Saturday, January 16, 2021
Monday, January 11, 2021
Ah, my first week of retirement. Some of the insecurities I previously had about squandering my time are creeping back in, but I've been exceptionally busy which helps keep those self-doubts at bay. For months I had been gathering a list of to-dos and now that I am finally allowing myself to do them I still don't have the time! A few of my small projects have been:
- Cheesemaking- I made my first batches of ricotta and mozzarella this week. I also want to try a lemon spreadable cheese, queso blanco, and yogurt, but right now I'm struggling to find uses for the off-putting yellow whey that the production process releases. I'm not willing to drink it plain, as some websites recommend, but I have used it to cook pasta in and it also works as a water replacement in most baking recipes. Which leads me to:
- Baking- This is not a new hobby for me, but having mid-week banana muffins and having a successful first go at homemade bagels is. Although I don't have any qualms about modifying recipes willie-nilly (typically with positive results) it will still be a while until I attempt to rival the Little Twins on their respective specialities (cinnamon roles and sourdough).
- Website- Since I now am a freelancer, I figured I aught to have my own website as an additional self-marketing tool. Cameron bought me the domain name aishalittle.com and for the past week I have been learning very simple HTML commands (I'm not even sure if I've used the vocabulary in that sentence correctly). I've also signed up for an online "Introduction to Computer Science" course but I haven't quite talked myself into actually starting on the material.
- Stretching- One of my New Year's resolutions is to stretch at least three times a week and so far I'm keeping that up. I'm just using YouTube videos as my guide, but at least three instructors I've followed talk about how emotion is held in the hips. I'm happy to report that so far, stretching my hips has not led to an emotional breakdown.
- Reading- Another New Year's resolution is to read 50 books in 2021. I finished my first book (Middlesex) last Thursday and I'm about halfway through book 2 (Dryer's English). I am a slow reader, though, and getting through 500+ pages in a week means that I'm dedicating at least half of my day to reading. Please let me know if you have any recommendations for short books that I can add to my reading list.
Monday, January 4, 2021
I'm very thankful that last year we did the full holiday shebang. New Year's Eve, 2019 involved dressing up, going out to a club, dancing, and piling into the main square for the midnight countdown. Cameron likes to recount the wild atmosphere of being smooshed into the crowded city center as people let off their brought-from-home fireworks while drinking their brought-from-home booze. When he talks about it, there is both a sense of pride in his voice but also glimmer of head-shaking disbelief in his eyes.
As you might imagine, this year was quite different. The 7pm-6am lockdown that surrounded the transition from 2020 to 2021 was not legally enforceable, but I think most people already made plans to stay mostly inside for this New Year's Eve. I'd like to think that I would have been ok effectively ignoring this holiday. Wrapping up the year with a movie, some games, and a reasonable bed time sounded quite amicable to me, however I can never say no to the slightest hint of fun, so when introduced to the prospect of having a sleepover that evening I had to say "yes!"
Despite having two friends over, the evening was not too dissimilar from my initial expectations. We made pierogi, played the Czech rendition of Codenames (the picture version), and watched a few episodes of a new Netflix show while snacking on leftover Christmas candy. About five minutes before midnight, we decided to throw coats over our pajamas and head down to the river to ring in the new year. Thanks to a poorly timed joke on my part ("hopefully we don't get caught for breaking the curfew!") Cameron did not shuffle downstairs with us.
There were a few groups along the riverside. Most were like ours: fairly small (3-6 people), keeping distance from the other cliques, and bundled up. Some of the groups had their own fireworks that they were setting off, some had handheld sparklers, and others had bottles of champagne they were shaking up, but most were just gazing around at the sporadic splashes of light. It was a smoggy night with a low cloud layer, so we didn't see many fireworks other than those that were quite close to our standing point, and judging by the muffled sound, there weren't all that many that we weren't seeing either. In addition, the observation balloon across the river was lit up and flashing fun colors. Although he missed the main event (midnight was rightfully the most flashy), Cameron did talk himself to coming down to the river's edge for the ongoing encore.
