A huge factor in my wife Lisa Grassi-Blais’ and my decision to drop our careers in Canada and open an inn and boutique tour company in Abruzzo, Italy was our increasing disillusionment with how we were living.
In 2011, Lisa had been a lawyer for 14 years and was in her seventh year as a federal prosecutor largely dealing with drug cases while I was two years into a job driving a desk for the municipal government in Ottawa after 13 years as a journalist.
We had a modest house, a very modest country property, no kids, and two pound dogs. We were both 43.
A normal day for me started by getting up and checking email messages I had missed since I went to sleep while co-workers continued on their crackberries past mid-night. Then I slogged my way to work, often in idiotically cold weather. I’d get to the office and immediately start dealing with issues created by stressed out colleagues and bosses on things that were not life and death but were expected to be treated as such.
All day long, I sat in my cubicle cage and beat back the onslaught of urgent emails. Sometimes, I’d get some actual work done before packing it in exhausted at 5 p.m. Then it was back home through the arctic blast, dinner, a drink or two, and staring at the idiot box.
On the weekends in the spring, summer and fall, we would escape to our shack on the Ottawa River, recharge for a couple days, and plan our next trip to Italy.
The stuff I worked on was important, and I honestly gave it my best, most professional effort every time. I was well-compensated, and I absolutely adored the people in my office. Life should have been good, but I couldn’t help thinking “What the hell am I doing here?"
Meanwhile, Lisa toiled in Canada’s adversarial justice system where she put her knowledge of the law and advocacy skills up against defence lawyers and was judged constantly on her work by the defence bar, the press, law enforcement officials, her bosses, and actual judges.
Sometimes she felt meaning in her work, like when she saw a drug addict rehabilitate him or herself or when she helped prosecute illegal election spending schemes. But quite often her job consisted of securing prison sentence after prison sentence for a long, long line of under-privileged young men, often from minority groups, for low-end drug-trafficking.
She also knew her work was important, gave it her best professional effort, and was well-paid. But she too couldn’t help thinking: “Is this it?”
At this point, I want to say that we absolutely understand that without the opportunities we have had and, indeed, the career-focused North American work environment we come from, we would likely not have the luxury of doing what we are doing. But the truth is, the hyper-fast pace, get ahead, work as life rat race wore on us.
We should have been satisfied with our accomplishments and looking forward to joining the ranks of senior management. But the accomplishments felt increasingly hollow and neither of us wanted the crap that comes with management positions. The jobs we sought and worked hard for, were turning into depressing dead ends.
Worse. I started having very little patience for things. Things that I normally would have brushed off started to really annoy me. Every morning as I walked up the City Hall stairs to my cage, I had to give myself a little pep talk about controlling stress, being nice to people, and feeling good about life.
It was at about this point too that Lisa simply couldn’t stand being part of the never-ending "war on drugs" approach in our criminal justice system. She loved her friends at work ("colleagues" doesn't do justice to the bond she had with these folks) dearly but her heart simply wasn’t in it. She started looking at other jobs, mostly United Nation’s related stuff in Europe. Being a judge - the usual next step for an experienced lawyer - just wasn't something that appealed (excuse the pun) to her.
So what was the point of continuing? Money? We aren’t material people, didn’t need a car, new house, better clothes, fine wine, or fancy dinners out. My big spending was my annual spring trek to Canadian Tire to buy some fishing gear, and I wanted a better chain saw. Lisa would splurge on a new coat every couple years, and she wanted our gravel and mud driveway paved.
So there we were: me having to talk to myself to get through the day and slowly becoming a frustrated and crusty middle-aged man; and Lisa feeling unfulfilled.
As we closed up our river shack late in 2011 and got ready for another brutal Canadian winter, we both knew that things had to change.
Italy was always on our minds, but as a vacation spot. We had no clue that a few months later we would decide to completely pack in our careers and lives in Canada in order to open a boutique tour company in Abruzzo.
Next Blog: Two people, one mid-life crisis.