In German class recently we covered how to talk about what you do for a living. There’s an expression that means, roughly, by profession – “von Beruf.”

We went round the room asking each other “Was machst du von Beruf?” – “What’s your profession?”

The term “von Beruf” implies a sort of education and authority underlying your occupation. Your “Beruf” is the thing you studied in university or the skill you trained for in the technical college. In addition to your profession, you have your day job, the real thing you do to get your money.

So, putting it all together, if you’re in a class of displaced humans from the war torn Balkans, you’ll find that you have a young woman who’s an economist von Beruf, but works as a chambermaid.

Or a man who’s an electrical engineer von Beruf but feeds his family by working on the production line at the commercial dairy. (This situation will not only humble you speechless but also give you the opportunity to learn the word “Fliesbandarbeiter” – assembly line worker.)

I had a lot of trouble with the “von Beruf” concept. I work as a technical writer, but I don’t know that I’d call it my profession. I fell in to it completely by accident. I have no training.

By now, I have many years experience, but in a society that is obsessed with credentials, I’m an anomaly.

A Professional Artist

I asked an Austrian friend who’s a schoolteacher about this “Beruf” thing. She said that I’m an artist “von Beruf” but my work is tech writing. Okay, but calling myself an artist “von Beruf” sounds hollow to me. Sure, I have a fine arts degree. But I stopped painting when I gave up my studio.

No sensible person goes to art school thinking they’re going to make a profession out of it. And if they do, it’s well wrung out of them by the time they graduate.

Also, while I had a fair exhibit history and did actually sell some work, I always had to have another job to pay the rent. Thirdly, for me, art isn’t a profession. It’s a calling like joining the clergy.

No sensible person goes to art school thinking they’re going to make a profession out of it. And if they do, it’s well wrung out of them by the time they graduate and have to make student loan payments.

Husband said that I could say I’d retrained to be a technical writer, which is sort of true. (He’s not a good source of career lingo, though. Apparently, when asked as a very young lad what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, “Retired.”)

In a handy twist, I actually like working as a tech writer, but it’s not clear to me if I like the work or I like the independence that it affords me – it’s perfect freelance work and means I have plenty of time to not work, too.

The Perfect Profession

If I had to pick a profession now, it would be something like “Going places, looking at stuff, taking pictures, and writing some things down.” I could totally be a professional vacationer. Though there’s something specific about vacationing that implies flights and hotels and sightseeing guides, which is not what I mean at all.

I’m quite skilled at squandering vast amounts of time on leisure activities, hiking and reading, to name two, but there is no profession for those things. I think I could be quite a good professional blogger too, but Nerd’s Eye View (my blog) refuses to cough up any sort of income.

This “von Beruf” thing has made me thankful that my identity is not tied up in my profession, because I would find it confusing and probably very disappointing. I don’t work in my field of study, and I lack credentials for the work I do to make a living.

Plus, the stuff I want to do isn’t really an occupation or a profession. Though I think the French have a very nice word for it: Flaneuse. That’s the female version of flaneur, a person who swans about doing, well, not all that much really.

Hanging about in cafes, admiring the landscape, maybe scribbling self-indulgent multi-lingual thoughts in a journal. This is something I’ve been training for my entire life.

Ich bin Flaneuse von Beruf. Yup. That sounds about right.

The post was originally published here. Reprinted with permission.

Pam Mandel is a freelance writer and the travel editor for BlogHer. She blogs about travel, seafood, the ukulele, and more at Nerd’s Eye View.