At Home In The World: Meet the Fabulous Smeenk Family

Written by Jennifer Miller on Feb 24th, 2011 | Filed under: Families Doing Fabulous Things

One of the very cool things about running Uncommon Childhood is the parade of fascinating people we get to meet and interview. Every once in a while, we run across a family that makes us go, “WOW!” (okay, more than every once in a while around here!) and the Smeenk family is one of those!

Brian and Jennifer are unique in that they have a BUNCH of kids but decided to hit the road anyway and their open ended adventure is truly inspirational. I know you won’t mind that they’ve given their kids pseudonyms for the internet, charmingly reflecting the adventurous heros of the Narnia Chronicles:  Susan, 9 years old, Peter, 8, Lucy, 6, and Edmund, 4, are growing up in the great big world.

We caught up with them in Turkey, where they’re currently based and were completely impressed by their story, their motivation and their dedication to their family; hopefully you will be as well!

Tell us a little bit about your family

We’re a Canadian family of 6 who have a passion to travel and experience the world. We believe that the world is a magnificent place and we want to learn as much as we can about it together. We love spending time together and enjoy learning about different cultures. There are so many beautiful things in this world to see, experience and celebrate that we were compelled to leave everything familiar behind in order to explore the world together.

Our 4 little ones keep our lives joyful and family centered.

Our adventurous foursome keeps us continually growing and challenges us to become better people and parents. Their presence in our lives makes it necessary to travel safely but, at the same time, take the right kinds of necessary risks.

We are not afraid of change. In fact, we believe that change is good for the brain by bringing on new challenges and is a vehicle to escape falsely-perceived comfort and complacency.

What are you doing that is fabulous?!

As of October 2010, we officially became location independent digital nomads.

We sold our house and got rid of most of our belongings in order to free ourselves from our secure, routined life in Edmonton. We are taking our time to travel slowly and plan to do so until we are called to do something different. So far, we’re really enjoying our lifestyle and have no plans on settling down anywhere.

Right now, we can’t imagine any better education for our kids than Worldschool. During our travels, we plan to learn about every country we visit and also hope to acquire a language or two over time.

In the 3 short months we’ve been digital nomads; our children have experienced a rich hands-on educational classroom which has set their feet on 4 different continents.  Coming from North America, landing in Europe, travelling to Africa, and resting a little while here in Asia.  We are currently living in Turkey for a couple of months to rest and catch up on our schooling.

Our memorable family travel experiences include:

  • Traveling to Spain, Morocco, Italy, and Turkey -four different countries with entirely distinct cultures and languages
  • Sampling a rich variety of national dishes, produce, and delicacies
  • Learning the greetings of Hello and Goodbye, of Thank You and You’re Welcome for each country we’ve visited
  • While in Morocco, the kids were able to practice their French-speaking skills with the locals
  • Watching a bullfight in Spain
  • Going on a camel trek and spending two nights in the Sahara desert
  • Visiting Vatican City; the smallest nation in the world
  • Tangibly experiencing history in Rome’s Colosseum and Pantheon
  • Sea fishing in the Aegean Sea in Turkey
  • Paragliding (yes, all our children included) over the famous beach in Oludeniz, Turkey
  • Visiting numerous cathedrals, mosques and World UNESCO Heritage sites

We are having the time of our lives, and are so thrilled to be able to create such incredible memories with our children!

Tell us about your family vision

Years of chronic illness and eventual passing of  Jenn’s parents have taught us a very important lesson:

That life is precious, and we only have one chance to live it the best way we can. None of us are guaranteed to live a long life, so we don’t want to wait till retirement to start traveling: To start living.

Our vision stems from the values and love for our family. We want to live our lives boldly, and spend our best years with our children. They are our biggest inspiration! We want to invest as much time in our children and enjoy them while they’re still home with us.

Brian and I have always wanted to have four children -2 girls and 2 boys.  We call them our dream kids. We see it as a huge responsibility to raise them well.

Our vision and hope is to raise good, responsible and well educated global citizens who are family oriented and have a heart for service.

How did you get started?

Our dream to travel the world together began when we were dating in University. A year after graduating, we got married and discovered we were pregnant 2 months later. Knowing that a baby would drastically change our lives (for the better) we wanted to prepare our lives to have no regrets.

So we took 10 weeks during our first trimester of pregnancy and backpacked through South East Asia together. It was one of the best decisions we have ever made!

During our travels through four different countries, we were able to solidify our relationship and create a dreams list together. It was also during that trip that Brian read a book called Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki, which sparked a paradigm shift about his career path and perspective about money. It really opened our eyes to the possibilities of what we could create in our future.

Over the next several years, Brian left his career path as a Mechanical Engineer and went into business for himself in real estate investing. When we accomplished having the family and financial security we hoped and worked for, the time came for us to commit to, and seriously start planning for our travel dreams.

