When the Financial Crisis Hit, I’d Just Quit My Job To Travel. Here’s What Happened.
Ten years ago as the global economy collapsed, I had literally just quit my job to go to Italy, something a lot of people told me was insane, crisis or no. I worked a corporate job in Manhattan, right next to Lehman Brothers, infamous for decimating financial markets by filing the largest bankruptcy in history a decade ago this month.
As I watched Lehman employees carry away their boxed belongings, I debated whether I should follow through with my decision to walk away from a job I liked with no promises of finding a new one. My boss wanted me to stay. Friends and family panicked I was throwing my life away. And while I knew what I wanted, their fears got in my head and made me doubt myself.
The media coverage of the 10-year anniversary of our global economic demise inspired me to revisit what was going on in my 20-something head at that time. Reading through old emails and Gchats (remember that?), I see how walking away from a good thing in 2008 set me up for a great expat life in 2018. But that decision wasn’t easy. If you like reading other people's diaries and/or thought processes, here’s a sampling of online messages and email exchanges for you to enjoy (names changed).
Spoiler alert: Despite everyone’s concerns about me ruining my life, when I returned to New York, my old job asked me to come back and promoted me, something that would not have happened if I never left. This is not to minimize the pain others were going through during the financial crisis. I've been laid off and know what that feels like. But this experience taught me that we can always find a reason why timing isn't right to change jobs or move cities or ask someone out or start a business. And people who love you often want you to maintain the status quo because it’s safe(r). But life is too short not to go after what you want today, and, if you’re lucky, your friends and family will eventually come around.
March 26, 2008
Online exchange between my friend Annie and I. Background: A few years earlier, I had spent a summer in Siena, Italy, where I worked on my graduate thesis and took a grammar class. The idea to return to Italy is percolating in my head.
By the way, I did a 30-minute Italian lesson last night and loved
it! I highly recommend the Pimsleur program. Now I totally wish I was
taking classes in Italy again. Those were the days!
ooh, Italy...I'd go there, too! Can I quit my job and just travel the world???
Yes, brush up on your French and you can be in charge of the France
leg of the trip.
June 2, 2008
Most of these online conversations are between me and a guy named George. I saw him deliver a great presentation at a communications conference I attended, and so I emailed him, thinking I'd found a comms veteran mentor. He mostly just encouraged me to quit my job and was a good Gchat friend and sometimes online therapist.
Hello! How was your weekend? Mine was great. On Friday, I went to the
opening of the Brooklyn Film Festival, which was fun. Unfortunately,
someone stole my wallet on Thursday, so I've been surviving on an
envelope of cash from my credit union. Unrelated, have you ever worked
for a consulting firm? I don't think you have, but thought I'd ask. I
think it could be fun, always doing/learning something new. I really
enjoy internal comm., but am considering external, too, and even PR.
For some sick reason, I'm really interested in crisis communications,
but I have no experience in that, so I don't know how one gets into
that field. However, I am a fan of the 9-5. Thoughts?
Hey, what's up? My weekend was was good go too. I was down in cape may — shot a lot of pictures, ate too much and there was beer. I came home not engaged to a sailor, so that is good. Sorry to hear about your wallet. One of my interns had her stuff stolen recently. NYC is dangerous.
Never worked for a consulting firm. This has been my only job in communications. I have the resume of a schizophrenic and so far i've escaped the clutches of an agency.
not sure about crisis communications, but there is probably something seriously morose about that field...kidding. I know we have a plan here, but no experts on staff. I guess you could start by finding your company's plan and going through that...if it is anything like ours, i'm sure there are changes and updates that could always be made. right?
See any good movies at the festival?
I like the diversity of your resume. What did you work on as an
anthropologist? And how did you end up at [George's company]? I think I'd like to
stay in corp comm., but I can handle a lot more responsibility than I
have now, so I'd like to move into a manger position somewhere. I also
still think an agency might be cool. Or maybe I should just relax and
stop trying to make work for myself.
I wasn't really an archaeologist...i was digger. I spent my days on the end of shovel and down on my knees with a trowel. I loved that job. We mostly did native american and colonial stuff here in NJ. It also was the best time I ever quit a job — workers of the world unite...
