Janice Hopper is a freelance travel writer for UK newspapers and magazines. Back in 2008, she took a six-month career break from her job at the BBC to travel the world.
In this interview, Janice talks about how the travel experience gave her a new sense of self-belief and freedom, inspiring her to make major career and lifestyle changes, embracing the independence of freelance work. She recalls how she was touched by kindness along the journey, but also how the trip was affected by a dreadful tragedy.
Janice runs the Scottish travel site scots2travel.com. She is based in Aberdeen, Scotland, with her husband and two young sons, aged 6 and 5.
Why did you decide to take a career break to travel?
I was a TV director, writing and shooting arts and history documentaries in the UK and internationally. It was challenging and consuming work, and I couldn’t see exactly where it was heading or what the next step might be.
I was just out of a relationship, so the timing was right. I knew that if I didn’t take a significant career break at that point, I’d probably never do it, and I’d live to regret that.
How did you approach your workplace about the break?
I was in a large organisation, so career breaks were quite standard in terms of following procedure, but there was no guarantee that it would be agreed. I contacted HR and my line manager to get the ball rolling, and a six-month career break was organised relatively quickly.
What did you do at work to prepare for your absence before you left for the trip?
It was pretty simple because documentaries are project based. I finished one programme, headed off on my career break, and returned to a new project awaiting me. It was quite streamlined.
How did you plan your route for the trip?
I didn’t. My whole career had been about schedules, planning and organising myself and other people. It had to stop. Six months lay ahead of me, tantalisingly empty!
My friend David took a holiday and joined me for the first few weeks of the trip through Switzerland and Germany, and to be honest, he planned most of that. We parted company in Hamburg, and I’d booked a flight out of Berlin to Venice about 15 days into my break.
At that point I honestly didn’t know if I’d spend the remainder of the six months in Italy, or travel around the world! It was glorious to feel so free for the first time in my life.
“It was great that I didn’t have my schedule fully booked up, as it gave me the freedom to visit people that I’d met en route.”
Where did you go on the journey, and were there any standout memories?
I set off in June. In the end I visited Switzerland and Germany, spent two months touring Italy, before returning to Scotland for a friend’s wedding. Then I visited Ireland for a family wedding and toured Clare, Dublin and Galway.
Next I flew to Sweden (I’d met some very cool girls from Gothenburg in Rimini). After that, I dipped into Singapore where I stayed with my friend Jacqui and her parents and we had a ball, onto Australia where I’d planned to visit a girl from Melbourne that I’d met in Hamburg.
Finally, New York for some Christmas shopping, before heading home to Scotland. It was great that I didn’t have my schedule fully booked up, as it gave me the freedom to visit people that I’d met en route.
Two memories stand out for me, at completely different ends of the spectrum of human nature. I’d been brought up to be wary of strangers, and I’d assumed travelling solo would be lonely. I was so taken aback by how helpful, warm, inclusive, smily and friendly people are across the world. So many people’s default position is to be nice. It brought me back to life.
On the other hand, my Australian friend that I’d planned to visit in Melbourne was Britt Lapthorne. After we parted company in Berlin, she was murdered in Dubrovnik, Croatia. She never returned home. I received the shock news that she was missing when I was in Sweden, her body was finally found when I was in Ireland, and I visited Melbourne in an absolute daze.
This disgusting, cruel experience stays with everyone who knew her, and I am still furious that anyone even contemplated treating a fellow human being in that way. She would have been in her 30s by now, and those people stole her life, they stole potential grandchildren, they took away so much. And for what?
Did this tragedy make you feel differently about solo travel?
No. As travellers we have to look after ourselves and each other, but the onus in these circumstances should always be on the perpetrators, how they should seek help earlier, and why their early crimes/behaviour should be reported and taken more seriously by society and the police.
If the focus is on what the male or female victim drank, wore or where they travelled, then the messaging doesn’t place blame with the depraved and troubled soul/s who perpetrate a crime.
Solo travel is so rewarding, and most travellers stick together, so do take care but don’t let the world frighten you. There is so much beauty and kindness out there.
“I knew I could be on my own, travel solo, and spend time by myself. Therefore I needed my job less.”
Did the journey teach you any lessons that have been valuable in your career since?
Yes, the world has endless stories to tell. I can cover a destination in different voices, for different audiences, in great detail or colourful brushstrokes. I’ve always been passionate about history and people’s stories, but combine that with travel and it’s a wonderfully rewarding mix.
How did you prepare for returning home and getting back to work?
Returning for Christmas was really helpful. I got back to Scotland on 22 December 2008, and I didn’t start work till early January. It was great to have a round of parties and celebrations to enjoy before normality and the office beckoned.
Did you find it challenging to get back into a regular routine after travelling for six months?
No, I was ready for some structure and routine, but my perspective had utterly changed. I knew there was a whole world out there waiting for me.
I knew I could be on my own, travel solo, and spend time by myself. Therefore I needed my job, any job, less (emotionally, rather than financially) as I believed in myself more.
What has been your career direction since returning home, and how has this been influenced by your travels?
Today, I’m a freelance travel writer for a mix of publications. I love reviewing hotels for the Telegraph, and I’ve been published in the likes of Britain magazine and Country Living, and I’m a regular contributor on BBC Radio Scotland.
My own website Scots2Travel.com enables me to travel with my young children, creating a richer work–life balance, and I can share my love of travel with my kids, and other parents seeking travel inspiration.
I also run the Facebook group Scotland with Kids, sharing advice, ideas and itineraries for Scottish escapes.
“If you can carve a career out of what you love it doesn’t feel like work.”
Have you made any lifestyle changes as a result of your trip?
Working from home, being self-employed, combining family and travel, has been a huge shift, but I absolutely love it. It suits my independent spirit far better – I can set my own goals and aim for them. I’m healthier and happier.
Is travel still a part of your life, and if so, how do you balance it with your career and family life?
Holidays, travel and work overlap for me now, but if you can carve a career out of what you love it doesn’t feel like work. I’ve been on cruises with Fred Olsen, taken my son to Portugal to visit Martinhal resorts, and set sail with the kids to Orkney and Shetland with Northlink Ferries.
Now, we do book holidays where I’m not working, but I always find it hard not to share a great find with the Scots2Travel readers – I just have to tell them about it!
What advice would you give to other people considering taking a travel career break?
Do it. (Check the fine print, like potential changes to your pension/terms and conditions, then perhaps negotiate, but do it!)
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