In Their Words – 20 Years Later – Two Years of Family Travel

Posted on / by Alex Berger

It was more than 20 years ago when my parents called my brother and I into the living room. At the time I was 10 or 11 and I vaguely remember being more than a little confused. We were going to go on an adventure. In my previous post, Reflecting On Two Years of Travelschooling – 20 Years Later, I shared my reflections on the trip.  But, part of what I think makes this story special is the opportunity to also contrast those recollections with those of my parents, Ed and Jo, alongside my brother, David.

As part of the prep for my post, I asked each of them to write down their own recollections and reflections on our trips. Focusing on the 1995 trip to Europe, but also elaborating where inclined about our 97 trip through the US. I asked them to write down their musings independently, without talking to each other and without reading my more in-depth piece. In this post, I compile their thoughts and share them with you un-edited and in their own voice. Due to the extended nature of David’s response, I’ve made the decision to post it as a stand alone. Jump to it here.

Jo Berger

MOM – Jo Berger

As I think back to the time 20 years ago when Ed and I were contemplating a year of travel schooling abroad with our two sons, I find I don’t have a lot of planning memories. One thing I know for certain is that it was absolutely the best child-rearing, family-bonding, life-altering decision we ever made.

I had the good fortune to be raised in a family that valued education, history, literature, art, music and travel. As Ed and I raised our own family, we continued to instill those values in our own children. I had traveled to Italy in college twice to study Italian and art history. Ed and I had traveled there together before having a family. Ed had also traveled extensively on a year-long, around the world adventure. Both of us were teachers. As a result, we didn’t have a lot of fear about traveling abroad in Europe without a fixed itinerary and teaching the boys from experiences in the real world. We were pretty confident we could handle most anything that came our way.

Once we knew we wanted to do it, we had to figure out how we could afford it. We planned for a year-long break from working. We had some small savings to cover our airfare, our 3-month Eurail passes, and our travel gear. We were able to find renters for our house and we used that income to help defray our travel costs. Food was basically food no matter where we were. Ed managed most of those details as he is the one in our relationship who keeps track of the finances.

We shopped for good quality backpacks, our portable cooking set, sturdy shoes, clothes to layer up and carry us through different seasons, a few guide books, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I am sure our parents thought we were a bit crazy and worried about us being gone for so long. Still, the day finally came and my folks drove us to the Denver airport for our departure. My strongest memory comes from standing in the terminal looking at the boys who were 8 and 10, backpacks and baseball caps in place, looking very nervous and trusting. I too felt nervous and excited. We were really doing it! With a gulp and a stride, we were off.

We arrived in Amsterdam, collected our packs, hoisted them up, figured out the transit system, and made our way to the city center where we searched for a small family-run hotel of some kind. We would repeat that process day-in and day-out throughout our travels. After a few weeks, it became routine.

There was so much to see and do! Everything was a learning opportunity-the sights, the monuments, the art, the people, the streets, the culture, the language, the sea, the mountains, the canals…it was a fantastic playground for the mind and senses. The boys kept journals and sometimes I would give them specific writing topics related to our experiences. They also kept track of our expenditures and had to convert the currency into dollars. We explored with great freedom and abandon. We were a tight-knit family cluster experiencing the world together. We had our share of difficult days and we learned how to work through them. We came to appreciate our individual temperaments and understood when space or feedback was needed.

It is easy to think we understand the world from reading, listening to radio, and watching television. Once you experience a place first hand, immersed in the rich fabric of sights, sounds, smells, you come to understand different ways of living, people making their way through the days just like everyone else, caught up in a place and time that influence their view of the world. The old saying about walking in someone else’s shoes applies. Through immersion we gain tolerance, understanding, empathy, and joyful appreciation of just how marvelously entangled our world has become. Technology has brought us within reach but travel is the key to fact check and develop insight into what makes us tick.

Through our family travel experiences, we have prepared our children, now grown men, to live, contribute, work and play in a global world. As parents, we have taken the edge off fear and exposed them at a young age to experiences that helped them step beyond the limits of their comfort zone, to delight in differences, to pick their own path, to temper judgement, and appreciate other people’s points of view.

The hunger for travel and interest in the world runs strong and deep in our sons. There is a respectful connection with humanity and a sensitivity to other cultural points of view. They are strong individuals who continue to explore the world.

Our family remains deeply connected and we have continued to build upon those foundations of mutual trust and respect even as we have transitioned from parents to friends. The experience also deepened the relationship that Ed and I share. Such positive, joyful, adventurous, passionate, immersion in extended travel experiences continues to ripple through our lives. It can’t help but integrate and transform us.

Ed Berger

DAD – Ed Berger

“Don’t you know you are putting your boys in danger? They are only 8 and 11, you know. Don’t you know you are risking their futures and yours and Jo’s?”

“Aren’t you aware that taking them out of school will damage them? Even if the school approves, you could set them back a year and the school might hold them back.”

“Yes, we thought a lot about those issues and discounted the dangers and educational problems.”

“Okay, Ed, you can do this travel thing … well you can get away with it because you’re rich.”

