If you follow this blog, you’ll know that I left the UK in 2010 and have been roaming the globe, living the digital nomad lifestyle ever since. You’ll also know that a ridiculous knee injury in the British Virgin Islands has put me on less glamorous British National Health Service waiting list for ACL reconstruction. It involves hamstrings and scalpels and several months of recovery.
I’ll be honest, while the digital nomad lifestyle has its obvious advantages, it’s not the easiest lifestyle to maintain and I’ve thought many times about quitting that life to return to the other life I’d quit before it i.e. return home. I usually had these thoughts at 4 a.m. when I got off a night bus in the rain and couldn’t find any mode of transport to take me to the address I’d misplaced anyway, which all left me wondering, “what am I doing here?”.
Naturally, those feelings subsided when I woke up the next day to the sunshine or the beach or a jungle or whatever my new destination had on offer.
But then I had an extended period of “the grass must surely be greener in a fixed location” musing at the back end of last year. It came about because I was particularly frustrated by the fact that I hadn’t inched my novel more than 10,000 words forward in the 5 years I’d been on the road (for context, a typical novel runs 80,000 to 100,000 words).
I blamed the lack of a consistent workspace where I can spread out my thoughts (in the post-it-notes everywhere kind of borderline crazy way). I know the real reason is procrastination – which is why I’m writing this blog post instead of working on my book, but it was an excuse that worked for me at the time and over and over I kept equating the two – you’re not writing your book because you’re on the road…you’re not writing your book because you’re on the road…you’re not writing your book because you’re on the road…
And then I must have screamed Beetlejuice one two many times because just like that fate served me a non-negotiable situation in the form of my fucked-up knee: I had to go home and get down to the serious business of static life.
Six months have passed since I hobbled into Heathrow at the end of my last trip. I’m still awaiting a date for my surgery and in the time that’s passed, I have bought an apartment (because couchsurfing in your own country for more than six months is too depressing a thought to bear).
So, how’s it going? What has this period of re-entry taught me? Maybe you’re considering it’s time to come home after an extended stint on the road or you’re wondering how things might be if you do take that gap year (or three) that you so desire. From the good to the bad to the ugly, here’s how it’s been for me.
You’d be surprised how quickly you gain possessions again
“I’m going to have a minimalist lifestyle now I’m back,” I said. Yet, day after day I seem to be taking new deliveries or popping out to the shops for just one thing…that is ultimately a shopping bag of things.
The truth is that ‘mainstream life’, if we can call it that, functions on possessions. Possession (or at least rental) of a home; furniture; a car. And these were just the basics. Today I came home with a roll of packing tape (for returning some of those previously purchased items), a mixing bowl and a pair of slippers.
In just 6 months I’m pretty close to where I was in 2011 when I stared into the depths of a storage unit full of stuff and set about furiously selling or giving away every item I once owned. (Every item apart from my Champagne flutes and margarita glasses, which I had the good sense to keep and I’m grateful for that).
I know in my soul that I’ll hit the road again at some point and this frenzy of buying furniture and associated accoutrements keeps at least 1% of my brain continually active with a low level of worry. But what was the alternative? Sit on my backpack in my apartment eating dinner out of a water bottle, using my daypack as a table?
Bills are boring and add extra pressure
Speaking of the pains of running an apartment, I can’t say I missed the bills: water bills, electricity bills, gas bills, wi-fi bills, insurance bills and that special kind of bill we pay in the UK called a council tax bill – just an extra £1,000 or so a year for, you know…the council.
Of course, I enjoy the facilities those bills bring and I wouldn’t choose to be without them but they were all-inclusive when I booked a room for the night and I preferred that model much better. Instead, I now have monthly minimum outgoings, which means I’m under pressure to make a certain amount of income to cover them.
Before, if work was lean or cash was tight, I just moved to a cheaper country. Now I can’t do that. Not least beacause my furniture is too heavy to carry (1% of brain goes into meltdown).
Don’t expect a mortgage to fall into your lap
I took out my first mortgage in the early noughties and times were so good that my bank didn’t just lend me 100% of the cost of the apartment I was buying, they gave me an extra 10% on top for, you know, stuff. I believe I used a portion of it to go on holiday.
But times have changed.
Leaving the UK in 2010, the mortgage markets were still coming to terms with the financial crisis. Tougher rules and regulations hadn’t come into force. Plus, I had a full-time salary as a lawyer, what did I have to worry about? Nothing was the answer.
However, as most digital nomads will attest, making money as a freelancer, particularly in those early years, is a bit of a cluster-fuck, for want of a better phrase. You scratch around for work. Some months are good, some not so much, but it doesn’t seem to matter because you’ve become an expert in the art of living cheaply. Sadly, your tax returns reflect that.
