Personal musings after 7 years of Legal Nomads

Today marks the 7th anniversary of the day I quit my job as a corporate lawyer and left New York to travel. During the intervening years, I have thought back to the conversation that occurred when I gave notice at my firm. I walked into the office of one of my favourite partners, stomach in knots after a sleepless night. I stammered my news at him from the doorway of his office, head dipped and staring at the carpet. “Will you give us a chance to match the offer?” he asked, more kindly than was necessary. “Well…” I drifted off and took a deep breath. “I don’t think this is something you can match. I’m quitting my job to travel around the world for a year.”

There were signs, of course. The fact that my law degrees were framed yet gathering dust under my bed. That instead my office walls featured four big photographs from my prior travels, easily viewable from my desk. That I would pepper anyone who travelled overseas with questions once they returned, usually about what they ate. And — apparently — that I was Canadian. “You Canadians are flight risks,” another lawyer joked, likely half in jest. Expats are likely more of a flight risk than locals, but in a city like New York, the majority of us were expats. I just happened to be an expat who saw a documentary about the Trans-Siberian trains when I was a kid, generating years of dreaming and planning for a day when I could ride them myself.

Listvyanka

Late afternoon light in Listvyanka, Siberia, in 2008.

As most of you know, this site started as a communication tool, one that bridged worried family, excited friends, surprised colleagues, and cheerleading clients. For as long as I can remember, I have written, albeit more quietly. My mum’s house is littered with notebooks from my many years of scribbling, and during my first time away from home alone, studying in Aix-en-Provence, I sent home long email missives about culture shock and newfound friends, as well as the many trips I took to neighbouring countries. With technology allowing for a less intrusive place to update, a blog seemed like the right idea when I quit my legal job. Along with a fellow lawyer named Jessica — hence the “s” in Legal Nomads — the site was born.

We set out on April 1, 2008. I promptly got sick, and continued to get sick. So much so that I had to return to New York to recover. Between a terrible respiratory infection that left me fevered and unable to breathe, and torn tendons in my ankle, the beginnings of this adventure were not what I expected. Jess continued on her journey without me, and decided she wasn’t as keen on the writing component. She left the blog to me in late-2008, and as she had planned, returned to the practice of law after completing her trip. While we had made those plans together, my return to the law after one year never happened. This you all know. Instead, I found myself writing and eating, learning and experiencing, and growing a community of passionate, fun and interesting readers here on Legal Nomads.

Jessica and me, in Huacachina

Funding Legal Nomads

Someone jokingly asked me if I was getting a “seven-year itch”, wanting to know if I was going to switch careers once more. But I feel like I am only getting started. It is only now that I have found a place for the more artistic projects I wanted to embark upon, and finally built my online store to house them. I’ve put out a call for hiring someone to help me with running the site and the Thrillable Hours interviews, so that I can focus on writing more. In addition, after many readers asked me to put together a book for celiacs, I am in the process of writing a guide for gluten-free travel. With it, tailored gluten-free cards country by country, with me writing them first in English with local dishes, and then translating them.  There are gluten-free cards online, but those I have used did not work when locals do not know what has gluten it in and what doesn’t; presenting a tailored card with names of the forbidden dishes is my goal for this project.

My about page is long, because I often get questions about how I pay for my travel and do what I do. You can click through to it and read the whole list of income sources if you’d like, but the same rule has applied throughout. I only post what I would want to read myself, and I only offer products that I am proud of. The store is the culmination of what I saw as a missing item in the marketplace: typographic food maps built around a country’s shape. The same applies to the relationships I have formed longer-term. I have worked with companies I trust (for example, my ambassadorship with G Adventures is in its 5th year), and done freelance writing work to supplement income as I was getting the other projects off the ground, instead of taking sponsored links or advertising. My Jodi Eats tours were a chance to share my love of food and wandering for readers who came through cities I loved.

I repeat the above principles every year in these State of the Union posts, and the answers have yet to change. My plan is that they won’t have to, and that any additional projects or expansion that the site undergoes will follow those basic tenents.

