If We Can Do It, So Can You with Jo Andrews

I know I’m always going on about how anyone can take a grown up gap year, no matter what their circumstances and I absolutely love this week’s If We Can Do It interview, for proving just that! Reading about Jo’s adventures actually gave me goosebumps. Oh, and it also helps that her year revolved around my favourite thing – food!

1. Why did you decide to take your grown up gap year? Was it a difficult decision to make?

I had been in my job for 14 years, balancing it with raising my two children as a single mum, so I needed a break and a new challenge. I saw a window, while my daughters were at uni, where I felt they could manage without my constant presence. Colleagues had taken sabbaticals for shorter time periods and I always knew I fancied doing something similar. I thought about it for two years before I took the plunge. Having a house which I could easily rent out meant it was financially possible. Making the decision to do it was not easy for me however, but I look back now and think it should have been!

2. What were other people’s reactions when you told them your plans?

Everyone, including my children, really encouraged me and supported me. Quite a few people thought I was brave – which I could not see, although I suppose it was.

3. How long did your trip take and where did you go?

I took a 12 month sabbatical from my job. I always knew my gap year would be about food and I started my journey in San Sebastian, a gastronomic heaven in the Basque country. It was here that I got to know Jon Warren and San Sebastian Food, a British owned company offering behind the scenes gastronomic experiences in the city and surrounding area. Here I discovered pinxtos, the Rioja wine region and wonderful restaurants, chefs and food producers. This was the beginning of a life-long love affair and I was fortunate to be able to get involved in Jon’s business. I work on a freelance basis with him now, promoting his business and tours to the UK market.

Next stop was Castle Cary in Somerset, to Food of Course, a residential cookery school run by Lou Hutton. Of all my gap year experiences, this was probably where I was truly in my element. For me, cooking all day every day in such a wonderful environment was an indulgence I will never forget. Lou offers the budding and more practised cook, whatever their age, a professional and nurturing environment, sound as well as creative teaching and excellent preparation for a career in food, as a chef on yachts and in ski chalets or running one’s own catering or food business. Lou and Food of Course gave me the confidence to go on to cook in a ski chalet in the alps, an experience which was high on my list of gap year ‘must dos’. I shared the course with three young people – and felt like a twenty year old again!

There followed five weeks in Arosa Switzerland, where I shopped, chopped and cooked in a family run ski chalet for up to 17 guests at a time. I have never worked so physically hard in my life, but what an amazing experience. I lived in the chalet girls’ dug out, where swinging a cat was not an option, rose early and flopped into bed exhausted – with an hour on the slopes somewhere in between if I was really lucky, and organised! I found my German coming back to me as I negotiated with the local meat supplier in Swiss German (not easy), conquered the altitudinal impact on cakes and I somehow managed to survive the whole experience. My daughters came to visit for Christmas and part of the deal with my boss was that they would stay free (also in the dug out!) in exchange for helping in the kitchen and I am not sure what I would have done without them. We managed to ski and have lunch in the mountains before together serving Christmas dinner to an extended family of 17. Highlight of their stay was a toboggan run of several kilometres after a rather boozy lunch in a remote mountain hut – exhilarating!

I had earned the two weeks skiing with friends in Austria which followed, and was thrilled to find myself on my birthday, trekking 7 kilometres through deep snow to another remote mountain hut for dinner and tobogganing back at great speed in the pitch dark. This is what gap years are all about and who said anything about being grown up?.

My next stop was the Caribbean, my goal to put into practice my Competent Crew qualification gained in a rainy week in the Solent some 3 years before. I arrived in February, which is regatta season in that part of the world. I was lucky to have an old friend in Antigua, who had offered me the opportunity to house sit for her, so I planned my trip around that. After two days acclimatising on land, I joined Great Escape, a 53 foot yacht which was heading for St Maarten and the Heineken Regatta. I had bought a charter place on the boat and planned to spend two weeks aboard, racing and cruising. Sea sickness marred the journey north and a broken mast put paid to our chances in the round-the-island race. I had to find another boat – not difficult in the Caribbean in regatta season – and spent the next two weeks in the BVI, cruising, sunbathing and pinching myself every day at my luck.

