“Does it ever bother you that your life is over?”
Kaitlin, my daughter, walking ahead of us, turned off-handedly, looking back at me over her shoulder without breaking stride, to ask her out-of-the-blue question.
Meandering along Galway’s bayside promenade, enjoying the sunshine and the fresh sea air, with the ice-blue Atlantic on our left, the city’s cobblestoned central square to our right, and seagulls circling overhead, making our way back to the hotel after lunch, it was Kaitlin and her friend Jules in the lead, with my husband Lief, our son Jackson, and me following behind.
“What are you talking about?” I replied.
Now she turned to face me.
“Well, you know, you’re married. You have two kids. You’ve had the same job forever. Your life is what it’s going to be. Everything for you is figured out. And now you’re 40 years old. What more could there be?” Kaitlin concluded.
A 13-year-old’s take on turning 40.
On one hand, Kaitlin was right. I’d found the man I intended to spend the rest of my life with. I had two children. At that time, I’d been working at the same publishing company since before Kaitlin was born (from her point of view, forever).
On the other hand, from where I stood on this eve of my 40th birthday, life was just getting interesting.
I was in Galway, Ireland, celebrating my milestone birthday with a weekend at the Galway Bay Hotel, in a suite overlooking the ocean, poking around the 12th-century university city with my family, enjoying the cafés, the theater, the shops…
Not a bad birthday.
Perhaps more to the point, not a bad life. And, on this big-birthday weekend, even before Kaitlin posed her get-to-the-heart-of-things question, I couldn’t help but reflect on where I was and how I’d gotten there. No one was more surprised than I by how things were evolving.
We were celebrating my birthday in Galway, Ireland, because we were living in Waterford, Ireland, about a three-hour drive away. Bigger picture, we were a half-dozen years in to what I expected (my teenaged daughter’s interpretation to the contrary notwithstanding) would be decades of new adventures living, doing business, and raising a family overseas.
Looking back now, more than 15 years later, Kaitlin’s question might have been more relevant had it been put to me 8 or 10 years earlier. When Kaitlin was small, and she and I were living alone, me freshly separated from her father, working overtime as a junior editor, running out the door each afternoon to fight my way through rush-hour traffic to try to make it to Kaitlin’s daycare to collect her before closing time, then, yes, I admit, I might have agreed that my life seemed over.
It didn’t occur to me until I was in my 40s that people plan their lives. I’ve always operated on blind faith without asking what I was believing in. You might suggest maybe myself—that it has been confidence in my ability to size things up and pivot quickly to navigate that has carried me on and through. I believe that is part of an explanation today. I’m good on my feet and on the fly, and I know it and count on it. But that’s a recent realization.
Growing up—that is, until recently—I was shy and unsure, afraid of cocktail party conversation because I never could think of anything interesting to say, and perpetually worried that I was letting down the people who mattered to me and strangers, too. I was awkward in every regard but persistent. When I’ve succeeded that’s usually been the reason.
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, not in the city but rural Baltimore County in a house on a hill that my mother and father built themselves working straight through the weekends and evenings after my father got home from work until after dark for three years. I attended Catholic elementary and high schools for 12 years and then Notre Dame of Maryland, a Catholic university, from which I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English.
When I was 14, my family bought a condo in Ocean City, Maryland. It was where you went for a beach escape if you lived in Baltimore. I’d never been to any other beach anywhere, but, when my parents announced the purchase, my instant thought was, “I’d rather have something on the Mediterranean coast.”
My second thought was… why did I think that?
I didn’t dream of travel as a child. That reaction to my family’s investment in Ocean City is the first memory I have of wanting to experience the world beyond the U.S. East Coast. My first trip out of the country was four years later, a high school graduation gift from my parents, who allowed me to go to Bermuda for a week with a friend. I crashed my moped against a stone wall one afternoon but otherwise enjoyed myself.
It wasn’t Bermuda, though, that I hold accountable for the travel bug I eventually caught and that has so informed my life. It was going to work for a tiny Baltimore publishing house whose owner—my boss, longtime mentor, and eventual business partner and friend—had an insatiable interest in trying to understand how the world works, country to country, region to region, town to town, person to person.
Bill Bonner hired me to join his editorial team as proofreader when I was 21 years old based on my answer to a single question to do with English grammar. My Catholic school education had had me diagramming sentences starting in the second grade.
