring a ravaged country to its former, if not makeshift, ancient glory. I wasn't looking for him, but when you find that special someone swimming with Albanian teenage boys in a lake potentially swirling with all strains of hepatitis and you're still attracted to him, you don't walk away.
We were fast friends, and we spent all our time together. We helped widows and the poor; we unearthed smoky, seedy jazz bars in the capital city; we took rickety buses to Thessaloniki and found cheap hostels on the beach. And when we weren't together, in the quiet of my own apartment, I wondered whether Kyle was thinking of me as much as I was of him.
We married two years later and vowed to spend our life thick in adventure. Preferably overseas.
* * *
God has a sense of humor.
Ten years later, I tuck my youngest son into bed and creep back downstairs to finish the dinner dishes. Kyle tosses toys back into buckets, both of us grateful for this time of the day, when quieter hours bookend nighttime kisses and passing out from the day's toil. Our home is of the typical suburban variety, freshly remodeled with our own hands. When I chop carrots, I stand on trendy distressed wood slats; when I empty the dishwasher and toss the silverware into its drawer, the track silently glides shut like a modern marvel. We don't suffer from an overload of stuff by normal American standards, but I am still nagged by the notion that our closets are too full. I am happy to have these dishes to wash, because it means our family eats well, and the tucking-in ritual means the children have a comfortable place to sleep. I know from our years living abroad this is no small thing for many parents and their children.
Kyle and I — we are still the people who met in Kosovo, and we are the couple who later moved with their toddler to Turkey and lived there for three years. I am the one who gave birth to our second child in a Turkish hospital, where I barely spoke the language and almost left the building with a needle still stuck in my spine.
It's now ten years after we met in Kosovo and two years after we moved back to the States from Turkey, and something is missing. Our inner adventurers hug the walls as shadows, eclipsed by parental and culturally expected responsibility. I still think of myself as a vagabond, and yet these days I only travel for work. I am a writer and Kyle works from home for a small company, but we feel the heaviness of our ordinary life. It is a reasonable weight; we aren't overcommitted, and I am mightily grateful for the years of exploration behind us. But our existence is still heavy with midlife expectations — mortgage payments, schlepping the kids to karate and gymnastics, cleaning the gutters.
Tonight, the air is thick with the conviction that there is no reason for unhappiness. We are in our thirties, doing work we enjoy after having spent most of our twenties traveling, and we are finally settling down to become the Normal People most of our friends became ten years earlier. Over kitchen cleanup and toy redistribution, I admit what I know is true: "I miss the Adventurers. And I think it's time for them to come out again."
Kyle knows what I mean. Now is as good a time as it will ever be to move beyond dreaming and playing with the idea we've quietly cultivated for several years. The kids are all potty-trained, they're astute travelers for their age, and yet they are still young enough to be unrooted.
"Let's do it," Kyle says. I dry my hands with the kitchen towel and find the calendar.
* * *
This is our grand idea: we'll circumnavigate the earth in one direction, kids in tow, for an entire school year. We'll show them what it means to get lost in the world. It's a dream we've put on hold, one Kyle concocted a few years ago. I was nursing our youngest, and he bounded down the stairs, plopped down on the couch next to me, and said matter-offactly, "I have an idea." It was crazy and irresponsible and no right-thinking parent would toy with such an idea. But also, it was fantastically brilliant and I said, "Thank you for bringing it up first."
Two years later, in our kitchen in the Pacific Northwest, we circle a square on the calendar. I like having plane tickets in my name on the horizon, and this is close enough: we are going to stop brainstorming the idea; we're going to do it.
We've been earmarking money for several years for our travel fund, and though we haven't yet reached our financial goal, we do the math and calculate how much we'd need to earn working from the road. It's doable. I research flight patterns and travel gear and create a burgeoning to-do list. We'll continue homeschooling our kids, but they'll carry the heft of their spelling lists in backpacks and times tables on portable tablets.
I reject any speaking opportunities for the next twelve months, jokingly adding, "Unless your event is located on an island in the Indian Ocean or on an Icelandic volcano." Kyle meets with his coworkers the next day, asks if they're on board with his working remotely for the foreseeable future. We make a checklist of things to do in central Oregon before leaving for a year.
