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A Digital Nomad’s Search for Belonging

What began as a way to save money quickly became an isolating experience

A Singular Story
Sep 21, 2018 · 6 min read
Photo: Kiattisak Lamchan/EyeEm/Getty Images

Maybe you envy the so-called “digital nomad lifestyle,” but do you have any idea what not having a key to any front door does to your psyche?

A few years ago, in a desperate attempt to straighten out my finances, I decided to cut my biggest expense — rent — and stop paying for a place I hardly occupied. I worked as a full-time tour director back then, always traveling from one country to the next, seldom waking up in the same place two days in a row.

What few possessions I had I left with friends and relatives for safekeeping. I left them in at least three places in England, at my father’s in Paris, at a pal’s in Sweden. At one point, I even had a few drawers full of stuff in rural Massachusetts.

Despite the perceived glamour of my job — the airport lounges, the various hotels, the endless restaurant meals — I’d never felt so lost in my life. My mail would arrive at my best friend’s place in England. I did my laundry in launderettes when I could, but often resorted to hotel sinks since I rarely stayed long enough to entrust it to the hotel. My ideal meal was whatever fresh stuff I could grab at the nearest market. I longed for something I could cook from scratch.

Despite the perceived glamour of my job, I had never felt so lost in my life.

At the time, tour directing seemed like a great alternative to the increasingly precarious life of a freelance journalist. It didn’t pay much more, but it was never dull. Then again, I was on call 24/7 while on the road, hoping none of my passengers would be robbed or get sick. One ill-fated trip culminated in quarantine in Germany when most of my group contracted swine flu.

The main drawback, though, was that I had no life of my own anymore. I became a passenger-satisfaction delivery system, the company freelance representative who turned a travel brochure into reality with a smile.

That was all I was, and all I did — albeit with gusto — to the exclusion of most everything else. I felt like I was losing all sense of self, ceasing to exist as a person. I even started leaving behind half-read books on planes and in hotels, which isn’t like me at all.

“Carry on like that and you’ll end up at 50 with a nice wardrobe but nothing else to show for your hard work,” says Gabriela, my local Azores guide for the day.

Our passengers have some free time so we’re sitting down with coffee in a courtyard, chatting about life on a balmy October morning. Gabi is 50, and from what I gather, still looking for love. I’m younger, similarly unattached, and she seems to like my simple, monochromatic dress sense.

Her words give me a jolt. Will I ever settle down?

From the moment my parents divorced when I was little, this has always been the question, one that remains unanswered to this day. Although I am now married, I doubt I’m finished playing geographical hopscotch.

A scraggy mutt comes to lay at our feet and the moment is perfect, suspended in time. I feel content and at peace on this little island at the heart of the Atlantic. I don’t want to leave. A year later, the Azores are home. I don’t speak a word of Portuguese when I arrive, but I learn quickly.

Before all this, I go back to England where something wondrous happens. My best friend is living in a shared house, and one of his roommates lets me have her empty room for a while. I borrow my friend’s sofa cushions and improvise a makeshift bed on the floor.

For a week, I have a spare key, a space of my own, and the use of a shared kitchen and washing machine. It is heaven. But I can’t stay.

After a three-year stint in the Azores as a journalist, I wind up couch surfing through England, France, and the U.S. Then I move to one of the most remote island locations in North America, renting a decrepit drafty house that is snowed in for five out of the six months I am there.

It isn’t home either. The landlady’s brother turns up randomly, and locals slow down curiously as they drive past me. Not only do I come from elsewhere, but I’m one of the only two eccentrics who walk everywhere, even during blizzards.

By now, I’ve already met the man who will become my husband but I don’t know it yet. I still have no idea where I belong, if anywhere.

After losing funding for a reporting project, I snag a multilingual hospitality job and bide my time. To keep me company, I adopt a tiny rescue tabby cat. All I know is we belong together. She makes me feel more grounded than any place ever has.

During this phase of my life, wherever I was, I was aware I was only passing through. It was never home.

Over the last 10 years, I had learned to live on very little. I moved from England to the Azores with only a few bags, and that was thanks to a friend of mine who worked for the local airline. Had I gotten charged for those extra bags, I could never have afforded to fill a luggage cart.

When I leave three years later, I donate what little I’ve accumulated as I don’t know whether I’m coming back. I’d like to, but I suspect I won’t as the economic situation in the archipelago is dire.

Little do I know my thrifty Portuguese ways are good preparation for my future American life. Depression fells me around the time I immigrate to the U.S., incapacitating me so much that I’m unable to hold down a job for five years. As a result, my household survives on one salary that never stretches far enough. This means care remains out of reach despite my having insurance.

I stick to eating a single meal a day because that is all we can afford. Although it isn’t a choice per se, I don’t mind it. I eat healthful, identifiable ingredients that sustain me, and I don’t need any more. I don’t even want any more.

I discover the hipsters have already co-opted this approach, calling it intermittent fasting and calling themselves “body hackers.” To people of lesser means, this is yet another bullshit trend that glamorizes frugality by making a mockery of others’ daily reality. Being broke and having to do without does call for self-control and discipline, but it isn’t a choice.

During this phase of my life, wherever I was, I was aware I was only passing through. It was never home. What started out as a way to cut my expenses soon became a burden, a form of alienation from society. I didn’t save money, but at least I didn’t hemorrhage money, or incur debt. I just… broke even.

These days, I live in a house in a small Pacific Northwest town with my husband and our two cats. Though I may have to move back to Europe for a while to support my elderly father as my stepmom undergoes cancer treatment, I now have a home base. I’ve finally dropped anchor.

No matter where I go next, this is where I come back to.

The human condition is not a pathology・👋ASingularStory[at]gmail・ ☕️ https://ko-fi.com/ASingularStory

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