“And next time we will look at my photos from Los Angeles!” I yell enthusiastically after a good friend who disappears to put on his shoes as he starts to leave.
“Oh. We haven’t seen those yet?” he mumbles as he pats his pockets, checking for his car keys.
I am baffled. So far, I have only showed him my photos from the first two months of my four-month long-term trip, and we still have scores more photos to look at!
People who come home from a long trip or finish a sabbatical sometimes collide with everyday earth life as if they were space junk: They are packed with stories and experiences that seem to be out of this world and they crash into their listeners’ lives without asking. The problem is: While the traveler was diving with rays in the Caribbean, taking selfies on the Chinese Wall, or did a spiritual journey to rethink life, everyone else continued their standard home or work routines.
Returning after a long trip or time off can feel like a warm piece of chocolate cake that suddenly gets grabbed out of your hand by reality. This is a report about thoughts, struggles and chances that come along with the end of a great trip, sabbatical, or gap year.
The job is put on pause or resigned completely. The apartment is rented out or sold. The bags are packed. The sabbatical, trip around the world, or gap year is finally coming true—awesome! From now on you will be dealing with road maps instead of tax returns, and African finger foods instead of dry sandwiches. Even if you walk in the wrong direction, it doesn’t matter because all signs are in Hindi, and you can’t read them anyway. So, you simply follow your curiosity.
As soon as you hit the road or fly away for an extended trip you find yourself in the midst of new landscapes, cities, people, cultures, foods, or languages. Turning every corner reveals something new, and everything you delve into feels as exciting and overwhelming as your first day in kindergarten. When you retire after a long day, you realize that even “home” has become as fleeting as a feather tumbling in the wind: Hotel rooms, hostels, campgrounds, cabins, vacation homes, parking lots—everything flies by as if you are viewing the world from a seat on an amusement park ride. You explore, travel for miles, hike, and end up in all kinds of places, from a quiet beach house, to the 17th story of a tall building in a bustling metropolis, or even to a shabby bunk bed in a rundown house next to a noisy train station. And the whole time you are accompanied by challenge, fear, panic, courage, wonderment, and joy.
A time out in life is when you switch off everything that has been before. It is like jumping into a pool with unknown depth. Filled with sharks and marshmallows. And at one point or another you will probably feel reborn. Your heart and mind expand as you grow with your adventures. Your knowledge and courage are enhanced as you learn from other people, other cultures, and your own mistakes. You advance in life as you discover the horizon is wide open ahead of you.
As wonderful as all this is, all sabbaticals or trips around the world come to an end for most of us. Even the most excellent journey is accompanied by a return ticket. And then the spinning Ferris wheel of new experiences and endless excitement comes to a halt. Suddenly. Right in front of the gray concrete walls of your hometown where everybody you know has continued with their lives the way it had always been for them. While everyone somehow missed you, nobody is waiting for your new outlook on the world.
That is all great if you have already made plans and know what’s next. If you have applied for jobs while you were still on the road or searched property listings.
But what if you do not know how to continue with life? What if you realize that the plans you have made no longer suit your new way of thinking and feeling? What if unpaid bills start to pile up in your inbox, while friends keep sending you job ads for jobs you no longer care about, or when your buddy thinks that you really should move from his couch into your own permanent place again?
The big question after a sabbatical, time off, or long-term trip is: Can you return to your old life? Do you even want to return to your old life?
As some of you know, I returned from such a trip five years ago. I traveled solo through the USA for four months. For me there was no way I could go back to my old life afterwards. I quit my new job after only one week and reinvented everything in my life from my housing situation to my relationship. It may sound exciting now, but it was a damned emotional rollercoaster back then. You can find more details about this here:
Digital Nomad: Yes, I do have a Job! The Truth about Money, Time and Traveling
After a while even your most patient family members and years-long friends start to wonder about your sanity when you seem so emotionally messed up. “Wonder” in this case means “don’t understand”. I just tried to put it in nice words like your boss is never “mad” but just “not completely happy”.
Between the lines you can hear accusations. How you seem so spoiled from your break. That life is not a bowl of cherries, and you should be grateful that you were able to take so much time off and go on a big trip. Overall, that you even got a job offer already although you have “this gap” in your CV. People start to think you are ungrateful or simply crazy.
But the only thing you really do, is long for that life you have just caught a mere glimpse about while you were gone. Long for new experiences, countries, moments, insights. All the things that caused you outgrow your old life, just as a kid outgrows old shoes.
I personally opted for the great change after my trip. I ditched a 9 to 5 office job in favor of location-independent self-employment, I moved from a city apartment to a mobile home in the country and finally to a shared house with my over 90-year-old grandpa, and I switched from lots of belongings to a more minimalistic lifestyle.
The important thing is this: If you want to go for a major change in life, you must have enough money to tide you over for several months. Because usually you will have to invest both time and money in your efforts and ideas before you can earn anything. Sounds like boring banker shit but is something you must consider. So, I strongly advise that you do not spend all your savings during your time out. Set something aside for your reentry into real life. Something for not only the homecoming, but also for all the mental trouble, headaches and bills that will come along as you try to sort out your new life.
So, how do I continue when I want live differently after my trip?
Today there are many models of employment available that do not involve the typical daily 9 to 5 scheme. (Location-independent) self-employment is only one of them. But that may not work for you or your profession. There are many great jobs that you simply cannot handle from the road. By the way: Becoming a professional travel blogger is becoming increasingly more difficult due to competition. It seems there are literally thousands of folks now who have the idea that you only need to start a blog with travel tips and the money will instantly begin to flow into your account in buckets. It won’t.
Another job alternative is: Go back to school. Go for a different education, learn new skills, revisit college, or take classes in the evenings. Or you may be able to return to your old job with reduced hours to give yourself more time for self-exploration and hobbies. Ask your boss about alternative working models like a 4-day-week or job-sharing options. You can also work full-time again and seek a short-term contract to save just enough for your next big trip or step.
Now think about your living situation. Many people who have been on a long-term trip or sabbatical—including me—have realized that they can be very happy with very little. They don’t need a big house anymore. So, you may simply downsize and move into a smaller place. A shared apartment, a tiny house, or a trailer may be what you need. Some people begin to live full-time in a van. Just be aware that the van life you see on Instagram with romantic beaches, campfires, stars over the vehicle, and surfboards leaning on the van is not quite the whole truth and that finding places to stay every night, cooking in heavy rain, cold winter days, and pricey repairs are also part of this life.
If your family owns a place, don’t feel ashamed to move back or make use of an otherwise empty
living area in the basement. But only consider it when you are not going to murder your family because of disagreements on day two.
Friends, support, and consumption
There are at least two more considerations when it comes down to changes in lifestyle: Rethink your social environment and your consumption habits. The rule for both is quite easy: Let go what is not good for you or you no longer use. Say goodbye to people who are unable to understand you, or who judge you because of the inner changes and struggles that you experience after your time off. Say goodbye to anyone who is unsupportive or jealous. Sounds harsh, but changes in life and lifestyle frequently also requires changes relationships. On the other hand, allow new people to enter your life. People you met on the road, people who share your ideas, or people who relate to your feelings.
Same for belongings: Get what you need to get your new life started. Sell or give away what has
lost meaning, only takes up space, or eats up your money and time. You can find more inspiration about this specific topic here: Minimalism: More than white Walls.
All in all, finding back to life after a big life-disruption event like a sabbatical or trip around the world is often complicated. But at the same time, it opens an entire world of opportunity with plenty of room for new ideas and lots of new doors waiting for you to push open. Do it!