It had always been clear to me that after school, I’d be heading out to do a gap year abroad to work and travel, and basically, to just get out of the house and do my own thing for a bit. It took some time to figure out exactly what I wanted to get out of my gap year, and where I should go, but I finally decided to return to Switzerland (my birth place) to work there, and make it my base camps for whatever travels might come along.
What did I want (and not want) from my gap year?
We all have different motivations for packing up, leaving the nest, and heading out into the big world – travel, language, experience, money, existential crisis…what not!
My personal main goal was quite clear: earn enough money to come back to Cape Town and buy myself a car. If I could get some travelling done in addition, and improve on my French – brilliant.
Once I established my goal, the planning started. I wanted to know that for the first few months, I would have a source of income and a roof over my head. It was a big deal to head out by myself for a whole year, and I didn’t want to kick-off my experience without a sense of direction. I have a Swiss passport, so it seemed like a pretty good idea to go work there – I was a citizen already, and there was an opportunity to make some decent money (when converted back to Rand). Of course, it was as much about the life experience as saving up for a car, so I looked for a job that would give me a little bit of everything.
I applied for an aupair job in Geneva, as this ticked quite a few boxes for me. For six months, I would have an income, accommodation and food, and I’d be speaking only French. So after a few rejections and mis-matches, I found a family who lived in Anières, close to the Swiss-French border.
Geneva (February – June)
For six months I worked as an aupair on a beautiful Genevan vineyard that overlooks Lake Geneva. My routine: Mondays to Fridays I’d watch the two children and do household chores from 09h – 16h. On 2-3 afternoons, I headed to town after work and tutored German. I did this for an extra income, because the aupair salary is not designed for saving, but rather for getting by each month – bus rides, medical aid (compulsory in Switzerland), the odd movie, etc. A big chunk of my salary went towards my (outrageously expensive) gym membership. Oh well, I love and need exercise, so it was worth it for me.
North America (July – August)
When my aupair days came to an end in June, I had managed to save up quite a nice amount, of which part went into a savings account, and part went towards a ticket that took me on my biggest non-European travel up until that point – The United States and Canada. Together with my mother (who had actually planned to do the trip alone, until I intervened) I explored New York, Washington DC, Seattle, and Vancouver. In each new city we stayed with various South African friends of ours who had emigrated.
Basel (August – December)
After the trip, I relocated to Basel, which was going to be my base for the remaining time of my gap year. I was incredibly privileged, because my parents have an apartment there, and I was able to make full use of it. Phew!
After a short phase of the blues (no job, and out of Rooibos tea), I scored a bunch of odd jobs. I would have done anything just to make an extra buck, and it became a running joke that every odd job I did would add a feature to my car. Selling hot dogs at football matches? For sure – there’s my steering wheel! Handing out flyers on empty streets in the freezing cold? No problem – there’s my passenger door! And so it went on. One job in particular was very enjoyable, though – working at the Swiss Wine Fair. The people were great, the wines at our stand were South African – what more do you need?
Luckily I did manage to get some travels in too, visiting friends in Berlin, Groningen, Amsterdam and doing more day trips within Switzerland.
My Gap Year Prize
I got back to Cape Town in December, and couldn’t wait to go shopping for a car, adamant to pay every cent by myself. As I took my beautiful little blue Atos (third-hand) for a spin, I knew that all the hard work had been worth it. I thought to myself, “I’m sitting inside my gap year,” so to speak. It was a proud moment for me, because I had achieved my goal. I had travelled, I had become quite fluent in French, and I was driving the cutest ‘chorrie’ in the Cape.
My Advice on Taking a Gap Year to Work
- Enquire about jobs and accommodation prior to departure (sometimes an employer can help you with visas or work permits)
- Inform yourself about what jobs there are in the place(s) you want to travel to
- Ask people in your family and friends network whether they know of opportunities (take advantage of connections!)
- Don’t forget to enjoy yourself – there is a lot to learn and experience in each new place you visit, so make sure you don’t forget to explore and discover that!