“Hold onto that one,” Mr. B. remarked as I picked at my salad. “He’s a provider.”
After a year or so of occasional cat-sitting for his two disappointingly unfriendly felines, I had been invited to lunch by Mr. B. At the terrace of a pretty Left Bank café facing Notre Dame, I smiled and tried to look unperturbed by what he’d jut said, though some heavy thoughts were crashing from my subconscious, down to my chest.
The “he” that I was being advised to hold onto was my boyfriend, whom I’d introduced to Mr. B. so that he’d feel comfortable with us staying in his apartment together. I’m not sure how Mr. B. had gotten the impression of my boyfriend as a provider, but I had to admit he was right: one of the things I most admire about the latter is his work ethic and his smart sense of investment. In his early 30’s, he already owns a nice-sized Parisian apartment, and is able to live a very comfortable life.
Mr. B. seemed to be the opposite. His life wasn’t comfortable, but luxurious, with a massive apartment in a 17th century building on the Ile de la Cité to call home, trips around the world, never having to cook a meal for himself, a weekly visit from a cleaning woman, and the requisite sexy-and-much-too-young-for-him Russian girlfriend. Mr. B. hadn’t earned these privileges in the conventional sense; most writer/philosopher/academics like him couldn’t. Instead, he told me proudly that day, he’d gotten some money after he and his first wife had divorced. From his second ex-wife, he’d gotten ownership of his envy-inducing apartment.
Mr. B. liked to live in ease and comfort, and I was amazed at encountering someone so unabashed about not wanting to work in order to earn his keep. More surprising to me still was his sense of accomplishment, not shame, at having accumulated riches by taking them from people he’d once been intimate and raised children with.
But what really shocked me was the conspiratorial tone of the conversation – it seemed to suggest he thought I was like him.
It wasn’t the first time I worried that people might get that impression. When I met my boyfriend, I was “very poor but very happy” (to use Hemingway’s very apt phrase about bohemian life in Paris), and was content to continue on that way for the rest of my life. I’ve always liked creature comforts, but I’ve never been the kind of person who demands or requires luxury. Give me some books, some beautiful scenery, the Internet, a working toilet and shower, and a way to save up enough money to visit my family from time to time, and I’m good. Everything else is an extra bonus. But of course, why wouldn’t it look suspicious for a poor American girl to get into a relationship with a property-owning French citizen who makes a nice living?
I know the reasons I’m with my boyfriend are sincerely love-based. But I did have to wonder, though, was I that different from Mr. B. in other ways?
Behind me were already years of failed jobs that shouldn’t have been failures, since I did well at them and had even liked most of them. One, a position as a movie critic, was something that had been on my list of dream jobs. But though I consider myself a motivated, responsible person who follows through on things, my interest in every career I’ve ever attempted has petered out after a while.
I don’t like schedules. I don’t like routine. At the same time, I don’t like total unpredictability. I don’t like people telling me what to do. I don’t like repetitive work. I don’t like having to go to a meeting or an office if I could just as easily work from home. In addition, my IBS only makes commuting more stressful, which rapidly erodes a lot of the appeal a job might have. Basically, I don’t seem to be cut out for a regular kind of career.
Of course, most people don’t like at least certain aspects of their job. But the thing is, they plug on. Money seems to be a powerful persuader for many –but my convictions and actions have shown that I’d rather be happy than rich. I’d rather sacrifice financial gain than my time – and have.
When I lived on my own, this wasn’t a problem; I always found part-time jobs or gigs that allowed me to earn enough to get by. I was proud of that financial independence. But Mr. B.’s words made me see another side of things. I had to admit, part of why I could feel so carefree about money was probably because I knew that if there were ever an emergency and I needed cash, I had several wealthy family members who would probably help me out. Though the reason I’d chosen to live in Paris was because of the passion I feel for this city, it sure does help that my healthcare needs cost almost nothing thanks to socialized medicine – not to mention the private health insurance plan my boyfriend gets through work, and which, as his legal partner, I get to benefit from, as well. Though I do contribute to our expenses, as well as do most of our chores, trip-planning, and communication, I live rent-free in my boyfriend’s place. I’m a mooch, I realized. Not a calculating one like Mr. B. seemed to be, but a mooch in spite of myself. It’s a small comfort that I didn’t plan things this way; I have a sense of honor and respect other people’s work and earnings – but still. How did Mr. B. sniff me out?
The only work Mr. B. seemed to do, as the new, expensive computer atop his desk that faced windows looking out onto the Seine attested, was write. The one thing I’ve consistently done without boredom since childhood is this very activity. Writing and editing are truly two of the very few efforts I really give my all to, and never seem to tire of.
Of course, I worry what would happen if, miraculously, I were ever able to parlay this passion into a decently paying career of some kind: would the fact that some structure, authority figure(s), and/or routine would probably be involved, make me go off it, too?
Deep down, I think this might be one of the reasons why I haven’t really tried to break into freelancing. If writing became a job, would it lose its appeal to me? And if it did, what would my life be without writing?
Then again, I recently got an article published in an English-language newspaper here. A start-up, so I was in close communication with the Editor-in-Chief (a charming man), and no money was involved to add pressure (“You have a real talent for finding unpaid work,” my friend J.G. wryly quipped when he heard). The editor told me he’d like to work with me again – and try as I might to rationalize it or project myself into the future, I don’t feel bored or terrified by the prospect. So maybe it’s a good sign. Maybe making writing a job wouldn’t kill my joy and love for it.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the way I currently make a living. Teaching English to adults who need it has so many advantages on so many levels, and is spiritually fulfilling. But after three and a half years, I hear its death knells starting to sound in my heart.
My short-lived cat-sitting career was snuffed out by my own hand, as well. Though I’m crazy about cats, and though it pays excellent money and lets you spend days and nights in gorgeous abodes (rich people get very nervous about their beloved kitties being alone), though there’s not really a routine or much structure, I lost interest in that, too. A few months after our lunch, when Mr. B. would call to see if I was available, I started making excuses, wanting to stop myself all the while.