Radical Sabbatical

See the world. Get free. Maybe change a life, too?



Megumi Sawada

Who hasn’t dreamed of chucking it all, of disconnecting the phones, kenneling the weimaraner and heading off to some exotic shore? Let the office chug on without you, the family fend for itself while you’re off having an experience worthy of Paul Gaugin, Isak Dinesen or Jack Kerouac. Then reality checks in, and with it come the all-too-real pressures of mortgage payments, tuition, clients and deadlines. The big adventure gets put back in mothballs for another year, or maybe a decade. Meet four inspirational Westporters who didn’t put their dreams on hold; who found — or created — the opportunity to jump off the merry-go-round and step through the magic wardrobe. Each one had a different motivation and different set of circumstances, but all four agree on one thing: Their radical sabbatical was the best thing they ever did for themselves.

a bohemian’s rhapsody
Ruth Bonomo had been happily working in video production for two decades — or at least she thought she was happy. One day her boss, who was also a friend, took her aside and said, “Ruth, you’re clearly not happy here. Take the weekend and figure out what you want to do, and I’ll support anything you decide.” But instead of feeling relief that he understood, Ruth was shocked and confused. She came back Monday morning professing to have no idea what he was talking about and insisting that no way was she leaving. But over the next few months, the realization slowly dawned that her boss was right: She was miserable and it was time to do something dramatic.

By refinancing her home and renting it out on a long-term basis, she bought herself eighteen months of freedom. Ruth had loved sailing to Jamaica in the seventies, so when she heard a friend was sailing from Uruguay to New York and needed crew, she jumped on board. They would sail for sixteen days at a stretch, make a port call for twenty-four hours, then get back on the seas, and she loved every minute. By the time she returned to the States, her friends were finally starting to believe she was serious about this dropping-out thing.

She wound up on another sailboat, which took her to Bermuda. For ten days the crew hoped to see dolphins but didn’t see a one. Just before they reached their destination, Ruth did a personal healing ritual on a midnight shift. When the shift changed at 6 a.m., a pod of dolphins appeared at the helm and hung around the boat for twenty minutes.

On the island, Ruth checked out an interactive program run by Dolphin Quest, a research-and- training organization, and was impressed enough to apply for an internship that would start the following spring. Then she got busy visiting friends all over the country and forgot all about it — until her phone rang in December saying she had been accepted and was needed on Oahu in eight weeks.

Her father had just turned eighty-five and they made an agreement: He wouldn’t die while she was away. “There was a lot of letting go,” she recalls. “You have to store everything you own, so the less you own, the less you store.” So she sold almost everything she owned (including a 1927 Bentley) and headed to Hawaii by way of New Zealand.

“New Zealand is fabulous,” says Ruth. “It’s like California without the people.” She hated to leave, but a tree house in the rain forest above Waikiki was waiting for her, as were the dolphins. She moved in this past St. Patrick’s Day, and the next four months were the most exhilarating of her life. Her primary job was in the educational program, where she taught grade-school kids about dolphins, but three days a week she sorted fish, and one day a week she learned to train those wise mammals herself. She made new friends, saw a bit of the other islands and stayed in touch with her college-age son by cellphone every other week. Dad kept his end of the bargain, and when Ruth came back East in July, she didn’t move straight back to Westport — there was a big bike trip with friends in the Adirondacks, plus a lot more local traveling to get out of her system.

“I didn’t get to be the person who saves a thousand kids from being orphans, but I hope to support and inspire people on a daily basis,” she says. “I always hear people say, ‘I can’t, I can’t because …’ but I want to help them do what it takes to create their own ideal lives.”

roman holiday
“I always did everything I was supposed to do,” recollects long-time Westporter Geri Zatcoff. “I majored in business administration because my parents thought I’d get a better job than as the English or philosophy major I wanted to be. I got good grades in school, and when I graduated, I landed a good job in banking as a pensions specialist.” But eight years later, the S&L scandal of the late eighties sent her stable comfortable world into a tailspin, and she found herself without a job for the first time in her life. She had also grown disillusioned with what she saw as a rising tide of conspicuous consumerism and yuppyism. Net effect: She was lost at twenty-nine, with no direction home.

One evening she was sitting in a bar waiting for a friend, when she was struck by this question: If she could wave a magic wand, what would she create? And she realized at that moment that what she wanted more than anything else was to live in Italy. She had visited Rome and Ischia in the eighties, and had the most wonderful experiences, plunging into a different culture and a simpler way of life. Living there, though, had never crossed her mind. Now she couldn’t get the thought out of her head.

