This might get a bit weepy or whiny in places, but I promise there’s a bigger point to it.
I’m writing this post from Café de Paris, which is more or less exactly what it sounds like, except that it’s in Vilnius. I’ve spent a lot of time here over the two months I’ve been in Lithuania, and it’s not entirely because I pursue a Parisian lifestyle here. What I do here (drink espressos and play on my computer) would bankrupt me in a Parisian setting, where the coffee is about three times more expensive.
But being here has been part of a set of actions that has made me start to miss Paris rather terribly, which I find bizarre in the extreme. Remember, I’m the person who left for Paris with absolutely no sort of romantic illusions or fantasies about the city–it hadn’t even been a city I particularly wanted to visit, much less live in. A couple other things have helped push this missing along. First, I was reading, at the same time, two books: David Harvey’s Paris: Capital of Modernity, which I found not as great as I hoped it would be, though the last chapter, on the Commune, is a must-read; and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which I had found in a Russian edition for students of English (so there were Russian glosses of idioms and historical personages and places; love it).1 Further, watching L’Armée du crime last night (prompted by this review) also upped a bit of the emotional longing. This emotional longing is weird, because while I absolutely adore living in Paris, I certainly don’t think I’ve developed, a posteriori, the sorts of fantasies about the city that many arrive with.
So there must be something else I miss, and I think what that thing could be is named, variously, “structure” or “work.” When I first explained to friends that I would be spending two months in Vilnius this summer, most were convinced that I would drown in a giant ocean of debt, settling into my usual Vilnius routine of two meals at restaurants every day and six hour shifts at nightclubs every night. No, I kept reassuring them. This would not be a vacation. I had a writing deadline to meet and money to not spend. I would finally experience Vilnius not as a partying tourist, but as something even resembling a local; I even bought more than one bus ticket at a time, knowing there would be multiple future trips on Vilnius public transportation!
The first month felt like that of a local: I stayed in the apartment as much as I could and read, took notes, and even wrote. A couple friends blew through, but usually I would only go out to watch a World Cup match and then go to a club afterward for a drink or two. But the deadline came and went, and my writing—which sketches out a theory of the realist novel that is scale-less, historico-geographically materialist yet non-transcendental, non-humanist, pre-cognitively affect-based, and counter-factual—was submitted.
Suddenly, I was again a bit adrift what concerns the dissertation. I felt entitled to a mini-vacation because of the amount of focus I had expended the previous seven or so weeks putting together the theory (much was based on stuff I had just read in the past few weeks!). But by that point, I only had about three weeks left in my trip, and all my earlier desires to establish some level of permanence out here (I even considered starting up a early 20th c. short story reading group!) started being framed in the sense of “you’re leaving in three weeks. Don’t tie yourself down.”
And so I’ve been drifting. I’ve worked a bit on the chapter revision I need to do, but mostly, I’ve sat in the apartment and watched downloaded television and movies. I don’t really leave the apartment except to buy food, and it all seems like a bit of a waste of my time out here.2 I can’t wait to get back to Paris, I keep telling myself, even though my day-to-day life in France is not terribly different from what I’ve settled into here; I tend to spend most of my time there in my apartment reading and sometimes leave only to get food from Carrefour.
But in Paris, I have a job. I’m required, four times a week, to travel the 20 minutes by bike to the Paris Center and spend a handful of hours there helping students and faculty with their computer troubles.3 So I feel rather plugged into some kind of community, even if it’s made up of co-workers and student-clients. Here, I don’t really have many friends, and the friends I have are pretty much always busy and not willing or able to alter their schedule to fit my idiosyncracies. So I drift into a solitary bubble. Further, because I’m a transient (leaving in less than a week!), I’m very disinclined to go out and meet new people or try to enrich already existing acquaintances (into friendships).
It’s funny what work does, right? I watched Toy Story 3 this morning, and I finally understood Aaron’s point about its relationship to labor. I feel a bit like the toys. Without a structured job, I feel useless, adrift. This is why I don’t like vacations in general, and I certainly don’t like vacations that last more than a week. After a while they become grossly indulgent.4 Of course, it helps that my job is not a grind and that I enjoy it and that it provides me with piles of flexibility and freedom. I appreciate all that, and I don’t look badly at people who need to simply escape from their wage slavery for a while and rebuild themselves.
But it’s not for me. These past few weeks have been a sort of murky hell of indecision, sloth, and basically an endless open mic night for my worst self-indulgences.
So where this gets complicated is when I think beyond my post in Paris, when I will, hopefully, have a diss-writing fellowship so that I can get the hell out of grad school with a finished dissertation. If I’ve only had my dissertation to work on for the past three weeks and felt like a floating cloud of scum that has gotten little to nothing done, what will I do if I’m lucky enough to win a fellowship, so that I will be paid only to write and will be prevented from having a “job” by the terms of the award? I’m terrified that this Vilnius muck will return.
Of course, I could take Brian Croxall’s advice and treat grad school like a job, finding some little never-before-used reservoir of discipline in my body and do something like go to the library for 9–5 every day. Furthermore, I suspect that my fellowship year will be chock full of various writing deadlines. Finally, I won’t be a couch-surfing transient for that year. I’ll have my computer, my workspace, and the rest.
So I’ve got that going for me.
- It’s been kind of the Summer of Harvey here, as I spent much of June fighting through a close-read of the ontology he develops in Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference, and then I followed up in July reading newer essays by him and about him and about how he’s old-fashioned and Marxism is over, and so on. [↩]
- Granted, some of the disinclination to do stuff has been related to by slicing the hell out of my toes from stepping on broken glass, an injury that has taken over two weeks to heal and has left my eagerness to walk a lot (a Vilnius must) wanting. [↩]
- There are other things I have in Paris that I don’t have in Vilnius, including a sense of permanence about my living quarters. Here I have been moving every few weeks between two apartments depending on the visiting schedules of others. Furthermore, in Paris I have my normal computer, which provides a much more pleasant reading / writing / creating environment than my little netbook. [↩]
- Part of this, though I don’t know how much, is related to the fact that I do not like the fact that I am only spending money now and not earning any. Weirdly (or maybe not), I get very, very anxious when I’m not earning money. [↩]