After I came back from New Mexico I got into an IT group my friend was running, i started building websites and then wound up here.
I'm looking for less responsibility...maybe we should switch jobs….
Maybe we should. I'm a Leo, but on the cusp of Virgo. Usually I
think/behave much more like the latter, but I've been feeling very Leo
in the office lately. I'd like the opportunity to make more
decisions — or at least have my opinions heard more often.
June 28, 2008
Here’s an email to a friend. For context, that day in 2008, I was looking back at old emails from five years earlier (I don’t usually spend this much time in my inbox). In 2003, during my summer in Siena, I lived with a woman named Maria who spoke no English and I spoke almost no Italian.
I was searching old e-mails for a list of Italian music and found this e-mail from five years ago. Ah, youth. I crack myself up:
“So this bee has been trying to build a home in my bookshelf. He worked on this for two days — and got pretty far — but after he left each night I threw his hive out the window. When he came back, I said, "Listen, I'm sorry, but I can't let you continue with this project.” I haven't seen him since. Was that mean? I feel really bad, but I can't let bees build hives in my room. I've already got a lizard living somewhere around here.
Last night I went out for dinner with my friend, Elena. I attempted to say, "That pizza looks good to me," but instead I said, "That pizza is watching me!" I laughed my ass off at this all night, to the point that Elena probably thought I was pazza. Sooo, dinner was good, nice wine, etc. Unfortunately I tried grappa for the first time. Horrible! Stay away from this!
In other news, Maria (roommate) and I get along well. Our mornings consist of her complaining about her lack of sleep, among other things. I sit there and say, "Yeah! No! I can't believe it." I think there is a feud going on between us and our upstairs neighbors. Maria hates them b/c their stairs are dirty and they're too loud. During one of our first breakfasts together, she blasted the stereo to wake them up. This was a little awkward for me because I spoke no Italian at this point and could hardly figure out what was going on. It's sort of like one of those dreams where you have to take a test for a class you've never been to. Anyway, I like living in the apartment and yesterday we watched The Simpons (it's def. not as funny in Italian if you don't know Italian (which I don't really, but I'm improving!)).
God, I had so much to tell you guys, and now I don't know what else to say. The fifth Harry Potter is out here--good luck to whoever reads that this summer (twice as big as the Bible!). The music channels are so much better here. We get videos from all over the world. Oh speaking of TV, Italy's president owns three stations, and as president, he has control over three more. Fascist much? He's also in trouble for some shady dealings, and the gov. is trying to pass some weird law to pardon all presidents of previous crimes. He must know someone in the mafia, which is alive and well in Italy. In Calabria, they blew up the shop of my teacher's father b/c he didn't want to pay. Crazy! But they leave the tourists alone. If not, delete this e-mail so I don't end up on a hit list!! What else to say, what else to say... Simply Red is making a comeback here. There's also this horrible new version of Light My Fire. Do you have it in the States? George Morrison must be spinning in his grave!!!!! All right. Miss you all. A presto. Love, Sarah”
July 21, 2008
Meanwhile back in New York in 2008, life is routine. Here’s an email response to a friend. I think I'm ready for something new.
My weekend was no more exciting than yours—congrats on the 5K, by the way! I did some creative writing (have you written anything since your class?), studied Italian and didn't do much else. While I waited for my friends outside a bar Saturday night, an artist tried to sell me a book of his work for $50. The page he showed me featured a penis smoking crack through a penis. I'm not sure why he thought this would appeal to me. I didn't buy anything. Inside, we had fun at the bar but left when this Albanian man wouldn't stop bugging us. Sunday, despite the heat, I had the urge to be creative in the kitchen, so I made a sort of tomato stew. Then I ordered pizza. Haha. The stew was good at lunch, and there was a ton of it, but by the time dinner rolled around, I was ready for a change.
Aug 6, 2008
...go to Italy for a month or two? I'm 60 percent there.
Magic 8 Ball says: YES! I mean why wouldn't you?
August 6, 2008
Email to a friend of a friend who grew up in Italy.
