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Family Sabbaticals

Extended Travel En Famille

By Susan Griffith

Creating a chance to spend time together as a family is what motivates many parents to consider taking an extended break abroad. While one parent might be ready to put his or her professional life on hold, this may not be welcome or manageable for the other. So it is important to get all family members on board before making specific plans.

There must be something for everyone. Perhaps an overland trip to the Andes or a sojourn in a Hebridean cottage for her, a cycling tour or cooking course in Tuscany for him.

If children are part of the picture, further compromises will be necessary. Children seldom welcome change and upheaval, especially as they get older. Whatever their ages, they should be included in the planning and preparations, with their preferences taken into account.

While certain projects like doing a round-the-world yacht race or spending time at a meditation centre in India will probably have to be deferred until the offspring have left home, children can be included in a surprising range of family adventures. For example, three children accompanied their father on his seven-year odyssey around the world in a horse-drawn caravan (described in the book Seven Year Hitch by David Grant), and there is a whole community of families cruising the world on ocean-going yachts or crossing continents in campervans and Landrovers.

The Ideal Age

Parenthood opens many doors—or at least conversations—with people who may surprise you as they try generously to smooth your way. Because young children tend to be fearless in talking to people, they will often act as an icebreaker between adults. Naïve charm can win over almost anyone. Children aged three and four are at their innocent best—after they have moved on from being toddlers but before they start school.

Babies are remarkably portable, although sleep-deprived parents weighed down by the paraphernalia of diapers and strollers may not agree. Infants under the age of two fly for next to nothing.

If withdrawing older children from school, permission must normally be sought from the local education authorities. This will be granted if the authorities can be reassured that the child’s education will not be damaged.

Uprooting adolescents from their natural habitat can be more complicated. Most will resent being removed from their social network and forced to spend more time with their parents and siblings than they would otherwise. Try to give them as much freedom as possible. One way of placating them might be to make sure they are allowed to spend plenty of time in Internet cafés so that they can maintain contact with their friends at home.

The Options

While adventurous backpacking, sailing or backroad expeditions are preferred by some families, others prefer to stay put in one destination. Renting a cottage or house is often a better way to organize a long family break. Everyone enjoys the chance to get to know (and to become known in) a new community, and children especially appreciate the security that familiarity imparts.

A stint of volunteering abroad is more difficult for a family. Companies that place volunteers in overseas conservation projects or as English teachers, for example, are seldom equipped to find housing. Two-parent families have the option of letting one parent take a paid or voluntary job while the other looks after the children. But even single parents have hit upon some ingenious ways of managing. One mother inserted notices in vegetarian magazines throughout Europe and received a number of offers including one offer of a free house in Austria in exchange for helping to look after rescued animals.

Coping with Potential Problems

Do not underestimate the number of people who will raise objections to a sabbatical en famille on grounds of risk to career or health, irresponsibility to children’s education, expense, etc. Mostly they are just envious. An ambitious family trip inevitably involves some risk, but it is necessary to remind yourself that accidents can also happen in your hometown.

Every family sets its own priorities, rules, and patterns of behavior. While some parents believe that keeping to a routine in the familiar environment of home is the best policy for keeping kids contented and attentive at school, others—especially those who have done some serious traveling in the past—concentrate on the positive potential of a big trip together.

To avoid the unsettling effects of travel on young children, take it slowly, allowing plenty of fun and relaxing interludes between the days of travel and sightseeing. If possible, base yourself in one place long enough for children to create a temporary network of familiar faces, if only the waiter or the greengrocer’s son. Along with a couple of their most beloved objects, a small photograph album of their friends at home can serve to remind them that their old life still exists (and can also be of interest to people met on the road). Whenever possible, a routine should be established so that certainties such as bedtime stories are maintained. The key to minimising stress is to avoid constant movement.

Cultural differences can result in incidents that can sometimes be upsetting. In many parts of Asia, children are considered almost public property. Local babies may be used to being prodded and cooed over and passed from hand to hand, but your Western children may not be so keen on these little acts of idolatry. Be prepared to rescue your children from any situation that is making them uncomfortable.

Successful trips happen when you set a goal and then resolve the logistical problems by sensible planning.

Accommodations

Try to find accommodations that are not only child-friendly but also where your children are likely to meet other children. Self-catering accommodations means that you don’t have to worry about your little tearaways terrorising other diners in the hotel restaurant. Out of season, villas in Italy and Spain can be vastly more affordable than during the school holidays.

Campsites and youth hostels are places where children often feel most at home. Nature Friends International in Vienna (www.nfi.at) runs a network of 1,000 mountain, forest, and country hostels, mostly in German-speaking Europe but also in eastern France, Italy, Poland, and Hungary. Many have their own playgrounds and most are very inexpensive.

Agritourism (rural tourism), where you spend a week or more on a working farm, is another appealing option. ECEAT (European Centre for Eco-Agro Tourism, Postbox 10899, 1001 EW Amsterdam, Netherlands; www.eceat.nl) publishes separate English-language Green Holiday Guides for a number of countries.

Lifelong Benefits

A family adventure can provide an educational stimulus that will exceed anything available in a classroom. Instead of merely looking at photographs of the Amazon or the Taj Mahal in a school book, children can actually see them and learn to appreciate the civilizations that surround them. The world becomes a classroom for both parents and children. Climbing a mountain in New Zealand or snorkeling in the

Caribbean certainly outclasses a field trip to the local woods. The world becomes a classroom for both parents and child.

Parents report that taking their kids away from television and videos teaches them to entertain themselves with reading, drawing, and writing. An extended family trip or stay abroad can be educational in another sense for fathers, many of whom have had less contact with their children than their partners have.

It doesn’t matter if you go when they are too young to remember anything. It does matter that you communicate enthusiasm and demonstrate a zeal for travel, for nature, for history, for whatever it is you are zealous about, which they will emulate and someday apply to their own interests.

A long trip together will create a priceless store of memories that families can share, a lasting sense of unity in adversity, and a belief that risks can be faced and survived with confidence.

SUSAN GRIFFITH is co-editor of Work Abroad and contributing editor for Work Abroad for Transitions Abroad Magazine. See Susan's bio for more information about her extensive bibliography.