On Sabbatical

Consider, for a moment, what the first four years of our marriage had been.  We had gotten married, moved to England, worked and lived there traveling around Europe for two years with a couple of long trips back to the states every year.  We had moved three times in that two year period, then back to America for almost a year, then back to England for a different company.  It was at the end of that last stint that we were just both a little bit exhausted and our wander lust had hit peak levels.

I had taken an exit from a company in England and we had some savings.  We found ourselves in an enviable position and we definitely needed a break.  We could take that savings and head to Hawaii for a month before having to get back to the real world, a certain relief.  We could instead afford to spend three months in Florida, jobless and sunning ourselves with the same money or we could move to Thailand for a year.  As rational adults with a sense of personal accountability we of course choose to sell all of our belongings and move to Thailand and it was one of the best choices we ever made.

The period between leaving my employer and moving to Thailand was not long.  We had thought it out and talked a couple of weeks in advance about what we would do if we were to separate from my employer.  Due to my visa, it would not be possible to transfer to another company without some pretty specific exemptions, something we briefly considered – I made one phone call and it just didn’t seem worth it.  Of course on the other end of the phone was Thailand calling us and we didn’t need much coaxing.

We notified our landlord that we would be vacating and though our lease was not yet up, there is little either of us could do about it.  We wouldn’t be able to legally work in the country and complete our lease, our advance notice and cooperation was essential in getting the apartment rented which it was even before we left.

I also spent my days researching and subsequently obtaining a visa to remain in Thailand as a tourist for up to one year.  This required a trip to a part of England that I do not recall, filing some paperwork and spending a day walking around a mall while I waited for the paperwork to clear.  Somehow I remember that vividly, perhaps because it was then at the Thai Consulate that things became a little more real for me.

We began the busy work of listing all of our possessions for sale online but didn’t have to do too much heavy lifting as the apartment was furnished.  Some things we packed in boxes to be FedExed to a relative stateside.  Other items we were taking with us in just a few suitcases and the remainder would be sold.  It’s amazing the things you choose to take with you and the things you choose to leave.  We had parted with some things we would have rather not left and instead took bottles of preferred shower gel because of course we wanted to have “our” brand while we were in Asia.

For three straight weeks my activities were a combination of meeting potential buyers of such key items as, “IKEA lamp” and “IKEA desk” which clearly reflect a successful career in marketing and long lunches with friends we would miss greatly.  Carly continued to work through most of this period and I regret that she did not take more time to see people and visit the places we had grown to love.

A last minute trip from Carly’s sister, Gabby and a planned trip from my brother, Aaron and a friend were welcome but did slightly complicate our departure.  Aaron and his friend were already heading to Berlin, so we decided to join them with our caravan of luggage and then booked a one-way ticket from Berlin to Bangkok via Amman, Jordan.  It was actually Aaron that was last to leave the apartment and we had hoped that we had cleared enough out to get our deposit back (which was overly delayed by the landlord) and met them in Germany.  Gabby had gone back a day or two prior but having them there during our last days also gave us a chance to show them around our favorite places and a chance for us to see those spots one last time as locals.

When we checked in all of our bags at the airport, and there were at least four if not five, we boarded for Germany and left Manchester behind.  The shear volume of luggage was at first a triumph, we were moving continents again in suitcases, a feat for any married couple.  However, our purchase decisions from the time we decided to make this move became a tangible reflection of our new life choice.

We were now on a fixed income and while some frills would be allowed, we just didn’t know how far our money would really go in Thailand.  We were forced to be thriftier than normal, an accomplishment that many that know me didn’t think was a possibility.  When packing I noticed that we were a bag short and set out to find something that would just get us there and we would find a new solution once we were in the country.  I bought a very cheap suitcase for around £15 at a local sports shop and was incredibly proud of myself.  Arriving into Berlin by metro (we were on a budget) we exited at what appeared to be the closest metro station to our low end hotel.  The bags, stacked one on top of another with Carly dragging one and another duffel, or for the purposes of EasyJet, “her purse” slung across her body were dragged the better part of a mile.  Rest breaks were required.  Had I bought a suitcase that did not catch on the ground, then blow out the wheels, the journey might have been made in less than 30 minutes.  My frugal purchase was totaled before we checked in.

