Category Archives: Children Issues

It’s The Journey

(The following is a guest post written by Ms. Carol Green of San Diego, CA, describing her own working vacations and their impact on her family.  She can be reached at cphgreen@hotmail.com)

When we began our working travels more than five years ago we knew that living abroad would be a wonderful experience. What we did not anticipate was how our cultural perspectives and vision of the world would be forever changed, not only by the places we saw but also by the people we met and the friendships we formed, friendships that continue to this very day.

Anyone who has traveled knows what a superb learning experience it can be.  However, settling into an overseas community and living and working with people from around the world makes that learning experience even more pronounced.  Since it would be impossible to describe our six summers of travel in a single guest post I’ll simply share stories of that first working vacation in 2007 and describe how the impact of our trip continued long after we returned.

My husband Jonathan accepted a two-month teaching position at an international school in England. The school covered a portion of his plane ticket, provided housing and meals, and paid a small stipend. This income made it possible to bring our family of five across the pond and, while it was not exactly free, it certainly qualifies as traveling “on the other guy’s dime.”  (Note:  Coincidentally, England was my first overseas working vacation as well. GMS)

In preparation for the trip we read dozens of books and highlighted places we wanted to see and things we wanted to do. We also had to make travel arrangements, find someone to stay in our house, take care of our dogs, and make plans for schooling our children. (Note:  All topics covered in my book. GMS)  After some frenzied preparations and a few passport scares, we were off on our first working vacation. We arrived at Heathrow and were met by a colleague who took us to our temporary home–a lovely English cottage just a block from the school. It was small but had everything we would need for our stay.  This was our family’s first lesson in living abroad—you really don’t need all that “stuff” we typically have in the U.S.

Early the next morning we awoke to our first look around.  It was rainy and green. The pebbled driveway was puddled with water, and the smell of lavender filled the air.  Ancient brick walls surrounded the school–some of them hundreds of years old. The cottage was quaint and very British; we learned later it was the servant’s cottage for the large main house that was converted into apartments for school staff. There was no television, no radio, a small refrigerator, and a washing machine in the kitchen.

Over the next few days we met the multinational faculty that hailed from around the globe, many of whom stay in touch and still influence our daily lives.  Before the end of that first day I learned another important lesson–the international people we would meet and the stories they would share would transport us far beyond England–to distant lands like Belarus, Latvia, and Kazakhstan.

Our Visit to the “Departure Terminal” of Hogwarts School

Before classes started we took a couple of family trips to London. The first was to Westminster to see the Abbey. Most of Britain’s monarchs were crowned there, from William the Conqueror in 1066 to Queen Elizabeth in the 1950’s. Being there gave both the children and us a sense of history you can’t get from books alone.  We then headed out to Kings Cross to see where the train to Hogwarts left. We found platform 9 3/4 and took turns pushing our trolleys into the world of witchcraft and wizardry.

Over the next two months we leisurely toured many other English landmarks, big and small, famous and obscure.  This was the part of the trip we had envisioned—visiting landmarks, getting a sense of history, and experiencing a new place.  But it was the people we met–neighbors, shopkeepers, students, colleagues–that made the biggest and most lasting impact.

As we settled into our life in the English countryside we learned to live, eat, and shop like Brits–Jonathan became comfortable driving on the “wrong” side of the road. I learned to do laundry in a small washer in my kitchen and put the clothes out to dry in the rain (which meant they did not dry).  I met a lady who grew vegetables in her backyard and sold them to her neighbors.  I learned that eggs are not refrigerated; cookies are biscuits, and the local convenience store closes whenever the people who work there feel like it. The owners were a lovely family from India, and over the next five summers we stayed in touch as their daughters grew and went off to college.

While I was shopping and doing laundry and Jonathan was off teaching, our children were in class making friends.  They met youngsters from Italy, Spain, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Thailand, Kazakhstan, and Korea, and over the years they remained friends with many former school chums.  They listened to stories about what other students did for fun, what they ate, and what their clothes, houses and cars were like.  Religious and political differences were discussed in ways that opened up our children’s eyes to the enormous cultural diversity of our world. (Note:  The effect that working vacations have on children can be even more dramatic than the effect on you and your spouse.  Check out “Do It For The Children.”  GMS)

We left that summer with tears in our eyes.  We knew this had been a special trip and we were eager to go back.  If that had been the end of our adventures it still would have been worth it but, fortunately, it was not.  Over the next four summers we returned to England and took side trips to Germany, France, and Belgium.  Because we were visiting for a few months, rather than a few days, we had a chance to explore interesting sights well off the beaten path.  We scaled the grassy hills of Beachy Head, searched for a sandwich in Sandwich, explored the war tunnels in the White Cliffs of Dover, watched the sunrise at Stonehenge, and got lost on a hike on the Isle of White.

