Tag Archives: Australia

The Ex-Pat Life or Not?

Our most enjoyable working vacation was a one-semester visiting position at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.  Australia was as close as my wife and I have come to becoming permanent ex-pats–quitting our jobs, selling the house, kissing friends and neighbors good-bye, and pitching our family tent in a new country.  It was that wonderful.

The Skyline of Downtown Sydney, Australia at Twilight

We found the quality of life in Sydney to be nigh-on perfect, which is saying a lot since we reside in Minneapolis, itself one of the most livable cities in North America.  Australians know how to balance the stress of work and daily life with the pleasures of food, wine, relaxation, and time spent with friends and family.  None of my colleagues gulped lunch at their desk, burned the midnight oil, stressed over research grants, or brought work home at night.  When they left the office at the sensible hour of 5PM, they relaxed on their patio, opened a Fosters, enjoyed a leisurely dinner, and played with children or friends.  Everything about this life style resonated with me, and it felt like the Aussies had discovered the secret of la bonne vie, the good life.   However, when our visit ended my wife and I chose not to stay; not to pitch that tent.  After four months in this heavenly city, our family boarded a plane for the long trek home.  The obvious question is “Why?”  If Australia held such fascination why did we choose to return?

A popular form of travel writing describes the roamings of stylishly elegant vagabonds who leave behind their home, family, and job for a new life overseas.  The stories are a paean to their suddenly über-fashionable quality of life.  For example, in A Year In Provence by Peter Mayle, a wealthy British businessman moves to the south of France to enjoy good food and wine, all the while restoring an elegant 19th century French country home. In Eat, Pray, Love an American divorcee seeks comfort and solace in Italy, India, and Bali.  (Another possibility:  Under the Tuscan Sun).

Stories of vagabond ex-pats make for superb reading and sell quite well–my readership would probably be far higher if I had stayed in Australia, bought a cattle ranch, and authored a book entitled A Year In The Outback.  However, while enjoyable, these tales suffer from a serious problem–they are totally unrealistic.  Like 99% of my readers, I have home, family, and job commitments that my wife and I either cannot or will not voluntarily abandon.  In my case I love my teaching post and the security it affords.  My children enjoy their classes, friends, and after-school activities, and our relatives live nearby, allowing us to participate in family life-cycle events.  We have a great life in Minneapolis, and we chose not to give up these bird-in-the-hand pleasures for the two-in-the-bush possibilities of a new life in Australia.

No matter how much you may love your job after a few years everyone begins to get feelings of “being in a rut.”  It is a natural human response to doing the same thing day after day.  These feelings are what fuel the dreams of wanderers like Peter Mayle and motivate them to leave everything behind.  But if most of us cannot, or will not, plunge into the ex-pat pool, what are we to do?  How do we dig out from a trench of monotony and boredom?  How do we scratch our “wanderers itch?”

The answers to these questions are the raison d’être for this blog.  For some people a week at a ski lodge or beach resort is sufficient to refresh the soul and rekindle the fires in the belly.  For the rest of us, though, it takes more– something along the lines of the temporary two- to four-month working vacations that my wife and I have done on 15 occasions–from Australia to Zimbabwe, Mauritius to Mongolia, Turkey to Tibet.  Best of all, when we are finished with a posting, we return refreshed and reinvigorated to our home, friends, family, job and regular paycheck.  No bridge burning required.

So, if you have a yearning for something a little bit different, please don’t think the only cure is to chuck it all and sail around the world, live in an Indonesian rainforest, or buy a vineyard in the south of France.  You don’t need years to renew the soul; a few months living and working overseas–i.e., a working vacation–is every bit as good a medicine for what ails you.  And if you read any of the other 128 posts on this blog you can learn exactly how to do it!

(Read more about our working vacation adventures in my book On The Other Guy’s Dime, and learn how to do it for yourself and your family.)

The Flying Postman of Broken Hill (Rerun)

(The following story first appeared on June 7, 2010.  I think readers who did not see it at that time will enjoy looking at it now.)

One of the joys of a working vacation is that it gives travelers time to uncover a region’s hidden gems–those quirky, idiosyncratic places too often overlooked by Frommers or The Lonely Planet but which give you a good feeling for life in the host country.  Well, quirky is the very essence of a place called Broken Hill, Australia.

