November-December 2013 | Features

The Year of Living Spontaneously

They were 55 and their kids were finally out of college. It was time to cash in on a long-held dream-a senior year abroad.

share this

My forehead pressed against the warm window, I watch the endless rows of lavender as we pass along the back roads of Provence. The sun-soaked plants have lost their royal purple luster, their tiny blooms faded to a tired, August gray. I relate to their end-of-season torpor. Less than two weeks remain of our Gap Year, the treasured, 12-month sabbatical we’d long planned. And I wonder how we’ll muster the energy to move toward what comes next, now that we’ve realized our dream.

It’s our last full day in Aix-en-Provence, and we earlier ventured out for a final visit to the countryside. Tomorrow we’ll head north to Paris for a weeklong finale to our year.

The two-hour ride back to town is a tough one. We’ve been under the sun all day, we’re parched and tired, and the prospect of packing up after a month in Aix drains us of what little energy we have left. I’ve been melancholy all week, breathing the air of nostalgia even before saying goodbye.

I resolve on the slow, hot ride back to town to simply focus on returning someday and perhaps meeting up again with the characters we’ve encountered along the way, the people who’ve made us laugh, even as we’ve learned to love them.

Our Roman pied-à-terre was convenient and comfortably cozy, but what we loved best about it was Stefano, our amusingly charming landlord. Without him, the apartment would have been just another worn-around-the-edges studio; with him, it was like inhabiting a season of I Love Lucy, Italian style.

Stefano was a 50-something composer of movie scores who lived in the apartment above us. He was tall and attractive in a rumpled, absent-minded-professor kind of way, the lines of his face hiding a gentle handsomeness. He spoke quirky English with a lovely Italian accent and apologized repeatedly for being a musician and not a very good proprietor.

We got our first taste of what renting from Stefano would be like on the morning before we checked in. He emailed to “request a piccolo favore.” He’d lost his wallet that morning and asked if we could pay the balance of our rent in cash when we arrived. “No problem,” we agreed, “happy to help.” (Little did we know that in the ensuing weeks, Stefano would go on to lose his phone, TV remote, computer power cord and keys.)

We arrived for the first day of our month’s stay and Stefano was contrite about the less-than-stellar condition of the television (it didn’t work), the clothes washer (it leaked) and the refrigerator (barely cool). He promised to replace them all within the week.

We made do with what was provided, including kitchen drawers stuffed with faintly sticky cutlery. Ten days passed, and though we heard all about Stefano’s lost items (he had to borrow the portable phone from our apartment after losing his cellphone), there was no mention of replacement appliances. When we finally broke the news to him that the old fridge had collapsed, he apologized profusely and came over immediately to take measurements for its replacement.

We headed out for a day of communing with the Roman ancients among the ruins, and when we returned, found the freezer open and defrosting along with a note that our food was in a fridge in a closet across the hall. He also hoped we didn’t mind that he’d put a load of his clothes in the leaking washer and had borrowed our laundry soap.

What could we do but laugh?

The next morning, Stefano stopped by to pick up his laundry and inform us that the new fridge had been ordered. “I have chosen the quickest delivery—48 hours,” he said, “but do not forget that this is Italy, so we don’t really know if it will be 48 hours!”
Two more days passed, and each morning Stefano knocked on our door to apologize for the appliance merchant he’d selected. When I told him not to worry, he cooed, “Marianne, you are gentle (the English false friend of the Italian gentile, meaning kind); thank you for being so gentle to me.”

With each visit came a new request. First, to borrow one of our Mac power cords because he had lost his. His computer was out of juice and he needed to check the progress of the delivery online. The next morning when we greeted Stefano, he asked to rifle through the bottom drawer of the apartment’s sideboard to try to find an extra TV remote; he had misplaced his.

“You rented my apartment for your holiday in Rome and all you see is my face,” he lamented.

On the third morning, Stefano declared, “Definitely tomorrow; by then the new machines will definitely arrive.” But then it snowed and all of Rome came to a standstill, including the delivery truck with our new appliances.

More days passed. Then we had a knock at our door late one afternoon. There stood an ebullient Stefano with a new fridge, TV and washing machine in the hallway. We set aside our plan to eat in and left Stefano and the long-awaited machinery while we set out to find dinner. When we returned that evening, a new television hung on the wall and a refrigerator hummed away, snugly in place. But the new washer was noisily dancing across the bathroom’s tile floor. Just as we arrived, it banged against the far wall as yet another load of Stefano’s laundry steadily spun in the machine.

Ah, Stefano, I thought, what will your knock tomorrow bring?

