The Family Without Borders

a father and daughters feet dangling from the roof of a minivan, as seen by a mother first thing in the morning from inside looking through the back

Photograph by Anna Alboth

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Anna and Thomas might have been described as your typical jet-setting young couple, she a Polish journalist, he a web designer and photographer from Germany, with aspirations and huge potential for a life of travel ahead of them. And then it happened: they found themselves pregnant.

For many people, this would have been a major blow to their dreams of traveling the world. First time parents-to-be are hit with a whirlwind of their own anxiety combined with friends, family and societal pressures to smooth over any of the remaining rougher edges of youth in an effort to begin settling in to a more conservative, grown up society. “For the kids,” you know.

This is a new concept, however. For centuries families from a variety of cultures would bring their children with them as they traveled the world. Rich or poor, for pleasure or the pursuit of a living, children would fly away on magical zeppelins and work alongside their parents as migrant farmers, following the seasons. Then came the Industrial Age and everything changed. A few decades later, the idea of following your passions with your offspring in tow seems not only obtuse, but downright illegal in some parts of the world.

Whether Thomas and Anna had all of this in mind when they discovered their daughter was on her way or not is irrelevant. What matters is that, at six months old, they decided to, as they put it, “continue our lives the way we [had] always dreamt about.”

That was 2010, and by her first birthday they had rounded the Black Sea, crossed the Caucasus Mountains, touched the Caspian Sea and returned to Berlin. Four years later, they count over twenty five countries visited from Europe to the Americas to Oceania. And their daughter, Hannah, now four and a half years old, has a little sister, Mila. Mila was conceived on their tour around the Black Sea, “somewhere in Ukraine.” While she grew all of her ten little fingers and toes in her mother’s womb, she did so in countries like Georgia, Turkey and Armenia.

“She was a big traveler, already before she was born,” their blog recants. Her big sister Hanna was also conceived in their travels, in Austria, though both were born in Berlin.

a mother's head is pressed to her infant daughter, the love between them as abundant as all of every strand of tall grass in the field behind them
Hanna and baby Anna, Ukraine. Photo by Thomas Alboth.

Currently wandering through the Kingdom of Tonga, an island northeast of New Zealand, they’re on a quest to find Taka-Tuka Land, the home of Pippi Longstocking’s father. The idea for their current journey through the Pacific came from their oldest daughter Hanna’s imagination.

One might imagine what a daily conversation around breakfast might sound like. While Thomas and Anna speak English, their children do not. Instead, Anna speaks her native Polish and both of her daughters understand. Thomas speaks to them in German. They are surrounded regularly by languages of all varieties. Their breakfast table must sound like a busy airport in Singapore, beautiful. Take all of this into account as they spin their story for us.

a mother with the small smile that only a pride in her children, her life circumstance, beyond conventional beauty, can portray
Anna betrays the smile that only a mother of disproportionate happiness, beyond conventional beauty, in complete love with her children and life can portray. Photo by Thomas Alboth.

“We have traveled before but never for longer,” Anna recalls of their days before parenthood.

“My pregnancy with Hanna was risky and she was born much too early, so it was a hard time for us. Once she was at home, we had time to think about things which might be important for us.”

Hanna was born six weeks early, and Anna had been suffering the contractions of childbirth another six weeks before that. She was just under 4 pounds when she arrived into this world. It was no doubt as trying as anything any of us will ever face, but after a few weeks it became clear that Hanna was going to be okay.

To put it into perspective, in a blog post Anna writes, “Hanna was growing fast…people were stopping me on the street to see this new-born.” She says the conversation was like so:

“Just few days old, right?” they’d ask.

“No no,” she’d reply, “5 months”.

As Anna describes it, after everything was said and done and it was clear Hanna was a healthy young girl, they “had a will to do something together.” They quickly forgot about the pain and worry of what essentially amounted to months of labor, checked in now and then with a doctor to see if anything dangerous may have been missed, but finally allowed themselves the realization that Hanna was, indeed, fine.

