This column, “Escape Artist,” is a series about folks who have escaped. More importantly, this biweekly column is for those thinking about trading in their 9-to-5, leg-shackled-to-the-desk existences in order to grab life at the roots and forge their own way. The brave outliers featured in these collection of interviews are the digital nomads, the online entrepreneurs, and the lifestyle trendsetters, who decided it was time to say to hell with the humdrum and go elbow deep to grab life by the roots.
Jodi Ettenberg runs Legal Nomads, a travel blog that tells the stories of place through food. It won a Lowell Thomas Award for best travel blog in 2015. Ettenberg began traveling full-time in 2008 and has been featured in The New York Times, National Geographic, CNN and BBC Travel. Prior to founding Legal Nomads and writing The Food Traveler’s Handbook, Ettenberg worked as a lawyer in New York for five years. In 2016, she’s creating a database of translation cards for gluten-free foods in Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Italy and Portugal.
Paste Travel The “escape the 9-to-5” mentality seems to be exploding. What are you seeing?
Jodi Ettenberg I don’t like to frame it as an “escape” so much as a decision to be more in control of your work, schedule and time. There are downsides, as with any choices in life. I think anyone leaving the 9-to-5 and expecting that shift to fix their life’s problems might be in for a rough surprise.
However, what appeals to many who are shifting into more self-starting positions is the ability to make their own hours and work from wherever they want, at home or around the world. For me, that’s the biggest draw. Thanks to the technology that frees some people of the requirement to stay in a specific place to do their work, it is more common to create a work environment that is outside the norm.
PT What sparked this for you in 2008?
JE I saw a documentary about the trans-Siberian trains when I was younger and decided I wanted to travel to Siberia myself and experience them firsthand. When I took my job as a lawyer in New York, I thought I would save up money to travel for a year, and in 2008 I had saved enough to be comfortable setting out for that trip. It was not my plan, but my website turned into a platform for a whole new business.
PT How does a life of travel compare to your previous life as a lawyer?
JE They are quite different. I think there are two sets of comparisons: one has to do with mentality, and one has to do with the physicality of work.
From a mindset perspective, it’s a big change because my current lifestyle is much more uncertain. Coming from a lockstep profession, it is probably the hardest adjustment. I work for myself, and in building out a business based on writing, speaking and photography, I do not have a guaranteed paycheck or a raise to expect in the future. The lack of certainty has been the challenge. That said, it’s the same challenge for anyone building a business, whether at home or abroad. I accept that the choices I’ve made push me into a more uncertain place, but I am grateful that I have the privilege to make them in the first place.
On the physical side, it’s a lot more movement. As a lawyer I commuted to work and often worked on weekends. These days I work constantly also—there is no weekend, especially when my work is what most people think of as vacation time—but I do so from different places. I’ve had to sit down and create a portable routine that I can implement whenever I head somewhere new. This, too, is a common challenge for freelancers or people working from home—setting up a routine takes discipline. I have the added components of finding a place to live, getting sick in a foreign place, or trying to find a place where I can quietly work. Again, these are not bad problems. It’s just a big change to the little things that were almost a given in my prior life.
PT Why did you decide to focus on food?
JE I never cared much about food growing up. I started traveling and realizing just how important food was to my ability to learn about a place and experience what makes it special. Through food, I’ve been invited into people’s homes or to their weddings and funerals. I’ve been able to jot down recipes from the most ridiculous places, and it’s all because people truly take pride and pleasure in the foods of their country. It’s not about eating—it’s about the 360-degree experience of learning as much as I possibly can via the lens of food.
PT Do you have a favorite travel spot you’d like to share with Paste readers?
JE There are many places that I love to visit, but I have a soft spot for two bustling cities: Saigon, Vietnam, and Lisbon, Portugal. Both are beautiful, delicious and full of small but smile-inducing details that make exploring so rewarding, such as a motorcycle taxi driver asleep in an acrobatic position in Saigon, or a brief but hilarious interaction with a grandma in Lisbon to retrieve my lost socks.
PT What’s one tip you have for readers who want to live a life like yours?
JE The best way to live an unconventional life is to get good enough at a skill that you can leverage that talent to build a life you want. Author Cal Newport says this better than I can, but it’s the same principle: If you want to live a flexible life full of food, you don’t necessarily need to get paid to do it. You can get paid to do something else that runs on remote terms and with malleable hours and stuff your face in your spare time. The problem with all of the e-books that explain the “how” of living unconventionally is that everyone’s skill sets are different and creative pursuits are also varied. Figure out what you want to dedicate time to get better at and then build from there.
Photos courtesy of Jodi Ettenberg
Carolyn Crist is a freelance journalist based in Georgia. She writes about travel, health and business for regional and national publications.