Category Archives: Costs

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!

Cold Call: Take Two!

I subscribe to the Woody Hayes philosophy of life. Hayes, a legendary football coach at Ohio State University, would start each game by sending his best running back directly into the middle of the line. If the opponents stopped him for little or no gain, he would try something different. If, however, they couldn’t halt his progress, Hayes would run the same play over and over again until they proved they could. His reasoning was eminently logical­—why change a winning strategy?   My first attempt at a cold call to the University of Nairobi resulted in a hugely successful, once-in-a-lifetime East African experience. So, as Woody would say, why change?

In spring 1991 I sent unsolicited, “out-of-the-blue” emails to the computer science chairs at three universities with English-based curricula relating my desire to work in Istanbul, become a part of Turkish society, and experience its rich history and culture.  I attached a current resume, the names of professional references, some courses I could teach, and the titles and abstracts of talks I could present to faculty and students.  Although two of the three schools quickly sent polite rejections, within two weeks of my initial inquiry I received an e-mail offer of summer employment from Bogazici University–my arguments in support of cold calling described in A Little Mathematics Maestro were holding up quite well.  Furthermore, to show you this success is absolutely not unique to me, when I returned from Turkey I sent the names and email addresses of the people I worked with to a professional colleague at San Jose State University in California.  The following summer he and his wife were comfortably ensconced in Istanbul enjoying an identical three-month working vacation experience.

View of the Bosphorus from the Bogazici University Campus Located In the Lovely Neighborhood of Bebek

In his reply the chair proposed I teach one ten-week summer school class and give a series of weekly talks on new developments in the computer science curriculum.  In exchange I would receive a single round-trip air ticket from Minneapolis to Istanbul, no-cost on-campus accommodations for my wife and me, and a modest cash allowance. Modest, I might add, in terms of purchasing power, not in absolute amount. My wife and I were to become “Turkish millionaires,” receiving a monthly stipend of 1,200,000 Turkish lira, the local unit of currency. With lira then trading at 2,400 to the dollar, that three-inch thick wad of bills I collected and stuffed into my pockets each month amounted to just $500. However, when the Bogazici salary and free housing were added to my Macalester paycheck (spread out over 12-months even though I was on a 9-month contract) and monies from the rental of my house in Minneapolis, it was enough for Ruth and I to live quite well in Istanbul, a city with a modest cost of living.  In fact, there were sufficient funds remaining to support weekend and school holiday sojourns to Ephesus, Bodrum, Pamukkale, and Cappadocia.

By this fifth overseas working vacation I was coming to understand that these terms—one round-trip air ticket, on-campus housing (sometimes free, sometimes at a nominal cost), and a small food and living allowance—were pretty much the norm and roughly what you might expect to receive on your own working vacation.  One of the realities of negotiating with an overseas institution is that there may be little or no “wiggle room” regarding the financial terms of the offer. Pay scales are often set by the university administration or central government, not the dean or department head, leaving little room to maneuver. However, while salaries are often inflexible there may be room for negotiation with regard to workload. Don’t be surprised if the host institution initially proposes a heavy course load, dozens of public lectures, or consulting with a multitude of groups, since the director, department chair, or dean will want to squeeze as much valuable work out of your visit as possible.  The same admonition applies to other disciplines–a doctor may be asked to see hundreds of patients; the engineer may be assigned a six or six-and-a half-day work week; the consultant may be asked to meet with dozens of agencies. Don’t be afraid to respond that this is too great a workload for you to do a quality job, and it needs to be lowered to a more manageable level. Then discuss a compromise acceptable to both you and the host institution. You may not be able to negotiate the amount they are paying you, but you may be able to negotiate the amount of work you must do to earn that pay.

So, once again, on May 30, 1991 Ruth and I made our way to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to begin a three-month summer working vacation in Istanbul, Turkey but this time, with an interesting, no-cost diversion included on the way.

(Sidebar:  Some people have commented that my blog is getting quite large, making it difficult to find specific topic material. Sad but true! I am not much of a designer, but I did make a couple of changes to make it more useful, especially to new readers who may have missed some earlier posts.

Change 1: I added categories to each post specifying what kind of helpful travel advice is contained in each article. There are currently sixteen categories included under the heading “Working Vacation” with many more to come as new posts are added and new topics are addressed.

Change 2: If you look in the right-hand column you will see a listing of these categories. If you are interested, for example, in the issue of housing in a host country, then simply click on the category “housing”and you  will get a list of all posts that have anything to do with that topic.

Change 3: I added a brand new page entitled Table of Contents. It lists, in chronological order, every post I have put up, along with its date and first few lines to give you a brief idea of what it is about. There is also a link (the word more…) to the full post.

I hope you find these changes helpful, and I would love to receive more suggestions about how to make this blog more useful . Thanks so much.)

