Some Reasons to Become a Literary Digital Nomad (Even If You Fail)
Tales From an Instagrammable Life Abroad
I. Live and work from anywhere
You think you’re going to travel the world and write and publish your pieces in glossy magazines and an agent will discover you and sign you and your book will arrive to a dazzling reception. You want to be like the writers you admire—Rhys, Hemingway, Orwell, Kerouac, Gellhorn—expat ones, the ones whom Stein befriended or who, in the case of Rhys, at least orbited close to Stein, through Ford.
You think you’re going to do this because all of the writers you love have done this, the older dead writers, not the living writers; most of the living writers seem to stay in one place for whole decades of their lives, as if writing takes something like concentration or routine, but who are you to say? You write sometimes and publish a bit and you might as well do it from somewhere exciting, might as well live the dream now instead of waiting for retirement, carpe diem and all that.
So you get a writing residency in Paris for three months. Three months! A free apartment! You don’t have an apartment anywhere right now, you are renting a room from a colleague at a California university where you teach a few English classes as an adjunct, renting the room month-to-month because you wait until the start of each new quarter to see if you’ll be offered classes to teach.
Sometimes they don’t have classes for you so you put your clothes and bedding in your Toyota Corolla and drive seven hours to your sister’s garage in San Diego and sleep on her couch. But then you come back in the fall. It has been like this for two years. You’ve also taught at a private high school, which was bad for numerous reasons, and which offered a pitiful salary, cloying community, the mirage of stability, and zero freedom.
Now, you have freedom. Now, you have no rent to pay, you have free healthcare through the state of California, you have no partner or children or pets, and you have $350 coming in each week from your other part-time job teaching two classes at an online university, where your students probably have no idea their instructor is paid $20 an hour to help them get credit toward a degree they hope will change their lives.
There are a few ways people try to change their lives, and one is through education or career, which is to say, finances. Another is travel, which is to say, love—the finding of it, or the testing of it.
You have $15,000 in savings and no debt, and this makes you feel incredibly wealthy, even though you are 34 and clearly have no idea about things like wealth. None of your friends talk about money that much, which keeps you in a bubble of naïve contentment. Your friends have husbands, babies, houses, tenure. You have $15,000 and you are going to Paris. To write.
II. Travel the world
This isn’t your first attempt. When you and your boyfriend set off for Colombia in June 2016, the intention is to live a few months at a time in different South American countries, eventually ending up in Spain. You are 32; he is 29. You have your savings from high school teaching, you have quit your job, you imagine you’ll pick up freelance writing or tutoring gigs in no time. You have sold your furniture, given up your New Orleans apartment, and packed your belongings into your car, where they will stay for the next three years. Your boyfriend wants to be a digital nomad and Instagram tells you to be a digital nomad and you think it’s the perfect way to focus on your writing, so now you want to be a digital nomad, too.You have never been more of a Jean Rhys character, moping around, depending on men for fancy dinners and trysts in velvet-walled hotel rooms.
For three weeks, you travel in Colombia. But you don’t really travel—you don’t enjoy the sights, make friends, discover neighborhoods, revel in the beauty. You are too busy fighting. You fight as you ride the funicular up Mount Monserrate in Bogotá, where you argue about his ex as you look out over the city from the side of the church, built in 1640, which you don’t even bother to enter. You fight about where to eat and what to do as you stroll through the Old Town in Cartagena.
You disagree about where to stay in Santa Marta and whether or not to wrangle a deal out of your AirBnb host by offering her cash in person. For a few days, you share this AirBnb with another American, a woman named Ish; the three of you go to dinner and to the beach, and when she gives you a dark red pill for the UTI riding its fiery wave through the vagina he once couldn’t wait to get into, she says, “He’s kind of a dick to you.”
When his friends meet you in Taganga you hardly register their presence, fueled as you are by rage and annoyance at this man you had been in love with and lived with and are only now beginning to see.
