Being a nomad is a constant judgement call.
Every day, choices are made on which I have not nearly enough information. Is this bakery better than that? What toilet paper should I get? This yogurt doesn’t even list a fat percentage, will I like it?
Then there’s the bigger judgement calls on which so much rides. Is it a safe time to commit myself to three months in the Euro zone? After all, the last time I did that, my currency lost 15% value in the first three weeks.
Will that be a city I like? A culture I enjoy? A safe neighbourhood? Will the bed be suited to me? Will the pillow be lumpy? Will I get along with the host? Will my back survive? Will I like the stores nearby? (In Bucharest, I hated food shopping – the nearby choices were abysmal, and cooking sucked too, because my kitchens were awful. I can’t tell you how much that affects the ability to enjoy a place.)
Every single day, my life seems to have unknowns. Today I’m off to the osteopath. It involves a bus across town. Now, in what will be my fourth session, it’s a more comfortable excursion, but the first two times I was late – I’m NEVER late, I loathe lateness – and the second time I took the wrong bus. The latter was such a frustrating experience, I wanted to cry.
But that’s nomad life for you. A constant learning curve.
So, maybe that’s why I’ve decided I need a break from nomad life.
I return to Canada on April 22nd for over three months of catching up with friends and family in two provinces. At first, I was happy with that amount, but decided I wanted more – more Canada.
Poutine, maple syrup, grilled cheese sandwiches, autumnal leaves, constant apologizing, the smell of fresh-cut grass, a populace that understands lingo like the beloved “double-double”. I want more Canuckistan!
So I turned to a Canadian housesitter site and sought opportunities from July on. I spotted one in Ottawa in August. At first, I thought “Ugh, it’s another flight, it’s far from the West Coast, it’s…”
And then I realized, “But I’ve always wanted to see Ottawa.”
That’s when I considered my cousins, my aging aunts and uncles, my relocated friends I haven’t seen in years, and I figured housesitting there would mean I could then visit with family for a month or so afterwards. They’re all in Toronto. But then I realized I could stay in Ottawa for a while and see family over Christmas and several other times throughout a year.
The Italian Conundrum
The problem with being in a place like I am, here in Sicily, is that this is a real community, this neighbourhood. I’m not in a tourist hood, I’m an outsider here. Everyone knows each other. They have routines. They chat in the streets, they shout from windows across the lanes. They back-slap, cheek-kiss, and smile. They hurl exclamations and fist-punch the air, gesticulating wildly, as Italians do.
I may not know what they’re saying, but I know what they’re doing – they’re enjoying each other and celebrating community. They’re being a tribe.
Last week, participating on a panel in Ricky Shetty’s Digital Nomad Mastery Virtual Conference emphasized some themes that have echoed loudly in my head of late. (If you want to nomad, check out the conference videos – there are all kinds of topics for you to watch free, from home schooling to making income.)
Like I said on the panel, being a nomad is wonderful in a lot of ways, but it’s so exhausting and it takes such a toll on the body, and you got no tribe to get you through it, not really. Emotionally, that can be so hard.
Mental Health: It’s a Thing
I’ve been writing a book on going nomadic and I have a section on the traveller’s mental health. Here’s an excerpt:
Many of us find that “living the dream” means we’re never allowed to complain, we’re not taken seriously when having a bad day, and people dismiss us as whiners who don’t realize how good we have it. I’ve said this since I left Canada nearly three years ago — living this life doesn’t make real life go away, it just makes it weirder when it all goes wrong.
“I’m having such a terrible day, I’m so sad” is the kind of comment that gets met with “But you’re in Greece! Cheer up! You could be stuck here with us.” It’s dismissive, it’s insulting, and it happens every time a nomad complains about their life. “But you’re abroad! You’re so lucky! I wish I was you!”
Sometimes, I want a megaphone so I can shout, “My feelings are valid too!”
It’s hard to explain how often this is a reality. There are so many times where just weird little things can leave me feeling extremely sad. A smell in the air, a family in the street, a song in a café – they all remind me how far I am from people I care about and from people who I can speak to without language challenges and complexities. And I can’t phone up my friends and say, “Hey, wanna go to a movie this week?” so I get some human engagement in. Even phoning someone is hard because their time zone is nine hours off of mine!
