Vacation time is, in my view, one of the biggest pieces in trying to make the expat life puzzle work. I wonder if it isn’t also one of the least discussed topics pre-departure. I know for a fact it was for me — I hadn’t given it a single thought before following my husband as an accompanying partner. Yet, once in place, I realized that the amount of vacation time my husband had greatly impacted the way we planned and lived our life. Pretty quickly, vacation time came to represent something different from what I was used to.

Maybe it’s not so strange that we forget to think and talk about time off before heading out on expat assignment – there are so many more tangible action items to deal with, like finding a place to live and signing up for health insurance, that taking the time to consider what your vacation time will mean in practical terms, falls to the side. It’s hard to imagine beforehand what the impact will be once you are in place, far from friends and family.

I think part of the problem is that the vacation time you are entitled to while living as an expat comes to represent something more than just being able to go on vacation. It represents the amount of time you have to visit home, it represents time for exploring new places and it represents time you can devote to visitors. It can also become a representation of missing out — on occasions and people.

If you are a working partner, you may have to be prepared to wave goodbye to your family every summer as they take extended time off to go back home while you stay behind, able to join only for a week or two. As the accompanying partner, you may have to get used to “going it alone” a bit more than you normally would.

The times when I have been on the working end of the vacation issue have further highlighted how difficult it is to make it all work. My first job living abroad was at a startup company. I had two weeks off, along with a few federal holidays — that was it. It was almost impossible to cobble together a decent trip back home, it was even harder to enjoy it and it was a beast to get back to the office, jet-lagged and trying to catch up.

I gave up my job when I had my second child — I simply could not imagine putting him in a daycare facility at ten weeks old, which I would have had to do in order to keep my position. I was fortunate in that we had the economic means for me to stay home. I had no idea what the maternity leave policies were when heading out as an expat. I don’t know that it would have been a deal-breaker had I been more knowledgeable. However, I do know now that it would have been a useful topic to be knowledgeable about. After all, policies like vacation time and sick leave, or maternity and family leave, directly impact how you can live your life.

We all know that policies regarding vacation time and other time off affect the quality of life, whether living abroad or not. Rules vary from country to country and it’s worth spending the time figuring out what they are, as well as giving thought to what they would mean in practical terms. It’s likely that once you live as an expat, the meaning of “vacation time” will morph into something other than “time to go on vacation”.

By: Felicia Shermis

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