Ups and Downs of No Home Base

Building a business can happen anywhere, and these projects could easily be undertaken from a laptop in Montreal, or New York, or Auckland, or Saigon. Primarily, I have grown Legal Nomads without a home. When I meet new people and they ask “where are you based?” I have trouble answering the question without sounding ridiculous.

“Ummmm… nowhere, for the last several years,” I say slowly, “I used to be a lawyer but now I eat soup for a living.”

Inevitably this leads to a few more questions, and looks of incredulity, and curiosity about the why. But one thing sticks out: people want to know how it feels to not have the stability of an actual home.

“Don’t you want a home, even if you couldn’t live in it year round?”

This is the refrain. And to be honest sometimes I do think it would be nice, if only to have a place I know I can fold into quietly if I need time to myself. But these needy occasions are infrequent, and usually I end up renting a place on for a month or two in a city I love instead, providing that inner space without the down payment.

In answering the question, I always acknowledge the privilege outright. Even the negatives to these choices are predominantly first world problems. That does not mean that they don’t weigh on me, but it remains important to acknowledge, as I usually do, that they are lucky problems to have.

The bottom line is that if I wanted a home I would seek out a home. I understand why people still ask. It does go against the norm to not have a home base for so many years. The positives of not having one outweigh any negatives, else I would not be doing this any longer. Positives like family time, the flexibility to go where I want (and when), structured around fun events around the globe. Endless summers. The many great meals, and chances to deepen connections with friends. The intense personal struggles — overcoming fears, acknowledging limits, pushing yourself to do the things that give you pause — that make me a happier person.

I wanted this site to be about learning, not about me. So I decided at the beginning of Legal Nomads that relationships or more personal or intimate things would have little place here. But readers frequently ask whether I am lonely, worried about leaping into a less normal life themselves and then feeling alone. Given the regularity of the question, I wanted to briefly answer it here: I have not been lonely. Before this site took off, I found hostel common areas and crowded street stalls easy places to meet others, and when in doubt there was always an expat event in whatever town I was visiting. Each of these places afforded a chance to talk about travel and life and usually resulted in at least one good food recommendation.

Nowadays, I am honoured by the many friends and readers who link me to people they know wherever I go. I am writing this in a fog of jetlag, having just arrived in Lisbon for the first time. In the weeks leading up to my long trip from New Zealand, I received a dozen emails from people wanting to meet up and grab some soup. A side benefit to keeping this site is not only meeting great readers, but also meeting their friends. These connections can occur anywhere in the world, and I’ve also found that it is possible to form a meaningful relationship despite not having a base. Sure, there are far fewer people seeking to work as they roam while also remaining open to a relationship. The Venn diagram does occasionally intersect, however, and I’ve been able to spend time with a gentleman who has a thirst for learning and the desire for a flexible lifestyle that I so believe in.

As I said, there are negatives to erring on the side of location independence. Some are petty, like packing. In my long resources page for those who want to take a year to travel around the world I talk about packing lists. But now I find myself in this strange hybrid place where I have turned a blog into a business, and I speak at conferences and have meetings and weddings to attend. What to pack — and what to leave with whom and where — is a persistent thorn in my side. Yes, there are worse problems to have.

Health is another downside, as getting dengue took a lot of wind out of my sails. Years later, I still don’t feel like I have healed entirely as I have lingering circulatory issues that doctors attribute to the virus. Being on the move frequently can bring more sickness and a need to slow down. I’ve had to learn to read these signs better.

Entrepreneurship brings with it its own crop of issues. A lack of consistent salary, a need for self-discipline, the fact that oftentimes you do want to work instead of play, because what you’re building excites you enough that it blots out most other things. These are challenges, but not problems.

And finally, while I have a great network of friends and family all around the world, sometimes I just wish why can’t I put them all in one place and just hang out for a few weeks. What I mean is, my friendships are consistent and they are deep, but they don’t have the consistency of daily or weekly interaction that I had when I lived in one spot. That said, I’m still profoundly happy that technology and history keeps bonds alive over borders and time.