“It’s also a comfortable time, when you get money from the state for being at home. Or not at home, as we chosen. Little Hanna was a perfect kick to do something we wanted for a while.”

She’s referring to a German parental leave law which entitles mothers to six weeks of paid time off before the birth of their children and several additional weeks of paid time off for either (or in their case, both) parents. Parents can also take off some additional time for a few years after the children are born, though that time isn’t necessarily paid. It’s a somewhat complicated system that allows for two breaks within the first three years, of up to a year each time. While in America we might consider it welfare, in Germany it is viewed as placing the same importance on parenting as working a job.

It’s quite honorable and noble that a nation can see the value of parents being involved in the lives of their children in a way larger than just a bedtime story and a sack lunch for school.

“In Germany,” explains Anna, “when you get a baby, you get 12 months free with 65% of your previous income. If a second parent also takes some time free, it can be up to 14 months. If you travel like us–to the coutries which are much cheaper than Germany–65% is totally enough to live.”

Even with such an opportunity, raising young children can be very difficult, even with both parents present 100% of the time. Why would anyone want to add the stresses of travel to rearing an infant?

“People like to find restrictions,” she finds. “Many don’t travel not only because they have kids, but because they ‘don’t have money,’ good backpack or whatever else. We try not to use those flat excuses. People might be focus on stability and security and then any kind of traveling is not easy.”

If translation is needed, she’s using the old, “Excuses, excuses,” line. There is always a reason not to take a risk, to pursue a dream, to achieve a goal. Children are just one more excuse why one might back out, but they aren’t the only one. Very few people who travel the world have everything lined up perfectly for them, parents or otherwise.

“With kids especially,” Anna continues, “because as a parent you are responsible for them. But we, as we and as parents, see values in many other things too and are ready maybe to risk something to get this time and experiences together.”

In life, shit happens, whether you’re in a comfortable house with a good job or sleeping in a car in Serbia. The question is, which of those is the right life for you.

Still, the question of security, particularly with a young child, no doubt comes up. Thomas and Anna seem to be doing just well on that front, not only traveling, but maintaining a house in Germany.

“We have home, because we like to have home. We live in Berlin and that’s where we come back between the trips.” A press journalist, Anna held positions with a variety of Polish newspapers, participated in the Young Journalists’ Association Polis and the European Youth Press. Combined with their travels, she and her husband have met many people: new friends become old friends, acquaintances become longtime associates.

“Our home is an open space for them and friends of friends. We are very happy that many of them is coming back, feeling with us at home.”

On their website, Anna says she’s not sure what she likes more about being a journalist, the writing, or connecting people to one another.

Thomas was born in Germany and, when they’re not off galavanting around the globe with their lovely daughters, has been living in Berlin for the past 14 years. He now runs a web design company with his friends, focusing on websites with a political slant.

Anna was born in Warsaw, but as Thomas puts it, “moved to Tom, once she fall in love, some 6 years ago.”

a scruffy cheeked man with a parrot picking from the shoulder strap of his backpack, he looks pleased
Parrots love to bite,” Thomas in Honduras at Copan Ruinas. Photo by Anna Halboth

As to whether or not they are afraid, for themselves or for their babies, while traveling all over the world, Anna may have some enlightening words for us.

“Without much thinking or even talking about it, we are both sure that people are good and we do trust them. Otherwise we wouldn’t have taken our kids to Chechen villages, Mexican partizants or a jungle of Vanuatu. Doesn’t matter if we see more similarities or differences, we have the same amount of curiosity and tolerance for listening to all the stories. And people are equally happy we came to their village and want to listen to their stories. And we are equally grateful that we can do it and that they show us same friendly attitude and trust, as we do.”

In other words, they might not be fearless, but they believe people are generally good. And their experience has proven them right.