I’ve done alright over the past 5 years, bringing in enough to get by but I haven’t (sometimes through choice, sometimes not), got to a position where I have a list of regular clients that provide a solid stack of reliable, contracted cash each month. And this reality, which I was quite comfortable with when I was on the road, bit me squarely on the ass when I returned to the UK.
For a start, not a single high street mortgage company would touch me. I pitched, I presented, I met the personal relationship manager at my bank and I was turned down again and again. I tried a mortgage broker and even though I came to the market with a solid chunk of capital for a deposit (smart me had hung onto it after I sold my home in 2010), the answer was brutal: in a mortgage market of hundreds of lenders, there were only 2 companies that would consider me, and even one of those ended up backing out.
All’s well that ends well and I finally got a company to lend me the money to purchase my place but the interest rate isn’t as good as it could be, the mortgage is ‘unregulated’ so I’m not as protected as I’d like and unless things shift on my work front or the mortgage front, I’m going to be in exactly the same boat in 2 years time when my fixed fee is up for renewal.
I’m a reasonably smart person and I guess I could have seen all of this coming, but when you’re hiking the trail to Macchu Pichu, mortgage brokers are the last thing on your mind. And they shouldn’t be.
Getting a job can be a challenge
Although I’m lucky enough that I’ve not had to go through the ‘reapply for my old job’ process, I have recently made an application to volunteer with one of the biggest charities in the world (more on that in the future if my application goes through – fingers crossed). And what I had to do as part of that process was give my job history. Explaining your digital nomad lifestyle can be a challenge, especially if the person on the receiving end of the information simply doesn’t get or, worse, doesn’t approve, of how you’ve spent the past 5 years. You were just lying on a beach sipping cocktails, right?
My biggest tip would be to maintain a cv/resume that you update each year. You may have been able to maintain a nice life living in Thailand as a digital nomad but home life expenses may force you back into your old career quicker than you’d like.
Cooking – with proper equipment and ingredients – is unspeakably amazing
I don’t want to paint an entirely negative picture – having your own place/a static place isn’t all doom and gloom and now that the stress of buying a place is over, I’m still very excited that it comes with some significant benefits. For me, one of those is the ability to cook and also to build up a spice collection once again. Yes, more shopping and possessions but if I can channel those spices into chicken tacos, I’m a happy woman.
You never have to sleep with anyone you don’t want to
Most nomads will spend a not insignificant portion of their time dossing down in dorm rooms, sleeping on buses or taking the red-eye, particularly in the early years. Upshot: you’ll probably sleep ‘with’ more people during your nomad years than you will during the rest of your life. And, chances are, those people snore/fart/smell/get up just as you’re getting in/get in just as you’re getting up. Having my own room 100% of the time, with no early morning knock-knock from housekeeping? Bliss.
But you do have to make your own bed, vacuum and buy loo roll
That lack of housekeeping does, however, come with its own downsides. I forgot how long it takes to clean an apartment and although I’m looking around for a domestic cleaning service (hey, I have a bust knee/allergies to dust/am completely lazy), until I get one, I’m stuck doing it myself. Yawn.
Getting back into the system has its ups and downs
It’s been amazing finally having my own permanent address instead of having to borrow other people’s. The UK, like much of the western world, is set up for people with a fixed abode. My doctor requires an address (otherwise, I permanently have ‘temporary visitor’ status), and I need one for paying my taxes, to apply for a credit card, to renew my passport and to vote.
It’s also nice to have a proper address to receive letters – I got stung for £600 of legal and debt recovery fees while I was away a couple of years ago because I didn’t receive any of the demand letters for a bill I’d forgotten to pay. Ouch.
But then there are things you don’t think about, like car insurance. Having not owned a car for the past 5 years, I can no longer prove that I have a good driving history (and I did have a very good driving history), because in the UK that proof (a.k.a ‘no claims discount’) lapses after 2 years. The upshot: my insurance premium treats me like I’m a 17-year-old new driver and the policy price is eye watering. You just have to take a dive for the first few years was the advice I found online. It has turned out to be true.
You’ll see your old world through new eyes – and it won’t all be good
I tend to look up and around me more as I go about my daily life – travel has ingrained that much in me. I’m noticing more historical buildings and making an effort to find out about them. Overall, it’s enriching my everyday life. But there are aspects of coming home that keep me in an almost perpetual state of head-shaking.
Packaging is the biggest one. Were we always so obsessed with tripple bagging everything in the UK? I buy chicken and it’s in a pre-packed sleeve, which the person at the checkout puts into a thin plastic bag before I put it in my shopping bag. Apples come pre-bagged as do tomatoes and don’t get me started on the items delivered in box upon box with paper and plastic thrown in for…fun?