I think it was good to have a fairly modest New Year's celebration. Having a big hoopla like last year would have felt disingenuous (and unsafe) since I am approaching 2021 with much more caution, but it was still good to start the year off with a little bit of fun and optimism.
New Year's Eve 2019
Monday, December 28, 2020
Last year I learned all about the Polish Christmas traditions, for example 24 December is the big family hoopla where you start on a 12 course feast once the first star in the sky becomes visible. Since we committed to the traditions last year, Cameron and I had our own plans for 2020. We had cheese fondue on Christmas Eve, and our 25 December meal also did not meet Polish standards (meaning we did not have barszcz, pierogi, or a carp that had been living in our bathtub for the week leading up to the holiday, nor did we set a plate for Jesus or other unexpected guests). I did, however, add one Polish tradition to our Christmas table this year–a bundle of hay, which was actually some packing material leftover from a gift that was shipped to us.
Nothing new really came to my attention, except for Kevin. From what I've picked up Kevin is the colloquial name given to the Home Alone movies, probably because the Polish name is Kevin Sam w Domu (literally, 'Kevin Alone at Home'). And Home Alone, as I've learned, is a very popular Christmas movie in Poland.
For my job's virtual holiday party we played a series of puzzle games, one of which was to watch a five minute clip from the movie and try to keep track of all of the nuances (what color was the phone, what letter is on the doorknob, what did the tall robber get hit in the head with, etc.) There was a big uproar when each group was sharing answers to the question "what is Kevin's last name." Half of the group had correctly surmised that Kevin calls 911 and says his name is 'Murphy.' The other half of the group complained that the question was misguided because everyone knows that Kevin's last name is 'McCallister.'
As of 2013, Kevin ranked as the most popular Christmas movie in Poland since it was released in Poland in 1992. It seems its popularity is tied with the timing of the fall of communism (1989). It was, after all, one of the early American films, and definitely one of the first Christmas/children films. Apparently Die Hard is also quite popular, and one article writer, Bartosz Staszczyszyn, points out he thinks it's because "Die Hard is essentially Home Alone for adults."
Maybe I'll have to see if Die Hard can be found for free on the internet, because Home Alone sure holds up! While writing this article, Cameron and had the movie playing in the background (it's free on YouTube). I hadn't seen the film in a few years, and other than the broad strokes I had almost no memories. I'll leave you with some of the winning quotes I jotted down from the first five minutes:
"You are what the French call, 'les incompetent.'"
"When I grow up and get married, I'm living alone."
"Mom, does Santa have to go through customs?"
Sunday, December 20, 2020
That's right—I have decided to "retire." My dad thinks this is very funny and he now wants to start a podcast with me, him, and Grandpa discussing retirement across three generations. That probably won't happen (for many reasons, one being that Grandpa can't hear anything anymore) but it is true that I have quit my job and have no intentions of looking for a new one in the foreseeable future. While technically I'm still a PwC employee until the end of the month, I kept my already booked vacation days making yesterday my last working day. I am so excited and relieved!
Yes, I know that actively choosing unemployment is an indicator of my immense privilege. I battled managing that privilege the first time I was a housewife and this time I think it is even more apparent. All I can say is that I am very grateful this option is available to me, but beyond that I won't start another privilege rant here. You can surely see breadcrumbs in my previous posts if you care to re-read them.
I want to share the background of my time at work and why I ultimately decided leaving my job was the best choice for me. To do that, let me take you on the journey of my employment. *key dream sequence music*
When we first moved to Krakow I did not like being a housewife. I was bored, there was no structure to my days, and I had no social life. I didn't need a job for the money, but I wanted a purpose and a community to be a part of five days a week. At that point, too, I thought we would probably live in Poland for three or four years and the prospect of not working for that long was daunting. Even though I was beginning to doubt my previously gung ho resolve to stay in public accounting forever, it was the obvious choice to look for employment since my skillset would be directly transferable and I felt relatively confident they would hire an English-only speaker. Plus, I didn't want my CPA experience to atrophy. I interviewed with PwC on 24 October 2019, got a call the next day offering me the job (with the knowledge that my work permit would need to be approved before I could start working), and then I flew to the US for visa stuff on the 28th. This was all within three weeks of moving to Krakow, so pretty much since the beginning I was ~90% sure I would be working eventually.
