From living on £10 a week to finding meaning

Pierre Soulages, Midnight blue

It was December, a bitter evening and Tower Bridge looked frightful. I felt like out of a medieval horror story, a tiny black silhouette walking through the blizzard against a scary backdrop of the Bloody Tower. When I finally managed to cross the bridge I was so cold, I could barely walk. I took out my frozen Blackberry and checked the address again. I wanted to make sure I had arrived at the right place because the house in front of me was even more terrifying than Tower of London itself. The girl who opened the door was so ugly I couldn’t take my eyes off her face. It appeared that someone had purposely taken all of her features and misplaced them so that her nose looked more like a mouth, her teeth looked like claws and her eyes were hidden under furry brows the size of old caterpillars. “I’m Cat”, she said while sticking out a pair of fingers with dirty fingernails.

Before I could reply, she asked me if I wanted a cup of tea and showed me in but I knew then and there I wasn’t going to rent a room in that house even if it meant sleeping under a bridge and dying of hypothermia. My decision was made easier by the size of the bedroom which wasn’t larger than a cupboard. There was also just one bathroom in the house that six people had to share and queue for in the mornings and the kitchen was so dirty, I expected to see a rat jumping off the empty pizza boxes. After ten minutes of awkward chit-chat I left the house of horrors and ran for the tube.

I got off at Fulham and while looking at the beautiful homes of rich West Londoners I remembered I had to buy a Christmas tree because my mum and sister were coming to visit in a few days. I stopped by an off-licence shop where they sold Christmas trees and although there were only three to choose from, I tried to pick the most beautiful one. “That will be twenty-five pounds, love” said the chubby salesman. I only had a twenty but he let me have it anyway. After dragging the tree home and sticking it in the patio, I sat in a tiny armchair and laughed at the noises coming from my chattering teeth and rumbling stomach. They made me sound like a broken machine and although I wasn’t broken, having spent my last money on a Christmas tree I was surely broke. Yet I had gotten used to dinners consisting of toast and butter because living with ten pounds a week didn’t leave me much choice. I was hungry, cold, alone and soon to be homeless if I didn’t find a new flat.

As I type these words six years later, I am sitting on the sofa in my beautiful flat overlooking Big Ben and the murky Thames. I am wrapped in a soft cosy blanket and drinking white tea. The walls are made of glass so I can take in the breathtaking sunset. I’ve been living here for nearly two years and every time a friend comes over they can’t stop gushing about the view, the light, the size of the flat and about how lucky I am to have such a nice flatmate. In the mornings there’s no need to queue for the bathroom because I have my own, and these days if I am cold or hungry it’s by accident or choice. In fact, when I go grocery shopping for the week, I spend on food nearly ten times what I used to back in the beginning. Since then I have accumulated experience, knowledge and skill, but also clothes, shoes, books and other things that fill my house as a reminder of my improved living standard. Although I am not rich, I am comfortable enough so if it’s snowing outside, I can get an Uber, or if I miss my family, I can just fly home to see them. Somehow I have managed to recreate the kind of lifestyle I used to have back in Romania, before moving to London.

When my mum came to see me that Christmas she was enraged to discover I had been living on ten pounds a week and eating pasta with nothing but salt on it. We had a huge fight and she couldn’t understand why I hadn’t asked for money. I could have done it, but I needed to prove to myself that I was able to survive on my own. Flying away from the family nest, gaining my financial independence and struggling to make it seemed like a rite of passage I had to take in order to grow up. My family had always provided for me so I could pursue my education and my dreams, but I didn’t want to rely on them forever. I wanted to earn my right to buy a certain pair of shoes or to go on holiday. Like travelling around the world on a gap year, maybe mine was too, a romanticised idea of what it means to become an adult. Looking back, however, my naivety lay somewhere else: influenced by books, movies and other illusions society fed me, I believed life had to be really hard and shitty in the beginning before it got better. When I was accepted at university and decided to move to London, my mum gave me enough money so I wouldn’t have to worry for the next three months, but because I wanted to be proactive, I got a job within the first few weeks. As it turned out, my eagerness hadn’t been ill-fated because shortly after my departure both my parents lost their well-paid jobs and also got a divorce.

I didn’t have any experience and the only jobs I could take were in shops or waiting tables. Being the clumsiest person I knew, the latter would have been a disaster, so that December found me working fourteen-hour shifts in a tiny booth in Leicester Square, selling tickets for theatre and musicals. The job was paid below minimum wage and all day long I was sat on a tiny chair, struggling to understand hundreds of tourists who barely spoke any English and trying to convince Americans to stop pronouncing Les Miserables, “Les Miserals”. Meanwhile, I had a book lying open on my knees and waited for a few quieter moments so I could read, but I always got in trouble when one of the managers came in and saw me. Sri, the Indian guy was the worst. No matter how hard I tried to explain that there were times when we didn’t have any clients and that I couldn’t just sit there staring into the abyss, he would still shout at me and tell me to stop bringing books into work. But I carried on reading and I also carried on saying to people it was pronounced Les Miserables, not Les Miserals. Not even the fat guy who once punched the glass wall that separated us and called me a “fucking bitch” could stop me.