The seeds of a Gap Year abroad—the age-old British tradition of spending time far from home—were sown when I was 22 and doing graduate work in France’s Loire Valley. It was 1979, and my time abroad ignited a love affair with France and uncovered a wanderlust that compelled me to travel the continent.

But truth be told, my remarkable year back then was marred by that particular brand of isolation that comes with knowing few people in a foreign land. I was on my own, unaffiliated with an American program, and making friends was difficult for an introvert. I yearned to share my experiences with Joe, the high school sweetheart I would later marry. I promised myself I would return to Europe for an encore year when I was older and wiser, this time with my partner beside me.  

From early in our marriage, Joe and I discussed our future Gap Year with joint imaginings that soon took on a definite shape. I became borderline obsessive about fleshing out the details of our sabbatical, pushing aside what we should do and replacing it with what we wanted to do at every juncture.

Our code word for taking leave of the U.S. was “2011,” a reference to the year we would shake off the weighty bills of our children’s education. Our son would graduate from college in 2007 and our daughter in 2010. Both of us needed a break from our work—I, from a career in book publishing; Joe, from his job as a marine engineer. We contemplated life-after-tuition and planned to drastically reduce our financial footprint (we would sell our house in Potomac, along with the cars, and divest ourselves of the accumulated belongings from raising children), thereby freeing the funds for our “Senior Year” Abroad. Craigslist would help us unload half our belongings, and the rest would go into storage.

Even so, our impending departure never seemed quite real. Then, one hazy summer afternoon in 2005 I was sitting behind my office desk in Lanham, gazing out at the suburban parking lot below, my mind wandering beyond the budgets and strategic plan in front of me, when I had an existential moment. In my mind’s eye, I was no longer senior vice president of a book distribution company. I was “Gap Year Girl,” an expat living in Europe.

The paradigm shift of how I viewed myself changed everything. From that point forward, I focused on making our Gap Year a reality. And I decided then and there to leave the world of business I had inhabited for a quarter century. By the end of the week, I’d registered for a master’s degree program in education and was on my way to becoming a middle school French teacher.

By the time September 2011 finally arrived, the bulk of our worldly possessions had been sold and our bank account subsequently fattened. Armed with spreadsheets that meticulously detailed our projected daily and monthly budgets, we took our cue from adventurous youths who leave their old lives behind to hit the road. Joe and I quit our jobs and set off on our long-awaited adventure, each at the ripe old age of 55.

We had no notion of where we would settle upon our return and recognized that extended and likely frustrating job searches would ensue once our year concluded. But we looked forward to the change, the demarcation between the earlier and later stages of our lives.

Family and close friends were hardly surprised; we’d been talking about our intentions for years. But colleagues deemed us incredibly brave or absurdly foolish. The truth was likely somewhere in between.

Did we worry about leaving our children, jettisoning everything and moving to Europe without a home, car or jobs? Without a doubt. Were we nervous about living out of a couple of duffels, blissfully unaware of the difficulties we might encounter? Absolutely.
It was a terrifying venture. But we knew that if we yielded to our fears and didn’t go, we would regret it for the rest of our lives.

Alfred Hitchcock once observed that “drama is life with the boring bits left out,” a sentiment that might well apply to long-term travel. Viewed from the sidelines, it appears kaleidoscopic, sophisticated, Technicolor-hued every minute of every day. But the reality is that an extended journey is just more of life, with days filled with laundry and other mundane tasks. And while our year was in many ways a dream come true, it included bouts of tedium, exhaustion and longing for our kids, who thankfully managed to stay healthy and reasonably happy during our absence. Only once did we consider cutting our trip short and heading home.

Seven weeks in, homesickness hit us and hit us hard. We were in Languedoc-Roussillon in southwestern France, the weather had turned cold under steely gray skies and a thick cloud cover, and Wi-Fi connections were elusive. Though we had never imagined our adventure abroad would be daily Champagne and endless delight, we didn’t expect the blues to make their appearance so early. The French have a fitting expression for this dark visitor: le cafard, literally, “the cockroach.”

The desolate, medieval stone hamlets, their every window shuttered and barred, darkened our mood. All we’d seen in the previous two weeks had been touched not only by the savagery of the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th centuries, but by the 13th-century Cathar Crusade. The bloodthirsty military campaign of the pope, ironically named Innocent III, to eliminate this offshoot of Catholicism from the Languedoc region of France had spared no one. Men, women, children and the elderly were all slaughtered. And when Catholics refused to give up their Cathar neighbors, one religious leader famously declared, “Kill them all. God will know his own.”

In sunnier weather, all this history might have seemed remote and colorful. But against a backdrop of unrelenting gray, it left us on the brink of depression. After visiting so many places that had witnessed sieges, plagues, pestilence, starvation and butchery, even the cheeriest of souls would succumb to its grip.