I was told to expect the work permit approval process to take 3-6 months, so even when I was unhappy about my housewifing I always knew that it was temporary. However, in the four months between my interview and my start date I started to really enjoy the routine I set for myself. It was plenty of time to build up a social life, plus I think Cameron developed a reliance on me handling all of the administrative parts of life. Essentially, I decided that if the work permit didn't come through, I wouldn't actively look for another job.
I started at a weird time of year and in a weird position. Coming in mid-February (which also means mid-busy season) as an experienced senior does not lend well to traditional onboarding procedures. Yet, I still received all the standard corporate "welcome onboard" emails and I expected my first week to be pretty low-key; probably sitting in a conference room watching culture-infused training videos. Unexpectedly, two days before my first day I got a text message saying I should meet at the client's office, which of course put me into a little bit of a panic. It did get straightened out and I started in the PwC office on my first Monday morning, but I also ended up spending the second half of the day on the client site.
Right off the bat I was in charge of a few projects. I both liked that the team had enough confidence in me to give me those early responsibilities, but I was also overwhelmed because I was trying to prove my competence while trying to learn so many things from scratch. I had never worked on a for-profit client or in an IFRS environment and trying to catch the nuances while taking a trial-and-error approach to figuring out the general admin and PwC-specific methodologies was exhausting. I know I should have asked more questions early on, but everyone else seemed too busy to burden, plus I wanted to live up to the praise I was getting for being self-reliant and capable.
I also felt like I was a bit of a nuisance because I only speak English. Most of the time in the audit room people would talk amongst themselves in Polish unless I was specifically being drawn into the conversation. That's fine, but it is harder to passively pick up tidbits about your coworkers when you don't follow the rolling conversation. Perhaps if the general stress level was lower I might have been a more active conversation leader so I could insert myself into the discussions better, but probably not since I was still trying to learn my new workplace's etiquette. It might sound like I am complaining about my coworkers—I assure you I'm not—but I felt bad that I was interrupting their routine because I didn't know Polish. I'm not a particularly self-conscious person, but I do pride myself on my ability to fit in and not being able to converse in the "normal" way meant I didn't fit in as seamlessly as I would have liked.
I kept reminding myself that close connections take months, and I did feel like I was making progress connecting with the team. That progress slowed down significantly once we all began working from home, which was less than a month after I started at PwC. This was terrible timing because now the casual information gathering I did have was cut off. Working from home took away my ability to gauge "normal" working hours and daily productivity. I also could no longer call out to the room and ask, "does anyone know how to..." but instead I had to choose to impose my question on someone. The problem was I didn't have enough of a relationship with anyone yet to feel comfortable constantly pinging my problems to.
There were good things about working from home, though. I liked that I no longer had a commute and I could eat whenever I wanted (rather than waiting for the group to collectively decide it was lunchtime). It also made me very grateful to have a job. When Poland did a full lockdown I was so thankful to have something specific to focus on each day. There was also a lovely two month period of time where we were told not to work any overtime and I really liked working a true eight-hour workday. Like everyone else, my team figured out how to adjust to the virtual environment and I began to feel like I (kind of) knew what I was doing.
Stress & Anxiety
As is the nature of public accounting, as soon as you start to feel confident with one aspect of the job things are bound to change. Some key members of my team left PwC, leaving a handful of projects to be distributed amongst the remaining seniors. When available, people transitioned onto our team to fill in but it still meant more projects were falling into my lap. I didn't have a good sense of how long things would take, so when I was told I should be able to finish up part A today and get through parts B-D by the end of the week I would meekly agree that it seemed possible. But "possible," I learned, only happened in an ideal world and we were not living on that planet.