Typical Red Rock Landscape of the Australian Outback

The Australian outback is a starkly beautiful area but, because of temperature extremes (summer temps of 120F are not unusual), poor infrastructure, and immense distances, it can be difficult to visit.  Many tourists skip the region entirely, limiting themselves to the urban pleasures of Sydney and Melbourne and the clear blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef.  Adventuresome types who venture into the outback usually do so on a two- or three-day fly in to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock, the two main tourist centers.  However, limiting yourself to these popular destinations is like visiting Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon and thinking  you have experienced everything the American Southwest has to offer.

My wife and I were on a working vacation to Sydney, Australia where I was teaching at the University of New South Wales.  Our three-month posting gave us sufficient time to investigate some of the interesting destinations that lie beyond the skyline of Sydney, including the barren landscapes of the Australian outback only a few hundred miles inland.  Based on recommendations from colleagues and neighbors, we set off during school holiday for a part of the outback rarely visited by tourists–the small mining town of Broken Hill, about 630 miles west of Sydney.  We boarded the  transcontinental Indian-Pacific express for our 12-hour train trip and watched in fascination as the lush greenery of the Pacific coast gave way to an austere, arid land that shimmered orange and ochre-red in the setting sun.

We arrived the next morning in a place that could easily have been the setting for a John Ford western.  Broken Hill was settled in the 1870s when a massive silver deposit was discovered nearby, followed soon by valuable caches of zinc and lead.  Like roughneck mining towns of the American West (think Deadwood or Dodge City) it grew quickly and was a haven for drinking, gambling and prostitution.  However, in the 1970s and 80s, as metal prices declined and mining employment dwindled, Broken Hill and the surrounding region had to reinvent itself, and today its major industries include sheep farming, craft shops, movie production (Mad Max 2, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and a nascent tourism industry to which we were happy to contribute.

The Famous Palace Hotel in Broken Hill.

We toured an underground silver mine, visited the galleries and craft shops lining Main Street, took a walking tour of historic buildings (including the famous Palace Hotel built in the 1880s, see photo), and learned about the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia and School of the Air which meet the medical and educational needs of a region where the nearest public school may be 500 km distant and the closest pharmacy a 10 hour drive!  However, the highlight of our stay was the day spent with Mr. David Furnell, the famous “Flying Postman of Broken Hill,” whom we contacted from Sydney to book a most unusual outback tour.

Once a week Mr. Furnell pilots his single engine plane to more than two dozen sheep stations strewn around the outback, carefully avoiding the kangaroos playing tag on the runway.  To ward off boredom he invites guests to join him for the day, at absolutely no cost, as he lands, takes off, lands, takes off, … dropping the week’s collection of mail into steel drums, broken refrigerators, old washing machines, and other weird postal receptacles plunked down at the end of the makeshift runways.  If the station owners are home they often welcome Dave and his “temporary assistants” in for lunch and conversation, especially as they may be the first visitors at the station in weeks.

The Famous Flying Postman of the Outback (Photograph courtesy of AAPImage, Australia)

I cannot imagine a better way to learn about life in the outback than seeing it from an altitude of a few hundred feet and sharing a sandwich and cold drinks with ranchers striving to eke out a living in this remote landscape.  It gave us a good sense for what outback life is really like for those who struggle against this harsh and unforgiving landscape.  I doubt if your typical two-week “Highlights of Australia” tour would include sufficient free time to allow you and your family to spend a day with Mr. Furnell and residents of the sheep stations of Western New South Wales.  Pity!

So, when enumerating the many reasons for choosing a working vacation in place of your standard family holiday, add to that list a chance to get off the beaten path and see parts of the country casual tourists will never experience.

To Come Back or Not to Come Back? That is the Question.

Australia was as close as my wife and I have come to packing it in–quitting our jobs, selling the house, kissing friends and neighbors good-bye, and pitching our family tent in a new country.  It really was that wonderful.

The Downtown Sydney Skyline From The Royal Botanical Gardens

We found the quality of life in Sydney to be nigh-on perfect, which is saying a lot since we reside in Minneapolis, itself one of the most beautiful and livable cities in North America.  Australians understand how to balance the stress of work with the pleasures of food, wine, relaxation, outdoor activity, and time spent with friends and family.  Few of my colleagues ate at their desk, burned the midnight oil, or brought work home.  Instead, when they returned home at the sensible hour of 5 or 6PM, they relaxed on the patio, enjoyed a leisurely dinner, played with the children, and visited friends.  Everything about this life style resonated with me, and I felt like the Aussies had discovered the hidden secrets of la bonne vie, the good life.

