The expat life: Going south of the border

One Baltimore couple pack up the car and their three young sons and embark upon a new adventure in San Miguel, Mexico.

  • The Hillers family - Bo, Ann, Redding, Nacho (the dog), Sam and Mason, traveled from Baltimore to Mexico's San Miguel de Allende for a two-year sabbatical that has turned into four years.
The Hillers family - Bo, Ann, Redding, Nacho (the dog), Sam and… (Ann Hillers Photo )
March 21, 2013|By Ann Hillers, For The Baltimore Sun

In June 2009, my husband Sam and I slammed down the hatchback of our Honda CRV, the interior bulging with containers of Legos and books, school supplies and board games, and a box of shoes, a tin of Old Bay in the glove compartment. On the roof was a plastic carrier with as much clothing as we could stuff into it: the necessities of five soon-to-be expatriates.

Everything else was in the basement of our Lutherville home, with a new family moving in at the end of the month. Our mission: to give our three children a taste of life in a foreign country, where the language, food, and culture would be vastly different from suburban Baltimore.

Our destination: San Miguel de Allende, 2,556 miles away in the state of Guanajuato, the heartland of central Mexico.

The seeds for this trip south of the border germinated long before my husband and I met, when both of our families were expats themselves. My family lived in Shiraz, Iran, where my father, a physician, set up a medical teaching school for the shah's university. Sam, his mom, and sister were in Jerusalem, his archaeologist father translating Semitic languages on tablets he unearthed at a dig.

We were smitten with travel early. I became an international tour guide, taking groups to more than 60 countries. Sam roamed the European continent and Greece in a VW bug and was scheduled to fly to Prague as an air courier when we began dating. Instead, he joined one of my tours to Australia and Indonesia, and here we hatched a plan to start a family and show them a world where simple experiences can bring such joy: eating steamed ginger crabs on a beach in Bali, riding a bike at dawn to the Taj Mahal, finding an antique wooden ship model in a dusty market in Jakarta.

We had three boys in quick succession, bought a house in Baltimore County, and got to work raising our family. My husband was a history teacher at Boys' Latin School and I worked as a director for The Oxford Club, a publisher of financial, travel and lifestyle newsletters. Our neighborhood was one where kids played outside and moms met for happy hour on Fridays, and our immediate families were within four miles. So what made us leave behind the familiarity and ease?

Maybe it was the carpool line. Maybe it was organized sports — football practice for first-graders starting in August and three lacrosse tournaments a weekend. Maybe it was over-the-top kids' birthday parties. More likely it was the knowledge that the flames of our life candles are brief. Why not spread their light far and wide? Why not see how the challenges of two years in a different country would shape us? Our boys were young, adaptable and still happy to be with mom and dad, wherever that might be.

The planning for a family sabbatical is quite easy if you accept that a carful of material possessions is all you really need. The execution is not much more difficult. In one scouting trip to San Miguel during spring break we found a place to live, enrolled the boys in a bilingual school and set up a service to receive our mail from the States. With three months to go, there was time to get Mexican auto insurance, apply for visas and pack that car.

San Miguel

San Miguel de Allende has been drawing travelers like us for nearly 100 years. North Americans, originally artists and writers, started coming in the 1930s, when Chicago expat Stirling Dickinson established the first art school here. When the GI Bill of Rights funded education for veterans of World War II, many arrived in San Miguel to study painting, sculpture, and photography, drawn by the town's affordability; its climate (it's at 6,400 feet above sea level so it has warm, dry days nearly year-round); its beautiful architecture and cobblestone streets; and a pace of life that has nothing to do with "manana," but everything to do with Mexicans' value system: family and God are more important than money and time.

Almost European in feel, San Miguel has no stoplights, no stop signs, no neon and, with the exception of one Starbucks, no chains. Vaqueros ride their horses through town and donkeys deliver firewood door to door. Mariachis in black suits and silver sombreros serenade visitors in the main square under the shade of manicured laurel trees. In the historic center, all homes are painted shades of terra cotta, ocher and coffee. And because San Miguel was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, this inherent colonial beauty can remain unchanged.

In addition to retirees who seek out its lively cultural scene and snowbirds escaping colder climes, younger folks have been arriving in San Miguel in the last decade or so — in no small part because of the Internet and its ability to keep them connected. Dozens of expat families call San Miguel home, mostly from the U.S. and Canada, but more are coming from farther afield: Bali, London, Germany, Sweden.

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