This American (Unemployed) Life

Do you ever think a book finds its way into your life at just the right moment, when it seems  it was written for you?  Or maybe it’s that you’re able to pick out relevant themes from any book you happen to be reading?

This is how it was for me in reading Ann Mah’s Mastering the Art of French Eating.   I had seen Ann Mah’s blog recommended on the French Word-A-Day email I receive, and upon further investigation, it turned out that Ann was getting ready to publish a non-fiction on French cuisine.  Well, loving all things French (some of my favorites outlined in this prior blog post), and especially a good memoir of an American abroad in Paris, I downloaded her book to my Kindle as soon as I could.

I was expecting a lot of food descriptions, recipes, textural images of the Provence terrain and Parisian location-spotting.  And I got all that.  But what I also got was a story.  The story of why Ann moved to Paris in the first place, and how she coped being there alone much of the time.

She moved to Paris for her husband’s diplomatic career.  Sounds enchanting enough.  She quit her publishing job to become the “trailing spouse,” something I didn’t know was an actual identifiable person/job/thing.  But this idea spoke to me.  (Her matters were further complicated when her husband was soon sent to the Middle East on a solo assignment, leaving her alone in Paris for their first year there.)

She writes about leaving her job to “leap into nothing.”  I never thought of myself as someone whose identity is wrapped up in their work, but nevertheless I felt disconnected, disoriented and out of the loop after leaving my job and home to follow my fiance to Ann Arbor for his career.  I felt a little worthless and unidentifiable.

I didn’t realize that “trailing spousehood,” where one person follows the movements of the other’s career path, is common, and reading about someone else’s experience trying to sort out their life somehow legitimized my choice.  Perhaps it’s the unusual few where both partners have the corporate-ladder-climbing careers in the same place at the same time.  I haven’t done any research whatsoever except for reading and talking with other trailing spouses, so this is all just my observation and in no way rooted in evidence, but it seems to me that oftentimes the trailing spouse either already has, or develops, a creative, entrepreneurial, individual, freelance, secondary or family-oriented life’s work for themselves.  Even if it’s the kind of profession that is easily transferrable from place to place (teaching, banking, etc.), career progression may still be halted/stalled/regressed by moving.

This is what Ann did.  She parlayed her publishing background into a journalism career that she could do from anywhere.  Even though she had writing experience with articles in numerous publications, she still struggled to find the freelance writing jobs she wanted in Paris, agreeing to chronicle orchid care, instead of expounding on her preference: food.

Right after the move, I felt like, “What am I doing with myself?” in that heavy way your ribcage gets when a bit depressed, but I knew in my head that this was the perfect opportunity to explore all sorts of other activities and relax a bit, which, for months, was really difficult because I felt like I should be doing some sort of work.  There may have been a mid-dinner break down or two in the early days.

I know they say children are happiest with routine.  That’s certainly the case for me too.  Pulling myself together, I made written schedules.  Even if it just said, “Wake Up, Read at Starbucks, Grocery Shopping, Laundry” that got me moving with tasks to accomplish and a purpose to my days.

Now that I’m finally stationed in Ann Arbor for a while, after traveling to and fro over the past few months, I’ve got a few different routines depending on the day and am genuinely happy with my existence as it is.  Everyday I practice the art of doing what I want to do and not doing what I don’t.  It’s hard not to obligate myself to tasks and activities that I think I ought to be doing, but each day I start over in striving to do what makes me happy that day.

My ideal day is filled with things that I enjoy doing (and a few things that are necessary but not necessarily enjoyable): I wake up, make a cup of coffee and check emails.  Then I might choose one room or chore to tackle right away; I find that I have the most energy right when I wake up and can usually clean the whole bathroom quickly, or at least make it presentable.  Then I might go back to any follow up emails concerning the wedding or sorority volunteer work.  I might take some time to work on this blog (which takes a surprising amount of time for me to finish), or run some errands.  I’ve gotten in the habit of going to Barnes and Noble for a Starbucks holiday beverage (fyi, if you are a B&N member, you also get a discount at the store’s Starbucks cafe!!) and to work on the blog or comb through wedding magazines (so much fun but so expensive….better to just read them, take notes and put them back, only purchasing if there are a lot of good pictures that need to be ripped out).  In the afternoon, I go back home and either do another round of follow up emails if necessary or make a snack, put in a load of laundry, and catch up on some DVRed or Netflix shows.  Right now I’m marathoning through “Gossip Girl” and “Scandal” and “The West Wing” complete box set is on deck.  Maybe I’ll start to feel bored when there aren’t any more addicting shows to watch!

