Galina and me knew we were at crossroads when our third child left in 2018. Many marriages fall apart once kids leave, and we’d already begun sensing for ourselves how this could happen. Boredom set in. It seemed that we knew each other too well.

When we stopped saying the words ‘I love you’ before falling asleep, as we’d done for years, it seemed more than symbolic. My wife had the courage to acknowledge this, and said she wasn’t even sure what it meant, and why bother saying it simply out of routine?

Of course, she knew what it meant: she just wasn’t feeling it any more. It seemed like a waste to give up so many years of being together, even though we tried our best to save it.

Chris Saye and his wife Galina (pictured) took a midlife gap year after their third child left home in 2018

Chris Saye (pictured) and Galina (pictured), took a gap year in midlife after their third child left for home in 2018. 

We met in 1995 when I was working at Arthur Andersen as a consultant in the gas and oil industries. Galina was a PA/translator. It was love at the first sight. Indeed, we were drawn together that day by a force I’d never felt before, and have never since.

We got married two years later. I formally adopted Galina’s six-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, Natasha, and we had our two boys, Nicholas in 1998 and Marcus in 2000. Natasha was already happily married and living in America when we felt that our marriage was in danger. Nicholas was studying in Spain, while Marcus was on a gap year.

If it was Marcus’s departure that sparked our marital crisis, it was also his manner of leaving — with a backpack, off on an adventure — that seemed to offer a potential solution. Galina and I decided on something radical. In a move that would either make or definitely break our marriage, I’d give up my job in finance and we’d head off round the world on our own midlife gap year, using our joint savings.

To give us purpose, we decided to visit four of the world’s Blue Zones — the regions around the world identified by National Geographic explorer and author Dan Buettner as the places where people live the longest and are healthiest.

The Blue Zones would be the focus of our adventure. We would seek to discover the secret to a long, happy, and fulfilled life. And if that meant we had to discover the truth about our love, so be it.

Chris said he and Galina have always told their children that if they wanted to test a serious relationship, they should travel together. Pictured: Chris and Galina with their children Natasha and Marcus and Natasha’s children

Chris said that Galina and Chris have always told their children that they should travel together if they are looking to establish a serious relationship. Pictured: Chris and Galina with their children Natasha and Marcus and Natasha’s children

Galina had always said to our children that traveling together was the best way to test a serious love. We did just that.

I closed the door to my office and put my business on hold. Although we both felt excitement at the freedom, it was impossible to deny the feelings of loss and insecurity.

The Lessons we’ve learned about lasting love

Money isn’t everything

My goals in life are not driven by my financial success. People living in the Blue Zones don’t generally have big bank balances or retirement portfolios. Instead, they live day to day surrounded by family and friends.

Never stop learning

We learned a great lesson from the Melis family in Sardinia — own your own bar so that you can’t be fired or forced into retirement! Never stop doing something useful or meaningful. We plan to open a cafe that is plant-based by our 60th birthday.

Have sex!

It doesn’t matter what you do with your body, it doesn’t matter! Blue Zones people are known to have sex well into their old age. Yes, it keeps you young.

Spirituality is important

Faith in something bigger than oneself makes life easier. It lessens stress and offers hope. Blue Zone communities are committed to a religious faith. Gratitude and sharing with like-minded friends is key.

Take the time to party

A happy life is one that allows you to have fun and has opportunities to be active in social situations. We learned a lot from our friends about the importance of making time to laugh together, whether it was on a weekly round of golf or a weekend away.

Drink (a bit)

One centenarian from Okinawa claimed that drinking mugwort sake daily was the key to her long life. We discovered that moderate alcohol consumption (1-2 a days) is a common factor in each Blue Zone we visited.

Walk, walk and walk

All Blue Zones are located in rural areas with mountainous terrain. This allows you to get a cardio work out while walking to the shops. Include strength training in your exercise routine.

Adopt a pet

Being needed — even if it’s just a pet — keeps you energised. We now have a dog.

Then, we were off. Our adventure began in Okinawa, Japan. Okinawa is famous for its remarkable longevity and relative immunity against common killers such as heart disease.

We arrived in China to study the diet and rented a cottage at the village of Chinen. We took long walks in the town and through small farming valleys to see what was growing, and then we bought and cooked what was on sale at the shops. We ate lots sweet potatoes (a staple in the local diet), bitter beurds, mushrooms, and plenty of greens.

We took photos of ourselves smiling in front a turquoise sea and then uploaded them to social media. The image showed a happy couple beginning the next phase of their lives together. We both knew how fragile our relationship was, but neither of us would openly admit it.

But this wasn’t just a sight-seeing visit. Our goal was to live and work with local families, to really get to know each place from the inside. We started to look for work as volunteers and quickly learned about the websites WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and WorkAway, two platforms which match up volunteer workers with ‘employers’ who exchange room and board for daily labour. A worker is expected to work at most four hours per day, with one day off for every six.

