No Christmas in Germany


At the end of 2009 we returned from a four-month sabbatical in Germany, France, Ireland and Italy. I was eligible for another sabbatical seven years later, which would make me 46 the summer of 2017, and seemed too far away. We sometimes talked about going back, what we’d do differently, but with the kids further entrenched in school, limiting our next visit to the summer months didn’t seem like enough time.

On a visit to my mom’s in Germany last July, I proposed the idea of moving there for a year, to really try it on. We’d just have to rent our house out and I’d need to quit my job, which was getting easier to imagine as the days wore on.

We started saying it out loud to friends and family, but it didn’t become real until I had to leave my job in December, and friends of ours agreed they would rent our house starting in July, enabling us to move once Dawn finished her contract with Microsoft.

Dawn and I had a good idea of why we were doing this but it required a kind of summit, a meeting at our kitchen table one Sunday morning, for us to draw up a mission statement, to establish some guardrails that would inform our decision-making, what’s in/out of scope.

We agreed doing it for our kids was the best (but not the only) reason, fearing they would soon fall into a pattern of self-entitlement and privilege, given our surrounding wealth in the suburbs east of Seattle, many families with dual incomes and horse riding hobbies, a lot more money than time.

Selfishly, I thought if ever there was a time to write my memoir, this was it. My memory is starting to get that patina layer, which makes things look more interesting with age.

And for Dawn and I, I hoped it would give us a different perspective on what’s most important when we resurface, at the end of our time there.

In project management or life in general, bad assumptions get you into trouble. We assumed since my mom is a German resident we’d be allowed to live with her. And we assumed we could figure out the visa requirements just by using the Internet.

The best advice we got was from a friend and expat Mia, who suggested we hire immigration lawyers. It sounded over-the-top, but after several early morning conference calls, emails, even PowerPoint slides and charts illustrating the 90 day in/out rules behind the Schengen states, it was all well worth it.

We thought we could just pop over the border from Germany once our 90 day tourist visa was up, spend a few weeks in France or Italy, and then come back. But the Schengen agreement, which includes roughly 25 countries in Western Europe, binds these countries into a territory: you need to leave the territory once you hit 90 days, and once you do, you can’t re-enter any of these countries in the territory until 90 days later.

So this posed an awkward challenge given our timing. Landing in Germany the end of July put us at the end of October that we’d need to vacate. No Christmas in Germany. And where to go over the winter months in Europe? We looked hard at South Africa, but the plane fares would be hard on our budget, and our fear of the unknown, of truly exotic places, made us worry about traveling with a 10- and 7-year-old.

We went back and forth on the possibility of getting a work or student visa. Because Dawn works for Microsoft as a contractor, we thought she could make a case for being self-employed in Germany. But not really. Our lawyers advised that Germany doesn’t really support the work-from-home or remote-based model, yet. We thought if we were paying German taxes, what would they care?

Given our situation, the lawyers recommended we apply for a post-grad program. University programs are essentially free in Germany, and me getting a student visa would enable Dawn to continue working, legit.

We spent the time researching post-grad programs, but the schools were a good 1+ hour commute from my mom’s village, and did we really want to go back to school?

So after talking to the consulate in San Francisco, reading everything we could find on the Internet, and employing the Frankfurt-based lawyers, we came back to just following the rules: go for 90 days, leave for 90 days, come back for 90 days. Dawn would work some, I’d start my job search — we’d homeschool the kids, make it a family-bonding thing, wrap history into our sight-seeing, blog about it.

I never imagined doing this because I feared what it would be like to re-enter the work system, to drop out for so long without a good reason I’d need to defend to future employers. To risk all the security of what we’d built up for ourselves and our kids.

But it became less real to me, all the things we work for. And as I worked for those things I became less real, sometimes unrecognizable, to myself. Dangerous things happen to people in their mid-40s. This is my affair, my sports car.

The perspective I’m hoping we’ll find, on what’s most important, is our lifestyle: what kind of work will bring us contentment and enough money to not have to worry about money?

