23 Dec 2014
My name is Vitaly, and I am homeless.
There is nothing more liberating and sentimental than the sound of a closing door that you will never open again. As memories are flowing by, you turn your back from that door, you hold your breath for just a second and you walk away. At that point you almost sense the change in the wind flowing by. You let go; and knowing and feeling this change is an incredibly empowering, intoxicating experience.
My name is Vitaly, and I don't have a permanent home. I gave up my apartment in lovely Freiburg, Germany in October this year — without having another place to move into. Admittedly, it wasn’t a spontaneous, life-changing decision. Months earlier I found myself spending a lot of time traveling — running workshops and speaking, doing front-end consulting work and writing, editing, art directing and prepping conferences from cities all across Europe. At the end of the day, I was spending at most 5–7 days a month at what my colleagues (unlike me) used to call “Vitaly’s home” — frankly, a place where nothing waited for me except a lonely desk, an empty refrigerator, a few pieces of cloth and a shelf full of books.
I didn’t find happiness in Freiburg. I didn’t find solace when I needed it. I didn’t find understanding when I sought it. I didn’t actually feel lonely, but I felt alone in that apartment, in that beautiful, gorgeous little city on the very foot of the legendary Black Forest. I did find calmness and a relentless drive to create and think and craft and design and produce and play and experiment and fail and try again, but it was utterly exhausting at times, whirling up my working hours from early morning to late nights. The city was beautiful and warm, yet at the same time it was just as lifeless, calm and silent, wherever I went to. I wanted to move away. I just didn’t know where to move to.
Once I shut that door, I had nothing but a packed schedule with a few talks and workshops for the next few weeks, laptop, a few international plugs and a perfectly sized luggage bag, weighing just around 24.5kg — as I found out in my research, the perfect weight to still be accepted by most international airlines. I gave away most of my belongings to a homeless shelter, including unnecessary clothes and things I didn’t use. I gave away the things that I couldn’t use to my parents, but also to my friends and colleagues who could use them. The rest was packed in a few boxes, along with my most valuable belongings: personal documents, papers, photos, diplomas, sketch books, conference lanyards and a few hard drives — all the cornerstones of my adolescent and adult life, marking significant events throughout my life journey; the things that define who I used to be, who I have become and what I care about deeply.
Seeing how all those unique cornerstones fit within one little cardbox was astonishing; yet now, months later, when I look back, there isn’t even one little thing that I miss or wish I hadn’t thrown away. My past remains within my memories and my character and my thoughts and my little cardbox; it’s the present and the future that I relentlessly explore with a drive which is as ignited, powerful and versatile as it has never been before. The sheer fact that I don’t have any permanent keys to any apartment or office is empowering and liberating. This abundant liberty can be scary and unsettling at times, but it amplifies your reasoning and your passion, and it gives you milestones to aim for, and it also keeps you on your feet and prompts you to settle down whenever you are ready.
Putting together the luggage was an exercise of discipline and prioritization. Once you set a tough constraint to work within, you have to rethink what is really important, and put aside everything that doesn’t hold value for you. It’s a matter of looking at everything you’ve got under a magnifying glass, slowly, carefully, thoroughly, just because there is no way back. You have to decide what really matters to you. Getting rid of the things that you owned for many years and leaving them behind requires you to slow down, and to figure out who you really are.
I decided to run a creative experiment. No permanent apartment, one piece of luggage, and a lot of traveling — from country to country, spending my time with the people I care about, in creative environments, writing, editing, speaking, getting to know people I always wanted to meet, meeting people that I never thought I would get to know. Working from coffee shops and AirBnB places, in remote areas where I would find myself offline quite a lot of time — in just the right environment to get things done. Uninterrupted, undisturbed, heavily inspired by surroundings and the atmosphere around you.
I wasn’t alone. And, to be honest, it made all the difference. Having a person you care about so much close by shapes your focus. It drives you to places you’d never go, to thoughts you’d never explore, to experiences you’d never share otherwise. But it also helps you to stay afloat: to have a purpose and a goal right in front of you when you need it. And every now and again that focus — the reason, the point, the purpose, the end goal — pushes you to a working desk where you can spend an entire day sipping cappuccinos and getting work done — getting work done well.