We took 2 years to plan and educate ourselves about the details of family travel and homeschooling, as well as put our financial life in order so that we could leave our business in capable hands back home.

What have been your biggest challenges or successes?

I think selling our house was the biggest emotional challenge so far.

We really loved our home and were very proud of it. At first, our idea was to rent it out during the time we would be gone gallivanting around the world. However, after further research and number crunching, we realized that it was impossible to find renters who would be able to afford the rent to cover the expenses, let alone manage a little cash flow from the rental. As well, we had a very expensive built-in theatre room in the house and the idea of being away for a long period of time with the fear of all our expensive equipment taken or broken by renters didn’t sit well with us.

We soon realized that it was necessary to sell our house in order to free ourselves completely from any worries or hassles while we were gone.

We asked ourselves what was more important to us.  Was having a lot of nice and expensive things more important than being together and growing closer as a family with each travel experience?   Will our big luxurious home hold us back from our dreams to travel as a family?

After grappling with our travel dreams and not wanting to sell our home because we were so attached to it; we came to a point where we wondered:

“Who owns who?  Do we own this house, or does this house own us?  Will it anchor us away from following our dreams and passions for family world travel?”

Emotionally, it was hard to trust that we were doing the right thing.

Brian and I honestly thought we were crazy to be so compelled to turn our lives upside down when we had everything. Yet, something urged us to go for it.

We knew deep down that our time was now, and that this window of opportunity would only be open for a short while. Our kids would grow older and not want to leave their friends. Fear would take root in us, and we’d be too paralyzed with over-analysis and too many reasons not to do it.

So we sold our house.  We also got rid of most of our belongings through donations to charities, giving away to family and friends, and by selling items online and through a garage sale.

We learned valuable lessons from getting rid of our stuff:

  • First of all, we were embarrassed to own so much
  • With a family of 6, we could definitely accumulate a lot in a big house
  • All that stuff was wasteful and cost money to keep, store, and maintain
  • We learned through our purging of material things how freeing it was
  • We could definitely live well with the very little we owned in our backpacks
  • The less we owned, the less weighed down and freer we were to travel the world easily

It was hard to sacrifice our beloved home, but we don’t regret it.

We are just grateful to have been so fortunate to live in such a beautiful house. We have the rest of our lives to settle in a home which will not only be perfect for us, but also be located in an ideal place. We believe that eventually we will desire a home base in the future.

In the mean time, our family is our home.

What would you do differently if you could go back and do it over?

We believe that things happen for a reason and trust in good faith that where we came from and where we’re headed is exactly where we should be. So we wouldn’t do anything differently if we had the chance to go back and do it over again.

For example, when we backpacked through Morocco, we wished we started our travels in Fes instead of Marrakesh. We had spent a week in Marrakesh and a few days in Fes. We absolutely loved Fes so much more and wished we could have stayed there longer. In Marrakesh we had some bad experiences with belligerent and aggressive tourist touts, so at the time, we regretted our decision to spend a week there.

Yet, even then, if we did that differently, we wouldn’t have met and made friends with a lovely Moroccan family in Marrakesh, which we hope to keep as our lifelong friends.

So things are meant to happen for a reason, and we just have to trust that it is the best for us.

As well, perhaps it was that negative experience which taught us how to travel differently and, by the time we arrived in Fes, we knew how to deal better with the touts and thus have a better experience there all around.

What is one myth you’d like to dispel about your lifestyle?

There are three large myths we’d like to dispel about our lifestyle:

The first myth is that travel with little children is unsafe.

We have experienced the opposite of this. In one of my blog posts I even went as far as stating that travelling with children was safer for us.

As a family, we have crossed borders easily and found many helpful people along the way because of the universally shared values of family.  We’re constantly approached and asked if all four children are ours and when we say yes, we generally get a positive response.

Children have a special gift for disarming strangers and opening doors to communication, even though we may not speak the same language. As well, many people have a natural tendency to be protective and affectionate towards children.

Having four little ones makes it necessary to always think ahead and plan a trip safely. Besides long travel days, we are normally never out later than 10pm.

All our decisions about our modes of transportation, food, and accommodation always take into consideration what is best for our children.

The second myth about our travel lifestyle is that you have to be rich in order to travel fulltime.

Traveling slowly, living like the locals and not buying more stuff has caused us to spend less.

Our nomadic travel lifestyle requires us to be watchful of what material possessions we buy because we always have to consider how we would carry our things efficiently in order to not weigh us down. In other words, even if we wanted to, we can’t go back to a consumer lifestyle.

We have no choice but to keep it simple in order to travel lightly.

We’ve experienced that travelling and living in countries during the low season can be very affordable.

