Transitions

Change has certainly been something constant while on our new adventure in Costa Rica. Now that we are back, we are experiencing lots of change in the transitions each of us is going through as we “readjust” to routine and life here in Seattle. After what we’ve experienced though, change itself is easier for all of us and very exciting. That was a key benefit we hoped that Aidan and Nev got from our experience. I’m not sure though if they realize how differently they – actually all of us – approach things now.

I started my transition back in August really. That’s when I started reaching out to folks and looking for a new job. I had a pretty firm set of things I was and was not looking for in my ideal new job. Perhaps that’s why has taken several months to find my place.

Leaving for a year, and especially having the opportunity to spend so much time with my family, made me think hard about what type of job I wanted to have that would take me away from them for so many hours a day. Deb and I had the luxury of spending all of our time together. We love working on things together. That’s why it’s a big deal for me to transition back to seeing co-workers for more hours per day in many cases than Deb.

I didn’t feel compelled to return to any sort of “ladder climb” in a company. I could have managed a large team again, but I wanted something different. Ideally I wanted to find a place where I could be more “hands on.” I wanted to do something that had benefit beyond corporate success. So I took a position as an “individual contributor” in a company and industry that will get me right back to my roots in helping to evolve education.

A year or more ago I probably would have worried a bit about taking a “step down” from a bigger position and title. Not now. I feel solidly centered on how I want to spend the precious time I have. For me it’s about the “why”, not the “what” or “how much.” And I expect this ride to be even more thrilling than the previous things I’ve had the privilege of doing.

Deb is choosing not to return to the corporate world for now. True to her nature, she has a wild idea about want she wants to do next. That transition is far more in her nature and will include being out in nature a lot more. Deb is not ready to talk about it yet here in more detail. It will take some explaining to do, hopefully in a future post.

Nev has decided to go to back to public (high) school – but not just any high school. Nev enjoyed home schooling and was doing well. As we mentioned awhile back, a large public middle school was a nightmare for Nev with all of the posturing, bullying, cliques, and stress. We were a little surprised about the interest in going back to a public school, but this one could not be more fitting for Nev.

Nova is indeed a Seattle public school but it is very alternative. When we first drove up for a visit, we saw a bunch of students in the parking lot and a lot of diverse hair colors, piercings, and tattoos. This was clearly a place where people felt comfortable being who they were and Nev said that it felt like “home.”

But Nova is not alternative because of the students. Rather, I think it simply attracts more alternative students. Nova is run more like a college where you choose your classes and everyone’s schedule may be different. They have some incredibly interesting and non-mainstream classes like Experimental Animation, Feminism and Fashion, and Naked Truth on Stereotypes. Students and faculty work together to make the school a very open and accepting forum for ideas and place for people. And the teachers are as refreshing as the students.

Transitioning from a year in Costa Rica being homeschooled to even an alternative high school will be a big transition, but Nev is ready and excited.

Aidan, as usual, is open to everything and excited about trying new things. He and Deb are attending a home school cooperative program Mondays and Fridays where different parents teach different classes and where Aidan can meet some new friends. That leaves lots of time for doing some activities Aidan and Deb work out. It’s a bit different approach to unschooling, but it will be a fun, new adventure for Aidan.

The most interesting thing to me about our transition back isn’t what we each are doing; it’s how our general perspectives have changed, especially Aidan and Nev’s. We are living much more simply. We don’t need much “stuff.” The young adults are taking on much more responsibility. And change is something we take in stride pretty easily.

I expect that all of this didn’t simply come from living in Costa Rica. Some of it would have happened naturally, I’m sure. I think our experience though may have hastened and facilitated much of it.

We each have our own work, school, and life transitions back to the world we knew. On the surface, they seem fairly normal compared to our previous year. But they are all very definitely, and very intentionally, “off-path”. I hope our off-path perspectives don’t dim as we return to reality. I don’t expect they ever will, though, and that’s a good thing. Pura vida.

Stuff Part 2

We have returned from our new adventure and have been settling in to our new (rental) place here in Seattle after our wonderful year away with our young adults. A year ago in October I wrote about “stuff” – specifically how we sold most of our stuff and how, while it was initially hard, it was also very freeing. As I reflect on our holidays this year, I realize how different all of our perspectives (still) are on “stuff.”

