November 27, 2014

My life as a homeless transient.

And how you can be one, too!

I hate the term “Digital Nomad”. Whenever I see it in the context of an article or blog post, it reeks of pretension and better-than-thou-ness – which, I rush to point out, is not a vibe I ever get from actually talking to fellow travellers in person. Usually, when I meet someone who asks about my lifestyle, I just laugh and say I’m homeless but employed.

Whatever you want to call it, a life of permanent travel seems to have a broad appeal, at least with some segment of society. And, as such, it’s something I occasionally get asked questions about. Today, I’ll answer questions that I haven’t been asked, but feel free to ask more in the comments and I’ll answer.

Disclaimer: We’ve been on the road for 6 months, so I’m not exactly a grizzled vet. The short version: My wife and I sold or gave away most of our stuff, and in May this year left with just a bag each. We went to visit my family in Newfoundland, then stayed in Krakow, Poland for a few months, then then Sarajevo, then Istanbul, and now we’re back in Sarajevo before heading to Cologne and then Las Palmas de Gran Canaria over Christmas.

How do you deal with visas?

We stay on tourist visas, which is the easiest way to go. Being Canadian helps a lot – it seems like most countries don’t need any visa in advance, and those that do make the process pretty easy.

The Schengen area is a bit of a bummer for this method – the max is 90 days out of any 180 day period for all the countries in the zone combined. So forget about hopping countries in most of Continental Europe.

However, I happen to have a Polish father, so over the course of this year I’ve acquired Polish citizenship and am in the process of getting a passport – and of studying the language out of sheer guilt. If you have access to this sort of thing, and your country allows you to pursue dual citizenship, why not?

Any other legal/bureaucratic stuff?

Since we’re only using tourist visas and never declaring any sort of residence, we remain de-facto residents of Canada and taxes etc. remain the same. Your laws may vary, but this seems to be typical.

What about language barriers?

I’ve blogged about this briefly, but here’s the gist: if you must be a monoglot, English is clearly the way to go. In particular, anyone involved in the process of getting you from a to b will tend to have at least basic English, and between that and some general resourcefulness it’s not a big problem getting around.

That said, studying other languages is recommended to maximize your ability to talk to people and generally connect with whatever country you’re visiting. The 2 months of really half-assed study of Polish I did before we left paid off, most notably in being able to actually have (extremely basic) conversations with relatives of mine who didn’t speak English. It also helped indirectly by providing some basis to learn some Bosnian, which shares quite a bit with Polish (think French vs. Spanish).

Conversely, I learned absolutely zero Turkish staying in Istanbul. (Ok, fine, I know how to say “please”, “thank you”, and “yes” – but not “no”!), and it never caused us any problem, even though in general fewer Turks spoke English than did Poles or Bosnians.

How did you swing work?

I very strongly recommend being a software developer. There is a pretty limited set of jobs that can be done remotely, and an even smaller subset of those that pay all that well.

Once you’ve established that you have a job that can be done remotely, it’s time for part two: tell your boss you’re moving to Poland. At least, that’s more or less how it went for me. Small companies and startups with less formal processes and structure will be more amenable to this, so try thinking ahead and getting one of those jobs early.

But do you actually get any work done?

Yeah, totally. I’m lucky to have had experience freelancing, even if I’m now a regular-ass employee; it taught me to manage my time and work independently.

In my case, I’ve agreed to be available from at least 11:00-15:00 PST, which is 20:00-24:00 in Bosnia. I do the other four hours during the day sometime. That works great for me – I work better late anyhow.

Where do you live? Do you stay in hotels?

My wife and I live in AirBnbs (disclaimer: referral link. You get a $25 discount too though!). We’re lucky enough to be able to stand living in studio apartments together. Airbnb tends to be more expensive than the local price, naturally, but at the same time, I try to make sure I’m paying less than I was for rent at home. That sometimes means a one-room apartment, but hey, we don’t have much stuff. But, as long as there’s a kitchen and internet, it’s no problem.

Some countries are cheaper than others, of course. Here in Sarajevo, we have an apartment twice the size of our old one in Canada for 3/4 the price.

How long do you stay?

AirBnb places get a decent price break if you stay by the month, and visa regulations usually specify a max of around three months, so we usually stay about 2 to 2 1/2 months to be on the safe side and get some leeway. I much prefer staying in one place for a while – you can meet people, learn a bit of the language, and develop a familiarity with the place in two months. We’ve done short trips to other places to visit people, and have decided that a long stay is the way to go.

What did you pack?

Mostly just clothes and laptops, plus whatever small nicities (playing cards, international power adapters, makeup, notebook, the all-important Aeropress etc.) we can fit. We each have one carry-on-sized bag, plus a laptop bag. Usually we check the big ones, though, because who wants to be hefting all that into an overhead bin?

One tip: get those camping stuff sacks and put all your socks/underwear/t-shirts/towel in it. You can smash all that stuff down real small. Also, if you feel up to it, opt for a bag that doesn’t have wheels. It’s a lot easier to cut stuff if you know you have to physically carry it.

(Note that aggressive compression can make your small luggage very very heavy. If there’s anything more fun than lifting a 50lb bag into the overhead bin, it’s doing it while trying to pretend it’s not 3x the weight limit.)

What was the hardest part?

The hardest part was clearing out our old apartment. It wasn’t emotionally hard so much as actually difficult, but we managed. After all our stuff was gone and/or packed away, it became downright easy to move, and living out of suitcases isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds when people say it.

Seriously, our first thoughts were how staggeringly easy it came to just keep on living with less stuff in a foreign country in a small apartment. There are way, way worse things.

How do you meet people?

I am just the worst at meeting people, but that hasn’t stopped me. I especially try to hit up tech meetups and cheap conferences – software developers tend to speak English, and we already have something in common.

Also, by sheer and utter coincidence, EuroClojure 2014 was held in Krakow during the two months we were there, so I met a few people that way. Would recommend.

Besides that, just do your best to get out of the house. If you go to the same cafe for coffee every day, you’ll have friends by the time you leave.

Do you recommend it?

Absolutely. It may have only been six months, but I think we’ll be on the road for many, many more.