Ben in his office in Santiago
I met Benjamin Witte in Paris, when we both worked for Worldcrunch – incidentally, we both continue to work for Worldcrunch, although neither one of us still lives in Paris. There are relatively few people whose life story makes me feel boring and not-so-well traveled, but Ben is one of them. He agreed to share a bit about his experiences abroad and what they have meant for his personal and professional development.
You’ve lived in a lot of different places. Can you first actually list the places you’ve lived and how long you’ve been in each place?
It’s true that I’ve lived in quite a few places. I moved around quite a bit when I was very young. I was born in Nova Scotia, moved to a farm in Wisconsin when I was still just a toddler, and then a year or so after that headed to Connecticut with my father. We moved to Berkeley, California just before I turned six, then to Nottingham, England the year after that (my father had a fellowship to study there for a year) and then back to Berkeley.
From there I was mostly settled down until I finished high school. After that, though, things were again something of a whirlwind. I spent a semester of university in Norwich, England, two in Vermont and the rest in Connecticut. After graduation I moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, then to Eugene, Oregon, then back to Halifax and then, after getting an unexpected offer to teach English in a state language school, to the Czech Republic (Prague).
I only stayed in Prague for six months, but my experience there gave me a real taste for living abroad. And so after a quick stint in New York, followed by an even quicker stint doing temp office work in San Francisco, I went to Guatemala to study Spanish. I flew from there to Santiago, Chile, where I stayed for about 14 months before lining up an internship (my first journalism experience) in San Jose, Costa Rica. After a year I moved back to Chile, stayed another year-and-a-half, then returned to Halifax to do a journalism degree. It took a while, but I eventually made it back to Santiago (my third tour of duty), where I stayed for another four years before moving to Paris, France, followed by Sitges, Spain. As of about four months ago I’m back in France, this time in Montpellier.
How has each place been different and in what ways has it been different?
That’s a subject I used to dwell on constantly, starting really when I left California after high school and went to university on the East Coast. The transition was extremely difficult for me. I’d been quite a happy camper in high school but then went into a long funk during my university years. Looking back I can come up with a multitude of reasons why I struggled so much, but at the time I mostly blamed the differences: East Coast winters were too cold, the towns I went to school in were too isolated, the geography was too flat, the vibe wasn’t hip hop enough, etc, etc.
Eventually, though, those kinds of differences became something I sought out and then started craving. In Canada all the signs and labels had French on them! The money was different. The big clock I used to pass every morning gave the temperature in Celsius. The speedometers in cars were marked with kilometers, not miles.
In Prague I remember spending ages wandering around supermarkets staring at all the strange products on the shelves. The architecture was stunning. The trams were like something out of a film. Guatemala felt even more exotic. I remember being woken up my very first morning by a parrot scratching its way across the corrugated tin roof of my bedroom. Chile was something else entirely, a place where all my previous worlds seemed to collide. Climate- and geography-wise, it was like being back in California. Certain pockets of Santiago reminded me of Europe. The street vendors, market places and buses, on the other hand, were quintessentially Latin American.
Ben in Paris
More recently, though, I’ve been struck by how much my experiences in different places depend not so much on how a city looks or feels, or what the café scene is like, or how hot or cold it gets there, but on where I happen to be internally. Since moving to Montpellier a few months ago I find myself longing at times for that feeling of adventure, intrigue and unease that accompanied my first months in Santiago. Montpellier doesn’t provoke those same sensations, not because it’s so different than Santiago, but because I’m in such a different place in my life. I moved to Santiago as a 26-year-old. I was alone. I didn’t know how I’d make a living. Nothing was decided. Now I’m married. I’m responsible for a three-year-old daughter. I arrived with the same portable job I’ve been doing for the past five years.
Do you ever consider moving back to the US? Why or why not?
At some point, many years ago, I stopped missing life in the US. I do, of course, miss my family. But I don’t find myself longing for the kind of lifestyle I imagine I’d have if I moved back. And I’m worried, to be honest, that I would have a difficult time no longer being a “foreigner.” It’s become such a basic part of my identity. But I do think sometimes about going back, especially since my daughter was born. I’d like her to have a relationship with the US, to get a feel for it and make her own decisions about what the place and the culture mean to her. I also wonder what it would be like to get a “real” job, which is something I’m more likely to find in my home country than anywhere else.
How has living abroad helped or hindered your professional development? How have you been able to stay in the same career through multiple moves?
I’d say living abroad has done both: it has helped and hindered in equal measure. For me, journalism and living abroad were always one in the same. I got my first internship and then first reporting job in Costa Rica. From there I worked for years in Chile. My expertise in that part of the world is still, in fact, what pays the bills. I write news summaries and do translations for a Latin America-focused publication produced by a U.S. university. My professional trajectory, in other words, had everything to do with my on-the-ground experiences living abroad. But having said that, I’ve never really had the opportunity to work in a proper newsroom, or to earn a proper salary. By living abroad I haven’t had access to a “regular” job market. In that sense, I’ve definitely made professional sacrifices.
What advice would you give someone interested in moving abroad?
Drinking in La Piojera in Santiago
There isn’t just one way to go about it. Some people establish careers in their home country and, because of a certain set of circumstances, or because they have the right language skills, have an opportunity to take a post in a foreign city. Others start off by studying abroad, developing a relationship with a country and its language, and then use that as a base to settle there. Another option is to look for foreign job opportunities on the Internet and then, once something is secured, make the leap. And then there’s the throw-caution-to-the-wind approach, which involves buying a plane ticket and just launching yourself out there. I tried the latter on a few occasions and lived to tell the tale, so I suppose my advice, in that regard, is not to be afraid to take risks. Thanks to the Internet, there is a lot of planning and organizing one can do before visiting a foreign country, but at the end of the day, the only way to really carve out a life abroad is to be on the ground solving day-in-and-day-out trials and tribulations as they arise.