Well, that was quick.
(That’s what she said…)
In January, as my last post detailed, I counted myself somewhat lucky to have found a full-time job, given being an American abroad, navigating the shoals of a foreign bureaucracy with figurative hull intact, and so on. All of which is largely true.
I am now, however, back on the job market. The company, which was financially struggling, apparently needed a “senior” person with more Spanish, and along with another more “junior” person at the company, I am looking for other opportunities.
The catch being, “other opportunities” in this country entail the same pay, and roughly the same need for a level of Spanish that is simply not possible to attain rapidly, as much as I am interested in learning it. I am working remotely through a friend’s company, and aiming to expand my very new and, for now, very small freelance client base. Time will tell how long that remains a viable solution, either for my resume or for my morale.
When I first stumbled upon technology as a career, it appealed to me on pragmatic and personal levels in roughly equal parts. Now, at a professional crossroads of sorts that I hadn’t remotely foreseen in 1993, I feel that I’m putting my hopes and assumptions — along with my patience — to the test. Among those hopes was a certain freedom, the ability to work at some level independently of a particular locale, or organization. Having “portable” skills appealed to me in an instinctual way that at the time I hadn’t understood, and having some degree of independence appealed to me that much more. In retrospect, looking at the paths my life has taken — a literal phrase, given my repeated reluctance to take decisive action — I saw in my choice of career a means of attaining two things I deeply desired, and did not fundamentally have; a sense of freedom and a sense of security. For the past fifteen years, I’ve enjoyed the latter in far greater measure than the former; living in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, and in what has arguably been one of the consistently best technical job markets in the country, I have never particularly questioned, nor felt compelled to question, the availability of reliable sources of work and income. I’ve been complacent, and enjoyed the ability to live from day to day, and month to month, without worries about bills, or my mortgage. All of which is perhaps a national feeling, these days, as chronicled daily and hourly in ominous reports of more layoffs, more foreclosures, more decimated retirement accounts. It’s a leaking ship that holds a hell of a lot of passengers. It’s an ebbing tide that beaches all boats. It’s a chicheed metaphor that fits all sentences. From that vantage point, I am by no means alone.
There are times when this comforts me, and others when I marvel at the quickness — and, at times, or so it has seemed to me in my moments of anxiety, glibness — of the advice I’ve heard, solicited or otherwise, in both preparing for this transition and while undertaking it.
“Oh, you can do that anywhere, can’t you?” has made it to my Top Ten List Of Phrases That Piss Me Off — no, accessing the internet is just a little bit different from carrying on an entire, complex, full-time job that entails interaction with other people daily. Less irascibly stated, there are widespread limits to the nature and quantity of jobs, technical or otherwise, that are feasible via an entirely remote setting, and most telecommuting arrangements, particularly those that are full-time, assume a well-established relationship with one’s employer. Most of the sites that are in fact targeted toward remote employment, such as Elance, oDesk, and my personal favorite (he said, facetiously), GetACoder.com, apart from in some instances charging fees for bidding on work, entail competition with rates as low as $10 per hour. My current “telecommuting” role is in fact with a friend and former boss with whom I’ve had a friendship and professional relationship for years, and is not full-time. So, yes, there are ways to “work remotely,” but doing piecemeal jobs and actually sustaining a career, in which one has invested a decade and a half are not the same thing.
“It’s good to keep busy” actually makes me angry, an emotion that is laden as much with the prickings of ego as with irony. Ego, because I want to shout “Goddamit, I’m not trying to ‘keep busy,’ like poor old grandpa shuffling around his retirement condo, I have a career! I’m good at what I do! I’ve busted my ass to get the experience that I want to put to work!” Irony, because the execrable phrase “trailing spouse” originated in the blindness and ignorance of an age when women did the trailing, and when the notion of a dual-career family simply didn’t exist. All that said — keeping busy is the absolute least of my concerns.
With this, I abrubtly conclude my latest emission of text into the ether of The Internets. If you’re hoping for a positive, can-do, optimistic wrap up…I don’t have it in me right now. But I’m keeping busy.
Since I last fired words into the blogosphere, I have begun a job “on the local economy,” as many in the Foreign Service describe what is, for those married to diplomats, arguably one of the weightier challenges of joining their spouses when they begin their assignments abroad. In many respects, the process went more smoothly than expected. Thanks in large part to the Foreign Liaison Office of the Embassy, and in specific part to the efforts of a new friend and colleague, Nancy Brown, the often torturous effort to obtain the work permit (permiso) went smoothly. Likewise, the getting of the “NIE,” the Spanish equivalent of a Social Security Number.
