It’s December of 2017. It’s been just over three years since I left my career and chucked it all to take ‘a one year career break’ in Europe with my savings.
Here’s what led up to my journey and a bit about me. I hope it may resonate with someone else out there.
What I'm Not
I’m not rich. I had no partner or family helping me pay my bills. I’m not spoiled or unable to handle working a full time job. I’ve worked full time since I was 17 years old and part time since I was 14. I was a professional for 15 years and for a lot of those years I worked 50-80 hour weeks.
In my 20’s… I didn’t mind slaving away-working all the extra hours for none of the extra money and none of the glory. Because I was young and being given huge amounts of responsibility made me feel important. It also challenged me and forced to learn how to deal with anything that was thrown at me.
But, when I got into my 30’s (or as I was about to turn 30) I realized I couldn’t afford to be poor for the rest of my life-despite how beautiful the region where I worked was and how much I loved being there (I was in the wine industry). I was being paid half of what the older male managers I knew were getting paid, I had no 401k or savings and I wasn’t getting ahead.
Career Change Fail
So, I changed sectors in my industry and went into the somewhat (often completely) soulless wholesale sales management side of wine for the glory of a higher salary, expense account, 401k and city life. This = more hours and even more responsibility, having to move away from the region I loved so I could be in the big city where all the best clients were, and driving my car thousands and thousands of miles all over California every month.
My plan, at the time (though now I see I was doomed from the start) was to make better money for a few years, put it in the bank and then come back to my beloved Sonoma County with enough sales management experience to command a better position and better salary in the local wine industry (though I knew the age would also help).
But in reality-the professional world is, largely, a place where what is on your CV is all that you are. Once I was in sales management I found it hard to get out.
Years passed by and I was forced to take position after position that I didn’t want (but that paid better money or elevated me into a higher position). While I learned a lot, met a lot of amazing friends in the city (San Francisco) and even got the opportunity to travel to vineyards in France in one of my positions where I managed import brands and sales, I didn’t really like what I was doing or who I was becoming.
Life Doesn't Get Longer – It Only Get Shorter
The thing is-I remember in my late 20s thinking it was already too late to start over in my career and train for something new. Especially once I’d finally made it out of low paid positions and into jobs that paid much better salaries, had expense accounts and allowed me to live in cities and meet amazing people.
This is what I look back to often and it’s the biggest thing I stress to people who have been wanting to do something for years but putting it off because they think it’s ‘too hard’ or ‘too late’.
You don’t get younger. The time ahead of you never gets longer. What you put off today will only be harder five years from now. So if you know you want to do something, if it’s gnawing away at you-you’d better face it and either prove that it’s impossible and give up on it, or start working towards that goal.
Misery Often Pushes Us To Do Greater Things
It took me getting to the point of such misery and desperation in a particularly toxic job (with more situations than I care to get into here) that I was on the point of mentally being unable to interview for other new jobs or make any decisions.
My body was covered in itchy hives, my hair was thinning and I was drinking FAR too much just to alleviate the constant stress I felt at the end of every day.
I didn’t want to wake up in the morning and face another day of the same thing. As soon as my eyes opened I felt I was already behind. Worse, I felt nothing I did mattered and I knew I’d never be thanked or appreciated for it but instead just continue to have unreasonable expectations dumped on me and keep working more and more hours until the end of time. Even vacations were not work-free.
That’s when I took action.
I counted up what I had in savings and approximated what I could get if I sold a bunch of my wine and furniture and what I could get back on my tax return that year. I looked at the total and figured out how long I could live on that in the U.S and how long I could live on that somewhere else. I did research. I looked at the cost of degree programs and certification programs. They cost more than I had (there was no way I could pay for them AND live).
I opted for spending a year in Europe for 1/3 of the price of an advanced degree. If I planned extremely carefully and lived frugally I’d still have enough to get me through 4-6 months when I came back.
