Life Chapter 2: Joining the Digital Nomad Community

Published Categorized as Travel Blog, Inspirational Lifestyle Changes in Midlife
Exit45 Travels - Life Chapter 2: Joining the Digital Nomad Community

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EXIT45 TRAVELS - LIFE CHAPTER 2 JOINING THE DIGITAL NOMAD COMMUNITY

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Who Are We?

We’re Brent and Michael and are both in our mid-fifties. Michael is originally from Colorado, Brent from Washington State. We met in Seattle back in 1992 and have been together ever since.

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What did you do before joining the digital nomad community / Life Chapter 2?

Both of us have been writers for most of our adult lives, though we have each taken other jobs at different times since a life in the arts is not exactly a way to get rich!

When we first met, Michael was actually a flight attendant, a job he took because he’d heard he’d have lots of free time in order to write the novels he dreamed of writing.

It actually worked and he published two books back in the early aughts. Since then he’s also worked as an entertainment journalist, co-founded a website with Brent, written online educational curriculum, and done a variety of editing.

Brent’s written a series of young adult novels, including the YA classic Geography Club. He also worked as an entertainment journalist alongside Michael, but his real passion is writing screenplays.

In fact, one of his screenplays, a romcom inspired by our lives as digital nomads, is currently in development at Paramount Studios.

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What made you decide to change your lifestyle in midlife?

To be perfectly blunt, it was the election of Donald Trump. We’d often talked about traveling the world… some day. But we’re not certain we would’ve done it if not for Trump’s election back in 2016.

We literally made the decision the night it happened. We’d just left an aborted election celebration party with friends and on the drive home, Brent turned to Michael and said, “Let’s sell the house and leave the country.”

There were probably a lot of liberals who made that same declaration, and we’re pretty certain our friends thought we were just blowing off steam. But a month later, we’d sold our house in Seattle and moved into an apartment so we could prepare to move overseas. We gave ourselves a year to get everything in order, but looking back, we could have done it much faster.

EXIT45 TRAVELS - LIFE CHAPTER 2 JOINING THE DIGITAL NOMAD COMMUNITY

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What held you back from making this lifestyle change earlier?

Inertia, fear, and ignorance are what kept us from doing this sooner.

Inertia in the sense that we had a pretty safe and comfortable life in Seattle. We had a nice, good circle of friends, and nothing was terribly difficult. Well, except for being writers, which is pretty difficult.

The fear and ignorance aspect go hand in hand, each feeding the other.

The idea of selling your house, getting rid of your stuff, and heading overseas is a pretty daunting idea! There are a lot of questions that have to be answered: Where exactly will you live? Once you choose a location, how will you find an apartment there? Will you be lonely? How will people react to you being Americans? What will you do for healthcare?

And ignorance held us back because we had no idea there was a whole community of people already doing what we wanted to do!

When we started out we didn’t even know there was a name for it — digital nomad — and that the digital nomad community had answers to almost all of the questions we had.

We first learned about digital nomads five months after we’d sold the house and were preparing for the move later that year. Michael was reading the New York Times travel section and came across a story about these people called digital nomads. As he kept reading, a light bulb went off over his head as he thought, “This is what we’re going to do!”

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Biggest wins / benefits of being a digital nomad?

We could easily write ten thousand words about the benefits of being nomads.

One of the things that most surprised us is what living this way costs us. Our life in Seattle cost us about 80K a year, which would definitely be a lot higher now. We were simply hoping to keep our spending to no more than that.

Much to our amazement, we’re spending about half that much now. Even better, our quality of life has gone way up. That’s partly because we spend a lot of our time in less expensive countries like Vietnam, Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, and so forth.

We aren’t living in those countries specifically to save money, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

Other benefits include how much more social we are now. We had a small circle of friends back in Seattle, but between the city’s horrendous traffic jams, and friends with demanding jobs and other family obligations, we didn’t see as much of them as we would’ve liked.

But we were worried that our new life would leave us feeling even lonelier. Yes, there was a community of digital nomads out there, but it mostly seemed like they were younger than ourselves. Would we fit in with them? Or would it be like high school with a lot of cliques, none of which we fit in with?

But most of our fears vanished during our very first stop in Miami, Florida, where we spent three months at a co-living facility called Roam. The digital nomad community there welcomed us with open arms, and two of the folks we met there are still some of our closest friends.

Other benefits include a life that is just so much more interesting and richer than we could have ever imagined. Michael discovered a love of photography that has expanded his enjoyment of travel in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

In addition, we’ve lived in incredible places like Matera, Italy — possibly the longest continuously occupied place in the world — and Grimentz, Switzerland — a tiny, lovely village high up in the Swiss Alps that we’d never heard of before.

