Category Archives: Housing

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!”

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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.

Our Elegant Georgian Colonial on the Bosphorus

After a week of eating well, reveling in Greek history, and swimming in the turquoise-blue water of the Aegean, we flew to Istanbul where my teaching assistant, Mr. Albert Levy, met us at the airport. Yes, that is his real name. Albert is a fourth-generation Turkish Jew, and he was our entrée into the 500-year old Jewish community of Istanbul. The school did not assign him to me for that reason, and he was as surprised as me to discover that we shared the same faith.

Albert drove the forty miles from the airport to the school while I sat back and took in the horizon-to-horizon sprawl of this massive city. As we drove, visions of our “modest” Nairobi apartment raced through my head (see Doubts and Fears), while I played guessing games about what our on-campus housing might look like this time. Bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling? Maybe. Western toilet? Hopefully. Comfortable mattresses? Doubtful. Hot shower? No way.  Reminding myself of the enjoyment we had on that Kenyan working vacation in spite of the less than plush accommodations (see Sharing The Secrets), I decided I could make do with whatever lodging the school might provide. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. That summer my wife and I lived like an upper-middle class American couple, comfortably ensconced in a leafy, well-to-do suburban neighborhood.

Bogazici University, originally called Roberts College, was founded in 1863 by two American educators from New England. They purchased a large, wooded plot on a steep hill overlooking the Bosphorus and set about creating a university where English was the medium of instruction, admission was open to students of all races and religions, and the curriculum would be modeled on the American university system. In 1912, John Stewart Kennedy, a trustee and wealthy donor, gave the college money to build six homes as the academic traditions of the time dictated that senior professors live on campus to be near their students. Since the school was founded by New Englanders, these stately homes were set on acres of forested land and constructed in classic Georgian colonial style, complete with chimneys, porticos, white wooden siding, and black shutters. These dwellings would not be out of place in the better sections of Boston, Hartford, or Providence, but they certainly looked strange plopped down in the middle of Istanbul on the border between Europe and Asia.

The Walkway to our Georgian Colonial in the Middle of Istanbul.

Today, these large, comfortable homes are no longer allocated to individual senior faculty but are used to house visitors coming to the university for short stays. Two, three, or even four families might share a single house, depending on family size and length of stay. However, since this was summertime, when there were far fewer visitors, we were its sole residents. We ended up with a beautiful colonial home on five-plus acres of forested land in the middle of a densely packed urban area of thirteen million. The only comparison I can offer is to imagine yourself living in an elegant New York City residence situated smack in the middle of Central Park. Some Turkish visitors to our home jokingly commented we were living as well as, perhaps slightly better than, the president of the country. While a bit of hyperbole, there is no doubt our housing that summer was superb and totally unexpected. We unpacked our suitcases with very large smiles on our faces!

When a school chooses to provide on-campus housing, rather than have you locate it for yourself, it can fall anywhere on the spectrum from minimally acceptable, as in Kenya, to off-the-scale luxurious, as was the case that summer in Turkey. All you can do is hope for the latter but be willing either to accept the former or to say to your hosts “Thank you, but no.” and then find and pay for your own accommodations.

Doubts and Fears

On the morning of May 22, 1987 we made our way to the Minneapolis airport and flew to Nairobi, Kenya where the department chair, Dr. Tony Rodrigues, was waiting to welcome us to his adopted homeland–Tony is Goan and came to Nairobi in 1972 when Idi Amin exiled him, and thousands of other citizens of Asian descent, from his home in Uganda

Tony drove to our apartment in married student housing where we discovered that when he said the school would provide modest accommodations he was not kidding. It was a dreary flat with little furniture, empty walls, sagging mattresses, and bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling. Unlike other places in the neighborhood, though, it did have a functioning western toilet, refrigerator, and counter-top cooking coil.  That night my composure disappeared as I literally broke down and cried.  I looked around at the accommodations and was sure that this time I had overreached.  Doubts and fears crept into my mind as I wondered if this East African working vacation was all a colossal mistake. My wife had to wrap her arms around me and assure me that everything would work out for the best—much like a mother comforting a distraught child. Once more she was right as Kenya turned out to be the most extraordinary and enriching travel experience of our still short traveling lives, bare light bulbs and all.

Because of our relative newness to the working-vacation concept we had not considered the obvious solution to the problem of less than ideal housing. If the accommodations provided by the school, agency, or company are not to your liking then simply thank your hosts for what they have done, find a local real estate agent, and make your own arrangements realizing, of course, this will add significantly to your travel costs.  When faced with the dilemma of substandard housing ask yourself which is more important—more money in your pocket or higher quality living space.  Since we were not traveling with children, we decided we could make do with the proffered accommodations and chose to stay put.

The next morning Tony took us to the Thorn Tree Cafe, a famous outdoor bistro that is a gathering place for adventurers, big game hunters, guides, backpackers, and other assorted soldiers-of-fortune–it was people watching of the highest quality.  After breakfast he helped me move into my office and introduced me to Chris and Chegge, two young African graduate students also teaching at the university. They would become dear friends and join my wife and I on remote bush trips.

In the afternoon we wandered the neighborhood and made a pleasant discovery—a local YMCA with an outdoor pool surrounded by shaded chaise lounges, a perfect retreat on a warm, sunny afternoon for Nairobi residents of all types–locals and expats alike . Even more surprising was what we found not two blocks from home: a traffic circle, dubbed by locals the “religious roundabout,” rimmed with Catholic and Protestant churches as well as the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation–a 100-year-old institution serving the 175 Jewish families of greater Nairobi. We attended services the following Friday night and joined dozens of exuberant worshippers, both black and white, in a service that could just have easily been in Minneapolis.   Those nagging doubts from the previous night were already beginning to evaporate.