That working desk can be pretty much anywhere: a little tourist station in a little Swedish village with 82 inhabitants and some of the best Northern lights on Earth, right next to a huge orchestra of fireworks across the Geneva lake, or in a little French restaurant just around the corner of the Parisian Montmartre. It really doesn’t matter where you are; what matters is whom you are with, and the experiences you share. Together. These experiences and conversations with people around are enormous catalysts for great creative work.
In fact, those last few months were the most productive and happiest months of the last few years of my life. I found more time to write and experiment with code. I started reading more again. I started writing more again. I rediscovered my curiosity in art history and stamps and calligraphy and cartoons. Traveling in trains, flying in airplanes, commuting in buses and waiting during layover times surprisingly were the times when I was most effective, and every now and again most creative.
Once you get into habit of working on the road, it’s becoming very difficult to procrastinate. In the end, even when I got detained by a police for a thorough security check, I found myself making good use of the time and, with a bottle of water, airport food and a lightbulb in front me, I was getting things done while waiting for the police verdict. Articles, chapters, workshop slides were all edited under those (eventually weird or, to put it differently, unusual conditions) in different cities, mostly in public spaces, usually with a cup of cafe latte right next to the laptop and an occasional piece of a carrot cake nearby.
I deepened my friendships and spent more time with people who I care about. I reestablished connections with my family. I explored unknown places and challenged myself to leave my comfort zone. And I never had so many valuable, rich conversations with fantastic, smart people within such a short period of time — people from our industry, but also random people you happen to meet in the cities, often by chance, and the stories they tell and the secrets they share and the memories that remain after those conversations. For me, it wasn’t about observing architecture or people though — I didn’t want to be a tourist; I didn’t want to be an observer; I wanted to explore and understand what living in a city is like for people who actually live there.
So as we were passing countries, we were looking thoroughly at the places where we could stay to live; just the “right”, affordable, beautiful places, with a good quality of life, good people, and obviously, good coffee, wine, cheese and a reliable Wi-Fi. Maybe this place doesn’t really exist, or maybe there are many places that would match those requirements, but by getting to know places and people and how they live, we might get just close enough to find a place that I would warm-heartedly call “home” after all. A place where you realize that it’s about time to stop, and settle down.
Freiburg → Vilnius → Bucharest → Oslo → Athens → Munich → Amsterdam → Paris → Freiburg → Kiev → Freiburg → Graz → Bath → Hamburg → Berlin → Malmö → Abisko → Rome → Moscow → Karlsruhe → Vilnius → New York → Whistler → Vancouver → Frankfurt → Saarbrücken → Hamburg → Brussels.
There are a few things I learned, a few things I failed at, and a few things I discovered:
- I said it once, I’ll say it again. The real value of traveling derives from authentic, genuine, open-minded conversations with people — people you know, and people you don’t know. Seek and embrace meeting people — you’ll learn something new every single day.
- Talking about being homeless does make for good (and sometimes awkward) conversation starters (not with police though), but it’s useful to clarify that you are homeless by design, not because you have to be homeless (probably a more adequate word would be digital nomad which I personally dislike).
- It could be useful to learn how to fold shirts properly and quickly, how to organize your backpack and how to iron your shirts. Again, if you can optimize your workflow and reduce the time you lose for daily-routine-tasks, the better. Also, don’t trust the foreign iron! Double check it before using it.
- Most hotels don’t pay attention to the comments you write in the comments area on hotel booking websites, so if something is important to you — e.g. a calm room with a good Wi-Fi, it’s better to call directly and make your request clear this way.
- If possible, make as many purchases ahead of time online as possible —shuttle tickets, extra luggage, tourist metro passes — to avoid stress, confusion and overly expensive tickets. This goes for train tickets from airport to the city centre as well as flight tickets (obviously). Make sure to have at least two–three credit cards from different banks with you — if you are traveling a lot, one of them will certainly be blocked by your bank because they’d suggest that the card is abused. Also, opening up a new account without a permanent residence can be very difficult, so before going this route, get a few cards prepared. Whenever you can, avoid purchases in foreign currency since you’d usually have to pay an international charge fee for using the credit cards abroad.
- If you happen to be travelling across Europe, get a plan with a European coverage (I am using T-Mobile with All-Inclusive package, 5GB for all EU countries) to avoid ridiculous roaming charges and be connected on the go.
- Tripadvisor and Foursquare can be quite misleading, and by following their recommendations you might end up spending a few hours in the queue full of (loud) tourists. Furthermore, the suggestions aren’t always reliable, so it’s much better to ask local people about their favourite places — and having somebody who could show you around is much better than any guide.