But when our visit reached its conclusion we chose not to stay; not to pitch that new tent.  Instead, on September 1, 1985 after three-plus glorious months abroad, our family boarded a plane and returned home.  The obvious question is “Why?”  If Australia held such fascination why did we choose to come back?

A popular style of travel writing catalogs the roamings of stylishly elegant vagabonds who leave home and job for the good life overseas.  The stories are a paean to their new homes abroad and their über-fashionable quality of life.  Think A Year In Provence by Peter Mayle, a wealthy British businessman who moved to the south of France to enjoy good food and fine wine, all the while restoring an elegant 19th century French country home.  (Second choice:  Under the Tuscan Sun)  These tales make for superb reading and sell quite well–if fact, my readership would probably be far higher if I had stayed in Australia, bought a cattle ranch, and authored a blog entitled A Year In The Outback.

However, while enjoyable these stories suffer a serious problem–they are totally unrealistic.  Like 99% or so of my over-30 readers, I have home, family, and job commitments that my wife and I either cannot or will not voluntarily abandon.  In our case I love my teaching position, its responsibilities, and the salary and security it affords me.  My children enjoy their classes, friends, and after-school activities, and our relatives all live nearby, allowing us to participate in important life-cycle events.  We chose not to give up these bird-in-the-hand pleasures for the two-in-the-bush possibilities of a new life in Australia.

However, no matter how much you may love your job and family, after a few years we all begin to have that feeling of ordinariness, of “being in a rut,” the natural human response to doing the same thing every day.  That rut is what fuels the dreams of wandering nomads like Peter Mayle.  But if most of us cannot, or will not, take that permanent plunge into the ex-pat pool, what are we to do?  How do we dig ourselves out of this trench of boredom?  How do we scratch that “wanderers itch?”

The answer to these questions is the raison d’être for my blog.  For some people a couple of weeks at a ski lodge, B&B, or beach resort rekindles the fires that were slowly damping. But for many of us it takes more–something along the lines of the two- to four-month working vacations I have described and to which I am so fervently committed.

So, if you have a yearning for something different in your life don’t think the only cure is to become a stylish vagabond and sail a yacht around the world, set up home in the Amazon rainforest, or buy a vineyard in the south of France.  Instead, a couple of months living and working overseas–i.e., taking your own working vacation–is every bit as good a medicine for what ails you.

P.S. Don’t miss my next posting in a couple of days.  It will feature a travel contest with a cash prize.  Look for it!

The Flying Postman of Broken Hill

One of the great joys of a working vacation is it provides travelers with sufficient time to uncover hidden gems–those quirky, idiosyncratic places often overlooked by Frommer’s, Fodor’s, or The Lonely Planet.  Well, quirky is the very essence of a place called Broken Hill.

Typical Red Rock Australian Outback Scenery

The Australian outback is a starkly beautiful area but, because of temperature extremes (summer temps of 115F are not unusual), poor infrastructure, and immense distances, it can be difficult to visit.  Many tourists skip the region entirely, limiting themselves to the urban pleasures of Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, and the blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef.  Adventuresome types who venture into the outback usually do so on a two- or three-day fly in to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock, the two main tourist centers.  However, limiting yourself to these destinations is like visiting Las Vegas and thinking  you have truly experienced the American Southwest.

To avoid this trap, and on the recommendation of locals, our family set off for a part of the outback rarely visited by tourists–the small mining town of Broken Hill, about 630 miles west of Sydney.  We boarded the  transcontinental Indian-Pacific express for the 13-hour overnight trip and watched in fascination as the lush greenery of the coast gave way to an austere, arid land that shimmered orange and ochre-red in the setting sun.

We arrived the next morning in a place that could easily have been the setting for a John Ford western.  Broken Hill was settled in the 1880s when a massive silver deposit was discovered nearby, followed soon by valuable caches of zinc and lead.  Like roughneck mining towns of the American West it grew quickly and was a haven for drinking, gambling and prostitution.  However, in the 1970s and 80s, as metal prices declined and mining employment dwindled, Broken Hill had to reinvent itself, and today its major industries include sheep farming, art galleries, movie production (Mad Max 2, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and a nascent tourism industry to which we were more than happy to contribute our dollars.