We prepare ourselves in the ways we know how. We will never be fully ready, of course, because how do you prepare to circumnavigate the globe with three kids in tow?
* * *
Two opposing things can be equally true. Counting the days till Christmas doesn't mean we hate Halloween. I go to church on Sundays and still hold the same faith at the pub on Saturday night. I shamelessly play a steady stream of eighties pop music and likewise have an undying devotion to Chopin. And perhaps most significantly, I love to travel and I love my home.
This is my one rub with the trip idea. All these years, I'd been plagued with longing for a return to my global explorative roots, but I also want nothing more than to curl up in my armchair with a good book. I dream about places unknown, but I also buy throw pillows for the couch and mull over the just-right master bathroom paint color. I want the perfect shade of sea-glass green both in tile above my sink and in water below my boat.
Every memoir I leaf through in the travel section at the bookstore tells stories from people in search of themselves on the open road. Usually they are young and single. The occasional volume carries the story of someone older, often in search of healing after unfathomable grief. Their stories are a pre-travel life that is rough at best, soul-sucking at worst. Nobody seems to embark on a massive journey because their lives are already full of meaning.
I look out beyond the precipice into a year of global nomadism and a pang of guilt gut-punches me: I wonder if it's selfish to uproot us in the name of itchy feet.
There is, of course, the immeasurable good fortune that Kyle is also plagued with wanderlust. This is no small thing. I know lopsided couples, one dying to hop on a plane and the other wanting nothing to do with the idea. The travel itch spills into our children as well, besotted with our DNA. Finn, our preschooler, doesn't know the difference between a county and a continent and is along for whatever ride the rest of us venture. But Reed has an unrelenting interest in Turkey, his birthplace that holds little memory, and Tate misses her life as the token blonde kid in a sea of dark heads, with more stamps in her passport than counties in Oregon. Our entire little collective misses the world, and this counts for something.
This is key, I think, to my acceptance of the For Sale sign in the front yard. If we store our earthly possessions for a year in a storage unit, it will benefit all five of us.
We pencil in a hard date.
The house sells ridiculously fast.
* * *
Selling the house is just one piece of the puzzle; we must also decide what to keep, where to keep it, what belongings we need for the year, and what travel plans to reserve in advance. Trekking around the world will be more enjoyable, we deduce, if we don't schlep much around, and so we narrow down our list of possessions to only what will fit in packs on our backs. We also need to buy said packs, along with the smallest version of gadgets we can afford — only the ones that will make our travels better.
In all this bustle, the questions churn. Do we bring all the toothpaste we'd need for a whole year? What about an extra power cord for my laptop, in case mine bites the dust in the middle of nowhere? Will the kids have regular chores? Will they still earn allowance? The answer to all is wait and see.
On the cusp of homelessness, there's no turning back.
We make several trips to the local travel gear outfitter and try on backpacks half the size of our bodies, weighing them down with beanbags to simulate a full load. Reed, age six, wavers like a drunk through the aisles, knocking down compasses and water bottles. I worry about his ability to carry all he needs for the year, with his low muscle tone and his penchant for surrendering to exhaustion when things get physically challenging. The only pack that fits our four-year-old is school-sized, with just enough room for his clothes, a toothbrush, and a notebook. Maybe a stuffed animal, if we squeeze.
Excerpted from At Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider. Copyright © 2017 Tsh Oxenreider. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I, 1,
1 LEAVING, 3,
Part II, 17,
2 CHINA, 19,
3 HONG KONG, 39,
4 THAILAND, 43,
5 SINGAPORE, 63,
Part III, 69,
6 AUSTRALIA, 71,
7 NEW ZEALAND, 87,
8 AUSTRALIA, AGAIN, 95,
9 SRI LANKA, 109,
Part IV, 123,
10 UGANDA, 125,
11 ETHIOPIA, 141,
12 ZIMBABWE, 151,
13 KENYA, 159,
14 MOROCCO, 169,
Part V, 179,
15 FRANCE, 181,
16 ITALY, 197,
17 CROATIA, 211,
18 KOSOVO, 219,
19 TURKEY, 225,
20 GERMANY, 237,
21 ENGLAND, 249,
Part VI, 255,
22 RETURNING, 257,
About the Author, 273,