My father and I were on the phone a few days after I arrived in Vietnam, chatting about what I liked here and how it differed from elsewhere.
“Jodi, I’m just trying to understand what you do every day? Is there a routine?”
“I eat soup.”
“I eat a lot of soup, Dad. This country has a lot of soups to try, and I’m trying them all.”
“Wait, what? You’re eating soup all day?”
“Here,” I said, sending him a photo of my favourite bun rieu near my apartment, “how delicious does this soup look? It looks delicious, right? It’s possibly the best soup in the universe.”
I could hear my dad laughing and could almost visualize him shaking his head at me.
“Jodi, I love you very much but sometimes your life confuses me.”
Join the club.
At the beginning of my travels, I didn’t obsess over food. Soup was just a meal, but I wasn’t traveling for it. (Ha! Silly past-tense Jodi…if only I knew.) Now, soup — or food generally — has become the focus, so much so that it’s off-putting to many people I meet. The extreme fascination I have with what people eat and why has totally changed the way I see the world, has changed the direction of this site, and has changed the way I plan to live my life going forward.
In a strange circular fashion, I left to travel the world but now I want to stay longer and longer in each place. I want to scratch under the surface and hug the things I find tightly, so I can keep an imprint of them with me somehow. Food, the universality that it is, has become my tool to connect with people and learn everything I can. It could be a different tool, but principally it is the curiosity to learn through food — and all the wonderful people I’ve met through it — that makes this life choice so rewarding.
* * *
Today, April 1, marks five years of having quit my job and taken off for a “one year” (whoops) RTW adventure. Five years! How did this happen?! In the strange time-space compression of soup-filled days I’m flabbergasted by this unfolding of years. I can still remember my first weeks on the road like they were yesterday. I’m thankful for this site for many reasons, but in part because it is a digital record of what I have trouble digesting: that somehow I took a love of living the world and I made it my day-to-day work.
I try to keep the blog about the travel and food stories, but for my yearly “State of the Union”- style anniversary piece, I get more Jodi-centric. The About page talks about the site and my livelihood, but the psychology behind it has been ignored. What I’m saying is: my dad’s question was a valid one, and I think a question many of you have as well if your emails are any indication.
(My days do involve soup, by the way, but generally I have a routine of mostly work and then time with friends in the evening.)
Given the many email questions from readers about what’s next, both professionally and personally, I thought I’d go into a bit more detail about the goals I have for both in this year’s anniversary post.
My goals are, understandably, different from when I set out in 2008. I thought I would take a year to see the world, and thereafter return to lawyering. Given that I was still traveling after two years, I then focused on supporting myself with freelance work – I did not want to eat into my savings, nor did I want to advertise or accept sponsorship on this site. Now, things are shifting once again. I want to take what I have learned and do more with it. It’s not that I’m bored with travel, it’s that I’m more excited by the idea of creating a business around the things I’ve learned, instead of just moving from A to B. Whereas I left New York because of a deep (some might say destructive) restlessness, I now want to refocus my energy into building something more stable. But I want to do it from places I love.
Last year’s goals included getting better at public speaking and writing my book. A big and exhausting year! But the book is done (yay!) and somehow I spoke at over 10 events (ahh!) without throwing up on myself with nervousness.
For the next few years, my work goals are:
- Start a community and resources site for other celiacs who want to travel, since there is a need for it in the marketplace. There are some sites for travels without gluten but they are primarily domestic or European, and I would like to have a forum for people to ask and answer questions as well. This will not be my primary focus but it is something I want to get off the ground.
- Get more serious about social media consulting work. I’ve really enjoyed building out this aspect of what I do, and truly believe in the power of social when coupled with authenticity in branding. As I’ve said time and time again, no one should be putting anything out that they haven’t read and are willing to endorse. Brands – be they small brands or big brands – can use social media to create a real personality around a corporate entity, but also to engage their customers in an authentic way. Helping strategize and run their feeds has been an unexpected but rewarding line of work for me. I went from advertising lawyer to digital advertising consultant. Who knew? (For more about my thoughts on social media, see my podcast with Dan from Tropical MBA.)
