When the offer came on the table to join my husband on an international assignment to Chicago – this was in July 2018 while we were vacationing in a hut high up in the Alps and over dinner a slightly cryptic text came in from his boss – my immediate reaction was that of course that is what we will do. We would pack our things, move to the US, figure things out, done deal. I did not have a single doubt that this was the decision to be made. Even though I felt quite fine about how our life was progressing in Cologne, I was in full support of my husband’s career and the opportunities this created for him. And I saw some possibilities for me as well.
When imagining myself abroad at that time, I knew I would be working, too. That is what I had been doing in Germany for over a decade, so I did not question this lifestyle for a second. Getting up early in the morning, waving each other goodbye, pursuing our careers, meeting back at home after a day full of accountabilities and enjoying the scarce time we had together during evenings and weekends. That was our life and I did not find anything wrong with it. I always loved working, as it is something that gives me identity, day-to-day challenges, a fun community and an income that pays my bills.
Not a minute did I picture myself as a spouse who would ‘just come along’. I had too many (true or not) images in my mind of expat partners who are “cappuccino-ing” their days through town, playing tennis, and spending their (mostly) husbands’ money until it was time to move back home. Not an image that fit me well, I felt. Especially because we do not have any kids.
As it turned out, work was not the option I picked after all. Soon after we officially made the decision to relocate, it became apparent that it is not as easy as I anticipated to find meaningful work. I did not have a work visa yet and the time that was planned for us to be in the US did not feel long enough for any decent type of employment. In addition, the company that I was with in Germany at the time did not have an office big enough in Chicago for me to just change location. My nicely laid out plan just plopped right in front of my eyes. While this was a frustrating period to work my way through, in hindsight, it was the best thing that could happen to me. I was forced to aim for a plan B. I was forced to move out of my comfort zone.
This plan B developed with a very simple question to start with: If I was given a year or so of time off and I had sufficient savings to cover for that period, what would I want to do? Did you ever ask yourself that question? What would your response be? Would you decide to spend more time with your family, climb the highest mountains on the planet, become a Yoga teacher, open a diving school on Bali, start your own business, join the Peace Corps, write a book, buy a camper and travel through Europe, sell your house and all your belongings and just see where life takes you?
My mental list of things to do was very short at first. Knowing that I would certainly live in Chicago, I was a bit clueless and went for some of the more obvious ideas: pursue an MBA, train for a marathon and locate exciting US vacation spots which we would travel to. Hmm, not bad, but nothing that would really sweep me off my feet in a moment of excitement.
Thankfully, I had several months to think this through, great conversations with family, friends and colleagues and yes, I also did a ton of research to find out if what I made up in my mind was at all possible and affordable. With every week that passed, my plans grew more and more concrete and at the same time, my enthusiasm rose so much, it gave me sleepless nights. I was dying to finally get on that plane and start my adventure – my sabbatical break.
All the thinking and talking and researching and calculating eventually led to four areas that I wanted to dedicate my time and money to. Those are areas I might have neglected for some time and wanted to give more weight in my life, areas that would help me plant seeds for potential future possibilities, areas I enjoy and thrive in, and new areas I want to discover.
One is learning and personal growth. I love learning new things, from typing with ten fingers instead of just three (looks much more elegant), to becoming a Certified Professional Coach (certainly more demanding than learning how to type), and a few other topics I had always wanted to dig my head into (Design Thinking, Agility, Photoshop, …). Learning is what is at the top of my list and will consume probably most of my time.
Two is improving my fitness level. Over the past several years I went from holding a gym membership but never going, to exercising for at least 3-4 hours every week. I feel there is still potential for more and since Chicago offers countless possibilities for working out, I can almost try out a new kind of sports every week. Have you ever been on a Pilates Reformer, or did Bouncing Fitness (that’s where you stand on a trampoline and do various kinds of exercises to funky music)? It is so much fun and incredibly painful afterwards!!
Three is giving back to those in need. I consider myself as very fortunate when it comes to the status of my health, educational background and financial situation, but I know that there are millions of people around the world – and thousands of them in Chicago – who are not that lucky. Now that I have the time, I want to help where my resource and energy can make a difference. In fact, I already spent 40 hours of very intensive training to become a Crisis Counselor with Crisis Text Line, which is a free 24/7 crisis support service, where people in severe crisis can text in. I officially started as a Crisis Counselor two weeks ago and while it is tough and mentally stressful work, it is equally rewarding, knowing that I can help someone get from a hot moment to a cooler calm.
Four is doing lots of fun things. This involves starting my own blog, exploring everything Chicago has to offer, travelling the country, learning to play an instrument for the first time in my life (yep, you heard right, that is on my bucket list as well and I am in the process of finding my best-fit music school), networking with the Locals (easier than I thought) and sometimes just reading a book or simply doing nothing. There is a wealth of things to experience and already now I feel that I do not have enough hours in the day.
While this is all very exciting and adventurous, there are moments of doubt. Society expects us all to work and earn our living. This is how we identify ourselves as human beings, unless we are enjoying our well-deserved retirement after decades of contributing. I do experience moments in which I wonder if I am devoting my time appropriately. There are moments of guilt for just spending and not earning any money (this is an especially tough one for me, I must admit). There are moments of fear for what the future might bring (what will my next job look like) and there are moments of exhaustion from all this change happening at once. Luckily these moments are rare, and I decided to embrace rather than reject them as my healthy check-in points, which allow me to every now and then calibrate where I stand.
There is something precious I have been noticing over the past few months – about myself and life in general. Work might give us purpose and identity, but a lot of other things do too, we just need to find them and make room for them in our lives. Do I plan to or can I even afford to always live like this? Certainly not. I expect to be wanting to return into the paid employment sector at some point. But until then – and I leave this moment in time completely undefined for now – I will enjoy my little sabbatical break and let you take a part in it.