I've just finished packing my things to leave Frankfurt. Tomorrow morning I'll get on the train to Paris, and my month-long sojourn there will begin. The last few days have been exciting, eventful, and a bit stressful, but they were just an opportunistic prelude. Tomorrow is the beginning of the real thing.
Few people have asked me why I'm going to Paris for a month, and the one who have done so have not asked it in a positive way. It's obvious that there are many good reasons: a vacation, a change of scenery, a palate-cleaner. The art, the history, the atmosphere, the food. The question of why I am going to Paris is almost ridiculous.
But the question of why I am going to Paris is not. Perhaps it's partly because in my daily life I am exactly the sort of person you wouldn't think of as going to Paris. I'm a homebody, easily entertained by simple pleasures, tending to stinginess, risk-aversion, fearfulness. This is not so much the way I want to be as a rut it is easy to fall into and easier to stay in; I am usually plenty stimulated without going out of my comfort zone. I push myself to do things, go to things, take chances on events or activities I wouldn't normally do - but these things are exceptions. The rule is I go to work, come home, surf the web, watch TV, read a book, go to bed. I see the same friends in the same places, I go to the gym, I take in a ballet or a play. It is not a bad life, but it's nice to shake things up.
However, I don't need to cross oceans to do that. I live in New York City; there's plenty of shaking going on there. So I ask myself, what do I want to get out of this trip? I know that I want to see monuments and museums, take day trips, walk the streets and sit in cafes - but I also know that's not all I want to do. Just doing those things won't make this trip a success. But what will?
One answer to that is that I want to write, perhaps a lot, perhaps varied things, but I don't think that's the only answer. And I don't think I can know the answer. If I knew what I wanted to do in Paris other than see the sights of Paris, I could probably do it at home. I think what I want to do in Paris is figure out - or maybe remind myself of - what I want to do in Paris, of what I can do or who I can be outside my context.
Which is why I started this post talking about packing. For much of my adult life, I have been packing frequently. I've moved roughly every two years since the end of college, if not to a new town than to a different living situation (i.e. from having roommates to on my own) and now not only will I not be moving but I will be entering a phase in which I will not have to move for a potentially very long time. I am settling down, in a place and a manner I didn't anticipate.
And I am becoming someone else. Changing careers has hit me harder than I think it might otherwise have because my work has always been what has defined me. Everything else - my location, but also my friendships and other relationships, has been subservient to or even defined in terms of, what I do for a living. So doing something different suggests I am someone different, or that I'm not who I always thought I was. So I think part of the reason for taking this trip is to see who I really am now, and to remind myself of who I've always been.
The last time I took a trip of this magnitude was after college. Like now, I had something lined up for afterwards; like now, the trip was highly unstructured. I went with a friend, but after a couple weeks we parted ways, and all of my most compelling memories (although not all the most humorous ones) are from the time I was travelling alone. Alone in a series of foreign countries, with the daily difficulties and inspirations of travelling and a series of new landscapes to explore, the thing I felt most comfortable inhabiting was myself.
I think that's why I chose Paris. Partly, of course, to experience the beauty and excitement of the City of Lights. But partly to rediscover the beauty and excitement that have been leaking, over the last few years of defining myself by a pursuit that became increasingly unhappy and unsuccessful, to rebuild and rediscover the beauty and excitement of my life and myself.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
So when we last spoke, over a month ago, I had just completed - barely - a half-marathon. In the intervening weeks, a great deal has happened, so I will recap before trying to write the entry proper, or possibly at the same time.
Item: I ran another half-marathon. I was not particularly looking forward to it because of my bad experience in April, and because I really didn't train at all for it, but it actually went reasonably well. The weather was good, the course was way less hilly (although located in Brooklyn at 7 a.m. which violates at least three different laws of sanity (1: Brooklyn; 2: 7 am; 3: subway ride required to get to and from race)) and although I certainly did not run fast, there were no unplanned episodes of walking (I walked through water stations, both for a break and to ensure that I actually consumed water) and I finished in my goal of 2.5 hours. I did sustain an injury on the course, which necessitated stopping briefly around the 11-mile mark, but I seem to have recovered... today I ran for the first time since (the race was 10 days ago) and although I was not at peak speed everything seemed to be in order.
Item: I got a job. Searching for a job has been my primary occupation for the past month, and I have to say I was quite good at it. I launched a full-scale campaign of applications to companies of all sizes. I used word-of-mouth, articles in newspapers and magazines, and work histories of my linkedin contacts to assemble a list of companies to apply to. I joined job-searching websites both general and specialized and subscribed to every job-search newsletter and feed I could find. I attended networking events and had business cards made. I refined my resume and my cover letters and my interview wardrobe. I read books about the industries I was targeting, learned new programming languages, and studied lists of possible interview questions. I constructed an elaborate multi-tiered timetable for the hunt and considered the nature and timing of backup plans to avoid any significant period of idleness. I did all of this because (a) I had not ever gotten a proper job before, (b) the last person I know who left academia has been unemployed ever since; eight months and counting (plus the several months he spent looking for a job before that), (c) the economy is crap and like 10% of everybody is out of work, and mostly (d) this kind of paranoid hyperdrive is how I do everything.
And, so, it worked. Or else it was unnecessary. The two companies that ended up offering me jobs (more on that in a minute) were ones I had applied to early in the job-hunt process, and they had older versions of my resume. They didn't ask many of the types of questions I had prepared for and they didn't require most of the languages and knowledge and skills I had been studying. On the other hand, I'm sure it wasn't a strike against me that I could say that I'd been preparing for a career change by reading up on certain fields, or that I had thought a lot about interviewing and so forth. And I don't think doing this reading and learning - even the subjects that I won't use in the new job - was a waste of time, because I love learning new things and would like to learn all the subjects. It's just, I was digging in, preparing for a war that would last for several months, and now it is over after just a few skirmishes.
