How does it feel to be a trailing spouse?, a friend once asked me.
I pondered on for a moment and answered, “Well, it feels like constantly being in the passenger seat. It spares you the energy and time associated with driving, and probably you get to better enjoy the scenery if there is one. Yet, you definitely have less control over the speed and the destination.”
If you are a trailing spouse, you might relate to that answer.
Arguably, employment and financial independence are thorny issues that import significant tensions to the relationships of many couples.
Whereas it is easier to rant and blame others for the lack of fulfilling employment and the loss of our professional identity, we better sometimes endure the pain of self-reinvention, ditching our former titles to make the best of an expat journey that many could be raving.
It all boils down to choose between being a whiner or a winner. “When we complain we lose the energy that is initially created to keep us fulfilled”, savvy life coaches agree.
In this blog entry, I had the honor to cook with and interview a fascinating, winner, self re-invented U.S. trailing spouse whom I met in Singapore.
Her joy is contagious, her wit is remarkable, and her sense of humor is unparalleled. She is Valerie Brandt, my blog guest and one of the most impressive trailing spouses I met overseas.
I have known Valerie in Singapore where she currently lives with her husband Blair.
Valerie spent most of her adult life overseas— between Japan, India, Denmark, London, and Singapore. She met her husband in Japan where she was working as a model, then as an interior designer, while Blair was serving as a U.S. diplomat. After getting married, they led together an interesting expat life for 34 years and still counting.
What I find remarkable about Valerie how she managed as a trailing spouse for over three decades to consistently find fulfilling employment everywhere she landed. I went ahead and invited her to share her inspiring story on my blog along with the recipe of her favorite crowd-pleaser.
Employment of trailing spouses is a thorny issue that could import significant tension to the relationships of expat couples. The worst-case scenario happens when one gets to fully pursue his/her career while his/her partner fails to secure a job, left adrift lamenting the compromise of his identity, financial independence, and self-esteem.
Valerie’s positive example is worth pondering on and sharing with others. I invited Valerie to be my blog guest, baring in mind that her story will inspire many trailing spouses who find themselves at some intimidating crossroads.
Before we headed to the kitchen to make Valerie’s favorite chicken dish, we had first our cardamom-coffee while she shared her practical approach behind her inspiring nomadic journey.
“I was already living in Japan and working as an interior designer when I met my husband in Tokyo. He was serving there as a diplomat. We got married and I kept my full-time job up until I became a mother of two girls”, Valerie recalls.
Being aware of the magnitude of her new responsibilities as a wife and mom, Valerie shifted to part-time employment and freelance opportunities. “Leveraging my art background, I collaborated with a friend in the pearl business to market necklaces and other accessories. I then moved into designing jewelry and that was the beginning of a whole new journey.”, Valerie noted.
When Valerie moved to Denmark, she was able to franchise the pearl business there. However, she took the business to new heights when she used— with another diplomat’s wife, to raise funds for different charities and for the “Pink Tribute Foundation” to support breast cancer survivors.
She explained that volunteering and partaking in causes larger than ourselves help keeping us grounded and positive against all odds, and that was her first advice to trailing spouses.
Valerie’s passion for art and design didn’t prevent her from venturing into other professions and that was key in her success story. “When an opportunity arose in Japan to be an English teacher for the wife of the Japan prime minster, I embraced it happily”, She mentions.
“In India, I was entrusted with the interior designs of some foreign diplomatic missions. I worked with small Indian workshops. Leveraging their unique artistry while adding a sophisticated finishing and modern style, was an experience that I am proud of. That also worked very well”, Valerie said with a smile on her face.
Culture talks are one more thing that Valerie added to her professional record. She offered presentations about U.S. culture and holiday traditions. In some cases, she demonstrated typical American cooking to a group of foreigners. interested in learning more about life in the US.
When I asked Valerie, what are your two secret ingredients for a fulfilling life of a trailing spouse? She answered ” openness to opportunities and finding your tribe.”
Valerie explains that when she first arrived in Singapore she signed up for a docent training program at the Singapore Art Museum through the Friends of the Museum (FOM). she met a group of wonderful creatives who share a genuine interest in art. That group was her medium to thoroughly discover the city and figure out employment opportunities
“Now I do design different types of interior as well as jewelry design”, she explains.
“I virtually find all my business and job opportunities by a word of mouth. Find your tribe, share your interests with others, let people know what are you good at. Stay flexible, keep evolving, and eventually, opportunities will come,” Valerie says.
On this constructive note, we both head to the kitchen to make the Chicken Marbella.
Clearly, Valerie’s choices for food are not different from her choices in life. The chicken dish that she picked is exotic, easy to make, and caters to a worldly crowd. Chicken Marbella has a wonderful sweet-briny combination. Watch the video below.
According to Valerie three decades ago, finding non-traditional recipes and creative ideas for entertaining was not evident. Home cooks relied mainly on books to derive new food ideas. In 1982, a published book with the name of Silver Palate was by far a groundbreaking culinary experience.
The recipe calls for what could be a lengthy list of ingredients but none of them is hard to find. Probably 90 % of the ingredients are already lying impatiently either in your pantry or your fridge and begging to be used.
Once you line the multiple ingredients on your kitchen counter, assembling the dish won’t take more than 15 minutes.
The chicken pieces have to sit in the marinade for a few hours or overnight. I prefer to prick the chicken with a sharp knife to let the marinade penetrate the poultry flesh.
When you are ready to roast the chicken, arrange the thighs in a roasting pan and sprinkle the sugar on the chicken pieces. The brown sugar in this recipe offsets the pungent briny flavor and lends to the crispiness and caramelization of the skin.
The white wine added to the pan before roasting serves as a sweet base for a succulent pan sauce, as the prunes, capers, olives, and spices release their different notes and infuse the pan sauce.
Valerie recommends serving this chicken dish next to plain couscous or white rice to soak up the luscious sauce.
Recipe adapted from Christine Muhkle at the New York Times
Serves 4 people
- 1/4 cup of olive oil
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup pitted Spanish green olives
- 1/4 cup capers
- 3 bay leaves
- 5 cloves of garlic
- 1/4 cup fresh oregano
- 2 teaspoons salt
- salt and pepper
- extra virgin olive oil, as needed
- A whole chicken cut to quarters, or 4 thighs
- 1/2 cup dry wine
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-parsley
- In a large bowl, combine the olive oil, vinegar, prunes, olives, capers, bay leaves, garlic, and fresh oregano, salt, and pepper. Refrigerate overnight.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Arrange the chicken in a single layer in a shallow roasting pan. Drizzle the marinade over it. Pour in the wine and sprinkle the brown sugar over the chicken skin.
- Cover the pan with foil for 40 minutes until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the foil and broil for 15 minutes or until the skin is golden and caramelized.
- Transfer the chicken pieces to a warm serving platter and top with the prunes, olives, capers,
- Sprinkle chopped fresh parsley to decorate.
- Serve hot next to plain couscous or white rice.
- The original recipe calls for straining the pan sauce into a heatproof bowl, adding the parsley and pouring the sauce over the chicken. I skipped that step to spare one dish more to wash.