How a (jobless) Harvard Law grad turned opera singer built a new life in Turkey

As I prepared for a trip to Turkey a couple years back, a friend suggested a local contact—an American Harvard Law School grad and former Metropolitan opera singer, who had recently picked up and moved to Antalya. How could I not be intrigued?

While we didn’t manage to meet up during my trip, I began to follow her blog—Talking Turkey—and am delighted that she’s now agreed to kick off this blog’s guest post series spotlighting creative Plan B Nation lives.

By Ellen Rabiner

Why did I come to Turkey? This is the question I’m asked even more often than why I’m not married. I wish I had a good answer (for either question) but the truth is I sort of stumbled upon the idea of moving to Turkey.

The idea of leaving New York started to germinate when I realized I could no longer afford my ridiculously overpriced Upper West Side apartment.  In Amsterdam, on my final singing job in December 2009, I had to face the fact that I had no work coming up. Not a slow year, or a long time between engagements, but absolutely nothing.

Okay, that’s why I have a (Harvard) law degree to fall back on. But as fate would have it, the Great Recession hit just as my singing work was drying up, making it impossible for me to get even a lousy temp job doing document review, the legal equivalent of working on a factory assembly line. With so many laid-off lawyers now forced to take those unappealing jobs, even my illustrious J.D. was not going to make up for the fact that I’d been traipsing around the world singing for the past 20 years. There was simply no way I could compete with vastly more experienced attorneys.

So there I was, of a certain age, unemployed and essentially unemployable. I was living in a tiny apartment from which I could walk to the Met, but since I was no longer singing at the Met this advantage was hardly worth the $2,350 a month I was paying for the privilege.  And if I wasn’t working at the Met—or anyplace else—I couldn’t continue to pay for it much longer.  If I wanted to stay near Manhattan, I’d have to find a place in Queens, Inwood, or New Jersey. Plus, I’d still need a job.

In theory I had the credentials to hang out a shingle as a voice teacher or a lawyer, but in practice I didn’t really feel qualified to do either.  I didn’t want to add to the plethora of singers claiming expertise in vocal pedagogy simply by virtue of having had singing careers.  I knew what a real voice teacher was, and I wasn’t it.  And I didn’t have enough legal experience to open my own law office.

Since it seemed impossible to find a job commensurate with my education and experience, I decided to look at things another way:  To forget what I’d like to do for a living. To ask what I wanted to do with my life—and where I could go to do it.

Once I came at it this way, new answers began to emerge. What did I really want? I wanted to sit in the sun and read novels. And maybe travel to places I hadn’t been and learn a new language.  And have an apartment that rented for less than the price of a small car.

Antalya, Turkey, seemed to fit the bill: Along with being sunny and warm, it offers the opportunity to learn a new language and culture. It’s also a place I can blend in, and it’s a short flight to Western Europe. The cost of living is a fraction of what it is in New York.

While I wasn’t down to my last dollar when I moved, I would have run through my savings long ago if I’d stayed in Manhattan without a well-paying job. It was pretty clear to me that, whether I was teaching English or transitioning into something else, I’d be better off in a $300 apartment than in a $2,300 one. (By the way, if any readers are interested in moving to Turkey, living here legally as an American requires you to have $6,000 in the bank. That’s the minimum they think you need to live here for a year. Incidentally, it was also how much it cost me to live in New York for two months.)

Winters in Antalya can be a bit of a challenge for those of us accustomed to central heating. Of course it’s not as cold outside as it is in New York, but it’s much colder inside. I finally solved the problem of the noisy and inefficient wall unit by buying a portable heating fan to supplement it. I keep it next to me most of the day and move it into the bathroom to defrost the place before I take a shower. I also bought a reasonable facsimile of a down duvet (filled with polyester) that keeps me really warm at night.  A side benefit: I’ve found that spending time on chores like cooking, laundry, and staying warm can be a wonderful thing for an underemployed person, as it cuts into the time one might spend lamenting one’s uselessness.

My original idea for a job was to teach English, and I’m still doing a bit of that, teaching nine-year-old Russian kids once a week. I’ve come to accept, though, that teaching isn’t really my thing. On the other hand, it turns out I really enjoy writing my blog.  (It’s not exactly like the legal writing I used to do, but it’s not as alien to me as trying to corral a bunch of nine-year-olds.)  The logical step from that realization was to branch out into writing elsewhere, so I took an online course in travel writing.

Over the past few months, I’ve been doing my best to break into the travel-writing field.  I’ve had a few low-paying gigs, and I’m a long way from making a career of it. (Luckily, since my apartment costs only about $300 a month I’m not under too much pressure to earn a U.S.-style living wage immediately.)

For now, I continue to work on my writing career. I’m doing my best to take the long view—to recognize that building a whole new life is a marathon not a spring. And of course, I’m still giving myself some time sit in the sun and read novels.

© 2012, amy gutman. All rights reserved.

6 thoughts on “How a (jobless) Harvard Law grad turned opera singer built a new life in Turkey

  1. I love this article and I love Ellen’s courage and intrepid spirit! It’s very inspiring.

  2. It is a tempting alternative. Retire at 50, move to an apartment in Antalya? Read books. Wow!

  3. Weirdos are good, for the most part. Taking other roads gives you things to write about and share with the rest of us. I envy your day to day life as you probably envy my retirement benefits. Staying in one job for 40-50 years is mostly a thing of the past, so we have to accept some uncertainty in exchange for new experiences. I wish you much luck and happiness.

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