Christine Guarino lives and works in Berlin, teaching middle-school mathematics to international students in two languages. In her free time, she is a backpacking and bikepacking adventurer.
Before the pandemic struck, Christine had been preparing to take a dream travel career break utilising her school’s sabbatical scheme for teachers. But when Covid arrived, she had to adapt her plans.
In between hiking and biking her way around Europe, Christine used her time off to learn Italian and gain certified German teaching qualifications. She tells her story and the challenges she navigated along the way in this interview.
Christine write about authentic, adventurous and active exploration of Germany on her blog, Chris Crossing Germany.
How did you first become inspired to travel?
As a child, faraway places always interested me, but we didn’t travel outside of New Jersey much as a family. When my parents finally agreed to let me go on my first international trip to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji at age 16, there was no turning back.
After that, every penny I earned was saved for the next adventure. Now I’ve travelled to 48 countries on six continents, spending a week or more in nearly all of them.
Why did you decide to take a sabbatical from your teaching profession?
Towards the end of my first teaching contract in Berlin, I began to dream of living in other places, South America specifically. I even took a two-week trip to Ecuador to test the waters.
When my boss inquired about how they could keep me in Berlin, I said that perhaps a year-long sabbatical would satiate my wanderlust needs enough to return.
This was also a great option for me, because my position in Berlin allows me to work bilingually (quite a unique teaching opportunity) and I have fantastic colleagues (which is not guaranteed everywhere you go and makes a huge difference in workplace satisfaction).
Getting a year off, while being able to hold onto my position, was a fantastic deal.
How did you make arrangements with your workplace to take a sabbatical?
Luckily, a sabbatical is a fairly common thing at my school, so it was easy to arrange. Most teachers work a year at half pay and then take a year off at half pay.
As a teacher, a sabbatical usually has to take place over one school year due to maintaining stability in the classroom and the challenges of teacher contracts. With summer vacation on either end, it ends up being about 13 months in total.
“I scrapped all ideas of planning anything. Instead I started to think of ways I could use the time besides travelling.”
Unlike my other sabbatical-taking colleagues, I decided to work two years at two-thirds pay and then receive the savings the third year while on sabbatical.
For me, there were major advantages of taking a sabbatical as opposed to just saving and quitting. I still had all the benefits of having a job without going to work: health insurance, paying into the pension fund, a valid visa for the EU.
What were the biggest challenges in preparing for your sabbatical?
The biggest challenge in preparing for my sabbatical was the pandemic. I signed my sabbatical contract in the spring of 2018 planning for a whole year of around-the-world travels, a time when a global pandemic was still the stuff of science fiction.
Once Covid hit, I had no idea for how long it would affect my sabbatical (spoiler: the whole time). Before the pandemic, I had begun to note down, month for month, where I wanted to go.
In April 2020, a few months before the sabbatical start, I scrapped all ideas of planning anything. Instead I started to think of ways I could use the time besides travelling.
How did the pandemic affect your sabbatical plans, and how did you navigate those challenges?
The pandemic definitely ripped most of my plans apart. My original idea was more or less continuous travel with a few breaks in between to come back to Berlin to be with my partner.
After the pandemic hit, I planned one thing at a time. Each time I came back from a trip, I would see what was possible and plan the next trip around that. Most of my sabbatical was before vaccines for Covid were developed, so there were strict quarantine rules in Germany and they changed nearly every week.
After a few challenging experiences at the border, I felt more stressed about even leaving Germany and didn’t travel outside the country from December 2020 until June 2021.
“Bookending my sabbatical were fantastic cycling trips along EuroVelo routes.”
During that time, there were several months in which Germany banned booking accommodations for touristic purposes, so I couldn’t even travel within Germany.
While ‘stuck’ in Berlin, I took day trips out to Brandenburg, the region surrounding Berlin, to go on hikes or bike rides. During rainy days, I turned our balcony into a garden, practiced my foreign language skills, read a ton of books, worked on my blog, and baked a new cake each week.
What were the standout travel experiences of your sabbatical?
Bookending my sabbatical were fantastic cycling trips along EuroVelo routes. I love the freedom and novelty of a bike trip, and that it is completely self-powered to places you wouldn’t normally see as a tourist.
In summer 2020, my partner and I cycled from Ulm, Germany, to Suza, Croatia, through Austria, Slovakia and Hungary along the Danube river. The following summer we biked from Brno, Czech Republic, to Trieste, Italy, through Austria and Slovenia.
During the travel lockdown in Germany, a colleague lent me his second home in the Frau Holle region of northern Hesse in Germany. I had never heard of this region and it ended up being a gold mine of fantastic hiking trails in fairytale-like landscapes.
I absolutely fell in love with this area and spent over three weeks there during my sabbatical. It’s a place I would unlikely have experienced without the pandemic, and now I recommend it every chance I get.
How did you use the time on your sabbatical for personal and professional development?
With Italian heritage and family still in Italy, learning Italian has long been a dream of mine. To feel a bit less guilty about travelling during the pandemic, I booked a month-long language course in a small town on the coast of Tuscany.
This way I would be staying in one place, not coming into contact with many people, but still learning and seeing something new. As the only student there, I was spoiled with one-on-one lessons in the morning from a fantastic teacher who showed me the nearby historical sites and beaches in the afternoon.
Professionally, I participated in a few online conferences and seminars about teaching mathematics and multilingualism in the classroom. I also completed an online course to become a certified German teacher.
All of these are relevant to my position because I teach mathematics in English and German to international students who have both, one, or neither language as their first.
What did you learn on your sabbatical that you would never have learned in your regular life at home?
A bit ironic, but on my sabbatical I learned, and am still learning, how to do nothing. I spent a lot of the sabbatical agonising about time being wasted in this awful pandemic.
“The 40-hour work week doesn’t leave us very much time for our own hobbies or interests.”
It was hard, but eventually I tried to let go of having every day of my sabbatical be productive, effective and ‘worth it’. Learning to rest, to listen to your body, and to let your mind wander are undervalued skills most of us never bother to focus on.
I wouldn’t say I could put a checkmark on them myself either, but I’m working on it.
What have been the biggest challenges of readjusting to life after your sabbatical?
Not having enough free time (or enough energy for free time) has been the biggest challenge after coming back to work. The 40-hour work week doesn’t leave us very much time for our own hobbies or interests.
Even though I have a lot of autonomy as a teacher in what I do while at work, I feel like I don’t have enough time to do all the other things I’m interested in too. I can’t fully be myself when there isn’t enough time to express all the different parts of my life.
Now, I try to make sure that I only do work at work and none at home or on the weekends. That’s my own time!
What advice would you give to other people considering taking a sabbatical to travel or learn a new skill?
Definitely do it! We never get time back in our lives, so it is important to take time when we can to do the things we want.
Even if your sabbatical doesn’t turn out the way you intended, you will still have benefited from it by learning something new, having time off to recharge and relax, to spend time with your family, or discover more about yourself.
Did you find Christine’s story inspiring? Read more tales of travel career breaks and sabbaticals in our interview series.
Start planning your own experience with our ultimate guide to taking a travel career break.