We are currently in Western Australia, visiting family and friends for a month before we head to Bali, our first international stop on our year-long sabbatical. Although we’re still in Australia, we are getting into sabbatical mode, which means that each day we work a little (I write, Ben works for a client), we play and little, and we do both while soaking up as much of our location as possible.
Essentially, we’re aiming to treat each new location as our home for the time that we’re there.
This week, we are staying at my aunt and uncle’s avocado farm, which is also where my mum lives. Living at the farm means that the office is the back veranda of my mum’s house, with a kangaroo and the cat keeping us company.
It means picking figs off the tree and stewing them in a large pot with brown sugar and cinnamon to pour over ice-cream. It means helping mum reorganise the fruit shop, including trips to Bunnings and Spotlight for supplies.
It means spending time with my family doing what they normally do, day to day. And I’m loving it.
Last night, my uncle invited us up to the big house, for an Italian feast! I talked it up a lot to Ben, because my uncle is Sicilian and he and my aunt learned to cook from his mother. I grew up eating this incredible food, and was super excited about the promised spaghetti bolognese and veal cutlet. Yum.
We were not disappointed. In fact, the meal was superb, and not just because the food was incredible and the wine was delicious. It was the company that made it so special. There’s something wonderful about spending time with family, hearing some of the old stories again and somehow there are always new ones to hear.
As the coffee and liqueur were poured, my uncle offered this toast – both in English and on request, in Italian:
“Good wine. Good food. Good friends. And the time to enjoy them all.”
This toast perfectly sums up the most important part of our year-long sabbatical. It’s about enjoying time with the people in our lives – old friends, new friends, and family.
Before Ben and I officially start our year’s sabbatical in a couple of days, we have taken a quick side trip to New Zealand, a place we have now been to four times together, and which holds a special place in our hearts.
Seven out of eight nights have been booked in Airbnbs, and here’s why we love them.
1. You get to meet interesting people
Every stay is a chance to meet someone new – sometimes a single, sometimes a couple, and even families. Last night we stayed just out of Dunedin with a father and son and their three pets. Sophie the dog made the stay especially fun; from the moment we arrived she decided we were her new best friends.
A couple of nights before we stayed with a lovely young couple who run a farm. Not only did we get to meet their pet goats and sheep – Scott can’t bear to slaughter them, so they get treated to chocolate chip cookies instead – but we had a lovely, unplanned meal with Scott and his partner. They had offered us free rein of their garden, and after harvesting a feast of fresh veggies, I sauteed them in olive oil. Delicious. Because it was a farm stay, we also had fresh eggs, bacon and homemade bread for brekkie. Divine.
2. You get to stay in places you may not be able to afford otherwise
Queenstown is up there among my favourite spots in the world for scenery, but accommodation can be very expensive. Airbnb makes it affordable. We stayed with (another) lovely couple in the studio apartment above their house. The views were phenomenal and our hosts had thought of pretty much everything we might need.
3. You get off the beaten track
Often, this is because you’re staying just out of town, somewhere you otherwise wouldn’t have seen, but it’s also because staying with locals can give you an insight into the area that the brochures can’t. Locals will be able to tell you the best places to get something to eat – often away from the crowds and with a local flare – the secret trails down to the water, the best places to see the sunset, or where to get a good local wine that’s not available in shops.
4. The unexpected and very pleasant surprises
Between us, we’ve stayed in Airbnbs in the US and Australia, as well as Athens, Barcelona, Bath, New Zealand, Tuscany (in a castle!), Cape Town and Amsterdam. We’ve had a lot of wonderful, unexpected experiences because we opted for Airbnb rather than a hotel.
When we stayed in Napa Valley in 2014, it turned out that our host was a private chef. He invited us to join a degustation dinner he was cooking for friends the first night we were staying – and his friends were all Napa wine makers. The meal, the wine, and the company were all amazing – and we were invited to attend a vintage release party the next day as special guests.
While travelling with my 5-year-old nephew and his parents in 2016, we arrived at a 700 year old castle in the town of Montespertoli (Tuscany) several hours late. For some reason, we hadn’t anticipated that collecting a pre-paid rental a car would take 3 hours. Our hostess took pity on us, weary, hungry travellers, as we had arrived in town between mealtimes and there was nowhere for us to get something to eat. She disappeared into a kitchen and came back with fresh bread, an array of cheeses, and sliced apple, and then poured us a selection of the castle’s wines to taste. The 5-year-old wasn’t the only one who was grateful (just cheese, bread and apple for him).
