A life out of the newsroom – and into the news
Sipping tea with babushkas ... and other scenes from a freelancer's life.
VIENNA — On a wickedly cold Chicago day eight years ago, I walked to work, made my way through the newsroom cubicles, entered my editor's office, gave her three weeks' notice, and then sat down at my desk.
I had stunned myself.
Less than two years before, I'd moved 1,000 miles to take this job as an assistant editor, and suddenly I was about to move several thousand miles more to get away from it.
Getting that Chicago job was the opportunity I had, for so long, envisioned for myself. The sudden offer to go there, and the money that came with it, seemed to be the "law of attraction" that had come into my life and set itself up as a constitution.
But the same quickened energy that propelled me to Chicago stirred up later to propel me out. My editor showed personal behaviors that were bullying and deceitful. My boyfriend appeared full of angst and pain that I simply could not will away. My resplendent downtown loft was quietly poisoning me with a gas leak that took the life of my joyful dog. And for a final bruising, my landlord's divorce-minded wife was forging my signature on documents, trying her own deceitful means to take my home away from me.
In this typhoon of grief and confusion, I allowed violent forces to slam my life shut and propel me onward. It was time to go.
But where? And how?
Years before, I had taken a leave of absence to be a journalism trainer in Eastern Europe, working alongside local reporters in ramshackle newsrooms, trying to help them help themselves. It was that vivid experience, an awakening to the world around me, that I wanted to hold again.
So I quit my job; quit my cool, downtown loft apartment; quit my cool boyfriend; sold my car; put my furniture in storage; hugged my friends; packed a duffel bag as tight and as full as I could; and moved to Europe with little money and fewer job prospects.
Since then I have wandered through and worked in 20 countries across Europe, Asia, and North Africa, acquiring, along the way, a London Black Cab in England; a Jack Russell terrier in Tbilisi, Georgia; and a home within myself that I cannot explain.
I have walked out of the newsroom and into the news. I am sometimes afraid, overwhelmed, overtired, thrilled, lonely, amazed, inspired, and sometimes a very long way from the familiar. But my days are no longer instantly filed and stored into memory, sorted by years and milestones. Instead, the events in my life are worn like a cloak wrapped around me, the deepening layers swaying with me as I move. The layers are vast and varied, marked by a flirting with lives alien to my own.
I have drunk fermented milk from Kyrgyzstan, eaten congealed fat in Hungary, and witnessed a man stuff every available inch of a Romanian Dacia car with grapes (for homemade wine).
I have seen hillside villages on fire because of civil unrest in Macedonia, been threatened by the Russian mafia in Moldova, and been moved to tears and nightmares by the sadness that calls itself Bosnia. I have been accused of being a Communist by a Croatian taxi driver, screamed at by a Russian veterinarian, and bitten on the arm by a 13-year-old Slovak boy. I have been secreted into a mosque by an Algerian, transported at midnight to a Sarajevo hospital by a hotelier, and comforted on a bus by an elderly Serbian man on Sept. 11.
I have shared an overnight train compartment with a Bosnian soccer team and held my hands over my ears as drunken, lederhosened Germans crooned their way through three countries.
I have had my heart shredded into little pieces by orphaned babies in the Republic of Georgia, and that same heart healed by a hero who doggedly, obsessively, champions their cause.
In Vietnam, I have learned that a man really can transport a six-foot bookcase on the back of a motorbike, that a photo of Ho Chi Minh on the desk never hurts in Hanoi, and that the kindness and warmth of the Vietnamese does a heart good.
And I have learned to take toilet paper with me wherever I go.
I have exchanged the night life of big American cities for sipping tea with babushkas in Eastern European villages.
I have learned, I hope, that words are sometimes no more than weighted obstacles, and that an unspoken language of shared feelings and experiences is as close as I'll ever come to truth.
Ambling along in a train bound for I don't care where, I still feel the same sense of liberation that I get when I have fallen in love. Holding hands and who knows where it will all go. But isn't it lovely? And please don't let it stop. Propel me onward.
• Patti McCracken is a syndicated columnist and freelance journalist based near Vienna. She works as a journalism trainer throughout the developing world.