Some mercifully brief background: I’m a software developer/programmer/web developer, which has been my bread and (peanut) butter for the past fifteen years. I would not call it my “passion,” at least to the extent that any means of earning a living can be. I generally like it. I think I’m reasonably good at it. I enjoy solving problems; putting things together. And after fifteen years of it, I’ve had the opportunity to work for a variety of different managers, with a variety of different people, in a variety of organizations. I’ve reached the point, as I watch my 40th birthday approach like the horizon on a road trip (or like an oncoming truck), at which both business nomenclature and reality render me “senior.” It’s largely an industry buzzword, but to me it means having reached a level of knowledge sufficient to allow me to solve fairly complex problems, and to work with some independence.
Having shared this, which to my editorially focused eyes reads vaguely like a cover letter, my move to Spain, and the aforementioned job-acquisition, have been part of a professional, intellectual, even psychological crossroads. In my stronger, more optomistic moments, I’ve looked back at my years of work experience with some sort of confidence, I have drawn from it the phrases and catchwords that resumes and interviews demand. I’ve “psyched myself up” for what I expected to be a difficult career transition with reminders that I have valuable knowledge to offer, skills honed by time and pressure, and so on. All of which I do believe, to an extent. But with those moments, I’ve found myself feeling a new and surprisingly powerful array of fears. The fear that whatever job I do find will compound the usual challenges of technology work with the added stress of an unfamiliar language and culture. The fear that my limited time in Spain, combined with my still-elementary command of Spanish, would reduce my options to an untenable degree, leaving me applying for low-paid jobs that would set me back to the work I’d done ten years ago. The fear that whatever job I was able to find, being hard-won and scarce, would, unlike the jobs I’ve had in the past, deny me peace of mind that my particular profession has afforded me in the Washington, D.C., and recently and briefly, New York job markets: that there are other options.
I can count myself fortunate that many of the above fears have this far proven unrealized. The job I have found is, technologically speaking, interesting and beneficial to a software developer’s resume, being a project that involves very new technology. The work environment is, though in some respects obviously different from what I’ve know, in other respects oddly familiar and even mundane (more on that later). And as I learn both Spanish (albeit word by, definite article, by adjective), and adapt as I’ve done before to a new set of conceptual challenges, a new boss, a new location for midday breaks, I am finding things to enjoy, and things from which I can grow. And a deeper fear, one that transcends work and for that matter my moving to a different country — that I’m weak, that I’m fundamentally unable to adapt, unable to break from the comfort of what’s familiar, seems less pre-eminent than it had in the months leading up to this move. But it’s not gone.
As I type this, I have had just under two months of this job, doing the usual in a most unusual context. I get up for work each morning, share a hasty coffee with my wife, put my lunch into my briefcase (I recommend the L.L. Bean Ballistic II, if only for the testosterone-infused name), walk to the subway, ride a train underground, emerge into the sunlight, enter an office, repeat, in reverse. During the workday I periodically sneak glances at internet news sites, listen to my iPod, take breaks with the co-workers with whom I particularly “click.” The books and websites I use for my job are the same ones I would use in the States, the same ones I have used for months; in some cases, years. The minutiae and practices of my job that feel in some ways instinctual are routinely punctuated with moments of “where the hell am I?” as I see an error message appear in Spanish, in the midst of a particularly tedious technical task. I find myself, as often, focused on the challenges of what I do, and then find myself jarred into what’s often sadness when I step outside to clear my head of code syntax and jargon, and find a setting that in many ways will never be anything but alien. I’d like to add to this paragraph some sort of inspiring conclusion, some extremely personal and perhaps triute equivalent of “yes we can,” but I don’t have those words, now, nor the feelings behind them. For better or for worse, at this moment in March of 2009, I am taking each day, proverbially, as it comes.
As much as I appreciate the ETA’s calling ahead of time, 3:00 would have worked out a lot better for me today for a car bombing.
Apart from the longest and most expensive cab ride of my life, and a day off of work (more or less), the impact on this particular American expatriate was negligible.
The ETA is a Basque “separatist” group that seems to have a deep and abiding hatred for rail travel. Today’s explosion was apparently a message to a company called Ferrovial, which has a large Spanish transportation contract.
I keep thinking of that scene from The Jerk. “Stay away from the trains! They hate these trains!!”
