Self-Employee of the Month: Jennifer Baljko

Jenn Baljko

“It’s just another gamble, right? I mean, you throw the dice, and if it doesn’t work … I’ll start over again somewhere else.

On New Year’s Eve 2003, I hosted a dinner party and served up slow-cooked collard greens and black-eyed peas—a soul food combo that, according to Southern superstition, brings wealth and happiness in the coming year. As technology trade reporter Jennifer Baljko joined the table, none of us gathered could have guessed the wealth and happiness that would soon come her way.

Jennifer’s name didn’t pop up on my radar again until 2007, when I noticed that she had beat out stiff literary competition to win the Traveler’s Tales Solas Contest. I was intrigued: Where has this woman been for the past four years?

Apparently, mere months after those collards and peas worked their magic, divorce and the dotcom bust sparked Jennifer’s search for a new life and livelihood. On the very day that the U.S. first declared war on Iraq, she declared war on life as she knew it, buying a ticket for an extended international journey and soon thereafter quitting her job. “I knew I needed to set my priorities straight,” she says.

After Jennifer’s initial trip, a six-month backpacking tour of southern Europe–Greece, Italy, Croatia, Spain, and Catalonia–she was utterly invigorated, but her bank account was drained. She went to crash with family in New Jersey. “I actually had to borrow money from my sister,” she admits. “That was a low point.”

“When you don’t have a steady paycheck every two weeks, you really have to justify your spending,” she says. “I still have nervous breakdowns when I’m buying big-ticket items.”

After the initial financial hardships leveled out, Jennifer quickly regrouped—and made new travel plans. With strong Croatian lineage, she hungered to explore her ethnic roots, and wanted to visit a certain Barcelona native she’d met during her previous trip.

“In 2005 I got to travel again, and by then I was thinking that I wanted to live abroad. I thought I was going to live in Croatia, and then Barcelona was in the back of my mind.”

Barcelona (and the man she’d met there) turned out to suit Jennifer quite well. Though she knew that living abroad would be a big adjustment, the risk seemed worth the gain.

“It’s just another gamble, right? I mean, you throw the dice, and if it doesn’t work … I’ll start over again somewhere else.

Jennifer has spent the past few years trying to navigate Spanish and E.U. immigration laws. Though still not a citizen, she hopes her Croatian heritage will help seal the deal—and soon. “Expect everything to take longer than it should and to cost more than you budgeted,” she advises. “Visa application processes are bureaucratic mazes, and you’ll need lots of patience to get special stamps on documents, papers translated and a host of other miscellaneous things that will pop up sporadically. Find a good accountant who understands freelancing and international tax laws, and do as much research as you can about a place before you arrive.”

Despite the red tape, Jennifer finds that the gains of expatriation have been tremendous. “I’m big proponent of living in different places, experiencing new cultures, learning languages and soaking up the local atmosphere. There’s something about traveling and living outside my comfort zone that consistently makes me extremely grateful for the life I have.”

Since her move abroad, Jennifer has made her way around the world, traveling through Ecuador, Egypt, Papua New Guinea, and Mongolia. Temporarily, she is based in Munich.

Did she know right away that her leap from the secure folds of Silicon Valley had been worthwhile? Hardly.

“I was panic-stricken for years,” she admits. And then one day in October 2005, it all made sense: “I was in the Croatian village where my great-grandfather was born, and took a couple of months off to harvest olives from trees that my great-grandparents had planted.” Standing overlooking the sea amid groves of ripe olives, “I realized that it was a Tuesday, and that everyone I knew back home was at work.”

And as for Jennifer’s work? She pays the bills with business, technology and travel newspaper, magazine, and Internet articles; guidebook contributions; and corporate writing services.

“Journalism has suited my personality in a big way,” she says, but warns against romanticizing the freelance lifestyle. “It’s usually a hustle getting the next gig, and there’s no guarantee that just because you got one assignment that you’ll get another,” she says. “Feast and famine brings an emotional roller-coaster ride … Editors change, publications’ perspective shift and, as more people jump into the freelancing pool, competition gets tougher.”

Very often, that means rejection. “Someone once said … that every aspiring freelance or travel writer should set a goal of getting 100 rejection letters. By doing this, you’re forcing yourself to not only be persistent and query lots of editors …but you’re also learning the business side of freelancing.”

Contrary to popular delusion, freelance writers only rarely retain the level of creative integrity that they seek. Jennifer is adamant: “Freelancing isn’t always this glorious job of sitting at a desk and writing however the spirit moves you.”

However, the flexibility and satisfaction of freelancing did move this corporate veteran to make time for a more personal writing practice. “Working at a weekly publication, and often under daily deadlines … sapped up most of my creative energy. It really wasn’t until I started traveling extensively that I found a love for both travel and personal essay writing.”

Though she didn’t initially get paid for her creative musings, she soon learned to market them along with her technology articles. “It has taken me some time to find a different voice and figure out what is it I want to do as a freelance writer,” Jennifer says. “In fact, I’m still discovering this voice, and constantly searching for media outlets where I can express it.”

To experience Jennifer’s award-winning voice for yourself, read her personal essays posted at Travelers’ Tales. Many of her articles and other essays are posted on her website.

***

When I contacted Jennifer for this interview, that pot of New Year’s beans and collards was the first thing she mentioned. Now that we’re all caught up, I know she must have gotten the magic serving.

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