Wouldn’t It Be Awesome If … You Learned Something On Vacation?

My friend Jessica did! She took two classes while she traveled throughout Italy on her own. Read on for her inspiring travel story, along with some amazing tips she shared with us all.

Name: Jessica Nordskog
Product Designer
Madison, WI

Why did you decide to turn a vacation into a learning experience?
I was about to quit my job (about 10 years ago) and wanted to go to Europe for a somewhat extended time — more than a week! I thought it would be easier to stay longer if I had a purpose while I was there. I also knew I wanted to stay a few places for more than just a day or two. Taking a course allowed me to stay longer without running out of things to do (these were small towns I was planning on visiting). It’s also a great way to connect with the people who live there — and the people who are traveling like you.

Did you pick a location first or the class first? How did you learn about the classes?
I knew I wanted to do something with mosaics. I had fallen in love with mosaics the first time I traveled to Italy. I knew Ravenna was the hot spot for mosaics so I searched on the internet and found this place. It was exactly what I was looking for.

For my second course, I decided I wanted to take a language immersion class. This was particularly interesting. I had been taking Italian classes with a small group on campus and thought it would be fun to test my skills and go for the real deal. The Italian instructors I had were all from Tuscany so I knew I wanted to continue to learn Italian in that region — plus, it’s Tuscany! So, I did research online and found this place. It’s an old monastery and also the location for the filming of the English Patient. 🙂 The setting was amazing. Imagine your ideal Italy and that was it!

What kind of people were in the classes? Did you do this by yourself or with a friend?
In the mosaic class, there were about 12 people — 10 were women. They were from all over the world: England, Brazil, Germany, and the United States. We ranged in age from 22 to 60. I took this class by myself which I enjoyed since there were so many people to get to know!

Again, I did the Italian class solo. What I didn’t know is that I would be the only person in the world that signed up for the class that week in October! Needless to say I found a new friend in my instructor Claudio. His English was minimal at best. He and I chose a location every morning and afternoon to sit and have lessons. It was very casual and I learned a lot!

What was the best part?
I think the best part was being immersed in something while on vacation. I enjoyed having a little structure to my days but alse exploring in the evenings. Meeting people from all over the world was also a highlight. Where else do you find yourself having dinner with a Brazilian, a German, a Brit, and an Italian? Not at home, that’s for sure. 🙂

What was the worst part?
The monastery was true to its roots meaning the bed I slept in was hard, there were bats in the hallway, and there was no TV. When you’re speaking Italian all day and are exhausted, you need a little alone time with a TV –- even if it is old episodes of Baywatch.

Do you have any plans to take another class during a future vacation?
Since international travel isn’t in the near future, I am intrigued by a few things a little closer to home:

Do you have any tips for someone who would like to take a class while on vacation?
Most dance studios, yoga studios, and gyms allow drop-ins. Do it! This is an easy way to learn something new on a vacation. I have dropped in on dance and fitness classes in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Broadway Dance Center in NYC has a ton of class offerings and you don’t have to be advanced to take them. Here are the places I’ve dropped in:

If you love to knit, cook, dance, etc., there’s probably a class in the next city you are visiting. Google before you go. If you are hankering for solo international travel but don’t want to feel totally alone, arrange to take a class. Again, Google is my BFF.

I love Alice Steinbach. If you love to travel and have never read one of her books, go get one now. She’s written two books about her travels, but Educating Alice is absolutely inspiring for if you want to take a learning vacation.

This book has a ton of great resources for great getaways: Traveling Solo, 6th: Advice and Ideas for More than 250 Great Vacations.

Here are some links from the book:

Thank you so much for sharing these tips and links, Jessica! I’d love to drop in on an exercise class or take a language or cooking class abroad. Such a great idea!

Wouldn’t It Be Awesome If … You Lived & Worked in London?

My friend Jodi does! Read more for all of the dirty details (it wasn’t easy!) and some tips for those who are interested in taking a leap of faith.

Name: Jodi Minzlaff
Age: 28
Currently living in: London
Hometown: Green Bay, Wisconsin

How long have you lived abroad?
Just over two years in a round-about way — six months in the UK, six months in the US, six months in the UK, six months in the US, twelve months in the UK, and I’m still here!

What do you do for a living?
Currently, I am a communications consultant on the business strategy and solutions team, global commercial card (GCC) at American Express. Basically, I develop communication strategies, write proposals, and develop concepts and strategies to either retain or capture new business, such as large global companies, with AmEx corporate cards.

I recently started this position (on January 11). Previously, I was an analyst on the business development and effectiveness team, international partnerships, and rewards at AmEx. I was an analyst on the same team for two separate six month periods. I worked on my PHD at the University of Wisconsin in between. Then I worked for Next Jump, a semi-start up company, based in NYC.

How did you land a job abroad? Or did you move first?
I moved here first. I needed a massive change both professionally and personally. I applied for a BUNAC visa (a 6- month long visa) to enable me to live and work in the UK. From there, I found a posting for a contractor position at AmEx, applied, and got the job — all within three weeks of arriving. Thank God because the exchange rate was 2:1 at that time!

How are you legally living in London?
As mentioned above, I applied for a BUNAC visa. I did this not once but twice because I loved the experience and wanted to try and make it work on more of a long-term basis. After the second six months in London, I knew I wanted to commit to living and working here. However, I wanted to apply for my own visa so I’d be able to work anywhere in the UK opposed to having a company sponsor me — that route would have locked me into working just for that company while I was in the UK. So, I started the grueling process of applying for an HSMP visa (Highly Skilled Migrant Programme). This was in July, just as the UK government was changing the rules, regulations, and process of acquiring such a visa.

