Three months flew by since our last post as we finished our marathon sprint through the end of the school year. Now well into summer, over the next few short weeks we will welcome the incoming set of faculty/staff/administration newbies to join GWA, with much big picture and strategic work to do before new staff orientation begins in August. With a great need to process one year’s closing activity while making a new year’s startup plans, we took advantage of the brief nexus between the two to implement a rapid “massive decompression” phase that first got us away from school and then allowed us enough time upon return to retrench for what lies ahead.
The 2017-2018 school year proved brutal – not in substance, but in pace. Its constant and frenzied activity started in August and continued through June. Everyone felt it, perhaps especially GWA’s leadership team. Such is often the case in the first year of transitions, and the progress achieved proved very satisfying. But the body and mind can take only so much, and we needed the opportunity to process all that happened and all the changes that resulted. Our second year abroad offered us insights different from Year One. Leading the change with Audrey as the “buck stops here” Head of School and Brian overseeing institutional advancement efforts is different from merely contributing toward change as we did in Year One. As we have experienced repeatedly at other schools where we have each been heads, the job has to get done. So at the end of the day, we often find that “the end of the day” is a lot later than we would like. And weekends might last only for a few hours on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon amid other school responsibilities. Moreover, even after we leave work and walk the 300-step commute from our offices to our delightful apartment, we have to be diligent about not continuing to talk shop too much through our evenings. As much as we love what we do, we need to recharge periodically to stay fueled for the 60-80 hour weeks we typically invest in helping GWA achieve its Vision Statement to equip minds and build character so that our graduates can serve Morocco and the global community with wisdom and compassion. The Fourth Quarter was a blur, as was Graduation…both things through which we had to steer more than things we could enjoy with people we enjoy.
Then we had the goodbyes. GWA stands as no exception to the modus operandi of transitions at international schools. Like last year, we had to say goodbye to good people in June. But goodbyes in Year Two overall came with greater difficulty than in Year One. In addition to a number of faculty, some of our senior leadership people who had been here for as long as half the school’s life decided it was time to move on to the next chapters of their own lives. Saying farewell to people who had helped us with our transition to Morocco and GWA and who made administration here both more successful and more fun hit us especially hard. Additionally, our own transition into next year no longer has the sheen of combined excitement over having survived our first year and eager anticipation over taking the helm as we steer toward the future. The year was good, but the honeymoon is over and the hard work continues into next year. And the end of the school year was so busy that we barely had time to say goodbye to these people who mean much to us before they disappeared from our daily lives.
Through all this, we craved time to process all that happened in order to assess what went well, what we could improve, and what greater significance of things we should maintain for broader context. But the pace of closing out the year simply did not afford us that luxury. So we snatched the opportunity available to us as soon as the year finished and escaped to Umbria, our favorite part of Italy.
While our rising-Senior daughter went stateside to visit grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, her working-college older sister, and pre-Morocco friends, we secured a 624 square foot 11th Century house in the heart of the Medieval sector of Orvieto, Italy, on Bookings.com, and spent two weeks exploring Umbria, Tuscany, and Lazio. It served as a vacation, but also as a first stage exploration of potential retirement locales. (We plan to be in Morocco for the next 10 years, then find another school opportunity to call Home for the better part of the next decade until we reach retirement age. So we have lots of time, but it never hurts to start the due diligence work to ensure we land well.)