It’s Dawn’s dad passing away and my step-dad, both in 2008, on Valentine’s Day and Halloween respectively, that changed the course of our lives to make this possible. Had they continued living, we never would have moved in with our widowed moms in Germany or the Seattle suburbs. We would have stayed in our little bungalow in West Seattle, spent half a million on a fixer upper once it got too small.

But seeing Dawn’s dad pass like that, driving him to the ER when we knew it was time, made me look at my job and my life differently. The fact he never fully retired, didn’t make it much past 68.

On a recent trip to Eastern Washington with my kids, we saw that mirage effect on the highway, where it looks like a shimmering pool in the distance, but disappears once you’re upon it. That is the future for me. It can look however you like, but it’s only real once you’re upon it.


Categories: travel

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24 replies

  1. It’s good to read it all laid out like this. Plain. Clarity. Good.
    As dangerous things go, it could be worse.


    • Thanks Ross. I thought it needed laid.
      Do you know there are many places in Scotland with the name Ross?
      You’re right, it could be much worse, for sure.
      Thanks for the note, and wishing you well. Looking forward to sharing what we find of Scotland with you, and finding your kin there. – Bill


  2. it is good to read because it is good to know, there are others struggling with the mirage effects , and it gives me strength..


  3. I’m forever fascinated how one thing happening causes a cascade of other things to happen, or at least makes them possible if you have the balls to pull the trigger. Sounds like you and Dawn have just the right mix of spirit, caution, and curiosity to grab good opportunities. Buona fortuna!


    • Ah yes and perhaps it’s that fascination that makes you write! I’m reading Cloud Atlas now and enamored by the vine-twined fate/soul-wraps, as it were. Good stuff – thank you for the well wishes my friend. You call it spirit, caution and curiosity…I’ll pocket that, thank you. – Bill


  4. and i am so excited for the lot of you )


    • Thank you Beth! Me too. Looking forward to keeping in touch, too. Not enough optimism ever, it seems. I like what you said about my two halves and our pocked arms, that’s good. Cheers! – Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I am jealous of your adventure. Can I have your job while you’re gone? Being able to afford a bungalow in the suburbs sounds nice.


    • Funny! Someone else has my job already, good for them. Our bungalow was 1919, a vacationers house for people in the city wanting to spend the summer near the beach, west Seattle. Yes, getting butterflies for our journey, leaving next week. Cheers!


  6. Very insightful. I found you on The Green Study, where you have been a long-time commenter. It’s nice to finally find you in your native habitat.


  7. Ah the bureaucracy, such fun! Thanks for sharing this, very interesting. My jealousy just grows and grows. I can’t believe you are leaving next week. What an adventure this will be. I think this is a really fantastic thing you are doing.


    • Well it’s not any fun sharing it if there’s no one to share it with, so I’m awful grateful for you Walt and your eye-piece. And I just keep repeating the same thing, what a fantastic thing you’re doing, with that beginning dread of how it feels when you get on a plane and leave the tarmac, and wonder what the hell you’re doing, believing this little thing can carry you over the world. But at least we’ll all go down together, which always feels better somehow.


  8. Glad to stumble upon this in my day’s blog travels. I recall you mentioning taking off to Germany in one of your comments on my blog, so nice to read about it. A few lines here really stuck with me:

    My memory is starting to get that patina layer, which makes things look more interesting with age.

    This is lovely and well put — for me, when I think about various experiences I’d like to write about, I think of bottles of fine wine, or blocks of cheese, that continue to age. The way you put it is much more eloquent!

    Also, your words about the mirage effect on the highway…

    That is the future for me. It can look however you like, but it’s only real once you’re upon it.

    Yes, also well said. I’m feeling a bit of this right now, in my own way, as I adjust to some things — what I’d imagined is not quite what is.

    Wishing you the best of luck in this journey of finding perspective and learning what it is you want and need to be happy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a comment, made my day Cheri. Especially that funny enigma about what you imagined vs. what is. One could lose oneself in that Mobius strip, and might not be bad, to lose oneself. So glad you looped back and remembered that comment of mine, quite a while ago! Feels like a small world at the moment. Best to you and yours, and looking forward to hearing what’s going on with you in your new adventure too. – Bill

      Liked by 1 person


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