- Losing time is easy; being focused and disciplined is hard. To stay productive, I tend to dedicate a few days for sightseeing and meeting people, and the other days for productive, focused work in a coffee shop. Do ask the waiter if it’s OK to work with a laptop though first, and do order more than just one coffee — working the entire day with one cold cappuccino in front of you isn’t cool. Also, locate the router beforehand and make sure to find a place that isn't too close to the exit — having people permanently passing by close to you is the easiest way to get distracted.
- What often helps me get into the flow is exercising early in the morning before breakfast. Even if the place where you are staying doesn’t have a gym, you can always find a hotel nearby and pretend that you are staying there. Nobody will think that you are crazy enough to pretend that you are staying in the hotel to get into the gym.
- Finding a good Wi-Fi to sync large files can be quite a headache unless you are in Baltic or Scandinavian countries — make sure to search for open spaces and meet-ups taking place in the area you’re staying.
- When traveling in Europe, make sure to get an ultimate traveller’s charger (e.g. Skross World Adapter Pro) and a few backup cables and plugs: Italy has two different power sockets, Switzerland an entirely different one, and obviously so does the UK. Also, invest in a good portable USB charger and noise-cancelling headphones or ear buds — Bose QuietComfort 20i are pretty good.
- Traveling is expensive, but you don’t need a fancy hotel to stay; you can establish connections upfront on Twitter, and AirBnB has many affordable options, too. Besides, you can always get a reduced rate if you ask the host for a discount for a lengthy stay. Staying with friends is great for a few days, but if you are going to stay longer, you will want a calm, silent place for yourself.
- Packing-moving-unpacking-routine can be very tiring and annoying; moving every 3 days is very time-consuming, but staying at least for five–six days in one single place is just the right amount of time to start feeling comfortable around the place where you are at the moment.
- You can’t afford losing your luggage since it’s the only thing you have for quite some time, so it’s better to fly with airlines that care about you as a customer and will be helpful in case something happens. And of course, if you can, flying with a bag pack is even better.
- Most WiFi passwords in cafes are very weird and unreasonable, often printed in unreadable typefaces where you can’t distinguish between ‘l’ and ‘I’, but usually the passwords are the name of the cafe where you are staying, lowercase. In general, better ask the waiter to write down the password for you, and make sure to try to connect to the network while the waiter is around you.
- When flying, make sure to disable cookies and cache when booking tickets because many companies track your visits and increase the price artificially for specific countries. Also, it might be a good idea to spook your IP — especially if you are purchasing tickets from Switzerland or Norway. Google Flights is good for quick and smart search, too.
- Arriving at the airport 2.5h before departure gives you enough time to get through bag drop and security very quickly and get into the flow for a good hour. Also, Final Boarding Call is your friend — there is no point rushing into the plane before that. You can use this time to get work done. For the same reason, I prefer longer trips without interchanges to the quicker ones with interchanges.
- If you end up having more than 24.5kg in your luggage, the easiest way to reduce the weight is to take out your shoes and put them in a separate hand luggage. Most airlines would check what your total weight is, so if you have a lot of hand luggage already, make sure to get all hand luggage out of sight before bag drop, then drop the heavy luggage and pick up the hand luggage later before security.
- There is almost always a bus/train connection from the airport to the city center which is far cheaper than a taxi outside the airport. Do your homework and research your best options ahead of time to avoid disappointment and annoying surprises down the road.
- If you happen to be interested in things other people have learned from their traveling experiences, check the Digital Nomad eBook by Tomasz Nowak, Lessons Learned by Noel Tock, and a few recommended places to stay by Karin Christen.
Not everybody can afford being on the road all the time, and I was lucky enough to make it work just because I can get my work done from pretty much any place in the world. But maybe you can, too. Especially if you are freelancing, as long as you have a decent Wi-Fi and a lovely coffee shop nearby, you can keep exploring the world and the people crossing your path as long as you haven’t found just the right place where you’d like to stay for good.
Close those doors once in a while; prepare a plan B and move on; take the risk of seeing what will happen next. Nobody knows how it will turn out, but at least you’ll have it tried, and at least you’ll know exactly what is and what isn’t important in your life. And before you know it, once you’ve settled again, you’ll have gained a bag full of experiences, memories and hopefully authentic friendships that will stand the test of time for the years to come.