Italy was great, and we turned off as much as we could. A couple school Skypes and keeping tabs on emails and texts, but mostly steeping in the history and natural beauty around us in Orvieto, Assisi, Spoleto, Gubbio, Lago di Trasimeno, Montalcino, Lago di Bolsena, and more. Brian has long felt a strong connection to St. Francis of Assisi, who from 1206 until his death in 1226 lived his vocation commissioned by the Cross of San Damiano to rebuild the Church (founding along the way the Order of Friars Minor, the Order of Poor Ladies, and the Third Order for lay people). We satisfied our “foodie” selves by shopping at local public markets to cook delicious meals at the house, as well as sharing multi-course lunches at restaurants in the towns we visited as our main meals of the day. And, of course, there was gelato…and more gelato. Perhaps that explains how – according to Brian’s Fitbit – we could climb 500 flights of stairs, walk 158,000 steps, and cover 70 miles on foot in two weeks without losing any weight before we came home. People keep telling us that is because it turned into muscle. Yeah, we have LOTS of muscle. Besides feeding our bellies, we fed our minds with great history – Etruscan, Roman, Feudal, Church, and more – everywhere we went. And we fed our souls as we followed St. Francis loosely through the region. It was not a true pilgrimage, but at times – such as when we looked into the original eight foot square cells of a hermitage Francis had built with his friars on a mountaintop overlooking Spoleto in 1218, and when we joined a small group we happened upon saying the Rosary in the Porziuncola below Assisi that he rebuilt by hand and where he died in 1226 – it had that feel. For the first time in months we allowed ourselves to be completely in the moment and enjoy fully what we experienced, rather than never escaping completely from school affairs.
Yet, the time away merely gave us the first part of what we needed. Massive decompression requires more than turning off. The purpose of the decompression is to create a circumstance with the time and space to process what previously the lack of time and space did not allow to process. We had a great trip; we saw and did much; we fed our bellies, minds, and souls. We recharged. But we boarded our flight home at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport merely pleased to have enjoyed a magnificent two weeks, but not having processed what we need to process.
Arriving late on a Saturday night, we came home to find our apartment a mess, our car in pieces with the mechanic, and a lot on the agenda to tackle for the new school year. But those seemingly disappointing things catalyzed the processing we needed. Our wonderful house helper was midway through her summer deep clean of our apartment and did not realize we would return as soon as we did. We did not even have a bed in which to sleep because she was airing out the mattresses. So we rebuilt our bed and threw sheets on it. It was hot and humid, so we had three fans blowing on us as we slept. We drove a school car to shop the next day to put food into our empty refrigerator. We bade farewell to the stay-in-your-lane order of driving in Italy and reacclimated to driving with donkeys and vehicles going the wrong way in Morocco. We bought fresh produce and other groceries for cheap and delicious meals that we took the time to cook and enjoy fully, still bring in the moment. We were happy to be home.
And the cleansing time in Umbria washed away the built up residue so that we could finally process the now-finished school year. In the week since we returned, while we worked in our offices and at home, as we technically were still on vacation we did not hold ourselves strictly accountable to GWA’s summer hours schedule. We processed the year. We planned for the coming year. We played cribbage. We cooked and ate. We took naps. We had a quiet celebration of Audrey’s 50th birthday, going to Chez Marie Jean (one of our favorite restaurants) for a Funk Party where we were the only people who danced as the DJ spun James Brown and Kool & the Gang on vinyl. We gave ourselves the time and space back at home that we needed to complete our recharge and to process all we needed to process.
We loved our time in Italy. Someday we may retire there. For now, we love living in Morocco and feel richly blessed in so many ways – apartment, food, cost of living, transportation options, sunsets: the ability to feed ourselves a splendid meal and enjoy it together as we watch the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean. Thinking back to our lives exactly two years ago, as we put the finishing touches on our preparations to start our lives in Morocco, so much has happened and so much has changed. We are at once the same people we have always been, and are different at the end of our second year here than we were at the end of our first a year ago let alone two years ago before we left the U.S. to begin this adventure.
We will miss our friends and colleagues who have left. We will tackle the summer agenda to prepare for the 2018-2019 school year. And we will welcome the newbies who currently prepare for their own arrivals to Morocco and GWA with a likely mix of excitement and a little apprehension. As we prepare to start our third year of this Expat Expedition, we feel more like the veterans we did not feel worthy to call ourselves last year. And we continue to feel blessed to live in Morocco.
On your mark…get set…here we go!