It’s been four years since the last America’s Cup, the premier yachting race, was sailed; now, finally, the 32nd edition begins Saturday, so you can imagine the big question on many people’s minds in Valencia these days: Does anyone want to buy a used TV?
Obviously the two teams racing in the Cup, Swiss defender Alinghi and challenger Emirates Team New Zealand, have other things on their minds. But they’re the only two teams left from a field of 12. The hundreds of team members, many with their families, have been in Valencia training and racing on and off for a couple of years, but for most of them it’s all over, and in any case it will be soon.
Since the American winning streak was broken in Newport, R.I., in 1983, the Cup has been sailed in different sites every three to five years, and the sailing crowd, as I’ve learned, operates somewhat like the military, or employees of a big multinational, or the circus: they set up camp in one spot for a few years, train, bond, find good sushi, etc., then move on to the next assignment. For many, it’s now time to get the move arranged, and head back to their home base while they sort out their next gig. (Choosing the location of the next Cup is the winner’s privilege, so that’s still uncertain.)
And like the military, or the academic field, or the diplomatic corps or international business – or any of the other fields where moving around is a part of the job – you’ve got the unpleasant-sounding phenomenon of the trailing spouse (almost exclusively wives in this case).
That’s the spouse whose employment isn’t the trigger for the move, or in other words the spouse who’s often seen by the organization responsible for the move as both a handy person to take care of the move, the kids, the kids’ schools, etc., and as a potential trouble spot in the employee’s productivity. (Trailing spouse as a term shows up a lot related to academia because of how academic careers develop: a job change usually means a geographic change; and in two-academic families, universities will sometimes offer some kind of position to the trailing spouse to entice the star spouse.)
There’s lots of negative baggage attached to the term, just like “homemaker,” and there’s no need really to use it. But the concept behind it is there, implying leaders (good) versus followers (bad), career-focused (good) versus accommodating (bad), and all this rather than teamwork (supposedly ideal, but unrewarded directly). The simple fact of relocating geographically because of a spouse’s job though, doesn’t define what the untargeted spouse does in the new location, of course. It’s not all just worrying about the kids’ schools and finding a reliable mechanic – or if it is, well why not, households don’t run on their own. (Every First Lady’s been a trailing spouse, and think about all the different approaches they’ve had. Or there’s Scarlett Johansson’s budding writer learning about herself and Japan in the movie “Lost in Translation.”)
Valencia’s the first non-English speaking Cup site, so that was an extra challenge for non-Spanish speakers. Among the things partners did here, some were mainly home caretakers, others used their time to get online degrees, or build a business or work in other ways or volunteer.
One American woman took an impressively active approach. Libby Johnson McKee, a former Amazon executive, has taken care of family matters while her former Olympic sailor husband has competed in this and the last Cup. By which I mean, living temporarily in a foreign country and with a new baby on hand, she set up a consulting business during the last Cup in New Zealand.
This time around, she’s created what seems such an obvious accompaniment to the America’s Cup goings-on that it’s surprising it hasn’t been done for every Cup. Basically Libby created what has functioned as the America’s Cup semi-official charity, simultaneously helping the Cup crowd give something back to the local community, and doing so by channeling the time, energy and money of America’s Cup family members, at loose ends or not. The non-profit, Agua Limpia (clean water), aims to educate local kids and the community about how and why to have clean oceans. And she’s brought on board everyone from major corporate sponsors to me, a committed non-joiner who almost without realizing it was persuaded to ante up 20 euros for a membership (t-shirt and wristband included! OK!).
Meanwhile, a British actor and mom, who moved to Valencia for her husband’s business which has America’s Cup as well as other clients, wasn’t put off by the difficulties of finding work in a language she’s just learning. Instead, Samantha Holland turned to directing, mounting a show that’s doing well in Valencia and could go on to festivals and other venues.
Both women, and others in town, remind me that there might be other things to do than sit around debating whether a dubbed version of “Boston Legal” will be worth watching. And I’m pretty sure they’d both be unimpressed by the trailing spouse label. So it’s also good to remember, as someone’s grandma must have said, or maybe I’ll say it if I’m ever a grandma, that labels are for jelly jars.