I don’t think I wowed Bill beyond my argument in favor of the Oxford comma. Maybe he saw promise beneath my surface or maybe nobody else applied for the job, but he and I both seemed to realize that, in the beginning, I was out of my element. Talk over the office tea kettle and in every staff meeting invariably came around to tales of far-off places I’d never been and often couldn’t place on a map. Maybe I should have spent less time in school parsing sentences and more time studying an atlas.
Or maybe I should get out more…
When that thought formed, so did a plan. I’d go to Paris. While I hadn’t grown up actively wishing to travel the globe, I had always been drawn to Paris. I’m a romantic who’s only ever wanted to be a writer, which means I’m a sucker for the stories of Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s wine- and absinthe-soaked exploits in the City of Light.
I’d go to Paris, I decided, and drink champagne while writing in a journal on the terrace of the Deux Magots. When I told my roommate my idea, she said she’d like to come along and she wanted to see Germany, too.
My trip to Paris became a three-week-long Eurail Pass adventure across Europe. Carrying backpacks that weighed half as much as we did ourselves, Ceci and I rode the rails across the Continent. We flew Icelandair (cheapest possible tickets from Baltimore’s airport) to Frankfurt, Germany, via Reykjavik, then got immediately on a bus for a four-hour drive to Munich. Don’t ask me why; I don’t remember. I wouldn’t recommend the routing if an option is available.
In a fog from our first experience with jet lag and at a loss because neither Ceci nor I spoke German, we headed straight from the bus terminal to the Marienplatz because someone Ceci worked with had told her that was the first thing to do in Munich. We heard the Glockenspiel chime then carried on to the Hofbräuhaus.
After Munich we trained to Bavaria, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Geneva, Luxembourg, and, finally, Paris. We stayed two or three or four days in each place then showed up at the local train station to choose our onward destination based on the schedule of imminent departures.
On the stone jetty leading to the Jet d’Eau in Geneva, an Italian pinched Ceci on her behind. That’s why we took Italy off our possible destinations list. One pre-dawn morning in Paris, a Frenchman riding his bicycle on the sidewalk alongside us stopped, got off his bike, and pulled down his pants. Ceci screamed and started to cry but didn’t ask to leave Paris prematurely. She knew that for me it was the highlight of the trip.
We stayed in what I much later came to know to be achambre de bonne.These cupboard-sized attic rooms in 19th-century Paris buildings were where a family’s domestics slept. Ours could only be reached by climbing out the window of the room on the floor below and then up a tiny metal ladder attached to the building’s façade. We managed to do it coming and going, even carrying our backpacks. We shared a bathroom with the occupants of four other rooms.
And we walked. From early morning until after dark—which, it being June, was past 10 p.m.—back and forth across the river, from the Louvre and the Tuileries to Notre Dame and the Bastille, from Shakespeare & Company to the Luxembourg Gardens, and from the Arc de Triomphe to Eiffel’s tower. We stopped at the Deux Magots but couldn’t afford the champagne. I still have the bottle from the half-carafe of rosé our budget allowed.
I’m in Paris as I write, sitting at the dining table of the apartment my husband Lief and I bought when our children were young and we lived altogether in this city for four years. Today, our 30-year-old daughter is married and working as Live and Invest Overseas’ editor-in-chief and our 19-year-old son is coming up on the end of his freshman year at NYU Shanghai.
My life to this point has been framed around a love of change, contrast, and perpetual motion that I attribute to my time working with Bill Bonner at Agora, my children, and a latent interest in conceiving, launching, and growing businesses. I didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur, but today that’s a word I’d use to describe myself. I prefer it over traveler.
Working Overseas And The Daily Commute
Traveling is moving around the world aimlessly or for pleasure. Nothing wrong with that. Early on in my traveling career, though, I realized that I like to come and go with a purpose and, in each place I visit, I like to fall in among the local business class.
I think maybe Bill noticed this in me before I recognized it myself, because, not long after my start at Agora, he began inviting me to join in business and marketing meetings and, eventually, as Agora expanded globally, to travel with him and others for meetings in Agora’s overseas offices.
Small groups of us would fly to, say, London for five or six days at a time and fall straight into a routine that had us out of the hotel in time to take the Tube across town to be in the office before 9 a.m. We’d join the local workforce in the local pub for lunch and again for pints at the end of the day.