When we returned home after that first working vacation I noticed what I call a “ripple effect.”  First there was the direct impact–when we read a newspaper the places they talked about were no longer strange, far off lands; instead, they were locales where colleagues lived. Natural disasters, political uprisings, financial impacts took on a more personal tone.  Where there were fires in Greece we thought of friends who lived there and emailed them “Are you OK?” When we heard about financial meltdowns in Spain and Greece we knew people personally impacted and sent out messages asking, “How are you?”

Then there were the indirect effects–the dramatic change in the cultural attitudes of our children and ourselves. Both our daughters described their experiences living abroad in their college essays and told how it had changed their view of the world.  Our daughter, Kristen, now 20, spent last summer in Chile on an international journalism grant where she wrote for an English language online magazine.  My husband participated in an educational and cultural bridge program to China and Hong Kong in 2011 and this past summer I worked with international students just 30 miles from home for British Study Centers America.  Because of these working vacations, and hopefully many more to come, our family is far more comfortable interacting with people of widely differing religious, racial, and political orientations.  Diversity is to be savored, not feared.
(If you would like to learn how to have a working vacation experience of your own, take a look at my “how-to” travel book On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.)

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Why oh Why?

In my last post, Don’t Fear It; Don’t Fight It,  I described the excitement that comes from taking short-term working vacations.  My wife and I have been on 15 of these adventures in the past 30 years, loving (and benefiting from) every one.  However, not all readers were convinced, and some expressed rather negative opinions about this type of life-style travel.  In this post let me address a simple question before moving on, and that simple question is “Why?”

My Wife And Students In Her Third-Grade Classroom In Thimphu, Bhutan

One reader states he does not consider any trip that includes work to be a vacation.  You can purchase a nice 10-day excursion to London, so why complicate things with a job?  Another writes he has a comfortable home with many friends and family nearby, so why jettison all this to live overseas?  Another states he already travels quite a bit, enjoying beach holidays in Jamaica and B & Bs in the south of France.  What does a working vacation offer that these trips do not?  All reasonable questions, so let me try to offer some reasonable answers.

1) Making friends.  On a working vacation you make new international friendships that can last a lifetime. My wife and I are regularly in contact with a young woman we first met in Mauritius. Recently, we had friends from Australia, a couple I worked with 20 years ago, visit us in New York. These relationships have become an important part of our lives.

2) Living in a different culture. On a typical 1- or 2-week family holiday you go on tours, visit historical and cultural sites, eat well, and relax. Fun, yes, but you rarely have an opportunity to spend time with locals, participate in their cultural and religious activities, or get involved with community organizations. The country is defined by the airport, hotel, and views from a bus window.  The locals you meet are often limited to those serving you meals or cleaning your room.

3)  Children.  The personal growth and maturity from living overseas can be even more pronounced in young children. Just as we know that youngsters are more adept at learning a foreign language or mastering a musical instrument, they are like living sponges soaking up the lessons of overseas life. Being part of another culture, even for a few months, is not only an exhilarating experience for parents, it is a transformative experience for their children.

4)  Getting off the beaten path.  When you have three to six months, not just a few days or weeks, to explore a country you have time to discover hidden gems often overlooked in the hectic schedule of a one or two-week tour.  On a working vacation you can chat with colleagues and neighbors and learn about places that may not be in Frommer’s or the Lonely Planet but which give you an appreciation for a region and its culture–just as my wife and I learned in the Istanbul adventure described in Yogurt To Die For.

5)  Becoming a more informed American.  One’s own social and political orientation can be profoundly influenced by working vacations as you not only expand your understanding of the world but gain greater insight into what is happening right here in the U.S. For example, travel to countries with deep-seated religious strife makes you acutely aware of the terrible societal damage caused by our own homegrown zealots. Living in the midst of a culture struggling with racial and tribal hatreds sensitizes you to the hurt arising from intolerance, bigotry, and segregation. Working in a developing nation whose economic policies exacerbate the gap between rich and poor opens one’s eyes to the ugliness of greed and the shame of our society’s tolerance of poverty amidst widespread wealth.  It’s startling to see the differences in racial, cultural, and religious tolerance between those who have lived overseas and those whose excursions are limited to a week at their cabin on the lake.