A Big Thank You

Thank you for reading, for supporting the site through the store, for the many emails and tweets and Instagram tags that feature the soups you are eating, the olives you are hating, and the cats you are hugging. If there’s one thing that continuously amazes me about this site, it’s the quality of you readers who make it a success. I’m honoured to have met many of you over the years of Saigon food walks, and to now call you some of you friends after we’ve crossed paths several times since.

Who knew that when I pressed publish on my first post I would not be taking a sabbatical, but rather setting in motion a huge career change and a continuous process that challenged me to keep at this site without knowing where it was headed. From 2008 until now, I can honestly say what I’ve said before: that I like myself more as a person due to the self-work and continuity in trying to do what scares me, that I’ve learned from so many wonderful people who I’ve met along the way, and that there’s no such thing as “too much soup.”

Laos chicken soup

When people ask me what’s next I usually say “I don’t know”. Because I don’t. Because we rarely do anyhow, but when we choose a life that is so flexible, we know even less. All we have instead is the bag that is with us, the shoes on our feet, and the brainpower that pushes us to be what we want to be. For the first time in a few years, however, I am giddy at the prospect of growing Legal Nomads further. Not simply to expand readership, but to help more people. To give celiacs a crutch for their fears of travelling and getting sick, to share projects I care about and artwork I love, and to feature lawyers who are doing interesting things in the hopes that those unhappy in their legal work can find inspiration in the series.

Last year’s State of the Union post is here. To cap off this year’s missive, I wanted to highlight some of my favourite posts from the last 7 years of Legal Nomads. I’ve divided them by subject below.

It’s been an exhilarating, sometimes terrifying, and always interesting ride.

Thank you for coming along.

PERSONAL MUSINGS

These are the more personal posts that explain a bit more of why I travel the way I do, and some of the lessons learned in the process.

What Long-Term Travel Doesn’t Fix (December 2010): While I have benefitted tremendously as a person from my years of travel, there are some things that travel doesn’t fix, ones that are deeply ingrained into who we are as people. It’s been 5 years since I wrote this post, and it’s still relevant today.

How Travel Helps us Keep Life in Perspective (March 2011): From culture shock to reverse culture shock to living through harrowing moments abroad: how travel helps each of us recalibrate to our present.

What does Off the Beaten Path Really Mean? (September 2011): I get emails asking where “secret” places are that my readers can visit, but in this post I encourage everyone to think of what that really means. I think it’s possible to be “off the beaten path” even in your own backyard; you don’t always need to go somewhere far away.

On Homesickness and Long-Term Travel (April 2012) – for my 4 year anniversary of departure, I put together a long dual post about the practical and the ephemeral during this new life of long-term travel.

The Overview Effect, Mindfulness and Travel (December 2012) – An ode to the overview effect and how it relates to travel, that ineffable feeling that something in your worldview has changed for the future, in ways you cannot yet describe. The overview effect is usually felt by astronauts who have seen the vastness of our earth from space.

After 5 years of travel, what’s next? (April 2013) A meta snapshot of the 5 years of travel, along with the changes in me as a person, and what might come next for the site.

FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD

Bun rieu in Saigon

Food has become a huge part of my life, and the thing that keeps me travelling as I do.

An Ode to Spices (June 2011) – This was one of the posts that kicked off the shift here at Legal Nomads to focus more and more on food. It discusses why food matters, and how my celiac disease diagnosis has affected the way I see what we eat. But also, it looks at the flavours, the textures, the colours and all of the things that make eating exciting and interesting for many of us.

Condiments from Around the World (And Why They Matter) (December 2011) – From pickles to chilli and everything in between, a long post on the table condiments we find on our travels, and how they fit into the history and culture of the places we visit.

It’s Surprisingly Easy to Be Gluten-Free in Italy (May 2012) – Italy surprised me, since I never expected to have choice in my meals, let alone hand-pulled pasta made from corn. Celiac disease is quite prevalent in Italy, and I wanted to highlight that fact in a post since most people assume it would be the worst place for a celiac to travel.

Pleading for Bun Rieu Soup in Cai Rang (April 2013) – one of my fonder memories and a great morning adventure in the Mekong Delta, where I was unceremoniously refused soup by a vendor, only to have a granny come and intervene on my behalf.