Walking to and from the Underground stations, alongside Londoners in suits and carrying briefcases, dressed and doing the same, was immeasurably more satisfying for me than sightseeing. I didn’t want to tour London; I wanted to be part of London.
Looking back over a 35-year career in publishing and two decades as an entrepreneur abroad, in memory, phases of my life are punctuated by the respective daily commutes.
My first job out of college, before I went to work for Agora, was as copy editor for Ziff-Davis Publishing. TheirPC Tech Journalmagazine was produced out of an office in Baltimore’s World Trade Center, situated at the heart of the city’s harbor. This is a high-rent zone. I was earning US$11,000 a year.
Even way back then, that salary didn’t support high-rent anything. I couldn’t afford to park anywhere nearby the office where I was working and finally found a park-all-day-for-US$1 lot on the much dodgier other side of Harborplace.
That meant walking every morning from the lot where I parked around all three long sides of the harbor to the World Trade Center building. It took 30 minutes and was a highlight of my day. I eventually wrote a note to myself that I taped to the wall next to my desk saying something like, “Don’t forget to notice the light on the harbor’s surface each morning.”
I worked for Ziff-Davis for only a few months, but those early morning and evening Harborplace walks, in sun, rain, and snow, return to me often and bring a smile.
Memories of my daily commute living in Ireland center on a Nissan Almera that I drove regularly into stone walls, hedgerows, mailboxes, and, once, a tree. Nothing serious and nobody ever injured, but I found navigating the country’s narrow winding roads one of the biggest challenges of living on the Emerald Isle.
Most challenging of all was making the turn from the one-car-wide alley into the parking area behind our office in Waterford City. I couldn’t help but scrape the sides of my car against the stone walls surrounding that parking area at least one try out of three.
To his credit, Lief gave up worrying about the damage to the car, bought himself a new SUV that I was never allowed to drive, and left the Almera to me. When we moved from Ireland to Paris, friends in Waterford offered to sell the car for me. Who would buy it, I wondered, but they managed to get 500 euros.
In Paris when our children were young, my commute took me from Jackson’s school, where I’d drop him off each morning, across the river, through the Tuileries Gardens, through Concorde, then down rue Royale to rue du Chevalier de Saint-George. In summer, I’d dodge the tourists, in autumn, I’d stomp the big, dry leaves that carpet the Tuileries that time each year under my boots.
When I remembered, I’d pause in the center aisle of the gardens to look up to the Louvre and then in the other direction to the Champs-Élysées and thank Catherine de Medici for such a fine effort.
In Panama City, Panama, where Lief and I moved, with Jackson, in 2008, to launch the Live and Invest Overseas business, our daily commute over the decade to follow could be described as boomtown chaos. Panamanians do unpredictable things when they get behind the wheel of a car.
One evening driving home from the office we stopped at a traffic light. We were on a two-lane road at a T-junction with a major thoroughfare. We were in the right-hand lane second car back from the light, with a long line of cars behind us. Long line of cars in the left-hand lane, as well. The light turned green, and the car in front of us turned left while the car in the left-hand lane alongside that car turned right.
Neither of those drivers had indicated his intention by flipping on his blinker, and neither seemed to realize that one turns right from the right-hand lane and left from the left-hand lane. The two cars crashed into each other, snarling traffic behind them and in the thoroughfare they’d turned onto for hours.
That kind of scene plays out on the streets of Panama City all day long every day.
City streets in Panama are rutted and pot-holed. In the rainy season, they flood to levels that can cover the tires of small sedans. Construction and road and infrastructure work are constants. More than once, wet cement from a passing concrete mixer has fallen onto our hood and, more than once, full loads of watermelons and pineapples have toppled off the backs of pick-ups just ahead of us in traffic.
Traffic jams are epic. Once, a fire inside a hotel on the main drag across the center of the city wreaked such havoc that it took us four hours to go a distance we usually traveled in 20 minutes. That was an extraordinary event but not. In Panama City, extraordinary events are everyday. Each time we arrived at the office in the morning or back home in the evening, we counted ourselves fortunate if no one had hit us and nothing had fallen on us en route.
Today I have no regular commute. Empty-nesters for the first time, this year Lief and I are working to establish new routines. Our business is in Panama, but we could be anywhere.
Everything to this point has been an accident. Maybe it’s time to make a plan.