It makes me really happy to introduce you to Jenny Johnson and Jay Priebe who have been close friends of ours since we worked together in Monterrey, Mexico. Years later, Damien and I had the pleasure of working with them again in Bangkok, Thailand where they have created a beautiful, eclectic and comfortable home. Jay and Jenny have created the kind of home where you feel completely comfortable rummaging around in the cupboard for something to eat or drink. With art, furniture and decorative items from their many home countries and travels, their home is like a treasure hunt of yumminess. It gives me particular pleasure to write this introduction now as we are currently visiting them in Bangkok. Enjoy your time with Jay and Jenny!
Like Pete and Ali and Sarah and Roberto, Jay and I met while teaching in Monterrey, Mexico. I am an American from Portland, Oregon, and Jay is a Canadian from a small town outside of Port Perry, Ontario. We do not have kids; however, we have an absolutely adorable kitty cat named Coco (whom I love and adore and Jay is a little less enthusiastic about).
After four years (me) and ten years (Jay) in Mexico, we moved to Bangkok, Thailand, to work at the New International School of Thailand. Jay is the Technology Director and I teach 2nd grade. Jay, Coco, and I live in an adorable 50s version of a traditional Thai 2-story house (which Jay estimates to be around 200 square meters). The modern upgrade brings us concrete walls, electricity, and indoor plumbing, but also retains charming elements such as large wooden framed windows, teak floors and stairs, an outdoor kitchen (to keep the heat out of the house), a small indoor kitchen called a dry kitchen (though it has a sink), and excellent airflow and ceiling fans to keep the house relatively cool. (As cool as can be in year-round 32 degree Celsius environs.)
What is your favourite thing about your house?
Since moving out of the dorms at age 19, I have lived in 14 homes, 4 of which were apartments. What I have discovered is that, in order for an apartment to work for me, it has to have a lot of natural light and access to significant outdoor space. Apparently our cat Coco feels the same way. When the three of us first moved to Bangkok, we tried living in a smallish condo with teeny tiny balconies and windows on only one side of the apartment. Coco showed her distaste by chewing cords. Three computer cords, two phone cords, and an uncounted number of earphone cords later, we knew we had to find a different place to live.
Our current house is a case of being in the right place at the right time. About the time Jay and I were searching for a house or apartment with more of a connection to outside, I became friends with a young British woman living in Bangkok. Suzie became my adventure race partner that spring, and as it just so happened, her aunt’s family was moving out of their lovely little house on a lovely little tree-covered lane just off our soi (street). The woman who was going to move into the house was no longer moving to Bangkok, so Suzie talked with her aunt and, by the end of May, the house was ours!
Our favorite things about the house are (in no particular order):
+ the wooden floors
+ the sliding glass doors in the living room
+ that the house is simultaneously large and small
+ the utilitarian dry kitchen
How do you define “home”?
Jenny: Home is our house in Bangkok. Home is my parents’ house in Salt Lake City. Home is my camper van parked at a climbing area. Home is the spare bedroom at Stephanie & Linda’s or Cheryl & Fred’s house in Portland. Home is my loaded touring bike. Home is any place where I have dear ones around me and am doing something I love.
In what countries have you lived?
Jay: I have lived overseas for almost 14 years, ten in Mexico and nearly four in Thailand.
Jenny: I have lived in Taipei, Taiwan; Monterrey, Mexico; and now Bangkok, Thailand. I have been living overseas since the fall of 2002.
What do you love about your current city of Bangkok?
Jay: We love that we have an oasis within the city in which to live and we love that we can get out of the city to do outdoor activities (such as mountain biking once a month with Bangkok Bike Hash), to enjoy beach vacations, to visit neighbouring countries, or to go on infrequent climbing trips to Chiang Mai. (Jenny: Too infrequent for me!) It seems weird to say that the best thing about a city is the ease with which you can get out of it. To be fair though, there are some great things about the city too. We love to eat and we live in an area of Bangkok that houses a plethora of great restaurants.
Jenny: Taipei and Monterrey both had some really wonderful perks that we don’t get here in Bangkok. But one thing they did not have was a large, non-school based expat community. Depending on where you work and live, being an international teacher can feel a lot like high school–you go to school with the same people with whom you socialize. That is not necessarily a bad thing; we have our jobs to thank for having Monna and Damien (not to mention a whole slew of other people) in our lives. However, there is also a joy in meeting and socializing with people who don’t work at your school.