Then there is all of the great food we’ve eaten, the hikes and bike trips we’ve taken and — well, the list goes on and on.  

EXIT45 TRAVELS - LIFE CHAPTER 2 JOINING THE DIGITAL NOMAD COMMUNITY

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Difficulties experienced / drawbacks of being a digital nomad?

This answer is going to be a lot shorter than the last one. That’s because the drawbacks have been surprisingly few — or at least surprisingly unimportant.

The biggest is missing our friends and family. It really is a drag not getting to see our good friends, or Brent’s 92-year-old dad. But thanks to Zoom we do get to see and talk with him every week. Plus, we Zoom with our friends on a regular basis as well.

Sure, there are other drawbacks, like crappy beds, travel mishaps, and sometimes looking ridiculous at the grocery store because you forget to weigh your fruit and veg before you reached the check-out stand and now everyone is annoyed with you while the clerk has to deal with it.

But those drawbacks are sooooooo far outweighed by the benefits that we barely think about them.

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Where are you based now?

We are currently in Keszthely, Hungary, a town of 22,000 along the shores of beautiful Lake Balaton. We came here after five weeks in Romania (and two months in Istanbul, Turkey, before that) and plan on staying for six weeks.

Staying here is one of those unexpected benefits I mentioned above! We’d never heard of Lake Balaton (the largest in Central Europe), much less Keszthely, before becoming nomads.

But when we said we were spending a week in Budapest, a friend of a friend mentioned they had a free apartment in this beautiful little town right on the lake. When we heard it had miles and miles of biking trails (and only cost 400 euros a month!) we were sold. And now we’re spending a gorgeous fall here.

EXIT45 TRAVELS - LIFE CHAPTER 2 JOINING THE DIGITAL NOMAD COMMUNITY

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What are you doing now?

We’re both writers. We’ve both written fiction and Brent also writes screenplays, including one inspired by our lives as digital nomads. Our big focus right now is our travel writing, especially our Substack newsletter.

We really believe we’ve stumbled onto a way of living that would appeal to a lot of people if they only knew about it. And we think that’s especially true for folks who are entering the next chapter of their lives (Life Chapter 2). In fact, we think being digital nomads is perfect for a lot of folks who aren’t ready to retire but are ready to do something completely different.

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How did you decide what to do / where to go?

Oof, that’s a complicated question! And it’s one that’s evolved a lot over the years.

Our first year as nomads, we had the whole thing planned out because we were worried about being in Europe during the summer without reservations. Plus, we hardly knew anything about being nomads or the best places to go.

Life being what it is — messy! — our plans for the year quickly fell apart during our first stop in Miami. But we also met a great community of digital nomads there who gave all sorts of suggestions about where we should go instead.

Before Covid, we were basing decisions on where to go on a variety of factors — what destinations most appealed to us, each destination’s affordability, weather, and how liveable and walkable it is, as we both hate cars and driving.

But over the years two other factors have come into play — where our digital nomad friends are going to be and reducing our carbon footprint.

As I mentioned before, one of our concerns when we first became nomads was whether or not we’d be lonely. That turned out to not be a problem in the least.

In fact, over the past four years we’ve developed such a tight circle of friends that part of our travel plans now include where our friends will be. We’ve spent time with friends in Koh Lanta, Thailand; Hoi An, Vietnam; Tbilisi, Georgia; and both Mexico City and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

And now we also try to minimize our flying by picking one region and then moving around there, avoiding flying as much as possible.

Of course, with the pandemic now entering its second year we also have to factor in which countries are admitting Americans, what their Covid and vaccination rates are, the quality of their health care, etc.   

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How do you fill your days?

We mostly just live a pretty regular life, except in what might seem like unusual places to a lot of people. Many folks seem to think we’re on vacation, which we are definitely not. We have work to do and we work pretty hard.

But this is what our days look like:

Every other morning, we do our HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workout, which we can do in any park, or even a parking lot in a pinch. Then most days we sit down in front of our laptops. Brent usually works in our apartment while Michael prefers to go out. Pre-pandemic that usually meant a co-working facility or a coffee shop. Post-pandemic that meant before getting vaccinated, we both worked at home. Thankfully, we had a really big villa in Puerto Vallarta, so we had plenty of space.