But being the practical person she was, she didn’t just jump on the next plane. “I planned for one year,” she says. “I decided to become a cocktail waitress in the upscale Pump Room in New York’s Ambassador Hotel. “I worked my little patootie off.” To make even more money, she rented out her little Manhattan studio as a B&B eight nights a month and crashed on friends’ sofas. “I never worked so hard in my life,” she recalls. Nor was she ever so motivated.

One year, and 10,000 disposable dollars later, Geri booked a flight, but even then she set up a safety net, in the form of a return ticket. Her plan was to go for six weeks; if she was as happy as she expected, she’d come home, sell everything and move for the foreseeable future. It didn’t help that her family was saying things like she might permanently take herself out of the job market. But she was focused on her goal and, ultimately, stuck to her original plan.

She landed in Ischia, where she felt comfortable, and spent six lazy months not working — just waking up, strolling to the café, enjoying a leisurely breakfast of cappuccino, croissant and the morning paper. She’d write postcards and in her journal, then buy a picnic lunch of bread, cheese and fruit and head to the beach. But the need to make money welled up, and she moved to Rome, her other comfort-zone epicenter. There she relied on her training as a fitness instructor and slowly developed an impressive client roster (including the wife of the Minister of the Interior). She met a guy, whom she dated off and on, and studied Italian, immersing herself in the culture and just basically recovered from a decade as corporate drone. During her two-year stay, she developed a deep appreciation of Italian sensibility and gusto for living life to the fullest, whether that be food, family or fashion. “It’s not the plate that matters,” she says. “It’s what’s on the plate. Italians never eat alone. Even if it’s just sharing a bowl of pasta, it’s always a social affair.”

But after two years she was ready to move home, and her first order of business was getting a master’s degree in exercise physiology, something she had previously avoided. “Everything courageous or risky that I’ve done since then has been because of my having moved to Italy,” she says.

Geri never returned to banking and spent the past decade working in fitness as the director of the local YMCA. But the business setting wasn’t soul-satisfying. Recently she again tapped the strength she developed from living overseas, and in June quit the high-powered job to grow her own wellness consulting business based here in Westport. It’s a risk she feels will pay off big-time. “If I could pick up and move to a foreign country,” Geri says today, “I know I can do pretty much anything.”

on the road again
Connecticut-born Steve Malkenson’s C.V., if he even has one, would make for some interesting reading: Wall Street money manager and consultant, college instructor, economist for the EPA, documentary filmmaker, New York City public school teacher, fishing-boat broker in Thailand. “I have a history of doing one thing for three or four years, then taking a yearlong hiatus,” he says casually, as if this were a common thing to do in Westport. “Wall Street has afforded me the luxury of making enough money to support my endeavors when I get bored and need to move on,” he notes.

In the early ninties Steve was fascinated by the developments in the collapsing Soviet Union, and spent the better part of eighteen months filming the chaos and anarchy he was privy to. “Here, we take so much for granted,” he says, “from the paper hanging on our door in the morning to food in the grocery store. We don’t have a clue how the rest of the world lives.” The result of that year-and-a-half stint was a small documentary that did pretty well on the film-festival circuit. “And if you’re up at 3 a.m. in Belgium, you might catch it,” he quips.

Today, Steve divides his time roughly in thirds, commuting by motorcycle between Westport and Manhattan, and by plane to more remote locations. He’s always loved international travel and had been to Southeast Asia eight times before the big tsumani hit nearly two years ago. He vividly remembers one late December morning, sitting at his computer, trying to plan a last-minute Caribbean vacation, when an IM flashed on his screen: “Why aren’t you on a plane to Thailand with a pocketful of cash to help some small village recover?” That question, at that minute, served to instantly quash all thoughts of Cancún or St. Thomas, and Steve booked flights, with randomly chosen return dates, to Bangkok, where he had an old friend who might help direct his efforts. His only fear: being irrelevant. “What could I do to add to such an enormous undertaking?” he kept asking himself.

But providence — in the form of the U.S. Embassy and two missionaries — led him to a small village populated by Thai Sea gypsies in the Phang Nga province. Being a nomadic people, they had no claim to the land they had been living on for fifty years, and worse, as a sustenance fishing community, they had lost all their boats, their only means of supporting themselves. The missionaries introduced Steve to the villagers and explained they needed permission from the Headman before they could lend assistance. Once granted, Steve met an English-speaking man from Bangkok, who helped him understand the villagers’ situation (seventy-six families displaced; forty fatalities). One of the missionaries suggested buying the villagers boats, but Steve felt that would be too much like a handout and instead asked, “What if we empowered them to rebuild the boats themselves?” Suddenly, a plan emerged.