Still, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some sketchy times. It wouldn’t quite be a ’round the world adventure without at least one mishap along the way.

“During visiting 50 countries, we just once felt a bit scared and it was, by the way, in one of our favourite countries,” but she goes on to reveal, “[but] nothing bad happened!” Something they don’t care to particularly share raised their internal parental warnings, but even then turned out to be a false alarm. “But situation like that one can happen also in our neighbourhood in Berlin.”

“If we were just in 2,” she speaks of days of couples young, “we would have visited [a] few places that we didn’t. When we were in Georgia, we would visit Dagestan, which was at that time not calm. When we were in Mexico, we would spend more time in the jungle with Zapatistas. We would go together to Palestine. We would go to after-hurricane region with many diseases in Tonga. And we would discover places also by the night life in the bars around the world.”

So to anyone who wonders how two parents could risk their children’s lives traveling around “dangerous places” in the world, remember that it is the innate instinct of nearly every parent to protect their young, and Thomas and Anna are no different.

As for the places they skipped in favor of their children’s wellbeing, she simply replies “And maybe good we didn’t?”

Of everywhere they’ve traveled, a year or two ago, Anna would have called Georgia her favorite.

“The people! Their open hearts and open doors.”

Yes, she was frightened of a reported bear sighting in an area they were camping. Yes, the locals were a little, ahem, overbearing when it came to pinching her baby’s cheeks, but she recalls the Georgians as being the most hospitable, friendly, genuine people she’d ever met.

Since then, she’s bumped another country to the top of the list, though.

“We have a new number one: Fiji. How much you can learn from people who have almost nothing and the biggest smiles of the world.”

the wind blows freely through a bus window, through the hair of a young mother holding her sleeping daughters
Mila and Hanna sleep on their mother’s lap as the family rides through Fiji on a bus, via the Family Without Borders Facebook page

So how does a young family with two little ones actually manage to travel the world, the little details, logistics and such? Planes, trains, or automobile?

“Yes, all of it.” Her enthusiasm and humor shines through. “Plus hitch-hiking on cars, lorries or yachts, buses, ferries and feet. Depends on the place.” And they have been to quite a few places.

“In Central America,” she proceeds, “we bought a car for 4 months and lived in it. On the Pacific Ocean we lived for 4 months just with 2 backpacks. What is for us important is that we are deciding when and where do we go, if we take this bus or if we turn the road right.”

It’s the purest form of travel, to just know that you want to go, and let the pieces fall in between where you are and where you’ll be as they will.

“As local as possible,” is her answer to where they prefer to stay.

“We spend many, many nights in the cars,” though the word car may be misleading, for example, on their first trip around the Black Sea their “car” was a Renault Espace, more likely to be described by most Americans as a minivan, “and a lot in the tents and the rest with local people, in their houses or little huts.”

Relying on the kindness of strangers might seem like the primary guiding light, but with regards to their family often sleeping in their vehicle and in tents, she expounds, “It’s not only about saving money but about being closer. In Tonga for example, there were places where we had to rent a room in some guest houses, because there was no place for a tent. And after some days people didn’t want to take money from us, because we became a family, we were cooking together, doing pictures for their folders,” a pause, “and just living.”

One cannot help but smile, imagining this young couple, their adorable daughters, and a hotel clerk shaking his head, his hand outstretched and upward, refusing to accept their money. A family so hardcore, from both their traveling style and unity, yet so loving and genuine as to be taken in by complete strangers.

Back to the notion that having children stifles ones ability to pursue their dreams of travel, or anything else, Anna has this to say.

“In both,” she’s referring to her career as a journalist and her love of travel, “[it] makes people trust us more. Gives a lot of start-topics, because there are kids everywhere in the world!. Opens a lot of doors and border crossings.”

She’s told tales of being stopped by Russian police and hassles with slightly expired visas being completely eliminated by a simple glance at her babies in the backseat.