For many professionals these are compelling reasons for working vacations. As Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely.” A working vacation is a wonderful way to combine the relaxation and enjoyment of a holiday with the intellectual growth that comes from interacting with and learning from other cultures. And all this on the other guy’s dime!

(Discover additional reasons for working vacations and learn how to do it yourself in On The Other Guy’s Dime.)

No Reason Not To

When first given the opportunity to live and work overseas I was rather reluctant.  After receiving an offer of a paid three-month visiting position at Imperial College I thought of dozens of reasons why this absurd idea would never work.  (These fears and doubts are described in “My London Epiphany.”) Fortunately, my wife Ruth is far more willing to consider new things and was able to convince me to give it a try.  (I think her exact words were “Dammit, this will be fun. Let’s do it!)  She was right, very right, and for the past 30 years we have lived all over the world happily letting others pick up the tab!

One of the goals of this blog is to play a role for you similar to the one my wife played for me–refuter of those “ready-made” arguments against the adventure of a lifetime; debunker of the beliefs that convinced you that living and working overseas is something only “others” do, not you or your family.  So, for those of you reading my posts but certain that I am not talking to you, please read on:

Argument #1)   Michael, you are a college professor, someone of high intellectual achievement.  I don’t have either the resume or reputation to do what you did.

Response:  “Negative Vibes”, “I Can Do This”

Argument #2)  Michael, I am far too busy at work to think about taking a month or two away from my desk.  No can do.

Response:  “It’s About The Time, Not Just The Dime”, “What The Heck Is A Working Vacation (Part II)”

Argument #3)  What would I ever do with our house while living overseas for a few months?

Response: “Don’t Be Afraid” , “How To Rent Out Your House”

Argument #4)  OK, but even if I do rent out my home, how will I ever find a place to live overseas?

Response:  “It Really Wasn’t All That Difficult”

Argument #5)  I don’t know anyone over there.

Response:  “Making Friends, Meeting Locals.”

Argument #6)  Mike, I am really worried about what to do my wife or one of my kids got sick while we were living overseas.

Response:  “Staying Healthy, Staying Solvent”

Argument #7)   Excuse me, Michael, I have young kids at home. What would you propose I do with them!

Response:  “Do It For the Kids”

Now I am sure you can come up with additional excuses I have not anticipated and not yet written about, especially if your goal is avoiding an exotic, no cost, overseas adventure with your family.  However, since you are reading my blog I can only assume that this is not what you want, and that you, like me, will eventually heed my wife’s sage advice given to me all those many years ago:  “Dammit, it was fun.  Go do it!”

What the Heck is a Working Vacation? (Act III)

… and now the final act.  Previously, I discussed what a working vacation is (Act I), followed by who might benefit from such a beast (Act II).  In this post, Act III,  I address what is probably the most important concern for those reading these missives–why would you want to schlep your family around the globe for months at a time to live and work in a strange new environment ?  That, good friends, is the $64 question, and I wish to provide the $65 answer.

1.  Cost. The first reason comes directly from the name of this blog and my travel bookOn The Other Guy’s Dime.  Vacations are not cheap, and long-term vacations that include spouse and children can be particularly pricey.  A working vacation is a way to travel for an extended period and not break the bank.  There are numerous books about living and working overseas (think Under the Tuscan Sun or A Year in Provence), but they always seem to have been written by independently wealthy individuals who just won the lottery, inherited scads of money, made a bundle selling a business, or quit their job and are merrily consuming their life savings.  Most of us do not fall into these categories, but we still want to enjoy the benefits of extended travel.  A working vacation, in which you earn enough via work to cover travel costs, is an option available to all, not simply the rich.

2.  Professional Renewal. I don’t care how much you love your work–and most professionals do–when you do the same things day in/day out, year after year, a sense of repetitiveness eventually sets in, and you begin to feel a “staleness” in your daily routine.  A working vacation, in which you use your professional skills in new and different ways and in a new and different place, can refresh the soul and bring a renewed sense of pleasure to the workplace.  It is an adventure that can add excitement to what may not be a very exciting life.

3.  Childhood Growth. The joys of a working vacation are certainly not limited to adults; in fact, the personal growth and maturity that accrues from living overseas can be even more pronounced in young children. Just as we know that youngsters are far more adept at learning a foreign language or mastering a musical instrument, they are like living sponges soaking up the lessons and experiences of overseas life. Being part of another culture, even for a few months, is not only exhilarating for parents, it can be a truly transformative experience for children.