Our monthly expenses in Spain and Turkey were significantly cheaper than our expenses back home.  Generally, we found that food in Spain, Morocco and Turkey was cheaper. Staying put in our big house in Edmonton, owning two vehicles, and having to maintain a lot of material possessions was considerably more expensive. It costs a lot of energy and money to heat a large house during the cold Canadian winter, which lasts about 8 months of the year.

Now, we use local public transportation which is definitely cheaper than owning vehicles which require regular maintenance, insurance payments, and gas.  We’ve also found it to be healthier, as we’ve done more walking instead of driving around everywhere.

What gets expensive is when you have to start paying for flights and longer-distance transportation, as well as tourist visas. Our living expenses are cheaper outside of Canada, but continually being on the move does take its toll financially, which is why we subscribe to the slow-travel mentality.

The last myth we want to dispel about our lifestyle is that by taking our children away from their friends, community, and daily routines, we are going to create insecure little people.

Some people were concerned that by taking our children away from their school, friends and community, and travelling everywhere with them, we’d be upsetting their routine, and thus strip them from a certain security in their lives. One person remarked that exposing our children at such young ages to the world was damaging.

We can’t think of any better education than travel for our children!

We believe it is important to take our family out of the ethnocentricities of our North American Culture and give them a better understanding of the world.

We want to expose them to different languages and cultures in order to develop tolerance,  international, and intergenerational people skills; to have a healthy respect and sensitivity to other’s cultural and religious beliefs.

We want something more for our children’s lives than fast foods, a busy calendar of extracurricular activities, and the preoccupation of keeping up with the Joneses.

We deeply believe that a child’s security is finding themselves loved by two parents who love each other and model a healthy and respectful relationship.  When they see their parents love and respect each other; when there is peace in the home, and when each child knows just how much they’re loved; they’ll have security and confidence in the world.

We are spending a lot of great quality time together and making some incredible memories!

What would you tell other families who want to do what you are doing?

The first step is to educate yourself to dispel your fears.

When we committed to making our dream of long-term family travel come true a couple of years ago, I continually asked myself, “What one thing did I do today to help us get closer to making our dreams a reality?”  Most days, it was just reading (as most days, that was all I could manage in our busy schedule).

Whether it was a family travel book (I began with The Family Sabbatical Handbook by Elisa Bernick) or a family travel blog. For two years, I read about all these incredible families who dared to not be afraid, and actually organized themselves financially and practically to travel. I was constantly learning and being inspired.  The more I read, the more it became imperative to take the necessary steps in making that dream a reality.

In this information age, travelling long term is easier. You can do all your research, book your flights and accommodations on line, and even do your banking on line. Social Media such as Facebook, and utilities such SKYPE is the cheapest and best way to stay in touch with loved ones.

Always be prepared and have a plan B,C, or D in order to keep moving forward and not feel discouraged when your plans fall through.

Most importantly, trust in the magic of travel.

To follow this Fabulous Family, check out their website: At Home In The World or follow them on Twitter @homeintheworld6

About Jennifer Miller

Jennifer Miller has written 86 post in this blog.

Married to my knight in shining armor, Mama to the fabulous four, I must write to breathe. I'm homeless by choice, a nomad by birth and am most at home sleeping my tent, shopping in the souqs of North Africa and wandering the highlands of Guatemala. My life is an "edventure!"

10 Responses to “At Home In The World: Meet the Fabulous Smeenk Family”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Amy, Jennifer Miller. Jennifer Miller said: At Home In The World: Meet the Fabulous Smeenk Family […]

  2. What an inspiring family! Thanks for sharing your journey!

  3. Congratulations Brian, Jenn and kids! All of your family and friends back in Canada miss you BUT are so proud of your journey! You inspire each of us to be less materialistic and more adventurous, no matter where we are at home in the world. Thank you for letting us share the journey! God bless.

  4. Hi jennifer :

    Glad yo know about you guys – What amazing experience !! – is your spanish improving ?

    Espero regresen a Edmonton y volvamos a vernos


  5. I admire you for providing such a real living and learning opportunity for your children, who I am sure will become tolerant, worldly & confident life-long enquirers!

  6. beautiful!!!

  7. What a beautiful Article about the Smeenk Family! Travelling the world is definetly a learning experience. I enjoy all your post’s on facebook and miss seeing you here in Edmonton. Lots of love…xoxo

  8. What an inspiration, I’ve passed this article onto my life’s love & partner. I’m encouraged and this will definitely help to shape our future as we begin our journey and family together. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Brian & Jenn
    Your sense of adventure is inspirational. We share your belief in enjoying every day to the fullest! And your family, couple and travel values. We are proud to call you friends!Safe travels!
    Nicole and Gavin

  10. […] this week she sent out a link to a blog about a family taking their kids with them on their travels. I can’t decide how I feel about it. How much […]