What nobody ever tells you about being a digital nomad

When I tell people what I am doing currently, and what I have been doing this past half-year or so, I always get the same variation of a response – “You are living your best life”/”Oh my god, I am so jealous”/”I wish I was you.”

What I’m doing, and what I have been doing since August, is working remotely for charities, part-time, whilst hopping around Europe. With a limited wardrobe packed into a 48L Osprey Kestrel rucksack, and comforted by a small financial safety net available to dip into every so often if ever the need arises, I have jumped from city to city across the continent.

These last seven-and-a-half months have seen visits to Bosnia, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, UK, Spain, Czech Republic, Poland, Greece and now Albania. I can see why my life may be appealing to others.

I’d like to think I am making the most of my time and the opportunity of working from anywhere that has a decent internet connection and is relatively close to Greenwich Mean Time. And, of course, I have actively made these decisions to relocate fortnight after fortnight and month after month. Nobody has forced me, so clearly in some respects, I do think this is what’s best, because otherwise I would simply choose to do something else.

So, before we delve into the less glamorous side of digital nomadding, the murk and grime that comes with the world being your oyster, I want to be clear, I don’t regret my decisions.

But the hyperbolic, outspoken jealousy of colleagues and friends and these constant envious glances from outsiders gets you thinking – am I having the time of my life? Is this an amazing experience? And more importantly, am I happy?

I am not sure when the travel bug bit me, but I have been infected ever since. I love travelling. Asking me to stay in one place for more than 6-months is like asking me to lock myself in a cage. Routine becomes a prison guard smacking your shins with the truncheon of mundanity day after day. I have found that life gets stale very quickly when I am not on the move, exploring and learning.

There is so much to love about this lifestyle. The opportunity to experience new cultures, eat new food, and visit beautiful and ancient sites. It gives you an excuse to discover and read literature from their authors and to dive into the history of a place that was until recently just another name on a map.

There are also the less obvious benefits. You learn from the independence you have given yourself, questioning beliefs, seeing fresh perspectives, and reflecting on your own life and actions.

Life becomes less the daily struggle against the grind of the rat race and more an open-source adventure to amaze and educate. No two weeks are the same, everything is fresh, and around each corner lies an unknown.

Life is good right now, and almost completely stress-free. Honestly, some of the toughest decisions I have made in the past few months have been where to go for lunch, which Airbnb has the best location, or when is the weather worst this week so that I don’t miss out on the sunshine by planning a trip to a museum or art gallery.

These are my life struggles, very much my first-world problems.

On paper, such nomadding is far better than the alternative of remaining “at home” in the UK. Just imagine hunting for an empty bedroom and moving into a house of strangers; having to pay as much as £1,000 on rent, bills, and council tax each month; having to put up with the grey, wet weather; watching a zombie government slide increasingly to right-wing politics as the country crumbles; being overcharged for every mediocre service or product… I could go on.

Faced with those options, why on earth would anyone choose the latter?

But here is the truth. Here is what you don’t hear and what you don’t see about life via the departure lounge, beyond the YouTube vloggers and TikoTok influencers, and behind the polished Insta posts. The reality is that this global Airbnb tour of a life can be incredibly lonely.

I read a book a few months ago that said being a digital nomad is “the freedom to not see your friends” and it dawned on me that I had never heard a more accurate description.

This powerful summation stuck with me.

Of course, seeing friends isn’t an impossibility. I have benefited from the geography and flight paths of European airlines, and it means that travel between the UK and wherever I may be based isn’t going to break the bank. This means friends can come and visit, or I can agree to meet them somewhere on the road. It may be the same for you.

There is also the chance you could luck out and make friends in your new home away from home, but by and large, to be a digital nomad is to be away from your nearest and dearest, and relegate relationships to shallow never-ending WhatsApp threads and weekly phone calls.

It can be this, and it can be even worse, because unless you are doing your nomadding with a partner, you are not only missing your friends, you will be missing companionship entirely, and you will be on this journey completely alone.

Some may call it independence, but sometimes isolation is the most appropriate term. Because the truth is that sometimes, paradise can feel like hell if there is nobody there to share it with you.

I go through swings of emotion when I travel. Some days – most days to be fair – are good. To put it on a scale, I seem to be a constant six or seven out of 10, content with my life of travel and solitude. I am pleased to have my own space and time where my various habits, quirks, and interests can find a home without interfering with or being inhibited by others.

