I like to get up early, to start work early, to get to my desk early. I had convinced myself that getting up early and having a day planned to the minute was how I worked best. That’s how I completed an 80,000-word manuscript in three months. Those writing days started between 8.20 and 8.30. It was three months of structured, scheduled time: unplugged writing, break, unplugged writing, lunch, unplugged writing, walk to Waitrose, free coffee, unplugged writing, yoga, dinner, ten minutes of Italian practice before bed. Rinse. Repeat.
Autumn: From the 9-to-5 to a Peripatetic Lifestyle
Before September 2018, routine was life. Life was a routine. My life was compartmentalised into neat activity boxes, divided into timed task slots. No second was spared. Even downtime had its own appointment. The morning alarm sounded at 7 o’clock on weekdays, 8 o’clock on weekends.
In November 2018, we had a canine alarm clock. Soft woof. Louder woof. Anxious woof. His timekeeping was slightly erratic. Two consecutive days were never the same: sometimes, he was kind and the woof would be first heard at 8.10 or even an indulgent 8.30; other times, it was a painful and dark 6.50 or a 7.20. Depending on the hour it sounded, we would take the opportunity to relax a little longer or start the day a little earlier. At first, this flexibility felt unsettling. A fixed routine creates the perfect conditions for productivity. Scheduling undoubtedly makes me productive. Hyper productive. But it is also constraining. It makes me want every minute to be productive. It makes me worry about the minutes that aren’t productive. I don’t stop to reflect. I don’t stop to write.
For me, the connotations of such unpredictability were largely negative. How could you plan for a productive day when you didn’t even know what time you would be getting up? And yet, that month, despite the ever-changing morning routine, I still worked. I still was productive. I revised and resubmitted two articles. I had a job interview. Fixed routine and productivity became two distinct concepts in my mind. They were no longer codependent.
When there is no canine alarm, we are usually woken by the morning light. We choose our working days according to the weather. We have freed ourselves from Mondays, from the repeated weekly routine, from life’s treadmill. We have learnt to find concentration against the background noise, focus in ever-changing circumstances.
Toot toot. Toot toot.
Saturday 22 December 2018, Leclerc at La Rochefoucauld. Three days before Christmas. And there were two clowns driving around the supermarket foyer.
Winter: Peripatetic Lifestyle and Breaking with Traditions
During the festive period, old and new blur. The annual reproduction of traditions makes us think new is old, that this year is the same as last year. Small changes may go without notice against the backdrop of festive decor, turkey and sprouts, and an unchanged programme of events. Larger shifts feel disconcerting: a missing person; a half-filled pub on Christmas Eve that used to be packed out; not having the types of things that could finish the sentence Christmas isn’t Christmas without ‘________’. A complete reset, in contrast, can be refreshing.
Since starting university, Christmas time meant going home to Newcastle. It meant a jam-packed fortnight of seeing family and friends, drinking, eating, and going out. In recent years, going to (beautiful) Glasgow meant more people to see in a shortening window of opportunity. For the last 3 years respectively, I also had a thesis to finish, a wedding to plan and two undergraduate modules to create, and a book to write. So, though always lovely, Christmas was an exhausting time.
We spent Christmas 2018 — our first as international house sitters — house sitting in France with our five temporary cats. It was sunny. It was calm. It was proper downtime. I relaxed. I read books during the day. Yes, I still picked up a seasonal cold as I do at the end of every year. But we slowed the pace, stripped back, and created our own version of the festive period that consciously combined new and old, what we like and our families’ traditions. And to our life in 2019, we’ve adopted a similar approach: choosing the novelty of an ever-changing peripatetic existence, keeping the values and qualities that sustain and stretch us, but letting go of the things and traits that stress, tire, and distract us. 2019 is the year we began adding to and embellishing the mobile foundations of our maison péripatétique.
7.45 am in the Dordogne, the mists had gathered in the valley, but above them, the moon was visible in a thin pinkish band.
7.45 am in the Dordogne, the moon should have gone by now. It’s fullness and light during the two previous nights had caused some confusion with my body clock. Since becoming international house sitters, we’ve taken to sleeping with the curtains or shutters open in order to have a luminous rather than audial alarm. When the large moon had appeared at our window at not-quite-morning, it produced a strange light effect that woke me up. It was unlike daylight, but too light to feel like night. Whilst the February snow moon (as I later learnt it was called) was with us, the boundary between night and day, light and dark no longer seemed as defined as it normally did.
Spring: Peripatetic Lifestyle and Losing a Sense of Time
As international house sitters, we often feel suspended in time, lost between months and seasons. We (regrettably) miss birthdays. The standard milestones of the year pass by unnoticed. Moving between places where the weather is different from what we’re used to doesn’t always help either. The coldest winter days of this first year as international house sitters were during our short stay in Toulouse in January. On a day trip to Albi, rain slushed down, seemingly unable to make the extra effort it would take to become snow. After this brief icey interlude between two house sits in France, spring broke early. Sunshine streamed through the large patio doors at our Mediterranean house sit. We were surrounded by dark green olive trees and hilltop towns that could have feasibly passed for Italy.
The sun stayed with us. In Bordeaux, we ate en terrasse at a cheese restaurant in February. During our two months of house sitting in the Dordogne, I did yoga outside almost every day. Even now, in September in Kyoto, it feels like the sun hasn’t left us. It won’t for another two months. We will skip autumn entirely, jumping from a six-month summer to December. Touchdown in the UK will be painfully cold. The UK we will arrive back to is yet to be determined.
Order. Order! Orderrrrr!
Summer: Peripatetic Lifestyle and a Self-Imposed Exile
We often talk about how far we feel from the UK, from what our lives were in the UK, and, to our collective horror, from the general political direction in which the country continues to head. For two years, this alienation was felt from the inside, a strong unease within. Since becoming international house sitters, this alienation is experienced externally. What was once a familiar and welcoming home has become a place of no return for now at least.
In the Charente, the Dordogne, and Tarn, having British TV meant we could follow. This unsettling background noise groaned on for months and months. Sound bites — citizen of nowhere, never felt entirely at home, queue jump, we will end…, we will leave… — played on repeat. And then our summer plans took us even further away. The distance means groaning is quieter now. It is still there. Other things have begun to drop from the radar. When the Premier League season started, we barely noticed.
‘L’exil m’a fait perdre les racines qui me liaient à Paris, et je suis devenue européenne. Néanmoins la France me fait toujours mal: c’est en cela que je me sens française.’
[Exile made me lose the roots that linked me to Paris and I became European. Nevertheless, France always hangs heavy in my heart and that makes me feel French]
Germaine de Staël, 1814
From Reading About to Practising a Peripatetic Lifestyle
For six years, I asked how the experience of the French Revolution, exile, and return changed the way that two women understood the concept of the self and the nation: who they are and were, what their country is and was. I even wrote a book about it. I have often wondered how this experience would affect who I am and my (already strained) relationship with my country of birth. As international house sitters, we are perhaps voluntary exiles from an alienating political situation back home, individuals who have adopted a peripatetic lifestyle that fundamentally goes against the grain of a very vocal section of British society in 2019. It is not simply that we are moving around (location independent) but that we have built and are maintaining a life on the foundations of that mobility (peripatetic lifestyle), upon a principle of freedom of movement.