Days at Leicester Square passed so slowly I sometimes felt time stopped altogether. After a few months, I had gotten to learn all the types of people who came to buy tickets: the rich dads who threw a few hundred so the spoiled brats could get the best front row seats at Mamma Mia. The Asian tourists who had no idea what they wanted to see but kept saying “Lion King”, “Lion King” until my ears bled. The poor ones who had probably saved for months to travel to London and could barely afford the cheapest tickets. To those, I always wanted to give free tickets but I couldn’t, so instead, I was just really nice. I was also nice to Raj, the old guy who worked late shifts at the exchange bureau next to me. He had diabetes and ate McDonald’s burgers without his wife knowing and I will never be able to forget his happy smile every time he opened the paper bag. To this day, whenever I walk through Leicester Square, the one thing I hear in my head is Raj’s voice as he picked up the phone: “Leicester Square, how can I help? Ticketi other side, this is bureau du change.” It always cracks me up, but at that time it wasn’t funny. Not because Raj annoyed me, but because late nights when the booth got quieter it was my time to open a book and escape. His voice always brought me back to reality and it only took one look around to remember where I was. I didn’t mind having a shit job that could only classify as paid slavery. What I didn’t want to be reminded of, however, was the fact that my boyfriend had just left me for a model with longer legs and longer hair. Nor the fact that my parents were now divorced and that I could only afford one slice of discounted greasy pizza when my appetite asked for two. I quit my job at Leicester Square after nine months.

I now work for a cool tech start-up in a nice, shiny office with a comfortable chair and free snacks. I don’t work fourteen hours shifts anymore, although if you count the time I spend on e-mail, it probably adds up to more than that. My current job sounds — and to some extent is — much better than selling theatre tickets in Leicester Square. Yet on closer inspection, the reality is less rosy. Some of the people I work with treat me just like my old manager Sri used to and although they never say it, I know they sometimes wished they could punch me through the invisible glass wall between us and just call me a “fucking bitch”. In a society that glorifies work and especially working oneself really hard, building a career is what I believed my twenties should be all about. Yet at the end of the day, my job is nothing but an instrument towards the profitability of a company. I am not giving the world anything big or important, I know that my work matters only as long as it’s well done and I also know that if I’m not happy with my work environment, I can be replaced by one of the hundred other young and thirsty people waiting at the door. I have accepted both the fact that my person holds little to no interest to those I work and also that doing what I love for a living might not be an option. But what I can’t wrap my head around is the meaninglessness of it all. Is a successful career supposed to be more desirable than selling theatre tickets, only because it sounds better and makes one look more evolved, smarter and more sophisticated in the eyes of other people?

Call it entitlement, bourgeoisie or the malady of the pompous pseudo-intellectual, but I believe that society’s ideal of reaching certain levels of success and achievement in the work field describes a very limited type of fulfilment. Over the past six years since I’ve been living in London, my CV got “richer”, my earnings increased, I moved to nicer homes and started eating fancier food, but somehow my happiness levels seemed to fluctuate just as much as during those bleak months in the beginning. That’s not to say I was happy then and money brought me nothing in addition. I prefer to have comfort than to struggle, but too much comfort also distorts the goals I am working towards. Finding meaning might sound like an elitist concern when compared to the problems of those who can’t make ends meet, yet although I believe having perspective is important, I don’t think one should go through life comparing themselves to neither the less, nor the more fortunate. For a long time, I lived in a perpetual state of discomfort because I looked at those who had achieved more and felt unworthy. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised my uneasiness didn’t come from a lack of ambition, brains or talent. I was feeling inadequate only because I was striving for things I didn’t actually want and the expectations I had set for myself were more aligned with values borrowed from society rather than with what I felt I should do. As part of a cynical generation, I have placed reason, wit, drive and logic above feelings. I kept telling myself I had to dream less and do more, whether that meant selling tickets in Leicester Square or trying to build a start-up.

When neither of these extremes brought me closer to finding meaning, I realised that who I wanted to be isn’t necessarily who I need to be in order to attain it. I had to accept that a “career” in the traditional sense might not be as meaningful to me as my relationships or my family are. I also had to learn (the hard way) that “working hard” doesn’t mean just rising from shit jobs to cool jobs and doing both the best you can. Working hard also means going home in the evening and sitting at a desk to write although you’re tired and don’t feel creative, being there for your family even when they drive you mad and putting the time and effort in your friendships so they can grow. But most of all, working hard means standing up for the things you love despite other people’s raised eyebrows. For me that was reading a book on my knees while working at Leicester Square and later on, allowing myself to want to write instead of running a business. Maybe my expectations are childish and if they don’t align with reality I will only experience disappointment, yet I prefer to be a dreamer and cherish my freedom rather than conform. Maybe happiness and meaning are not even synonyms and as idealistic as it sounds, none of them is achievable without the willingness to at least try to do the things we love.

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