Fly: An Empty Nester’s Quest For The Holy Grail Of Life, Love & Longevity

·10-min read

A couple of empty nesters who feared the glue keeping them together may come unstuck when their children left home launched an incredible “longevity gap year” – visiting extraordinary places in search of a new purpose.

Avid international travellers Chris and Galina Saye, both 52, had lived everywhere from London to Russia and the USA and were based in Singapore when, in 2018, the youngest of their three children, Marcus, 21, left home for a gap year before studying mechanical engineering at London’s Imperial College.

So, the couple, now living in London’s Covent Garden – both keen to have longevity – embarked on a gap year of their own, visiting four of the world’s ‘Blue Zones,’ identified by National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner as the places where people live the longest and are healthiest.

Chris and Galina in Japan in Okinawa. PA REAL LIFE
Chris and Galina in Japan in Okinawa. PA REAL LIFE

Along the way, they were keen to identify their ‘ikigai,’ according to Chris, a financial advisor and coach, who said: “Ikigai is a Japanese concept referring to something that gives a person a sense of purpose.

“The idea originated on the Japanese island of Okinawa, which is one of the Blue Zones, and is considered to be an important reason for its people to live so long, so we went there first.”

In all, Chris and Galina, a homemaker, visited the Blue Zones of Okinawa, Sardinia, Ikaria and Costa Rica – living with families and working where possible, so they were properly immersed in their way of life.

Galina hiking in the jungle in Costa Rica. PA REAL LIFE
Galina hiking in the jungle in Costa Rica. PA REAL LIFE

Chris said: “We had an existential moment when we discussed whether we had fulfilled our time together, after raising our children, and whether we should go our separate ways.

“But on this trip, we found our glue and our shared passion. It was incredible.

“We learned something different from each place.”

Out on the water in Sardinia. PA REAL LIFE
Out on the water in Sardinia. PA REAL LIFE

A fascinating couple, Chris was born in London, meeting Galina, who was born in western Siberia, in 1995 in Kazakhstan, where they were both working in the oil and gas industry – him as an auditor and her as a translator and PA in the finance department of an energy company.

Chris said: “I was in charge of the audit for the company where Galina worked and one of my employees said, ‘You have to meet his woman. She’s the one for you.’

“I’ve now written a book about our gap year – Fly: An Empty Nester’s Quest For The Holy Grail Of Life, Love & Longevity’ – and I started it with that line.”

Galina cooking on Ikaria. PA REAL LIFE
Galina cooking on Ikaria. PA REAL LIFE

Marrying in Kazakhstan in 1997, the couple then moved to Azerbaijan for two and a half years, before going on to Moscow, Russia, in 2001, where they stayed for six years.

After that, they moved to Houston, in the USA, for two years in 2007, before spending two years in Europe.

Their three children – Natasha, 32, born in Siberia; Nicolas, 23, born in Moscow; and Marcus, 21, born in Houston – were the centre of their world.

Chris and Galina, with their children Natasha, Nicholas and Marcus. PA REAL LIFE
Chris and Galina, with their children Natasha, Nicholas and Marcus. PA REAL LIFE

And in 2009, – deciding the remaining year of their boys’ education should govern where they lived next – they spent two years in Slovenia, where Chris worked in admin at an international school.

Then they went on to Bali for a year, with a small interlude in Thailand.

“This was a pivotal moment for us, as our boys went to The Green School in Bali, which was environmentally focussed and had a big impact on us and our views on sustainability,” said Chris.

The cover of Chris’ book, Fly, about their adventures. PA REAL LIFE
The cover of Chris’ book, Fly, about their adventures. PA REAL LIFE

“I also met the founder of the school, who asked me to help him with its development, which started a whole new role for me.”

Always wanting their boys to go to high school in Singapore, they then moved there – staying until Marcus left for his gap year.

Chris said: “We decided to do something similar. Our kids had been such a big long term thing in our life, so what was it going to be now?

“First we went to Okinawa, in search of our ikigai and stayed with several families on two different islands.

“We worked and were, in turn, given food and accommodation.

“One place was a dairy farm, so we were shovelling poo and feeding cows. Then we lived with the family, slept on the floor and ate dinner together.

Galina in Ikaria. PA REAL LIFE
Galina in Ikaria. PA REAL LIFE

“We decided to take a longevity path to give a purpose to our travels, as we want to live for a long time.

“We wanted to live with families in the places and pick their brains to see how they were managing it.”

Staying in Okinawa for six weeks in June and July 2018, where they found out about the ikigai, they then broke off for a trip to the USA, where their daughter was having a baby – born on August 1.

Chris and Galina with new friends in Ikaria. PA REAL LIFE
Chris and Galina with new friends in Ikaria. PA REAL LIFE

Chris’ elderly father Hugh also passed away while they were there, aged 95.

He said: “It was almost as if it was planned. We’d be heading off for the evening and we’d say, ‘Don’t worry, Dad, we’ll still be here for another few weeks,’ and he’d say, ‘In that case, you’ll be here for my funeral.’

“I’d joke and say, ‘’I’ll wait to see if you can pull that one off,’ and he did.

