This week on The Trip podcast: Jodi Ettenberg, lawyer-turned-travel-writer and founder of Legal Nomads, on long-term travel, eating soup for a living, and the health problems that have kept her confined to bed for over two years.
Just outside the apartment where Jodi Ettenberg was making dandelion root tea, Montreal was detonating with deep, unconscionable Autumn beauty. Mount Royal rises straight up from the McGill University campus, like a layercake of color: egg yolk yellow, pumpkin orange and candy apple red. While on a hike to the top that morning with a couple of the German musicians I talked about in last week’s episode, the sugar maples floated leaves down on us that were so perfectly 11-pointed and so red that if you put them to your ear you would hear “Oh Canada” blasting like the tide crashing in a seashell.
This is the city where Jodi grew up, where she became a lawyer, where she dreamed of seeing the wider world. And when she left her job in corporate law and became a celebrated traveler and blogger as the founder of Legal Nomads, Montreal was her home base between long stretches in Southeast Asia and Central Mexico and wherever else the wind had pulled her.
Now, that base is something of a prison. Her body is failing her in cruel ways and the amount of effort and pain it takes to simply stand upright has clipped the once very wide wings of Jodi Ettenberg. This interview was recorded, in a first for this show, while she lay prone and I sat nearby. I’ve known and followed Jodi for most of a decade now, and it was hard to see her this way, but equally reassuring to hear her undimmed and unbowed. We talked about how she came into the world of long-term travel, what food has meant to her along the way, and about her new unwanted role in this tribe of fellow sufferers she has joined. I love knowing this woman, one of the brightest lights in this very bright city.
Nathan Thornburgh: Let’s turn the clock way, way back. We are in Montreal, in the city where you were born.
Jodi Ettenberg: That’s correct.
Thornburgh: And grew up. We’re kind of in the shadow of Mount Royal, which I climbed this morning, and it’s just fucking gorgeous.
Ettenberg: You’re here at a wonderful time of year as well. All the trees are turning so it’s just a beautiful place right now.
Thornburgh: It’s so bizarre because as an American to show up in Montreal, take a hike and have the literal symbol of Canada just showering down on your head as you’re walking the path.
Ettenberg: Maple leaves everywhere.
Thornburgh: So you did not grow up in this neighborhood.
Ettenberg: No, I grew up in the west island not far from the airport and went to public high school there, but I did go to university at McGill, which is downtown and not far from where we are. Actually, that whole campus is gorgeous right now with the trees changing.
Thornburgh: I walked through it quite intentionally and was thinking about it, you entered, I guess the Canadian system is different, but you entered the law faculty at 19, right?
Ettenberg: Yeah, I applied and I got accepted and I was 18, and just turned 19 when I started. It’s actually not different. For most of the country, we do what you guys do, which is you do an undergraduate degree, and you may or may not take time off to work and then apply for law school. McGill had started when I went to school there from taking people from CEGEP directly, which is grades 12 and 13 here in Quebec. High school ends in grade 11 here, and then there’s this two-year interim schooling for pre-university education, and they decided to take a few of us and sort of shove us in with everyone else. So it’s not like a pre-med program, it wasn’t pre-law program—it was, let’s all throw you in the same basket and see what happens.
Thornburgh: Wow, so you’re like the fucking Lebron James of law. You went straight pro.
Ettenberg: I don’t think that’s true.
Thornburgh: From high school.
Ettenberg: It was an interesting environment. I think I definitely look younger than my age now. At 19, I looked statutory, and way beyond statutory at that point, so there were certainly a lot of people who made my life a little difficult in the faculty of law, thinking I just didn’t deserve to be there, but I think it was probably an important set of challenges to learn.
I enjoyed the education. I tell people that my American colleagues, when I worked as a lawyer in the States, were shocked because my first day of civil law property here we learned about Locke and Aquinas and the first entire day was about What is private property and do we even have the right to own property? We studied The Songlines, and my American lawyer friends were like, you did what now? Because it was so case law-based, and having a combo of the civil and common law system was really fascinating and comparative. And I think my brain naturally worked that way, in a comparative way, and that has always served me well in my writing and travel, and I guess law school just fit into that great bucket as well.
Thornburgh: But by tantalizing you with Locke and Aquinas, did they perhaps set you up for the law career you ended up having?
Ettenberg: Which means I departed the law career eventually. You know, I’m not sure.
When I quit my job people thought I was nuts.
Thornburgh: I did read in the Montreal Gazette in 2011 you were lawyer of the week.
Ettenberg: You did your research.
Thornburgh: I saw that so clearly, and that was after you had already ditched all those fools in their corporate jobs.