4.  Cultural Immersion. On the typical 1- or 2-week family vacation you may go on tours, see historical sites, eat well, and relax by a pool.   You may climb a mountain, go on carnival rides, and build sand castles on the beach.  Fun, absolutely, but limited in that you rarely have an opportunity to meet locals, participate in their social, cultural, and religious activities, learn about the region, or get involved with community organizations.  The country is defined by the airport, hotel, and views from a bus window.   However, when you work for a local institution and have the time to interact with neighbors and coworkers you begin to understand and appreciate your host country and its people.  You learn about a culture not by observing it from a distance but by becoming part of it.

In summary, then, a working vacation is a wonderful way for the entire family to combine the relaxation of a holiday with the intellectual growth that comes from interacting with and learning from other cultures.   And all this on the other guy’s dime!

Childless In Africa

Normally, this African adventure story would begin in exactly the same fashion as my first three travel narratives:   “… and the family made its way to the Minneapolis airport for our long flight to Nairobi.”    However, plans changed dramatically when our two children, now 17 and 14, informed us that under no circumstances would they join us on this venture. As I knew must happen eventually, they had reached the age where hanging out with friends, playing video games, and going to the mall were far more appealing summer pastimes than spending a long period of forced interaction with mom and dad on the other side of the globe. I tried convincing them of the wondrous sights they’d see. No dice. I switched to begging, cajoling, even bribery. Still no sale.  We were at an impasse that appeared to have only three solutions: 1) I could drag them along unwillingly and spend three unpleasant months with dispirited, unhappy teenagers—not a pleasant thought. 2) I could cancel the trip entirely, or 3)  I could leave them in the care of responsible adults while my wife and I went on our merry way.  (Question for readers:  What would you do?)

My guess is most people would choose option two and cancel the trip, bemoaning their misfortune while promising to try again in a few years when the kids went off to college. That option did not appeal to us since there was no guarantee this unique teaching and travel offer would repeat itself four years hence—successful cold calls have a notoriously short shelf life. So we asked one more time and, when they refused yet again, met with the parents of their best friends whom we knew well and trusted thoroughly.

These friends agreed to serve as surrogate parents for three months, a move motivated not only by close friendship and our agreement to pay all of our children’s living expenses, but also enlightened self-interest. Their own kids, often bored and cranky during the long, hot summer months, would have full-time, live-in playmates. It worked out well for all parties although to this day our adult children, who now must dive into their own wallets to support a travel habit, lament this lost opportunity for an all-expense-paid three-month holiday in Africa. They still can’t believe we listened to their non-stop whining and complaining and allowed them to remain behind.

Of course I would have preferred that our children join us on this zoological, anthropological, and cultural odyssey, just as you would certainly enjoy having your entire family travel with you. But when that is no longer a viable option, throwing away a once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity may not be the winning strategy. I understand that most parents do not want to leave their almost-but-not-quite adult children behind while they wander the globe; this runs counter to the parental instinct buried deep within our breast. In our case, though, this mutually voluntary three-month separation worked out quite well as each family member got exactly what he or she wanted from their summer hiatus.  The kids were able to sleep in, play, swim, read, watch TV, and even spend a few weeks at summer camp, while we had the cultural experience of a lifetime, an experience I will be sharing in the coming weeks.

So, before throwing in the towel when children balk at joining you, consider option three, traveling without the kids, either using family members or trusted friends in loco parentis, or sending them to summer camp for the duration of the overseas stay. No one will think you’re a bad parent, and everyone, parents and children alike, will have a wonderful time. Certainly you will enjoy it more than sitting home moping about what could have been.

The Thoroughly Modern and Beautiful Downtown Area of Nairobi, Kenya, One of The Most Lovely Cities In East Africa

So this working vacation story begins in a slightly unexpected way:  “For the fourth time in eight years, on May 22, 1987 Ruth and I, but not our children, trekked to the Minneapolis airport to begin our next working vacation–this time an East African safari adventure.

Settling In

We quickly settled into a comfortable routine in our new home.  I would take a bus to work each morning and write for anywhere from 4 to 8 hours while enjoying pleasant lunches and coffee breaks with new-found friends and colleagues at the university.  (If you cannot make friends in Australia you must be one of the more finicky individuals on earth as Sydneysiders are a most cheerful and gregarious lot.) While I was at work my wife and children (now 15 and 12) would run family errands–grocery shopping, post office, laundry, haircuts–or sample the leisure-time offerings of this most livable of cities.  They traipsed to and through the zoo, botanical gardens, museums, and historic neighborhoods.  They applied for and received Australian library cards and spent many happy hours at the lovely Woollahra Municipal Library situated right on the Sydney waterfront.

