“How are you affording all this?” my mom asked me the other day when I shared my upcoming travel plans. It’s a good question, since I haven’t really been working during my midlife crisis. But what most people don’t realize is that it’s far cheaper to live in most countries of the world than in the US. And it’s also cheaper to live out of a suitcase than to pay for:
- the typical rent or mortgage
- a car payment
- car insurance
- US health insurance
- US taxes
- stuff I don’t need
Not only that, but I’ve found a way to live occasionally rent-free. I’m extending my stay in Geneva another three weeks at no charge, courtesy of a pet-sitting job I found on Nomador; you could also check out Trusted Housesitters. So let’s take the “I can’t afford to travel” excuse right off the table, shall we?
A few months ago, I decided that the best way to figure out my next chapter of life was to strip everything away: no excuses, no distractions, and no baggage other than a suitcase. “All in” — just like when I jumped into triathlon 10 years ago with no prior athletic training. I was reminded of those days while spectating the Geneva Triathlon this weekend.
Anyway, I’m getting a lot of questions about how I was able to make this leap to becoming a citizen of the world, and I’m hearing the hidden assumptions behind the question — that maybe I have outsized cojones or a secret stash of wealth that allows me to do whatever I want. I’d like to officially put these assumptions to rest.
If you are one of those people wondering how I did it, perhaps you harbor a secret wish to do something almost as crazy; something you’ve tabled for someday, after ________ (fill in the blank). After the kids are grown. After you save up some more money. After you get married (or divorced). After a promotion. After you’ve lived up to a certain expectation or responsibility.*
*Before you get your panties in a wad, I’d like to acknowledge that yes, sometimes there really are good reasons and obligations that we really can’t get out of. I’m talking about those excuses that we convince ourselves are reasons.
Or maybe there’s no good reason at all; you’ve just assumed, as I did, that it’s something for other people because we’re not _______ enough. Not rich enough, smart enough, brave enough, strong enough, fluent enough, crazy enough… you get the idea. I know this pattern well; I excelled at the fill-in-the-blank game for years.
What inspired me to go full nomad?
The first question people ask me nowadays is what prompted this crazy international adventure. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I grew up in middle America with very little exposure to other cultures. When I got to college, I discovered classes with “international” in the title: law, business, economics. That word — international — made me weak in the knees. I had no idea what it all meant, but it sounded sexy and intriguing enough to combine them all into an invented minor I called International Studies. It looked good on a resume but I didn’t do anything with it; at least not at first.
I got my first passport shortly after my 30th birthday to embark on what I fondly called my “ADD sampler platter tour of Europe:” 5 countries in 10 days. I was dating a Brit at the time, which kicked off a lifelong preference for dating foreigners: Italian, Russian, Australian, Serbian, didn’t really matter. Aside from a few notable exceptions, my dating criteria was really simple: “not American.” Not that I had anything against Americans, mind you; I just felt more at home with people who were from someplace else. Anyway, not long after the Brit, I got a consulting job that took me around the world in business class from Dubai to Singapore to Zurich. The company itself was toxic for me, but I prized the global work and travel.
All of this international action should have been a clue that yes, I could live overseas if I wanted. And I did want it, or so I told myself: I remember journaling wistfully about being a travel writer, photographer and coach in my mid-30s. Around that time I mapped out major milestones for my life on a small white board, which included moving to Paris by my 50th birthday.
But my friends and family can attest that I can be oblivious to clues. Living overseas was something I wished for in a general longing sort of way, but didn’t think would really happen unless I got lucky. And perhaps there was also an assumption that it was “for other people.” For crazy rich people.
Then magic happened.
Remember that white board with the milestones? Yeah, me neither. I stashed it in storage where it sat, gathering dust, for 15 years. I must have seen it when I went into that storage unit – it was hanging on the wall when I briefly used the space as an art studio until the paint fumes got to me — but I didn’t really see it, if you know what I mean.
