Your foreign affair

Part 1

My wife tells this story — and I’ve heard it so many times I honestly can’t remember if it’s true — that when I hedged on getting married, I could come up with only two reasons for my hesitation. One, I wouldn’t get to go on any more wilderness canoe trips. Two, I’d spend all my spare time shopping for furniture.

Whether the story is true or not, my worries were prophetic. We did get married. I have never been on another canoe trip. And I’ve spent so much time browsing for sofas that I could moonlight as a furniture salesman.

So at 38 are my chances for adventure all behind me? Have marriage, kids and a mortgage slotted me into a life of repetitive lassitude? Not if I can help it.

While the canoe goes dry, I’ve found other adventures. In fact I’m on one right now. It includes my wife, our two sons, kangaroos, emus, red wine, whales, Grand Slam tennis, white wine, Australian Rules Football, an absence of snow, deserts, lorikeets, gum trees and beaches. (Did I mention the lack of snow? What about the wine?)

Our family is spending a year in Melbourne, Australia, courtesy of my wife’s sabbatical from her post as a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. The boys are attending the local school and rapidly picking up Aussie accents. I left my job (but not my senses) to enjoy the scenery and run the house. We’re seeing a fascinating part of the world, making new friends and enjoying the chance to be awash in new experiences. Can you do the same thing? Absolutely.

Spending a year overseas is the perfect antidote for mid-life fears that every year will be exactly like the one before. Think of it as the equivalent of rock climbing with a safety belt. You get to enjoy the excitement of doing something new and daring, but you know you will be coming home when it is all over.

On a sabbatical, you don’t just meet the locals — you become a local. Buying food, paying bills and all the other minutae of life suddenly seem interesting again. “Anyone who has ever been abroad knows that you will never forget that year. It will become a pivotal time in your life,” says Jean-Marc Hachey, who publishes The Canadian Guide to Working and Living Overseas and operates a Web site devoted to the same topic.

But how do you get abroad in the first place? There are two ways: the easy way and the less-easy way. Work exchanges, university sabbaticals and intra-company transfers provide people in some occupations — school teachers, professors and employees at international corporations — with a simple way to slide into another job in another country for a year or two.

If you’re not fortunate enough to be in that lucky group, don’t despair. There are countless positions available in nearly every country: from nurses to business consultants to tradesmen. Finding them on your own may be more difficult than filling out a few forms, but it can be done.

Consider Ron, 49, and Alisa Wheeler, 39, who both work at Fort Edmonton, a historical site run by the city of Edmonton, where Ron is operations foreman and Alisa is on the sales and marketing staff. Neither have the kind of CV you would expect to take around the world. Yet they spent 1998 and 1999 working in Papua New Guinea. The key to their trip? A long-term leave program offered by the city.

When they first stumbled upon the plan, which allows approved employees to set aside part of their salaries to fund an extended leave of absence from their jobs, the Wheelers planned to take a year-long round-the-world-trip. But then they began to think about doing something productive with their time. They applied to CUSO, the Canadian aid agency, which liked their backgrounds in tourism and recruited them to run a guest house in a remote coastal village in Papua New Guinea.

The Wheelers swung hammers, negotiated with elders, trained the locals and managed the operation. While the location was remote, the experiences were not. “Our motivation wasn’t money, but quality of life,” says Alisa. “We experienced another world vastly different from our own and we truly enjoyed it.”

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

From the June/July 2003 issue.

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