What I’ve learned after three months as a digital nomad

I recently passed the three-month mark as a digital nomad and felt compelled to commemorate the occasion by shedding some light on my current lifestyle and reflecting on my experience so far.

Where the hell am I?

Since early July I’ve been based in Athens, Greece. Although I’ve sampled other parts of the country within these three months, I’ve spent the most time in Athens and know my way around pretty well by now (without blindly relying on the little blue dot in Google Maps).

I’m really loving the city’s contrast between ancient and modern as well as the diversity of people here. It’s a little more chaotic than a typical European city and reminiscent of a South Asian city in some ways (e.g., the heat, abundance of motorbikes, and style of some of the shops and markets). I’m attracted to stimulating, vibrant cities over those that are sterile and hyper-organized, so Athens suits me well.

What about coronavirus?

You might think that Covid would kill this vibe I just described, but the city is still very much alive. That being said, there are some regulations in place, including capacity restrictions, curfews for bars and restaurants, and a €150 fine for not wearing a mask in most indoor public spaces, crowded outdoor spaces, and on all means of public transportation. By taking the standard precautionary measures (wearing my face mask and sanitizing/washing my hands frequently––I even sanitize my phone), I’ve stayed healthy and doubt I’ve been unknowingly super-spreading Covid to unsuspecting Athenians.

I’ve also chosen Airbnb accommodations with very high ratings for cleanliness. In light of Covid, some Airbnb hosts have implemented a 5-step cleaning process and even self check-in to minimize the spread of germs. If they’ve committed to this process, it’s indicated in the listing as “Enhanced Clean.”

It makes more sense to me to travel slowly and stick around one country for a longer period of time not only due to Covid but also to prolong this lifestyle. I don’t want to burn out from bouncing around from place to place without pausing (energetically demanding and not ideal when you have to work/meet deadlines). There’s also something to be said for “sinking your teeth” into a place and developing deeper friendships over having a series of fleeting encounters that become a blip in your memory.

How do I support myself?

Although it might look like I’m on permanent vacation on social media, don’t hate––there’s a grind happening in the background of my adventures.

I’m a freelance scientific editor, which resulted from a mashup of my chemistry/research background and working as an editor in the academic publishing world for four years. Nothing about my current job is new to me except for not being chained to a fixed location, so it was an easy, natural transition to take my show on the road. My only work requirement is my laptop and a wifi connection. No debate here: it’s a pretty sweet deal.

I currently have a freelance contract with Cactus Communications as well as private clients. Work is consistent, the pay is enough to keep me afloat, and I can accept or reject any job made available to me. The grind is low-level right now due to having a cushion of savings, but I make sure to take on at least a few assignments per week to give structure to my days and keep me accountable. I’d rather completely avoid a financial downwards spiral than find myself living out of a shipwreck.

I know exactly where to go in case I reach rock bottom.

What did I pack?

When you live entirely out of a backpack it’s all about minimalism, and I have to give myself credit––I packed pretty damn well as a newbie nomad.

I routinely haul around 20 kg in my 66-liter Osprey Kyte plus an extra kilo or two in a smaller daypack that I wear on my chest (where I stash my most valuable items/documents). A good, durable bag is absolutely essential––fully packed, mine is on the brink of bursting and yet somehow, against the laws of physics, the seams manage to hold. Although I use everything I brought, I hope to lighten the load by shedding a few possessions along the way. But for the beginner phase of nomadism, my system works.

This “system” includes a set of three vacuum bags to minimize the amount of space my clothes occupy––I mainly brought summer clothing with a few warmer pieces like a hoodie, sweatpants, pair of light gloves, knit hat, and lightweight winter jacket. I cycle through the same clothes over and over and won’t buy anything new unless it’s to replace something I have. Wash. wear. repeat.

I carry full bottles of shampoo, conditioner, face wash, sunscreen, etc., because it’s more economical, and I don’t want to generate needless amounts of plastic waste by buying mini-sized stuff.

Speaking of waste, I absolutely hate throwaway plastic (and even recyclable plastic). I’ve seen a recycling bin on the street a grand total of once in Greece (in Thessaloniki). I was excited until I realized it was contaminated with regular garbage (eff that person who crushed the souls of aspirational recyclers like me). To avoid unnecessary waste, I haul around reusable beverage containers and utensils. These things may add bulk to my bag, but I’d rather burden my back than my conscience.

Reusable wooden utensils, aluminum water bottles, and a stainless steel coffee cup are staples in my bag.

I’ve also managed to stuff in my hiking boots, climbing gear (shoes, harness, belay device, carabiner, helmet), and a microphone (for future podcasts/narrating––stay tuned). Obviously not every nomad needs these items, but they’re necessary to my lifestyle.

Aside from these special items, other nifty additions to my inventory include a mini, foldable hair dryer, bungee-cord clothesline with built-in clothespins, a few bars of laundry soap for hand washing, and several small bags of spices (lightweight, and I don’t have to buy them each time I want to cook in a new place).

I also store all my electronics in cushiony, waterproof cases and their power cables in separate dry bags.

The pros of digital nomadism

The hands down, number-one perk of this lifestyle is the freedom and flexibility it offers. To me, these advantages outweigh any potential cons I can imagine for the foreseeable future.