The Historic Palace Hotel Built in 1889 Starred in the Movie "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." It Has The Longest Veranda in the Southern Hemisphere

We toured an underground silver mine, visited the galleries and craft shops lining Main Street, took a walking tour of historic buildings (including the famous Palace Hotel, see photo), and learned about the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia and School of the Air which meet the medical and educational needs of a region where the nearest public school may be 500 km distant and the closest pharmacy a 10 hour drive!  But the highlight of our stay was the day spent with Mr. David Furnell, the famous “Flying Postman of Broken Hill” whom we had contacted from Sydney to book a most unusual “outback tour.”

Once a week Mr. Furnell pilots his single engine plane to more than two dozen cattle stations strewn around the outback, carefully avoiding the kangaroos that like to play tag on the runway.  To ward off boredom he invites guests to join him for the day as he lands, takes off, lands, takes off, … dropping the week’s collection of mail into steel drums, broken refrigerators, old washing machines, and other weird receptacles plunked down at the end of makeshift runways.  If the station owners are home they often welcome Dave and his “temporary assistants” in for lunch and conversation, especially as they may be the first visitors at the station in weeks.

The Famous Flying Postman of the Outback (Photograph courtesy of AAPImage, Australia)

I cannot imagine a better way to learn about life in the outback than seeing it from an altitude of a few hundred feet and sharing a sandwich and cold drink with ranchers striving to eke out a living in this most remote and unforgiving landscape.  It was a day that has remained etched in my mind even though it is now almost 25 years distant.

I doubt if your typical two-week “Highlights of Australia” tour would include sufficient time to allow you and your family to spend a day with David Furnell and the fascinating residents of the outback cattle stations of Western New South Wales.  Pity!

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.

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!

Thank You, Mr. Wiley

Our third overseas adventure occurred in summer, 1985, about two years after our return from Israel. We didn’t travel in 1984 as I was busy trying to achieve tenure, successfully as it turns out. This delay illustrates the main difference between the short-term jobs described in this blog and the longer odysseys found in many of the “traveling nomads” or “working overseas” sites.

Unlike those individuals I do not give up my day job to travel but take working vacations as part of my regular professional life during summer vacation, sabbaticals, or unpaid leaves of absence. This means I cannot guarantee I will be able to go away in any given year; instead, our plans must be coordinated with the demands and responsibilities of work and family. The upside, though, is that I return from these overseas experiences to a job, home, and resumption of my regular paycheck. In my opinion short-term working vacations offer skilled professionals the best of both worlds–travel and employment–without the stress of having to restart one’s life whenever you choose to return. Furthermore, shorter trips allow you to experience multiple cultures, not just one. My family has been lucky enough to go on more than a dozen working vacations in the past thirty years, from Australia to Zimbabwe, Mauritius to Morocco, Turkey to Tibet, with new ones still to come.

This third working vacation was financed in a far different way from the first two in which I taught classes to cover expenses. In this case the “sugar daddy” was my publisher John Wiley & Sons, New York. In 1978 I authored a computer programming textbook that turned out to be wildly successful, selling over 100,000 copies. (Due far more to good timing than good writing.) In 1982 I wrote a second text that also did very well. In early 1985 my editor asked me to pen a second edition of the first text, and to free up time he provided me, to my complete surprise, with a generous grant to allow me to focus on writing for three+ months that summer. I am sure he imagined I would hunker down in my office, school library, or den, coming out only to eat, sleep,and sharpen my pencil. However, our publishing agreement only specified what I was to produce and when I was to deliver it, not where I had to write. That unplanned and totally unexpected publication grant was to become my family’s ticket (both literally and figuratively) to our next dream destination–Sydney, Australia. As I have said in many earlier posts, you never know how or when that next working vacation opportunity will present itself–over lunch at a conference, in a brief  article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, or, as was the case here, buried deep inside the legalese of paragraph 7 of my publishing contract.

Beachcomber Island, Fiji, where we relaxed on the way to Sydney, Australia

So, on May 20, 1985 I packed up my books, notes, research materials, laptop computer, spouse, and children (as well as scuba gear and flip-flops) and boarded a plane for Sydney, Australia, with stops along the way in Hawaii, the Fiji Islands, and the Great Barrier Reef. Thank you so very much, Mr. Wiley.  I couldn’t have done it without you.