Steve agreed to purchase the necessary tools and materials to outfit a boatyard, the villagers would provide the labor, both skilled and unskilled, and Steve would pay them the local wage. This would give them not only new boats, but dignity and the boat-building knowledge they lacked. The fishermen were enthusiastic, and after careful discussions of the business plan, they drafted and signed a formal agreement and held a signing ceremony. Momentum built, with Steve sourcing and acquiring materials and the workers catching on quickly. Once things were in place, about three weeks later, Steve felt it was time to leave. The first boat was completed on February 15, 2005. By July, twelve boats had been built and progress was steady. The missionaries acted as project managers, and though it’s been almost a year since Steve last heard from them, he expects the job was completed.

“One thing I took from the experience,” he says in hindsight, “is that if there’s something you really want to do, you just have to do it. And 99 percent of the time, if you’re reasonably resourceful, you’ll find a way to do it.” Steve is currently in town, managing a hedge fund and, one assumes, researching his next adventure.

for the love of dolly
Sometimes you set a course, and sometimes the wind blows you where you need to go. That was the case with Barb Mathias, who grew up in Greenwich and currently lives in Westport. But it wasn’t a straight gust up the Merritt that blew her home. You could say Barb’s story begins with a West Highland terrier. After college, she wanted a change of scenery and moved to San Francisco, where she easily landed a job in advertising but couldn’t for the life of her find a nice apartment that allowed dogs. Until she met Dolly Avery, that is, an older woman who managed an apartment building that not only accepted dogs but encouraged them. The tenants would leave their doors unlocked by day and Dolly would conduct an open house for dogs.

Over the span of a couple years, Barb grew close to Dolly and considered her a kind of grandmother, particularly when the older woman’s husband died and she was left alone without family. Shortly after that, Barb noticed that Dolly was acting increasingly forgetful and irrational, and it became apparent that she had Alzheimer’s. Barb educated herself, joined a support group and slowly took over Dolly’s affairs as a daughter would. She got a durable power of attorney and took the smallish fortune Dolly kept in a checking account and invested it in mutual funds. But the night Barb came home late and found Dolly wandering in the streets, she knew she had to do something. But what? The woman needed full-time care. Private nurses were too expensive, and the nursing homes she checked out were horrible. (One place said they would tie her to a chair, and a Catholic home said God had instructed them not to take Alzheimer’s patients.)

Then a big breeze gusted up and landed Barb at a dinner table with a couple who had just returned from three months in Portugal. Their pictures and stories reminded Barb of her favorite uncle when she was a girl, who would regale her and her siblings with tales and gifts from the Iberian peninsula. When the couple announced they had had a live-in maid for $100 a month, lightning struck. “It was a literal ping in my brain,” says Barb, who promptly quit her job, gave up the apartment and packed Dolly and herself up and boarded the QE2, bound for Lisbon. “My father thought I’d lost my mind, but I had set things up so she had enough income to support us and have live-in care.”

Through connections, she found a gorgeous house right on the Atlantic and five live-in maids, who rotated shifts. There was no being tied to chairs. “They know how to take care of the elderly over there,” says Barb. Americans and Portuguese coexisted beautifully and overcame the language barrier by creating their own Esperanto, a melange of French, Spanish and charades. Barb managed the day-to-day affairs, became a part of the local community and threw parties in honor of Dolly, who was thriving on all the loving, attentive care.

One Sunday morning about a year into their stay, Barb heard a maid screaming in Portuguese. She didn’t have to understand the words to instantly grasp their meaning. The nurse had managed to prop Dolly up in a wheelchair. Barb ran to her and clasped her. Unable to speak, Dolly locked Barb’s eyes in a stare, pointed to her, then collapsed into her arms and died. “I carried her to bed facing the sea, and all her friends came by to see her.

We buried her in a wonderful little chapel ceremony and, afterward, had a celebration of Dolly’s life, to which I had everyone wear white. We shared our favorite Dolly stories and all agreed that this was the best way her life could have ended up. To this second,” says Barb, “those were the best two years of my life.”

Barb stayed on another six months, but it wasn’t the same. She moved back to San Francisco a changed woman. “I looked at America differently. I didn’t have patience for the silly things that people were obsessed about. In Portugal, people who didn’t read or write were more sophisticated than some of my friends back home.”

Back in Westport fifteen years now, Barb’s finally made a smooth reentry, but, she says, “I’m thinking of moving to Argentina. I’d always thought I’d be married by now, teaching Buffy to swim at the country club. But I lost my tolerance for superficial, selfish values.” She’s also learned to trust the winds more than her own compass.

 

 

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