In July 2022, Dr. Sara Gebauer, an anesthesiologist shared her story of transforming her dream of a sabbatical abroad into a reality. She communicated her dream clearly with her anesthesiology practice, brought on an anesthsiologist to fulfill her clinical role, and got her kids on board as well (who initially were not excited). She took off in August 2022, with plans for a 5 month sabbatical. Now she shares what actually happened.
We returned from our 5 month sabbatical on January 1st, 2023. It was an amazing experience for our family, and I’m sharing an update now that we’ve returned.
This was our plan for sabbatical when we left in August:
- Colombia for a week
- Galapagos for a month
- Spain for 90 days
- Travel for a month including Egypt
Here’s what we actually did:
- Colombia for a week
- Galapagos for 2.5 weeks
- Egypt for 9 days
- Morocco for 3 days
- Spain for 2.5 months
- 4-5 days each in Paris, Rome, Portugal during our time in Spain
- Athens for 2 days
- Israel for 5 days
- Jordan for 5 days
- Dubai for 3 days
- Ubud, Bali for 3 days
- Kangaroo Island, Australia for 4 days
- Philip Island, Australia (penguins!) for 4 days
- Moorea, French Polynesia for 4 days
Our first few weeks abroad included a complete change of plans when our kids’ Spanish language school didn’t work out in the Galapagos- they weren’t crazy about the traditional teaching approach of sitting at a small desk doing worksheets, and it ended up costing twice as much as we expected.
We took advantage of the newfound flexibility and island-hopped in the Galapagos then left South America a few weeks early and headed to Egypt and Morocco before settling in Spain. Our first month of travel went so well that we decided to be ambitious during our time away and visit places that were easy flights from our starting point but would have been huge trips from the U.S.
Tackling Challenges As A Family
On normal days, I often either create or solve my kids’ problems (“you have to practice piano”, or “I’ll show you how to use a can opener”). When we were traveling, we were all in it together. We wandered around the narrow streets in Old Jerusalem looking for a place to eat lunch, tried to spot a cab big enough for 6 people (nowhere in the world expects you to have 4 kids), and dripped buckets of sweat in temples in Egypt.
My husband and I often didn’t have a clear solution for a problem, so it became a group project. We also decided where to go and what to see (mostly) by consensus, and it was nice to discuss the pros and cons of visiting only the outside of the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, for example, since the younger kids weren’t allowed into the main exhibit. Talking to my kids in fewer commands (“do this!”) and more questions (“what do you think?”) was a welcome change.
Cultivating My Kids’ Interest in History & Culture
We all know the stereotype of kids on a cultural vacation: “It just looks like a church”, “This is boring”, “I want to go to a movie”, etc. We thought our kids would have 1-2 cultural exhibits in them a day then we’d have to drag them around to the subsequent sights. Happily, the opposite ended up being true. In Egypt, it was 114 degrees and we had been walking around temples all day. We asked the kids if they wanted to skip the last planned temple, and they acted horrified that we would even suggest it. “No,” they said, “more temples!” I’m not making that up. I’m just as surprised as you are!
What really seemed to help them stay engaged was the nature of the trip itself. We were able to make connections between the Spanish Crusader town of Jerez de los Caballeros, for example, and the Egyptian temples where the Crusaders defaced the drawings of Egyptian gods. We toured the largest mosque in Africa in Casablanca and were able to connect it to the Muslim beliefs about the Temple Mount. The cultural sights were part of a larger story. It helped that they had all read the Rick Riordan books when we went to Italy and Athens to connect to the Roman and Greek gods.
Not Having Demands on My Time
How many of you have not had a job or school to get up and go to for longer than a few weeks since you were 16? Do you know what you’d do with your time? A sabbatical is a chance to explore your interests that get pushed aside for the seemingly more pressing needs of making money and taking care of patients.
I found it enormously helpful to see what I did – and did not – do. I did not take on enormous projects of great significance. I did spend time connecting with my family, learning more about meditation and Buddhism, and learning about topics unrelated to medicine. My husband and I didn’t watch any TV and hardly watched any movies. We explored our little town, did a lot of travel planning, and talked to each other.
What was harder than expected?
Finding accommodations and transportation for 6 people.
Families of six are uncommon in much of the world, and few hotels, AirBnBs, or cabs are big enough for our family. We had to reserve two rooms and often two taxis or a bus when we traveled, which in turn made it twice as expensive.
What surprised us?