Our days also almost always involve walking somewhere. In European towns like Sibiu or Brașov în România, that meant strolling through the lovely town squares, parks, and cobblestone streets. In Bansko, Bulgaria, that often meant hiking up into the mountains which literally came right up to town. And here in Keszthely, Hungary, we either walk down to Lake Balaton, or go for a bike ride, since this is a bike riders’ paradise.

In the evenings, we either go out for some cheap but good local food, or cook at home. Or we’ll have a nice dinner out. Then we watch some Netflix, read, and go to bed.

Every few days, we take some time off to do something a bit more substantial, like a full-fledged hike, or visit a local sight like a museum, thermal spring, and so forth.

Pre-pandemic, we did a lot of these things with friends both old and new, such as work together at a co-working spot, have lunch together, have game nights, and so forth. Unfortunately, that part of life hasn’t returned yet.

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What is your interaction with the local / expat community?

We don’t have much interaction with expat communities because a) we didn’t leave America to just hang out with more Americans (not that we don’t like our fellow Americans! and of course, plenty of expats aren’t Americans), and b) we just don’t move in the same circles since they are usually pretty settled down and living regular lives.

We do make an effort to get to know the local non-expat community, especially the LGBTQ community. Part of that is because you get a much better sense of a place by knowing locals. For instance, in Istanbul we became friends with Farouk who insisted we go with him to his local Turkish Bath instead of the more touristy ones. Thanks to Farouk we had a much more authentic and interesting experience.

We also get to know the local LGBTQ community because we are well aware that as white American gay men we have a lot of privilege that gay folks in places like Turkey and Hungary don’t. So we make it a point to write about the situations in these countries to try and do just a little bit to help advance equality.

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Visa requirements?

Not long after we became digital nomads, we learned about another kind of privilege we had — passport privilege. Basically, with an American passport there is almost nowhere we can’t go. Even more, we can go to those places very easily because most countries offer Americans thirty, sixty, or ninety day visas on arrival. And some — like Georgia — give Americans a full year, which is awesome as a digital nomad.

We’ve only been to a few countries where we have to obtain a visa ahead of time — Vietnam, Turkey, and Thailand (and the last only because we wanted to make it easier to stay longer). And only the visa for Vietnam required much actual work.

Meanwhile, we’ve made friends from countries like Georgia, Vietnam, and Egypt, where it is very, very difficult for folks to get visas to visit most Western countries.

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What would you recommend / advise to others that are thinking about following a similar path to yours?

We’d recommend folks interested in following our path to do their research! There are a lot of great sources of information out there including on Facebook and various websites. And the digital nomad community is a very friendly bunch, happy to share what they know.

We’d also suggest taking stock of your strengths and weaknesses.

I recently wrote a post for Facebook about our current living situation here in Hungary, which definitely has a couple of drawbacks. We’re subletting from a friend of a friend for an incredibly cheap price.

But when we arrived here, we discovered that the kitchen sink was busted. That wasn’t a big deal for the fellow we’re subletting from because he doesn’t cook much. We do cook more than he does, so for six weeks we’re washing our dishes in the bathtub. It’s pretty tough on the knees and lower back. Plus, the bed turned out to be pretty small and since Michael is a restless sleeper, he’s spending a lot of time on the fold-out couch.

When Michael recently posted about this on Facebook, he told folks he wasn’t complaining, just doing what we always try to do with our social media — share the good with the bad. And he also noted there were a lot of pluses to our situation here in Keszthely. A friend replied saying “It’s a good thing you can roll with the punches.” Michael responded by saying, “If you can’t roll with the punches, then you shouldn’t be a digital nomad.”

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Which is our long-winded way of saying if you’re the sort of person who needs things just right — the perfect bed or that one perfect coffee blend — then being a nomad might not be for you.

But before you decide that’s true for you, let us add that we both thought we were kind of particular people. And neither of us sees himself as especially adventurous or a “risk-taker.”

But we discovered that we are waaaaay more adaptable than we realized. And remember what we said earlier about the pluses and minuses of our living situation here in Keszthely?

Well, that’s true of nomading in general. There are definitely some minuses. But they are so dwarfed by the many, many pluses that neither of us has ever had much doubt about living this way, at least for the foreseeable future. We both much, much prefer our lives now to the way they used to be. It’s not even a contest!

Maybe the same will be true of you.

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LIFE CHAPTER 2: RELATED BLOG POSTS

Do you want to read more inspirational stories of those that have made a lifestyle change in their midlife? Check out all the stories in our Life Chapter 2 series below and be inspired.

READ MORE: INSPIRATIONAL LIFESTYLE STORIES IN LIFE CHAPTER 2

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