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Planning Your Sabbatical Abroad

How to Take a Year Off From Work and Family

By Bonnie Michaels

As a work-life expert, I know the signs of burnout: exhaustion, stress, apathy. So it was clear to me when it was time to take a break from helping others and help myself. Getting my husband to agree took some negotiation. But finally we began to plan-one year in advance.

The first thought was to explore teaching English in Japan. But during the interview process it became clear to us that this wouldn't be a sabbatical. It required too much work and allowed no flexibility. Our back-up plan was more fun-fantasizing our destinations. For me, number one on my dream list was studying Flamenco dance in Spain. For my husband, it was archaeology, visiting family and friends, and possibly working on a kibbutz in Israel.

We had both loved Australia and agreed to return and find work there in return for lodging. Because we had read so much about Japan, we made that our final destination. To our delight, we were able to buy a round-the-world ticket to the places we most wanted to visit for under $3,000 each. Home Rental Covers Expenses We saved enough out of the ordinary household expenses before we left to pay for the airline tickets. To cover daily expenses on the trip we decided to rent our home.

Eight months before the travel date, I began training a trusted associate to oversee my business for a year. We put elaborate systems into place to keep the doors open. In the midst of this hectic process I was completing client work, reading all available sabbatical material, searching the web, and networking with others who had taken time off.

Six months before leaving, we began setting up systems for personal finances and paying monthly bills. Luckily, my sister and husband (an accountant) agreed to handle our affairs. (Other options are accounting firms and small business services.) When you are away for a year, it is a relief to have a competent and close family member to oversee the myriad of complicated responsibilities.

Four months before leaving, I arranged phone services at home and abroad. For practical reasons my husband's and our personal phone is on a three-month Movers Voice Mail (Ameritech, $52). After that, the phone line will be automatically disconnected. My business line is on a permanent voice mail. My assistant checks in daily for messages ($35 a month, Ameritech). For our international calls, the easiest service we found was the AT&T direct billed international calling card. (In some countries phone cards also work well.) Bills are mailed to my sister. Finally, we bought a laptop with a chain and lock. This has been an invaluable link to home and work, since cybercafes aren't always available in small towns.

At minus three months, the serious work began-going through the house rental process and determining what to pack for a year. We took only one canvas bag on rollers for each of us. Getting our health needs in order was next on the list-medical and dental checkups, buying a year's supply of medication, and clarifying health coverage abroad. Following this, we applied for international driving permits and worked out car storage arrangements.

At two months to departure, we started packing the house for storage. We also backed up computer files. To ensure the future of my business, I sent a business press release and set up a special "Sabbatical" section on my business website. Other preparations included: filling out a change of address cards (we did it a month early to make sure the mail would be properly forwarded to my sister); photocopying passports, tickets, birth certificates, and marriage license; canceling unnecessary car insurance, stopping magazine subscriptions, etc.

During the last month, we took lots of time to say goodbye to clients, friends, and family. When the moving date approached, we stayed with a friend to make the transition easier. The Simple Life We decided to settle for fewer familiar material comforts in order to go for unique experiences. In the last six months, we have indulged in little luxury: We travel by bus and train everywhere. We stay in 2-star hotels or in hostels (with an occasional splurge). Our apartment in Seville has no heat and only the basics. Our limited use of the phone, electricity, and gas helps our budget. We cook or make picnic lunches when not traveling.

Problem Solving

Problem solving is the most important skill in traveling. Every day we must carry out simple tasks in places where English is not spoken. The books we read gave us good information, but the reality of actually getting something done in another culture and language is challenging (and satisfying). For example, Internet connections are not available in hotels in Southern Spain and Israel, and Internet cafes are not abundant- when we found one in Israel it cost $6 for 15 minutes. Also, surcharges for AOL add up: $3 a month plus charges in each country (ranging from 39 cents a minute in Japan to 89 cents a minute in Israel).

Accessing our bank accounts online was another problem. My bank gave me incorrect information and consequently two accounts can't be accessed. If you call an 800 number for help, your international touchtone phone won't let you connect.

Because we were traveling independently, finding an apartment in Seville was a challenge. Most renters spoke only Spanish, and we had only taken a 6-week language course in the U.S. However, through perseverance and trial and error we eventually found our way.

Finding names of Flamenco teachers was not difficult. However, getting accurate details about where, when, and how much was another challenge in Spanish. We got to know the winding, cobblestoned streets of Seville by trying to find the location of classes. Keeping a sense of humor is important.

Lessons Learned

I'm 58 years old, and after a day of walking in the rain and cold I need a warm bath to soothe the mind and body. This was not always possible. Getting beyond the physical comforts is a big part of this journey. Having a positive and flexible mental attitude is essential. I realize we are spoiled Americans. We take hot water and warm houses for granted. I still get a little grumpy when I'm cold or frustrated, but then I remember why I'm on sabbatical. I'm having the experience of a lifetime!

BONNIE MICHAELS, a work-life consultant, speaker, author, and president of Managing Work & Family, Inc., is co-author with her husband of Solving the Work/Family Puzzle, a guide for working individuals as they go through the lifecycles of work and family.

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