For example, the initial project I was assigned on my first day at PwC should have wrapped up in less than two weeks. It took me about double that time, partially because of the learning curve, partially because I was also trying to juggle other side projects, and partially because the client was not ideal. And that was only to mostly finish. There was one little holdup, and while I waited for that to be resolved I focused on other projects. Periodically, I would have a lull and would check in on the little holdup—sometimes I would be able to progress a smidge further but typically I was told, "it will happen soon." That little holdup stayed in limbo for months and months, and ultimately it never was resolved in the 10+ months at the job.
Some people would be able to brush that off with a "not my problem" attitude. I am not one of those people. I really care about my work and I work off a running checklist, so until something is truly done it lingers on that list indefinitely. Effectively that results in a very long list, and long to-do lists are really just a visual representation of increasing stress. Some weeks I did take those on-hold projects off the list, just to manage my stress a little bit, but even so I knew that if that one little piece came through it would be all hands on deck to finalize that project.
The workload was definitely the most potent ingredient in my personal anxiety cocktail, but it wasn't the only one. I started to be part of weekly calls with the client which were fully in Polish until it was my turn to speak; again, that's fine, except I couldn't gauge if I was using the right tone or saying the right things because I couldn't match the others. I was also learning that my options to get CPE (continuing professional education—a requirement for maintaining my CPA status) were very limited, which left me to seek out webinars outside of work. Essentially, I would take the same trainings twice–once for work and once for CPE—and the CPE ones would always be at weird hours (think 10 pm on a Tuesday) thanks to the time difference.
I also wasn't getting to enjoy my favorite part of my job, which is helping and teaching others. Yes, I periodically had an associate working with me whom I would guide via video chats, but most of the time I felt so bogged down with my own workload that I didn't feel like I could be an effective guide to others. It both helped and hindered having new people rotate onto our team as I could sympathize and commiserate with them about the onboarding process, but since I couldn't dedicate much time to them I also knew I was perpetuating the stressful cycle the "figure it out yourself" attitude creates.
There were some ups, but it seemed like the ups only came after a long series of downs. I had one project (which ended up expanding into three or four, but that's a different story) that we needed to finish by the end of August. I had many 12+ hour days leading up to 31 August… and then we didn't issue. Panic mode kept on rolling for another week and that's probably when I first started toying with the idea of quitting.
It took me a long time until I truly decided to quit, but I started testing out the idea with small things. I laid out my grievances to see which ones would be acted upon. My boss agreed I shouldn't work longer than ten-hour days, and I was tentatively granted a week off during busy season for a ski trip in the Alps. Also around this time, Cameron and I decided we would only stay in Krakow another year so I knew I would need to quit by mid-summer 2021 anyways. Every change (good and bad) helped to hone in on when in our 12-month scale I would quit.
My mood was souring and the urge to quit kept growing, especially as my expectations about project competition dates kept getting dashed over and over again and more and more of my coworkers quit. I'm pretty positive (even for an American) but I was having a harder and harder time maintaining a professionally cheerful attitude. I tried lots of remedies: meditation apps, gratitude journals, CBD oil, Bright Mood tea, and breathing exercise all supplemented my already daily exercise and weekly socializing routines. Although they probably helped to some extent, I still kept inching closer to the "quit now" side of the scale.
Even with my mood-lifting attempts I was still crying regularly. (Maybe another pro to working from home is that you can cry while you work and no one has to be the wiser?) Somewhere in the late September time frame everything compiled together and culminated in a panic attack. I was already starting to tear up thinking about the absurd number of things I needed to do when an email came through with another set of impossible tasks. I started to feel dizzy, I couldn't breathe, and I wanted to throw up. I made it to the bathroom where I sat on the toilet lid and leaned into the wall so that the cool surface could cool my now-sweating face.
I heard a statistic (that I will probably misquote) that Americans typically feel miserable for five years before they will seek out help. I was not willing to be an average American. At this point I tried my final maybe-I-won't-quit option and I made an appointment with a counselor.