But every so often, the scales flip, and there will be a day of feeling very alone. A day which ranks as two or three on the same scale.

It’s difficult to describe what this feeling is without repeating the words “lonely” or “isolated.”

It’s not lost, it’s not quite forgotten, overlooked, or irrelevant. It’s the feeling that you have a spare ticket for an event and nobody to give it to. The sinking disappointment in your heart when you realise these memories are being shared with nobody else. It’s the look of wonder you have on your face when you discover something magical in your latest city, and then turn to see nobody standing beside you experiencing the same joy. It’s the knowledge that you could sit in this coffee shop or lie on your sofa for five, six, seven hours and nobody will know, nobody will suggest an activity and nobody will start a conversation.

I guess there is an invisibility to it. As if you don’t really matter that much to anyone and that because you are alone, clearly nobody matters that much to you.

When I am not working and attending a few MS Teams meetings, there are days whereby I may say less than 20 words, and certainly less than 50. It’s like being a woman in Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. And if we only include words directly aimed at me, and so discount Spotify, YouTube and the like, I will hear a similar amount.

A recent get-together with Laura in Athens made me aware that I hadn’t had an actual conversation with someone since mid-January two-and-a-half months earlier.

Weeks pass where there is no physical human connection at all. There are no hugs and no handshakes. It’s not until I have a reunion with a friend that I actually feel human skin other than my own.

I don’t think any of this comes as a revelation to me. It’s more reinforcement of what I have long known.

I am an introvert. Parties are awkward for me until I am drunk enough or comfortable enough to mingle, networking events are completely horrific. I like my own space and privacy, and after too much time in company, I need to get away to recharge. In terms of relationships, I have spent most of my life alone, only achieving a romance of more than 12-months in length on two occasions, and both of those occurred around a decade ago.

Sandwiched in between these two relationships, was a 6-month stint living and volunteering in Turkey. It was there that I stumbled upon a belief which has yet to be disproven: true happiness is only real when shared. There were periods of that brief Turkish chapter of my life which were intensely lonely. There was essentially no purpose for me being there and I had only the most limited, shallow acquaintances, more through necessity than choice. The freedom I had largely became a curse.

Holidays to Costa Rica and Belize half a decade later provided another reminder of this. By all counts, Costa Rica is a far superior place to visit than its nearby neighbour Belize, but my happiest moments from this chapter are all from the crime-riddled former British colony where I reunited with Jack, Callum, and Ben and not the exotic rainforested Latin utopia to its south.

A few years later, Lebanon and my brief few days stopover in Cyprus likewise provided another reminder of what I had discovered in Turkey. As incredible as Beirut was, with its anti-government protests, its chaotic downtown bars and cafes, and its rich and tragic history, I felt sad because I wasn’t sharing these moments with anyone. I remember one evening in particular, in the picturesque city of Byblos, a UNESCO World Heritage site up the coast from the capital, I was walking the cobbled streets and longing for my friend Jeff to be alongside me so we could just pop into a bar to sit and laugh and chat whilst the sun set.

A year or so after that, escaping from London for a long weekend in the midst of Covid and its various lockdowns, I committed to never travelling alone again. It’s a commitment that obviously hasn’t stuck, but I arrived at this decision when I found myself sitting alone, crying in a café in Dumfries.

I think the main reason that I failed to honour my Dumfries pledge to never travel alone was due to fear, in particular, the fear of missing out. It’s an extension of the knowledge of my own mortality, and that the time we have on this planet is finite. That fear pushes me and means that I’d rather go alone and face the problems I know I will encounter than not go at all.

People have their own lives, their own commitments, their own priorities, and their own limitations. If you need to wait for a friend before committing to doing something or taking advantage of an opportunity, less than half of what you hope to do will ever occur.

For most of my life, the choice has been to go alone or don’t go at all. And for most of my life, I’ve chosen the former.

An anchor in the chosen destination can provide a route into an existing social network. Your nomadding will be a lot less lonely if there is already a friend who lives and works there and can introduce you to people and open the door to a community or group. Cowling provided that for me when I went to visit him in Sarajevo recently. Looking back at my diary, these were some of my happiest moments of the last seven-months. So much so that it prompted me to extend my stay in the city, and even to return long after he has gone.

