A Year of Cappuccino

Adjacent to the picturesque Piazza Santa Maria in Rome's medieval Trastevere district, the San Calisto coffee bar is the quintessential local haunt. Marcello, the owner, serves spectacular coffee just the way the trendy neighborhood clientele expects it. For nearly two years, Donna Young and her husband, Peter Halewood, both law professors from Albany, New York, lived in Rome and counted themselves among the regulars there, sipping cappuccini at the outdoor tables while watching the world go by. "We spent more time at the San Calisto than anywhere in those two years," recalls Young, who returned to reality in the States with her family late last year. "There were no distractions there. Just bits and pieces of real life--and not ours or anything we even knew about--that were so incredibly interesting. Although we were always stranieri , we became part of the community there. It filled some need; it sort of made us feel whole."

Young and her husband, together with their two young sons, are part of a growing number of people who close up the house, pack up the kids and take a true breather from their hectic schedules. Rather than embark on long vacations, these adventurous souls actually relocate for a year or more for a lifestyle sabbatical--an extended cappuccino break, if you will. They rent apartments or sometimes buy property as investments and live like locals, totally immersed in the culture. "These types of temporary residents have increased in the last couple of years," says Carol Milligan, a relocation expert and real-estate agent around Florence, who deals mostly with foreigners. "Some are still what we call 9/11 refugees, and others are just trying to escape from America under George Bush. But increasingly, we see people who just feel they need to stop and experience something different for a while."

Unlike traditional work-related sabbaticals, which are often paid and require a certain amount of professional investment, lifestyle sabbaticals are less structured and much more self-indulgent. But they can also be daunting. For some, the idea of leaving the office behind is a major drawback. Milligan, who ended up moving to Tuscany after taking a break there from New York 30 years ago, says many of her clients telecommute from their Tuscan villas or Roman apartments. "This is one of the most positive aspects of globalization: that you can stay involved in your work and still maintain the dream," she says.

Others are hesitant about uprooting the kids or putting them in a foreign school. But Young believes the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks. "Your kids will get an open, better education in the exposure to a new culture," she says. She recalls how her older son, who was 6 at the time, once cried as he stood inside an ancient Roman church where a choir of nuns was singing Gregorian chants. "My husband asked him what was wrong, and my son said, 'Nothing, it's just so beautiful'," she says. "That is the payoff."

Cathy Osborne, author of "Get a Life: The Essential Guide to Taking Time Off to Fulfill Your Dreams," believes the biggest obstacle is self-doubt. "The most important thing everyone needs when planning their dream sabbatical is a fundamental belief that they can make it happen and that they deserve to take time off," she says. Osborne would know: based in Vancouver, she's already taken three lifestyle sabbaticals herself, and is about to take her fourth trip, this time to the Caribbean.

Of course, a truly successful lifestyle sabbatical requires serious planning and plenty of cash. Osborne, who surveyed families who took lifestyle sabbaticals, found that 15 percent spent significantly more than $25,000 on their dream getaways; the rest spent between $10,000 and $25,000. The Young-Halewood family ended up selling their SUV to finance their son's second year of international school and took on legal work with multinational agencies in Rome to keep from depleting their savings account.

Marc and Julie Szekely, of Camaret-sur-Mer, France, planned for years before taking their three young sons on their dream break: a two-year sailing trip around the world. Not everything went smoothly; they endured a cyclone that cut their power and a bout of chickenpox that laid low all three boys. But they also docked in Martinique for two months and New Zealand for nearly eight months, erasing the bad times. "It was something we had dreamed about for 15 years," says Marc. "But everything has to come together for the timing to be right."

There can also be ample red tape at the destination. Milligan, who offers workshops for those interested in relocating to Italy, says there is no quick fix to cut corners on bureaucracy, from getting the proper visas to opening a local bank account. Still, the break from reality is almost always worth the hassles. A popular Italian phrase says it all: "Dolce fa niente," or, "It's sweet to do nothing." And few who have whiled away the months at a sunny café table would dare to disagree.