A Grand Adventure: Sabbatical Life

Those of you who followed our sabbatical journey will know that we spent most of 2018 living (and often working) abroad. I blogged throughout the year, with posts specifically about the sabbatical at the half-way mark, and then again on the home stretch.

We’ve been back in Australia about six weeks now, and have just moved into our new home in Docklands. As I interview for fulltime work, as I’m about to sign a publishing contract for my first book, and as I unpack and find new homes for our belongings, it’s a good time to reflect on our year of sabbatical life.

The days are long and the weeks go by fast

A dear friend we made in Bali, where we lived for two months, reflected that when she looked back, the weeks seemed to be flying by, but that each day felt full and long.

I can honestly say that this is how I felt for most of the year.

When I am present, when I live the breadth and depth of each day, they seem longer, fuller. I want to carry that feeling with me, to bottle that secret sauce, because it makes life feel more purposeful and I’m more content.

A sense of accomplishment

As well as consulting for clients (writing, editing, and review educational materials), I wrote and edited two books. TWO WHOLE BOOKS, each 100,000 words. I wrote 200,000 words – funny, heartfelt narratives set in beautiful locations. I made up people, their lives and their adventures. I created from nothing the things they said and did – well, I borrowed some anecdotes from loved ones, but for the most part, those fictional people came to life in my head.

I worked on building my author platform, engaging with readers and authors from around the world, learning from them, supporting them, befriending them. I’ve made some wonderful literary friends over the past year – people I can contact with questions and requests, people who can rely on me for support and help if they need it. I will champion them and their writing, and they will do the same for me.

I also queried publishers and agents, honing my messaging about me and my books. I am proud and excited to say that I recently got a big fat YES from a UK-based publisher, which I will announce officially once I’ve signed the contract. Because of this sabbatical, my first book is being traditionally published and I will get to hold my book in my hands. The others will hopefully follow (squee!).

Feeding my soul

We lived in and visited some beautiful, exciting, and vibrant places. Bali, Portugal, Scotland, Ireland, rural Minnesota, London, the British Midlands, Amsterdam, Seattle, LA, Wales, New Zealand and my home state of Western Australia. Natural beauty, architectural wonders, history, and wildlife in copious doses. Our everyday life was a wonderful cacophony of sights, sounds, smells and tastes that we happily steeped ourselves in.

Walking the streets of Ubud, the sun beating down, the humidity hanging heavy in the air, the heady scent of tropical flowers mixing with petrol fumes and Indonesian spices – this became my idea of heaven.

Spending time with loved ones also fed my soul. Catching up with family and friends in WA, LA, Seattle, Minnesota, the UK, Ireland, and Amsterdam was a highlight. Living with Ben’s family and mine for extended periods of time was something special. Cooking a mid-week meal for people I love is – and has long been – a great pleasure for me. Chatting over that meal, as we recount our days, our mini-triumphs and challenges, heightens that joy.

‘Quality time’ it’s called. We all need that type of time with our loved ones. Even though I’ve lived my adult life ‘away’ from most of my family, I long for those times when I can look across the dinner table and meet the eyes of someone I love dearly but don’t see in person very often. The thing about being a traveller, someone who lives ‘away’ – you always miss someone. It’s the curse of the ex-pat. I had a year of topping up my soul with quality loved-ones time.

And, wonderfully, we made some very dear new friends from across the world.

The things you miss

Things are just things, really. We attach meaning to them. As I unpack boxes and find places for our things in our new home, I know (deep down) they’re just things, but they make me feel at home. Books I’ve loved, souvenirs and artefacts from our travels, family photos, my good knives, my cannisters (yes, really) – these things ‘spark joy’ as Marie Kondo would say. It’s nice to rediscover these things. Do I need them? No, I don’t. I spent the year with my clothes, toiletries and a stack of rectangles (laptop, iPad, Kindle, phone). I can live without things. For now, though, I will especially enjoy them.