This transitory nature of nomadding is a problem in itself. Without that anchor, you are always just passing through and because of this, by not committing to a decent time – three months or more – in each of these destinations the likelihood of really connecting and finding a small community to be a part of is almost non-existent.

I can feel settled in a matter of days, once my bags have been dumped and half-emptied, essential shopping has been bought, and the immediate neighbourhood explored, I am done. But a fortnight here, followed by three weeks there, and another 10 days somewhere else is a shallow lived experience. It offers only limited connection, no community, and then you pack up and move on again.

You become like a seed blowing in the wind, never anywhere long enough to lay down its roots, grow, and create a legacy. A therapist I saw for a few months helped to bring this point to my attention.

Without local colleagues, deprived of friends, and existing relatively off-grid with little or no social media, here is where the dating apps inevitably whisper their empty promises in your isolated ear.

The relationship apps of Hinge and Bumble and the more casual app of Tinder hold the unspoken potential of finding fun for a night, an interesting conversation for an afternoon, or shit, maybe even the love of your life if you truly invest in the idea that you are the protagonist in a Hollywood RomCom.

But the reality of apps is that the casual will always leave you feeling unfulfilled, and the substance will never be realised because, let’s face it, who wants to meet a tourist for a drink or coffee, even if you do offer to buy it?

And of course, I understand that. For those locals who are on whatever your preferred app may be, it’s highly unlikely you are going to appeal to them. Not because of your looks, or humour, or career, but because they don’t want to babysit a foreigner for an afternoon or an evening. They are on those apps for a reason, they have criteria, and frankly, you’re unlikely to be it.

The idea that you can rock up in a foreign city for a week or a fortnight and find someone that will satisfy that longing you have, that emptiness or even just your horniness, is largely a fiction. A fairy-tale storyline for Netflix shows or a porn scene.

Dating apps, especially when you are not settled in one location for a long period of time, are a casino – you know you won’t hit the jackpot, but you pull that lever and participate for the thrill of “but what if…” What if I meet this attractive, smart Greek/Albanian/Croatian/[insert nationality]…

But the reality is, you won’t. You’re wasting your time, and you’re priming your brain for disappointment, thus deepening the sense of isolation you carry with you like the 15kg backpack that holds your nomadic life.

I am writing this partly to remind myself of this fact, as a warning not to get sucked in, and to avoid such fairy-tale thinking.

I guess the clue is in the name “dating apps”, but all of them offer a travel option or the chance to change your geographic location in advance of a holiday. They may not market their product specifically for this purpose, but all of them are aware people look to use it this way.

Fuelled by the rise of social media and its underlying encouragement to transform your life from an experience to be lived into a brand to be shared or imitated, supported by airlines offering affordable flights to any destination on earth, and with tourism becoming a multi-billion-pound industry contributing 10% of global annual GDP, travel is at risk of being transformed into a product like any other. Marketed, sold, and consumed.

To travel just to say that you have been there and “done” that city or country, to “tick it off” some list you have compiled, or to fulfil the latest craze of having that particular photo in that particular Instagrammable location, that is a sickness. To treat any part of life as a checklist is to relegate the beauty of existence and experience.

If you were to ask for my advice, a lesson from the book of Nomad Pad, my recommendation would be to travel with people you love, and if you have to travel alone, choose a destination and spend a prolonged period of time there. Make sure it is long enough to connect with other people and long enough to at least get a sense of community and integrate.

I have found that purpose and companionship are the only things that will quench the thirst of isolation. It is no coincidence that some of my happiest memories and some of the chapters of my life where I have felt most fulfilled contain one or both of these elements.

I’d hazard a guess it will be the same for you.

Perhaps these ramblings on loneliness, travel, and dating apps speak to a wider issue. Perhaps it is a commentary on humanity as a species and the key takeaway is something altogether more positive than a “woe is me, I travel Europe and it makes me sad” whine.

Perhaps the key message is that these feelings highlight an innate desire and an intrinsic need for humans to share enjoyment, richness, and experiences with one another. Perhaps the rise of vloggers and influencers is the hijacking or inevitable corruption of a most basic and fundamental human characteristic – a deep-rooted longing to not feel alone, to love and be loved.

True happiness is only real when shared.


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