I’ve felt drawn to Ireland for reasons that I can’t adequately explain. In 1992, a friend took a trip that extended from downtown Dublin into what was, from his photos, stunningly lush green countryside, and with that and the discovery of The Pogues, my yearning began. There is absolutely no logic behind it. I know little of Irish culture or history; I have met few, if any, Irish people in my lifetime, and my heritage is far more infused with Welsh and Scottish-ness than anything else. That said…after years of “what if,” this past January, my wife and I boarded a surprisingly affordable Ryanair flight to Ireland.
We had chosen to lay our heads at a guesthouse in the center of the city, just north of the Liffey river: a watery social dividing line, according to the several guidebooks I read. All of which was best taken with grains of salt, and washed down with a Guinness. Whatever differences the North-siders and South-siders may have traditionally held onto, none were visible or relevant during this long weekend excursion.
It felt good to be there. Obvious linguistic familiarity aside, it felt like a form of home, albeit far different and with far less impact than New York. The gray that held firm in the skies for much of the weekend was not as depressing as it might have been, elsewhere; if anything, it enabled the warmth of numerous old pubs to stand out that much more in contrast.
Pubs bear much elaboration. Again according to the guidebooks we carried with us, what was once an inimical part of Irish culture had, over numerous commercially fraught decades, spread abroad, and somehow back again, to the extent that the “pub” experience was not, even in much of Dublin, what it originally was. To a limited extent, I would concur. Amusingly, my favorite bar and restaurant in New York, during the roughly five months that I was recently there, seemed most “Irish” of any purportedly Irish watering hole I had experienced in the States — a place where people came and went irrespective of schedule, or “happy hour.”
As part of the long-anticipated visit of my mother-in-law, just after Christmas, we embarked on a road trip, a la Renault Scenic, to the beach-laden and Basque-enriched city of San Sebastian. It was good to smell ocean air, and for that matter, oddly enough, to be in a car. Since relocating to Spain, apart from sundry and cramped taxi jaunts between points of downtown Madrid interest, most of my getting around has been either under my own power, or via Madrid’s new and impressive subway system.
San Sebastian, being largely a resort area, was somewhat quiet at this cold time of year, and the beaches, apart from a few kamikaze Polar Bear Club devotees, were absent the throngs that crowd their expanses in the summer. Our lodging was courtesy of a branch of the “High Tech Hoteles,” a chain throughout Spain that seems to pride its corporate self on, if not the availability of an actual computer in each room, the prevalence of reliable Wi-Fi.
San Sebastian, being, again, a Basque-influenced region (I welcome any clarification of my claims here), is replete with restaurants serving pinchos (or “pinxtos,” phonetically speaking), which in the simplest possible terms are a variety of vegetables, meats, and fish served in numerous and colorful configurations on slices of bread, and artfully impaled on a toothpick. A particular favorite is fried bacalao (salt cod), a fish that when cooked is uncommonly flaky and tender, and is often served a la Basque in small beer-battered pieces.
This being a resort town, our weekend would have been a shell of its hypothetical adventurous self without a trip to the local spa (name to be included during post-mortem fact checking). “Spa” is in fact an only partially accurate description; along with the various types of massage and skin treatment that such establishments offer, this particular place featured both a modern gym (which was oddly empty), and what I can best describe as a subterranean aquatic theme park.
The latter, having no equivalent in the States of which I’m aware, was as relaxing as it was unfamiliar. The staff hands you a towel and bathing cap. Once changed and swim-suited, you proceed to the entrance, where you toss said towel down a chute, while you walk through a small hallway equipped with a gentle shower. Once sufficiently and superficially cleansed, you retrieve your towel, and proceed to the first of two levels of watery experiences.
The largest is essentially two olympic-sized pools, subdivided with tiled walls in rows, each of which has roughly ten “stations” with metal handles and strategically arranged water jets, all scientifically designed to a) provide massages to various regions of your person and b) remove an inadequately tightened pair of swim trunks at alarming velocity. One can, if desired, proceed the length of any of these walls, massaging the entire back and shoulders to an extent that almost matches the ministrations of th emost timid masseur (-euse).
Also on this level were the requisite hot tub, around the perimiter of which were roughly twenty plastic light beds designed to simulate the heat and discomfort of sunbathing, absent any tanning effects whatsoever. The novelty of this particualr service, which vaguely resembled a cheesy 60’s sci-fi movie set, wore off rapidly.
