Last January I received a perfectly timed email from my friend Amy, whose family spent a sabbatical in Amsterdam a few years ago. She had written to check in; recalling that at the halfway point of her year away, she was coming to terms with the fact that sabbatical doesn’t last forever. It was helpful to hear from her, because the week I received Amy’s note, I was in sheer misery.

I had pulled off a great travel coup, optimizing our travel to Europe with minimal frequent flier miles. A feature of my plan allowed me to continue pushing back our return date each time the airline made a schedule change. But then I learned that our airline tickets were about to expire and, finally, I had commit to a flight home.

Jenny was away giving a talk in London on the day I booked our return flight. And after I got off the phone with the airline, I crawled into bed, fully dressed, pulled the covers over my head, and stared blankly at my pillow for hours. My chest felt heavy, my eyes swelled, and I couldn’t even bring myself to write or call anyone to say how miserable I felt. Later, when I tried to write a blog post about all this, I couldn’t type more than a few sentences before I got upset and stopped. I’ve started this blog entry numerous times since January, but finally, now, on February 21st  April 2nd  May 17th  June 1st  June 7th, June 16th, I think I am coming to terms with this precious year coming to a close. And although I wish the sabbatical could last another year, now I am mostly feeling thankful that Jenny, Nell, Eli and I were able to share this amazing experience.

There are three reasons why I think I am having a particularly hard time grappling with our time in Italy coming to an end.

The first reason is easy and simple: sabbatical—any time, any place– is liberating and awesome. Who wouldn’t love being totally in control of one’s own time? I’ve been afforded a year free of almost all meetings and have only had to glance at my appointment calendar a handful of times. I’ve had zero work-related travel, written no grants, taught no classes, and ignored almost all administrative emails. I even have a collection of funny emails from colleagues around the world enviously responding to the autoreply on my email (inspired and paraphrased from my friend Megan Gunnar) that basically says “My time is my own for this one year.” Nearly everything I have done this year, from work to social engagements, has been by choice, not obligation. But having days free to think and write, and not feeling under pressure every day to get more and more done, has been wonderful. As has been the growth that comes from pulling myself out of my comfort zone and into a new situation.

The second reason that I was so sad is that I really adore Rome. There are many things in life that I wish I had done differently, but the impulsive and random decision that Jenny and I made over seven years ago to spent a year here was perfect! Rome is a city of the past and I’ve always been too focused on the future, but this context has helped me savor and appreciate the present. I have taken to the pace of the city, resonate with the colors, will never tire of the food, and still get almost giddy as things come together and I realize the Roman origins of so many aspects of our contemporary civilization. I like the hours, the chaos, the clothing, the climate, the high culture, the language, the thirty-second breakfasts and three-hour lunches, and even the superficiality of la bella figura (literally “the beautiful figure”), a philosophy that governs social life here and basically is about how one comports oneself. After a full year here, I don’t feel like I have even scratched the surface of what there is to see and learn about Rome, and I feel surprisingly “at home” here given that we are strangers at every level.

But the third, and deeper, reason that I want to cling tenaciously to this year is more quirky than the other two explanations. It is that this period of time has been something incredibly special that Jenny, Eli, Nell and I have shared, intensely, together. . and we’ve enjoyed it, noticed it, been so aware of it, and I just wish we could have more of it—not forever, but just a little longer, before the kids get older. I’d love to freeze us all in this moment for just a bit longer.

This was really a family adventure that changed and improved the way we all interact. We knew no one when we arrived, had no entrée into a social network, no work connections, no histories with anyone here. So we’ve been really dependent upon each other. There is little rushing off for activities or practices or clubs or work; we’ve missed only a handful of dinners together as a family. And our traveling adventures this year have put us in some unusual situations and led to a lot of time talking and playing with each other. Early on, even everyday errands required collaboration, as we’d work together to try and figure out how to ask for help or directions. Amy wrote in her email to me that at around the six-month mark of her own sabbatical, she began to realize that every day left felt precious. That has felt very true for me, too!

It will be healthy to get back into a regular social milieu, and good for all of us in many ways. But I hope that this period of family bonding will stay with us for a long time. I especially hope that the special bond that Eli and Nell developed after a year of reliance on each other for companionship will endure. And I hope I deal okay with the ambivalent feelings I am sure to experience when we get home and the kids are able to run out of the house on their own to meet friends—something we haven’t done since June, 2011. There will be some big changes.

We left on our last sabbatical when Eli was two years old and Nell was six months old, and I didn’t realize at the time how deeply fatigued we were. This time, our sabbatical is happening during a wonderful age for children; I can’t imagine an easier developmental period for parenting. The children are old enough to wipe their own asses, but young enough to crawl into my lap and snuggle. They are old enough to carry their own luggage through an airport and read to themselves for hours when flights are delayed, but still young enough that they actually want to travel with us. I love this age where the kids can dress and groom themselves and share independent ideas and reflections on travel, but do not yet have teenage hormonal fluctuations. The kids have a broad friendship network, but it’s still always under parental watch. I can’t imagine a period where parenting involves so much fun and so little fatigue or worry, and I’m so grateful that this year away allowed me to step back and really appreciate it.

And as someone who works all the time and loves it, I’ve also come to appreciate the southern European emphasis on quality of life.

During our last sabbatical in Montreal, we seriously considered not returning to Madison. But Jenny’s dad wisely encouraged us to consider that had we been on the faculty at McGill and spending our sabbatical at Wisconsin, then we would likely be in love with Madison. Being a no-strings-attached visitor is not the same as having to work, teach, assume administrative responsibilities, and maintain long-term relationships. . . it just isn’t an equal comparison. It is hard to imagine not falling in love with a sabbatical destination and feeling trepidation about returning to a regular life. And even the kids feel this a bit. I think they like having relaxed and attentive sabbatical parents. And they like the interpersonal warmth we’ve all experienced from people here. Eli asked us if we could promise him that we would always return to Rome at least once a year, adding “and when I get older, I am going to bring my children to Rome every year, too.”

We will be back. We’ve met a few wonderful friends with whom I would like to have more of a history and a future. And to help that, I’ve lightened my mood by already booking flights for us all to return for an extended visit here next year.

We have a lot left that we want to do in our last few weeks here. And we are all a bit sad at the prospect of leaving. But I am so, so glad that we took this sabbatical year together.

I know that when I get home, I’ll be energized and stimulated by face-to-face meetings with my students and collaborators. I know I’ll feel comforted sharing a hug and a glass of wine with my old friends. I know that we will appreciate this year for years to come. Nonetheless, I’m going to head off to the airport suppressing the urge to yell out what my kids say when we tell them that it is time to leave a fun party: please, not yet. . .I don’t want to go. . .cinque, solo cinque. . .I’m not tired. .  .just five more minutes. . . I’m not ready; I’m still having fun. . . per favore. . .I promise I’ll go right away if you’ll give me a little more time, pretty please. . . .can’t I stay just a little bit longer. . . no fair. . . .

–Seth

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