I did really missed drawers, though. Like, really, totally, absolutely, completely missed putting my clothes into drawers. Even when we stayed somewhere for weeks or months, we kept our clothes in our packing cubes. Drawers are luxurious. Next time you take an article of clothing out of a drawer, just savour that feeling.

The things you get used to

In Bali, we slathered ourselves in sunscreen and showered several times a day. It was hot and humid and 80% of our time was spent outdoors. My hair looked like wool. And even so, Bali was my favourite place we lived in. I’d live there again in a heartbeat.

I am a creative home cook. In Bali, I cooked with tempeh for the first time and it became a staple. At the lake cabin in Minnesota, I had an electric frying pan and a microwave – that’s it – and I cooked a variety of dishes. In Portugal, it was difficult to get good fresh food – produce, dairy and proteins – but I adapted. In the UK (before and after Portugal), I was cooking for five instead of two, and three of the adults were eating Keto. Spoiled for fresh produce, because you are in the UK, I made giant pots of Keto-friendly stews, red sauces and soups.

I can write anywhere – and did. A sunlounger, a beach, a cafe (many cafes), the kitchen table (in many different kitchens), on planes and trains, and even on a boat. The world was my writing room. I loved it.

My big takeaways

I love Australia. It’s home – Melbourne especially. It’s a terrific city and we have loved ones here. I was happy to come back and I am excited to start the next chapter here.

Our new view

I would do a sabbatical year again – or create a life where we live abroad for several months every year. There was a time when that thought terrified me – now I think it will become essential to us.

Ben is an incredibly brave, wonderful, supportive, imaginative person. “Why don’t we trade a year of retirement for now,” he said a couple of years ago. I am so grateful he did, but even more so that he gently nudged me to make the commitment. He is my bestie, my partner-in-crime, my travel buddy, my champion, my love. Thank you, Ben, for being all those things and more.

A desk with a view

We have now been on sabbatical for nine months, and during that time Ben and I have both worked for our respective clients and I’ve written, edited and published one novel and I’m about 1/4 of the way through writing the next.

While we’ve also made time to explore the different locations we’ve visited or lived in, our working life is a big part of the sabbatical. This is a test case: can we live and work abroad for extended periods of time? We never know, this could become our new normal.

The kind of work we both do – Ben developing software, and me writing and editing content – means we need to work at desks. But ‘desk’ can be any flat surface. Ben’s current stand-up desk set up is an ironing board and the box the vacuum cleaner came in – yes, really.

Most of the time, we either use the dining table of the place we’re staying at, or we go to coffee shops. The coffee shop thing is tricky. The seats have to comfortable enough to sit on for at least a couple of hours, the WiFi has to be good, the coffee can’t suck, and there needs to be a generally good ‘vibe’.

Our fave spot so far in Porto is the cafe at the Concert Hall, which has great seats, fast WiFi and a buzz of energy from the groups of people who gather there to catch up or to work. The coffee sucks, but 3 out of 4 isn’t bad. The other day, when it was still sunny and warm, we worked in the park at a picnic table for a couple of hours – divine.

At the lake cabin, I’d often sit on the porch in an Adirondack chair (I love these) and write, stealing glances at the lake view from time to time. In Bali, my favourite place to work was on the sunlounger next to the pool.

So here are some of my fave desks with a view from the year so far.

In the park in Porto
At the park in Porto
Looking out the window in Amsterdam


Lake Life

They call Minnesota Land of 10,000 lakes, and Ben and I are spending most of the summer at one of them – well, technically, we’re on a chain of 14 lakes called the Whitefish chain.

With so many lakes, many families in Minnesota have a lake cabin – some of them in the family for generations, like the one Ben and I are staying at – and some of these ‘cabins’ are luxury homes only used a few weeks a year.

‘Our cabin’, on a small lagoon on Rush Lake, is not a luxury home, but it’s luxurious to us, because this is our view from the deck:



Simply, it is beautiful here.

The cabin was built nearly a hundred years ago and was bought into Ben’s family in the 1950s. They’ve been coming here every Summer ever since and Ben spent a lot of his childhood here.

