Almost six months ago, I left my job in DC to freelance in Turkey, to be closer to people I love, in a region that’s become my second home. Since I finally, officially received my residency card yesterday, I thought this was a good time to reflect on where I’ve been so far.

1. You Are Not Your Job. You are more than your job. This has been the hardest and most unexpected of challenges for me. I didn’t realize how much of myself I identified with simply by having a title at a publication – even if I left that job voluntarily. But what about the downtime, when you’re in a new country, checking your email every hour, praying that someone wants you to go do something? What am I then? Maybe at previous jobs, I would have a weekly cry that came pretty much on schedule every Thursday afternoon, but now there are cycles of panic, wondering if I will ever work again, of avoiding any other commitments for fear that I might have to turn down an assignment, and finally, feelings of euphoria and fulfillment when I work on a story again. 

Down time doesn’t have to be down-and-out time. It doesn’t mean that you’re not still learning and growing in other ways. My wonderfully supportive partner put it this way: “you’re not a journalist because of a visa, or because of credentials, or because of a paycheck: this is who you are as long as you are telling stories.“ 

I’m choosing to view this, as I hope I will see it in hindsight: in the space of a few months, I  moved to a new country, learned a new language, made new friends, navigated an insane bureaucracy system to get a residency permit, read 15 books, wrote grant proposals, did research for projects, and traveled to two other countries to work on three separate stories. By most accounts, I think that qualifies as being productive. 

2. Letting Go. Letting go of control is one of the hardest things for westerners to do. This is especially true if you’re like me and consider yourself a pretty independent person.  But suddenly, I had to get help for such basic things – getting contact solution from the pharmacy, adding credit to my cell phone, finding out why my bank card was mailed to the wrong address. 

Everything feels like it takes way too long to happen. You spend a lot of time waiting and hearing “tomorrow we will take care of this.” A fellow freelancer in Mexico told me her new motto is “poco a poco” – in Turkish, mine is "herşey güzel olacak.” In Arabic, I think of it as “insha’allah kheir.” Everything will be alright. 

3. Little Victories. These victories, however small, make all the difference. You should celebrate them. There was the time that I went to the bank, successfully discussed a transaction in Turkish, and left with my brand new debit card. And then my insurance card arrived the same day! I probably cried with happiness.


4. Be Your Own Advocate. Living abroad is a lesson in how to fight, every single day, for the basic things you need in order to live your life and do your work. No one in any kind of official role will want to make things easy for you. You have to find a way to either laugh at it, persevere (go back until you get a different person who gives you a positive answer), or go around them. Know your rights, because 90% of the time, the police don’t actually know what the law says. And sometimes this means calling up a personal investment banker in Istanbul, because the local branch thinks it’s against policy to set up online banking for you. Go around the idiots. It will make you feel like a baller. 

5. Get a Damn Planner. Going into this, I knew time management was going to be a challenge. When the next paycheck is unknown, it’s hard to justify doing things or going places because they cost money. But give yourself a schedule everyday and commit to it. Maybe that means you have to do yoga or run at 8 am. Maybe that means an hour for writing each day. Two hours for studying language. Planning group dinners with friends. Time for research for future projects, or searching for work opportunities, staying in touch with your long-distance colleagues. The day can fill up fast. If you can’t stick to your schedule alone, find a friend to study with or exercise with – that way you have to show up, and you get a little socializing in as well. 

When I arrived, I had a horrific jetlag-flu-depression combo that led to weeks of staying up until 5 am with insomnia, and not waking up until after noon. It was really hard to break. I honestly only started feeling like myself again in the last month or so, because I started actually taking this advice. 

6. Trust the Pace of Your Own Life. Between working in a competitive industry in a city like DC and being surrounded by Type A people all the time, I got sucked into comparing where I am – in my personal life, my career, my education – to other people. Having this target on your own back will only slow you down. It’s good to have people to look up to and to have goals, but honestly, being isolated from all this for a while has been good for me. Not only am I trying to trust that these things will happen in their own time – but maybe something entirely different, something right for me, will happen instead. 

Now, I feel relaxed, because whatever happens for the rest of the year, I have my own goals outlined. Maybe my path will be different, but I have my own compass. I know where I’m going and I know what I want.