On Freelancing Without Routines

What does it mean to live out of a suitcase in transit?

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

“Where am I?”

On any given morning, I’m never quite sure nor can I always ascertain with confidence whether it is still morning, and if so, in what time zone.

As I open a bleary eye and drag my chronically underslept carcass out of bed, my concerns are prosaic to the extreme. I must pee; I must drink water and take my multivitamin; I must inhale coffee as soon as humanly possible.

But first, I have to face the assault course that is my bedroom if I am in Paris. For the last 9 months, I have been living out of a suitcase in transit between the US and the EU so I can help my parents navigate the reality of Stage IV cancer.

I’m a digital nomad again by default — not by choice this time — and although there are many moments of grace, the relentless pace is starting to wear me out.

I currently work a mixture of EU and US West Coast hours, which leaves little time for rest.

Over time, the one suitcase became three, crowding out the small room I occupy in my father’s condo. Walking around it requires maximum wakefulness, which is an impossible feat before coffee.

I generally start my day by tripping on something, stubbing my toe, or miscalculating the distance between my body and the wall. This ensures I’m now conscious enough to locate some items of clothing as I sleep in my birthday suit and can’t exactly walk around in the buff at my parents’.

At least not when they’re home.

The priority is always to get on with work so if I’m not going out immediately, a shower happens later in the day rather than first thing. By the time I make my way to the kitchen, it can be any time between 4AM and 1PM, depending on whether we’re going to the hospital for chemo or if I’m traveling.

Today for example is a home day with my family and it started with my staring at the kettle for a very long time until I realized why it wasn’t boiling.

I had forgotten to switch it on; I’m seldom at my best when I go to bed at 5:30AM and wake up less than six hours later.

After opening my eyes, getting a leg in a pant, putting on a shirt the right way around, and locating flip flops is all I’m capable of.

On those rare days I feel extra, I might brush my hair and tie it into a neat pony tail but generally, I emerge wearing my long hair in the semi-undone bun I slept in. Sometimes it looks exactly like the dog turd emoji, other times it sticks out and bobbles when I speak.

Generally, my hair is representative of my mood and sets the tone for the first hours of the day. But for its comedic potential, I am completely uninterested in it, much to the dismay of my stepmom who is the epitome of French elegance. Although she introduced me to her hair stylist, I’m afraid I nearly caused him to have a heart attack when I confessed to never using a hair dryer.

While the kettle is boiling, I switch on my laptop, go back to the kitchen, and quickly catch up on messages, emails, and news on my phone. Every single day, I send some silliness to my loved ones. Whether I’m with my family or with friends in the Netherlands, starting the day with giggles is mandatory and we’ve all made a habit of it.

If I’m in America, silliness comes in cat format as Trudeau the tuxedo greets me by raising his backside and doing a half-tumble. Meanwhile, his sister from another litter — Nuna the pocket-sized tabby — looks on with enormous judgy eyes.

I open the bag of coffee, inhale deeply, and then brew it to the best of my abilities, which are variable and involve frequent spillage. I then let the magic drink cool down a few degrees to perfect temperature. As I ingest it, I can feel what few brain cells exhaustion hasn’t fried yet switch on one by one.

It is a laborious process that can take anything from 10 minutes to a couple of hours during which I’m already working, or on the move.

When in the Netherlands, I sit by the window cradling my coffee cup and gaze at the park down below.

It contains ancient, majestic trees and there are often dogs walking their humans or small children playing, someone riding past on a bike, and a couple of seagulls squawking.

Sometimes I watch my friends disappear from view as they leisurely make their way to the nearby train station with music in their ears. They commute to their day job and write at night while I freelance from wherever I happen to be. Generally, I do the dishes from the night before while mulling over my schedule for the day.

And then I get on with editing or writing, depending on what is most urgent.

Music is key to conjuring up focus so I pick a Portuguese, French, German, or Dutch album and start singing along as I type. I also engage dancing flower mode and sometimes play air instruments. Lately, it has been enthusiastic air drums with index fingers, sometimes it is air guitar, depending on what I’m listening to. Because my work is mostly in English, my soundtrack never is so as not to cause my brain to derail.

If I’m listening to a playlist suggested by my app, the algorithm sometimes throws spanners in the works with a track by a Portuguese or French artist in English, forcing me to take a break. It is always a most welcome treat.

In the US, I have a standing desk in my home office or I work from the kitchen island downstairs. Anywhere else, I have a makeshift one cobbled up from whatever I can find (step stool, storage boxes, small nesting coffee table) atop a regular table. I only sit down in the evening or when I have no choice, as is the case on the train or on the plane.

I’ve even finished pieces while standing up on a crowded Paris bus on the way to the hospital even though I’m prone to motion sickness.

Because needs must.

Routine in the strict sense of the term isn’t my jam because I can never know what the day might hold and yet I have to keep trying to earn a modest living.

Don’t let the geographical coordinates fool you, precariousness remains the best way to describe my financial situation despite the hours I keep and teh size of my workload.

Coming from a news printed press and public media background, unpredictability and shift work have always been the norm for me. These days, those working conditions are inevitable but rather than give in to frustration and let them discourage me, I thrive on them because they are familiar.

I can’t afford to be precious about “creative process” or “flow” or take a day off otherwise I wouldn’t be able to survive.

I have set mechanisms in place and rely heavily on automatic editorial habits to make sure work happens regardless of geographical coordinates or travel schedule.

Thankfully, high speed European trains offer Wi-Fi as do our train stations, same with the airline I fly with on transatlantic flights and that alone is the reason I use it. But when onboard Wi-Fi failed on my way back from Seattle to Frankfurt in May, I was oddly relieved and relished every minute of my enforced break.

In fact, there wasn’t a single upset passenger.

Writing and editing are flexible and portable so you needn’t wait for the perfect setting or an undisturbed stretch of time to work. I’m interrupted constantly and it seldom bothers me or causes me to lose focus. Instead, I switch off the music, deal with the interruption then get back in the groove with the same or another song.

On days when exhaustion gets the better of me, I play one single song on a loop for hours on end. Today, it is this cheerful, optimistic, and self-deprecating track by Portuguese outfit Capitão Fausto. It provides no-nonsense, irreverent commentary on the cult of appearances.

Mastering the art of adaptability and combining music, stubbornness, and necessity can and will keep you going against all odds.

In the midst of chaos, a solid writing practice can also help ground you and the internet we all carry around in our pocket makes this easier than ever.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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