These sorts of special experiences don’t happen to us when we stay at hotels. Yes, we have had one or two odd, or not-so-awesome, experiences staying at Airbnbs, but on the whole, we prefer them to more traditional accommodation choices. More often than not, we’re delighted with our stays.
Over the past few weeks and months, Ben and I have been playing our own version of Shoot, Shag or Marry – only with our stuff. We have literally handled and considered every item we own and have asked ourselves, ‘take, chuck or store?’ That’s every darned thing.
When we originally talked about taking this sabbatical, we discussed options at two extremes of the continuum: either get rid of everything and start from scratch when (if) we return, or sublet our apartment fully-furnished.
We opted for something in the middle. We rented a 2m x 3m storage unit for a year, set a moving date and started playing our ‘fun’ new game.
I am proud to say that I have pared back to 5 pairs of shoes – and that includes thongs (flip flops). Those who know me will understand the extent of this miracle. Let’s just say, I have just a touch of Carrie Bradshaw in me. So, what made the cut? Thongs, sneakers, trainers, Birkenstocks, and ballet flats.
I also packed a small pouch with what I call, ‘very useful things‘. These include a small chef’s knife, a stash of zip and twist ties, command hooks (with two-sided tape), a sewing kit, Blue-tac, a portable clothes line, and carabiners. As, I said, very useful things.
Add to the shoes and very useful things, Summer clothes, a collapsible backpack, my stack of technological rectangles (laptop, iPad, Kindle, phone) and chargers, enough underwear for a month, a small stash of my fave (but not expensive) jewelry, and toiletries, and I am good to go!
While going through all the things we own, we made the easy decision to off-load the bedside lamps that I’ve never really liked, and the more difficult decision to sell our couch, which was cherry red and made to order. I loved that couch, but am pleased to say it went to a good home.
In the end, we sold off, gave away, donated and binned about 1/2 of what we owned.
Hard rubbish inherited an array of things including my desk, which broke into three pieces when we tried to move it, our well-used and somewhat abused BBQ, our bedside tables which were on their last legs, and every chipped or mismatched cup, plate, bowl, glass and teapot.
We even managed to eat through the bulk of our pantry, fridge and freezer in the weeks leading up to the move, which resulted in weird meals, like Dim Sum with Greek salad. The rest was bagged up and taken to our friend’s house to fill (clog) up their pantry and freezer – thanks (sorry), guys!
Deciding what to put into storage – or rather, what we would pay to store – was perhaps the hardest set of decisions, but we quickly discovered what I will call, ‘the second drawer factor’.
Every kitchen has a second drawer, thedrawer filled with random, often costly, utensils and useful kitchen things. Some are used daily, some rarely, but when you’re paying for storage, setting aside 1/3 of a small box for these items is a lot cheaper than replacing them when you next set up house. I’m talking about you, ice-cream scoop, pizza cutter and citrus reamer. The same goes for other small, useful household items and tools. They essentially cost next to nothing to store and a lot to replace all at once.
Clothes were a little trickier. I kept quite a few of my work clothes, mostly because I tend to buy items that don’t date and that I look after. They’ll be great for those 2019 job interviews. We also sent a box of Winter clothes, coats and boots to the UK for the last 1/3 of our trip which will be in cooler or cold weather.
Art, artifacts and memorabilia were a no-brainer. When we travel, we buy souvenirs – paintings, photographs, ceramics, books and such. We also each have a collection of childhood memorabilia. These things will make our new home feel like ours.
Anything else we had room for: When I commenced packing, I started with books. Books are easy to pack; they have uniformity and you can stack them. I was really proud of my first few boxes – so neat, so organised, so easy to label: ‘books’.
By the time I finished packing, my labels read like this: ‘iron/hair diffuser/decorative rock/greeting cards/board game/lamp/place-mats’. It became less about ‘like things together’ and more like a real-life game of packing Tetris. In the end, we had the room, so I started to be less stringent with the culling. If we liked it and if it still worked, it got packed.
The (real) lesson
When you start to sort through your stuff, and when you do a complete audit of everything you own, you tend to realise that we exist everyday with far too much stuff. We are each about to travel for a year with only a suitcase, a carry-on and backpack or handbag. No doubt, we will continue to do some ‘chucking’ along the way.