Hi, John. How are you? I hope summer is treating you well. What's new in your life? And where are you? Still in D.C.? I hope your job situation has improved. The economy is horrible, so if you haven't found anything, don't take it personally, but if you have, congratulations! I know I'm lucky to have a job but I’m seriously considering quitting my mine and going to Italy for a month. I was thinking September, but that's right around the corner, so now I think maybe October. Do you still have friends there? I want to study the language while I’m there, but I'm not sure where. Maybe Rome. I'm not really interested in Tuscany because I spent a summer in Siena, but maybe somewhere else in that region. Any thoughts you have on this would be appreciated. I used to travel all the time, but the thought of leaving my job now to do it scares me for some reason. I guess my parents’ repeating the importance of stability has finally gotten to me. Either way, I want to try to set something up before I get back, not that that will be easy to do. Anyway, hope you’re happy whatever you’re doing.
August 7, 2008
are you still there or did you leave for italy?
plans are in the works.
really? that is cool. i'm heading back to the motherland a week from monday….
What's the mother land? The Czech Republic? I'm thinking October for my trip. But I’m nervous about this. I used to travel all the time, but my parents have drilled the importance of stability in my head. And I would like to stop living with roommates at some point but that won’t happen if I run off and blow all my money. But if I die within the year it would be nice to do it in Europe and not in my cubicle. Though I wouldn't stay for a whole year. Maybe a month.
Slovakia is the motherland.
It would suck to be in a cubicle thinking: I could have gone to Italy, but i wanted to be stable.
You've come to the wrong person if you want to hear about the evils of running away….
That's not why I've come to you. I need encouragement.
Then go. You can always recover-life, money, work. I've done it a couple times (with results ranging from horrific to great, but at least there was drama). It doesn't seem like you are too worried about a career, you’re smart. You will definitely come back and find a job. And who knows what you will find out on the road. Damn, i"m slowly starting to hate you.... :)
[note from the future: I still live with roommates and blow all my money on travel]
August 12, 2008
Did you make a decision about Italy? I might be in the city on thursday. I'm coming to throw rocks at your office window….
Well, I’m definitely going, I’m just not sure when. I had been planning October, and was really happy about my decision this weekend, like, really happy. Then my mother (who was visiting my sister this weekend when I was out of town) leaves me this letter about her extreme concern and a friend of mine calls me with all her worries about me. Not that this has stopped me from doing anything in the past, but it can delay my plans a month. So, I'm working on logistics to put other people’s minds at ease.
Wow, a letter? That truly is official disgust at your plans. My mother didn’t want me to go and live in slovakia either. They are like that.
Aug 19, 2008
My hippie roommate’s inspiring out of office message:
Thanks for your email. I am currently roaming the wilds of Mongolia. I
will respond to your email when I return to the office in late August.
Have a wonderful summer!
All the best,
Sept 3, 2008
helloooooo...how was you weekend? I'm sunburned from tailgating on monday....i'm starting a podcast this afternoon because i'm bored here….
I went to D.C. Part of it was fun, part of it awful thanks to boy-related issues. I did go hiking in Virginia, so that was nice. Where were you tailgating? Will you share your podcast? And I thought you were going to expand on your trip abroad.
Was it [guy I was kind of seeing’s name] related? See, i remembered....
We went to the Rutgers game....game sucked, but our tailgate is now ranked #23 in the country.
Slovakia was great. We went over for a wedding of one of my former students, but we also had a chance to see a bunch of people that i know and other former students. The weather was great. The beer drinking even better. The wedding was even better than i expected. It started at 1 in the afternoon and ended at 530 am. We ate like 6 different times and drank enough moonshine to blind an entire country and then there was the polka dancing….We also spent one day/night in Bratislava the capital, met a former student at night and a friend from [George’s company] Slovakia...
The podcast will be internal. I need to get back into the swing of things because we are going to be doing a lot with social media and i need to establish some sort of employee base. So this first one is just trying to find my grooooooooooooove….
You're correct. It was [guy’s name] related. Just another thing that didn't work out. I'm glad you had such a good time in Slovakia. I couldn’t handle even a fraction of your drinking but sign me up for eating six times and polka dancing. I figured your podcast was internal but didn't know if you could secretly share it with outsiders. [Your company] sounds cool. I wish I worked there. Then you could fake mentor me. Dear god, did I just say that?
