Nellie Khossousi has always sought new challenges in life. Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, she took a break from teaching English in France and set off on a cycling adventure through the Baltics, Japan and South Korea.
In January 2020 she started a fresh adventure studying various subjects at a Danish folk high school for adults. But when the pandemic struck, most students headed home, and Nellie was one of 12 left studying at the school.
In this interview Nellie tells about her cycling adventures, the experience in Denmark, balancing adventure with building a career, and her new life of working remotely while travelling in Europe.
Nellie is the creator of Third Culture Nellie, which aims to make long-term travel more accessible through sharing affordable and quirky ways to travel, work and study abroad. You can follow her on Instagram and YouTube.
What was your life situation before you took a career break for a cycling adventure?
I had incredible experiences studying and gaining work experience abroad as part of my economics degree. When I graduated from university in 2018, I knew I wanted to work abroad.
I ended up teaching English abroad in France as a language assistant for the academic year. Whilst I was there, I improved my French massively, joined a film class and set up my blog, Third Culture Nellie.
Why did you decide to take extended time out of your work to travel?
I had saved up money whilst living in France from working odd jobs and luckily not paying rent. I hosted a Couchsurfer who was cycling from France to New Zealand.
We met a month before my contract was ending, and I ended up joining parts of his bicycle travel journey with his friend. My colleague had done something similar in the 90s and I had it in the back of my mind that I’d love to do the same.
How did you prepare for your cycling trips?
I wanted to be sure I knew how to fix a bicycle if my bike broke down in the middle of nowhere! Before I left France, I went into the local bike shop and asked for work experience.
They thought I was joking and would never turn up. What followed was a week of intense bicycle repairs fuelled by croissants and juice in the garage.
“You can push your body further than you believe, but you need your mind to be there.”
But a lot of the preparation was learning along the way. We tried to pack the bare minimum and essentials. Finding a suitable bike at the last minute was quite tricky, but worked out in the end.
What were the highlights and biggest life lessons from your cycling trips?
The highlights were the freedom we felt when choosing a route and being able to stop and camp wherever. The people we met. The kindness of strangers who took us in despite the language barrier.
The main life lesson was how little I really needed to get by. Just the bare essentials were important. And how important mental health is. You can push your body further than you believe, but you need your mind to be there. So to look after your mind as much as your body.
Whilst cycling, I started to assess the excuses I tended to make and addressed those. I had a lot of time to think while cycling and reflect without having an obligation to work in those months.
What inspired you to move to Denmark to study at a folk high school, and what did you get out of this experience?
A folk high school (højskole) is a school for adults of any age to study a real variety of subjects. I was born in Denmark and have all my mother’s family living there.
I have never lived in Denmark but had wanted to study there for a long time. I never allowed myself the opportunity to move. I kept making excuses and realised there’d never be a good time if I didn’t just go!
I chose Uldum because of their range of subjects and it being all in Danish – although there are folk high schools in other languages in Denmark and other Nordic countries. I wanted to study film production.
“It was bizarre having an empty school to ourselves in such a small town in the countryside.”
It was great to try different things in a no-pressure setting and see where I wanted my next career steps to take me. I also studied psychology, creative writing, music, winter viking (winter bathing) and ceramics.
How was your time in Denmark affected by the pandemic?
In March 2020, Denmark, like much of the world, went into lockdown. Thinking the school would only close for two weeks, it remained closed for many months.
With most of the 100+ students going home, we were just 12 left in the entire school, unable to return to our homes to isolate in Japan, France, the USA, England and Denmark.
It was bizarre having an empty school to ourselves in such a small town in the countryside. I felt fortunate not to be alone and, although far from family and friends, had a strange and incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We tried to have a routine. We watched the morning singing on Denmark’s national TV over breakfast while making a plan for the day. Those of us who were ‘left behind’ in this bubble formed unique bonds, spending every day of lockdown together.
I am forever grateful to the staff at Uldum for letting us stay so long and for checking up on us all the time.
How has your career changed during the pandemic, and has it been influenced by travel?
During the pandemic, I did not return to teaching in-person. I grew my web design skills, filmmaking skills and joined an online film collective. I did some online tutoring, started an apprenticeship in city design, did a job logging for a documentary and started working as a digital marketing consultant for a PR company.
I guess I am growing a ‘portfolio career’. I am grateful that in my current role, my boss allows me to work on different projects using different skill sets.
I took a break from my travel blog, but with the pandemic slowly improving, I have re-launched it and will start a directory of travel opportunities that are paid.
My travel experiences have made me search for remote work, or if in person, short-term contract work.
Have you experienced any difficulties in adjusting to a remote working lifestyle?
Not really, as I feel this was the lifestyle I was stepping into before the pandemic. Time management can be tricky.
I try not to plan too far ahead and leave breaks in my calendar. But sometimes there are days when all my projects randomly fall on the same day.
How are you planning to blend your career with travel experiences in the future?
I would like to move abroad and work remotely, moving around every few months. I have been searching for house-sitting opportunities as I would describe myself as a crazy cat lady!
“Taking time out to travel is not a gap.”
That way, I get free accommodation in return for looking after someone’s pets, plants and home. I am also open to jobs abroad.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering taking time out of work to travel?
Don’t overthink or overplan your time out of work. Leave space to change and move. You will make friends once you get there and find people who are knowledgeable in your area and field, local knowledge that can be hard to find online.
You can always change your environment if it doesn’t suit you. But if you don’t go, you’ll never know. And if you overthink it, you are more likely to listen to bad advice, and yourself or others talking you out of going. Don’t let others project their fears onto you.
And finally, don’t be afraid of having a gap on your CV. Taking time out to travel is not a gap. My skills developed massively when travelling, and my adventures have given me something to talk about in job interviews – and even add to my CV.
Did you enjoy Nellie’s story? Read more inspiring tales of travel career breaks and remote working in our series of interviews with career gappers.