Six months before my 50th birthday I started getting business opportunities overseas. I wasn’t seeking them out; they just came to me. A friend introduced me to her former client in Geneva; that conversation led to a project proposal and a prospective business partner. My buddy from the dog park in Santa Fe wanted to hire me for a photography gig in England, Germany and Italy as soon as his funding came through. I also received an outreach from a former client with potential strategy work in emerging markets.
And I still didn’t get it. Not at first. I booked a photography trip to Morocco as a 50th birthday present to myself, and was haunted for a few months by the vague, unarticulated thought of “I’m not sure I’ll want to come back home.” And then one day in mid-December, I woke up. In that moment of clarity, I remembered what I’d always wanted to do… and I knew I had to make a choice. I could go back to sleep in the safe haven of my excuse-laden comfort zone, or jump into the abyss of not knowing.
I jumped. It was a spontaneous decision, but I knew it was now or never. Over the next three months I sold everything I owned, a brutal yet liberating process that you can read more about here. And I departed JFK five days before my 50th birthday on a one-way ticket to Nice, close enough to Paris to fulfill my prophesy.
It’s not really courage
People say it takes a lot of courage to do what I’ve done. But it’s not courage I feel; it’s relief. I simply reached the point where my comfort zone started feeling itchy and uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s like how an infant feels when it’s time to be born; it’s traumatic and messy and too damn bright out here, but if you stay put, you’ll die. This process of waking up to who we really are is a rebirth, an uncomfortable eviction from the soothing womb of our constructed realities.
Remember the movie the Matrix? It’s my favorite movie of all time. Just before Neo takes the red pill and discovers he’s been living in a dream world, Morpheus tells him:
I know the splinter well. The soft padding I’d wrapped around it in my younger years had become worn and frayed as I approached the second half of life, and I’m glad for that. Splinters that are buried, padded and tucked out of sight are the source of a host of physical, mental and social ills.
Perhaps you’re splinterless and exactly where you need to be. If so, congratulations… seriously. It’s rare and beautiful thing to be true to yourself under the expectations and shoulds that rain down on us every day. But if you’re feeling the splinter — that nagging feeling that you’re living someone else’s life — the only healthy response is to do something about it.
How to make the leap
Here it is: the part where I give a recipe for exactly how to realize your dreams. That’s what you want, right? Yeah… I didn’t think so. Because then you wouldn’t have any excuses left. At the end of the day, there are only two things we need in order to revolutionize our lives:
- The ability to listen to your gut and translate its signals into meaning and insight. Tall order, but how else will you know if your secret desire is your authentic self talking, or indigestion from that cheeseburger? (I’m working on an upcoming series on this topic so stay tuned.)
- Once you know what your gut is trying to tell you, the second step is very simple: make a choice. And keep making that choice again and again. Step by step. Even in the darkness of “holy shitballs, what did I sign up for?” which will inevitably happen at least once during this process (remember all those business opportunities I had? None of them have panned out yet; every day I take a deep breath and trust the process.)
My first draft of this article included a list of common excuses for not venturing overseas (which I hear often) along with some facts and information that render those excuses irrelevant, or at least more manageable. I deleted that section because a) it’s too damned easy these days to get the answer from Google and you can do it yourselves if you really wanted, and b) it might not be relevant to you. Head over to my personal blog if you’re curious about where my journey took me.
Bottom line, while you may have special circumstances, a lot of so-called reasons are simply fear of the unknown. We choose the devil we know over the angel we don’t.
Back to the Geneva Triathlon I watched yesterday: it reminded me that my 40th birthday kicked off a multi-year passion for the sport (and I’d never been an athlete). So yes, big birthdays seem to be a trigger point for me. For many people, triathlons are less about competition than they are about breaking through personal limitations. It’s unbelievably inspiring. If you think you have real limitations in your life, check out these fabulous human beings who have thrown theirs — age, color, weight, physical disabilities — in the trash.
A few thoughts to ponder
- Do you have a secret wish that has never entirely gone away?
- What is your biggest reason for not acting on that wish?
- What does Google have to say about that reason, and how other people are handling it?
- What tiny step will you take this week towards making it a possibility?
What do you think, dear reader? Does this resonate? I’d love to hear from you.