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.