The brief descent into gloom taught us a valuable lesson: Our ability to enjoy the wonders of the Old World required being connected to our own world, so access to Wi-Fi was critical. Video-chatting with the kids, paying bills and banking online, researching destinations and making reservations, translating foreign phrases, checking the weather and verifying currency/temperature/mileage conversions all required the Internet, a scarce commodity in la France profonde.

In our hungry search for connectivity, we became like compulsive smokers furtively huddled in the shadows outside shuttered Internet cafes, anxious for a fix from home. From then on, we insisted that a Wi-Fi connection never be more than a day away.

We had left the U.S. just after Labor Day, and over the next 12 months traveled through 21 countries in rental cars and on countless trains, planes, buses, shuttles, cable cars, gondolas, ships and ferries. We passed through some places quickly (Austria, Germany and Portugal); others we enjoyed for extended stays (France, Greece and Italy). There was no blueprint, no grand strategy for our year. We wanted it to unfold organically, with the possibility of flights of fancy and time for reflection. All we knew for sure was that we would start with a month in Paris, our favorite city where previous weeklong stays had always left us wanting more, and end with a farewell in the City of Light 11 months later. We mapped out an approximate itinerary and then booked our accommodations online along the way.

Budget-conscious throughout, we mostly stayed in inexpensive, often out-of-the-way lodgings and ate modest meals. But there were occasional splurges: staying in a chateau in Provence, skiing in the Dolomites, enjoying a spectacular riad in Morocco and dining in multiple-starred restaurants. Our trek included some European Grand Tour destinations, but we added visits to lesser-known places such as Carcassonne, the ancient fortified town in southern France; Andorra, the Catalan principality perched high in the Pyrenees; Agrigento, Sicily, with its honey-colored Greek temples lining the ridge; the Greek island of Kos, home of Hippocrates; Split, Croatia, once the retirement palace of hometown hero Diocletian, a Roman emperor; Lipica, Slovenia, where Lipizzaner stallions are bred; and Butrint, Albania, one of the most spectacular archaeological sites on the Mediterranean.

We savored the rich food of southwestern France, sipped the wines of Italy, smelled the blooms of Holland’s Keukenhof and scrambled over ruins in Turkey.

It was only when we got to Fez, Morocco, that we encountered difficulties. There, my efforts not to be an ethnocentric American finally failed me.

Many of the exotic sights I’d anticipated were there: beautiful tiled archways, delicately carved buildings, caftaned pedestrians on dusty streets, donkeys bearing their burdens down narrow lanes, deliciously spiced food, sonorous calls to prayer, men in bright leather slippers, women in colorful headscarves.

But I was not prepared for the pervasive deal making. Everyone wanted to sell us something and everyone else wanted a cut. I felt the sands shifting beneath my feet anytime someone approached us.

The poet Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So it was with Morocco: I may forget the details of our days there, but I will never forget the discomfort it made me feel.

If Fez was a low point, though, there were plenty of highs, including training for and running the Paris Marathon in April—Joe’s third marathon, my first and last—and completing the Mont Blanc circuit in June through the Alps of France, Italy and Switzerland. The Tour du Mont Blanc, or TMB, is one of the world’s classic long-distance footpaths. Experiencing the alpine wilderness and being surrounded by the dramatic ice-capped peaks was the proverbial icing on our sabbatical-year cake. In seven days we hiked 75 miles around Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps at 15,770 feet, survived ascents and descents of a combined 36,000-plus feet and crossed through three countries.

The circular path took us from village to village, through flower-filled meadows and then up precipitous and barren mountain passes. The views were spectacular, the flora and fauna unforgettable. It left us exhausted yet exhilarated by the end.

On our final day in Paris in late August, we bid au revoir to our rented studio and, dragging our bags behind us, pass Parisians performing their early morning rituals: sweeping the brasserie floors, polishing the shop windows, posting the plats du jour and hosing down the plastic-webbed chairs of sidewalk cafés. It’s difficult to think of the orchestration of life in Paris continuing without us.

But it’s time for a new adventure, I realize, this one stateside. Soon we’ll be sending out résumés and finding an apartment in Bethesda, which we’ve decided to make our next home. Within months of our return, Joe and I will both be employed and settling into a different rhythm.

But all of that still lies unknown and ahead of us as we walk by our favorite boulangerie, resisting the urge to stop as we have so many times before for buttery croissants and fresh baguettes.

As we roll onto the Metro platform, a busker serenades us on an accordion, a fitting elegy for the conclusion to our Gap Year. Our adventure has come to a close.

Marianne C. Bohr lives in Bethesda and teaches French at Redland Middle School in Rockville. She’s working on a book about her Gap Year adventures.