Evenings were often spent with a burgeoning circle of friends who would invite us to dinners, movies, and picnics–yes, it was winter but winter in Sydney often means temps in the 50s or low 60s, nice enough for outdoor activities dressed in a sweater or light jacket.  My son, on his cross-country team in high school, and I went jogging along the waterfront each afternoon and entered the “City to Surf” road race, Sydney’s answer to San Francisco’s Bay-to-Breakers run.  This 14 km foot race starts downtown and winds its way through city neighborhoods before ending at Bondi Beach where there is a giant celebration on behalf of the 70,000 or so entrants who can drag their bodies to the finish line, a cohort that included me–in a time of 1 hour 19 minutes, about 15 minutes behind my son.

Start of the Sydney City-to-Surf Running Race. That Is Me In The 84th Row, 123rd From The Left

On weekends (sometimes three days rather than two if the writing was going well) I would join my wife and kids to see the biggies of Sydney tourism–the Opera House, Rocks, Circular Quay, Harbor Bridge–or take out-of-town trips to Canberra, the Blue Mountains and Hunter Valley–Australia’s answer to Napa.  Occasionally the family made longer trips afield, including a rail journey to the outback city of Broken Hill, a place of such unique character and charm it deserves its own blog post, which I will happily provide next time.

As you might surmise from this brief description of our 3+ month stay, my family and I were making a good life for ourselves down under.  Critics of short-term working vacations will argue that three or four months overseas is insufficient time to get a real sense of a place and its people.  While I will be the first to admit that three months offers far less opportunities for cultural insight than three years, the fundamental point of this blog is that a short-term overseas stay is sufficient to provide you and your family with a memorable cultural experience.  And, best of all,  it can provide that experience without the need for you to be 1) independently wealthy, 2) willing to drain your life’s savings, or 3) living off the largesse of parents or an ex.

So, if you have the wherewithal and funds to leave everything behind and head off to Borneo, Burundi, or Bhutan for a few years, then good on ya, mate!  But if you are like me, with long-term family and job commitments that cannot be easily chucked, why not think about one of these shorter working vacations. They are a superb way to grow as a global citizen as well as refresh and recharge your internal batteries which can often start to run a tad bit low.

What We Learned

By the time our family returned from Israel after three enjoyable months of work and play I had learned a great deal about overseas life that would stand us in good stead on future trips.

I learned that it was no longer necessary to sit back and wait for an attractive offer to fall into my lap; instead, every newspaper article, TV show, radio program, professional interaction, or chance meeting has the potential to generate a short-term working vacation. A magazine story about the construction of a new university in sub-Saharan Africa could, with the appropriate inquiries, lead to an invitation to join the faculty. A casual conversation about consulting positions could, with a timely and well crafted email, turn into a personal offer. A TV feature about a new clinic in Southeast Asia could be a clarion call to health professionals working in the area of tropical medicine, and that exchange teacher visiting your school from South America could become the source of a reciprocal invitation to teach in his or her home country. Whenever you hear about an overseas opportunity that might be applicable, initiate a personal contact or e-mail conversation to determine if there is any way for you and your family to take advantage of it.

Those three months in Israel demonstrated that my family and I could do quite well on our own, without requiring an extensive support system. Having a large circle of friends in the host country is wonderful, and having locals help with housing, banking, and shopping is a nice benefit. However, although useful they are not essential. Never let the lack of contacts or family ties stop you from planning and carrying out a working vacation. You will meet people and, at a minimum, have yourself, spouse, and children to fill up your days.

Finally, I learned that even in a country undergoing serious problems, such as the extreme hyperinflation encountered in Israel, these concerns should be seen as learning opportunities, not impediments to travel. Experiencing these problems yourself, as long as they do not threaten personal health or safety, can result in a better understanding of the financial, political, and cultural plights affecting much of the globe.

The beaches of secular Tel Aviv where we would spend many a Saturday afternoon when religious Jerusalem would close

Most importantly is that in those three plus months I started my transformation from, perhaps like many of you, a person who had grown far too comfortable with his local surroundings into, if not yet a sophisticated world traveler, at least someone open to new experiences and not afraid to venture beyond self-imposed boundaries. After my wife and I absorbed the lessons of this most recent sojourn we came to realize that our set of potential working vacations destinations had widened greatly. England opened up our eyes; Israel opened up the world.