Chris with his dad Hugh, who died aged 95. PA REAL LIFE
Chris with his dad Hugh, who died aged 95. PA REAL LIFE

“So we got to see life and death in August 2018, with our grandson being born and my father dying at 95 – which seemed very poignant, as we were going around the world learning about longevity.”

For six weeks in September and October, they stayed in Costa Rica, where they say they saw the importance of family values.

Chris said: “The importance of family values was brought home by seeing multi-generational families living together under one roof and gathering on the front porches of their houses on rocking chairs.

Chris and Galina at the beach in Ikaria. PA REAL LIFE
Chris and Galina at the beach in Ikaria. PA REAL LIFE

“They all sit there and talk. It was striking to see the family togetherness.

“Then we went to Sardinia where the biggest lesson I learned was the value of hard work.”

The couple stayed in Perdasdefogu, a town high up in the mountains, famous for holding the world record for family longevity – which at one point saw the Melis family of six sisters and three brothers enjoying a combined age of 818.

Chris on the farm in Okinawa. PA REAL LIFE
Chris on the farm in Okinawa. PA REAL LIFE

Staying in a lady’s house there, they visited the aptly named Longevity Bar, still run by one of the brothers, who is well into his nineties.

Chris said: “He was at church, but his son was running it that day.

“Without blinking, he told me the secret to his dad’s longevity was ‘hard work’. He still serves people in the bar at over 90.

Chris with the widow Maria in Sardinia, where there are no old age homes. PA REAL LIFE
Chris with the widow Maria in Sardinia, where there are no old age homes. PA REAL LIFE

“That to me was a clear indicator that I need to have something like that to keep doing until I drop.

“If you work for a company there’s a retirement age, but I want to work in something I actually want to do.”

Next came their stay on the Greek island of Ikaria, where food and community struck them as two important cornerstones for a long and successful life.

Chris and Galina in the jungle in Costa Rica. PA REAL LIFE
Chris and Galina in the jungle in Costa Rica. PA REAL LIFE

Spending six weeks there again, Chris said: “The people are very famous for their festivals. They get together and eat together and dance for hours and hours.

“The sense of community and support there is incredible.”

With their children now living independently – Natasha in the USA, where she is a mortgage underwriter and is happily married with three children; Nicolas in Spain’s Madrid, where he went to university and has now started a sustainable leather goods company with his girlfriend and Marcus, in London, where he is halfway through his degree – Chris and Galina feel ready for a new beginning.

During their travels – which also included visiting Moscow, Jordan, Singapore and Bali – they discovered their joint passion was for creating homes.

Chris said: “We really enjoy creating homes together.

“Right now, we have three different real estate projects we are involved in together – a house in Bali and two flats in Spain.

Chris and Galina at the beach in Okinawa. PA REAL LIFE
Chris and Galina at the beach in Okinawa. PA REAL LIFE

“It’s not our full-time job, but it’s something we can do together, talk about at dinner, or while we’re walking. It’s a common shared passion.

“We are probably going to sell them, so we can do another one.”

Chris is also hoping for positive reactions to his book about their adventure.

Chris and Galina in Okinawa. PA REAL LIFE
Chris and Galina in Okinawa. PA REAL LIFE

He said: “It’s been a little bit scary, as it’s rather personal, but one woman said to me recently, ‘The bit I liked the most was when you were arguing, as it was real.’

“I was honest about our journey and the good and bad.”

For now, the couple plan to stay in London until October, after which, the world again will be their oyster.

Chris and Galina in Sardinia. PA REAL LIFE
Chris and Galina in Sardinia. PA REAL LIFE

Chris said: “Longer term, I want to be living in the same country as at least one of our children as, for us, having family nearby is really important.”

The pair are also planning to open a plant-based coffee shop together – although they have not decided where.

Galina said: “I am a plant-based chef, we both eat plant-based and Chris makes wonderful coffee and it goes back to Sardinia and the principle of hard work. Also, if you own it, no one can fire you!

Chris and Galina with new friends in Costa Rica. PA REAL LIFE
Chris and Galina with new friends in Costa Rica. PA REAL LIFE

“When our last son left home, we needed a huge change in our life as a couple to occupy our minds with something new, rather than looking at empty corners in empty rooms.

“When Marcus left, we had been looking forward to being empty nesters, but when that moment came we were really shocked. We weren’t ready.

“We had to go through a separation process from something we’d never get back, as they’d never live with us again as children.

Chris in Okinawa with a 100-year-old woman. PA REAL LIFE
Chris in Okinawa with a 100-year-old woman. PA REAL LIFE

“So, we spent about six months thinking about it and then decided to go on our gap year.

“Physically the first two or three days in Okinawa were challenging, but we met people from all over the world and the conversations over dinner were amazing.”

And for anyone reaching a crossroads when their children leave, Galina has sound advice.

Galina and a friend in Okinawa. PA REAL LIFE
Galina and a friend in Okinawa. PA REAL LIFE

She said: “When we decided to stick together, I was sure that love in terms of that trembling in the heart would come back and it did, as I was open for it to come back.

“As long as the heart is open, the love is always there.”

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