It was at the check in desk that I looked outside, when I could no longer hear the woman checking us in due to the excessive noise of the metro that came to a stop directly outside our hotel.  Shame we didn’t look at that map a little closer.

The room was clean but… very European.  There was room for all of our luggage, but we found that when the bags were loaded inside there was no room for any people at that point.  We left a few at the front counter.  We had to look like a caricature of American tourists checking in for just three nights with four or five full sized suitcases and of course, “Carly’s purse”.  My brother and his friend decided to stay at the Grand Hyatt, a smart move for smarter travelers with a reliable income.

We found a great sausage and beer bar across the street from our apartment, and by great I mean that the sausages were less than €2 as were the beers, and it was undoubtedly a front as street walking prostitutes would come in and out of the joint through the front door and out the back door of the establishment.  This was of course between turning tricks outside and sometimes between cars in plain sight.

We had prepaid our room to save money, a brilliant decision that I am happy to take credit for making so there would be no switching to a posher hotel.  It was just a couple of nights and we made it through just fine.

After a couple of days in the capitol, we parted ways with Aaron and his travel companion and headed to the airport to start our journey.  This time it was different however.  We had already left Manchester physically and emotionally behind us to concentrate on Berlin and the mechanics of our migration.  Boarding the plane to Thailand we were now filled with a sense of excitement.  We were starting this new adventure that our friends and family had publicly condoned and privately lamented. We were looking forward to sun and sand, to new experiences, and spending some time relaxing instead of trying to climb ever higher on an endless ladder of corporate success.  Mostly, I felt relieved.  The pressure on me to succeed was great and the section of the business I was focused on had not been doing well.  To better underscore what we were leaving behind, I described to co-workers the feeling I had at work being akin to Sisyphus.  Each month I felt I was pushing a boulder uphill only to find that at the turn of the calendar, the boulder would swing back into the valley from which it came and I was again tasked to lifting it out again.

To be freed of that was an amazing feeling.  And getting out of that kind of hell and going anywhere was a relief.  It wasn’t that my workplace was some sort of hell, they were really lovely people, I just kind of made it that way.  It was a self torment of not meeting my own expectations and fearing I was letting others down. While any escape was welcome, a year in paradise was the ultimate dream.

For Carly, it was different.  She was finding her place in Manchester this time and had established friendships that have held the test of time.  She enjoyed her work, and bonded with her co-workers and her former employer became some of our best friends.  Without the separation of employer/employee relationships we were able to grow our friendship and they were some of the hardest people to leave.

But a year on the beach is going to be an upgrade from life in the gray clouds and rain that filled the skies above Manchester and hung low over my own job.

That was all behind us now and we struggled for what we should call our time abroad.  We weren’t on vacation, there are too many explanations for why our vacation was to last a year that we would rather not go into with passers by.  We tried out the term “early retirement”, but in the end it was our boredom in retirement that pulled us out of Thailand prematurely.

We settled on “sabbatical”.  It reflected that we intended on working again in the future, but for now, we had lost interest in it.  There was something very satisfying about just saying that we were “on sabbatical” rather than other vocabulary that might have just as well described this time in our lives.

Like other times in our marriage we had chosen to just walk up to the edge of a cliff that we were pretty sure had water deep enough to swim in and jumped.  We were married after dating for only 10 months, a short engagement of just 10 weeks made our parents sure that there was a baby on the way – there wasn’t.  Our move to England, then back to America, then back to England had all worked out for the better.  We were leading enriched, fanciful lives as far as anyone could tell and we took advantage of all the privileges our hard work and risk afforded us.  It’s only now, from a hotel room in rural Pennsylvania that I write this and reflect on whether or not some of that spirit of wild spontaneity and ability to bet the farm has left us.

I hope sincerely that it hasn’t.



Kyle is an accomplished Travel Editor for UPGRD.com, PenAndPassport.com and writes TheTripSherpa.com blog. He has visited more than 50 countries on every continent except Antarctica. He has contributed to articles for Time, USA Today, Reuters, CNBC, MSN, Yahoo!, Huffington Post, Mainstreet.com, Mademan and other media outlets. He flies several hundred thousand miles every year and has lived abroad in the UK, Thailand and Perú. He now calls Pittsburgh home with his wife and daughter who join him on his trips around the world.
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