Since Mark gets home relatively early, I usually start dinner on the early side, and I love watching “The Chew” on DVR while cooking.  For those that don’t know “The Chew” is a talk show slash cooking show on ABC with Daphne Oz (Dr. Oz’s daughter), Carla Hall (“Top Chef”), Clinton Kelly (“What Not To Wear”), and chefs Michael Symon and Mario Batali.  The hosts are kooky and silly, and it’s just a fun show with good recipes, cocktails and crafts.  It’s the kind of show I would like to be on if I could host a daytime talk show!  Also, if you fast forward through the commercials (and cooking segments that involve items I would never eat in a million years), an hour-long show is really only 30 minutes – perfect timing for prepping dinner.  Sometimes I think I can’t get a real job because I don’t want to be stuck at work until 6pm while Mark is home hanging out at 4:30!

I’m also excited to continue exploring Ann Arbor – the restaurants, the museums, and the surrounding towns  (I’ll write more about what we’ve already done in another post).

On the other hand, the seemingly continuous grey sky, cold temps, and perma-snow-coating make me feel not in the least bit obligated to go outside everyday.  Lounging (hibernating) on the couch with tea and a good book sounds like a great way to spend the winter months to me.  I just downloaded Ann Mah’s first book, a novel entitled Kitchen Chinese and am also in the middle of Taste by Anthony Terlato (on wine) and This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald (using this downtime to catch up some classics).

I think I’ve come around to this idea of trailing spouse, and I’m looking forward to going with the flow and finding happiness everyday in life’s little treats like craft projects, chopping vegetables, glossy magazines and pumpkin spice lattes.

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5 thoughts on “This American (Unemployed) Life

  1. Hey Hannah – saw your post on FB and had to reply. I quit my job as an attorney last year and moved to South Africa for my husband’s job. Now we’re in London. I decided to pursue a career as a writer and have blogged about my experience since then here: http://stephanieearlygreen.com/. I also wrote about being a “trailing spouse” here: http://apracticalwedding.com/2012/09/moving-to-another-country-with-your-partner/ (Just in case you’re looking for some commiseration). By the way, I’m usually done writing by around 4 or 5 PM and I’ve found the best way to occupy my remaining free time is by knitting, sewing, and otherwise making stuff (if/when you run out of TV to watch) 🙂 Also, since I grew up in Michigan (after leaving Baltimore, of course), let me know if you need any recs on great things to see/do in the state. It’s a magical place (and Ann Arbor is great. Zingermans!).

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    1. Stephanie, I read your post on apracticalwedding and you totally nailed the feeling. I love your writing style and look forward to reading more! I’ve been doing a lot of baking (much to my pants’ chagrin) and crafting to fill the cold days 🙂
      I definitely need to do more exploring of the little towns around here, and if you have any suggestions of things to do in Detroit, that would be fantastic.

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      1. I looked back at your blog and it looks like you guys have already done one of my favorite Michigan things to do, a visit to the cider mill. Franklin Cider Mill is my personal fave (although I guess it’s no longer cider mill season). I also saw you went to the Henry Ford museum, but have you gone to Dearborn itself? If you like Middle Eastern food, you should check it out — best Lebanese food outside of Lebanon, for real. As far as stuff to do in the Detroit area, I don’t have a ton of suggestions, esp. since my parents haven’t lived in that area since 2002, BUT, the rest of the state is FANTASTIC. I highly recommend checking out the northern upper peninsula, especially the NW part of the state (Leelanau peninsula/Sleeping Bear Dunes area in particular). It’s amazing in the spring and summer. The northern LP is really good for winter stuff, too. Snowshoeing next to a frozen lake is a must-do Michigan winter experience. Oh, and something a bit closer to Ann Arbor and a really fun/cheesy place to visit in the winter especially is Frankenmuth (http://www.frankenmuth.org/) – German beer halls, fudge, and a gigantic, 365-day-a-year Christmas store (Bronner’s – http://www.bronners.com/). Michigan is awesome (if a bit cold).

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      2. Thanks!! We went to Traverse City/Sleeping Bear Dunes this summer which was awesome. Mark’s parents went to Frankenmuth when they came to visit, but it’s still on our list of things to do 🙂

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