By the time you get to Minca, you are breaking. You spend a night hurling insults at each other and presumably straight through the thin partition separating his friends’ room from yours. In the morning, the other couple is gone. By the next day, so are you. With one final, tepid “I love you,” he puts you in a van headed down the mountain to Santa Marta’s airport. You are the last one in the van and you sit facing the back window, crying behind your sunglasses, as he becomes a smaller and smaller speck of the person you believed him to be.
After a short flight, you’ll be home in California, where you’ll start adjuncting at a university that you’ve already applied to. So you must have had a hunch.
You haven’t made it longer than three weeks as a digital nomad. You haven’t even made it to Medellín. But this is how the idea begins: it isn’t even your own.
III. Meet new people
It’s snowing in Paris when you arrive and it’s perfect, Paris is perfect in every way, even the way your heart is broken by a 27-year-old named Antoine you match with on Tinder who ghosts you after a month of dating is perfect, it’s nice to remember what it feels like to be so excited about a person is all.
He is entirely jawbone, so chiseled his face practically slices through the upturned collar of his pea coat. He is from Brittany. He has the best taste in music and introduces you to songs that become the soundtrack for your life. He watches the movie I, Tanya on a train and tells you he felt more empathy for Tanya Harding through Sufjan Stevens’ song for the film than the film itself. You hardly know him and of course he’s too young, what do you think will happen? But here he is in your studio apartment filling galettes with ham and cheese, an egg on top, drinking red wine, cooking crêpes for dessert, pretending to get on the elevator, kissing you in the hallway, and then he is inside you on your fold-out bed, kissing your body in a way you’ve only seen in romantic films, doing things to your body that no American man has ever done.
When he leaves your apartment abruptly one night and never texts again, you cry. The next day, you walk for three hours to the Eiffel Tower and back, and eat steak frites alone, trying not to cry on the restaurant’s terrace, realizing you are a 34-year-old woman, what are you doing alone in Paris, what are you searching for, even though you know, and the answer is something it seems every other woman has already found.
You wanted to write, but you haven’t. After Antoine, you busy yourself with Matteo, with Karl; you meet men on Tinder and in bars; you fall in friend-love with Carrie, an American poet who moved to Paris four years ago, who you knew in New Orleans and who leaps from acquaintance to best friend in a matter of weeks. You discuss writing, you go to readings, you are invited to participate in readings, you buy books at Shakespeare & Company and The Abbey and Berkeley Books, Matteo helps you get a year membership to the Bibliothèque nationale and you write a little beneath its painted ceiling, you do.
You sit at your computer a lot and sometimes you walk to Luxembourg Gardens to read, especially when the weather warms up in April. But mostly you grade your students’ work and think about how to make your life change course, into one where you don’t return to the U.S., where you find love with an angular, multilingual Frenchman who reads books on the métro.
But of course this doesn’t happen and you have never been more of a Jean Rhys character, moping around, depending on men for fancy dinners and trysts in velvet-walled hotel rooms, which is not what you claim to want but is what you end up getting, and we all know what they say about that.
IV. Become less materialistic
You travel with one carry-on-size suitcase and one backpack. Your wardrobe is so concise that dressing has never been easier. No need to be creative. You—a woman who always wears heels—buy your first pair of sneakers in Aix-en-Provence, white classic Reeboks, the kind all the cool French girls wear, and you have never felt such liberating comfort in your life. The things you have, you love.
In your sister’s apartment in San Diego, you cull through the clothing stored in luggage in your car; you whittle it down, you donate to Goodwill, you see it all for what it is: objects that made you feel better for a while.
V. Build your own life
In Marseille, every man you meet is named Sébastien and is divorced with two kids. The Sébastiens are all very nice. Some of them are more into you than others. They all speak English well. One has a motorcycle, which is fun, but another has a boat, so he wins. He is handsome, of course, though short. For two weeks, you are inseparable: sailing on the Mediterranean, sleeping at his house in a tiny village in Provence you’ve already forgotten the name of, making dinners at your AirBnb north of the port, planning future trips. You only wear flats. After two weeks he breaks up with you via a straightforward text stating that there is just something missing for him, leaving a sweater at your place that he will not pick up, as he never replies to you again.
