Firstly, I can see some rolling their eyes about “first world problems” in reference to a “crisis” Let’s chill. It’s a title. Now let’s have some fun. Im buying coffee.
I sat down this morning to write about persistent myths about being a Digital Nomad (DN). I already wrote that blog. But what also came up for me was what it means to be a traveller, a nomad, or an expat. What do these words mean, really?
Can we solve this “identity crisis” by coming up with a new word that elegantly describes what our mission is?
One of the myths I talked about was how deciding to move abroad can NEVER be a purely rational decision based on risk assessment, finances, opportunities, and the ability to live a dignified “retirement.” This myth is that it is always about “following your dream.” Of course, this is partially true, but it’s not the whole truth.
Another myth is about being a “digital nomad” is that it is something that young people do when they haven’t yet figured out life, and that something older people do because they already have money.
The word travel, as it is used in the conventional sense, is a beautiful thing, and a way to grow and expand horizons in so many ways.. yet it doesn’t really quite work for DN’s.
What I want to explore more deeply today is the idea of moving abroad more or less permanently, and what the implications are. I hear all the time that this is relatively new territory, and it is, in a way. The world is most certainly not set up for those who don’t have a permanent address, who are neither homeless nor independently wealthy, and who are not on an endless vacation.
Note: To clarify further, nomads move around because they usually can’t stay in one place for more than 90 days legally, without going through an extended bureaucratic process. Some begin this process right away, while others prefer to remain nomads for years.
I wanted to explore not just misperceptions, and how annoying it can be to be misunderstood, but really be more precise and clear about what living abroad really means, especially in the context of my own values and beliefs. I’m also writing this for fellow DN’s.
This is why I can’t just simply write “10 myths about blah blah blah..” and call it done.
Let’s start with the word TRAVEL. It’s a word bloggers use a lot, even people like me, to describe what we do. Many of us, according to some informal surveys I’ve taken part in, are annoyed by the term, when it is applied to the decision we made to work remotely.
Travel IS a part of it, but not the WHOLE enchilada. Working remotely is a practical decision while at the same time, being a way to live a dignified and fulfilling life. Which often does involve risk, sacrifice, and yes, hard work.
It’s not about being “PC” so much that it’s just not accurate. I’m a fan of clarity and precision in communication, so that we have a better means of understanding each other.
Hell, I’m sure the Germans have a precise word to replace the equally clunky term “digital nomad.”
And let’s face it. I, and most “travel” writers, are not being precise either. It’s our own damn fault. Especially me.. I can’t really claim to be much of a traveller right now, as I will explain.
What is it about the word “travel” then?
If you are a digital nomad, the word “travel” tends to perpetuate the myth that we are on vacation, have plenty of time and money, that we are lucky, are not living a real life, that life is easy, that we have not made huge sacrifices, and that we don’t really work much at all.
This is probably because most people don’t have a basis of comparison. Going another place = vacation. That’s the way it is, and has always been.
TO be fair, some DN’s make a living off perpetuating the myth of the “lifestyle.” I won’t bullshit you, I’ve seen some gorgeous places, which you can see in my photo gallery and video page. I also like to write about how cool “real life” can be, and how grateful I am that even when I’m feeling depressed and stressed, I often actually have the option of visiting a 15th century city within walking distance. I’m walking a fine line here..
So my job is not to rant about it, because actually I don’t run across this perception as often as some of my fellow “travellers” do. I’m here to introduce the possibility that living somewhere else, the act of getting on a plane, isn’t always about being a tourist or even travelling,
Although I still have my “happy to be a tourist” days on my days off. I’m not knocking leisure.. by any means.
The word “travel” also tends to bypass any real meaning or precision. It’s also a loaded term which sets a lot of people off, because it evokes unconscious limiting beliefs, unfulfilled desires, regret, frustration, envy, a feeling that the world is unfair, resentment.. the list goes on. I even avoided talking about it for a long time, as I found that often, no matter what you say or do, someone’s gonna get triggered. Oh well.
Let’s take a snapshot of some typical views about travel:
• Your friend or family member who is more politically conservative. Ask them what they think about travel or what being an expat means. Particularly one who has never left the country. Explain to them why you dread flying back into a US airport and how crazy it has become, and why living in the U.S. simply isn’t for everyone. They have all the answers, but very little experience about the world beyond their own borders, except for TV.
• Someone on the other end of the political spectrum. Ask them about travel, and you are likely to hear the word “privilege” used against you in a way that has you feeling guilty for breathing and existing.. especially if you venture beyond the suburb you grew up in.
You are viewed as an opportunistic, colonialist, capitalist pig who only wants to exploit the local population so you can enjoy sipping cheap happy hour cocktails on their beaches. Even if you blend in and tread lightly, you should.. just go “back home” where you belong, buy a car, and stop pretending that you might actually prefer living in Peru over L.A. ..or that you might actually offer some value. I’m not exaggerating here, I’ve seen this in more than a few blogs.