I signed up via a counseling service that PwC provided. My call was in mid-October and I was a little hesitant to complain about work to someone provided to me by my employer. I quickly learned that the counselor I was matched with had no practical knowledge about what PwC does and I opened up about my complaints. I expected she would be a mostly passive listener who would leave me with some tips on how to manage my stress better. Somewhat to my disbelief, she seemed very invested in my plight and told me I wouldn't be able to thrive so long as I kept having to operate in survival mode. She adamantly agreed that I needed to fully disconnect from work, whether through quitting or via a psychologist-prescribed mental health sick leave. I set a time slot in my bosses' calendars for the next week to share my "2021 intentions."
Practicalities of Quitting
In Poland, if you have worked at a job for more than three months you have to give a minimum one month's notice. I wanted to give a full two months because I wanted my transition to go as smoothly as possible. I figured with two months they would be able to find my replacement and I would be able to finish up everything on my to-do list. On 27 October, I formally announced my intentions to only continue working for PwC through the end of December.
The reasons I gave for quitting were all sincere. I was truthful that the stress was negatively impacting my mental health and that I did not want to subject myself to a full busy season's demands. I shared that I wasn't getting some of the simple things I wanted out of this job (CPE, community) and that I wanted to ensure I had time to enjoy living in Europe. I admitted that I didn't feel like I was a good employee and that I constantly felt I was outputting at a mediocre standard. Another big reason was that I didn't feel like I was making the world a better place by auditing a huge telecommunications client. I know from my experience with nonprofits and tribal governments that I am willing to put up with a lot of shit if I feel like I am assisting with a greater mission of good.
I knew my announcement was a blow to my team, but amazingly everyone was happy for me and really supportive. I caught a glimpse of jealousy in some people—I'm sure quitting had crossed their minds at some point as well. I knew it would have to happen, but I still felt guilty as I watched my unfinished tasks being doled out to the few remaining team members. I wasn't sure how much to share, or how widely to share it, so I found myself giving cryptic responses to the client and some colleagues as the topic of 2021 planning came up in conversation.
The last few weeks were by no means a breeze, and in some ways they were the toughest weeks of the year. I think if I didn't have the knowledge that it would be over soon I probably would have had a second panic attack. At one point my manager asked if I would be willing to extend my time for a few weeks if the current projects didn't wrap up by the end of December. I snapped at him and not-so-politely said, "definitely not. I am fed up with this job. The reasons these projects are still ongoing are not my fault and I feel no obligation to fix the problems that other people made." Yes, that was not a shining moment, but I am happy to say I did fully wrap up the one huge project that everyone was most worried about on my last day.
I know that I did not handle everything ideally. From the beginning I could have been more open about my concerns and I could have been more upfront with my questions. I could have tried to better separate myself from my work and I could have been more demanding about my needs. I could have stayed for a full year. I could have played it out even longer and just kept at it until we moved. If I wanted, I'm sure I could have even kept going beyond that by transitioning from PwC Poland to PwC USA.
I could have, but I didn't, and that's ok. Clearly, I felt like there were plenty of reasons to quit, but I also had many reasons to stay which made the decision not-so-clear-cut: I like having purpose, I like making money, I care about my coworkers, I worry I'm unfairly attributing pandemic/politics/expat stresses to work, I pride myself on not being a quitter, I'm worried that a multi-month gap on my resume will make it harder to get a job, I also worry that my knowledge/skills/drive/critical thinking will disintegrate the longer I don't work, and biggest of all—I don't like disappointing people.
Quitting was hard and scary, but I'm really proud of myself for going through with it. When I was still debating with myself, one friend shared his story of quitting a job and the relief it brought him. That was the predominant emotion I felt, too. There was also excitement and anticipation but the relief is still so strong I'm almost giddy.
All that said, I am grateful for this job. As one coworker put it, "it was quite absorbing and particularly unusual," but I made good connections and I learned a lot. Many of the lessons learned were about myself rather than about audit and accounting, although there were plenty of those, too. I've finally admitted to myself that counter to popular opinion, I want to be a big fish in a small pond. Also, and probably more importantly, I now know that I won't be fully satisfied unless I connect to my work's mission. We'll see how those come together for my next act.
