Friday, October 26, 2012

Lessons from France

It's been nearly 2 months since we left France, and I think it's finally safe to say that enough time has passed that most of my negative feelings about the experience have passed -- at least my blood doesn't boil at the first thought of it anymore! So I figured that now's a good time to start talking about what happened.

While it was clear from my posts that I wasn't exactly into the country life, the larger issues ran much deeper than just our physical location. They had to do with two key aspects of life: mixing business with pleasure and personal insecurities.

I've always found it challenging to do business with friends. This experience hasn't come up often, but when it does, it sets off some inner turmoil. To me, business is very cut and dry, matter-of-fact, durable and efficient. (Perhaps that's my German heritage speaking!) It's usually easy for me to distance myself from interpersonal feelings and make rational decisions when it comes to business. Does this make sense? Is it the most effective use of resources? How can we do this better?

The struggle occurs when there's personal relationships involved. While I've always enjoyed being friends with my co-workers, if we're especially close outside of work, then it's tough to balance the needs of a business with sensitivity towards the person. How can you remain unbiased when someone you care about might get hurt?

In France, Jim and I didn't see eye-to-eye on our roles and expectations as housesitters. I felt that we were overextending ourselves beyond the original expectations, and wanted to establish clear boundaries with all of the parties involved (the homeowners, rental agency, guests, etc.) But the catch was that Jim and I didn't necessarily agree on those boundaries. It's hard to put up a unified front when one half isn't committed to the same cause.

We were able to make compromises on smaller, everyday occurrences. For example, the needy local rental agent once asked us to put together a gift basket for the guests on behalf of her company ("just sign the card with my name and I'll pay you back"). The thought of doing this, for free, on behalf of a paid employee sitting at a desk 15 minutes away from the property (who's earning a nice commission thanks this arrangement) seemed completely ludicrous. When I found out that Jim had agreed to do it as a favor, I flipped... and that's putting it mildly.

Clearly, this wasn't a time when I was willing to sit back and let it go, and Jim realized that too. He quickly called her back and explained that we weren't going to be able to help her out.


What's the lesson in this? It's that sometimes, depending on the situation, it's vital to put your relationships before business. Jim may never understand why that gift basket was such a big deal to me, but he sure could tell that it was more important to respect how upset it made me rather than do a favor for the local agent.

So what were the bigger issues we faced? A lot of them boiled down to our individual thoughts on being "fairly compensated." I tried desperately to keep my responsibilities in line with what I thought was fair, whereas I felt that Jim gave way too much for way too little in return. In the end, as much as it pained me, I was forced to let it go. I wish I could say that I did this gracefully, but avoiding battles led to a lot of sulking. It was hard to overlook what felt like an unjust arrangement. All I could do was manage my own circle, and let Jim be. I was only causing more distress by being upset for him.

The second major hurdle that I faced in France was a very old demon: my own personal insecurities. As part of our housesitting commitment, I had agreed 6 hours of weekly cleaning. This included 2 days of "tidying up" (making beds, picking up towels, wiping down the sinks) and helping the housekeeper turn over the rental on  Saturdays, our change over day. I had absolutely no problem with doing this work; I willingly accepted these chores, and didn't have any resentment over some light housekeeping.


The guests treated me pleasantly, too. Since we had already interacted several times before I'd pop into the house to clean, I was never really labeled as "the maid." Except for one unsavory guest, who demanded that I make him coffee (not a chance, buddy! I've worked with surgeons and attorneys, you don't intimidate me!), most of the time the guests went out of their way to keep things tidy and would tell me not to bother with fussing over the bed pillows.

So if I didn't resent the work, felt adequately compensated, and was treated well by the guests, why did I feel insecure? It was all in my head.

For some reason, I felt very compelled to justify that I chose to do this work (i.e., I chose to be an unemployed housesitter and travel the world) and, more critically, that I was an intelligent person.

I am by no means implying that someone who cleans isn't smart or even well-educated. But to me, the worst feeling in the world would have been to be mistaken as a flake.

I have a t-shirt that perfectly captures this sentiment. It's baby pink and features a '50s housewife, apron strings and all, with her hands in the air, exclaiming, "and to think I have a Ph.D."
From Cafe Press.
I really wish I had brought that shirt with me to France. While it seems like a lighthearted poke at filling a traditional female role (despite being overeducated), it also serves another purpose. In my mind, it screams, "I am a smart, educated, and independent woman, and am doing this activity because I choose to do it! I can even make a joke of it!"

While you may not find the humor in this slogan, I'm sure you can agree that it's broadcasting another message: it advertises proudly that I have a Ph.D. Little did I know, that's really what I was looking for in buying this shirt.

Once I finally realized why I felt so insecure about doing housekeeping, it brought back a stream of emotions related to why I went to grad school in the first place. It was what all of the top students were doing. I had to do it because I wouldn't be satisfied with "only" a Bachelor's degree; I had to get the highest degree in my field. Earning a Ph.D. would clearly establish that I was an intelligent person. Wow, I sure spent a lot of years dedicated to supporting my ego. Now that I wasn't getting any recognition for it, I felt vulnerable and exposed.

So now what? I'm not quite sure. But it's clear that I need to start taking pride in things besides my academic achievements. I've heard that defining yourself in terms of your job is a very American concept. Maybe our continued travels will open my eyes to things that other cultures regard as valuable. Perhaps the first step is not being so hard on myself and taking pride in trying to be a good person every day. Sounds smart, doesn't it?