To begin, and for a little context, when we went to Costa Rica, we radically reduced the amount of stuff we brought to just a few suitcases each, and much of it was technology. When we spent 5 weeks backpacking in Europe, we reduced even further to one carry-on size suitcase each with everything we would need to wear for any occasion. We all got used to wearing the same things most of the time. Not a lot has actually changed now that we are back in Seattle and that actually surprised us.

When we first arrived I went and got several of the very few boxes of clothes, shoes, etc. that we had in storage. We picked out what we needed – mostly cold weather gear as you might imagine! – and I ended up returning much of it. Even though we sold most of our clothes and other stuff, we still found that we kept more than we really needed. And we are all happy not having a large closet of clothes. It’s just one of several lasting changes we’ve gone through as a result of our travels.

We decided not to return to our house in Seattle. We had some good friends as renters in our house and they were interested in staying. In a sort of “karmic pay it forward”, we rented the house of some friends who decided to travel around the world with their kids for a year. We are now out in a small rural town called Fall City and we love the simplicity (and the commute could be a lot worse). Simpler seems to be working for us.

Christmas itself was also a very different affair for us. Like many folks we know, our past Christmas holidays have been filled with Christmas trees, lights, ornaments, and lots of presents as well as good food, family time and fun experiences. This year we kept the latter three.

It’s not that we have become anti-Christmas per se – it’s just that things matter differently to us. For example, we didn’t have ornaments and so as a family we decided that we also didn’t need a tree. It seemed odd to us to just cut down a tree and buy it to sit empty in our house.

We all saw lot of holiday shopping at the several mile long “strip mall” near us in Issaquah. We saw all of the stressed, often frantic, and sometimes rude shoppers. It just didn’t feel right to us.

We decided that we weren’t going to get a bunch of “stuff” as presents. We bought less and made more. And what we did get focused more on experiences – as has our entire last year – than on the “stuff” itself.

I had mentioned that Nev and Aidan had become interested in this “physical” fantasy gamed called Warhammer while we were in Firenze (Florence). The pieces all tend to be really expensive so instead of buying a large battle board, I built them one out of wood and insulation foam and then painted them. (Don’t worry Gretchen & Rodrigo. These have felt on the bottom.)

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These boards are 2’x2’ and so of course I had to build a piece of “furniture” to keep them safe 🙂  Meanwhile, Deb spent many hours painting the small Warhammer figures for them.

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This all gave Nev and Aidan the ability to play a live game with each other – and have many fun experiences. We also bought two new family games so we could spend more time together playing games. We still had the 3 we brought to Costa Rica and it was time to add just a little diversity!

Nev created some art for each of us. The pictures Nev gave Deb and I are priceless. He captured both of us so well.

deb andy xmas drawing 2

deb andy xmas drawing 1

When we shared presents, they were fewer and much more meaningful. And we focused much of our time hanging out and playing games together. It’s likely to be one of our more memorable Christmas’s.

When I was at Teague, I did some research on travelers and one of the most poignant quotes I heard was “Travel changes you.” It is certainly true in our case. It often takes Deb and I stepping back a moment sometimes to see how much we’ve changed. Not needing a lot of “stuff” is just one of many. I’ll probably write about a few of the other ways that I see that we’ve changed in other posts.

Frankly, I wasn’t really sure whether I’d keep writing this blog. After all, we are no longer abroad in Costa Rica, nor traveling, and it’s likely that Nev and Aidan will be attending some form of school in the coming months (though very alternative forms). But what I realize is that despite the fact that we are indeed back and that I’ll be starting a job soon, we are still very much “intentionally off path” thanks to our wonderful experiences together this past year. And being “off path”, in the middle of so many here in Seattle who are “on the path”, feels pretty invigorating. We’re not sure what this year will bring, but we are sure it will continue to be different for all of us. Pura vida.

The Road Home and Stuff

I can’t believe the first stage of our new adventure is already coming to an end so soon. A short 10 months after we left Seattle for Costa Rica we will be leaving and on to our next, shorter, adventure. We are already actively planning and packing even while we continue our adventure here. The return trip is much easier in many respects, but harder in some.

