What I Learned from Life as a Solo Digital Nomad
After two years of lockdown, this past summer I finally felt boosted and safe enough to spread my wings and fly the coop. No two-week vacation for me. I wanted the life of a free-wheeling digital nomad. I can work and write from anywhere, so why not? I spent three months in France, followed by two months on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. I stayed in four different Airbnb guesthouses for four to five weeks each and in between I spent a total of three weeks traveling. Renting out my house in Portland while I traveled covered most of my expenses.
After two years of the same old sights in the same old city, being in a different country was freeing and liberating. I felt like a kid who’d run away from home to have a grand adventure. Every new scene, sound and scent filled me with gratitude. Every place I explored inspired me. Yet, there were challenges along the way. And those challenges ignited a journey inward to a better understanding of myself.
Before you grab your laptop and suitcase and take off to see the world, let me tell you about the ups and downs I experienced, what I learned and what I think are the keys to being a successful digital nomad.
Maintaining a good balance between work and travel is critical
I feed on new experiences and love to explore new places. Yet, I knew I needed to make progress on my blog, finances and several writing projects. For the most part, being in new surroundings didn’t interfere with my productivity. In fact, it was often an incentive. I’d spend the morning focused on my work, knowing that by 2 pm I’d spend the rest of the afternoon exploring a new village. Some days I’d work straight through the day and evening, knowing I’d be taking more time off on the weekend to attend events. This created a nice work/life balance.
Daily living in another country takes more time and effort
While most days I was able to achieve a good balance between work and play, doing daily errands and chores took more time than usual, especially in a country like France where I have yet to master the language. I know enough French to order in a restaurant or shop for vegetables at the weekly market. But even that takes practice time.
Supermarket shopping takes twice as long for three reasons. One, I have to stop and Google translate the labels. Two, there’s a learning curve in each supermarket for figuring out how the self-checkout works, how to purchase and return a shopping cart, and whether or not you have to weigh your fruits and vegies before going to the cashier. These things vary from store to store. Three, I love shopping at foreign supermarkets and can get lost for hours looking at all the different products.
Adaptability is key
I always say, as long as I have a comfortable chair and table in the shade where I can work on my laptop, I’m a happy camper. For the most part, I can settle in fairly easily. However, there is always a certain amount of adapting required to make the space fit my needs. While all the places I stayed at were nice, they weren’t necessary design for long-term stays. Each one required some modification — either to the place or to the way I live and work on a daily basis.
Certain things can be easily changed, such as the placement of small appliances and moving an abundance of tchotchkes off the counter so I have space to prepare meals. But I can’t change a rock-hard bed or furniture with a mildew odor. Just have to grin and bear it, and open a window.
Most of the places I stayed were on the small size and they all had small kitchens. I’m talking kitchens smaller than the one in my 700 square foot cottage in Portland. Preparing healthy meals was the biggest challenge. Often times the kitchen wasn't equipped with what I would consider essentials, like a potato peeler, a non-stick pan or a sharp knife. At home, I use over 20 spices and spice blends in my cooking. In most Airbnb accommodations it’s salt and pepper, if you’re lucky. I will definitely bring a traveling spice container on my next slow travel journey so I can at least have cinnamon, cumin, curry powder, chili powder and ras el hanout.
Much as I love being a digital nomad, I wouldn’t want to do it full-time
During my fourth month in Victoria BC, I was convinced this was the life for me and I could keep traveling forever. But by the fifth month in Courtenay, BC I was itching to be home in my own bed, to be cooking in my own kitchen and soaking in my own bathtub. Although, I love the lifestyle, I discovered that four months is my limit.
It might have been island fever as there wasn’t as much to do and see in Courtenay. While I loved being only a block from the sea, I felt a little cut off from the world. I'm quite sure I couldn't live on an island. But I knew that before I came.
When traveling solo, it’s important to spend time with friends and family
I enjoy traveling solo, but I also enjoy traveling with friends. Combining both alone time and friend/family time is the best of both worlds. In France, I got together once or twice a week with a local friend. And a friend from California joined me for a whole month. We enjoyed many day trips and a week-long road trip through Normandy.
In Canada I reconnected with friends in both Victoria and Powell River, just a short ferry ride from Courtenay. I also stayed in touch with friends via cellphone and WhatsApp. As a solo digital nomad, this balance between alone time and friend/family time is crucial. In fact, it’s important to have that balance in my life no matter if I’m travel or at home.
Solo travel helps me gain perspective
Being a digital nomad, even for a short period of time can be a journey of self-discovery. Although I didn’t have any major epiphanies, my journey did help me come to a better understanding of what I desire in a home, in a community and in a travel destination.
I learned that the key to being a happy solo, digital nomad is having a balanced life. A balance between work and play. A balance between alone time and being with friends. A balance between activities in nature and activities in a town or city. A balance between time at home and time on the road. And I realize I need this same balance in my day-to-day life.
As always, I was inspired by the kindness and generosity of the people of France. Spending three months in rural areas reinforced my love for the French countryside and my desire to return.
If you have the opportunity and the desire to be a digital nomad, by all means go for it. It might be your cup of tea, or it might not. You’ll never know until you try. One thing is for sure: you’ll be changed by the world around you. And you won’t regret it.
More scenes of Vancouver Island, BC below.