The name was changed to a Tier 1 visa and I needed to apply for it in the US. To get a Tier 1 visa, you must have a certain point value (I think it is 75). People are rated on a variety of things, but in a nutshell you should be young, make a decent amount of money, have a higher education (MS/MA/MBA/PHD), and speak English. Basically you have to prove that your skills and knowledge are unique and you will add value to the UK economy. The application was a nightmare — I needed to include orignal copies of my UW degrees, payslips for the last 15 months, birth certificate, letters of recommendations, and the list goes on. Oh, how could I forget that it cost $1500!

The whole process was supposed to take two to eight weeks. The days, weeks, and months came and went . . . and I heard nothing. Finally, three-and-a-half months later I received an email letting me know my application was being reviewed. I had a bit of a scare because I found out I needed to submit a supplementary document. Thank God the immigration officer based in Chicago called to tell me so that I could fax it to him and get it sorted out ASAP! I think he had a soft spot for me because he was British and had to go through similar things to work in the US and, well, my scenario was the exact opposite. Finally, the day arrived and I got the call that my visa had been approved and that materials were being sent to me! I was super happy. My parents? Not so much.

So, I had my visa in hand, but there was another massive stumbling block — the economy crashed and people were losing their jobs left, right, and center. I kept asking myself (as did my parents!) should I really be going to the UK now?! After a couple of months of seeing how things would turn out, it only got worse. Many of my friends in the UK were jobless or were going through ‘re-engineering’  at there place of employment. With this in mind, I applied for jobs in the US, primarily Wisconsin. I had a few interviews and actually got an offer, but I turned it down. It was a super-small company which was not really what I wanted to do be doing career-wise. It was also minimal pay. I decided the only thing that would make me happy was to try things out in London. I had the visa so I might as well give it a go. Worst case scenario was that I would go, have fun, wouldn’t get a job, and come home.

I set my dates, bought my tickets, packed, and boarded the plane for Heathrow. I nearly missed my flight out of Chicago to London because my flight departed out of Green Bay late. I ran though the airport and was a sweaty mess. I was last to board and none of my luggage made it on the plane.

Once I got to London, I literally hit the ground running with my job search. I already had informational interviews lined up, meetings with recruiters, etc.  I then had a few leads with proper interviews and finally a job offer came through! I worked at Next Jump for nine months as a digital marketing and account manager. It is a company with a really cool concept, but the people and structure were horrible, at least in the UK. (It is an American company based out of NYC.) Thankfully, my friends at AmEx were keeping their eyes and ears open for any opportunities. About two months ago, I accepted my current position with Amex.

How did you find a place to live?
Gumtree — it is sort of like craigslist. I found a posting, checked it out, and moved in!

How did you make it work financially? How do you deal with a different currency?
When I left London the first two times, I kept my UK banking account and thankfully I kept it healthy! I didn’t have to transfer any dollars over when I moved back permanently. Of course while I wasn’t working, my account was diminishing faster than I liked. However, ever since I started getting paid, I spend £s and get paid in £s so it’s all good. I transfer money to my US account every other month or so, just so I can properly plan for my future and have money in the US when I go home for visits.

What’s the best part about living abroad?
I love the diversity. Most people living and working in London aren’t from the UK, so it’s an incredibly multicultural city. Not to mention there is always something to do in London. If I get bored or need a weekend getaway, I can pop over to Barcelona or Paris or Germany. I actually just booked a long weekend in Malta at the end of April. It is a tiny island between Africa and Sicily. Then I’m going to Barcelona again at the end of May, then Croatia, Marrakesh in the pipeline for late spring, and Thailand at the end of summer. I love traveling!

What’s the worst part?
I miss my family — my parents, three brothers, two sister-in-laws — and two sweet nieces, Addi and Ava, that I deeply miss! I can’t forget about Roxanne and Daisymae (my yellow labs). Thank God for skype though! The weather can also be a bit of a downer in London. It doesn’t get super cold nor hot! Not that I like super-cold, but I would be willing to make a deal so I’d get the hot, sunny stuff! Then again, that is what weekend travel is for. 😉

Any advice for people who want to do this?
1. Know what your goals are. Do you want to find a career-enhancing job or are you just looking to find odds and ends jobs here and there? Or maybe you don’t even want to work! Maybe you move to go to school, or “university” as they call it here. Know what you want before you make the decision to go abroad.

2. Be sure to have a decent amount of funds or means to funds while you get started. London is particularly expensive, so be prepared! The reason for going abroad is to experience new things — and if you don’t have the means to do so, it can be frustrating and challenging.

3. Be very open-minded. You’ll be out of your comfort zone, surrounded by people from around the globe which lends itself to many, many different things from how people socialize and interact to what people eat.

4. Know you have to put in effort whether it is finding a job or finding friends. I didn’t know anyone when I moved to London and I had to come out of my shell so to speak. People aren’t going to knock on your door or call your phone. You need to put in the effort. Europeans, in comparison to Americans, are a bit more closed and not so bubbly. Don’t be annoying, but be proactive.

5. It’s OK and even normal to struggle. Sometimes things are just so frustrating from missing family and friends to sorting out UK banking (their systems are a nightmare!) to doing laundry. Laundry here takes around an hour just to wash and the machines are super-small. Worst of all, people don’t have dryers here!

Thank you so much for sharing all of this amazing information, Jodi! It sounds like it’s been very complicated, but equally awesome. Good luck in your new job!