Category Archives: Spousal 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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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.

Making Friends; Meeting Locals

As I described in the last post our Israeli “dance card” was far leaner than in England–no neighbors inviting us to dinner; no family members arriving for extended visits; no departmental socials. Given that we would be here for 3+ months we wanted to expand our circle of friends and find playmates for our two young children.

Just like at home friendships are not limited to neighbors and colleagues. Instead, they grow from mutual, shared interests and activities. If you become involved with the local community, in whatever manner you choose, you will meet people and make friends naturally rather than having it be assumed and forced. To this end we attended religious services at a nearby synagogue and met some local congregants and their children. After work we would often head to a nearby community swimming pool, listen for English conversations, and if we heard any would introduce ourselves, especially if it was a family with children. My wife had the name of a distant cousin whom we had never met but contacted, met for coffee, and spent a number of enjoyable evenings. On Saturday afternoons, when little in Jerusalem is open because of the Sabbath, we would go on English-language walking tours and meet fellow walkers, often newcomers to the city like us. This strategy for making friends is no different from what you must do when moving to a new city in the U.S., the only difference being that we had three months, not three years, so we had to move quickly.

In the end we did meet some locals and participate in a few social and cultural events, but nowhere near as many as on our first working vacation in London. However, while locals, colleagues, neighbors, and overseas visitors can be fun (in moderation) it is important to remember that they are not absolutely essential, and you can have an exciting and stimulating short-term working vacation without them. At a minimum you have your spouse and/or children to help fill up the weeks and months with activities and adventures. Instead of a social calendar filled with neighborly dinners and departmental parties, you can occupy your free time with regional travel, family recreation, volunteer opportunities, and cultural immersion.

For example, our family took a local bus to Egypt, snorkeled in the Red Sea, hiked the Galilee, swam in the Mediterranean, spent a weekend at a kibbutz, visited the many religious and cultural sites the country has to offer (at a leisurely pace, I might add), and volunteered to teach English in a local public school. Even without a Rolodex chock-a-block with names we were involved, active, and engaged.

Sometimes there will be scads of locals, friends, and family to fill your free time, as was the case in England and future working vacations in Australia, Turkey, Kenya, and Bhutan. Other times you won’t meet as many people or make as many friends and will, instead, occupy your days with family activities–as in Israel and years later on a working vacation to Mongolia.

However, it really doesn’t matter as both types of working vacations can be thoroughly enjoyable and fully satisfying. Please don’t use “But I don’t know anybody there!” as an excuse for not taking full advantage of a working vacation opportunity.

A Willing Spouse

My wife is a far more free-spirited, adventuresome person than I, and it was she who convinced me to take that initial leap and head off to London for three months.  I am glad she did as we have been enjoying the fruits of that life-style for the last 30 years.

However, there is an admonition to this story that must be fully aired and discussed before diving into the details. Even though it may be a single professional in the family applying for the position, it is the entire family who will go, including a spouse or partner.  If you are married or in a committed long-term relationship, it is critical that this individual be a supportive and enthusiastic ally, not an unhappy, unwilling participant. It is unfair, not to mention unpleasant, to spend an extended length of time on an overseas trip in which you have no stake and absolutely no interest.

Remember when you were dragged kicking and screaming to that ballet, opera, or football game? In that case your agony lasted only a few hours and was soon forgotten. Now imagine the discomfort of attending an event that lasts one, three, or possibly even six months! This is a recipe guaranteed to produce unhappiness and marital discord. (Unhappy kids are a different issue that I address in later posts.)

So, before diving into the upcoming stories and eagerly sending off that application for a working vacation in Portugal, Panama, or Papua New Guinea, be 100 percent sure that both you and your life partner are enthusiastic about this undertaking and equally excited about the adventures that await. If that is the case then read on, and make certain your passports are up-to-date.

Now, let’s see, we had just arrived in London ….