As of now, I have been living abroad for a year and a few odd days.
Living abroad was a goal I’ve been working towards since I was about thirteen. I went to see Prince Caspian in theatres and Ben Barnes was so hot I immediately decided to become an actress and move to LA so that I could also kiss hot guys on screen.
Obviously my priorities have slightly changed since even though the goal never did.
A year ago, I left for Poland to finish my university degree on an internship abroad, and I’ve been gone ever since with no end in sight. Luckily, being a digital nomad these days is easier than ever, and I’m lucky enough to have a profession that allows me to work remotely.
But the life of a digital nomad is not all beach terrace offices and inspiring co-working spaces. (Currently typing this crouched in a Quasimodo position in a very low bottom bunk in a hostel dorm room.) These are a few things that I never even thought about before moving abroad.
People assume you hate your home country.
‘Oh, you’re not living in Finland anymore? Too cold for you, huh?’
No, not really. Wait, no – actually yes, it is very much too cold for me. And dark. And depressing. Honestly, there are a lot of things I don’t like about Finland (even though I constantly declare it as the best country in the world).
However, it’s not that I don’t want to live in Finland; it’s just that I want to live somewhere else. It may be a little bit paradoxical but that’s all there is to it.
Finland is great. Ya’ll should visit sometime.
My travel library is extremely limited
One of the things I miss most from my life in Finland are the public libraries. SO MANY BOOKS AND ALL FOR FREE. I used to love walking down the aisles, just touching the backs of books that looked interesting, reading the occasional back cover trying to decide what to pick up. Often I left with a bag full of books even when I’d only come in for one and knew I’d never have time to finish all of them. But IT WAS SO EASY.
Now I don’t even know where my closest library is. Do they even stack English-language books? Even if they do, I’ve pretty much had to give up the idea of reading in Finnish, at least if I want to keep reading physical versions of books – which I much prefer to digital versions.
Besides, how would I even go about borrowing books if I’m only in one place for a few days? While I travel, I’m mostly at mercy of whatever hostel book exchanges have to offer. Sometimes they’ve got gold (I picked up my first Graham Greene at a hostel in Cambodia!) but often it’s a ragtag collection of titles you’ve never heard of, and half of them are in Norwegian.
Dumbledore speaks Spanish now
Small culture shocks turn out to be the most impactful.
The bigger culture shocks you get used to quickly. Almost got run over by a tuktuk transporting five goats and a family of six? Ah, classic India. Just bought a SIM card using hand gestures and the two words you know? That’s just Polish life.
But when you go and try to do something perfectly normal and everyday-like, you’re suddenly faced by the looming impossibility of it.
I love cooking Asian inspired food, but when I moved to Poland, I couldn’t find good spices anywhere. I once wandered around a Carrefour for an hour, trying to find some coconut cream until I gave up and just chose the jar of the thickest coconut milk I could find.
Recently I wanted to go see the newest Fantastic Beasts movie. (Spoiler alert: Don’t do it.) But surprise – my local movie theatre only offers the version dubbed in Spanish. And now my choices are between skipping the flick or suffering through a couple of hours of Dumbledore speaking Castellan.
Somehow these small details bother me more than the big things. I guess it’s all about comfort. Big changes are easier to tackle when you still have something familiar to grab onto, but when even the smallest things turn strange, it feels like being trapped in a parallel universe where everything seems just slightly off.
Getting work has NOT been easy
Ask anyone in a digital nomad Facebook group, and they’ll say making a living online while you travel is simple and anyone can do it. Ask anyone who actually cares about telling you the truth and they’ll say it isn’t easy, it isn’t simple, and the competition is fierce.
I can’t even imagine what it would be like trying to get a full-time income from online endeavours alone. The travel blogging industry is very oversaturated, and setting yourself apart from the millions of other blogs on the interwebs takes a lot of time, money and 16-hour work days that I, honestly, haven’t had the motivation to pursue yet. Apparently only 1% of travel bloggers actually get full-time income from their blogs; for the rest, it’s more like a side business.
Of course having a travel blog helps as a portfolio, and it can land you gigs in writing, social media marketing and online editing with companies, but all those Heidi Klum-esque Instagram models telling you how they quit their job to travel the world and you can do too? Yeah, it’s not that simple.