What are some interesting experiences you’ve had while living overseas?
Jenny: Living overseas has placed me smack dab in the middle of world events in a way living in Portland never would have. While in Taipei, the entire teaching staff was quarantined in their respective homes for 8 days due to SARS. Once we came out of quarantine, school closed 3 weeks early because a large percentage of the student body had left the island. Though our time in Monterrey was relatively uneventful, the outbreak of H1N1 the year after we left and the encroaching drug wars affected people we hold dear. The first year here in Bangkok, political turmoil was responsible for the closing of the international airport. Our third year, school was closed for about a week due to what we half-jokingly call “The Troubles” – political unrest and demonstrations throughout the city. This year, Bangkok flooded. We were very lucky. Our part of Bangkok stayed dry. But many, many people were not so lucky. We are hoping for a boring, uneventful year next year.
What has living and working overseas brought to your life?
Jenny: Well, the obvious answer to that is my husband Jay. Knowing what I know now, I think of my exit from Taipei as a premature one. However, if I had not moved to Monterrey when I did, I wouldn’t have met Jay. Additionally, by living overseas, I have met a whole bevy of people that I would never have had the opportunity to know. As a result, there are little pieces of my heart in Santiago, Chile; Brussels; Monterrey, Mexico; Zurich, Switzerland; Yokohama, Japan; New Delhi, India; Saudi Arabia; Portland, Oregon… You get the idea.
Professionally, living overseas has allowed me to grow in very exciting ways. I have worked in a variety of schools and been given a whole host of professional opportunities I would not have had access to in the States. Working with a collection of international colleagues has exposed me to educational philosophies that I otherwise would not have heard. I have learned and practiced/taught at least 5 different math programs, 3 different curriculum frameworks, 4 different reading assessments, and 4 different language arts programs. Currently I am part of a two year Literacy Coach Cohort that includes teachers from all over the world.
And then there is the travel. I have had some amazing opportunities over the last 10 years. In 2001, when I read Beyond the Earth and Sky: A Journey into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa, I was captivated. I put traveling to Bhutan on my wish list, but didn’t figure I’d ever have the resources. In 2011, Jay and I visited the country with some close friends. It was everything I dreamed it would be. At the same time though, I am grateful for an established summer friend-and-family (and climbing area) visiting routine in the western part of the USA.
Finally, working overseas has afforded me a standard of living that I would never have had as a teacher in the USA.
What has living overseas taught you?
Jenny: I originally moved overseas for two main reasons – to have an adventure and to pay off my considerable school loans. (After 6 years of teaching in Portland, I was making, after taxes, 25,500 dollars a year. With that salary, I wasn’t making much of a dent in my 50,000 dollar debt.) My plan was to move back to Portland as soon as I’d paid off my loans and saved enough for a house down payment. (Jay screwed up that plan when he swept me off my feet.)
Taiwan was shocking for a number of reasons, and it was a shock that didn’t wear off quickly. By the time I had adjusted towards the end of my second year there, I had already resigned and accepted a new job in Mexico. When I arrived in Monterrey, I realized that I had acted hastily. Monterrey was great in many ways, but in different ways. Once I was away from Taipei, I recognized it had been great in many ways too. Every day my heart aches to return to Portland. What allows me to live comfortably with that ache is the lesson I learned moving from Taipei to Monterrey. No place is perfect, but (almost) every place is wonderful in its own way. Enjoy where you are while you are there because when you leave, you will have a long list of things you miss. So, while I miss Portland horribly, I also know that I am so very fortunate to have the life we have in Bangkok at this moment in time.
Jay: We don’t really have an approach to travel or even a preferred style. We enjoy relaxing and staying in luxurious hotel rooms as much as pedaling the roads of Thailand and settling for questionable hotels out of necessity.
Jenny: We tend to mix up our travel. Though I prefer active vacations (rock climbing, bike touring, mountain biking, or trekking), I have learned to appreciate beach resort holidays where the most active thing I may do is lose big to Jay in Rummikube or Phase 10.
What is your approach to packing?