Actually I would rather not bother. Either one strongly says: GO. BACK. HOME. Where you belong. And STAY there.
Here’s a few more profiles that I see a lot lately online:
• The young backpacker about travel or living abroad. Ask them about travel.. and they will give their “expert” advice about a place.. which almost never involves actually having to learn the language or absorb the local culture or participate in it, in an honest way.
They want an “authentic” experience, for a few days, and then they want to get on with the “real” business of travel: filling up the passport with stamps, having the perfect picture of them standing in front of a castle or on a trail in Iceland, getting on a plane again, having bragging rights about what a savvy traveller they are, and of course, collecting as many selfies as possible. And of course, they have life figured out at the age of 30.
Ok. I’m all for having the perspective that comes from a broad range of experiences. I’m seeking more of that for myself. But when these types of travellers claim to really know the essence of a place.. it’s bullshit.
• How about the expat who married a foreign national, who was able to settle comfortably in a new country, but STILL doesn’t know the language, and still lives in a little expat “bubble?” Ask THEM about travel. Actually, this isn’t really travel. This is totally me, when I get lazy about learning the language. I now recognize the full value of my “English speaking privilege.”
The message in these last 2 examples is that travel for the sake of it (or selling the lifestyle) is the main goal, but the destination is kind of an afterthought. And that the whole world is your oyster, provided that it is delivered to you, in English.
Of course, as you can see, I also get annoyed by how some people do this travel thing. With the exception of the first 2 examples, I don’t think the are any”right” or “wrong’ ways to go about it.. superficial backpackers, IG models in Bali, expat bubbles, tours, or whatever floats your cruise boat.
There are more profiles: The business traveller, the Chiang Mai nomad, the “on a whim” traveller, the “Eat Pray Love” traveller, the adventure traveller, the photographer, the journalist, the student studying abroad, the pilgrim traveller, the granddaughter moving back to the motherland to tack care of her aging mother “traveller.” As many ways of travelling as there are travellers.
Oh, and refugees. (another word for another day in order to give that subject the proper attention it deserves)
If you are reading this, you probably know who I”m writing for, and it’s not any of the above.
So let me introduce one more profile of a “traveller.”
The “Digital nomad” who did their research and took a calculated risk to move, for the same reasons a friend in their homeland might decide to move to another city. Ask them what they think of “travel. They will likely want to say “I’m not really travelling. I had to make a decision.” Here’s how the thought process might work:
Hmm.. I lost my job, or quit my job and got some new skills under my belt. I just found out my rent will go up another $200 next month, my friend is declaring bankruptcy from a medical crisis, and ageism is still alive and well. I can’t see that staying in this city, or even country, makes any logical sense. But I can move, and adapt.
First, let’s be “realistic” and see what cities might work for me in the U.S.
Hmmm. This city has mountains and an ocean, a low crime rate, and great opportunities, but it’s expensive.
This one looks good, but the commute is a little longer. I like the “vibe” of this place, and the fact that it’s in a big cultural center with a lot of history, and like-minded people I can network with. But the rental market is insane and unless I charge twice as much for my services there’s no way..
Oh wait.. maybe.. no. wow.. maybe I CAN actually live in Europe. Holy shit, I might be able to make this work. Why not? What do I have to lose here in the U.S? And yes, of course, it’s MUCH cheaper to live in Sarajevo than San Francisco. I would have to be out of my mind to live in a place where the cost of living is so high, especially if I can do my work from any location.
ok.. cool.. let’s renew/apply for a passport, and keep researching.
Ok.. this place looks good, but the tax structure makes no sense unless I married and have kids.. this place is near the sea but the bureaucracy is a nightmare.. This place is in the mountains and do-able but I don’t speak the language and want to perfect the one I’m learning.. etc
Can you see where I’m going here? Things just got GLOBAL. Places I may never had considered, are now in the running.
If a permanent move to Copenhagen or Split makes more sense to consider for some of us, how can we make that happen? And what if it HAS to happen in 6 months? Game changer.
Now we are looking at factors like portable skills, health care, language preferences, educational opportunities, professional licensing, contacts, infrastructure and public transit, and more. For this, there is no one size fits all answer… you gotta sit down and weigh options and do the math. (NEVER assume that all of Europe is the same, or that being single is the same as being married and with kids as far as taxes go, for example.)
Also, that advice about saving up a year’s worth of income may make you feel better, but for many, if they wait for that to happen, the chances of ever taking the leap become slimmer and slimmer.
At some point, you have to just sell your shit and buy the plane ticket, if you are serious. And sometimes it takes a major push from the good ol’ Universe to get you on the right track.
