On Community, Country Counting, and Learning to Love Where You Are
I will be perfectly honest with you. As my time in Finland drew to a close, I dreamed of becoming one of the increasingly ubiquitous digital nomads. Returning home to the United States seemed tired and boring. I wanted to explore far-flung regions of the world and have more adventures. I didn't want to be tied down. I wanted to live in locations cheap enough (aka almost nowhere in the United States) where I could continue to build my freelance career instead of returning to an office job. And I feared I couldn't be a "real" travel blogger if I lived in one place—let alone a place as unexotic as the U.S.
I researched a few of my favorite possibilities - Ecuador, Colombia, and Romania were at the top of my list - and pitched it to my husband. I envisioned a resounding yes and being whisked away on the 21st century version of a white horse—a shiny white jet. But he said, to be frank, that it was just not a possibility. He had this pesky PhD thing to finish.
I was upset. He was upset that I was upset. And there were lots of heated discussions and tears for a few weeks. We'd both forgotten that, while being married means having someone to share life's adventures with, you still have to agree on what that adventure looks like and the practicalities of where it will take place. I think negotiating that is harder for millennials than any generation before. So many of us are in dual-career marriages, and our ambitions and the job market do not make it easy.
After weighing what was best for him, best for me, and best for our marriage, we ultimately decided to move back to Atlanta. I'm writing this, in fact, from the patio of our new apartment—computer placed carefully in the sea of yellow pollen that coats everything in the South during the spring. And now that we're back here, I'm so very glad we made this decision to come home.
It seems everyone these days dreams of leaving where they are. The appeal of becoming a digital nomad is, largely, not just that you will live abroad but that you will constantly move. And this freedom is often depicted as The Way to find truth and beauty and who you really are. A modern-day spiritual quest, if you will.
But I think we've forgotten how radically, deeply, and uncomfortably we have to face ourselves when we don't leave, don't move, and just stay put. The places where we are—wherever that might be—have just as much power to shape and transform us as those shiny new places somewhere far away. Maybe more. Just like buying that new bikini isn't going to magically turn us into a perfectly-bronzed mermaid goddess, moving to a new city doesn't wondrously turn us into a better, happier version of ourselves. You still have to come to terms with who you are, who you aren't, and who you want to be. You still have to show up and do the work of struggling through that messy process. You still have to find joy with where you are.
In this era of constant stimulation, I believe we should think critically about counting destinations as if they were prizes and country-hopping faster than we scroll through our Instagram feeds. It can feel claustrophobic and downright boring to stay in the same place for too long. But how else do you get to experience more than the adrenaline rush, the highlights, and the perfect photo-worthy moments? How do you ever get to truly know a place—or yourself—if you never confront the mundane, the everyday, and the ugly? In our frenzy to see.all.the.things we often miss the chance to enjoy and become immersed in where we are.
Perhaps most importantly, to me, is that by staying put I can become a part of a community. I can better understand the problems it faces, volunteer with organizations I'm passionate about, and get involved. I can work on making a difference. It's fashionable, in different circles, to both pursue voluntourism and to make fun of those who pursue voluntourism. But if we're completely candid, it still isn't quite fashionable to do the nitty gritty work of creating communities where we are. This is true for both domestic volunteerism, which still fails to compete with the heartstring pull of helping "those people over there," and the not-very-exciting daily work of just showing up and being a good neighbor and friend.
To be clear, I am not saying that everyone who is a digital nomad is running away from themselves. I am not saying nobody should do it. And I am certainly not saying that you should stick to a regular job and give up on your dreams to travel and explore the world.
But for those of you who can't or don't want to pursue being a digital nomad, it doesn't make you any less of a global citizen. For those of you, like me, who have spouses and families that can't just pick up and go, it's important to remember that it isn't the only way to see the world. There are so many places to explore right in our own backyards. Take advantage of them! Remember that travel, like almost everything in life, is about quality over quantity. It's about the depth of your experiences and using it to expand your view of the world, of other cultures, and of yourself. Nobody wins an award at the end of their life for most countries visited—I promise! And while slow travel is absolutely wonderful if you have the opportunity, I think some people can get more out of a destination in a week than others could in a month or even a year. Be intentional with your time and your travel, even if you only get 10 days or a weekend's worth of vacation a year.
In the end, travel is a wonderful way to come to terms with who you are—but never to escape who you are. Nobody can buy a ticket to a destination far enough away that you can outrun yourself. Our demons and fears have a way of catching up to us eventually, tapping us on the shoulder and forcing us to confront them regardless of whether we're in a fancy five-star hotel or exploring a remote corner of the globe. So don't wait for that next trip or that next destination to find happiness. Look for it now. Wherever you are in the world. Because learning how to find joy and have adventures anywhere is, I think, the secret to a life that is truly well lived.