The seeds of a Senior Gap Year abroad—the age-old British tradition of spending time far from home—were sown when I was 22 and doing graduate work in France’s Loire Valley. It was 1979, and my time abroad ignited a love affair with France and uncovered a wanderlust that compelled me to travel the continent.
But truth be told, my remarkable year back then was marred by that particular brand of isolation that comes with knowing few people in a foreign land. I was on my own, unaffiliated with an American program, and making friends was difficult for an introvert. I yearned to share my experiences with Joe, the high school sweetheart I would later marry. I promised myself I would return to Europe for an encore year when I was older and wiser, this time with my partner beside me.
From early in our marriage, Joe and I discussed our future Gap Year with joint imaginings that soon took on a definite shape. I became borderline obsessive about fleshing out the details of our sabbatical, pushing aside what we should do and replacing it with what we wanted to do at every juncture.
Our code word for taking leave of the U.S. was “2011,” a reference to the year we would shake off the weighty bills of our children’s education. Our son would graduate from college in 2007 and our daughter in 2010. Both of us needed a break from our work—I, from a career in book publishing; Joe, from his job as a marine engineer. We contemplated life-after-tuition and planned to drastically reduce our financial footprint (we would sell our house in Potomac, along with the cars, and divest ourselves of the accumulated belongings from raising children), thereby freeing the funds for our “Senior Year” Abroad. Craigslist would help us unload half our belongings, and the rest would go into storage.
Even so, our impending departure never seemed quite real. Then, one hazy summer afternoon in 2005 I was sitting behind my office desk in Lanham, gazing out at the suburban parking lot below, my mind wandering beyond the budgets and strategic plan in front of me, when I had an existential moment. In my mind’s eye, I was no longer senior vice president of a book distribution company. I was “Gap Year Girl,” an expat living in Europe.
The paradigm shift of how I viewed myself changed everything. From that point forward, I focused on making our Gap Year a reality. And I decided then and there to leave the world of business I had inhabited for a quarter century. By the end of the week, I’d registered for a master’s degree program in education and was on my way to becoming a middle school French teacher.
By the time September 2011 finally arrived, the bulk of our worldly possessions had been sold and our bank account subsequently fattened. Armed with spreadsheets that meticulously detailed our projected daily and monthly budgets, we took our cue from adventurous youths who leave their old lives behind to hit the road. Joe and I quit our jobs and set off on our long-awaited adventure, each at the ripe old age of 55.
We had no notion of where we would settle upon our return and recognized that extended and likely frustrating job searches would ensue once our year concluded. But we looked forward to the change, the demarcation between the earlier and later stages of our lives.
Family and close friends were hardly surprised; we’d been talking about our intentions for years. But colleagues deemed us incredibly brave or absurdly foolish. The truth was likely somewhere in between.
Did we worry about leaving our children, jettisoning everything and moving to Europe without a home, car or jobs? Without a doubt. Were we nervous about living out of a couple of duffels, blissfully unaware of the difficulties we might encounter? Absolutely.
It was a terrifying venture. But we knew that if we yielded to our fears and didn’t go, we would regret it for the rest of our lives.
Alfred Hitchcock once observed that “drama is life with the boring bits left out,” a sentiment that might well apply to long-term travel. Viewed from the sidelines, it appears kaleidoscopic, sophisticated, Technicolor-hued every minute of every day. But the reality is that an extended journey is just more of life, with days filled with laundry and other mundane tasks. And while our year was in many ways a dream come true, it included bouts of tedium, exhaustion and longing for our kids, who thankfully managed to stay healthy and reasonably happy during our absence. Only once did we consider cutting our trip short and heading home.
Seven weeks in, homesickness hit us and hit us hard. We were in the Dordogne in southwestern France, the weather had turned cold under steely gray skies and a thick cloud cover, and Wi-Fi connections were elusive. Though we had never imagined our adventure abroad would be daily Champagne and endless delight, we didn’t expect the blues to make their appearance so early. The French have a fitting expression for this dark visitor: le cafard, literally, “the cockroach.”
The desolate, medieval stone hamlets, their every window shuttered and barred, darkened our mood. All we’d seen in the previous two weeks had been touched not only by the savagery of the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th centuries, but by the 13th-century Cathar Crusade. The bloodthirsty military campaign of the pope, ironically named Innocent III, to eliminate this offshoot of Catholicism from the Languedoc region of France had spared no one. Men, women, children and the elderly were all slaughtered. And when Catholics refused to give up their Cathar neighbors, one religious leader famously declared, “Kill them all. God will know his own.”