Saturday, October 28, 2017

Feeding my Wanderlust

A few months ago, I was faced with the decision between going to a scientific conference in Boston this Fall or one in Paris in the Spring.  I have been to Boston before, and I didn't really love it, so I was slightly underwhelmed by the thought of going back.  And then there's the fact that the US is currently being led by a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, fascist twat, which really makes me want to avoid the country altogether. 

Mais Paris?  Les boulangeries et les cafés et les beaux musées?  Bien sur!

So I booked three weeks off in the Spring, bought myself a travel guide to France, and committed myself to becoming fluent-ish in French before I go.  That's why I am here in Quebec City, speaking French poorly and savouring every last minute before le taxi whisks me away to the airport and back to my real life.

Going home feels really hard.  This morning I wandered along la rue Cartier, which is only minutes from my Airbnb, and I saw so many places I had wanted to visit but couldn't because of lack of time.  So many pain au chocolats that I didn't get to eat.  As I sat in a café drinking the best coffee I've ever had in my life, I wanted desperately to be able to stay.

As much as I love my home city and all of the people there, I am realizing that I really want to live elsewhere.  Not only for a week, but for long enough to really know a place.  To try every restaurant and wander every street and speak the language so much that I start to think in it.  I want to immerse myself in newness and difference long enough for it to become familiar.

Unfortunately, I haven't exactly chosen a career that makes this possible.  I am very subspecialized, making my job market very small.  There is no mid-sized town in France that is looking for one of me, and even Paris would be a hard place to find a job.  Not to mention the fact that communication is a rather essential part of being a physician, and I know almost no medical terms in French.  And I can't understand 90% of what people say to me in French.

Yet.

More than that is the fact that I am not a brave person.  While some people have the personality that allows them to quit their job and move to a different country with only a backpack of stuff, I am not one of those people.  I crave savings and an emergency fund* and insurance of every kind**.  As much as I long for difference, I am also most comfortable with the familiar.  The reality for me is that I will likely keep working at the same job until I have enough money saved up to retire early, because I can't imagine leaving the security and the great pay any earlier.

So I guess I have to go home.  But I am going to remember this trip and how being surrounded by the sound of people speaking another language feeds some part of my soul that is hungry.  I'm going to keep taking French lessons, and I'm going to read every single page of my travel guide as I plan my next adventure.  And I'm going to dream of the day when I reach my FIRE number and can choose to never return from my vacation.

*I don't actually have an emergency fund, but I do have money set aside for a down payment on a home that I may never buy.  This could be its own post.

**Sort of.  I would never insure an electronic gadget or a trip, because I hate throwing money away.  This could also be its own post.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Je Marche Seule

Of all of the unhelpful things I've believed in my life, the most unhelpful is probably the belief that a relationship is what makes a person happy.  I'm not sure when I acquired this belief, but I know it was there by the time I was 12 years old and starting junior high.  That was the age at which I decided that I would be willing to have sex with a guy if he would be willing to be my boyfriend.  Fortunately I was nerdy and unpopular, so I never in a position to make that exchange, but at 12 years old I was willing.

The belief followed me through many lonely adolescent years and into my twenties, when I finally started dating.  My first boyfriend was someone who could best be described as a Darth Vader boyfriend, but I was so caught up in the idea that he would make me happy that I couldn't acknowledge that he didn't.  It took me four years to get out of that toxic relationship, and 13 years later I still wake up in a panic from nightmares that I have gone back to him.  As I was purging my memory box last week, I came across a photo of him, and I felt physically ill looking at it.  I decided to leave it in the box as a reminder that some things are worse than being single.

As the years went on, I found myself feeling not quite happy in a series of not quite right relationships.  After each one ended, I dutifully returned to online dating, hoping that the next one would fit just a little bit better.  But at some point in time, I heard or read somewhere (or perhaps many somewheres) that the best way to find a relationship is to make yourself happy without one.  And so I did that.  I started investing in friendships and cultivating my own interests and even occasionally hopping on a plane and travelling all on my own.

And at some point, it actually worked.  I found myself single and, although still looking, no longer feeling a sense of desperation to get into another relationship.  Any relationship.  I found myself feeling happy as I starfished across my double bed and wandered alone through museums and used Saran Wrap without being accused of destroying the whole planet.  It took me over 30 years, but by simply testing the theory that relationship = happiness, I was able to prove it false.

Empiricism for the win.

Towards the end of my most recent relationship, when it was becoming clear that we had entered the final disaster spiral from which nothing good ever escapes, my partner told me that she didn't think I would be happy without her.  She acknowledged that I was unhappy with her, because it was impossible not to, but she also told me that she thought I was just an inherently unhappy person and that my unhappiness had nothing to do with the relationship.  And for a moment I almost believed her.  But then I would find myself daydreaming of being alone, and in these daydreams I could imagine myself being happy again.

So I left.

