Friday, 6 March 2009

My Grown-Up Gap Year

So, here's the first of my pieces for your perusal, an overview of what I've been up to on my 'gap year' and how it came about. Please do let me know what you think!

Given the opportunity, I can't imagine anyone would pass up the chance to take a year off from working, travel the world, spend time with their loved ones and enjoy a life of leisure. For many it will only ever be a dream, but last year I was lucky enough to be able to make the dream a reality.

I'd been growing increasingly disenchanted with my job, a fairly senior and very well-paid public sector management role, for some time, but because I was heavily in debt I couldn't afford even to take a pay cut, let alone give up work completely. Then, suddenly, my circumstances changed. My mother, who suffers with mental health problems, decided that it would be best to sell her house and a rental property she owned in Dorset and move to a retirement flat in Norfolk, nearer to my sister and not too far from me. As well as being best for mum, it was great news for me too: I owned a third of her house and so when it sold, I would come into a pretty decent amount of money, enough to pay off all my debts, squirrel plenty away and fund a year or so of not working. I took the plunge and gave my notice; the next twelve weeks couldn't pass quickly enough, but time flew and in May 2008 I began my 'grown-up gap year'.

The first two months were somewhat like still being in full-time work, with daytimes taken up by the myriad dealings that selling two properties and sourcing and buying another necessitates. Notwithstanding my vested interest, this experience was very rewarding; emotionally, because of finally being able to do something tangible to help my mother after years of feeling helpless faced with her illness, and practically, because it gave me a valuable insight into the complicated processes involved in buying property.

Once at leisure, top of my dream to-do list, as I'm sure it would be for most people, was to travel. I'd toyed with the idea of disappearing around the world for a year, going everywhere I'd ever wanted to go plus a few places I hadn't, but two things stood in the way of this. One, having always liked the finer things in life, I could never envisage myself back-packing, and two, at around the time I quit work, I'd met someone who by the time my notice was up I'd fallen in love with and couldn't contemplate being apart from for too long. So, instead of going 'travelling', I settled on taking a series of individual holidays. I spent a month exploring Spain and three weeks in Italy, had a week larging it in Ibiza, enjoyed two weeks travelling around Mexico with my boyfriend to celebrate our anniversary, stayed with an old school friend in Bermuda for a fortnight and enjoyed three weeks spanning Christmas and New Year with friends in Sydney. Before the year is out, I've another couple of long weekends in Spain booked in, and I'm in the process of planning one last long trip to somewhere new.

While in London, I've indulged my culture vulture tendencies, attending dozens of exhibitions, visiting the major museums and many minor ones, and seeing tons of plays, films and gigs. In one especially memorable week alone I enjoyed Elaine Stritch's genius one-woman show and an afternoon Q&A with the lady herself, plus Kylie's X tour at The O2; recently I went to both plays showing at the two-space Trafalgar Studios in the space of ten days. My boyfriend and I spent a whole day enjoying the V&A and Science Museums, and another at Tate Modern taking in every exhibition. Going out of an evening knowing that there's no work to get up for in the morning, and having the free time to go to major exhibitions and attractions avoiding peak hour crowds, makes these activities even more enjoyable

The best aspect of all of the year off though hasn't been the travel or the leisure pursuits, but having been able, whenever in the country, to spend time with my much-loved mum. When she had a bit of a 'wobble' in November and was hospitalised for a while, I was able to visit her twice a week and attend all the necessary meetings with care staff that my sister couldn't because she was tied up planning her November wedding (planning, incidentally, which I was able to be more involved in than if I'd been working). Once mum was out of hospital, I devoted time to helping her settle back into her home and manage with day-to-day tasks; since then she's recovered brilliantly and our days together now comprise boozy lunches, shopping trips, cinema trips, cooking...all the things that we both enjoy, but enjoy ten times more when done together. It's bliss.

Of course, soon this all has to come to an end and I can't pretend that I'm not nervous about returning to work, if there are any jobs to return to. I don't want to go back to anything like the level of seniority I had before; I've overheard enough banal business conversations on trains and planes to know that corporate bollocks is not for me. I'm hoping to find something creative, perhaps in fashion, or involving my writing. My year off has helped me to re-evaluate my aspirations and values: acquiring knowledge through travel and culture and spending time with family and friends are what matter to me now, not professional status or a £50K salary.

My advice to anyone would be that if you ever get the chance at least to take some time out of the rat-race, from a few weeks to several months, then DO IT. Use the time to follow your ambitions, live a life you like, and spend time with the people who matter to you. I know that I've been extremely lucky to be able to do so, and for that I'll always be thankful.

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