I noted that it was only the end of stage 1. As I mentioned earlier, we decided to leave early since we are heading into (technically we are already in) low and rainy season. It’s low, but not rainy. Still, many places are starting to close and many friends are moving back to their home countries until November. So, we are switching operations to Europe. We are “trading” our last two months in Costa Rica for about 5 weeks in Spain, France and Italy.

In stage 2, I return to California and my parents’ house for a visit for two weeks while Deb stays in Costa Rica with the dogs. The dogs have to wait until Sept. 15th to travel due to the heat. Deb returns on the 17th and we head to Spain on the 21st, starting our final stage, stage 3.

Deb is hard at work developing a loose itinerary for us all. We know we land in Barcelona, Spain and leave from Florence, Italy. Everything else is pretty open. We know we want to hit a few small towns in France on the way to Italy. We plan to visit Cordoba in Spain for the castles and Orvieto in Italy for the incredible church there that hosts the works of Luca Signorelli (an incredibly talented Renaissance painter, like Michelangelo, but with a penchant for depicting the apocalypse and scenes from hell). The Catholic Church relegated him to this church on a large butte. We will also definitely visit Rome; Deb and I are going to Gladiator Camp. We did invite the young adults, but sadly, no takers there. Deb will certainly be “badass!”

As Deb does the planning, I’ve been doing the packing and finishing up my class(es). We have also both been studying and working towards our Advanced Diving Certification. Never a dull moment.

On the class front, I got asked to add another class on Prototyping to my schedule. It is a two day workshop over two weeks of elapsed time. It’s been a lot of fun to put together but it’s also been a ton of work in the middle of everything. Fortunately, it works with my current schedule in San Jose – I teach Information Visualization Thursday evening and Saturday morning and then Prototyping Friday evening. I and my class usually head out for food and drinks after one or both classes so it’s been a lot of fun.

Just to brag about my students a bit, they just turned in an assignment to create an information visualization on some aspect of the World Cup and I was blown away by the quality of the thinking and the execution. These folks all have day jobs, mostly in high-tech, and then they take night classes several days a week. In just about a week they created some visualizations that in many cases are on par with work I’ve seen on the NY Times.com site (they are well known for their excellence in information visualization). More importantly, they have focused on some really interesting stories and insights from the Cup, such as why Brazil lost so badly(!), why Costa Rica did so well despite the fact that their FIFA statistics are not stellar and how Costa Rica used passing as a super power. I’m super proud and excited to see what they’ve done so far. Here’s a quick example:

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Costa Rica’s Secret Combinations, Mauricio Varela

In between trips to San Jose, I have been starting to pack. Fortunately, and here I reveal my inner geek, I created a big spreadsheet when we first came down itemizing everything in our 6 carry-on bags and 6 stowed bags to facilitate staging and packing. That makes it very easy to do everything in reverse. Mostly.

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Re-Staging

In our two trips back, we returned here with some additional things. We added some “stuff” while we were here, most of which we won’t be bringing back, and of course some things didn’t last through our adventure. We mostly leave with the same number of bags and items. It’s interesting to see what made it and what didn’t.

First off, we have to account for additional things we brought back from the US. This includes paints, paintbrushes, and other material to paint Deb’s painting. I brought back additional technology, mostly for the young adults to make videos which they never did. Deb has all the material she got for her home made lip balms, deodorants, etc. – something she will continue to do when we return, so those all go back.

In the spirit of reducing “stuff”, we actually did not get much down here and what we did get will likely stay – being given away or sold. We will sell Fanta (our truck), our bikes, TV and a few other things. We will find good homes for the blender, crock pot, boogie board, hammock, yoga mats, printer, and sand-castle-making supplies. We used all of those things regularly but won’t need them or can’t get them home.

Very few things that we got here make the return cut list. Deb got a few hand-made bikinis. Those are coming back. They were also excellent purchases. I’ll leave them to your imagination. We’ll take our diving instruction materials back, along with Deb’s painting (which will likely be an adventure on its own). And of course, our newest family member “M and M”. That’s about it. It’s nice to maintain our low volume of stuff.