I am king of fake mentors. I've mentored some of the finest fakes in the company. The best thing is that no one knows i'm doing the podcast and then i just put it online. I'm sitting in a pretty sweet spot now....
Poor [guy’s name]. You should have married the marine. I would have trust issues with someone named [guy’s name]. I’m sure it is all for the best.
Sept 4, 2008
I'm horribly sad. Do nice men still exist? I know I live in New York, but still. In other news, I met with an Italian tutor yesterday, and she was great. One foot out the door…
So why are you sad if you have one foot out the door? Come on, Italy is exciting. The last thing you need is a relationship before you go abroad. It is never good to be tied down before a trip. If the [guy’s name] thing worked out you would have cancelled your trip, fought about whose family to spend the holidays with, pushed out to two puppies and bought a mini van. So knock it off. You are golden right now
Haha. Thanks for the slap in the face. I needed that.
Sept 9, 2008
Tell me a funny story. And good morning. : )
I'm not sure what you were doing in the early 90's, but i was in what was then Czechoslovakia. Big changes eveywhere — the transition from Communism, slovakia wanted independence, the internet revolution, etc. Slovakia didn't have the infrastructure for any kind of digital communications, so it was like being cut off from the world-i still wrote letters to the States and calling home was a crap shoot. So there was really only two ways to live there: be a pussy about everything or go native. So I went completely native, most would say too far, but that would come later. I knew all kinds of people (people actually liked americans then) drunks, mafia, people in the new government, the emerging business class, but i also knew a crazy bunch of writers and theater people. I had been to one theater festival before with them that ended with my friend cracking his head open and another getting beat by the police, but that is a story for another time. So of course I jumped at the chance to go to another festival. My friend, Ivan, who was the maddest of the bunch picked us up and we left for the festival. On our way there he handed me the program and while i was reading it i noticed that there was a group performing from Senica, the place where i was living. I said that was great and asked him who was in the group. He looked around the car and said that it was us. We were going to be performing Jack Kerouac's On the Road.
Compressing time: The festival was insane, crazy absurd performances and a lot of women and drinking. So when it came time to perform our play (without any practice or discussion) Ivan took us to a bar with a big beer garden in the back. The place started filling up and I got nervous and started drinking beer and shots. Then slova television came in and set up a camera right in front of the table where we would do a reading. My friend that I grew up with in the states was also living in Slovakia and teaching with me and he started to play guitar and the play began. I read all of Dean's lines in english and my friend read in slovak. It was crazy. In the middle of it I busted out Shakespeare and read a soliquoy from Richard II — let's us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories about the death of kings....
At the end of the festival party, the guy from Slovak tv came up to us and asked if I had jet lag...i told him no. Then he asked if i was hungover. I told him yes, but that was my normal feeling there and I asked him why. He said that our performance was a little flat and he expected more from a professional american acting troupe. It seems Ivan told everyone we were professional movie actors from america...
On monday at school all my kids asked me what i was doing on television….
Sept 13, 2008
A message from my caring mother. And my somewhat bratty response. For context, people had been telling me I was making an epic mistake with my life for weeks. I couldn’t have this conversation anymore.
I am so sorry I got so emotional on the phone with you this morning.
It is difficult for me to understand your decision to leave your job
without another one to go to. It is just not something I am familiar
with people doing, especially in the current economy. I always thought
it was easier for people to find a job when you’re still employed.
What about requesting a leave of absence while you are away instead of
leaving all together?
Of course my ultimate concern is you.
I love you.
I feel fortunate to recognize that this life is short. While I could spend the rest of my days toiling away in a cubicle waiting for the next three-day weekend, that would be more foolish than leaving a job to pursue a passion. I could die tomorrow. I could be laid off tomorrow. You can’t let a false sense of security prevent you from pursuing non-career oriented goals. If you had three months to live, what would you do with your time? Why should you wait for such terminal news to follow those dreams? You shouldn’t. I'm not a teacher. I'm not gunning for a pension. I’ll never be at the same job for more than a few years. That doesn’t mean I’m throwing my life away. I mean, what on earth is the worst that can happen? I wait tables for awhile until I find a new job? Big deal! That's not the end of the world. You have to learn to trust my judgement and stop trying to make me feel bad about my life decisions. I know you’re concerned, but you’re not going to change my mind and anything you say against my trip will only serve to hurt my feelings. I will try to find a job before I go, but if it doesn't happen, I’ll figure something out when I return. I, of course, want to see you and Dad before I go, but I’m not willing to have more back and forth about this. Ultimately, this is not something to stress you or me over.