Ettenberg: Well, I will say that I applied to law school on a bet. Right before applications were due, I had no desire to be a lawyer. Nobody in my family are lawyers. Contrary to what people think, which is that they assume my parents were pushing me hard. My parents were not excited that I went to law school, so they said, “You should go to undergrad and have fun.” And when I got in I just thought, you know, this is cheap for an amazing education compared to what law school could be. I was a Quebec resident at the time, and my tuition was very reasonable. I think it was $1,600 a semester at the time that I was there.
Thornburgh: Ouch. Good for you. That’s very painful to hear as an American.
Ettenberg: But I make it clear it’s part of how I was able to save up and quit my job as a lawyer and build a business without the debt. I try to say that in every interview I do with anyone who’s American, because the school debt there is astronomical and it was a privilege to be able to have state-funded education that gave me this gift of hubris, I guess.
Ettenberg: When I quit my job, people thought I was nuts. I walked in the partner’s office and I guess the look on my face… I didn’t sleep the night before, I don’t know why I was so nervous. I was nervous that I would make them upset, you know it’s not silly because I had a good relationship with the firm I worked with but I felt like I was letting people down by quitting even though I was probably just a fungible, billable unit. But he saw my face in the morning and was like, “No. No, you didn’t come to us first. We can counter this offer, where are you going?” He saw it right away and I was like, “I don’t think you can counter this one.”
Thornburgh: “I’ve been made an offer by Siberia that you cannot match.”
Ettenberg: Right. And he was like, “What?” When people ask why I quit, the narrative that people give me, which I fully understand because if I came across this story I would think the same, was: A lawyer burnt out said, “F it, quit,” and then was like, “I’m going to stick it to the man.” None of that is true with my situation. It was a long-term plan that organically turned into this beautiful new career.
I’ve been pretty fundamentally incapacitated for the last two years.
Thornburgh: So we have established your bonafides as this tremendous creative voice in travel, which again, the first time we interviewed you was seven years ago, and we keep coming back and being in each other’s worlds because that’s how Matt Goulding, my co-founder and I, feel about you. And now we’re at a point where you are essentially under house arrest of some kind.
Ettenberg: A travel and food writers’ worst nightmare, yes. I have been on bedrest pretty much for the last two years. I would say bedrest makes it sound like its Victorian era, and I have consumption or something.
Thornburgh: The vapors.
Ettenberg: I’ve been pretty fundamentally incapacitated for the last two years.
Thornburgh: For people who are not familiar with your writing and Legal Nomads, how did you get here? What has clipped your wings in such an intense manner?
Ettenberg: In August 2017, I presented to the ER in the States, which you don’t do unless you have a serious issue. I definitely would not want to incur those bills.
Ettenberg: And they did a spinal tap, thinking I perhaps had a brain bleed, and the spinal tap led to a cerebral spinal fluid leak, which is a condition I had never heard of, like many people with the same condition. And the leak is—there’s a sheath, a membrane that surrounds your spine in your brain, called the dura mater, and when there is a hole in the dura mater, the cerebral spinal fluid, which is the fluid that supports your brain, detoxifies your body for you, basically helps to keep you alive, is leaking out, and the results of that are different depending on the type of leak.
There are cranial leaks. I met an MMA fighter who got a cranial leak when he was badly punched and fell, and his leak was repaired with a craniotomy surgery in the brain. My leak is spinal, because I got a spinal tap, and unfortunately it is a very under-diagnosed condition, and imaging is limited. Often, leaks don’t show up on imaging properly, so my last few years have been a real challenge in trying to get this leak sealed. I have other complications that meant it was much more difficult to get it sealed. Other complications I didn’t know about either at the time, but it’s been really important to me to write about it because of how under-diagnosed it is, and a lot of friends that I’ve made in the last few years got their leaks through, for example, epidurals during child-birth, or epidural steroid injections or lumbar punctures, and some even have spontaneous leaks where they coughed and blew a leak in their dura.
The reason it’s so incapacitating is because your brain is basically suspended by this wonderful fluid that is at the the core of your body, and when you don’t have enough of it, the minute you stand up your brain essentially descends in too close to your brain stem, and there’s that smushing that affects, neurologically, all the nerves in your body. It also gives you a terrible headache the minute you stand up that alleviates as soon as you lay down. And it’s not so simple when you’re leaking long-term. That positional aspect can go away but for me, I had the lumbar puncture and then three days later it felt like someone had smashed me in the back of the head with a baseball bat and I was just gobsmacked. I never had constant headaches or migraines, this was just so out of nowhere for me, and that was the first clue that I would be on this pretty astounding journey.