The ‘One' Year
I left for my one year abroad. Though it took me six more months in the U.S. to be ready to get on that plane (during which time I moved to a different wine region and played with the idea of just changing locations and not making such a drastic move because I was scared of how I would be perceived by others).
I spent my first month in Prague.
I opted to plan out only one month at a time and forced myself to go against my nature and not over plan everything so that I would be open to opportunities if/when they arose.
And opportunities did arise, though not magically and not without putting myself out there constantly and doing tons and tons of research.
What did I do with my time?
I researched every single day about ways to find accommodation for less, make money while abroad (though I didn’t want to do the super poorly paid full time English teaching gigs I saw most often), etc.
I found out about amazing things like international housesitting (I did this in both Italy and England), volunteering as an adult English language partner in exchange for hotel accommodation and meals in beautiful remote places around Europe (I did this in both Poland and Spain) where I got to spend time every day all day with local professionals. I made wonderful connections and saw beautiful, remote and off the beaten path destinations.
My hives disappeared and I started waking up happy to start my day instead of anxious and filled with dread.
I took long walks with podcasts every day. I started a blog and started building up my social media presence with the intention of using these skills to make money further down the road if necessary.
I cooked a lot because I finally had time.
I figured out the art of negotiating the best monthly Airbnb rates (did this in Prague, Italy and Spain) and finding other resources for longer term accommodation that wouldn’t break the bank.
When I average up what I spent per month (on everything including food, accommodation, travel, etc) it was $1200-$1500/month. And I never stayed in a hostel, shared a room or did any manual labor. I always had my own places with kitchens and the comforts of home (including wifi).
Fast Forward to (Close to) the End of My Year
About 10 months into this year abroad, I went to Spain to do another week of volunteering as an English language partner (through a program called Diverbo) because I’d decided to go home a little early due to stressing about finances and finding a job when I went home. I wanted to stay in nice hotels for a bit again and be around people, before spending a week in Portugal and then maybe another month in Portugal or Spain before heading home.
During this program I met a Spanish guy named Manuel and despite my being 0 percent interested in anything romantic during my ‘me’ year, we ended up liking each other so much that he came to meet me in Northern Spain (after my week in Portugal) afterwards. We then decided to stay in an Airbnb together for another month in Madrid (because he worked there) to see how that went.
During that time we decided that I should cancel my ticket home and that we should move in together and remain together in Spain until we could figure out how to move somewhere else together.
Here we are a couple of years later in Madrid (though I have gone back and forth a few times to the U.S for a couple of months each to do a few projects and see family and we even almost got through the Visa Process). We are getting married in February and are planning to move to the U.K. in Spring of 2018 (I have a U.K passport but have never lived there). We plan to go back to the U.S eventually but we want to save up some money and spend a few more years in Europe first.
I’ve built up a small freelance consulting business working with a couple of clients in my industry (remotely) as well as a travel blog that does well enough that it does help me enjoy a lot of experiences for low to no cost. My blog also allows me to promote regions, people and businesses that I think deserve more attention-which I really love and which works into what I hope to be doing in the future (higher level PR, Communications and Marketing for food-drink related tourism including of course, wine).
I’ve also been able to get my writing into various online travel magazines and publications and will be putting more effort into getting published in more and higher profile places in 2018. This is something I’ve been very bad and slow at pursuing and I am determined to correct that.
Moral of the story?
You never know where life will lead you, and if you’re open to it leading you somewhere unexpected it just may change everything.
About the Author
A 15 year wine industry professional from California, Brooke is now a local in Europe thanks to dual passports and a love for all things European. Currently located in Spain, she spends her free time traveling to lesser known and visited wine regions as well as areas with a lot of natural beauty. Her focus is on finding more unique travel experiences and connecting with locals and local businesses (particularly artisan food producers, wineries and hotel or bed and breakfasts).
When she’s not writing travel articles, working on freelance marketing and social media projects, or publishing on her blog you can find Brooke hiking, drinking good wine or hanging out near the ocean.