I love you, as well.
You are so articulate and make your thoughts clear but we still worry about you.
By the way, when are you going, where are you going and for how long?
Also, will you be taking Italian lessons? Is this a vacation? Is Italy
your passion or the language??
Dad of course is having a very difficult time with this, even more
than me. I showed him your email.
I guess I'll make a point of seeing you soon.
Dad will probably be calling, so be patient with him.
Sept 15, 2008
hello. so what's up with the italy plans? You should blog when you go so i can hate you in real time…..
I bought my ticket for Rome yesterday from Eurofly (I think that's the name). Based on cursory research, it's a somewhat sketch airline, but it gets you where you need to go. However, I have not received my e-ticket yet (shouldn’t that be instantaneous?). Anyway the ticket was cheap. I leave Oct. 17 and plan on giving my notice today. Or asking if they’ll have me back at the end of November. So I’m on my way! My parents are angry with me but are finally dealing, though the recent economic news is pushing my father over the edge. I received a voicemail this morning, “How will you pay your rent, student loans, etc…” He will not let up. So I have this voice in the back of my head that’s making me feel guilty and irresponsible for going. But I will try to set up a job before I return (Nov. 23). So…if you know of anyone hiring for communications, editorial, HR or marketing, please let me know. Also, do you know anyone in Rome?
That's great! I’m excited. I feel like I’m going. I’m happy for you. Too late to feel guilty, you have the ticket. You may want to stay in Italy because by the time you come home we will be standing on soup lines. I like soup, so that works for me. Don’t sweat the job thing...if you do it will impact your time there. Something will happen....it always does. I'll keep my ears open for a job...we just fired people so I would think that we aren’t hiring. Let me know how it goes today.
You're firing people?! Christmas! Ugh. Well you're right. I guess I can't back out now. Maybe they’ll fire me and then I can collect unemployment. Whatever happens, I have to prove my father wrong. Isn't that what life is all about?
I think Freud said that....
Sorry, I don’t know anyone in Rome. The pope never returns my calls....the only Italians I know come from Brooklyn….
Sept 16, 2008
So, did you tell them?
Well, I told my immediate manager and she was cool with it. She then talked to our director (this all happened at the end of the day) and now I have to talk to our director and VP. I'm not sure how that will go. My manager asked if I wanted to come back after my trip (but she has no idea if they'd let me). I'm sort of dreading today. I came in early to try to talk to my manager before our director came in, but of course the director and I rode up in the elevator together.
Come on, live with your decision. Walk in through the front door and say, “I'm going to Italy, damn it.”
Sept 17, 2008
are you still blacklisted there? Did you ever talk to any of the big bosses?
Our director got inside my head and tried to convince me that I would be making a mistake if I left and that I had so much potential, etc. So I left that meeting yesterday telling her I’d think it over and give her a final decision on Monday. But I’m going to give my formal notice tomorrow. Enough messing around. Not to mention the fact that I’ve been given more work this week b/c the director is trying to prove that I’m important and can play a more important role in the department.
You do have potential...but as a person, not a corporate slave. All i have to say is that you have some balls for pulling this off especially when family and work is telling you not to. You are my new hero. Today will be a good day. Always fun to give notice…
Well, it's done. I told my director I'd send her a formal letter today. She was actually really cool about it. I guess my first attempt at quitting prepared her.
