Stakes [Pull Up / Put Down]: An Interview with Paul Strobl
I conducted this interview as part of Stakes [Pull Up / Put Down]. For more information about the project, read the project overview. To read additional entries as they come available, subscribe to The Letter.
First, the disclaimer: Paul and I attended the same high school at the same time. However, though I knew of Paul due to his “man about campus” reputation, I didn’t exactly know Paul. When I launched the Stakes [Pull Up / Put Down] project, a mutual friend suggested we reconnect.
Paul and I circled up via e-mail and scheduled a time for a Skype call. As Paul likes to pace when he talks (I do the same when not taking notes, so I completely understood), we conducted the interview with audio only.
Paul took the call at his home in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, and I conducted the interview from my home office in Lausanne, Switzerland. For us both, the talk took place at the end of a long weekday, around about the time we should have sat at table for dinner.
Where are You From?
When I asked Paul to define his country of origin—even though we have some modicum of common background, I’ve learned that everyone has his own definition—he replied, “The Republic of Texas.” When asked about how he identifies his “ethnicity or nationality,” he answered, “Texan and human.”
Paul said he notices that other Texans do the same when asked the question—and that people from elsewhere in the United States say “American.” He said he feels that when he says “Texas,” people get a different image than they might for other Americans, and that he thinks the impression of Texas abroad has a more positive cast than the impression of “America.”
However, he sometimes answers the origin question with “Argentina,” as he lived there for many years. Why? He said that few people have any real impression of Argentinians outside of Argentina, so the reply deflects further conversation on the origin topic.
Does Paul do anything intentional to stay connected to his Texas roots or to ensure he doesn’t lose his Texas connection? Though he first said that he doesn’t consciously do anything to stay Texan, he added that he buys his stepson new Texans football jerseys as he grows out of the old ones and that he cooks Texas fare, like fajitas and chili. Also, he noted that he coordinates the marketing efforts for his work around the Houston area, as he knows he can meet with clients when he returns to visit his parents. This maintains a robust Texas business network for him.
Where Do You Live Now—and Why?
Paul originally moved to Argentina with a spouse, an Argentinian woman he met in Buenos Aires. After sharing life in Texas for a while, they wanted a different pace of life and Paul wanted to experience living in another country. Together, they lived in Argentina for ten years and spent seven months in Poland.
When his marriage ended, Paul decided to move back to Europe, where he would have proximity to several native cultures and languages. Paul now lives in Plovdiv, a city in Bulgaria near the Rhodope Mountains, close to the Greek border. At the time of this interview, he had lived in Plovdiv for two years.
Why Bulgaria? Paul wanted to find a place near mountains where he could hike. Also, “Bulgaria is not Schengen, so I was looking for a base to go in and out of the Schengen zone.”
The Schengen Area Paul references comprises European countries that have mutual agreements around border controls, allowing for the more fluid movement of European Union nationals between countries for work and travel purposes and for ensuring consistent security measures. While the Schengen Agreement smooths travel within Europe, it concurrently limits the amount of time a person can spend in the Schengen Area (which presently encompasses most of Europe) to 90 days within a 180-day period without an official residency permit.
Paul’s self-employment as a life coach enables his geographic flexibility. He conducts his business entirely remotely with English-speaking clients, who mainly live and work in the United States.
Who Are You?
Shortly after moving to Plovdiv, Paul met a Bulgarian woman, who he later married. She has a young son, which put Paul into a new life role: stepfather.
In our previous conversations, Paul had identified as “location independent” and “as a citizen of the world.” During our interview, Paul identified as an immigrant. When asked about the evolution in his thinking, he said, “We're here for a while. We're building a business, buying a house, my stepson is going to school. In the future, as a European citizen in three and a half years, and when the stepson is old enough to be on his own, we can move anywhere in Europe we want.”
However, he said that he still felt an urge to reject all labels. “I don’t want to be categorized. There are plenty of awful things in the world and throughout history that involve wearing the t-shirt of a particular place, religion, identity.”
Still, I asked Paul if moving away from Texas and the United States had made him more origin-proud. Did his pride as a Texan get stronger once he moved away from the state? Does he feel more patriotic after leaving the United States?
“Patriotism can be very shallow,” Paul said. “I'm very proud to be American and I'm proud of where I'm from and I'm proud of the opportunities and the American perspectives I have about possibilities, which have partly allowed me to create the life I want. But living in America isn't the only game in town.”
Paul said that he didn’t define Houston as home and hadn’t in a long time. For Paul, the definition of “home” is highly malleable; it has shifted depending upon where he lives, even for short times. When I asked him how much time it takes for a place to shift to “home” in his thinking, he said he didn’t know. “Not sure if it's a month or ninety days or six months or what.”
Will You Ever Move Back Home?
When I asked Paul if he thought he would ever move back to the United States, he definitively answered “no.”
Did that make him feel sad, I wondered? “Actually, excited,” he said. “I see all the exploration that's ahead of me. And I have no idea where I'll be in ten years. And that, to me, is exciting. A lot of people like to plan things and like to know, but I love that there is so much out there and I don't know what I'm going to be interested in and what I'm going to want to learn then.”
Paul feels an urge to move to another country or region once he hits a certain knowledge threshold about a place. “For me, my single most important value is my curiosity and learning new stuff,” he said. “And specifically, I love learning about culture and language. Yes, I could go out of my way in Houston in different neighborhoods, but it’s not the same as being in a country and really getting immersed.”
Paul said he encounters a lot of people wondering about whether to move abroad. “I say just do it. Life is an experiment. You don't want to be on your deathbed and wish you would have.”
Giving Thanks and Making Connections
I give credit to Paul for his willingness to serve as the first interview for Stakes [Pull Up / Put Down], without prior interviews to reference for insights into what volunteering would mean.
If you’d like to connect with Paul, he invites you to visit his website, where you can watch a recent video interview, get more information on his background and his coaching areas of focus, and link up with him via social media and telephone.
For more information about Stakes [Pull Up / Put Down], the project that generated this interview, read the project statement. If you would like to participate as an interview subject or have a participant to recommend, please contact me. To get updates on the project, subscribe to The Letter.