What happens when two adults and their two daughters ditch their suburban Washington, D.C., life and spend a year living in four spots around the world? Writer Dan Kois and his family spent 2017 in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Costa Rica and Kansas. We had some questions about his entertaining account of this year, How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together.
Was it hard picking the four destinations of your journey? Did you seriously consider any other options?
We considered scores of other options! Just off the top of my head I remember Argentina, France, Scotland, Japan, Senegal, Tahiti, Iceland, Sweden, Italy, China, India and of course Canada (both Québec and British Columbia). It was extremely difficult! We spent a lot of time researching countries, talking to friends with connections to those countries and thinking about what would be best not only for our family but also for the book I hoped to write. We wanted to find places we actually wanted to go but that also had real, tangible differences from our East Coast suburban lives—places that had things to teach us.
You write that practically everyone asks, “Why Kansas?” Did you decide early on that one leg of your journey would be in the United States?
No, it was up in the air until the very end. But it did seem to me that I had to seriously consider the idea that it would be pretty facile to write a book about trying to look beyond our American parenting without acknowledging that there are plenty of American parents whose lives don’t resemble ours at all. In the end, I was convinced by our friend Catherine’s declaration that if we moved to Kansas, “we’d be so bored, but we’d be so happy.” I called her bluff and moved two blocks away from her.
Now that some time has passed, do you have a favorite moment from this grand adventure? Or a least favorite moment, for that matter?
I think the goodbye party our friends and neighbors threw in Island Bay, New Zealand, is right up there. It was kind of a perfect night that had the added joy of being so obviously the perfect final scene for that section of the book that I felt through the entire evening great personal and professional fulfillment.
The least favorite moment I wrote about was Lyra’s awful experience in her Dutch school, which was basically my fault. That sucked. The least favorite moment I didn’t write about was, after a 17-hour flight, having an armed guard at the Dubai airport pull me aside, open my gigantic suitcase, remove every single thing from it and finally pull from inside a shoe the weed grinder I’d bought in Wellington on Cuba Street (which I hadn’t even ground any weed in yet!!!!) and sternly tell me, “We don’t do this here.”
You and your wife did an enormous amount of planning before you left. What were the most unexpected difficulties you ran into? Did you have any truly unforeseen surprises?
It was so difficult working out schools for our kids! We knew we didn’t want to homeschool or send our kids to private schools. We wanted to experience the public schools in each country. In New Zealand, it required applying for a very specific kind of visa, for which my publisher had to write me a letter of recommendation promising I was not taking any New Zealand jobs while we lived there. In the Netherlands, I spoke to a solid half-dozen people up the bureaucratic chain until I was actually talking to, like, the deputy minister of education, who told me all about an exciting pilot program in Dutch/English bilingual schooling happening at a school in Delft, and then it turned out he was totally wrong and our kids ended up at a school where no one spoke English to them at all. I sure didn’t foresee that.
Also, there were no Airbnbs in Hays, Kansas.
Biking in the Netherlands seemed treacherous at first, but you and your family ended up loving it. Surprisingly, the Dutch don’t wear bike helmets. Are you still biking without a helmet back in the U.S.?
I sure am! I try to ride big, with the self-confidence of a tall, handsome Dutchman. I take up a lot of space on the road and ignore impatient drivers as they pile up behind me. Eventually, one of them will run me over, teaching me a valuable lesson about cultural differences.
Two of the biggest joys of your book are your humor and honesty. Did your family have any editing power over what you included? Your oldest daughter, after all, noted, “I do not entirely dislike my father’s portrayal of me but think that it’s inaccurate in some ways.”
Lyra, my eldest, did indeed insist upon reading the book and giving notes. I resisted this quite a bit and then, much to my surprise, took pretty much all her notes. My wife also read the book and offered many great suggestions but made only one heartfelt plea: “Please do not include your salary in this book.” So I didn’t.
Were you often taking notes? Did your family ever peer over your shoulder or deem anything strictly off limits?
My kids were really aware, throughout the trip, that reporting—the work of interviewing and note-taking—was happening, and that this was a book in the making. They made many recommendations about moments that should or should not go into the book, people I should talk to, stories I should tell. I found that really rewarding, honestly, for them to be intimately involved in this thing that’s always been important to me. I don’t think they exactly understood my job before, but after a year spent seeing me do it in all kinds of different ways (not only for this book but for The World Only Spins Forward, which Isaac and I were writing as I traveled), they really get it now.
If you were to make such a trip again, what things might you change?
We’d incorporate our children much more into the planning. One real lesson of our sometimes-disastrous Dutch sojourn was how much more buy-in we’d have had from them if they’d had the chance to participate in the initial discussions. It took them a long time to view the trip as something all four of us were doing together, not something we were doing to them.
Also, we would be rich, so we could afford to go to Costa Rica during the dry season.
You really loved certain brands of crackers in New Zealand and Costa Rica. What other treats did you discover? Any new recipes you continue to make?
I cook a mean arroz con pollo, and my rice-and-beans game is very on point. And thanks to World Market, we always have hagelslag—Dutch chocolate sprinkles—in the cabinet for special breakfast occasions.
What advice do you have for other families considering such an adventure?
My advice is to do it! It doesn’t have to be this exact adventure, it doesn’t have to be a whole year long, it doesn’t have to skip around the globe. But if you’ve long wanted to take an adventure, take it. Your kids will be fine (I mean, they will be bad sometimes, but that’s OK). The experience of being together through something real, difficult and astonishing will absolutely make up for whatever math classes they miss.
What did each of you miss most about home?
Alia: “Our Diet Coke machine. And our friends.”
Harper: “Our house and the things in our house.”
Lyra: “The stability. Knowing everyone, knowing our school, knowing that everything would be manageable.”
Dan: “Our friends and Washington Nationals games on local TV.”
Do you see life in Arlington, Virginia, in a different light now that you’ve had this experience?
I think so. I think all of us have a much better sense of the place we all have in the world, the infinite other ways of life out there. That’s really gratifying. It helps me obsess a lot less about our neighbors’ intense Sports Parenting, or enormous McMansions, or status comparisons in general. Not that I’m immune to obsessing, of course. But I think I have dialed it down.
Author photo credit: Alia Smith