But if I complain about it, I hear how I’m in Italy, I should enjoy it. Guess what? It could not possibly be clearer to me that I’m in Italy. Know how I know? The cheese, the wine, the people, the smells, the noises, and YET, yeah, I’m having a day, and your reminding me that I’m in Italy isn’t helping me process that “so far from home” feeling I have. You’ve just added to it, thanks!
Most days, I’m fine, but I’m finding that, more often, more frequently, isolation and feeling forlorn are an undertone throughout my day.
It’s not depression, it’s that lack of tribe. I just need some Canadians for a while. I need my language around me.
When Words Don’t Work
I can’t explain how hard it is, as someone communicates for a living, what it’s like to go through day after day after day not being understood and having to shrug it off.
My friends and followers laugh about it and talk about their cute little struggles with Google Translate for that two-week trip they took. Okay, I’m glad it amused you on your trip, but dude, it’s been THREE YEARS. I’ve had THREE YEARS of people not understanding me.
Even when I went home to Vancouver last year, I went for a haircut and the Japanese stylist turned out to not know English and I wanted to cry. Here I was in my hometown and I still wasn’t understood. No small-talk for me. It’s incredible how much I miss small-talk with strangers sometimes. (You know who’s great at small-talk with folks on the street? THIS CHICK. Not in Europe, though, because no one understands me.)
Still, I stuck it out, got the haircut, then went to a café to listen to English conversations for a while.
The constant language challenge abroad dogpiles onto that nearly endless sense of aloneness and isolation and removal.
People say, “Oh, learn the language.” What, for the six weeks I’m here before I move to another country where there’s a new language to learn? I know, like, 15 phrases or something. Do you have meaningful conversations with just 15 phrases? I live in a revolving door of languages and cultures.
I’ve been absent from All Things English-Speaking since October 10, 2017, and it’s just weighing on me of late. It’s nearly 14 months since I was in my beloved Canada. Since then, it’s been Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Serbia, and Croatia. Not a single English-speaking country among them.
And Then There’s the Body
Some days, it’s a case of “too old for that shit.” Like with my back injury that dates to mid-July and how much it hampered my ability to enjoy myself. Some days, I’m just done, man. Done.
While my back is much improved, I want to be somewhere I can have a fitness routine – a focus on wellness. Stores where I know I’ll get X ingredients for Y prices. Public pools at a fixed distance, a bed I can rely on for back support.
I can’t even tell you how exciting the idea of a routine is. Swimming on Tuesdays. Cheap movie night. A favourite pizzeria on Sundays for an afternoon of writing over wine. Photowalks with friends. Maybe join a Toastmasters Club or something.
And oh, owning kitchen gadgets again. What a thought! I COULD BUY AN INSTANT POT. *gasp*
But, mostly, I just want a consistent schedule, so exercise becomes a regular routine. As someone who battles attention issues, every time I change cities, my exercise routine goes out the door.
So, Ottawa, Then
After spotting that housesitting gig, I really pondered Ottawa. I looked it up some more, from price points to culture to food. I recalled 2011, when I decided to leave Vancouver – my research then led me to conclude only three cities in Canada could meet my needs: Victoria, Halifax, and Ottawa.
I know Ottawa would be brutal for winter – one friend is trying to dissuade me on that basis alone, but it’s like I told her: After what will have been four years of constant newness and travel by that point, the idea of hibernating for half a winter and getting all my groceries and vices delivered to me while I exercise indoors, read and write, well… that’s not in the least unappealing! Fat pants and slippers for two straight months? Nothing new? No stimulation? My own bed? Heating I can actually control unlike the fabled “central heating” I was supposed to have in Bulgaria in November? Good God, YES! PLEASE, YES.
Other people go to bed dreaming of hot sex and exotic experiences, I go to bed dreaming of a pillow I like and a duvet I’m not ambivalent about wrapping around my face because I’m the one who took it out of the package and no one else has ever used it! Rawr! Fluffiness that is mine, all mine!
