Who I am, and where I lived

One aspect of being an immigrant is that, until you find your bearings, you’re constantly second-guessing yourself. Is it really better here?, you think frantically. What would I be doing there, now? And, at some point, Was this such a great idea?

I’m obsessed with this. Not so, for my husband, who refuses to look back for any length of time.

Last week, frustrated with the job search after spending two days at a food web site, test-driving the job, I sat on the edge of the bed, staring out the window at the funeral parlor across the street, and was caught in deja vu–of doing the same thing in Israel, in our enormous and state-subsidized apartment, and then in Prague, on the edge of the hard futon, after teaching, during the coldest days of the first winter there. It’s easy to get stuck.

More out of envy than real interest, I asked J., “How do you do it?” He’d come into the bedroom, and was standing at the foot of the bed.

He made a strange hand gesture, slicing the air from top downwards. “You have to draw a line.” Then I understood–he’d drawn a line that was more of a wall. “And you move forward.”

The longer I’m anywhere for more than three months, the clearer it is that the most successful people are grounded–and have been so, for years–in one spot. They’ve stayed long enough in one city (though maybe not with one company) to advance in their careers, they have vast professional networks, and they always have a barbeque to go to, somewhere, on the weekend. How on earth could a nomadic lifestyle compete with the easy pragmatism of that?

I’m no die-hard fan of barbeque. But the rest would be nice. On the one hand, no way would I trade the last fifteen years (much less the last five) for a picket fence and a 401k. But I do feel like I have “restart” buttons to spare. With every new place, family, friends, and friends who are former co-workers, seem farther away (Colorado, Prague, Tunisia), and my resume becomes harder and harder to explain.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not complaining. I’m just trying to puzzle out the path ahead. When I looked at my resume last week as I was accidentally riding the A train up to 125th Street, past the job at Central Park West, it seemed like a flimsy version of who I really am and what I’ve done. At this point, “professional traveler” should be a legitimate line, with all the logistical and negotiating capabilities that connotes. But when I grapple with how to explain the last five years to potential employers, I get as stuck as if I were back sitting on my bed in any of the last three cities. Here’s what I can do:

  • Get around Israel in Hebrew via a variety of transport options (though I recommend sherut taxis, for the sheer thrill and people-meeting possibilities).
  • Get around the Czech Republic in Czech–including signing contracts and finding parmesan (no easy feats, I assure you).
  • Navigate the old city of Jerusalem, clockwise, in a day. (Same with Prague, but I’d go counterclockwise.)
  • Handle a student load of 300, and a 4:4 university teaching load. When I’m told to gloss over teaching on my resume or in interviews, I think, Really? When was the last time you stared down a room of thirty hostile adults, mapped out your plan for them, got them on board with that plan in a week–and then worked with them to make sure they did better than their best expectations in twelve weeks? I can do that–in more than one country, and definitely in more than one field.
  • Copy edit (in Chicago style) a 150,000-word book on the most beautiful places in Europe from purchase to ready-to-print in two weeks, including negotiating with the typesetting studio in Czech. (One of fifty books I worked on.)
  • Sail through the Frankfurt book fair. Team of four. Up at 6:00 am, meetings, notes, smiling, slicing sausages; dinner with clients; bed at midnight. Repeat for four days. (My favorite moment from this: when I won over the C&C Printers team from Hong Kong at dinner while we all rhapsodized about cheese. Our CEO later told me, No one ever sat with them before.)
  • Fight (elbows untucked) through the Prague Foreigners’ Police permanent-residency line at 5:00 am with 700 others, emerging as one of the first with a residency card.

That’s my real résumé.

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10 responses to “Who I am, and where I lived

  1. If it’s any consolation, and it probably isn’t, you don’t need to have moved every few years to experience the frustration of trying to convince potential employers that you have broad skills and talents suited to any number of job type. We still live in a world with compartmentalized work environments where skill specialization is valued over broad experience. Unfortunately, this is probably truer during economic downturns. I lived in Southern California for most of my working years and found it nearly impossible to get a job doing anything that I had not already done.

    I once read a book titled ‘The Art of Using Your Whole Brain’ by Katherine Benziger. It’s a variation on the Carl Jung, Myers-Briggs model for thinking patterns but goes a little beyond it by comparing natural individual thinking tendencies with thinking patterns generally required for success in various professional areas. I liked it because it helped me to understand some of the reasons that I found parts of my job interesting and others not so interesting. It made me think about how much more productive and `happy’ we could all be if there was some greater effort to match people’s natural thinking strengths with job types.

    Well, I’m diverging a bit. You are right, professional networking is the best solution. As I entered `semi’ retirement I was able to find part time work with someone I had worked with in the past who knew that I could do many things – old and new.

    Good luck, I know you will find something.

  2. Thanks for the advice and book recommendation, Bob. It’s more appreciated than you know. :)

  3. You are so amazing!!! I am always impressed by people like you who have the courage to live in a new city (or cities) and carve out a life, home and a living. Wish you lived on my coast, maybe next move? We could BBQ in my furtive alley ( chuckling).

  4. Erin, I hear you with the comment, “My resume becomes harder and harder to explain.” How do you roll all those skills into a statement that furtively, but not too obvious says..”Pick me!”

    Is it too romantic to think, “I’d like to be inspired by the place I work…and make a legitimate contribution.” Perhaps. I’m holding out…

    In the meantime, my life outside of work reads like a novel! :) And I’ve met fabulous people like you and our dear HeatherHAL. I think we’re the lucky ones…


  5. Erin,

    Ah, how familiar your frustrations sound! I certainly can’t say that my experiences have even come close to the scope of cultures and experiences you’ve met and built. In light of this though, I couldn’t agree more about the odd nature (by formal necessity, of course) that one needs to be distilled to a piece of paper for a recruiter or network recipient to peruse. Know this though, especially reading through the unabridged version here.

    These experiences definitely will show through in conversation and if any worthwhile recruiter (albeit a seemingly small population at times) knows much about picking the right people they’ll sense this and be able to pursue some questions that address these strengths. I realize the world of recruiting would be quite different if I ran the world, but still!

    I especially like your points about the relevance of teaching, winning over students and also winning over C&C Printer executives. Impressive and amusingly told!

    Keep it up and hang in there. There are many who know exactly what you mean and agree :)


  6. Hi Erin!

    It’s such a consolation that there are people in the world feeling the same way I do. I’ve lived in three different cities in the past five years (Prague included) and my friends from home always think I’m far away even if I’ve moved back.

    Yes, I do get the professional traveller comments, most times, professional student (then). Eventually, after being told my resume is “too liquid” I decided to stay put – and struggling every day. I don’t really know if being able to move through places and cultures and yet effectively deliver a job well done is a negative but certainly, employers, in my experience, prefer a sense of specialization.

    You’ll find your niche soon! And please don’t regret. You can always settle and choose a city and stay put and grow your roots. While you’re young, soar and explore. :)

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