We began volunteering at a dairy farmer. Our services weren’t required for milking, but primarily for feeding the cows and clearing away the endless manure. Our first shift began at 6 a.m. In the UK, our lifestyle had been more than comfortable — we especially loved a good restaurant — yet here we were, living like students.

Physically it was challenging, but our fascinating co-workers came from all over the world, and as the days went by, we started to get into a groove with the ‘back-to-basics’ lifestyle. Every day, Galina and I had a clear sense of purpose and a shared set of responsibilities — to keep the animals alive.

Neither of us knew better than the other how to do it, and as we learned together, we began to talk, and occasionally laugh, as we’d not done in months.

The key was a mutual goal — something we needed and would have to find again back in the UK. But, our relationship was still strained. One day, I found myself walking ahead Galina, lost in my thoughts. ‘Why the hell are you walking ahead of me again?’ she asked. ‘What are you thinking about?’

She took my silence to mean that I was distant or, even worse, selfish.

‘It’s not going to work if we go on like this,’ she said. ‘From now on, we walk side by side, hand in hand.’ I took her hand. We would pretend it for a while to see if that helped.

Our next stop was another Blue Zone — the isolated Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica, where we stayed for six weeks. We noticed that many homes here have patios, and each had a number rocking chairs on the porch. We were amazed at how many porches were full of multiple generations of family members sitting together and conversing as we drove around the neighborhood in the evenings. The glow of smartphones screens was not noticeable.

Chris (pictured, in Japan) and Galina began their adventure in Okinawa, famous for the longevity of its people and their relative immunity to common killers in the West such as heart disease

Galina (pictured in Japan with Chris) and Galina started their adventure in Okinawa. Okinawa is known for its longevity and relative immunity against common killers in Western countries like heart disease.

We traveled to Sardinia in March 2019, off the west coast of Italy. Tourists love its beaches, but it’s the inland, mountainous areas that hold its longevity secrets.

Specifically, we headed to the Nuoro province, where the ‘Blue Zone’ name was first conceived by Dan Buettner, and the cluster of villages whose inhabitants shared a rare genetic marker, known as the M26 marker, which researchers believe is correlated with long life.

We stayed in Perdasdefogu, a town high up in the mountains famous for holding the world record for one family’s collective longevity — at one point, the Melis family of six sisters and three brothers had a combined age of 818.

We visited the Longevity Bar, which was still owned by one of the Melis brothers at 96. I asked his son what he believed to be his father’s secret to a long life. ‘Hard work!’ he exclaimed.

Galina (pictured, in Italy) and Chris began changing their diet during their travels - learning a better balance between plant-based foods and animal products

Chris (pictured in Italy, Galina) and Chris changed their diets while on their travels. They found a better balance between animal products and plant-based food.

It was yet another lesson. Galina and my mother had to find something to entertain us even in our old age.

Six weeks was spent exploring Ikaria, a Greek island in the Blue Zone. There, food and community are the cornerstones to a long and prosperous life. We stayed in a traditional Ikarian farmhouse, and Eleni helped us with the cooking. Our diet was changing. We were trying to find a better balance between animal products and plant-based foods.

Something changed on Ikaria. They love nothing more than a party and the chance to dance on this magical island. They dance and eat together for hours.

Our trip coincided with Greek Orthodox Easter and this allowed us to experience another of the key Blue Zone takeaways — spiritual belief. Whatever your faith, it’ s been proved in studies that participation in religious groups improves longevity. Galina and i began to hold hands out a desire, not out duty.

As we headed back to London, however, we still hadn’t talked about our marriage. We were both tired and it was difficult to have the conversation loudly. So I took my laptop with me to write a letter to her one morning after our journeys.

Chris said their Blue Zone travels brought them face to face with the key factors that add up to a long life, such as good food eaten with family and a sense of togetherness. Pictured: Couple in Costa Rica

Chris said their Blue Zone travels brought them face to face with the key factors that add up to a long life, such as good food eaten with family and a sense of togetherness. Pictured: Couple in Costa Rica

I wrote of what I’d learned on our trip: the core values of family, the dedication to work and community that I’d seen in every Blue Zone we’d visited. I wanted to be loved by and stay with her, so I wrote.

I handed Galina my letter to read — and she wrote one for me, too. Galina had learned that her gap year had given her the ability to seek meaning and purpose in her life. She accepted responsibility for her part in the past and stated that she would retrain in a different job after the children left home. She promised to send me a letter each day and a song.

These were solid ways for us to create the connection we wanted. All doubt was gone. We danced in the kitchen together, amazed at our breakthrough.

In our Blue Zone travels we’d come face to face with the key factors that seemingly add up to a long life: good food eaten with family and a sense of togetherness, both real and spiritual.

Even though our children were grown up, we still had a close family and were still together. The secret was right under our noses all the time.

Fly: An Empty Nester’s Quest For The Holy Grail Of Life, Love & Longevity, by Chris Saye, is available on Amazon