More intriguing was the psychedelic water adventure that awaited spa-goers downstairs. The room was essentially a cave, with dark stone walls, minimal lighting, and another large pool, itself lit by underwater lights that steadily shifted their colors across the spectrum. This, too, was an exercise and massage pool, and along with jets of pounding, muscle-untightening water, offered submerged stationary bikes, elliptical trainers, and oddly enough, rowing machines.
More later. Soak all that in, and let the bad pun wash over you.
It’s a French chain, best described as an amalgam of the “gourmet” supermarket near you, in the States, Wal-Mart, and possibly, Circuit City. Our trip here, thanks to the gracious conveyance of a friend’s SUV, reminded me of numerous shopping malls in America: a massive parking lot, around which was a perimeter of “big box” stores.
To better experience Spanish culture, shortly after washing up on the figurative shore of Madrid, I attended a Spanish class hosted at the American Embassy. Said class was a combination of language education, not unlike what I experienced in junior high school, high school, and college, as well as weekly field trips to parts of Madrid.
I arrived in Madrid’s Barajas airport this afternoon. Oddly enough, it already felt familiar; almost routine. I had been here several times over the past two years; the first, solo, while transporting to very tired, very unhappy, very damp cats.
This arrival, however, was different. Today I was in Madrid to stay, at least until September of 2010, rather than to visit. I was joining my wife, whose Foreign Service assignment was already a year underway.
On this particular afternoon, and as I was looking up into Baragas’ distinctive arced, wooden-strip-adorned ceiling, I was at the moment of disembarking (de-planing sounds, well, ridiculous) too tired to think large, panoramic thoughts that would span the next years. I had spent the previous twelve hours on a driving odyssey from Staten Island, New York, to Virginia, in a surprisingly fast Chrysler minivan. After a drive that was a blir — less of scenery (certainly, after a brief conversation with a New Jersey state trooper) that of thoughts, hopes, fears. I was driving to a place that was all too familiar, leaving a place that went from utterly unfamiliar to profoundly comforting, that felt like home when I first saw it, (more on that later), to a place that was in some respects utteroly alien, new, frightening, exciting, in emotional fits and starts.
I couldn’t think, in that moment, of the past months — our wedding, the love of the friends and family who shared it, the week we spent in Maine before my newly-wife left returned to Spain, my feelings about the week that followed, also in Maine, returning to a place that was, many years ago, a family retreat, and a place that evoked as much peace and joy as it did a sadness that I cannot express — more on this, too later. I felt excited, terrified, bewildered. I was embarking on a part of my life’s journey (please forgive this over-work cliche) for which I found no precedent in the years thgat preceded it, years that lay behind me like tombstones, years spent avoiding precisely the feelings of challenge, risk, unfamiliarity, that were swimming in my jet-lagged mind as I stood on the interminable movable walkway that carried me from the maw of the airliner inexorably toward a rubber belt that would impersonally carry my posssessions toward me.
At the baggage claim, largely deserted at this seldom-travelled time of day, a patient man named Jose stood with a sign emblazoned “Benjamin Murray.” He and a Mercury Sable station wagon, courtesy of the American Embassy, conveyed me to the apartment where my wife and I would begin what would be the most unpredicatable part of our life together.
I wanted to feel a sense of adventure, of transition. I wanted to feel confident of embracing a new culture, and a new language, or at least, confident of making my very American and very introverted way through it. Somewhere, deep under layers of a self-doubt that I had ingrained in my being after years of routine, I did in fact feel this. But at the time, I felt tired. I wanted the comfort of my wife’s arms, and brilliant smile. And so I sat quietly in the back of the Embassy car, looking at Madrid traffic, and let one breath follow another. It was the best I could do.
When I first saw the idea of a “travel blog” emerge from the swirling haze of my then-tired mind, I assumed that it would logically begin in Europe, which has been arguably the most extreme leg of my journey. New York, however, deserves mention. It is where I was born, it was apart from my life for over twenty years, and in April of 2008, I returned, “moving” for the several months that preceded my wedding, and then, Spain.
I surround “moving” with quotes because I was in a sort of no-man’s land between simply visiting and living; my mother was kind enough to share what had been my sister’s room, while the pieces of my furniture that were not stacked with precision in my storage unit were making their way across an ocean. My house, at that point, was occupied by the family to whom I had rented it. The care of the yard and sundry other mundane chores that had been a part of my daily life were now in the hands of a property manager. And the surroudings that, by default, I had come to think of as home, of only because of their familiarity, were gone.