- Start food tours. I’ve been testing this ad hoc in HCMC during the last few months, taking roving bands of readers and friends to places around town and asking for feedback. I want to do tours that are not structured around restaurants or general eats, but hyper-specific to a theme to learn from. Example: to take people on a chili tour of a city, from markets to restaurants to cooking techniques, culminating in a chili-based meal, talking about how chili even came to Asia and when it is used. Themes seem like a great way to teach people about the origins of the food, a big part of what I love to research. These will not be a thing to see / do in a particular city, but will instead be based around what cities I am living in at the time.
- Continue with speaking. I’m getting less and less nervous about the speaking, but still want to throw up on myself when I take the stage – I’ve just gotten used to feeling like I want to throw up on myself. Hopefully more speaking will beget less nervousness. Career transitions, social media and food history are topics near and dear to my heart.
- Continue to share stories on Legal Nomads. This site is not a basic chronology of my travels – it is more about stories, so I do not follow a linear timeline at all times. I’ve loved sharing narrative here and meeting with readers as I’ve travelled. (For readers in Chicago, Toronto and Montreal, I’ll be posting reader meetups on my Facebook page during the summer months.) This site remains a joy and not an obligation. Regardless of other work, I have no plans to shut down Legal Nomads.
That’s a lot to work with in a year or more, and I cannot get started right away as much of 2013 is mapped out. I’ll be heading to England first for my brother’s birthday, then Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Portland and more this summer. I’ve also been working with G Adventures for several years as a Wanderer in Residence, writing for their site and occasionally hopping on a G tour. This fall I will be taking my mum to India with me on a G tour for her birthday. She has always wanted to go. I’m beyond excited about this trip as I have not travelled with my mum since I was 20. To say the least, It’s going to be quite the adventure.
My aim is to return to Vietnam again when I can, but stay here for 8 months or so to work on the above ideas. I’ll be working on them in part before, of course, but specifically for the food tours I’ll need to be in one place. The day after I got to Vietnam I was bowled over by my love for the quirks and daily surprises in this country. It seems like a great place to base myself for a while – more than the 4.5 months I will end up spending this year.
A long time ago, I told a friend that I would never be happy in life. That my brain was too whirry and too busy thinking of all the things I could/should/will be doing and never able to focus on the present. How can someone be happy if they’re thinking of something else all the time? In the last few years, however, I came to accept the fact that this overarching, fuzzy idea of happiness couldn’t be my goal. It was unrealistic, and I felt that I was failing – people were writing to say “oh, you’re living the dream!” — but internally I was struggling with what I was doing and why I was doing it.
What I was feeling made sense given that I got here by accident (as in, I didn’t quit my job to be a travel writer or seek happiness), but I still needed to parse through my thoughts and also take stock of who I had become after many years of travel.
* * *
I use the term “building a life” a lot lately. It’s become my preferred expression to discuss my choices because there is such weighted agency in it – I, Jodi Ettenberg, chose this path. It has been a fallback to say I got here by accident — factually accurate, no less — but relying on kismet or coincidence also lets me off the hook for the hard and very damaging decisions I made in leaving New York. I left a place and people I loved, and a career that was going well for me. It’s true that I didn’t do this to “be” happy or because I was burned out. But regardless, I did it because I wanted to see the world, and the pull of that otherness – not just to see it on a short vacation, but to live it and get my hands dirty – it drew me in. It became bigger than me, a restlessness that corroded. It grew and it grew until I had to act on it; ignoring it was just hurting people around me and myself.
When I left for what I thought would be a year, I found that the restlessness dissipated. I wasn’t looking to travel around the world indefinitely. That’s never been an aim. However, the restlessness was replaced by an extraordinary curiosity for just about everything I saw. I wanted to build a life around that curiosity. All of the work I do – the consulting, the food writing, the blog – is to facilitate that, and to enable me to see and experience more of the little things in life. In acknowledging this shift away from restlessness and toward learning, I came a long way to accepting more of where I am today. I’m making choices only for me, which is not something everyone has available to them.