And now here I am, in a new city in which it never stops raining and the sidewalks are buried under soggy yellow maple leaves.  I spend my mornings trying to pry French words out of my very English brain and my afternoons wandering the dripping streets alone, and it feels like magic.

There is no one here with me, but in this moment I have everything I could possibly want.

Monday, October 23, 2017

C'est très difficile

Sometimes I am an asshole.

I must admit, there have been times in my life when I have looked at people who speak English as an additional language and thought that I would do better if I were in their shoes.  I've imagined myself living in another country and easily learning the language by immersing myself fully in it - talking to other people, reading newspapers, watching television, listening to music.  And most importantly, completely avoiding any sort of communication in English.

Sometimes I am an asshole.

I've been in Quebec City for three days now, and for the first time I am beginning to really appreciate how difficult it is to learn another language.  Sure, I've traveled outside of Canada before, and I've amused myself by learning to say "hello" and "goodbye" and "I would like a reservation for two people" in other languages, but this is the first time I've ever tried to become fluent in another language.  And despite having a reasonable baseline knowledge of French, I am finding it a huge struggle.  I hate that it takes me five times as long to read a sign in French than in English, and that even then I am only able to get the gist of what it says.  I feel horrified every time I ask a question in my well-rehearsed but halting French and then cannot understand the response.

My French classes are fully immersive, meaning that we can get in trouble for speaking in English anywhere on campus, and suddenly I feel cut off from the world.  During conversational practice today, I had no idea what my classmate was saying, and I felt panicked at being unable to understand her or to make myself understood.  The environment is very supportive, and my teacher did his best to not make me feel like an idiot, but it still feels terribly uncomfortable.

When I returned from my five hours of class at the end of the day, all I wanted was to speak and read in English.  I opened my computer and was immediately relieved by how easy it was to read blogs and Facebook in my own language.  The comfort of familiarity!

So yes.  Sometimes I am an asshole.  And I apologize to any non-native English speaker whom I have ever passed judgement on.

You are amazing.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Packing my Minimalist Suitcase

My ex-partner was the antithesis of a minimalist.  Any time I would clear out a space, it would almost instantaneously be filled with something of hers.  Living with her was like the principle of nature abhors a vacuum manifested hoarder-style.

Since she moved out, I have been slowly returning to my preferred state of being a semi-minimalist.  I've taken four large bags of books to my Little Free Library; I've thrown out the three-year-old bottles of condiments that we never used; and I've even gone through my memory box and gotten rid of the awards and report cards that dated back to elementary school.  In this new stage of life, I am focusing on being lighter.

In the spirit of minimalism, when I started packing for my current trip, I decided to limit myself to one carry on bag and one camera bag (which has some extra space for books/a jacket/a water bottle).  I didn't need to do this, as I could have easily brought one of my larger suitcases, but I wanted to see whether I could fit my life into a small space for a week.

It was a lot easier than I thought.  My suitcase easily held two pairs of jeans, a warm sweater, two pairs of pajamas, and more than enough socks, underwear, and t-shirts.  There was room for five books, my french workbooks*, and a notebook.  My computer, my cell phone, and my camera with an extra lens.  Everything I will need.

But the constraints of space did force me to leave a few things behind, like my ex's long-sleeved t-shirt.  The cozy one that I bought her while at a conference in Boston, which was always a favourite of mine, and which she returned to me after the breakup.  The one I've been putting on every evening when I arrive home from work.  The most tangible reminder I have of what we were, and what was lost.  I am not usually one to assign emotions to physical things, but somehow lately it has felt as if all of my grief is contained within this piece of cotton.

So I left it at home. 

*I'm going to Quebec to practice my French for a week!  Je pense que ce sera plus dur que je pensais.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Apparently I Twitter Now

Penny from She Picks Up Pennies kindly shared my recent post about privilege on Twitter.  Which led her to ask me for my Twitter name (handle?), to which I replied "Um...is that like the Facebook?".

I am clearly old.

But now I'm on Twitter!  So if you want to witness me demonstrate my complete ineptness at new technology, please follow me!  I'm Frugalish Physician @FrugalishMD.

I promise I will display less ineptitude than the POTUS.

Monday, October 9, 2017

My Problem with the Success Narrative

The FIRE community is filled with personal stories that follow a "success narrative".  Although each one is unique, they all follow a similar pattern:

1)  I started off with no money.
2)  As a result of my own hard work/sacrifice/discipline, I have amassed great wealth and achieved financial success.
3)  Because I was able to do this, anybody can also do it.

I completely understand the appeal and value of this narrative.  For someone who has been financially successful, it's really nice to feel proud of your accomplishments and like you fully deserve all of the success you've enjoyed.  For someone who is still on the path to financial success, these stories can be inspiring, helping you overcome the self doubt and frustration that can be barriers to achieving your goals.  

So why do I take issue with these stories?

