Trading Places

Have you ever pondered what kind of person you’d be now if you’d taken a different turn at one of life’s crossroads? Gareth Mason talks to three women who chose to find out...

Life’s twists and turns are often dictated by the most banal of influences. A poor interview, an unpredictable relationship, bad advice, wrong place, wrong time... we could go on. We all have reasons to justify the gulf between what we are and what we always wanted to be. But whatever your excuses, real or imagined, it’s clear that sitting around and bemoaning your ill-fortune brings no greater consolation than, well, the supposed psychological benefits of sitting around and moaning.

So, what reasons can there be for letting go of your dreams? Do these sound familiar? ‘If I was 10 years younger’, ‘I wish I’d kept it up’, ‘I just don’t have the time these days’, or maybe ‘I've got a family now’. Valid they may be, but some people won’t be heard uttering them. Like the 88-year-old woman running the London marathon or the blind man who joins a football team to use his talents.

Retirement offers an opportunity to make up for lost time, but why should living your dreams be confined to your golden years? How many make excuses because they fear change let alone the prospect that reality’s bite may not taste as sweet as they imagined. Here’s three who chose life...

Not speaking my language

Nicky Vernon (33) lives with her husband Richard and two young daughters in one of the green and pleasant corners of Kent’s countryside. While her lawyer husband commutes to London, Nicky juggles with the fickle schedules of her young children around whom she fits in teaching French and German, her pupils ranging from toddlers to pensioners.

Five years ago, life was very different. Then she was an account manager with Saatchi and Saatchi’s and product of its graduate trainee scheme. She was also unmarried and living in the less salubrious setting of Camberwell in south-east London with her future husband. But success at work did not stifle other frustrations. Having graduated with a First joint honours in French and German, Nicky felt she was quickly ‘losing’ her languages. And the glamour of Adland was staring to wear thin.

Her first steps away from the media spotlight were tentative. ‘I asked to work on Pan-European accounts where I could use my languages, the first of which was a computer company. My previous clients in the drink and hotel industries were considered ‘sexy’ and prestigious. So, my colleagues thought I was barking.’ Now married, Nicky’s career tinkering reached a full epiphany. She decided teaching was her true vocation and applied to take a one-year PGCE at Kings College in central London.

She found the educational experience wholly different when revisited. ‘I was older and had my fun first time round so was more intense in my study.’ Finding a job at a secondary school in Kent, the family moved out of the city. A first child soon followed and she moved to part-time position. Nicky now teaches at all levels from one-to-one tuition to pre-school groups – most work coming by word of mouth.

Despite these changes, Nicky sees her future career expanding ever outwards. ‘When the children are a little older I’d like to approach businesses looking to expand across Europe and improve their language skills. And regrets? ‘Sometimes, when I see my peers running agencies or remember the glamour of corporate hospitality or the belated word of thanks for working through the night. But I don't miss the political games and it’s not a lifestyle which lets me have everything I have now. I like being my own boss and calling the shots. The people I work with now would be more receptive to my postponing a meeting because my daughter isn’t well. I wouldn’t change it for anything.’

Head towards the light

‘Sunshine is the best way to start your day.’ It’s a sentiment few experience much beyond an annual fortnight away. Confronted by another grey British morning, it’s natural to want to be somewhere brighter and bluer. Thirty-year-old Tania Vian-Smith and her boyfriend Darren saw their opportunity to escape when he was offered a job in Barcelona.

Tania resigned from her work as a teacher in Brentford and resolved to join her boyfriend despite not visiting the Catalan capital. It sounds like poor planning, but her logic is compelling.

‘A city on a beach within reach of ski-slopes was enough to convince me. It was very much spur of the moment but we wanted a complete life transplant.’

Tania found work teaching English as a foreign language. ‘I loved working with my pupils but there was far too much paper work and stress. On top, you get fed up with being criticised by the press and government – I’m too young to be getting old so quickly!’

Leaving London didn’t prove a bind. She has swapped her shared south London flat for a 3-bedroom flat in the lively and colourful Ramblas district. Her day begins on her sun-drenched balcony overlooking a pretty square just off the main street. Her rent is around half what she paid in London. Neither does she miss a social life which was characterised, as she remembers it, by ‘great expense and military-like operations dependent on legions of friends attempting to communicate via mobile phone.’

She remains blissfully non-committal about the future. ‘We'll stay another year, probably longer. Going by our English friends, it’s impossible to leave and ‘just one more year’ becomes an increasingly meaningless catchphrase. After that, I’ve no idea: travel around South America, move to California, kids in the Kentish countryside, write a 30-something novel...who knows?’
The logistics was made easier by friends who helped them find work and a flat. But despite arriving without a word of Spanish, let alone Catalan, the change in culture proved no barrier. ‘I've always been a bit mañana, mañana myself anyway.’

Missing her family and learning the language have proven the greatest burdens. But so far, she’s had few complaints from the friends and relatives one inexpensive hour’s flight away. Change has proven an epiphany. ‘It's the best decision I’ve ever made and made me realise anything is possible. If you don’t like it change it! And her one concern? ‘Moving back to England. I’ll always wonder why I did it!’

Sailing the seven seas

Ever wanted to hear the music of Cuba? Or visit the wildlife of the Galapagos, see the beauty of Capetown, or dance at Salvador’s carnival? And would you want to travel far and wide across the globe by the sweat of your own brow? Heather Collier thought ‘yes’ to all the above when she read a newspaper ad in her Yorkshire home inviting entrants for The Times Clipper 2000 round the world yacht race.

In recent years, the 41-year-old increasingly acted upon an impulse to travel, and the chance to sail on one of the 6-8 week legs proved irresistible. Sailing through the Panama Canal was appealing as was a 7,000-mile trek across the Atlantic. In fact, by the time she'd scanned the itinerary she realised drastic action was required. ‘I wanted to go everywhere so I signed up for the lot.’

She sold her house and car to raise the required sponsorship money and left her job at Manchester University. Soon she joined 14 strangers on a 60-foot yacht for a fortnight’s induction at sea to test the crew’s mettle. All bar the skipper were novice sailors, a mixture of retirees, gap-year students, escapists, adventurers, and the occasional accountant. But then again, they had the whole globe in which to learn their nautical skills.

Swapping academia for a role more redolent of life and death, she’s now in charge of ordering and storing food as the crew wend their way roughly 34,000 miles across the globe. That’s not to mention helping sail, clean and cook, work four-hour shifts and avoid falling off the side as they round the Cape of Good Hope. Asked what she plans for when her circumnavigation is complete, Heather is unspecific. ‘I'd know I’d like to be living in Portugal within ten years, in the meantime...’ When you read this, Heather Collier is somewhere half-way across the North Atlantic.

Women's Health magazine 2001