February 03, 2003 12:00 PM

The Verhagens: Escape to England

One night in 1995, Anne Verhagen found herself sobbing with her toddler in her arms. “I had given up an awful lot of time with him, and I couldn’t see for what,” says Anne, 43, who worked as a lawyer for a Boston real estate firm. It was, she concluded, time for a change. Husband Richard, 44, who worked with mentally challenged adults, agreed; together they decided to ditch suburban life and pursue a modest fantasy they had talked about for years: running a small shop in rural England.

Two months later they sold their Plymouth, Mass., home, flew overseas and started combing real estate listings. After a year of relying on savings and friends’ hospitality, they found their dream for $60,000: the general store in Austwick (pop. 465), a village tucked into the green hills of Yorkshire. “We begged and borrowed to get it,” says Anne, who gave birth to second son Angus, 5, three months after arriving.

While the boys—older brother Tristan is now 8—attend the local school, Anne and Richard sell groceries and dry goods and run a post office inside the shop. The townsfolk have welcomed the newcomers (“Anne makes a good cup of tea,” says retired farm worker Robert Brown, 86) and though the family shares a tiny rented cottage, Anne doesn’t miss her old life. “My boys are growing up in a beautiful place,” she says. “We have no regrets.”

Amy Nichols: So Long, Sales, Hello, Tales

When Amy Nichols, 29, worked as a sales account manager for a telecommunications company, she hated the office politics and her dress-for-success suits. These days her wardrobe runs to jeans and slobber-stained T-shirts—”Anything,” she says happily, “that can’t be ruined by dogs.” In April 2001, Nichols gave up a hefty income to open the Happy Tails Dog Spa in Tysons Corner, Va., where for upward of $30 per day, sybaritic pooches can enjoy a bath, pedicure and ear-cleaning, then curl up in a “nap room” with a ceiling of painted clouds.

As a kid, Nichols “was always bringing home strays,” says mom Joanne, but she abandoned dreams of being a vet for a job in the then-booming telecom market. She clambered up the corporate ladder but didn’t enjoy the view. “It was a really backstabbing place,” she says of her last job. After a particularly nasty day at the office, Nichols—the owner of Bodhi, a collie mix, and Griffen, a Boston terrier—found herself staring at puppies in a pet-store window. “I thought, ‘Whatever happens, my dogs make me feel better,’ ” she recalls. ” ‘Why can’t I do something with that?’ ” She quit to start her spa a few months later, and husband Michael Schlegel, 30, signed on as her partner after he was laid off from his own telecom job. The business is barely breaking even, but Nichols says the trade-offs have been worth it. “You couldn’t pay me enough to go back,” she says. “I’m not just another person on the toll road anymore.”

Luba Sharapan: Ad Exec Goes to Pot

Luba Sharapan seemed to have been born for the fast track. By 25, the daughter of Russian immigrants was an account executive at an Atlanta ad agency. She earned six figures, scored seats at the best restaurants and—a music fanatic—owned more than 6,000 CDs. But after Sept. 11, Sharapan, 32, and husband Erik Haagensen, 31, a marketing specialist at a software firm, decided to stop to take their bearings. “I spent years being a career girl—nothing but career, career, career,” says Sharapan. Which got her thinking: The one thing that made her really happy was her weekly pottery class. “I’m not an artist,” she says. “But something happens when you touch clay—your hands just kind of follow along.”

Inspired, Sharapan gave notice and developed a business plan for a pottery studio; Haagensen quit his job about a year later to help out. “It’s just us,” he says of Mudfire, the studio in Atlanta’s trendy Brookhaven neighborhood that they leased last July for $4,500 a month. “There’s no one to pass the blame to if we fail.” Open six days a week, 12 hours a day, Mudfire has two sub-minimum-wage staffers—Sharapan and her spouse—and 55 members who pay $135 a month to make artwork for personal satisfaction, not for sale. “I want people to discover the creativity they had as kids,” says Sharapan, who with Haagensen has taken out a second mortgage to make her vision real. “In clay, as in life, if you’re not centered, things are bound to go wrong,” she says. “Material comfort and money didn’t make me happy.”

Steve Badt: Finding Food for the Spirit

Steve Badt did the hip-restaurant thing. In New York City he worked under celebrity chef Alan Harding at Nosmo King, filleting fresh-caught trout and making beet-and-goat-cheese tartlets for downtowners including Matthew Broderick. Next came gigs at top eateries in Boston and Washington, D.C. Then, in 1998, Badt took a look at his life and thought, in essence, “Been there, sauteed that.”