The Legal Nomads Guide to Saigon Street Food  (June 2014) – I couldn’t leave out a long post about what to eat in Saigon! This was many months of planning and has turned into a great way that I can ensure my readers eat well even if I am not in town to feed them.

Recipe of the Month: Spicy Baked Feta (Bouyiourdi) (October 2014) – simple recipe that I have so enjoyed making time and time again, including a bit of history about the name. I first tried it in Finikas, on Syros, Greece.

MISADVENTURES IN TRANSPORTATION

Myanmar train rides

These are but a few of the posts that provide a post-mortem on some insane transportation adventures, from boats to trains to planes and more. Easily one of the more memorable aspects of travel — it’s just hard to keep that in mind as it’s actually going down.

Atienza Cargo Ferry from El Nido to Coron: Not for the Faint of Heart (June 2009) – With 41 water buffalo, tanks of live fish and more chicken than your average KFC, this ferry ride wasn’t for the faint of heart. The boat was several days late, the captains hadn’t yet hit puberty and I woke up in the middle of the night because a rooster was slowly creeping on my stomach, assumably to rest. As boat rides go, I won’t forget this one.

A Flight Like No Other: JFK to Moscow with Vodka (September 2008) – A vodka-soaked flight from New York to Moscow was unlike any flight I had ever taken before.

My Crazy Flight to the Dominican Republic (August 2010) – If I thought JFK to Moscow was nuts, I was mistaken: flight to the Dominican included plenty of rum, a grandmother making out with an 18 year old, and a screaming match between two passengers. Amazing.

My Safety Whistle: Worth its Weight in Gold (December 2010) – Two out of my three emergency uses for the safety whistle related to transportation: one while getting stuck in the middle of the Ayeyarwaddy river at dusk and the other when locked into the bathroom on a night train (classy, I know). Safety whistle: don’t leave home without it.

Watching a Solar Eclipse in Burma (December 2010) – Piggybacking on the prior post, this 3 day slow boat trip in Burma was chock full of adventure, karaoke and a solar eclipse to boot.

It’s Not A Proper Bus Ride without a Chicken or Two (February 2011) – Vomiting children, livestock and a songthaew so packed people were hanging off the end.

Decoding the Insanity of Driving in Morocco (November 2011) – Driving in Morocco is quite the harrowing experience, but when treated like a game of Rad Racer and with knowledge of the basic rules, it became one of the best parts of my trip to the country.

How to make the most of a repositioning cruise (September 2014) – 10 people, a mix of business and silliness, and some beautiful sights in Russia and Japan.

On Facing Fear and Learning to Sail in New Zealand  (February 2015) – after a lifetime of being afraid of drowning after falling into water as a toddler, I finally confronted my fears during a five-day sailing course in the Bay of Islands in New Zealand.

PHOTOESSAYS

Tagines in Morocco

Photography never featured prominently when I first set out in 2008. I had a small point and shoot, and I didn’t use it all that much. In the years since, I have focused more and more on trying to improve composition and style, and on having photos that could illustrate parts of the scene when words failed me. Here are a few of the photoessays that stood out from the last seven years.

Best of Burma: Photography and Memories from Inle Lake (February 2010) – Photoset from the colours, chaos and beautiful markets surrounding Inle Lake in Burma.

Chefchaouen, Morocco in Photos (November 2012) – Shades of blue and many cats from a week in Chefchaouen, during the end of my Morocco trip.

41 Photos from the Mekong Markets at Dawn (June 2013) – One of my favourite markets in the world was in the Mekong Delta, in Cai Rang.

Photoessay: A Holiday Cow Extravaganza (December 2013) – Cows and more cows from my time in India.

Why I Love Saigon (May 2014) – Part photoessay and part love letter, this long post details my reasons for returning again and again to Southern Vietnam. Lots of food photos, of course.

A Month on Syros, Greece: Ermoupoli, Finikas & a Lot of Blue (February 2015) – Not enough time for Greece generally, but a perfect amount to explore a smaller island like Syros. Such a stunning place to spend a few weeks.

Seven years! Hard to believe. It seems more than fitting that I spent most of April 1 in the air, flying somewhere new.

-Jodi