What is fascinating to me is what won’t make it back and what didn’t get used. We’ve been here almost a year and we really brought minimal supplies. Looking at where we are now, it is really clear to me what we truly need and what we don’t

The young adults have grown, especially Aidan. We are throwing away or giving away almost all of his clothes and shoes. The poor guy has no shoes that still fit – not that he needed them here! Likewise, Nev has a bunch of stuff that doesn’t fit. They, along with all of us, are getting rid of a number of clothes that we have simply worn through wearing them so much over the course of the last year. These include most of our swim suits, flip flops and t-shirts.

Then there is the technology. It’s been a hard year on our tech. Fortunately, I made sure we had redundancy in key areas. We’ve gone through four computer mice(!), three headsets/headphones, two digital pens, one Bluetooth music player, one keyboard, one tablet and a large number of recharging cables. Deb’s Mac and my parts of my tablet are on their way out as well. Kudos to all the smart phones, (Nokia, Apple, Samsung), Kindles, Xbox, and the Dell laptop which, despite heavy use all are no worse for wear.

In terms of what didn’t get used, there are many things. It’s good food for thought for others doing this (and we now know several!). We brought too many clothes and shoes. I brought several nice clothes anticipating that I might have to return to do some consulting. That was fortunate because I use them when I teach class, but I still brought too many short sleeve collared shirts. I found that black Armani t-shirts are versatile and great for going out here. I’d say that I could have cut my clothing by 2/3 and not noticed. In fairness, though, some of these things we didn’t use in Costa Rica we will use in Europe.

We didn’t use our nice Sony camera as much as we should have; it was just too big to easily take everywhere despite the nice pictures it takes. We are getting a smaller one for Europe so we actually use it. Likewise, we just started using the GoPro for diving but before that had not used it much. We didn’t watch any of the movies I brought on DVD and didn’t play most of the Xbox games we brought. And sadly, I never got a chance to use my volleyball.

Up until when I was asked to do a class on prototyping I would have added all of the backup drives I brought to this list. I had brought them more for safety but had not used them until I needed some key material for the class and then they became invaluable.

Almost everything else was used and used frequently, particularly cooking items, the very few board games and the large monitor (which was truly indispensible for my classes).

Of course, we didn’t come here to get “stuff” to bring back. Rather, we came for experiences and adventure, and we certainly got a lot – almost everything we hoped for. We all (mostly) learned a new language. We learned yoga and surfing. I got to play soccer in another country. We learned to dive. We got to explore the rain forest, the volcanoes, the jungle, and the beaches. We got to see (and in some cases live with) wildlife that we had never seen before. We got to have sunrise meditations and sunset cruises. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to teach in an exciting new University program. Deb got a chance to give back and work for a kids’ organization and help organize a fundraiser. We got to appreciate another culture and make lots of new friends, some of whom have become as close as family. We got to help our young adults unschool and learned a lot about ourselves in that process. We got to spend lots of time together as a family. That’s the “stuff” life is made of.

And that’s just stage 1 of our adventure. Stay tuned for more. Pura Vida.

PS: At least one of us (Nev) got to really appreciate Seattle’s cold weather!

How We Got Here

Several folks have asked us “Why Costa Rica?” and “What sort of planning did it take?” I thought that while it’s fresh, I’d post the answer. Let me know if I missed any details you’d like.

Why Costa Rica? Well, our first choice, as I described in our new adventure was actually Brazil. Sadly though, the US has tight restrictions on Brazil and so Brazil has tight restrictions on Americans coming in. We wouldn’t be able to stay more than 30 days realistically – at least there was no guarantee. So Deb began a hunt of other locations that fit our criteria. Here’s our Top 10 reasons (in good ol’ David Letterman form) why we chose Costa Rica as the country, Playa Portrero as the city, and the specific place we live, Casa Dutry, in order of least to most important.

11.   The swimming pool at the house was a bonus!

10.   We had to have air conditioning (primarily for Vie, who thinks it is too hot when
it is 70 degrees).

9.     We didn’t want a place with dangerous rip currents so we could feel comfortable letting the kids go surf by themselves. The surf in Playa Potrero was perfect.

8,     Our new home had to allow dogs of course.

7.     The rent had to be pretty modest.

6.     The house needed to have three bedrooms. Two bedroom places are common and so are 4-5 bedroom places, but three bedrooms are hard to find.

5.     Costa Rica is the happiest country on the planet according to the Happy Planet Index (there is no military, and there is great education and health care).

