A Ridiculous Life

by Stephanie Lightfoot

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Gap Years

 

Two days ago, someone knocked on my door. Unusual in that people don't often just drop round unannounced in London, and even more unusual in that I'm so rarely at home. Opening it revealed a young woman with a clipped South African accent, who was practically dancing a jig on my doorstep. I don't know how, but before she'd even opened her mouth, I knew what she was going to say: 

"Hi there (big smile, take a step back from the door, look enthusiastic) Just popping round the area doing some promotional work for one of your local restaurants who are giving away some free meals in this area. Do you guys eat out locally occasionally?"

And before she had the chance to go any further, I'd interrupted, "Oh my God (think Helen off Big Brother). OH MY GOD!  I used to do your job in Australia!  You work for a company called ."

We laughed, but more than anything I was stunned to be reminded of doing door-to-door sales in Australia. It's been a while, but this knock on the door brought back a massive flood of memories, and made me realise how important my Gap Year and travel abroad have been in influencing the decisions I've made since.

One of my friends recently told me that my life is ridiculous (I think his is ridiculous - he's an accountant, and he works far too hard, but that's beside the point). The reality is that my life isn't ridiculous at all, I just haven't followed the path of school, university, career job that many of us are brought up to believe is the only way, without really questioning why or what we really want.

At 18, I was all set to go to Oxford. At 18 and a quarter, I'd panicked completely at the thought, jacked in the whole idea of academia, sacked the place I was offered, and planned a year off on the spur of the moment. 

I went round the world with my boyfriend of the time.  We spent nearly a year and a half in South Africa, Australia, Fiji, and America.  I worked in Melbourne doing door-to-door sales for six months (not the most glamorous job in the world, admittedly, but well paid and I even got to pitch to Ramsay Street!).  I loved it all, made great mates, and very nearly didn't come home. 

When I did finally return from Down Under, it was as a different person from the teenager who'd left a secure little world in South London and I was ready to take on a university place sure in my mind that it was what I wanted to do.

Having been away for more than a year, I'd already learnt immeasurable lessons that would stand me in good stead at uni. I knew about making new friends, and how hard it can be, about mixing with people other than from the same social background and age as me. I'd learnt about living with strangers, sharing my time and my space, about managing money, about being careful with my belongings. I'd learnt how to find work, how to sell, how to save, how much to spend on a weekly shop, about going to the laundrette every week. I'd learnt about how much I could drink (or couldn't), how to give and take in a relationship, about how tolerant and patient I can be, about how hard I can work, and when to stop, and about being away from home. My travels had taught me about different cultures, different foods, and different people. I had developed a passionate desire to see more of the world and a curiosity to learn that I'd never found at school. 

And that desire to travel (much to my parents' dismay and my friends' amusement) has never left!  I blame my Gap Year entirely for the fact that I have never since been able to stay in one place for more than 6 months before I get itchy feet and have to move onto something new again .

Since finishing university three years ago, I've travelled and worked all over the world. I've spent four months as a volunteer researcher in an AIDS hospital in Malawi, two months indulging in Sang Thipp in Thailand (not recommended, obviously!), gone back to Australia, and spent three winter seasons as a ski rep in the French Alps. I have paid for it all myself (by raising sponsorship for the trip to Africa, temping in London and religiously saving my reps' wages during ski seasons). I have rediscovered a passion for skiing that I thought had disappeared with the last school ski trip, and having now decided to settle in the Alps permanently (or semi permanently at least), I wouldn't have my life any other way.

At 25, I don't have a well paid job, or a house or a flash car, but I have learnt so much more about myself, my aims and what I want from my life than if I'd stayed in the UK, taken the place at Oxford or stuck with the Graduate Training Scheme I started at a big, international company (I lasted an impressively bad 6 weeks before I realised it so wasn't me). I've come to understand that for me, there are other opportunities to make a living in fields outside the norm.  They're there if you look for them - and probably in the most unlikely places.

So if you're looking at this site, and thinking about taking some time off or changing your lifestyle and taking a risk, it couldn't come more recommended - my year off was just the start of some of the most exciting times I've ever had. You have absolutely nothing to lose! 

Image courtesy Will Ellis