Monthly Archives: June 2011

Such a Big, Big World

If I have been doing my job I will by now have convinced you of the benefits of a short-term working vacation and demonstrated the relative ease with which it can be accomplished. Now the question becomes “Where should I go?” Let me offer some helpful advice.

When it comes to planning an overseas posting, many people think only about such popular spots as England, France, or Italy. While certainly enjoyable I would caution against working vacations in such well-known locales for three reasons:

1) These countries have a highly educated cadre of professionals so their needs are far less. France has many talented physicians; England is well stocked with engineers and programmers; Italy has numerous business and financial specialists. Unless you are truly outstanding in your field why would a first-world country like this need you? When trying to market your skills, you want a locale that is growing economically, so it needs trained personnel, but one in which the college educated workforce may be too small to fill their employment needs. This might include countries like Thailand, South Africa, Brazil, Russia, Iceland, Jordan, Fiji, Peru, and Sri Lanka. Institutions in developing countries like this are far more likely to need the skills you bring to the table and far more excited to have you come for a short-term visit.

2. Even if an attractive destination like Switzerland or Australia does have some openings the competition for these spots will be intense. For example, the Fulbright Foundation publishes annual statistics on the number of student applications by country. In the European region there were 340 applications to Germany, 200 to France, 9 for Bulgaria, and one lone seeker of a position in Albania. This ratio of 50, 100, or 200 to 1 between the most and least popular destinations is typical of what you will encounter. While it might be fun to spend a few months consulting in Aix-en-Provence or giving lectures in Venice, please keep in mind the enormous difficulty of obtaining these highly desirable postings. My four Fulbright Grants were to Mauritius, Malaysia, Nepal, and Mongolia, all of which were fascinating trips as well as being far less competitive.

3. Finally, remember why you are applying for a working vacation in the first place–to have a transformative social, professional, and cultural experience. While you would certainly have a great time eating and sightseeing in London, Barcelona, or Paris, it probably will not change your life or open you up to different ways of seeing the world. However, six months teaching in the Buddhist nation of Bhutan, three months living in the steppes of Mongolia, or a summer in the mountains of Nepal, all working vacations I have taken, will open your eyes and your mind to totally new societies, cultures, and religions. Believe me, this can be a far more adventurous and exciting way for you and your family to spend some time.

How To Rent Out Your House

Finding responsible (and paying) tenants to live in your home while on a working vacation is neither difficult nor expensive, and it should never be an excuse for turning down a short-term overseas posting. Here’s how:

If your city is home to a medium- or large-sized college or university, like the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, it will almost certainly have a housing office providing information for medical residents, new faculty, overseas researchers, sabbatical visitors, and other assorted academics coming to town for a short-term stay.  Best of all, the cost of posting your home on these college databases is usually quite nominal. Large universities have hundreds of scholars flowing in and out of campus each year, so it is a great way to connect with a large number of high-quality, short-term renters. Be sure to list your house three or four months in advance of departure to give yourself enough time to reach these individuals.

There are other online sites posting information about temporary housing. The largest and most well-known is craigslist, which includes a specific category entitled “sublets/temporary housing” for hundreds of cities in the United States and Canada and, best of all, the posting is free. (However, be prepared for an onslaught of e-mails from scammers eager to send in a deposit as soon as you provide a bank account and Social Security number.  Don’t do it!) Another popular site is sabbaticalhomes.com, which focuses on the housing needs of academics and skilled professionals coming to a city for a one-semester or one-year visit. It includes information not only on home rentals, but home exchanges and house-sitting services as well.  We found our most recent renter, a pediatric surgeon moving his practice to Minneapolis, via this Web site.

Another possibility is to identify cultural institutions and corporate headquarters in your hometown who bring in professionals for short-term visits. For example, Minneapolis is home to the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, the Guthrie Theater, and the Walker Art Center as well as the world headquarters for  3M, Honeywell, Medtronic, and Northwest Airlines (now part of Delta), and we have listed our home with the Human Resources office of all these institutions. One summer we rented to a guest conductor in town for our local summer music festival; another time we rented to a visiting software engineer from Australia temporarily assigned to the Honeywell Research Center.