Other major pros (in no particular order):

  • I can choose whether to live by myself or with other people according to my mood. At the moment, I’m enjoying living with others and share an apartment in Athens with my lovely Airbnb hosts. But I also like my solitude and privacy and recognize when I need to switch to living alone for a change.
  • Less stress. Having no obligation to work in a specific location and no pressure to adhere to a fixed schedule has definitely reduced my stress levels and enhanced my sleep quality overall. Although implementing a daily routine is helpful for productivity, it’s optional.
  • Constant feeling of excitement/stimulation. Boredom doesn’t really exist in a nomad’s world. If you do grow tired of a particular location, you can just pack up and move onto your next destination. In this way, you always have something to look forward to. Visiting a new place is orgasmic for the senses: smelling and tasting new foods, hearing and potentially learning a foreign language you’ve never or rarely heard before, laying your eyes on beautiful and exotic landscapes, people, architecture, and skylines––the list goes on. In theory, I suppose you could grow bored of experiencing the world, but as long as you have energy, imagination, and curiosity, it’s not going to happen.
  • No more back/neck/body pain. Ditto for eye strain. Sitting at a desk all day took its toll on my body, even with my ergonomically optimized workstation in my previous office. Ironically, I now work in variable and makeshift conditions (lounging in bed and at coffee shops with wobbly tables, etc.), but have zero pain. I mostly attribute this to being able to take a break whenever I want and simply being more relaxed/less tense. I can have a spontaneous dance party or nap whenever the hell I want.
  • Befriending people you would likely never encounter in your home country. Although this applies to shorter-term travel as well, you have a better opportunity to form close friendships as a nomad because you have control over how long you stay in a place (within the allowance of visa policies, if applicable). Spending quality time with people from different cultures, both locals and fellow travelers, is enriching and helps obliterate stereotypes and prejudices. Activities like climbing and bouldering as well as good old-fashioned serendipity have allowed me to meet people in Greece and have led to a few friendships. To supplement IRL encounters there’s also multiple options for connecting with people online: Couchsurfing, dating apps, Facebook groups and Meetup for discovering activities taking place around the city you’re in (probably not useful during Covid), and Tandem for finding language exchange partners.

The cons/challenges for the long term

Up to this point in life, I’ve traveled under a planned, allotted amount of vacation time with a job and home to return to––never before as a nomad with hypothetical boundlessness. And while this lifestyle shift may have solved some of the lack of fulfillment I was feeling, as with any major life change, a new set of problems inevitably arises.

  • Instability/inconsistency and finding a balance. There’s an underlying sense of precariousness in being a freelancing digital nomad. In my case, having a work contract provides a decent amount of financial stability, but my expenses vary depending on my location and choice of accommodation. For digital nomads who work from gig to gig without a consistent influx of jobs, this lifestyle could become stressful. Having to quickly adapt to new locations, accommodations, and circumstances can also be challenging, but feeling permanently unsettled or not “grounded” can be mitigated by slowing down and staying in one place for longer. And although my goal is to become a full-time writer/journalist, finding and maintaining a balance between writing, editing, traveling/exploring, and socializing is not always easy.
  • Loneliness. I spend a lot of time alone and derive a great sense of fulfillment in traveling solo, but loneliness inevitably springs up at times––sometimes seemingly without rhyme or reason. I might feel totally at peace with being alone in the most remote place but feel lonely surrounded by people in a big city. After much contemplation (and a bit of research), I’ve come to realize that there are three different types of loneliness: social, emotional, and existential.

    Social and emotional loneliness are solvable by cultivating a broader network of friends and close relationships, respectively, but existential loneliness is more abstract and what I believe I’ll struggle with most in the long term. I’ve left friends and familiy in a handful of places by moving within Canada and abroad, and some of those connections will sadly diminish over time, but making friends is not an elusive undertaking and talking to strangers is a skill I have in the bag by now.

    The type of loneliness I feel most is independent of my location. Being far removed from the familiar and routine sometimes evokes in me a feeling of being small or lost in the world, not necessarily fitting in anywhere-–symptoms of existential loneliness. It’s more a matter of coming to terms with and even relishing the feeling rather than trying to solve it.
  • Productivity issues. With no one to hold you accountable but yourself, it’s pretty easy to give into distractions and veer off track unless you implement your own structure and exercise some self-discipline.

Everything considered, these are all good problems to have and can all be boiled down to one simple truth:

Everything sucks, some of the time.

In one of his blog articles, Mark Manson (who wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck) turned this premise into a question to help readers identify their life’s purpose:

“What flavor of shit sandwich do you like to eat?” he asks.

Basically, this translates to, “Which struggles are you willing to endure and what sacrifices are you willing to make for your passion?”

I view the precariousness of nomadism as a source of excitement and welcome the challenges that come with frequently changing my location and starting afresh. I’m more than happy to sacrifice material possessions for experiences, and I’m totally game to explore unfamiliar territory on my own, without knowing the language or having any contacts there.

The 9/5 corporate lifestyle may have its merits and be rewarding to some, but it was draining my soul and leading to a growing sense of apathy and restlessness. As I grow older, I realize that I have limited time and energy (i.e., limited fucks to give in Mark Manson speak), and spending it on what I deem valuable instead of mindless drudgery is far more important to me at this stage in life.

Me feeling alive again (my shit sandwich is in the backpack)

Of course I haven’t figured it all out yet, but I’m getting there. As the Greeks say, “siga, siga” (slowly, slowly).

Correction: Greece isn’t as bad at recycling as I initially thought. I was oblivious to the blue bins lining the streets (that look like dumpsters) for recycling packaging materials. Whether everything is actually separated and recycled is another question.

Published by RogueChemist

Thirty-something Canadian nomad. Daydreamer, early bird, and veggie junkie. Appreciates well-placed profanity. Generally law-abiding citizen unless it comes to crossing the street.