On the inside, it looks like this:


Yes, that’s a charming hodge podge of furniture, housewares and artifacts that span decades, including a fairly strong representation from the 80s (like the collection of VHS movies) – check out that carpet!

Lake life itself means being on the water. At least once a day, we head out on either the jetski (Ben’s) or the pontoon (the family’s). We may be going somewhere specific – all of the restaurants in the area and the nearest town, Crosslake, are accessible by water and have docks where we ‘park’ – or we may just cruise around exploring. The other day we rode the perimeter of Rush Lake and found some lagoons Ben has never seen before – even after coming up here for 30+ years. Oh, and that’s Ben going to the store on the jetski to pick up a few things.

Lake like is also about a slower pace and savouring the little moments, liking making S’Mores over the firepit:

And stopping for coffee at the local coffee shop:

And exploring Crosslake:

butterfly chair

And lounging on the water:


And exploring the surrounding forests:

And having fun with visiting friends:


And the wildlife! On the property are red and grey squirrels, chipmunks, and green frogs, who keep Ben up at night with their raspy ribbits. The lagoon is frequently visited by two families of geese – one with young cygnets and one with teenagers – a family of ducks, a stunning blue heron who flies arcs over us, and a woodpecker! There’s a muskrat that lives under the bridge who’s also busy collecting reeds, and we’ve seen painted turtles, bald eagles (one being chased by a starling), and a multitude of fish. And my favourite this summer has got to be the state bird, the beautiful loon. They are are a large water bird who have a distinctive call, and I just love them.

Perhaps most surprising has been the skies. Many mornings are a moody grey which melts away to a brilliant cerulean dotted with white puffs. We’ve had nighttime lightening storms which have gone on for hours, a surreal strobe-light effect that always looks fake in films, but is surprisingly real. But most of all, the sunsets take my breath away.

taken by me, edited by Ben


And these stunners by Ben:

Of course, we’re both still working – Ben for his client in Australia and the publication date of my second novel is only 5 days away (!) so I am madly editing – but we take time each day to enjoy where we are and the easy pace of lake life. So far, it’s been a brilliant summer.

Musings from Minnesota

“Summer time and the living is easy…”

Gershwin had it right. When the days are hot and the breezes are cool, when lakes are glassy and the loons call out at dusk, when you’re sipping beer and reading on the deck, life is easy.

A few days ago, Ben and I got back from a week at Crosslake, Minnesota. It is about a 3-hour drive from the twin cities, and is a heavenly part of the world.

Ben’s grandmother, Ellie, owns a cabin on Rush Lake, and we headed up there for some time away from the city bustle. Ben’s parents joined us half way through our stay and friends, Jake and Arielle, brought their baby Gus to visit.

Snippets from our stay:

Getting grubby

We both spend too much of our day to day lives indoors sitting at desks. That is why we gladly donned gloves and work clothes and got a little grubby doing yard work.


We raked and cleared, and I ushered a fist-sized frog down to the water when he (she?) emerged a little shell-shocked from a pile of leaves. I unearthed an old wheel barrow


and mended a small outdoor table. It feels really good to hit wood with a hammer!

When cleaning the speed boat I discovered at least 50 different kinds of spiders. In fact, there seem to be more spiders in the state of Minnesota than there are in the entire of Australia. One even thought that wiggling around inside my bra (while it was on) would be fun. Perhaps it was, but only for the spider.

Even Little Gus took time out of his visit to pitch in. Here he is getting vital instruction from Uncle Ben.


Seeing and being seen

My biggest question of the week was: “Are we in Minnesota or Miami?” The 4th of July long weekend on the lakes of Minnesota is the scene to see and be seen.


On one of our first jaunts out and about, I said to Ben, “I didn’t realize that I should be in a bikini and artfully arranged across the back of the boat.” He replied that he was all for supporting local cultural practices, so I adjusted my attire and seating arrangements on subsequent days, just to fit in…you know.