The way Anna paints a picture, in her own beautiful interpretation of communicating their story, you would think that raising babies in transit to anywhere next was a piece of cake. With one maybe, but two?

“At the beginning of traveling with two, we thought ‘Fuck, now there is a double trouble and we have 100% more of hands busy.’ But now we are very, very happy about our two. They are the best friends, they are never bored, because they have each other. They are playing, drawing, singing, talking, jumping – all together and we can also have a lot of time just for us, thanks to it.”

Their mission, if that’s what it can be called, to show the world that having kids doesn’t mean giving up on what you want to do as adults, as parents, as a couple, shines through in their work. They aren’t evangelists, though. Rather, they’re realists who see life as an opportunity to pursue your particular dream.

“I know that many people got motivated by our traveling and also went on the trip. They are sending us emails or postcards. But I also know that there were few families, who tried such a traveling after reading our blog, and were very unhappy about it.” While maybe anyone with enough determination could do as they’ve done, she has the wisdom and openness to admit that not everyone necessarily would want to.

“I don’t want people to do exactly what we are doing. I want people to do what they love doing, exactly like us.”

To many Americans, the notion of a Polish mother, a German father and their lovely daughters traveling the world seems magical, perhaps a bit old-timey quaint, but it also may seem “more realistic.” After all, we see them as coming from Europe, a place where a few hundred miles in any direction means a new language, a somewhat different culture. That’s our perspective though, and Anna assures us that even well-traveled people like themselves can find things different, if not downright intimidating at times.

One day in Central America was for us like one month in Eastern Europe. Europe we know: we know the languages, habits, colors of a sunset and food on the markets. In Central America everything was much more exciting and much more difficult to understand. The religion, Maya languages, traditions. Super, super interesting. And now, on the Pacific Ocean, it’s even more different. No McDonalds, no snickers, nothing familiar. You can absorb everything, 24/7. We love it.”

Like true adventurers, they have explored both the slightly unfamiliar and the completely bizarre. They have taken on risk and profited incredible gain. They have lived in cars, a family of four, crossed oceans, heard foreign tongues and bartered conversation regardless.

Their efforts have not gone unrecognized, either. National Geographic gave them a Traveler of the Year award in 2011.

“It was for sure a surprise,” they heard they had won the honor while staying in a small house in Honduras, “and a big recognition of quality of what you are doing. Not only numbers of fans or readers, but also an invitation from a kind of authority to be a part of the team.”

Anna goes on to say that while there was a fair bit of recognition that came with the award, it did not specifically lead to more connections. Or as she puts it, “It gave us maybe not too many cooperation-options, as people might think, but for sure a way to publish more.”

And as a journalist, more opportunities to have your work published is never a bad thing.

Speaking of how her career has helped her family with their travels, Anna professes, “I don’t know if I ask good questions because I am a journalist, or I am a journalist because I ask the right questions.” Either way her career choice has given them a particular edge in the friendlier aspects of traveling. “I think being interested, as usually the journalists are, and prepared, as they should be, makes people open and talk more. If they know you are into the topic, they want to share even more. I also have more motivation to discover and understand things, because I want to share my experiences with the readers later on. So I ask and check much more, from every side of the story.”

Whether your plan is to write down your own personal tales for the world to read or simply gain the most out of life, hearing “every side of the story” is exactly what travel is about. Finding the various facets in life, all of the ways the sun glistens off every particular angle of a diamond, so that we may wander through this life and leave this world with as broad a perspective as possible.

So what’s next for the Family Without Borders?

Hanna and Mila want to visit Sweden, the homeland of their favorite character, Pippi Longstockings. Thomas and Anna would like to visit Africa because, as Mila puts it, “they have amazing music!”

But as for next on the list, imagine Anna’s face alight with a smile full of the irony of it all, “The first wish of our girls is to Poland, to grandma.” end of article

Photograph by Anna Alboth