Giving up a life in New York filled with Valentino rosette pumps, subscriptions to Vogue, and Diet Coke to move to Iraq? For fashionista Gretchen Berg, that’s just crazy…
I hate the word recession. Recession was what happened to unlucky men’s hairlines. Recession was very bad news for your gums. Recession meant “no new shoes” in 2008.
My job as a website copywriter was set to end in December, a very short two months away, and I had been sending out résumés since July, with a myriad of nothing to show for it — like when my dad would say to me, “You want to know what you’re getting for your birthday? Close your eyes. What do you see?” and then he would chuckle to himself. Nothing.
Oh, the woes of impending unemployment. Why couldn’t potential employers recognize my amazing potential? Why? Why? In a perfect world they would coordinate with my grade school teachers and sort things out:
Mrs. Vivian, First-Grade Teacher: Gretchen is not working up to her potential…
Christian Louboutin, CEO of Christian Louboutin Shoes: Oh, so this Gretchen has potential? Let’s bring her in for an interview!
Something like that. Not having my amazing potential recognized was horribly discouraging. Other things to file under Horribly Discouraging were nagging credit card bills, rent, automobile insurance, health insurance, food, the inflated cost of gas…these were the reasons I found myself metaphorically clad in a dingy old dress, sitting crumpled on the dry, barren ground, a la Scarlett O’Hara, sobbing into my apron.
I fancied myself a modern-day Scarlett. Margaret Mitchell began her wildly romantic, sweeping epic with “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful,” and I love a heroine I can relate to.
Scarlett was also “strong and unscrupulous, passionate and earthy.”
Strong: I once assembled a mini-trampoline by myself, when the directions called for three people to do the job. Three.
Unscrupulous: I ordered a ski bag from a big online retailer, and instead of one ski bag they sent me two ski bags. I didn’t return the second ski bag; I gave it to my sister Jessie. Returning Second Ski Bag would have required boxing and taping the bag up, getting in the car, driving to UPS, driving home from UPS. Oh God, I’m exhausted just telling you about it.
Passionate: Ask any of my friends how I feel about Humboldt Fog or truffle cheese.
Earthy: Sometimes I go to the store without makeup.
Scarlett and I also shared similar views on the topic of war: “Fiddle-dee-dee. War, war, war. This war talk’s spoiling all the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored I could scream.” This was precisely my inner monologue when party talk turned to war in the Middle East, politics in general, or whatever was on the news last night. No, I did not see that special report. Project Runway was on. I’m bored! Tell me my dress is pretty!
And Scarlett was highly inventive when it came to fashion. I haven’t yet turned my living-room curtains into a dress, but I did cut the ankle straps off a pair of platform peep-toes because they felt too restrictive.
You know what else was restrictive? The recession.
One day, in the middle of October, I was checking my voice mail, in the hopes that one of the résumés I had sent out had garnered some proper attention:
Voice mail: Beep, “GERRRRRRTS, it’s Warren, and no, I’m not drunk.”
I hated it when my friend Warren called me “Gerts.” I had made the mistake of telling him that “Gerty” was a nickname unfortunately bestowed upon me in junior high by a group of mean boys whose main extracurricular activity was tormenting. “Gerty Gertruuuuude!”
Eeeesh. The sound of that name sent me reeling back to seventh grade, when I went home from school crying almost every day. Warren was the kind of person who assigned unflattering nicknames to nearly everyone he met as a way of subtly bullying them (like “Ham Hocks” for a girl who had saddlebags). I had saved him the trouble of conjuring a label for me—he just borrowed “Gerty.” Of course no one would know “Gerty” was offensive except me, but it takes a while to rid yourself of junior high torment. I’ll probably be over it by the time I’m eighty. I only tolerated Warren’s use of the nickname because he was really funny, and he made me laugh out loud.
We met back in 1995 while teaching English at a language academy in Seoul, South Korea, and clicked immediately. He was the brother I never wanted. Teaching fussy adolescents was often a challenge, and having Warren there for comic relief made it infinitely more bearable.
Fast forward to early 2007, twelve years after Korea, when I was working for a travel company in Seattle and Warren was back to teaching English again, this time in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Dubai had the reputation of being the Vegas of the Middle East, and Warren made his life there sound like a dream: “tons of cash, private villa, Jet Skiing to private islands,” etc. He would always casually throw out a “You should come out here and teach! It’s great!” He was prone to wild exaggeration, but from his Facebook photos, it looked like he really was enjoying himself in the style in which he was perpetually yammering. Warren on a Jet Ski, Warren feeding camels, Warren posing in front of the famed Burj Al Arab—that last one was in sepia, which really added a touch of class to the album. He seemed to be in his element in the Middle East.
That was nice for him, but it was somewhere I had no desire to go.
My extremely limited knowledge of the Middle East, juxtaposed with reasons I should absolutely not go there:
FACT: Women, typically, do not live alone.
FACT: I had lived in my own apartment for eight years.
FACT: Conservative Muslim women wear black fabric covering their heads and entire bodies.
FACT: Black makes me grumpy.
FACT: It is illegal (at least in Saudi Arabia) for women to drive.
FACT: I started driving when I was twelve years old.
Living, dressing, and driving were all very important things to me, a girl born in the era of Gloria Steinem. I was raised on Free to Be You and Me and Our Bodies, Ourselves and, as far as I know, neither of those has been translated into Arabic. But you know what has been translated into Arabic?
Gone with the Wind.
I Have Iraq in my Shoe: Misadventures of a Soldier of Fashion is a memoir by a single, broke, fashion-conscious American female who writes about her adventures teaching English to conservative Muslim Iraqis. When Gretchen Berg is offered the chance to move to “The Iraq” to teach English, she immediately declines. But after a tempting salary is thrown onto the table, she remembers her looming unemployment and credit card debt of $39,000. The only thing stopping her now is the ridiculously high costs of oversized luggage. Gretchen discovers that in leaving New York behind, she might just find some new adventures, such as:
· Falling for a sexy Muslim student fifteen years younger, who may or may not be her soul mate
· Avoiding a suicide bomber while drinking vodka drinks by the paddling pool in her friends backyard
· Paying almost $5,000 in oversized luggage fees
· Becoming a role model for her students, a self-proclaimed “less annoying version of Hannah Montana,” a position that she has never found herself in before.