Getting into the Minnesota groove

Lazy days

So much of our time was just lazing about. Reading on the deck, walking to the shore and watching the sunset, playing with Remy, (Kevin and Ellen’s dog), getting ice-cream from the parlor in town, enjoying the fresh air, and having encounters with the wildlife (chipmunks, squirrels, frogs, crawfish, turtles, loons, geese and ‘lake’gulls).

Taken by Ben
Taken by Ben




Even our boys, Squirt and Tahoe, spent some time just watching the world go by. It was a truly relaxing time.


Water works

Of course, spending time up at the lakes means being on and in the water.

View of lagoon from dock



We swam, floated about on sun loungers, boated on the pontoon, sped about in the speed boat and even water skied on our last day up there. While the speed boat wasn’t powerful enough to slalom ski, I got up easily on two (despite the 16 years since I have done that) and took full advantage of the glassy water. There are few things that feel as exhilarating being ‘out on the whip’ as the boat turns.

4th of July Celebrations

And of course, our visit coincided with a festive time of the year. We attended the 4th of July parade, and watched as children lining the streets hauled more candy thrown from floats than they would ever get while trick or treating.


There were patriots young,


and old.


A highlight for us was seeing a family friend, Carl, driving his restored 1910s firetruck in the parade.


We were lucky enough to be taken for a ride on his firetruck a few days later.


As always, a warm thank you to my best friend and traveling companion, Ben, and to his lovely family who were wonderful to us.

‘Til the next time I wander…

Natural Habitats

I am a friendly person. As such, I am blessed (and cursed) to have friends all over the world. The blessing, of course, is that I enjoy these diverse and enriching friendships immensely. The curse is that I miss these friends more often than not. Some of these friendships were forged when I travelled, and others while living in various places on three continents. I am great at staying in touch, even when some of these treasured friends are not (I say this with love, and a wink). For these reasons, much of my travel involves visits to places where friends live.

A tourist can get into a city and explore its nooks and crannies armed with nothing but a guidebook, but to visit a place where a friend lives is to get to know the place – and the friend – in an entirely new way.

Last September Ben flew into Sydney, his first visit to the southern hemisphere, let alone Australia. And in September, Sydney shines. It did not disappoint me, or him, for the days we were here together. Blue skies, puffy white clouds, and warm, salty breezes. On the second day Ben asked, “Why can’t you take me somewhere pretty?” We were in Bronte, about to walk the cliff-side path to Bondi. He was being ironic. On the third day, after seeing the coast, Circular Quay, Botany Bay, Taronga Zoo, Sydney Harbour and various other attractive hotspots, he asked if there were any ugly parts of Sydney. I replied, “There must be somewhere, but none that I know of.” I had a glint in my eye when I said it, and he knew that, for this time I was being ironic. I wanted him to fall for this city as much as I have; he knew that too.

However, when we love where we live we often take it for granted. When I knew Ben was coming, it forced me to view Sydney through fresh eyes. I had to forget the day to day stuff, the traffic and the rude, impatient drivers, the huge piles of rubbish on the side of the road right before the councils do their quarterly ‘clean up’, the abruptness of sales assistants, the nightmare of parking – anywhere.

I had to go back to the roots of my love for this city, which was born about 8 years ago. I had to ask myself, “What made me pick up, and pack up, and move my stuff from the west coast to the east coast, without a job or a home to come to?” I cast my mind back, and I created a list of the must-sees and must-dos. In a week of exploring the city, my beloved Sydney, we worked our way through approximately 1/4 of the list. It’s a start. And on a selfish note, I fell back in love with this city with renewed passion and verve, and made a promise to myself to get out in it more.

I need to remember that the salt air along the coast is revitalising, and summer or winter, can shake me from a slump or a rut. I need to remember how much I enjoy the buzz and energy of a city filled with parks and waterways, and a passion for the arts, a city where the dozens of different cuisines are authentic, because dozens of nationalities reside here.

In essence, I became a traveller in my own town. Ben bore witness to this; seeing me in my ‘natural habitat’, and the passion I have for it. It was a way for him to get to know a different facet of me.