I know that many new travelers would not consider a working vacation in a place like Nairobi, limiting themselves to such comfortable cities as London, Paris, Florence.  You are haunted by the same concern that burrowed into my head that first day–will I be able to handle these living conditions? That is a shame because the cultural adventures, educational experiences, and plain old fun of working in a place like Kenya are truly unparalleled.  While it is true that the housing, shopping, dining, and infrastructure of Nairobi were not the equal of what we had in London, Jerusalem, and Sydney, it turned out to be of no import whatsoever.  The things that were important–people, friendships, culture, history, scenery, and wildlife–were every bit their equal, even surpassing, those of our three earlier working vacations.

So, when planning your next working vacation, you might wish to get our an atlas and expand your horizons because, just as my own doubts, fears, and uncertainties faded and disappeared, so too will yours, replaced by superb memories and stories to share with friends and family back home.

Pay It Forward

My mother (and probably yours) told me always be nice to people because, if you are, they will be nice to you.  Oh, the wisdom and prescience of motherhood!

Even though I would not be teaching in Australia I still wanted a place where I could retreat from home, family, and refrigerator to do my writing.  To that end I sent an exploratory email to the computer science chair at the University of New South Wales asking if the department could provide an office. I did not expect an enthusiastic response since I was not working there but, to my utter surprise, I soon received a letter inviting me to join the faculty for three-plus months and including a lovely office with all the accoutrements–telephone, copier, and mail.  It seems that a few years earlier the chair had a sabbatical in the US where he was treated quite graciously by the faculty and staff.  He saw my visit as a way to repay some of the many kindnesses he experienced on his own “working vacation.”   Pay it forward, Scene 1!

We touched down in Sydney after two wonderful weeks in Fiji and New Zealand and drove to our new home in Rose Bay, one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods.  We located these accommodations with the assistance of Dr. Tony Gerber, a young Aussie academic whom I had met for a total of one hour five years earlier.

At the time Tony had just completed his Ph.D. and decided, as do many new graduates, that he and his wife should see the world before settling down.   He arrived in Minneapolis where I was an untenured Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota.  Knowing he would soon be accepting a comparable academic position, he thought it a good idea to meet some of the junior staff.  Great idea, but it turned out that every young faculty member was too busy chasing tenure and promotion to give this overseas “newbie” the time of day.  Except for me, that is.  I thought it might be enjoyable to meet someone from such an “exotic locale” and chatted with him for hour or so in my office, although to be honest, I really don’t remember much about the details.

Obviously, though, Tony did remember, and he was extremely grateful for that small kindness.  Not only did he help us locate superb accommodations, he stored our considerable baggage while we toured the South Pacific (we didn’t want to schlep suitcases, books, and research materials), picked us up at the airport on our return, and stocked our refrigerator with the essentials for a first meal–although I still don’t understand how anyone can consider Vegemite a nutritional item!   Tony and his wife Kim introduced us to their friends and colleagues, and we soon became an integral part of their community.  They even invited us to a bagels and lox Sunday brunch–so much for the exotic locale!

Twenty-five years later Tony, Kim, and their children are still the closest of friends and were in New York a few weeks ago visiting our family.   We plan on returning to Australia and traveling with them (Tasmania and Lord Howe Island) in the not too distant future.  The moral of this post is to listen to what your mother said:  Be kind to people and they will be kind to you.  Pay it forward–Scene 2!

Oops, My Age Is Showing!

My last post described a simple strategy for finding overseas housing–contact a realtor and arrange for them to show you rental accommodations when you arrive. Sounds reasonable, right?

Well Cara sent a comment in response to that post saying “I had a similar experience trying to find housing when I arrived in Germany. I had a reservation at a hostel for 3 nights and planned to find more permanent housing within that time, although I had no idea how it would work out. After I got there, some locals pointed me to a couple of housing sites on the Internet and with a few emails and phone calls, then visits, I found a place to live.”

My Israel working vacation took place in 1983, well before the explosion of that vast sea of information called the Web. Today, in addition to recommending that you call or email realtors to make arrangements, it would have been far more “current” and “up-to-date” for me to say that you should also check out rental Web sites for the destination city where you will be working. Certainly the best known is craigslist.org which contains rental listings for hundreds of international cities from Amsterdam to Zürich, and everything in between. Another possibility is sabbaticalhomes.com which helps professionals find rental homes and apartments worldwide, set up housing swaps, or list their own home for rent or exchange. There are other sites specific to particular cities and countries, just as Cara found one for Germany. Today you can make housing arrangements and finalize details before ever setting foot on the airplane. It’s even easier than I had described!

However, one word of advice: Be wary of scammers and con artists who troll these sites for easy pickings. A few years ago, when I put an ad on craigslist looking for a place in New York, I had dozens of offers of “free” rentals if I would just send a bank account number where they could remit the balance of my security deposit! Before placing or responding to any blind ad first read http://www.craigslist.org/about/scams which provides helpful, common sense information about both personal safety and avoiding scams.

O well, my bad. Just chalk it up to having evolved my working vacation strategies well before the advent of the Internet. I guess that also explains why I still don’t have an IPhone!