You go to Prague, London, and Barcelona for short trips to meet friends from home—each a welcome reprieve from the loneliness you have cultivated. Carrie comes to Marseille from Paris and for one weekend you are deliriously happy, exploring Le Panier, sharing meals and afternoon pastis and evening bottles of wine.
When she is gone, Marseille is ugly again, but you must secretly love this, and there are moments—watching a sunset alone over the port, or the dark autumn light warming the terracotta buildings from your window’s view—where you want this, you really do, this solitude and adventure, this literary digital nomad life that you created for yourself, after all.
You read Duras’s The Sailor from Gibraltar and never has a book felt more fitting. You are the woman on the yacht, only your yacht is a series of AirBnbs in European cities, and your sailor from Gibraltar is not one man but any, and the stranger you’ve taken on board the yacht, loving you, yearning for you—that’s your writing, isn’t it?
You place the sweater on top of a trashcan when you leave the city after three months, a city that can’t compare to Paris and that you didn’t explore enough. You didn’t walk to the beach, you didn’t take the train to nearby towns, you only let the Sébastiens guide you around like a lost child. Some days, you didn’t leave the apartment.
VI. Never feel stuck in the same routines
You have spent three months in Paris, three months back in the states, three months in Marseille, and now you are back home but you don’t have a home. You need one. You have slept on your sister’s sofa, in your mother’s guest bedroom, in your father’s guest bedroom. All of your friends’ children have given up their beds for you, for days or weeks at a time. Your sister’s mailbox is your own; she mails or scans important documents for you. Your friends feed you meals and house you and, in return, you babysit. You are now 35. You have never felt so utterly dependent on the generosity of family and friends, so infantilized.
You don’t write much in this year. You are gathering experiences like a Hemingway or a Gellhorn, aren’t you. You are thinking about it, you’ll write tomorrow. More pressing is finding the next AirBnb, the next couch. Finding flights. Making arrangements. When Karl texts that he’ll be in Paris and you can come stay at his hotel, you are thrilled, and you buy train tickets. When he invites you to Milan, you can’t go—you’ll be headed to Barcelona to see friends, to sleep on a cot in their AirBnb—so you say no, though you will regret turning down the invitation.
Where you will go, when, with whom, how you will get there, where you will sleep, how much you can spend, where you will eat, who you will eat with—these details consume you. Plus, there is your online teaching, and some freelance work. Never before have you been so attached to your devices.
VII. Let go of what’s holding you back
In early 2019 you get an apartment in New Orleans, a low-income apartment. You prefer to call it an “artist loft” for obvious reasons. Running into old acquaintances from the 10 years you lived in the city, making plans with friends at a moment’s notice, staying in your apartment to write and work all day and not feeling bad about missing the sights: these things bring you unspeakable joy.
Six months pass in which you stay in one place, something you haven’t done for three years. You join a gym. You do yoga regularly. You actually write. You get more freelance clients. You have never felt so good. You have sex with three different men you have known for years, three acquaintance who seem excited—if only for a few weeks—by your return to the city, and then you cut each man off, saying you are looking for something serious, something very serious and very real.
But, also, you are going back to Paris in the fall. And Australia and Bali in the spring.
VIII. More opportunities to grow
Like a child’s rubber ball, you bounce in and out of places, people’s lives, possible futures. Will you ever stop bouncing? You fear you use people, taking what you can get from them, but you are trying to stop. You are fickle, capricious, distracted. You are aging. You are alone. You are still attractive, for now. You are on a yacht, looking for a sailor you once loved, a man you met in Paris, a love you imagine exists, you are steering in the dark, determined to get to a certain place though you can’t articulate where it is exactly, but you are writing your way there.
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