Every time someone breaks the “shackles” of their 9-to-5 job to go do something more abstract — like travel, or write — people go crazy with envy. “That’ll be amazing,” they gasp, “Life-changing. I am so, so jealous.” It’s the new American dream, to draw the last straw and finally quit the office life forever, to frolic across Europe as this new free entity, filling your days with beautiful food and photography and writing. Everybody thinks they want the Eat, Pray, Love experience.
But if we’re all so obsessed with the idea, why don’t we do it ourselves? We’ve all scrolled through that person’s photos — the one who teaches English in Cambodia and just seems so cultured and free and alive. Why can’t it be us? I wrestled with the question back in May, on the cusp of graduation, and realized I didn’t want to be that person who was always swooning over someone else’s experiences. I decided to apply for a year of teaching English in France. I’d be there for nine months — enough time to improve my French, find my Purpose In Life and do something that everyone else says they want to do but never actually does.
But three months later when I found out I actually got into the program, I couldn’t go through with it. It was a dream — I was a recent college graduate, not tied down by anything. But it didn’t feel right. I turned it down, not even sure why. Instead, I spent my summer at an unpaid internship. And having just finished that — my first dip into the 9-to-5 world — I think I’ve realized why I had to turn the trip down. It’s the same reason everyone who longs to be the traveling hippie doesn’t break their shackles, the reason beyond financial issues or conflicting responsibilities: they like to be tied down.
In France, I’d only be teaching English two to three times a week. The rest of the time, I’d be free to travel, or take another job if I wanted to. I could work in a restaurant, or drug store, and meet people I never would have met if I hadn’t pursued the experience. Because of visa reasons, though, I couldn’t work very often, and I’d be pretty much left to my own devices. And I realized that wouldn’t be enough for me. After four years of college, I wanted real responsibility. I wanted a set schedule every day where I’d be told what to do, where I’d have stressful projects to work on and the intense relief that came with finishing them. I’d already studied abroad my junior year, and going to France felt like a cop out because I didn’t know what else to do. It was a vacation I hadn’t earned.
Maybe it’s the American way. When my parents go on vacation, they always want a plan for the day. They always want to feel like they’re accomplishing something — whether it’s checking off an attraction from their guidebook, or working out in the tiny hotel gym. It’s hard to just sit around and soak up the surroundings, simmer in the hours of nothingness. Plus, it’s a vacation in itself because of the weeks of work that came beforehand, the time spent squirreling away the money to pay for it, reaching the peak of exhaustion that makes the break worthwhile in the first place. It’s something that feels earned.
For an endlessly free spirit, months and years of free time could be a blessing. There are people who would thrive during a year in France. But for many, all that free time to reflect, the opportunity to choose what they fill their days with, can be overwhelming — people need a purpose, and it’s easier when there’s a boss there every day telling you that purpose. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, talks about the importance of taking time for yourself, a break from work. She took a year off to just enjoy the food in Italy, the religion in India and the love in Bali — but she also wrote a novel in the meantime.