The art of Living out of a Suitcase Called Home as a Freelancer
Does the reality of digital nomadism live up to the hype?
When did you last take time off?
I couldn’t answer this without first going back through my archive and it’s been months.
The best thing about remote work is also the worst. Because we are no longer location-dependent and can work from almost anywhere as long as there’s Wi-Fi, we tend to.
Even on an overnight flight between Seattle and Frankfurt on no sleep for days at the end of December, I found it impossible to switch off. Because flight Wi-Fi was so affordable, I also had very little incentive to.
Instead of catching up on sleep so I’d be at my best when hugging my father again for the first time in six years, I thumbed out an essay on my iPhone between bouts of stargazing. And only because I didn’t want to disturb a sleeping passenger by retrieving my laptop from the overhead compartment.
Compressed into an economy seat on a two-hour flight between Lisbon and Paris a few weeks later, I was hunched over my laptop in mild panic mode. Every time I ride the high speed train between Paris and Amsterdam, I’m working for the duration, too.
My chances of a semi-decent paycheck increase the harder I work and the more visibility I gain. To do that, I ideally need to publish a lot and feed the algorithm but doing so without compromising on quality is impossible.
This is as icky as it is problematic for me. As a journalist, I’m not overly fond of the sound of my own voice. Instead, I’m used to lending it to others and bringing their story to light, not mine — my role is that of a narrator.
Little did I expect I’d ever end up narrating my own life but major depressive disorder and the complete collapse of my career left me little choice. After losing five years to depression, I’ve amassed a surplus of material on the many ways it can annihilate a person, a marriage, a life. So I set out to try and humanize an illness often mistaken for a lifestyle choice, an attitude problem, malingering, or all three in my case.
Because it remains difficult for people to believe what they cannot see.
Similarly, the perceived glamour of my profession — whether as staffer or freelancer — has little to do with the reality of it.
While I’m effectively living between the Pacific Northwest, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands, I was initially on fact-finding trips to assess the suitability of different countries as a base so work always came — and still comes — along.
Not a single day do I remain away from the laptop, healthy or not. As long as I can be vertical or perpendicular, there is no excuse not to think out loud on the internet and produce copy.
Because I’m lucky to be possessed by vocation to the point of obsessiveness, this is also the most natural thing in the world for me. I love what I do and am dedicated to it but it can be difficult for the people around me to understand, especially people going through an ongoing crisis like my parents are.
To ensure I’m available to spend quality time with them as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for Stage IV cancer, I often work US hours, i.e. during the night.
There’s currently no other way for me to survive in Europe, at least until I get set geographical coordinates.
For now, although I’m often behind a laptop at the dining room table, I am present and always ready to help, not just a voice at the other end of a phone line half-way across the world.
And this presence is worth more than money, which is why I haven’t sought temp assignments that would take me out of the house for eight plus hours a day.
Picking another EU city than Paris as a base is also very much a decision made around my parents, too. The idea is for them to have somewhere close by to escape to whenever they get a little medical respite, even if it’s only for a long weekend although that is looking more and more like wishful thinking at this stage. What’s more, it has to be a place where navigating potential emergencies is easy and health care is good.
So good that I’ll also be able to avail myself of it the minute I’m back in the system, even as a freelancer. To say I’ve never more looked forward to paying taxes and insurance premiums is an understatement. America kept me sick despite my having insurance because I could never afford the deductibles and co-pays required for therapy but health care thankfully remains a basic human right in the EU.
Because my stepmom is dying, I’m doing all I can to ensure my parents have as good a life as possible while there’s still time.
And yet, mobility requires means.
It’s not enough to declare yourself a freelancer, pick a place, up sticks, and go. Especially not when you’ve got a five-year crater on your résumé like I do and your household back in the US still struggles to pay bills and buy groceries.
This, in short, is the reason why I’m always in editorial beast mode despite the limitations inherent to my illness. Coffee, headphones blasting loud music, collaborations, and long-term editorial side-projects are how I circumvent obstacles and keep motivated.
Over the last ten months, I’ve had to write my way out several depressive funks so dark articulating them in print was the only way to get much-needed critical distance. The focus required to produce a piece always makes everything else disappear for however long it takes to write it.
When my brain really needs a break, I dive head first into another language or into form poetry, which is a portal to a twilight zone of deep reflection, playful textual experimentation, and pure happiness.
What’s more, I also need to reactivate old contacts, update and send out my résumé, and go knock on doors to get more work and fixed geographical coordinates. So there’s a lot to do on top of what I’m already doing and it is taking a very long time. The magnitude of the task at hand makes my head spin when I look at it as a whole but it’s far less daunting when I break it down into a series of distinct steps.
So I’m tackling them one by one, as quickly as I can.
That’s the other thing when one of your parent has a terminal illness: Live now or run out of time. You can’t hesitate, second-guess yourself, or break your stride. No sick days, no days off unless there’s extra work already done and ready to go, no endless rewrites, no slacking, and most definitely no feeling sorry for yourself.
I’m actually lucky.
Mental illness revived my writing career against all odds, gave me a new lease of life, and brought me back to Europe even though I wish it were under happier circumstances.
In this context, my only issue is that there aren’t always enough hours in the day to get everything done and get some rest. Because when you’re in a precarious financial situation without the luxury of sick days, vacation, or a guaranteed income every month, time is the only tangible currency there is and sleep becomes a luxury.
As a result, many freelancers work harder than employees would ever think possible because we need to find a way — or ways — to make life happen, somehow.
Be that one word at a time.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in motion between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.