Time changes weren’t a big deal
Since we were slowly making our way around the world, time changes weren’t really an issue. We had one big time change from Ecuador to Egypt, but after that it was a 1-3 hour difference every time we went somewhere new. We felt great and didn’t lose sightseeing time to jetlag.
Flights were generally on time
Don’t get me wrong, flying is generally a hassle, and we went on a lot of flights. But for the most part, our flights were on time and we didn’t have any issues with airlines being unreasonable.
Kids walked for hours, without complaining
I don’t know why, but they seemed to realize there wasn’t another option so there just wasn’t a lot of complaining. My 6 year old sometimes started to get tired around 2pm, but the older kids seemed on board with having big walking days to really experience a city.
We were fairly adventurous in our eating including street food, and only had a few episodes of GI distress. None of it was bad enough to affect our planned activities.
Kids adapted easily to school in Spanish
Our kids knew basic Spanish prior to arriving in Spain but attended a school in which all the teachers and kids spoke only Spanish. Within two days, they had friends and most of the time knew what was going on. Toward the end of our time in Spain, they were playing chess every evening at the local chess club and playing soccer with local kids in the plaza. They’re definitely not fluent, but they’re at least conversational.
Kindness of strangers
People were so kind all over the world. I can think of an example in literally every country of a stranger going out of their way to be kind to us or our kids. In Moorea (next to Tahiti), we were walking home in the dark after dinner since taxis are basically non-existent. Some locals pulled up and offered us a ride in their truck, involving hand gestures and words that sound similar in Spanish and French, and kindly deposited us at our hotel. In Jerusalem, a Bolivian woman heard my son speaking Spanish and gave him a coin purse from her country.
Here’s What I Learned
1. Don’t listen to your children
Before we left, our kids didn’t want to go on this trip. They were worried they’d miss their friends and generally miss out on their lives. Before we returned, they didn’t want to come back home. They said they were having so much fun that they wanted to just keep traveling. If we had unlimited resources and I didn’t need to return to my job, we probably would have. We did listen to them when they said which countries or attractions they wanted to visit.
2. The money isn’t a big deal compared to the experience
I honestly stopped keeping track of how much the sabbatical cost around month 2 or 3. It just didn’t seem as important as the experiences we were having. We’re generally frugal people and stayed at mid-range hotels most of the time, but we didn’t keep track of cost in detail. And I’m glad we didn’t. All our experiences were valuable, and we consider them “worth it”.
3. If you can not work, do it
The chance to be fully present with your family doesn’t come around often, so take advantage of it when it does. Those few months of income probably won’t make much of a difference in the long run.
4. All-you-can-eat breakfasts save a ton of money
We’d all eat a big breakfast then just take some trail-mix for lunch, buy a pastry or snack, then have an early dinner. Only paying for one real meal a day for 6 people definitely helped keep costs down. Also many countries in the Middle East have lots of veggies for breakfast which I loved.
5. Wear soccer jerseys
Our kids got really into soccer while we were in Spain – I think we ended up going to a dozen professional matches. The kids needed clothes anyway, so we started buying soccer jerseys from the countries we visited. This ended up being a great conversation starter everywhere we went. If soccer isn’t your thing, try giving people something to talk to you about easily, especially if it’s something that locals love to talk about.
6. Going back home was easy
I was pleasantly reassured that my clinical and procedural skills were completely unchanged after 5 months away. The kids started a new school when we returned but seemed unfazed. They said, “we’ve already started at a new school where we could hardly speak the language, so this is easier.” We’re lucky that we like where we live, and it was nice to see friends and ski.
7. Time is a precious resource
Spending so much time as a family strengthened my resolve to decrease my clinical time to be more available for my family. I realized that slack in my schedule created some of my most memorable moments and that my innate drive for efficiency can drastically reduce the likelihood of those moments.
It became less about how I was spending the time and more about having the time available to use in whatever really seems best at the time, whether it was watching my kids play chess with elderly Spanish gentlemen, listening to then talk about their imagination games, or just enjoying my breakfast instead of eating it as quickly as possible between OR cases. It’s hard to maintain that perspective now that I can again easily trade my time for money by picking up extra shifts, but it’s a goal.
Now, we want to hear from you!
Have you been thinking about taking a sabbatical abroad? If so, what’s the biggest obstacle that’s getting in your way?
Let us know in the comments below!
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Dr. Sarah Gebauer is an anesthesiologist, mother of four, and helps other physicians realize their sabbatical dreams at Physician Sabbatical and through the Physician Sabbatical Facebook Group.
Sarah, what you gave your kids is so valuable. You and Jeff did it right!