(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 firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.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.)