Oct 6, 2008
The message I posted on Craigslist to find a subletter (this was the price for one room in a three-bedroom apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn in 2008):
$1050 Fantastic Rm For Fantastic Female Oct. 18-Nov. 15 (Park Slope)
Large, sunny, wonderful room in Park Slope available from October 19 to November 15. I adore this neighborhood and my two roommates. To fill my spot for a month, I'm seeking a vegetarian-friendly, non-smoking, easy-going female. We’re NPR junkie/Obama-loving types who are very considerate of one another and keep common areas clean. In case you’re not familiar with Park Slope, it’s laidback and filled with restaurants and bars and coffee shops and Prospect Park, which you will love. We’re about a 30 minute train ride into Manhattan (depending on where you’re going) and are near the R, F and Q trains.
Rent is $1050 for Oct. 19. to Nov. 15 and a half-month’s rent deposit is required, but you’d of course get that back provided no disasters occur, which I don’t foresee happening because you’re very responsible.
Look forward to hearing from you.
[note from the future: I ended up extending my stay in Italy]
Oct 9, 2008
Let me get your opinion on a question only I can really answer. A recruiter for that job I’m ambivalent about scheduled me for an interview next Wed (even though I never said I was available then). Should I go just for the heck of it? Or should I say I can’t do it? I guess I’d only be going out of fear that I wouldn’t find anything else when I came back (not that this job would necessarily hire me).
Nahhhh. You have italy to worry about. Part of me (the old and responsible part that i hate) says it would be nice to have a job to come back to, but the old me says that going away with nothing really to come back to opens you up to more experiences and feelings...does that make any sense or am i insane?
Not insane. Totally makes sense and is in line with what I was thinking. For some reason, I think I might go to the interview for the hell of it. I don't know why. At first, I wanted to line up a job before I left, but now I like the idea of not having something waiting for me.
Oct 17, 2008
Do you miss me yet? By the way, my boss cried when I left. Publicly at my going away party. Isn’t that sweet? I’m using that anecdote in all future interviews. I just started packing.
hey! bon voyage sorry I missed your email earlier but I was out doing my
stupid 22 mile hike. good luck. it will be great. I better hear from u
so I know that u are ok.
Oct 19, 2008
Here’s one of the first messages I posted to friends and family after arriving in Rome.
When I arrived in Siena five or so years ago, my roommate was nowhere to be found. I didn't have keys, so I sat on my suitcase and watched kids play soccer on the stone street until Maria returned from her shopping spree to let me in. This time around, my landlady, Oriana, a native Roman, was waiting for me when I arrived and she showed me around the neighborhood and helped me purchase a weekly travel pass (FYI travelers, the 16 euro pass is good for buses, trams and the metro).
At one point, Oriana complimented me on my English. I thought this was weird, but brushed it off as a miscommunication (we'd been speaking half in Italian/half in English). Turns out the school told her I was German. Is this what it’s come to? Has our status in the world fallen so low that Americans must now masquerade as Germans? But Oriana was OK with it when she discovered my “secret.” I just laid on the old Yankee charm. (I kept commenting on the cleanliness of the trams. She kept saying, on no, they’re not clean. We were having this conversation in Italian and I later realized that I was saying the trams were really dirty and Oriana was saying they weren’t).
Anyway, Oriana is a little doll, but I'm not living with her. I have two roommates, one Spanish and one Ukrainian. I like my place and Oriana said she’d come back to check on things on Monday. I wanted to hug her goodbye as she left, but I held back. She was expecting a German after all.
Oct 29, 2008
Thinking of you. Is it what you wanted and hoped to be?
Hello! Yes, it is. I'm working on extending my stay. I'm not sure my Italian is improving, but I'm definitely enjoying the eating and drinking and museum going. Hope all is well. Someday I'll have another job and then we can be more frequent pen pals again. : )
Sounds great. I'm happy for you. Are you still in Rome? Are you staying there the whole time? What is your favorite thing about being away?
Hm. Favorite thing. That’s difficult. I love being surrounded by ruins. I love the culture. I like learning Italian but often feel like a total moron. The German girls in my class all speak French, so it's a lot easier for them to pick up Italian b/c the grammar is similar. But, I'm trying. I’d like to stay in Rome the whole time, but who knows. I'm definitely going to the coast for at least a weekend. I think I’ll come back to New York mid-December.
[note from the future: I did return to New York in December, worked there for two more years, then permanently moved to Europe, where I’ve been happily living for the last eight years.]