Also.. let’s be honest.. some places are just going to feel “right.” And others will not, regardless of how popular they are. I could choose Spain, but the idea to me lands a big “Meh” compared to Croatia, Bosnia, or Serbia. I love the language and it just feels natural. Bingo. We have a winner.
Can you see why the term “travel” isn’t accurate? It implies that you are either on a perpetual vacation, living on savings, got lucky, but will eventually come to your senses and return “Home.” Even if it makes ZERO financial sense.
Or even if living in the U.S. makes you feel stressed and depressed, which right there is enough for me to make a change.
I’l be honest.. this isn’t easy. It’s one of the hardest things I have ever done. Maybe the hardest. I work, a lot, but the goal is to work smarter, not harder. It’s possible. And I believe it will happen. That it IS happening.
I’m not saying that I will never, ever live in the U.S. again. Who knows. I can’t speak for myself 20 years from now. But I didn’t move to Europe with the intention of it being a temporary thing.
The word “Digital Nomad” I think is also confusing, because it implies a state of impermanence or unsustainability. One woman even thought that being a nomad meant the same thing as being homeless or poor. (Think of the word “gypsy” for example, which is a term that is even more loaded in Europe)
Even the word “expat” kind of sucks.. You know, that bubble.
There are probably more profiles of the “traveller” and perceptions about travelling. My point is, that this word has so many meanings that it doesn’t really mean much of anything.
So let’s look at the last profile: The “Settled” Nomad. It’s this group that I’m speaking to today. I’m not saying it is right or wrong or easy or hard, just that the goal is different, and the challenges that you will run into may be difficult for many of your friends and family back “home” to understand, or even the typical travellers you will encounter on the road.
I could write a book about this, so I’ll just begin for now.
In the meantime, I’m still waiting for the Germans, who have a perfect word for everything, to come up with the essence of the following, in a word or phrase.
Here are 11 ways in which I think that making a big move to a foreign country transcends the word “travel.”
1. Belonging everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I’m just going to invite you to ponder this sentence without going into it too much right now. I’m reserving the right to be a little mysterious about this.. and plant some foreshadowing!
2. Being invited, initiated, or welcomed, even somewhat, as a “local.” This could mean figuring out how to make kolać to bring to the person who invites you over for coffee. Small things count. The odd thing is, this is far more likely to happen in Sarajevo than in Denver, which is another can o worms for another day.
3. Having what feels like a “real home.” Having a home base, not just for physical comforts which could be anything from your favorite books to access to a garden.. but a place where you can recharge, be creative, launch the next phase of your business, or yes.. go out and be a tourist for a day or 2!
Do you have to live in the country of your birth in order to get a sense of “Home?” for me.. NO. Hell no, in fact, for some of us.
4. Assimilation. This includes speaking the language, navigating everyday events like how and where to buy the best produce, meat, shop the sales, buy the best books, have the best conversations.
5. Also finding ways to contribute, in a natural way, not necessarily as a “humanitarian volunteer” but in a way that fits in with your natural talents and blends with the natural talents of others you meet. And you can learn from them, as well.
6. Being an informal ambassador. Dispelling myths about being an American, or what the “Balkans” are like. Dare I say this could be one of the best ways to maintain peace, in a natural, grassroots way. Of course, one person can’t do it all, but they can make a difference.
7. Making an effort to understand as much as possible, while knowing that you never will completely understand as a native. Walking that fine line of respect.
8. The exchange of ideas .. being influenced by, and influencing a real, local culture.. but with a different agenda than influencing people to “buy” your “travel” lifestyle.
9. Cultivating mutual respect and open-minded curiosity with your new friends, neighbors, and contacts.
10. Starting to have days where maybe you do belong.. or at least don’t feel like a foreigner. You may open a business or get a driver’s license. For some, this may evolve into citizenship, voting, and the whole 9 yards.
11. Leaving a legacy, or positive impact on your new home. Possibly even after you die. This could sound egotistical, but also about one of the highest levels of meaning as a human being, especially as we get older and are preparing to leave the planet one day.
This could be as small as making friends with someone’s kid… saying something that will resonate and encourage them into adulthood, or mentoring someone who is starting a new business. OR having them teach you something that you can put to use to help build a better community.
All of this eventually comes right back to #1.. belonging everywhere and nowhere.
And for me, as the American with Slavic roots, returning back to where I came from, is kind of another interesting way to look at it. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels as if they are completing some sort of personal or even ancestral cycle.
Each of these points will evolve into their own blog or chapter which I plan to write about.
I hope now that you can see that the word “travel” isn’t really describing what I’m up to. I know that I use this word often when I’m speaking to others who may want to travel, move, relocate, or transition here..
I know that the word “Digital Nomad” also needs to be replaced with something better. Until then, I’ll keep talking about what it means to make this sort of life transition.