our workaway experience

When we knew for sure that we we needed to leave Spain and the Schengen Zone when our visas expired at the end of March, my mind immediately started thinking, "What next?"  At that point we'd only been away from the US for six months, and I wasn't necessarily itching to get back.  So I started looking around for options in the UK, which is still in Europe but not a part of the Schengen Zone, so we had the option of spending 90 days there before going back to the US.  Unfortunately, being Americans and not Europeans, we can't work in the UK, so anything we did there would have to be purely on a volunteer or tourist basis, but once we had that established, I started looking in earnest.  

We were looking for somewhere that we could arrive at in the beginning of April when our visas expired, and spend all of April and May, and then come back to the US at the end of May/beginning of June.  Well, seeing how I'm writing this from Colorado (in May), and we've been back for four weeks now, clearly plans changed along the way.  Danny's supervisor at his summer job here asked him to be back and ready to work by May 10th, and then we remembered that our brothers were graduating from college a few days prior, so we pushed things back quite a bit.  To be honest, I was fairly disappointed by that development, but it did mean that Danny was able to come into a much better work situation than if we had come back when I had wanted us to.  

D - It's funny how two people can feel so differently regarding a shared experience.  Looking back on our time abroad, I think I was definitely feeling ready to come "home" after our time in Spain, but it's just kind of weird and difficult with the lifestyle we've chosen to live right now.  We don't have a space of our own to come home to, and so I agreed with Shannon that staying abroad longer was a good plan, if only to shorten the time that we would need to bunk with people during our in between travel period.  

So all that timeframe stuff dealt with, how did we end up with WorkAway?  I remember hearing about it a long time ago.  Vague, yes, but I don't remember how or when, I just remembered it as a volunteer site, and so at the (Madrid) library one day I looked it up, typed in the UK as our destination as well as our rough dates, and about a thousand options came up.  I spent quite a while sifting through listings based on what might work well for us, what we were skilled in, what part of the country we might want to be based in, and what the family was like.  Once we narrowed down our search to our top choices (probably about 15), we started contacting them.  We ended up contacting eight different hosts, although one was definitely our top choice.  We heard back from five of them, and one of them (our top choice!) ended up working out...we first contacted them on February 8th, and 6.5 weeks later, we moved into their home on a potato farm in Angus, Scotland!

When we arrived at the Edinburgh Airport with our five suitcases, we didn't know anyone in Scotland.  We had Skyped with the family once for about an hour, and exchanged some brief messages on the WorkAway platform and WhatsApp, but other than that, we were moving in with people we didn't know, to take care of their children and help out around their house for six weeks.  We already had our tickets back to the US booked, so we were really hoping this experiment was going to work out.

D - I think we were both a bit apprehensive about our upcoming adventure in Scotland, but we were able to relax a little after meeting Hugh when he picked us up in the airport.  He's such a laid-back, easy to get along with kind of guy that it put our worries at ease about the next six weeks.  

The idea behind WorkAway is that each person gives 25 hours a weeks of (volunteer) work in exchange for room and board.  Many people use WorkAway as a way to see a new country (as we did), or as a way to learn or polish a language, or as a way to learn new skills and meet new people.  My primary goal was to prolong our stay outside of the US without having too many expenses (see: free room and board), and it was a bonus that we were able to do that in Scotland, a place we had never visited before.  The only time we had to spend money was when we went on day or weekend trips (St Andrews, Isle of Skye, Edinburgh, etc) and stayed places overnight or went out to eat or did touristy-type things. 

So, the big question(s): how did it go?  Now that we're done, now that we're removed from the situation, what do we think?  Would we do it again?  Is WorkAway a good idea?  Are we still friends with the family?  

It went, overall, quite well.  Some days were better than others, but such is life.  We jumped right in, eager to help and get to know the family (and their circle of family and friends) and before we knew it, it felt like we were 'working' 50-60 hours (each) a week.  I was struggling, because I don't tend to speak up, or suggest a group meeting to talk things out, but about two weeks in, we all sat down and talked over the remainder of our time and how things were going for everyone.  

I think the biggest key for us was communication.  Asking about taking trips in advance, talking about using the car, and communicating about what would be most helpful for them...all of those things were beneficial.  The more we talked, the better.  It wasn't always the easy thing to do, but it always the helpful thing to do.  

D - For me, I feel like our experience would have been easier to handle had we decided to volunteer at a B&B or something instead of with a family doing childcare.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed our time in Scotland tremendously, but I think that when you live with a family providing in-home childcare, the boundaries are difficult and often messy.  In contrast, I think if we had volunteered at a B&B or something like that, it would have been easier to stick to that five hours a day and then clock out and done our own thing.  

Now that we're away from the situation, it doesn't seem like a big deal, we got everything worked out and all ended well.  At first, I definitely missed our routine and time spent with the kids, but now that I've settled into a new one, it's hard to believe that was once my life, even for six weeks.  I'm really glad that we took the opportunity, though, to learn from a family on ways of doing things, like cooking, discipline, conflict resolution, and more.  We got to experience Scotland and the Scottish culture in such a unique way, in a way that most tourists don't get to, among people who really are Scottish.  We learned about farming and potatoes and running a business, as well as about caring for children...we did a lot of that.

If we ever came upon a period in our lives where we could manage to not work for a while, and could just volunteer for a season, I think we would definitely look into WorkAway again.  No doubt.  It's a fantastic way to see a new place (or not), get to know new people, have new experiences, and spend little to no money in the process.  We learned a lot about a variety of things, from ourselves and each other to children to cooking to driving on the left side of the road, and would definitely, definitely jump at the opportunity to do something similar again.

Now, one thing that's obvious but worth mentioning.  In almost every WorkAway case, you're living with the people you're working for.  This creates an interesting situation, not only because it can be hard to maintain a balance between work and rest (and not working too much, as we found), but also because, you're living with people.  Some people are really social and see living with people as a great adventure and an opportunity to socialize all the time - it's a non-stop party!  But for others (reluctantly raising my hand here), it can be a bit more challenging.  I wish it wasn't, but it is.  It was sometimes hard living with our WorkAway family, harder for me than for Danny BUT we definitely got on with them well, and when we left, we assured them that if they ever came to the US we'd love to host them if we were around and able, and we're hoping to visit them for a long weekend while in Spain this upcoming school year.  

All in all, really, really thankful for that period of our lives.  Every day was different from the next as we learned how to work with people and kids and live well with others.  Some days were fantastic, and some were just okay, but overall, it was an amazing experience.  I'm so thankful for how Hugh and Caroline and their kids welcomed us into their home and family for six weeks and for their patience and grace with us when we needed it, which was probably a lot...living and working with others can be hard (broken - but true - record here, I know!).  

P.S. Check out WorkAway here if it sounds like something you might be interested in.