So, although it may take a bit of telephone calling and Web sleuthing, it should not be overly difficult to locate a high quality renter to live in and care for your home while you are overseas.   And remember, carefully file away all those contact names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and Web sites for future reference.  You really don’t want to repeat the entire process from scratch when planning your second (and third and . . .) overseas working vacation.

There are lots more helpful hints about renting out your home (as well as finding temporary housing at your destination) in my book.  Check it out.

Don’t Be Afraid!

One of the reasons often cited for not taking a working vacation–a short-term, one to six month overseas posting–is “What would I do with my house?”  The answer is simple:  Rent it out!

Renting your house while living and working overseas offers many benefits.  If, like me, you live in a cold-weather climate you don’t want to leave a home empty during the winter months as even the most minor furnace problem, such as a sticky pilot light, can morph into a calamity causing thousands of dollars in damage.  Another advantage is the rental income can go a long way toward making your working vacation a travel experience truly done “on the other guy’s dime.”

My wife and I will be leaving in two weeks time for a six-month sojourn in New York City–living in a spacious two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan complements of Columbia University.  We found a lovely, professional family to live in our home–a pediatric surgeon moving to town to practice at a local hospital.  That income will certainly help us to balance the books while residing in this expensive city.

Now I know that many people are nervous about strangers living in their house for an extended period.  To that I say “Don’t be afraid!”  In the 15 times we have rented our home, 14 times we returned to a place in as good a shape as we had left it, sometimes better, especially when the renters were handy people who like to fix things.  The one time it was left dirty and messy, we used a significant portion of their rental deposit to hire a cleaning company.  After a couple of days it looked like new.

So, my advice is not to let your house be the anchor preventing you from “sailing” the world.  Pack away the breakables, valuables, and mementos, look for high quality renters, have a friend stop by occasionally to take a peek, leave the phone numbers of plumbers, electricians, and other assorted handymen, and then take off for places far and wide.  Most importantly–don’t worry!  After all, isn’t that why they invented damage deposits and homeowners insurance in the first place!

In my next post I will share my secrets for finding those desirable, high-quality professional renters who will lovingly care for your home while you are gone.

Short Term Travel; Long Term Benefits

I received a comment from a reader finishing his 17th year of teaching at a branch of the University of Maryland in southern Germany.  This individual writes  “I have yet to take advantage of the return air ticket that the school provides—and I don’t intend to!”  He is living testament to the intellectual benefits, personal growth, and plain good fun of an overseas working vacation.

With one exception.   While this gentleman has had years to leisurely integrate into a different culture, most of us cannot leave home, friends, and family for that length of time.  Unlike youthful nomads or wealthy runaways (think Under the Tuscan Sun) who quit their job, kiss friends and family good-bye, and head out on a life-changing adventure, most of us are limited to leaves of absence whose duration is measured in weeks or (if we are lucky) months.   In addition, while many of us would relish exposure to a new and different way of life we also value our existing relationships, ties, and commitments back home and don’t want to burn those bridges.  We want to use the concept of a working vacation to refresh and renew our life, not change it.

Well, I want to assure readers that you can experience the joys and benefits of working overseas without having to spend 17 years.  Some of my shortest international postings–6 to 8 weeks–have been the most rewarding personally, professionally, and culturally.  Please don’t think that a working vacation requires years away from your job, friends, and family.  Even just a month or two can be sufficient for a thoroughly unique and rewarding professional and cultural experience.  And, best of all, a month or two is an amount of time that, with the appropriate planning and forethought, could be available to many of the skilled professionals reading this blog.

So, regardless of whether you live and work overseas during a summer vacation, after retirement, on a sabbatical or short-term leave, while you’re between jobs, or by simply closing the store and walking away for a short time, a working vacation is a wonderful way to have a transformative cultural experience, grow personally and professionally, refresh and renew your daily existence, and have exotic adventures, all on the other guy’s dime!