When I was feeling particularly frustrated and overwhelmed, one of my outlets was to fill out two lists: 1) other things I could do with my time, and 2) other jobs I could consider. I won't look for another job while I'm in Poland. For one, I don't really have time to go through the job permit process, but also I don't really know what I want to do next. Some of my other jobs are accounting- and finance-related, but I also have a few wacky ones on there, too. My favorites are: environmentalist, party planner, licensed joyologist, dating advisor, and local government official/mayor. Before I commit to the next phase of my career I want to take this time to truly figure out what I want to do and what I require out of a job. I'm considering this my first retirement since it will be a time to reflect, relax, and recoup.
Although I don't have a title to give myself at the moment other than "housewife," I don't think I will be wearing the stereotypical housewife heels and pearls this time around. This time, housewifing is completely my choice and I have a plan! I anticipate splitting the average day into segments: three hours for life planning, three hours for education, two hours for reading, and one hour of exercise will make up my workday. I have a few big personal projects that I've been daydreaming of for months now and I'm excited to finally get started on them. I'm also offering my services as a copy editor, resume reader, mock interviewer, vacation researcher, and old undies mask maker.
I may not know exactly where I'm going next, but I know I made the right choice for me right now.
Sunday, December 13, 2020
In some ways last weekend was an example of "fake it 'til you make it." I was not feeling the holiday spirit this year until we started to put some Christmas activity into action. I wasn't being a total Scrooge, but I just didn't think we needed to make a fuss for the holiday. Now I'm starting to feel the itchy desire to wrap presents and tie a red ribbon in my hair (which I might actually do for my company's Zoom holiday party on Monday). When friends inquire about our holiday plans my response has changed from "nothing" to "I'm not sure"–progress!
There have been some outside influences that have helped, too. I walked into Old Town for the first time in a while and it was nice to see the city's decorations strung across the streets and a lit up tree in the town center. The highly decorated nativity scenes are sprinkled around town and twice this week I spotted the Wesołych Świąt (Merry Christmas) tram. Plus, as a super bonus, it snowed twice in the last two weeks. It's only one more week of work until Cameron and I start our winter holiday, but the 6:30am church bell next door is already starting to ring more like a Christmas chime than a morning alarm to my ears. On a bit of tangent, it's been surprisingly pleasant living right next to a big church. The bells go off at 6:30, 12:00, and 18:30 so it's not incessant, and the predictability isn't so unwelcome either. Although I think the 6:30 bells don't chime on Sundays.
But back to the matter at hand–Christmas...although I always start thinking about my New Year's resolutions this time of year as well. I typically pick one or two each year, and normally I'm pretty good about keeping them. I'd say on average I hit about 80% of my full-year goal on average. Last year's resolutions were to have moments of gratitude every day (which I wasn't so good at) and to actively practice Polish every day. Thanks to Duolingo and Drops I actually did pretty well with this one- I bet there were less than 10 days this year that I did not "do my Duos," and even some of those days I had the excuse of participating in a Polish meeting at work.
This year I've been developing a list of potential 2021 resolutions. Some are food based (no sugar, no processed food, vegan a few days a week), a few are personal habit-building (daily flossing, read 50 books, no pimple picking, practice cursive), others are consumerism related (no clothes shopping, zero waste, no plastic bags). Although I like them all, I am not committed enough to go for 10+ goals this year, nor do I think all are practical for me right now. Even though I would love to live a zero-waste life I don't have the resources to succeed at that.
Over the years I've learned that the trick to a good New Year's resolution is to have built in loopholes. One of my most successful years was no buying alcohol for myself unless the situation required it. That meant I could order a cocktail if I went to a friend's birthday dinner and if Cameron was paying then I could buy a beer. That year I also held a lot of house parties so I had an excuse to buy some alcohol. Between now and 1 January I will be working out which resolutions I can find ways to weasel out of, and those will probably be the ones that I go for in 2021. Suggestions from the reading audience are welcome!