I then explored the Grenadine islands on land for three weeks, visiting such jewels as Bequia, Mustique and Petit St Vincent, sometimes with a new found friend but mostly alone. There is something wonderful about only having to please oneself and I never felt lonely.

I returned to Antigua in mid April 2012, house sitting for my friend and occasionally crewing in the classic and race week regattas. This was party time in Antigua, a chance to meet up with lots of new friends made on my Caribbean journey and an opportunity to reflect on an amazing three months doing something way out of my comfort zone!

In June, I thought it was time to show my lovely daughters some appreciation for their support and enthusiasm for my gap year adventure and we headed off together to stay on a wine estate near Imperia, in Northern Italy. We indulged in our love of food markets, lazy lunches and sunshine and enjoyed bombing round in our Fiat Cinquecento, visiting San Remo and the beautiful coastline of James Bond movies.

A first visit to see my cousin since she moved to Texas 35 years ago was never not going to be a part of my gap year – no more excuses! I sandwiched six days in Houston between visits to two places high on my urban North American wish list: San Francisco and Chicago. I managed to keep up the foodie theme here too, including cycling the wine trails of Sonoma and sampling the gastronomy of Napa.

Last stop was Vietnam with my good friend Helen, on a three week trip which took us from Hanoi to Saigon, another food odyssey and a very different experience culturally from previous trips to Asia. Here I learned a huge amount about recent history and the Vietnamese people, cycled through the orchards of the Mekong Delta and learned to cook fragrant and beautiful food from the land and the sea.

My travels ended in Hong Kong, a place I had visited several times in my twenties, so a wonderful trip down memory lane.

4. How did you finance your grown up gap year? (i.e. Did you work along the way? Use savings?)

I rented out my house (the family home!) to tenants for a year, using the proceeds and savings to finance my travels and living expenses.

5. Did you go alone or with family/friends?

I went alone for the most part. I spent a week in Arosa and a week in Italy with my two daughters, Victoria and Sophie and for my final gap year adventure in Vietnam and Hong Kong, I was joined by my friend Helen. In Houston I stayed with my cousin and in San Francisco spent a few nights with a friend. Everywhere else, I was alone and although I met people along the way, I loved my own company and the chance to be.

6. What is your travel style? (I.e. Budget hostels/Mid-range hotels/Luxury travel – less is more, travelling slowly/pack in as much as possible)

My preferred travel style is luxury, but funds dictated otherwise! I got used very quickly to living on a boat with few clothes and limited space, though my own ‘heads’ (bathroom) was a must! Elsewhere, I did what I always do and found great deals, staying in comfortable, though often simple places. I like to pack lots in and adapted my approach to the place – but was always outdoors and doing something! I preferred local transport to organised travel.

7. Do you go for tours or do it alone?

Go it alone – mostly! In Vietnam we did tours, with mixed results. I like to explore and experience the real way of life, not a tourist’s view. I hate organised tours and touristy places..

8. What is the best thing about taking a grown up gap year?

The feeling of freedom and the absence (however temporary) of day to day responsibilities.

9. And were there any downsides?

Having no base in the UK – though I was lucky that many friends put me up or asked me to house sit on my occasional trips back to recharge and repack. I missed my children – and I sometimes felt bored, and missed working! Not so much a downside as a great balancing perspective.

10. What advice would you give to anyone thinking of setting off on their own grown up gap year?

Do lots of research and make plans, but don’t be surprised if they change. Talk to everyone you meet about your plans, you will be amazed at the ideas and opportunities which pop up! Do what you have always wanted to do, no matter what others may say or think. Be selfish and be brave.

If you want to find out more about Jo’s adventures, you can check out her new foodie blog and you can follow her on Twitter.