And speaking of supermarkets, why don’t the supposedly fresh fruit and vegetables taste of anything? The more developing a nation, the more natural it’s fruit and veg seem to be and that real taste has ruined me. I’m looking around for good organic farms to supply boxes of local produce but they’re expensive. In the meantime, I’m consuming tomatoes that taste of air and eating fruit from tins, because at least they were canned from fresh. What I wouldn’t give for a mango I could peel with my fingers and an avocado that doesn’t break the kitchen tiles if you drop it on the floor.
Some new habits from your digital nomad lifestyle you have to work hard to keep
I bought a TV. There, I said it. For a long while, I was adamant that I wasn’t going to fall back into the trap of losing precious hours of my life to TV. You know, come home from work and let hours of mindless shite drift before your eyes.
During the past 5 years, I’d managed to whittle down my TV hours to a few Netflix binges a month and I was happy with that. It’s a level of TV viewing I’m comfortable maintaining and I bought a TV to that end (and also because it syncs nicely with Spotify). However, I’m also working hard not to let my TV viewing expand beyond that.
So far, so good. I’ve not connected my TV to the gadzillion channels out there. I haven’t attached the aerial to access terrestrial TV, I shunned the ridiculously good offers I’ve had from the cable and satellite networks who have tried to lure me in. I’m using Netflix only and I still spend my non-party/adventuring nights either reading, doing yoga, meditating or catching up on work. I hope it will last, particularly when TV shows, pop culture and celebrity gossip seems to be a major topic of conversation in the non-travelling world – “have you seen x” is the mainstream version of “have you been to y”.
Having a permanent place to work is much more efficient
This week I moved my novel forward by 2,000 words. Yes, it’s a far cry from finished but it’s a step in the right direction. Being able to pick up from the last of the pages that are littered across the floor in the small room I’ve designated “office”, has made me more work efficient and I’m very happy about that much. On the downside, I now have zero excuses, which is a tad terrifying.
Full-speed, reliable wi-fi is the golden ticket
Naturally, having a proper wi-fi connection that doesn’t require you to gush at the barista while balancing a latte on your head just in order to get the access code is such a luxury. As is having it there, switched on, all the time. No traipsing through a new city searching for the Holy Trinity of wi-fi, power and coffee all in one place (that isn’t a Starbucks). Happy days.
Technology moves quickly
I’ve noticed that technology has shifted a lot, too. In 2010, when I packed away all the tech I wasn’t taking with me, I didn’t really think “what’s the point.” And now here I am in 2016 with a practically brand new printer I can barely buy ink for that doesn’t print wirelessly and is bulky as hell. My stereo speakers are oldskool cabled…oh, yeah, I have a stereo that I no longer know what to do with – nor the CD player I no longer possess CDs for. My dictation software I used to use for writing is so old it’s no longer supported and keeps crashing my Mac, and I’ve not even tried to charge my iPod (whatever one of those stand-alone music thingies is), which has amusingly made it into the Smithsonian as a piece of history since I left.
Upshot: expensive replacements coming down the line. (1% of brain explodes at the thought of yet more possessions.)
Life moves on around you (even though you think it doesn’t)
There’s a certain arrogance that can creep in with travelling. You think you’re doing the coolest thing in the world while your friends and family are just ticking along. But it’s not true. Their lives move on too, and often in ways that your life hasn’t.
For a start, most of my friends are now married with a kid-count I can’t keep up with. And from that spawn, new social groups and friendships are formed. People move house, location, job and before you know it, those ‘catch-up’ drinks no longer cover what’s been going on since you last spoke, they run the whole gamut of career, family and more with your friends having taken leaps in geography and jobs that you’d never have thought.
But the best friends haven’t gone anywhere
The good news, for me at least, is that 99% of those friends are still around, still have you on their friend list and are more than happy to invite you to the next party and put you back on their Christmas card list now you have a fixed abode.
The honeymoon period is fun, but the urge to travel doesn’t go away
Try as I might, I just can’t shake the urge to move. Yes, static life is certainly easier and comes with many advantages but when everything is unpacked and I sit looking around the apartment that’s mine-all-mine (apart from the bit owned by the mortgage company), there is no way this life can compete with the excitement and adventure that comes with exploring the world.
I don’t believe it was inevitable that I’d end up here. It was circumstances that helped me unlock my nomadic urge, but had I not taken the leap, I think I’d have remained curious and even envious of people who’d hit the road, but I would have have remained largely in one place.
But I did unlock that urge. And once it’s unlocked, there’s absolutely no way it can be put away. I’ve no doubt I’ll be on the road again one day (the beginning of 2017 is looking most likely at the moment) but until then, I have some new cutlery I need to unpack and some new speakers to purchase.
Have you ever returned home after spending an extended period away? How did you find it? Let me know in the comments below.
Like this? Share it on Pinterest…