I’ve gotten angry emails from parents telling me that I’m contributing to their children’s irresponsible behaviour, and from people asking me why I am doing what I’m doing – what am I trying to avoid? The reality is that I’m not trying to avoid anything. Driven by curiosity, I’ve followed it to where it leads. Doing so has definitely damaged important relationships, but it has also created new and important ones. Unmoored from the normal anchors that stabilize, I’ve turned instead to think about exactly what I want my life to look like at this point in time. I can understand why outwardly it would seem like running, since it is certainly a strange life path. But if anything, I am moving toward the things that hold more and more value.
It has been calming to re-think happiness and dig around it to see what it means for me. Essentially, I stopped focusing on “happy” as a term of art and started thinking of practical, tangible things that I could institute and wanted to be a part of my daily life, in the hopes of being more mindful.
I’m sure you’re shocked…. but I made a list. :) In no particular order:
- Street food, and people who also loved street food and wanted to eat it with me.
- Friends with whom I can have great, existential discussions about life and everything in it.
- Working on projects that provide value to society and were not self-serving.
- Learning something new every day.
- Practicing gratitude daily and taking pleasure in the small things in life.
- Time in Southeast Asia at least some part of the year.
- Working on an acceptance of me, and being more comfortable in my own skin. (As the kid who won “most easily embarrassed” in high school, talking to people isn’t always easy, even if I pretend it is.)
We can only do what drives each of us to live our lives to the fullest.
For many that means a round-the-world trip then a return to what everyone else deems normal. For others, it means drifting and drifting and seeing and seeing, without a plan to stay put. For most people, it means finding a partner and a home and a family that fulfills life goals. For me, well, I’ve had a huge amount of time to think about this in the last years, and have some answers for myself for the first time in a long time.
My answers are not your answers, of course, nor are they a path for anyone else’s life choices. “Your mileage may vary” is what I always say. The aggregate of my years of lawyering, travel and more have made me into who I am , and led me to value the things I value. There’s a reason I never write posts saying “Stick it to the man and quit your job like me” and that’s because I don’t think it’s the “right” way to be. I just know what worked for me, and in the hopes of helping people parse through their own choices, I’m sharing that process. But I do not begrudge or think less of people who don’t want the things I want in life; those differences are what makes the world interesting.
Back to the Soup
I was on the phone with my mother last month, breathless about my short trip to Vung Tau with friends. I regaled her with tales about banh khot and lessons I learned in the three days on the beach. (For example, do not, ever, get your grilled squid from a different lady from the lady you are renting chairs from unless you want to start a long protracted screaming match between them, resulting in a significant crowd of locals gathering at the edge of the fight, watching attentively.)
“It sounds like you really love Vietnam” she said slowly.
“Yes yes! I love it. I’m going to cry big tears of pho when I leave. I have to come back.”
Laughing gently she replied “Jodi, you say this about everywhere you live, without fail. Every place moulds to you, and you to it.”
She’s right, of course. Over the last five years of travel, you could make a supercut of phone calls like these.
“Ma, Ma MA…. I LOVE Beijing! I want to stay there forever!” and then, a year later “Mum, I know I got tear-gassed and caught up in the riots in Bangkok, but I LOVE it here!”
I suppose it’s just a testament to doing what I love that I’ve been so affectionate toward almost every place I’ve seen.
* * *
After five years of travel, what can I say? I think I like myself much more as a person now. Bit by bit, I am figuring out more about what brings me joy and what makes me sad, and I’m learning so much from the wonderful people I meet. I have worked at improving specific skills, and have others I want to improve on that scare me. But if they scare me, all the more reason to make sure I face them head-on.
Much of the things I am grateful for are not the travel per se. And really I am not truly a traveler any more, at least not in the way I was in 2008. Instead, I’ve focused on taking the time to fall for a new place by experiencing it firsthand, while at the same time doing work I find fulfilling.
If you’re still here after this sprawling post: thank you. It’s been an incredible 5 years of ups and downs, of learning and sharing and eating. I keep talking about gratitude but I cannot emphasize that expanding-heart-feeling of being thankful for great friends, wonderful readers and a family who supports me, even if they think I’m nuts.
And of course, many many bowls of soup.