4.     The place had to be warm and by a beach (hey, if you are going to move to another country, make it amazing) – and within walking distance to the beach.

3.     We needed to bring our dogs without them having to go through a quarantine process (which is common in Europe and many other countries).

2.     We needed to be able to stay at least six months and up to a year.

And the number one reason:

  1. We wanted a country where the kids could learn another language within another culture. Spanish worked particularly well as Deb studied it and I knew Portuguese and Italian.

What sort of planning did it take? The whole thing took a lot of planning over several months. It was really broken up into two parts: planning where we were going and planning to leave. Deb did a brilliant job on the former and I took care of most of the prep work to leave.

Deb started by looking for the right country. Some of the top contenders were Portugal, Ecuador, Uraguay, Belize, Panama, Chile, and Spain. There were others but based on our criteria she chose Costa Rica. We made a vacation trip the year or so before to nearby Tamarindo and loved it. Deb scouted some more details afterward.

We got more serious about moving about 10 months before we ended up leaving. At that point Deb started the 6 month search for a house to rent and that’s when we learned about and added many of the other criteria (such as no rip currents). It was a lot of emailing property owners and rental companies. She started with vrbo.com, airbnb.com, and various real estate and property management companies. Then went deeper searching for communities and local blogs where home owners post homes for rent with not a lot of responses. She finally found a small local agency, LEP, and then she narrowed down property choices. We got very lucky in finding what we did.

The next big planning hurdle that she took on was getting passage for the dogs. No quarantine I think translates to lots of paperwork. This included knowing all of the vaccinations and certificates they needed to enter the country, as well as finding the right airline to transport them. She researched how the airlines cared for pets and a lot more. As I mentioned in Roots, I ended having to drive to Tumwater, WA for final paperwork for the dogs (during the government shutdown).

Meanwhile, I was started by planning and prepping for the big estate sale to get rid of our stuff. I detailed a lot about in that post. That was a huge endeavor. Fortunately, I quit work a good 5 weeks before we left so I had a lot time to prep at home.

Another big task was renting our house. We initially expected to have to find a Property Management company (which we did), but good fortune struck and a good friend was looking for a place for her family to rent. They took a look and loved our place. That made the whole rental planning far easier. We still had a lot of work to do to set the house up for rental (adding CO monitors, deep cleaning, wall fixes and touchups). Of course we had to overdo it and paint two rooms and add a new floor before we left. That’s all less about move planning though.

There were a few other details that took planning and a bit more than we planned. One thing in this category was cell phones. We had to buy new, unlocked cell phones and then we had to work out that it was best to wait until we were in Costa Rica to get the SIM cards for them. That worked out pretty well.

Getting to the airport was more pain than I expected. We had to go to SEATAC airport in Seattle and rent a minivan with stow-and-go car seats so we could transport the dog crates (and luggage). We planned for a cab to take Deb and the kids, but when it didn’t show, we ended up all cramming in the same vehicle. The opposite was true in Costa Rica. One of the nice things about using a property management company is that they have a concierge. This meant that Deb was able to have them arrange transportation from Liberia airport 45 minutes away and it was there on time and ready to go, fitting all of us comfortably. The comfortably part took a little planning. Deb sent the 2 dog crate measurements (cm) to make sure that they would fit in the vehicle along with our large amount of luggage and 4 people.

Finally, there were things we planned but didn’t get right. For example, I was excited to learn that Amazon shipped to Costa Rica for $4.99. But, it doesn’t ship consumer electronics (eg., cables, cell phone covers, printer cartridges) and things from most non-Amazon sellers it seems. So far these are the things we’ve needed.

Likewise, I read that while some services such as Pandora and Netflix don’t work outside the US. But, Xbox Live did. Well, yes and no. Netflix did work in Costa Rica. Xbox Live did for gaming. Pandora didn’t. So, I subscribed to a VPN service (I used Unblockus.com) which helps media content get through. It does and we have Pandora now, however the fine print is that Xbox Live movie rental and downloads don’t work and can’t. I’m still working on a way where we can see new movies. Ironically, I thought we could at least go to the theater here, but there are none in the several towns around us. At least Unblockus helps in that web content, media, etc. is not defaulted to Spanish which helps the young adults until they learn Spanish (then we switch back J).