So, I said before that I was offered jobs by two companies. This is actually a story that I am proud of. I went on an interview at company 1; it was only my second in-person interview (although I had had several phone interviews at that point, including already two phone interviews with company 1). The interview was fine, everything was in order, but when I left the building I was depressed. Partly, perhaps, because interviews are stressful - but I think a lot of it was a feeling that the job was not as challenging or interesting as I'd have liked (a feeling I also had before I went on the interview). The people were pleasant but flat; the environment was pleasant but flat; the work seemed not unpleasant but also flat. When the job was offered to me, I also felt pleased but flat, but after a few days I had decided to take it. My reasoning was that, well, the economy is bad, and it is decent money for work I think I can do, and where is the guarantee that I will find something better?, and really I don't know what I want so how can I be sure that there is anything so much more appealing than this? Event after a discouraging conversation with a member of my prospective team, I was decided to the point of going out and buying some clothes to wear to the new job.
And then I had my interview with company 2. This interview was actually the reason I had put off accepting the first offer; I wanted to at least be aware of my options. But going into it, I wasn't all that enthusiastic. I knew someone who knew people who didn't like it there (I later discovered that I also know someone who knows people who love it, so that's a wash) and I had pretty much decided I couldn't do better than the first offer. But this changed the minute I walked into the office, which was such a beautiful and happy place that I instantly wanted to want the job. The people I met were also different from the people I met in the previous company - more animated, less stiff, more intelligent-seeming and engaged. They all seemed to really like their work, and I left the interview knowing that I wanted the job.
The next day, I turned down the offer at the first company. This is the part of the story that I am proud of. I hadn't gotten an offer from company 2 yet, so I wasn't turning down one offer for a (subjectively) better one. I was turning down the offer because for the past week I had been saying that I was accepting it because it seemed okay and I couldn't think of what would be better; now, all of a sudden, I could think of what would be better - being excited about where I was going to work. This seems outrageously obvious in hindsight, but at the time it was easy to tell myself not to set my sights too high. Once I interviewed at company 2, however, I realized that I should set my sights high. I did not do all this work, both the studying and the difficult emotional process of shedding my former life, to end up somewhere that I knew wasn't going to make me happy. I certainly didn't do it to accept the first offer I received just because it was the first. So I turned it down, in the hope that I would get an offer from company 2 and with the cautious faith that, regardless, I would find something I was really excited about.
It worked out well, because the next day company 2 sent me an offer. But I'm glad that I turned down the first offer before receiving it. I didn't realize, exactly, that I had the power to say no to something simply because I was holding out for something better that had not yet materialized, and now I do.
Item: I went to Philadelphia for a couple of days. It was not a terribly eventful trip; I walked a lot and saw lots of pretty buildings and a few tourist attractions. The most interesting thing that happened was meeting up with a friend from middle school whom I hadn't seen since perhaps early in high school. In the last few years we've communicated occasionally through email and Facebook, and at the last minute I sent her a message and we met for lunch, which turned into an all-afternoon affair, plus an invitation to breakfast and a morning spent together. At twelve we were the kind of very close friends girls of that age sometimes are, and it was pretty cool to see that - even though we'd fallen out of touch and knew little about each other's adult personalities and lives - we could talk easily and enjoy each other's company just as much as ever.
Item: I have decided to quit my job and move to Paris. Not really. But really. I have some time before the new job starts, and I have decided to spend three or four weeks in Paris, just being there. It's pretty last-minute for arranging a trip of this magnitude, so I'm still trying to get housing and other details ironed out, but hopefully I'll be able to arrange something acceptable. I realize it is (a) ridiculously inadvisable from a financial standpoint to quit my job and pay to live in two expensive cities for a month, and (b) a horrific cliche, the whole business of going to Paris to soak up its Parisness (oh, also? if you want more cliche? in addition to walking around and eating croissants, I plan to write.), but it is what I want to do.
The idea to do some travelling this summer was suggested to me and seemed good, but when I thought about it, I realized that visiting the places I haven't been but most want to go - Athens, Egypt, Russia, Alaska - is (a) not conducive to a single trip, and (b) something I can do in a series of shorter trips in the future, when I have more money and less time. The thing that I want to do that I can more easily do now - and will likely have a harder time doing in the future - is go somewhere to live for a few weeks, and the place that I immediately wanted to go to live was Paris. It is something I have thought of for a long time, with various degrees of seriousness. I have been to Paris once, at the end of my post-college hostelling trip, and I could not get into the city - but that was because I had not had a proper shower in five weeks, I think, not because of Paris. So - fingers crossed that I can actually get this organized - I am going to go back. And I do not care that it is a terrible cliche. Sure, everyone wants to run away to Paris for the summer. But not everyone gets to actually do it.
So, now we come to the point. For the better part of a year, I feel like I have been living in a montage. You know how in movies, there is often a montage about 2/3 of the way through? I'm not talking about the falling-in-love montage. I'm talking about the one after the character loses her job or her boyfriend or her way in the world, and we get to see the sun zipping across the sky, the seasons changing, the character staring at the ceiling and running on the treadmill and tapping on her laptop and slowly, in pieces so small she can't see them, assembling a new life for herself. For months now I've felt like I was in a montage period. I've known I was moving toward something and I've known it was an important thing, but I haven't been able to see it, I haven't even known for sure if I was moving in the right direction or how far I had to go. All I've had is the daily work of trying to make a little bit of progress. And now, the song is ending, camera is panning back in, and here I am, ready to start a whole new life, one that I - improbably enough - actually chose for myself.