Similarly, I get to benefit from this dynamic when I visit cities where my friends live. They want to show it off, they want me to love it, and see it in its best light. So, I can toss the guide book in the bin as I know I will see the highlights and the hush-hush stuff that natives are not supposed to tell you. My friends in Seattle almost whispered when they told me that it doesn’t really rain 9 months of the year there. This is a fallacy perpetuated to ensure that ‘OTHERS’ do not head to the north-west in droves and ruin the delicate balance of their fine city.

In my recent trip to the US, Ben got to reciprocate. We flew together to Minneapolis/St Paul from Vegas, where we’d just spent Christmas with my family (a whole other story and fodder for a separate blog post). From the sunny skies of Vegas to the grey skies of Minnesota – not to mention it was -5C outside – it would seemingly be a hard sell. Not so. Ben is a Minnesota boy, born and bred, and with my impending arrival, he penned his own ‘to do’ list. And through his eyes I easily saw beauty and light through the cold and the grey.

My favourite thing on his list was, ‘walk across a frozen lake’. When Ben told me he was really looking forward to doing this with me, I said, “I’ve never done that before.”  He replied, “I know.” That it would be my first time made it all the more special. ‘Firsts’ are things we try to do as much as possible.

I had packed my ski pants and jacket for Minnesota, because I knew it was cold there, and that he wanted to do the lake thing. I did not wear these big, heavy pieces at any other time in my 5 week trip, but it was worth packing them, just for this outing. We suited up. Now, I should mention that Ben is hard-core when it comes to the cold; he can bear really cold weather. I cannot. So, when I saw that even HE was layering on the clothes and reaching for the serious gloves and boots, I knew this would be serious cold. Would the running I had done from the house to the car, and the car to the restaurant prepare me for being outside long enough to walk across a frozen lake? I crossed my fingers inside my mittens.

We put Spot, his room mate’s dog, on a leash, and I am not sure, but I think he was even more excited than I was. A few short blocks of walking along shovelled walks – people are so considerate in the mid-west – and we were there. There had been a fresh dump of snow not long before, so we could only see the ice when we cleared the snow away, but it was a lake, and it was frozen, and I was standing on it.

There were little ice-fishing huts dotted along the other side of the lake. I ensured Ben that would be an activity I would never participate in because it combines two of my least favourite things: fishing and being freezing cold for a very long time. I took photos of the bare landscape and houses across the lake, because it was all so beautiful. Even the ploughed streets with their shovelled walks were beautiful. I said so, and Ben just shrugged his shoulders, “Yeah, I guess so.” Could he see it all through my eyes? The beauty of a familiar place? I hope so.

Other outings included the Walker Art Centre where we saw a Kandinsky, and an installation by Warhol, and nearly a collection of Kahlo (it was a two-hour wait and I was hungry – I know, we may regret that someday). We made the obligatory excursion to the Mall of America, which did not disappoint. How could it? There is a roller-coaster inside – and a Ferris wheel! Just in case you finish shopping and you suddenly realise that you needed to ride a fairground attraction that week – there they are, handily right in the middle of the mall!

We also headed to ‘Uptown’ in Minneapolis, the Soho of the twin cities, where we ate at Ben’s favourite restaurant ‘Chino Latino’. As the name suggests the menu is an eclectic mix of Asian and Latin food – including Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Spanish and Italian. It is a funky place, with hip waiters, groovy decor, and a diverse crowd. I liked it off the bat. That it is a favourite for Ben and he got to show it off, made me like it on a different level. It was part of seeing him in his ‘natural environment’. As too was visiting his parents in the home where he grew up. But again, that is a topic for another day.

Sometimes, when you go to visit somewhere and a friend lives there, they tell you that you must come and live there too. My friends who lived in Sydney long before I moved here from Perth would say it to me every visit. Years later the switch flicked in my head, and I made the move. Mostly, when I visit these places, it is about seeing the friend. The added benefit for us both is that the place becomes another character in our story. We interact with it, we draw on it, we see it – both of us – through fresh eyes. In addition, we are given a context for that person that we didn’t have before. When we’re apart, we will always be able to picture them in their ‘natural habitat’.

And that is a truly great thing.