In all, the planning was an adventure in itself and definitely part of ours. Once we found the rental and started seriously planning, it took a lot of our spare time. It was worth it though – both the move and the fact that we did spend time planning. It means we can now focus on small missed details easily and not face a mass of unexpected details. Planning certainly takes the edge off of any change.

Stuff

We had our great estate sale this weekend where we sold most of our “stuff”. It was certainly the biggest step in uprooting in preparation for our new adventure – one we had been preparing for for a few months. We sold all of our furniture and about three quarters of everything we owned. It was as big of an endeavor as it was an enlightening experience.

The process started with building a storage area within our garage to store the stuff we wanted to keep. It was mostly our decorations for our big Halloween party along with Seattle type gear and clothes, a few mattresses, TV, etc.

Everything else included almost all the furniture, 97 boxes of densely packed stuff, and a bunch of clothes. We originally didn’t expect to sell everything, but then we learned that to rent the house, we’d have a better chance if it was unfurnished. So we took the leap and sold all of our stuff – with some help from Jon and his great crew at Ballard Estate Services. It certainly reduced our complexity.

Packing the first few boxes was hard, but it got a lot easier as it went. I saw a lot of stuff I had not seen in years (in some cases decades). Things like my thousand or so D&D miniatures from the 70s. Or two rare Czechoslovakian egg-shaped liqueur sets from my grandmother that I have never used. Many things brought back memories of course, but I didn’t feel wed to any of this “stuff”. We had downsized and gotten rid of stuff before in moves and spring cleaning, but never like this. My rule became “if I hadn’t seen or used it in years, it wasn’t really anything I needed.”

That rule extended to digital “stuff” too. I tend to be a digital pack rat, saving everything for decades across all forms of ancient media like optical drive discs and zip drive discs. That all went. All my graduate design projects and papers, including my thesis project. While I had kept the media readers too, I couldn’t connect them to modern computers so they all just sat in a box waiting for the day when I would have so much free time that I could go back and transfer all that stuff to modern media. That day never came, fortunately, and so it all went as well.

Surprisingly, Deb and the kids did well with this divesting activity too. As a family we tend to favor experiences over things, I think, which is a good thing given what we are doing.

The estate sale itself was an odd thing even though we only saw the beginning and end. The beginning as in people lining up at 7:30 in the morning, signing a list to get in first when it opened at 9:00. The end as in the people hanging around after the sale was over, still rooting around the leftovers. We found that there is a very unique subculture of people who thrive on estate sales. Who knew? In the end, most things sold – including our entire pantry of food, much of it partially consumed! Some, surprisingly, did not. I’m sure they will all end up in other people’s fine collections of stuff.

What I realized through this effort is that my stuff doesn’t define me. It may give a clue about who I am, but these clues may be just as misleading (like the liqueur sets) as they are accurate. The stories I tell people aren’t usually about my stuff; they are about people we’ve met, or things we’ve done, or places we’ve gone.

It’s all just stuff. At least, that’s how I’ve come to think of it. I know it’s different for different folks. But, if I focus too much on collecting this stuff, I’ll be dwelling in the past. It will tie me down and keep me from doing something really new and adventurous.

We are taking (relatively) few things with us to Costa Rica. Everything really needs to earn its place. When we come back, I expect we’ll come back with some incredible life experiences and stories and new friends. Maybe we’ll get more “stuff” 🙂 .

Postscript

The results are in. We had about 400 people come through over 3 days. The total from our estate sale is $4886.

It was a bit shocking to see that the sum total of most of our stuff is so low. In fairness, many of the pricier/specialty items (like those liqueur sets) didn’t sell. That isn’t surprising since it’s unlikely that the “right” collector for something like that would happen to appear at our particular estate sale. So, we can expect maybe $1000-$2000 more.

One of the more interesting tidbits from the estate sale folks is that people evidently were willing to pay more for partially consumed food (e.g., half a box of pasta) than a CD or DVD.

Things aren’t ever as valuable as we believe them to be (unless, I suppose, you carefully put each thing on eBay and find your perfect buyer somewhere in the digiverse but who has time for that?). I’m glad we are focused on experiences. The value of (most of) the contents of our house – $4800. The value of the experience of living in a foreign country for a year with our kids at this time in their lives – priceless.