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

  2. 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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