I am lucky enough to have a degree and a profession to support myself while I’m travelling; a big reason I wanted to become a translator was the possibility to be location independent. But even with my credentials I have had difficulties finding work. Recently, a company turned down my application for a freelance translator position because my qualifications were not good enough. Mind you, this is coming from a company who required their candidates to “Have a strong interest for languages” and was advertising on a platform for university students. I guess I’ll just take my Masters Degree and previous experience with me then, thanks.
Luckily, I’ve had a pretty steady stream of work coming from one agency, and hopefully more work from another one as soon as we manage to sign contracts; but it took three months and emails to over 50 agencies to get to this point.
Wait Trump did what?
Falling out of the news cycle – and forgetting about pop culture happens way too much.
Intense travelling often means ignoring news, either on purpose or accidentally. It sucks but look, I sometimes even forget to call my family for a week. It happens.
If you previously loyally read the paper every morning at breakfast, now social media and your travel buddies become your main news source. Sometimes you might even miss a very important piece of news, just because you weren’t following along.
And for someone who used to be able to name a full cast of a movie I’d never even seen, it’s a bit tough not even knowing which movies are Academy nominated this year.
(I still haven’t even seen the newest Star Wars!)
The government thinks you are confusing and you should probably go back to Finland
Being a digital nomad these days is so easy, right? Everyone is doing it, right?
Being a digital nomad might not be exactly rare anymore, but the Finnish government still doesn’t know how to deal with it. I guess there aren’t too many digital nomads from Finland and because of this, all government officials that I’ve talked to have been at loss with what to do to me as I keep calling them and asking for help.
I couldn’t get a travel insurance through my bank – which I’d previously done – because my old insurance expired while I was in Poland and despite previous information from them, they wouldn’t get me a new insurance while I was already abroad. As I’m currently working in Spain for a Spanish employer, I am considered to belong in the Spanish social security system but no one seems to know what’s going to happened once I leave from here. Do I get my Finnish social security back? Meanwhile, I still continue to pay taxes to Finland for my remote work.
So many people these days seem to be into the whole digital nomad scene; it never even crossed my mind how much of a bureaucratic mess this lifestyle could be.
Living minimalistically has not, actually, made me less attached to material possessions
When you’re living out of a 40-litre backpack and all your outfits are pretty much just remixes of the same skirt, jeans and three shirts, you’d think material possessions would stop mattering. Nope.
All of last summer, I kept dreaming of the clothes I knew I had in cardboard boxes at my parents’ place and how I was going to wear them again once I got back home. I missed my favourite dresses and shirts like I missed Finnish chocolate. And the first thing I did when I got to Spain and knew I was going to be on a standstill for a few months? I went shopping.
Maybe I’m just obsessed with my clothes?
To be honest, I still don’t own a lot of stuff. Everything that’s not haphazardly thrown around my current hostel room fits in three boxes at my parents’ place. But when I see pictures of people’s bookshelves that cover the whole damn wall, I get SO JEALOUS.
Is the digital nomad lifestyle worth it?
Since I last visited Finland, I’ve watched my best friend get a puppy, my university friend group plan and celebrate countless parties, my parents renovate my childhood home and my sister start at a new job. Life passes on for them like that, every day, and even though these changes might seem tiny and commonplace, they are steps towards the life they are building for themselves that I’m not a part of anymore.
Sometimes it’s hard to sit by and see life move past me. It’s ironic; I’m living the kind of life a lot of people dream about with all of its adventure and excitement and I still sometimes crave the normalcy of a night in with Netflix and getting white girl wasted with my friends like I did when I was 20. There’s no denying that.
And I guess travelling can be a selfish choice as well. I know (I hope?) that my friends and family miss me too and wish that I could be a bigger part in their everyday lives. Instead, I’m just doing what I want.
But despite all the hardships and loneliness and occasional homesickness, this is a life I’ve made for myself. I am proud of it. I am proud of myself for being brave enough to do what I always dreamed of and making it work.
Life will always suck a little bit. I have problems now, and I had problems when I was still living in Finland. But overall, I am happy.
Maybe one day I will get sick of constantly moving around, arguing with my insurance company and sleeping in hostel dorms with snorers and drunks; but that day is not yet.
Did you ever live abroad? What shocked you the most?