Jay: My approach to travelling is to pack as lightly as possible with respect to clothing and necessities but then pile in lots of gadgets, often traveling with iPhone, two cameras, iPad, and a laptop even while bike touring. I am a tech guy and proud of it. I need my fix.
Jenny: I pack food. Food and books. And my (packable) pillow.
What do you like to buy when you are travelling?
Jenny: I like to buy artsy souvenirs for the house. Jay often groans when I show up with a new decorative piece, but I enjoy the memories they bring me. Two of my favorite souvenirs are a couple of painted wooden pieces that, at one time, decorated the exterior of a Bhutanese house. (The house was being demolished and the owner allowed us to choose some of the pieces from the rubbish pile.) I love the pieces not only because they remind me of beautiful Bhutan, but also because our dear friends, who were on the trip with us, also have pieces in their homes.
Where will you travel next?
Jay: I am going to Japan in a few weeks for a technology meeting and then will stay on for the weekend to visit some friends that now work in Japan.
Jenny: Songkran holiday is coming up (our version of spring break). I have to be in Warsaw, Poland for a professional development course (one of the Literacy Coach courses) the day after Songkran ends, so we toyed with the idea of traveling and climbing in Croatia for the break. In the end though, neither of us could face the planning and research involved. An upside to international teaching is the wonderful travel opportunities we have. Personally though, I do get burned out with planning vacations. (I know. It’s a problem others would kill to have.) Usually by Songkran (in April), I am ready to do something easy. So, instead of Croatia, we are spending some of the holiday at home and some of it at Koh Lak with friends. Then, I’ll leave a few days early to spend some time in Warsaw before the course begins.
What secrets have you learned to make your travels more enjoyable?
Jay: Jenny is in charge of packing. She knows how to get the details right – from ground coffee and a French press to her favorite travel pillow.
Do you ever get tired of travelling?
Jay: I never thought it possible, but it is possible to get tired of travelling. I have been trying to put my finger on the thing that makes it feel tiring. I have a feeling that it is about the people you are travelling with that makes the difference. I recently had a week long solo vacation on a beach in Goa, India, and I was bored most of the time. This could have been the style of hotel I was in (budget), but was most likely it was due to the fact that I had no travel companions and did not have an opportunity to interact with people there. Having Jenny on the trip would have changed all that. So, what I thought would be relaxing vacation just turned out to make me feel weary. There is a part of us that wants to spend some years travelling the world by bicycle in our retirement, so we are hoping that we can still manage a nomadic lifestyle when that time comes (which we hope is sooner rather than later).
What is your favourite recipe that you have learned to cook while overseas?
Jay: I really love to cook Tom Kha Gai (Thai coconut soup with mushrooms and chicken). It is one of the easiest things in the world to cook and I just love the combination of coconut milk, lemon, lemongrass, galangal (like ginger), and Thai chili. Cooking for others and seeing them enjoy the food I’ve prepared gives me a wonderful feeling. We have not done much of this in Thailand as it is so very easy to go out to restaurants or order food to our house for, believe it or not, less money than cooking (with the obvious benefit of being able to use the preparation and clean up time for some other pursuit).
Jenny: And, in the interest of full disclosure, we have a lovely maid, Khun Wasana, who cooks dinner for us four nights a week.
Please describe the most amazing meal that you have eaten overseas.
Jay: I have far too many amazing meals under my belt to pick just one, but the common thread is always about the people first and the food second. A one-pot-wonder casserole cooked on a beach with friends tastes as wonderful as a prime restaurant meal. The key ingredients are friends and laughter.
How has living overseas changed your eating habits or food preferences?
Jay: I think that travelling overseas before I lived overseas and maturing have all contributed to my food preferences. I still have to admit that some things never change; burgers and chicken wings still top my list of favorite pecadillos (small sins).
Jenny: I have become a hoarder. I often joke, “How can you tell an expat? Look for the hoarder.” When I fly back from the USA, one of my bags is a large Rubbermaid container packed with peanut butter chips, dried cherries and Tempting Trail Mix from Trader Joe’s, nutritional yeast, Emergen-C, two or three 6-packs of microbrew, and other goodies. Here in Bangkok, when our local grocery store gets in a shipment of Earth Balance or canned black beans, I stock up.
Please leave your little love notes for Jay and Jenny in the comments section below.