Take a Grown-Up Gap Year – or Six
An idea after getting rid of the kids
Around the world, millions of kids take a year to travel after finishing school and before heading off to college. Not many of them are Americans, which is a shame because gap years not only can generate a worldwide network of fascinating Facebook friends, but they also provide valuable lessons in self-sufficiency as well as experiences that open young eyes to some of the world’s exciting diversity of opportunity.
A decade ago, our daughter took a break from the books with a year spent in Madrid, Rome and Ghana. My wife and I visited her in Madrid. Her flatmates came and went and, in between frequenting every outdoor café in the city, her biggest problem was explaining to a variety of transient Swiss, Greek, English, Irish, Polish, French and Italian kids that America regards the purchase of toilet paper as a shared international responsibility.
While teaching English as a foreign language, she spent a lot of time with executives of a multinational consulting firm, helping them to refine the English grammar in their presentations. In addition, she had to make sure that they could pronounce their corporate theme word for the year, their particularly unfortunate selection being “focus,” without harming themselves in front of English-speaking audiences!
WHAT’S GOOD FOR THE GOSLINGS
Anyway, it all seemed like far too much fun to be the exclusive preserve of youth.
So, in 2013, after making the last mortgage payment and paying the final college tuition bill (and giving thanks that neither of our offspring showed the slightest interest in moving back home), my wife found a teaching job at an international school in Rome. For a year, we lounged around in the Piazza Navona and took weekend trips on Europe’s cheap airlines to the ancient capitals that we had never visited after immigrating to the U.S. at an early age.
With the dollar being particularly strong at the moment, gap years can have some surprising financial advantages. Health care, in particular, can be dramatically cheaper overseas, especially for the self-employed and “almost retireds” who get clobbered by insurance premiums in the U.S. As long as it is possible to demonstrate continuous previous health insurance coverage elsewhere, a comprehensive plan covering pre-existing conditions, routine dental and a small amount of prescription drugs can cost as little as $3,000 per year for a couple.
Living overseas, of course, can also have its challenges. Keeping my business going required a certain amount of mailing. With my tenuous grasp of the Italian language, the last thing I needed was to risk a discussion about overweight packages, all conducted through the sound-deadening plate-glass security window in the Ufficio Poste! I couldn’t even hear what the clerks were saying, let alone translate. Sometimes I resorted to writing down instructions in Italian and holding it up to the glass, hoping like hell I hadn’t inadvertently scribbled “It’s a stick-up – hand over the money!”
IF AT FIRST YOU SUCCEED
It is a documented drawback of gap years that participants can have a hard time re-integrating into what can seem like a relatively humdrum existence back home. There is, we discovered, a fairly simple antidote to the problem – do another one!
Our daughter’s gap year morphed into a total obsession with life overseas! Immediately upon graduation from college, she pulled out a globe and selected the place furthest on the planet, it seemed, from home, and took off for Southeast Asia for five years. She dined on delicacies such as tarantulas and scorpions (which, apparently, taste like crunchy peanuts – she tried to persuade us to try them during a visit, but when we saw them still wriggling on the skewers in a market in Beijing, it was a step too far!) and learned to yell back at taxi drivers in Mandarin.
For our part, somewhat less adventurous, we’re working on gap year number four now, in Portugal. The language here is even more bewildering, but the sun shines in December, and the cafés are really cheap. Well, it’s one life to live, isn’t it?
Richard Evans was an international business consultant, who now finds better things to do with his time when traveling abroad.