Hakuna Matata (No Problem, Man)

Although England and Australia are wealthy nations, Israel in 1983 was not the first world place it is today with a higher per capita income than many European nations. If our family could enjoy living in a developing nation such as Israel, how might we fare in an even poorer, third world location? That question intrigued us as my wife and I had talked for years about working in East Africa, not just for its world-famous game parks but also for the natural beauty and unparalleled archeological history. After our first three overseas adventures, all of which were professionally, culturally, and financially successful, I was feeling cocky about the living conditions our family could handle.

Because of that (perhaps unfounded) confidence we decided our next adventure should take us to Kenya, but how to pull that off? What was the chance of lunching with a Kenyan computer science professor at my next meeting? Near zero. What was the probability of reading an article about computer science teaching shortages in East Africa? Rather small. So, instead of waiting for the improbable to happen I decided on a new approach, an approach that turned out to be startlingly obvious, absurdly simple, and amazingly successful—the cold call. Yes, that irritating technique used by salesman, politicians, and scammers worldwide would now be put to use for a very different purpose.

In early 1987 I journeyed to my school library to track down the e-mail address of the computer science chair at the University of Nairobi, the best IT program in East Africa. (The Web makes it much easier to track down this type of obscure information–you could Google that answer in a few seconds.)   I composed a letter stating my desire to come to Kenya for three months, work at the university, and become a part of Kenyan culture and society.   I attached a résumé with my educational background, teaching experience, professional references, and scholarly interests. I also included syllabi of courses I could teach and workshops I could offer.

Campus of the University of Nairobi Where I Taught for Three Months in Summer 1987

Unbeknownst to me my out-of-the-blue letter arrived at a most propitious moment as the university was planning major upgrades to its technical offerings in medicine, engineering, finance, and computer science. They were excited to have me visit, and after a few e-mail exchanges we worked out an arrangement whereby I would consult on curriculum redesign and teach one course that winter quarter–Kenya is in the southern hemisphere, so my three-month summer hiatus conveniently fell in the middle of their academic year.  In exchange the university would provide one round-trip air ticket, modest on-campus accommodations, and a small living allowance. These funds, along with my regular Macalester paycheck (I was on a twelve-month pay schedule) and rental income from our home, would allow us to roughly break even—not bad for a three-month “working safari” for a family of four.

This fortuitous turn of events taught me an important travel lesson.  In the case of our working vacations to England and Israel I had waited to learn about an opportunity and only then contacted the parties involved.  However, with this African success fresh in my mind, I realized I could reverse that process–first decide on an attractive destination for a short-term stay and then contact institutions in that location to see if they would be interested in hosting a visit.  While cold calls and blind e-mails will, of course, not always be successful this is a technique worthy of your time and effort and which, surprisingly, can offer a reasonably good chance of success–a claim I promise to prove in my next posting.

It Really is a No-Cost and Culturally Rewarding Way to Travel

When we returned home after our 3+ month stay in England I asked myself why I had waited until I was thirty-five to first attempt something like this. My accounting of income and expenses, completed for tax purposes the following April, showed that this English adventure cost a grand total of $1,500 in out-of-pocket expenses, about $3,800 in today’s dollars.  Our stay in London had been a break-even proposition, perhaps even generating a small surplus, due to my Imperial College living allowance, summer paycheck from Macalester, and rental income from our home in the US. The extra costs were due to family jaunts to Scotland, Paris, and the Lakes District. We could only marvel at how many things we had seen and how well we had lived at a cost that probably would not cover a two-week family stay at an upscale Caribbean resort.

Making it even more lucrative was my discovery, on the night of April 14, of the “Temporary Job Away From Home” tax deduction—an IRS fine point of which I had been completely unaware. If you work away from home for less than one year with the expectation of returning upon completion of the assignment—the very definition of a working vacation—you can deduct the cost of airline tickets, housing, and a per diem for meals and incidental expenses (M&IE). This can lead to a huge deduction with the potential to offset much of your working vacation income and a significant chunk of regular salary as well.  (However, I am not a CPA so check with your tax preparer or a good tax manual.  I don’t think the IRS will accept the argument “But Schneider said . . .”)   For example, the current M&IE per diem rate for London, set by the U.S. State Department, is $148/day. If you were to work for an identical 105-day period this would result in a tax deduction of $15,540–a great way to live and work overseas with not only your host country but also Uncle Sam picking up a portion of the tab.

The Campus of Imperial College, London Where I Worked for Three Months in the Summer of 1980

Not only was the trip a financial success, it was a professional and cultural success as well.  I initiated scholarly activities that resulted in two publications and just as my wife said—and how I hate it when she is right—they helped me achieve tenure. We had the opportunity to live in and be part of an international culture and to make overseas friends with whom we are still in contact today.  My children had the chance to meet and play with British children raised in far different circumstances and, although they are now 37 and 40, they still fondly remember their first overseas summer.

All my imagined doubts and problems were just that–totally imagined.  Not a single one of my deep-seated worries came to pass and none of my irrational arguments for foregoing this trip were valid.  I could think of nothing I would have changed over the course of those three months except, perhaps, to host a bit fewer house guests.