“You are always one decision away from a completely different life.” — unknown
I’m trying to count the number of times I’ve moved countries but it’s something of a hopeless exercise because neither the question nor the answer are particularly tidy for me. Even though my official residence has been London for nearly two decades, for example, I have spent I think a cumulative four to five years there. What is home? More often than not: my suitcase.
So it’s pretty ridiculous that, of all people, I still hyperventilate at the thought of putting my life back into a bag and moving on. Which I’m now preparing to do once more as I leave my job to travel for an indefinite period. Hitting the road is my pattern, in that Freudian impulse way. Even though it often makes me anxious it’s what I do, especially when I don’t know what else to do, and even at times when I’d rather I didn’t.
A year and half ago, I figured that this time I really would stay put and so went all out to assemble a new home, a new life. I was determined to settle down for real. It did not come easily to me. A few months ago, for example, I had to literally talk myself into buying a printer. As in: it’s helpful to read hard copies for editing… I’ll use it enough to justify having Another Thing to own and maintain… I’m definitely going to be here for a few years…
A month later, I decided – okay, I’m moving. Bye bye printer. And for that matter, bye bye TV, cushions, pillows, plates, glasses, bedding, lamps, shower curtains, blinds, speakers, books, kitchen gadgets, blah blah blah.
I’m putting a few of these into the flow of household items that circulate between my bestie and me. Something may currently be in my custody but may well go to him for a spell only to circle back to me, and perhaps ultimately reside with him. Wherever they go, they are being used and appreciated, and I like that.
This is in part due of my new-ish realisation that, according to journalist George Monbiot, “we are not materialistic enough”. That is, at every previous major country move I’d discard everything then purchase a whole new life in the new place. While I don’t wish to store my life away in cardboard boxes, I’m also fatigued by buying all the shit one needs for a home every few years from scratch. How wasteful.
So the stuff I really love has gone to my best friend for his use, some personal items have gone into bags and stored under his bed, and the rest of my worldly possessions have been donated to friends and a charity. For all intents and purposes, I’ve just wiped the slate clean.
For now, all that I have is what I’ll carry in a small case. It’s immensely liberating. Not least of all as a reminder to myself that all I really need is my heart and head, and trust in the universe.
I’m joining a travel programme that, when I first heard of it, sounded like a joke. And then, once I came to realise that it’s actually for real, sounded like the bestest dream ever. Basically it works like this: you take your job with you (it helps if you’re a techie, an entrepreneur, a writer or just someone with an understanding boss). You travel with a group of like-minded and similarly employed strangers. You spend a month in each place. The programme arranges all the logistics: accommodations, shared workspace, bulletproof internet (critical for remote jobs), local cultural events and travel. The aim is to be able to do your work – this is not a holiday – while living in different places.
I couldn’t believe that someone had thought to design something like this. It’s loopy yet, at the same time, the most remarkably sane idea I’d ever heard.
Because of my tendency to get (a little, only a little) obsessive with details, I can become preposterously stressed about logistics. To have someone else decide and manage travel, stay and workspace arrangements is kind of amazing.
I will meet my fellow travellers once I begin the programme. I know from past experiences of being thrown together with a group of people (college, film shoots, various jobs) that making one or two real friends is enough, though having a larger group helps in other ways. I’m used to travelling, writing and working on my own for long spells but it can be isolating and limiting. A community makes the same work – and me – feel expansive.
I currently have to give fairly lengthy explanations of how these remote work/travel programmes are structured, but I believe in a year or so, the concept will become mainstream and familiar to many. I’m not saying which programme I’m joining (for this reason) but my itinerary covers multiple countries I’m going to experience for the first time. I can’t wait.
I love seeing new places but much more than visiting a place briefly, I’m always curious to actually live there for a bit. I want to experience how locals eat, shop, go to work, watch films, and spend their afternoons.
I find the way other people live to be endlessly fascinating; they with their ingrained culture and society, so very confident that the way they go about their lives is exactly how thing are done. Whereas I’m the perennial outsider, my nose pressed against the window looking in, my breath steaming up the glass. There’s always a part of me that hopes that maybe here, at last, I’ll find something that will magically click – a way of living, a way of being.
I also love getting lost in strange, new places and finding my way back, in more ways than one.
A filmmaker friend told me he won’t get LASIK eye surgery (as I had) because he prizes the idea of being able to see blurry shapes and colours instead of clear form and function as we otherwise always do. Being in a new place gives me a similar opportunity to see the old with new eyes. A different environment of unfamiliar sounds, smells, words, sights allows me to experience life not just anew but also with a heightened sense of wonder.
This also, beautifully, forces me to be acutely present, not stuck in the past or hovering in the near future as I so often am. See this Washington Post video about Joshua Bell, an extraordinary world-class musician playing one of the most expensive instruments in the world on the subway and nobody stopped to pay attention to him. How much life are we missing?