Because they almost universally ignore the role of privilege.  Very few people who share their stories acknowledge that they have had advantages in life that have helped them be successful.  While the specific privileges vary from person to person, they may include being male, being white, being heterosexual, being cis-gender, being a fluent English speaker, being free of mental/physical disability, growing up in a stable home free of any form of abuse, living in a safe community, having access to a quality education, etc.  There are many possible privileges, all of which contribute to the likelihood that someone will be successful in his or her life.

As you're reading this, you may be thinking about the story of someone who overcame a lack of privilege to be successful, and of course there are these stories.  Human beings are strong and resilient, and some of us are able to overcome tremendous odds to achieve great things.  But these are only individual stories, which ignore the fact that the greater the odds are against a person, the less likely they are to succeed.  A white, able-bodied, cis-gender, healthy male is going to have an easier time in life, on average, than a black transgender woman or a white man with serious mental health issues living in the inner city.

So why do I think this is important?

First, because although the success narrative can be very empowering to people who are successful, it can also be very mentally damaging to people who face barriers to success.  Imagine you were a single mother of four kids living in a bad school district and working two minimum wage jobs to support your family, and the message that you heard was that your lack of financial success was because you "aren't trying hard enough" or you "just need to be more disciplined".  Being told that you're a personal failure isn't helpful when what you're really dealing with is a lack of social support, a dysfunctional educational system, and inadequate wages.

Second, because the success narrative lets people of privilege (such as myself) off the hook.  If success is only the result of personal attributes, then we don't have to care about (or do anything about) racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, income inequality, or any of the other systematic processes that serve to keep people of privilege in power and keep other people oppressed.  We can sit with our wealth, believing that we're fully entitled to it, and not care at all about the people who are suffering within our very unequal system.

We need to do better.  While it's great to celebrate individual successes and be proud of our own accomplishments, we need to also acknowledge the things that have helped us to get to where we are.  And thankfully, there are some bloggers who are doing this.  Please read the Frugalwoods and She Picks up Pennies and Our Next Life and Cait Flanders for some really good explorations of privilege.  And when you're writing your own success narrative, which I look forward to reading, please recognize the role that privilege played in it.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Growing my Community

As a typical introvert, I have always had a fairly small group of friends.  I hate small talk and big gatherings and casual relationships, so I've always prioritized close relationships with a few people over superficial ones with many.  And for the most part, this has always worked for me.  I still have a friend whom I met in kindergarten* and another whom I met in grade five, and I am closer with them than I am with any of my biological family.

When M and I started dating, I was shocked to see how large her friendship group was.  She is as extroverted as I am introverted, and so she has accumulated an enormous collection of friends and acquaintances over the years.  People from church, people from university, people from her childhood camp, people from work.  We rarely went out in public without running into at least one person whom she would consider a friend.

I have never wanted my friendship circle to be as broad as hers (I don't think I could even remember the names of all the people she knows), but I was always envious of how easy it was for her to find someone to spend time with when she wanted to.  Many of my friends are physicians or new moms, so getting together usually involves weeks to months of planning.  There aren't a lot of people in my life whom I can call up at the last minute when I'm feeling bored or am in need of a sympathetic ear.

This wasn't a huge problem when M and I were dating, as I could always call on her, but I became aware of it again when we separated.  The weekend after the breakup, almost every person in my life was busy.  It was almost comedic to see how many people were unavailable that weekend - my mom was visiting her family halfway across the country, my aforementioned long-term friends were both away, my brother was on call, two of my friends had brand new babies, and another good friend had quarantined herself in her house with her three plaque-ridden children.  Thankfully a close friend whom I had met through online dating** years ago was free, although I suspect she could have done without being my primary emotional support at the beginning of my breakup.

So...this post sounds a bit whiny, which is really not my intention.  This post isn't so much about gaining sympathy (or worse, pity) as it is about being self-aware.  While my introverted tendency is to be insular and not deal with the stress of meeting new people, my newly single self is craving more connections and a larger community.  Which means taking risks and living with some of the initial discomfort that comes from dealing with strangers.

So far, my focus has been mostly on strengthening my existing relationships, which I unfortunately neglected a bit while I was deeply ensconced in my relationship with M.  But the next step is to broaden my circle.  I have recently joined a French conversation group, as I am trying to become fluent(ish) in French, and it's an opportunity to meet some like-minded people.  I'm also applying to be on the Board of Directors for a small local theatre company, which would combine meeting new people with my slightly obsessive love of theatre.  And I'm trying to reconnect with some of my cousins, with whom I've lost touch since my Dad died eight years ago.

All of this feels a little (a lot?) stressful to me, as I am very comfortable in my own comfort zone.  But even introverts need friends, so I'm going to use the opportunity of my newly single life to bring more people into it.  Fear and discomfort be damned.

Any other ideas for growing my community?  How do you meet new people as an adult?

*35 years ago.  How insane is that?

**One of the advantages of same-sex relationships.  If there's no romantic chemistry, sometimes you can be friends!