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Couple’s ‘gap year’ travels in their 50s inspires book

Joe and Marianne Bohr in their mid-50s quit

Joe and Marianne Bohr in their mid-50s quit their jobs, sold their home and spent a year traveling through Europe. Marianne wrote a book about their journey called "Gap Year Girl: A Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries." Here they are in front of the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Photo Credit: Bohr Family

The highlight of 2012 for Marianne Bohr came on April 15 — that day, at age 56, she completed the Paris Marathon. As Bohr tells it, the best part of the day happened after she, still shaking from exertion and emotion, pulled on the canary-yellow T-shirt awarded to all finishers and “tottered” to the brasserie where her husband, Joe, and their two grown children were waiting.

As she entered, the restaurant diners spontaneously applauded her. “I’ve become a marathoner, and I did it in Paris,” Bohr thought at that moment. Today she says, “That was a fabulous memory.”

Bohr’s 26.2-mile run was a marathon inside a marathon — a marathon of a travel trip to 21 countries in 12 months. She and Joe, high school sweethearts who had met on Long Island more than 40 years earlier, both ran the race as part of a yearlong journey through Europe. They’d sold their house and cars, quit their jobs, put their remaining possessions in storage and, in September 2011, headed overseas for what Bohr calls a grown-up “gap year” that would last through August 2012. Or, in contrast to the junior year abroad that college students take, a “senior year abroad” — for senior citizens, that is.

With a backpack, laptop and two rolling duffel bags each, the Bohrs set out with a budget of about $100,000, planning to splurge on some occasions and travel on a budget during other periods. As part of the journey, they’d penned the Paris Marathon into their plan and had flown their children over to witness it. But most of the rest of the year was unscripted and consisted of just Marianne and Joe, the crazy American couple who’d left everything behind — temporarily.

“It wasn’t retirement,” Bohr said. “It was just taking a year off.”

Marianne and Joe, now both 59, live in Bethesda, Maryland, but grew up in Smithtown. They returned to Long Island last month so Marianne could speak at Barnes & Noble in East Northport about the new book she’s written chronicling their trip, called “Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer’s Adventure Across 21 Countries” (She Writes Press, $16.95). Marianne’s high school friend Kathy McNally Amundsen of East Northport also threw an informal book party at her home for about two dozen of their former classmates and the Bohrs’ family members after the bookstore appearance.

‘KIND OF DARING’

“I could never go out on a limb and sell everything,” said Denise Frangione, 59, of Huntington, who was in the audience for Bohr’s visit. “I couldn’t give up everything.”

Those who can need one core prerequisite, Bohr said: commitment. “You have to want it really badly. The stakes are high. The only times both of us really got nervous was when we would see people our age who got laid off and it would take them a year or two to get another job.” And yet, the rewards are immense, Bohr said. “You don’t have to be in your teens or 20s to have an adventure. We did something that was kind of daring, that was out of our comfort zone. I think that’s important for us all as we get older.”

Marianne and Joe’s adventure wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. They had dreamed about their gap year for decades.

The couple met in homeroom at Holy Family High School — now merged into St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington — because his last name started with a B, hers — Canedo — a C. She majored in French at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, then won a Long Island Rotary Club scholarship that paid for a post-college year in Tours, France. Joe, who had attended the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, came to visit at the end of Marianne’s post-college year, and the couple vowed to eventually return to Europe for an extended travel period.

They married at 25. Kids, the corporate climb — she was a senior vice president of a book distributor and Joe a marine engineer — and college tuitions for children, Chris, now 31, and Caroline, now 28, kept them too busy to do more than fantasize about that trip. Finally, with Bohr planning a career change to middle school French teacher, and their kids employed, the time was right.

“Marianne was always the one who had her eyes on the prize,” Joe said. “I’m saying, ‘OK, sure, sure, sure.’ ” Joe took on the role of trip photographer, shooting more than 16,000 photos.

As older travelers leaving the United States for an extended period, the Bohrs’ concerns were different from what they’d been in their early 20s. They had to consider their aging parents, who fortunately were in good health at the time. The kids were in California, Caroline working as a neonatal intensive care nurse and Chris doing film editing and graphics. They had to consider their own health care — the couple paid for COBRA coverage when Joe quit his job, and were lucky they didn’t need doctors during their trip.

That’s why they wanted to go in their 50s, Bohr said. “We didn’t want to wait until we were 65. Maybe we’re going to have bad knees. Maybe we’re going to have back injuries. We wanted to do serious hiking. We wanted to be able to schlep our luggage by ourselves,” she said. And, by retirement, they might have something else holding them back: “At that point we may have grandchildren coming along.”

TWO FOR THE ROAD

The couple began with a skeleton outline of their trip. Several key points were planned — New Year’s Eve in Rome, the Paris Marathon in April, summer hiking in the Alps, a month at French language school in Aix-en-Provence as the finale. “We started filling in the blanks as we went along,” Bohr said.

Joy came from doing ordinary things in extraordinary places. For instance, they ran three times a week in preparation for the Paris Marathon. “Here we’re running by the Pantheon, or through Florence, or along the Seine,” she said.

Most of the trip was marvelous, but some of it wasn’t, Bohr said. “Morocco isn’t on the top of my list. Austria isn’t either.” she said. Bohr wrote of Morocco, “Everyone in Morocco wants to sell us something; every urchin in the street has an angle ...” Of Austrian culture, which she found abrupt, she wrote, “Over the course of three months in Italy, we met not one rude or disrespectful person, but in less than a day in Austria, we encountered a string of them.”

In Turkey, the Bohrs “had a great time,” she wrote: “Cappadocia is the Wild West, Turkey style, its landscape and spirit so evoking Arizona and Utah.” She called the Greek people “the nicest” and named the island of Santorini the “Sunset Capital of the World.” The whatever-you-do-don’t-miss-this moment of the trip was in Italy, Bohr said — waking up in a hotel room in Taormina, Sicily, with a view of the Mount Etna volcano.

Now that they’re home, Bohr said, “What I miss most is just being out and about on an adventure in a place I love with Joe.”

The Bohrs have been back in the States for three years, and are living in an apartment. Marianne got a job immediately as a middle school French teacher in Rockville — she calls it “a returning-home miracle” — and Joe found an engineering position with the U.S. Department of Defense months later. Eventually, when they retire, they expect to move to California to be close to Caroline and Chris.

Next year, she and Joe both turn 60 and will celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. They’re planning to travel, of course, on a hiking trip in Corsica — but only for two weeks.

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