This week I’ve turned the spotlight on Molly Niendorf, who made the brave decision to give up her “real life” and follow her dreams. I love her story!
1. Why did you decide to take your grown up gap year? Was it a difficult decision to make?
Like many avid travellers, the idea of a gap year loomed in the back of mind for years, but it always seemed a bit like a pipe dream. I studied abroad for a semester in Seville, Spain (nine years ago, yikes!), and I always told myself, “Someday, I’ll live abroad again.” The operative word, however, was “someday,” and it always seemed like “real life” stuff got in the way: a job, savings, a boyfriend, an apartment lease. It took me a while to realize that “real life” stuff is whatever I choose to prioritize, and that I needed to have a more flexible mindset if I hoped to turn that pipe dream into reality.
In the summer of this year, I found myself stuck in a job I no longer loved and attached to a guy who wasn’t right for me. My lease was coming up on my apartment, and I started looking for new jobs and a new apartment, and one day, frustrated by the lack of desirable options, I stopped myself. It dawned on me that I didn’t need to take the next step right in front of me … Why not take a leap?
I love new languages, new cultures, adventure, history, possibility. I love to travel. I have a bit of a restless spirit, and I love to be challenged. And, so, I decided that this would be the year to return to Spain, and I chose Barcelona. It surprises me that the actual decision felt quite spontaneous, and not difficult at all. Sure, there were some logistical difficulties, but overall, I felt an overwhelming sense of excitement and even relief. It felt good to be finally planning this thing that I always talked about doing but never actually had the guts to do. It felt like I was moving closer to who I wanted to be.
2. What were other people’s reactions when you told them your plans?
I really didn’t tell anyone until I’d already bought my one-way ticket to Barcelona and enrolled in a TEFL program (to get certified as an English teacher). I did have a few conversations with friends who were also planning gap years (and gap months), but I didn’t start talking about it broadly until the plans were set. I don’t know if it was because I was nervous about people’s reactions or if I wanted to make sure I was actually committed to the plan. Or maybe it was because I wanted to savour the excitement I felt before I shared it with others.
Either way, people’s reactions were super positive. Lots of people told me they’d love to be able to do the same thing (I wanted to shout, “But you can!”), and others already wanted to book their flights to visit. My family was supportive as well. It likely helps that I’m not married and don’t have children – maybe if I did their reaction would be different? Still, I was surrounded by support and votes of confidence, and I’m grateful for that.
3. How long did your trip take and where did you go?
I’m two months into my trip, and I’m living in Barcelona. I’ve taken side trips to nearby cities in Spain – Cadaqués, Sitges and Tossa de Mar -and I’m flying to Istanbul, Turkey and Paris, France this month. For now, I’m really happy in Barcelona, but it remains to be seen if I’ll relocate to another city or stay here.
4. Did you go alone or with family/friends?
I came to Barcelona alone and enrolled in the TEFL program alone, but one of my American friends is also here in Barcelona for a few months, studying Spanish. It’s been great to know someone, and I’m a little nervous for when she leaves next month, because then I’ll really be on my own. But I also know it’s going to be good for me, and especially good for my Spanish skills.
5. What is your travel style? (Ie. Budget hostels/Mid-range hotels/Luxury travel – less is more, travelling slowly/pack in as much as possible)
I’m definitely on a budget here. I’d saved what I thought was enough before I came here, but a lot of unexpected expenses pop up, so when I take side trips, I try to be pretty frugal. But I must admit that I think my dorm-style hostel days are behind me. These days, when I travel, I stay at small hostels that provide individual rooms and private bathrooms, or I find deals on Airbnb. I’ve also perfected the art of travelling with just a shoulder bag and my laptop. I have no qualms wearing versions of the same outfit for a few days in a row.
I used to be a planner, but I’m now enjoying leaving things up in the air. I’ll typically pick a few must-see sights, and then spend the rest of the time walking and wandering about and doing things based on whatever captures my attention. I’m less stressed this way, and I find that I have more authentic experiences, too.
6. Do you go for tours or do it alone?
I tend to dislike tours. So many of them seem overpriced and catered toward tourists. And, because I’m trying to improve my Spanish, I’d rather not be surrounded by a bunch of English speakers … I’d rather explore things on my own or do some reading in advance to learn about a city’s history, museums, etc. Of course, there are benefits to going on tours, especially in the off-season. One of my friends recently visited the Basque Country in Spain, and she paid for a tour of a cider winery; she and her boyfriend were the only two people on the tour so they got a really personalized experience. That sort of thing is really cool, when it happens.
7. What is the best thing about taking a grown up gap year?
Do I have to pick just one? I love the sense of freedom and possibility. I love that little things becoming big reasons to celebrate. For example, when I first figured out how to buy fruit in Barcelona (in some places, you have to take your selections to a grocer who weighs them for you; in others, you have to punch in your items to a machine and affix the price sticker to your bag), I felt so freakin’ proud of myself. And when I found a can of pumpkin here (after visiting no less than seven stores) so I could make a pie at Thanksgiving, I actually squealed. I love living without a car and travelling by metro and train and bus. I love having less “stuff” and not accumulating more. And I love adjusting to a new pace of life, learning a new language and slowly feeling like I’m a resident here, not a tourist.
8. And were there any downsides?
There are definite challenges. It can feel isolating and lonely at times. I miss some of my routines at home, like going to Zumba classes at the gym or even just vegging out in front of the TV. I miss certain foods (almond butter, cheap Thai food!), and of course I miss my friends and family. It helps that we Skype and email a lot, but I sometimes wish I could gather up my favourite people and bring them all here at once, even for just an evening.
Money and work issues stress me out, but I’m slowly working through them, and I want to tell people that they shouldn’t hold back from a gap year just because of finances. It’s hard to make ends meet, but it’s possible. You have to be really persistent and patient, but opportunities do arise.
9. What advice would you give to anyone thinking of setting off on their own grown up gap year?
1) If you want to do it, you can find a way! Don’t wait. Make it happen now.
2) Reach out to the expat community. There are so many resources online now. I’ve learned a lot by following people on Twitter and asking as many questions as I can. My Google Reader is full of travel blogs, and it helps to see that other people are having similar emotions and experiences, no matter where their gap year is taking them.
3) Save money, but don’t let money issues derail you.
4) Expect the unexpected, and learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. Travelling abroad is magical and enlightening, but it’s not one big love fest. Just like everyday life, there are moments of doubt and sadness and discouragement.
5) Depending upon how long you want to stay, research visa issues before you arrive.
6) Blog about your experience, and tell me where you’re blogging so I can follow you!
You can follow Molly’s journey at seemollyrunaway.wordpress.com or on Twitter @mollyn. She also posts travel pics on Instagram under mollyn.
If you would like your grown up gap year to feature on If We Can Do It, So Can You, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.