“I said, ‘Who am I serving? Who am I helping?’ ” says Badt, 35, a University of Vermont grad with a lifelong interest in social causes. “I wanted to feel like I was making more of an impact on the world.” That led him to Miriam’s Kitchen, a Washington, D.C, establishment where he serves his creations, free, to homeless men and women. “I’m trying to bring the philosophy of a high-end kitchen to a soup kitchen,” says Badt, whose changing menu has featured venison meatballs, scrambled eggs with tomatoes and basil and sweet potato-coconut pie. Ingredients are mostly provided by a food bank or bought with donations, but some come from the garden behind the D.C. home he shares with his wife, Alice Weiss, 33, a health policy director for a nonprofit.

Nowadays Badt rises at 4:45 a.m. to cook a daily meal for 150 and teases old boss Harding that he has “trained a soup kitchen chef.” But Badt’s new customers remind him there’s more to life than five stars. Says Miriam’s client Eugene Talbert: “He gives us something to wake up for.”

Omar on the Range: From Engineer to Wilderness Guide

Omar El Nasser knew he was right for the job when a bear wandered into his camp. “He was 20 yards away,” says the former quality-control engineer, who now works as a guide in Idaho’s Bitterroot mountains. “Everyone else was scared, but I was digging through my saddlebag for my camera.”

Nasser, 29, the middle son of a Jordanian-born economics professor, admits he makes an unusual cowboy. Until last year, he had never been west of Buffalo, where he worked, Dilbert-like, in a cubicle at a windshield wiper factory. (“There were no windows,” he says with a shudder.) The job was steady and the $56,000 paycheck bought him, over time, two houses, two cars and two boats. But he’d always dreamed of being a cowboy, and last May—spurred by his girlfriend’s rejection of a marriage proposal—Nasser packed up and lit out for the wide-open spaces.

His parents’ enthusiasm was muted (“Everyone thinks it’s a great idea, but it’s not their son doing it,” observes his mom, Joanne, a social worker), but Nasser found work in Carmen, Idaho, as a ranch hand and trainee guide at Bighorn Outfitters for $600 a month plus bunk and board. At first the East Coast tenderfoot struggled during long rides, but his earnest efforts and sharpening skills won over his peers. “Omar is one of the guys,” says head guide Dave Melton, 43. He’s also a guy who has no plans to head back to the office. “I don’t know where I’m going to be in a year,” he says. “But for now I’m in the mountains of Idaho. And that’s pretty cool.”

The Piersons: A Movie Honcho Moves His Family to Fiji

If Jennifer Lopez ever washes up on the beach in Taveuni, Fiji, she’ll find she has fans. “Everyone here loves J.Lo,” says John Pierson, owner of Meridian 180, the island’s only movie theater. “But no one knew what to make of Stuart Little 2. They called the hero ‘the little talking rat.’ ” That kind of audience response is precisely what lured Pierson, 48, to run a tiny theater (288 seats) on a small island (pop. 10,000) a long way (8,000 miles) from his former Garrison, N.Y., home.

A producer of independent films such as Clerks and The Blair Witch Project, Pierson says he was suffering from a “spiritual crisis” after a decade in the biz. Then, in 1999, he heard about Meridian 180 and flew out for a visit. At a Three Stooges screening, he was floored by the locals’ unjaded enthusiasm. “The love of that audience for the movie was reenergizing,” he says. Learning that the owner planned to shut down the theater, he decided to take it over. Hollywood friends, including directors Kevin Smith and Spike Lee, agreed to finance the venture. (Pierson won’t name the six-figure sum.) Last September he and his family—wife and business partner Janet, 45; daughter Georgia, 15; and son Wyatt, 12, moved to a $200-a-week villa in an abandoned resort. “It was liberating,” he says.

“Liberating for him, excruciating for me,” says Janet, a homemaker, who is still adjusting to the absence of pretzels, fresh coffee and a hairdresser. The family is living off savings while Pierson—who hopes to sell a book about his experience—serves as projectionist. (Nightly admission is free.) The children attend local schools, which are taught in English, and Wyatt is learning Fijian. “It’s a pared-down life,” says Janet. “Our days are full just being together.”

J.D. Heyman

Reported by: Kevin Airs, Theresa Crapanzano, Susan Gray Gose, Esther Leach, Laurie Meyers, Vicki Sheff-Cahan and Jill Westfall

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