I often heard that from friends, although they knew we were not rich. In fact, we had been teachers and had a difficult time living on teacher’s salaries. We had to come up with a way to do what we believed in on a limited budget. Besides, both Jo and I had traveled in Europe, and we knew that we were not taking risks. We knew that our biggest problem would be creating self-directed learners and accelerating learning through experiential, hands-on activities. Those skills and learning patterns are often out-of-sync with schools.

“But seriously Ed, how will you know what to teach them? “

I tried to explain that we were not going as teacher-parents, but rather as co-learners, discovering the world together. To many, that seemed like an alien concept. The rule is that adults must be in charge and direct learning.

When learning is not confined to a set curriculum spread out over 176 days, great things happen. As an educator, I knew this and had, over the years, demonstrated the benefits of accelerated learning. What we experienced as we merged with other cultures in other places, and had the time to take in other wonders, was motivating. We were naturally motivated, all four of us, to interpret our environment and the richness of past, present, and other ways of doing things. The boys did not need Jo or me to direct their learning. They were stimulated, motivated, and challenged. What they initiated, things like drawing castles and understanding medieval history, or understanding fishing cultures, was the immediate and practical application of what they were involved in.

Almost hourly, whatever we were exposed to became our curricula. Soon the boys could hold intelligent conversations with the adults we met, and ask meaningful questions to fill in blanks in their heads. Jo and I observed that they were learning concepts reserved in the schools for high school or even college studies. As experiential development accelerated, it created a problem both boys had to deal with — and still deal with today. They surpassed their peers who were bound by age and grade related learning. Tests designed for children without self-directed learning, or limited by narrow curriculum guidelines, including the SAT and ACT, are designed to support traditional learning, based not on personal observations and thinking, but on inculcated, taught, and possibly memorized responses.

Educators and parents ask, “How damaging was this? Were the boys punished for developing beyond their peers?” Yes, in a way they had a difficult time, especially on standardized tests. Discussing their confusion with them, Jo and I assured them that they must not think – apply their insights or the facts they had learned — but rather give back only what the teacher (test maker) wanted. Having to tell a student that they must not think while taking a test seemed like sabotaging all we valued. It was, but it was necessary.

“So what happened to the boys? Did this set them back?”

Outstanding teachers recognized their strengths and education needs and worked with them. Poorer teachers, those who taught subjects and not kids, were angered, threatened and ignored or tried to punish them. Luckily, both found teacher mentors who supported them and required them to continue developing.

Both were graduated from high school with top grades. Both entered Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College and graduated with honors. Both left the US and entered Master’s programs in Europe. Alex received his M.A. and had almost perfect scores. He was recognized (through competition) as one of the most outstanding students in Denmark. David served as an intern for the American Counsel in Milan, Italy. Then spent 3 years in the Peace Corps in Africa. He was recognized by the EU as an Erasmus Mundus Scholar, awarded a full-ride scholarship, and is currently working on his M.A.

Looking back, I have to share that not one friend, co-worker, or parent encouraged us. Their doubts cut deep. We were going to take the boys out of school, away from their friends, sports, and maybe even worse, TV. We had faith that we would find shelter at night, food to eat, and ways to get places we wanted to go. We knew that the experiences we shared would exceed anything taught in classrooms.

We all kept diaries. My logs were on VHS tape. Jo drew pictures of events we shared. The boys kept journals. They also kept the financial records and figured out the exchange rates, costs of meals, museums, travel, etc. We knew that the curricula would be based on real things and real adventures. We had faith that experience would be the best teacher.

I thought back. In 1969, I had taken off on a sabbatical year to travel alone across the planet. My contacts would be schools in 22 countries. I would exchange lectures about American education, and Southwest Archaeology for a native speaking guide who could introduce me to the local schools and explain them to me. I applied for a MA program at the University. Looking over my plans, the department told me that as I would not be in their classes there was no way they could be sure I would learn anything. They offered me 3 semester hours for a year of work. Now, years later, I wasn’t surprised by the reactions of the academic community. We decided not to ask for permission. We simply left and our adventures began.

When we returned and Alex entered high school, and David entered middle school, they were welcomed.

Of all the decisions Jo and I made as parents, this proved to be the most enjoyable, effective, rewarding, beneficial, and… There were no negatives. No second thoughts or blame or anything that wasn’t a wonder. My advice? There is a magic window of opportunity between 8 and 13 years of age when something as wonderful as being together and learning together can take place.

We call it Travelschooling.


On Packing:

Did you miss Part I? Ready to continue with Part III which is contains David’s reflections on his experiences? Jump to Part III.

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.


  • Jennifer Cooper
    March 24, 2016

    Its fantastic to read such a great story and that the outcome for the kids was positive. When we were travelling in India we saw a couple travelling with a 5/6 year old and thought how fantastic the experience would be for that child. When we have children we will definately take them and show them different cultures.

    • Alex Berger
      March 24, 2016

      Thanks Jennifer! It goes without saying, but I highly recommend it for sure! It’s definitely a pretty amazing way to change your world view at a very early age!


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