Sure, I’ll still be removed from a lot of my close friends, so it’ll still be a kind of nomadic experience as I learn about a new part of Canada, but… I’m gonna set down roots for at least 12, maybe longer, months in Ottawa.
I will buy actual furniture! I’ll splurge on a wool duvet and a crazy-nice pillow! I’ve been lusting after IKEA furniture options for days now. (But only for basics. I love second-hand shops for funky things.)
But Wait, There’s More
Lest you think that’s the end of Steff as a nomad, well, guess what?
I’ve already looked up storage prices for Ottawa. I can justify paying for storage a year at a time if it means I get to have a homebase periodically.
I do still consider living abroad after I’m done being a nomad. Greece holds much allure for me for a year or two of living. Kalimera! Spanakopita… mmm! Efkaristo! Yassas!
But there’s something I’ve learnt as I travelled – as many expats as one meets, one also meets countless people who’ve left their home country for 5, 10, 15, even 20 years, and eventually had to return. Why? Because there’s something inexplicably integral about our history, our culture, our food, our music. People may appreciate it when they visit, but it’s never theirs in the way that it’s ours.
Take the Tragically Hip, for instance. Gordon Downie’s death shattered me in Thailand and reminded me of how far away from home I was. Even if I’d met some Thai person that night who was a massive Gord fan, they’d never understand my love for him in the same way. They’d never relate to what it’s like to sit in a little Hyundai under the Northern Lights in the Yukon, idling the engine in -25 winter weather, blasting the song “Cordelia” on repeat five times in a row, shouting the lyrics. They won’t understand that the song’s about another great Canadian cultural contribution, the book Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. They won’t be able to imagine the feeling of a BC interior summer night on Seabird Island, surrounded by mountains as Gord monologues his way through “New Orleans is Sinking” under a Milky Way sky.
There are simply experiences that are Canadian that will always, always leave me feeling warm and happy inside. You have to go away long enough, sometimes, to realize that either you need that element of where you’re from, or you don’t.
So many expats return to their home countries because there’s a kind of outsiderness that never leaves you when abroad. Sometimes, I absolutely love that outsiderness. Here, I lean over my balcony and watch as the street sellers shout and kids play and teenagers smoke, and I love the removal of not being a part of that world, of just observing it and living on its peripheries. But I’m also wishing I was home, too, because I see Christmas lights going up and can’t help thinking how I may not even find the ingredients to make a tourtière pie for myself for the holidays, and gosh, how I wish I could. I will try, but I fear tourtière isn’t happening, malheuresment. (They have different kinds of flour here. I’ll have to break out the Google Translate.)
All This And More on News Centre at 11
Then there’s the news, the constant stream of world news.
In a time where extremism and hate and racism are on the rise everywhere, especially in Europe, I see my multicultural Canadian experience as being more important to my soul and my emotional well-being than it’s ever been. I want to be in a place that celebrates culture and community. I want to be in Canada.
But a travel future lingers regardless. South America awaits. Africa awaits. India awaits. And I’ll always want to be a slow traveller, because two weeks just doesn’t cut it, so that storage price matters.
For now, though, I want some fluffy pancakes with maple syrup. I want squeaky cheese curds. I want clean streets, neighbourhoods full of crazy contrasting smells – from Gwailo Chinese food to the wafting curries of India and Thailand to simmering spaghetti sauce and barbecued burgers. I want to get on a bus and feel like I walked into the United Nations. I want my hands on that new $10 bill featuring Black civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond, who stood up for herself in Eastern Canada over a decade before Rosa Parks sat down on the bus and set America alight.
I love to travel. I want to devour the world. I want to see more. But in 2020/2021, because I need that break. Sometimes we need to go home to realize how far we’ve been.
It’s like I commented on Facebook: I can’t write a book of all the places I’ve been while I’m so wrapped up in where I am and where I’m headed.
I need stillness and boredom and comfort, and then I can write what needs to be written. And I can’t wait. And whether the housesit happens or not, Ottawa will. For several months now, I’ve been considering how and where to take a prolonged break. Finally, somewhere feels right and that somewhere is Ottawa.
Nine months to go until I get to build IKEA furniture and scour second-hand shops for funky finds!
#travellingabroad #digitalnomad #mentalhealth #takingabreak