It's easy to drive around in these winter days, see the bare branches on the trees, and to dream of being somewhere else. But I think it's useful in this time of holiday reflection to remember that people all over the world are saving up money, scouring Web sites for deals, waiting in long lines in airports, all just to be where we are now.
One personal story. When I was 25, I freelanced in Spain. I shared a dusty Madrid apartment with two Spaniards, one an graying astrologer, the other an Army sergeant who kept piles of fascist and pornographic literature in his bedroom and ate boiled fish every night. I had a manual typewriter. I wrote my stories, made xerox copies of them, and then went to the airport and found people flying to the United States who would promise to mail the stamped envelopes later the same day. (Can you imagine trying that today?) I sold very few articles and made most of my money teaching English. My dream was to become a foreign correspondent, but I made minimal progress that year in Spain. As soon as possible, I excised the Spanish year from my resume.
Later, still hoping to make it as a foreign correspondent, I freelanced in Washington and Buenos Aires. I worked for an English-language paper in Venezuela, and another in El Paso, TX. It wasn't until four years after Madrid that I got my break: Bureau chief for BusinessWeek in Mexico City.
Before going to Mexico, I traveled to New York to meet the editors and acquaint myself with life in a Midtown skyscraper. The first day there, one of the elder editors--the magazine's editorial writer--asked me if I'd have a drink with him. Back in the old days, I couldn't even get guys like this on the phone. They rarely answered my letters. And here I was having drinks with one of them in a pricey Manhattan bar. He got right to the point: He wanted to retire from BW and move to Spain. He had heard that I'd lived there (despite the air-brushing on my resume) and was looking for tips on how to make it as a freelancer in Madrid. We were trading places. Now that I think about it, whether we're raising kids, getting hired, fired, born, buried, or barreling one way or the other on I-80, trading places is what we work so hard to do.