Sometimes it feels as if my days are not really my own (and I don’t even have the excuse of having children). It’s as if everything else, and my job in particular, gets first dibs on my attention and time. And one day I wake up and it’s been 8 months since I worked on my book (which is exactly what’s happened). Being away on my own is a time to experiment and see what it is that I want for myself, with no obligation to anyone else.
Life can lose its lustre for me when things feel too routine. I can become consumed by the minutiae, by trivial matters I magnify out of proportion, yet which five years later can mean very little or have no significant impact. As the line goes in that otherwise forgettable film Rumour Has It: without adventure, life is just a bunch of boring Tuesdays strung together. Year in, year out (and I say this from experience), focusing on the mundane becomes numbing. There is a dampening down of my true priorities, a hardening of my heart. Inertia becomes a state of being.
I periodically need the unfamiliar, the unpredictable, to jolt me out of my stupor. When I feel myself – my thoughts, my ambitions – becoming stale, I want to move. Not only because it keeps me feeling alive, but also because it’s the best shortcut I know to reinventing who I think I am. Instead of looking left or right, I learn to stay in my own lane. To let go of dependencies, crutches and old habits. To keep evolving. Ernest Hemingway’s life in Paris became a moveable feast. David Sedaris moved to Japan to quit smoking. Elizabeth Gilbert ate, prayed and loved her way to a new chapter of her life. Going on the road is about starting again.
I can be a little overwhelmed but ultimately attracted to the sensation that anything can happen when I’m on the move. There’s no point in clutching, in fretting. The release is pretty intoxicating. When I am a creature in flight, I am in a state of liberation – carefree and fearless.
Also: at age 20 I studied for a semester abroad in Italy where I didn’t know a soul around me. It was the first time in my life I was able to be exactly who I was at that moment because there was no baggage, no history, no expectations. I’m shocked to realise that I have not done this since. And so for this, my upcoming travels, I shall be taking a step back from everything I think I know to be true – including who I am – so that I’m free to re-order the way I experience the world.
What’s the most important thing people can learn from traveling? A broader perspective. They can see themselves as part of a family of humankind. It’s just quite an adjustment to find out that the people who sit on toilets on this planet are the odd ones. Most people squat. You’re raised thinking this is the civilised way to go to the bathroom. But it’s not. It’s the Western way to go to the bathroom. But it’s not more civilised than somebody who squats. A man in Afghanistan once told me that a third of this planet eats with spoons and forks, and a third of the planet eats with chopsticks, and a third eats with their fingers. And they’re all just as civilised as one another. – Rick Steves, from this 2009 Salon interview
All photos taken in and around Ithaca, Greece.
In our increasingly mobile world, working remotely is the next stage of living. To understand this term better, you can read Remote Year founder Greg Caplan’s Remote Revolution Manifesto here. For a more in-depth way to see how you can organise your life to enable this on your own, I highly recommend the book Free Range Humans by Marianne Cantwell.
Here are some programmes that are currently offering a structured way of doing this. Each has its own particular spin – some are for fixed terms, some for fixed locations, for example – but all are designed to allow you to combine work with travel with a like-minded community with whom you co-share living quarters and workspace.
Please do your own due diligence; this list is not an endorsement of any of the programmes as I have not experienced any of them personally or even know people on them. Most are priced around USD 2,000 a month plus a fixed joining fee, but please ensure you check everything thoroughly before handing over any money. As startups and social experiments go, any of these could well turn out to be too good to be true.
Terminal 3: 3 to 6 (or more) months, largely focusing on Southeast Asia, with a month in each place.
Remote Year: 12 cities in 12 months around the world.
Hacker Paradise: 2 weeks to 3 months around the world.
Roam: “a week to a lifetime”, this is a chic luxe version of nomad living; very Vogue magazine.
We Roam: 3-12 months around the world.
The Remote Experience: 1 month upwards to a year, around the world.
Nomad House: 30 days in one location, in varying locales.
WiFi Tribe: hop on, hop off over a period of 365 days; moving every 4 weeks.
WiFly Nomads: A workshop for 2 weeks in Bali that covers how to become a digital nomad.
Co-Work Paradise: 4 weeks in Bali, starting at fixed times.
I’m convinced my fascination with moving through the world with a small bag began when, at the impressionable age of 13, I watched Madonna with her round black and white case decorated with graffiti skulls in Desperately Seeking Susan. There she was stashing pinched hotel silver, pinning postcards from lovers to the inside lid, exchanging her beloved jacket for a new pair of shoes. All so easy come, easy go; detached yet hyper current. For me, travelling light is synonymous with travelling, full stop. It’s fluid living.
Tales of wanderlust fill my (digital) bookshelf. And this one is something of a modern favourite for many: Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. Before it became as widely popular today to become a digital nomad or simply to live on the road, Potts wrote about his experience with a sober yet moving eye.
Leyla Alyanak wrote this fab article My Round The World Adventure: How 6 months turned into 3 years on her website Women on the Road. So inspiring!
Move with me!