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A Digital Nomad’s Search for Home

Home has always been a relatively loose concept in my personal experience. I grew up in a small town in Northern Germany, in a relatively high-income, nuclear family. My parents ran their own business from our house and hired a live-in nanny to look after me during the day. My nanny’s parents, who lived in Eastern Germany (this was shortly after the reunification, so the cultural and practical differences between East and West Germany were still quite significant), became my de facto grandparents. From the age of 12, I attended a private boarding school a few hours away from home, and as I grew older, I spent more and more weekends at school rather than at home (voluntarily because I loved that school and my friends there). My sense of home was already spread across these reference points.

At 17, after graduating high school, I moved to Berlin to study — it was a dream come true for me since I adored this bustling, diverse city. I soon met the man who would become my boyfriend of five years, and we moved in together a few years later, spent half a year abroad together, and finally found a spacious, beautiful apartment together that we renovated and made our shared home. During this time, I whole-heartedly loved Berlin and proudly called it home.

We broke up when I was 22, and my concept and value of home was challenged for the first time. Not only had I lost what had been the most important anchor in my life at the time, but I had also started to foster the dream of becoming a digital nomad. I took it as a chance to finally make it a reality.

Since 2014, I have been traveling and living as a so called digital nomad, mostly without a fixed base, for over five years now. I specifically chose this experience for its own reasons, but I also unspokenly saw it a search for that perfect place to call home.

It’s been a wild ride at times. I’ve visited and lived in over 40 countries, often staying only a month or two in each location before moving on. There were a few stretches when I stayed in a place for 3–8 months, including Berlin, Lisbon, Chiang Mai, San Francisco, and Australia. I’ve had some incredible adventures (my favorites include a 4-week solo roadtrip through both main islands of New Zealand in 2014 and a 12-day un-tour of Iran in 2019). Needless to say, I love working remotely and for myself (as a freelancer or business owner) and that’s a whole other story of personal growth and challenges.

Naturally, each of the places I visited and lived in had its advantages and disadvantages. As a traveler, they are both simply part of the experience. But a small part of me has always been looking at places from the perspective of potentially making it home.

Recently, the question of home has been coming up for me a lot. What has been missing all these years? Have I been doing it wrong? Or is it simply time to pick a place and settle down?

What is home anyway? The concept of home is as central to human life as it is universal. Its meanings however vary vastly across people from different cultures, social circumstances, and personal backgrounds. In many cultures, including the one I grew up in, home first and foremost refers to a place. Home is a location, such as an apartment or a city, that serves as a base for our activities in the world, the center of our existence. In addition to a specific physical abode such as a house or apartment we own or rent, the meaning of home usually extends to our immediate family and friends as well as the familiar environment we experience during our daily activities. Home and its characteristics are associated with memories and perhaps spiritual or symbolic significance.

It is not uncommon for the experience of home to change throughout our lives, as we move to a new city to study or work, build a new social circle, make new memories, and perhaps start a family of our own.

Home may not even be a static place at all. In the language of the Nootka First Nations people of Vancouver Island, Canada, “house” is a verb rather than a noun. It is a transitory concept that reflects the people’s way of life of routinely moving their plank house dwellings to new locations as needed. For some cultures, home is simply mother Earth herself.

So as much as our understanding of home tends to be attached to a place, it is our experience that truly creates a meaningful feeling of home. Home seems to be closely related to feelings of safety, security, solace, peace, warmth, grounded-ness, belonging, connectedness and more.

How does the concept of home change when we travel extensively? For most of my life, I believed that people who live in the same town all their lives must have a very limited view of the world and its possibilities. Although often comfortable, they seem like prisoners to their home culture, its customs, and its standards for what is desirable and acceptable. The potential they see for their own lives in terms of professional and personal growth tends to be inherently limited. Yet these people may possess something that I now find quite enviable: A clear sense of identification with their town, land, and community, as well as a more precise understanding of their origin, their own place in society, and feasible opportunities. Perhaps they have what I desire so much: a clear sense of home.

Throughout my location-independent life, I rarely questioned the significance of home itself. I was mostly on the lookout for a place that ticks all my boxes, hard facts that I desired about a place to live. These “requirements” included things like proximity to the sea and nature, language, feasibility of getting a long-term visa, infrastructure, standard of living, and access to a well-connected airport. The more I long for a place to call home, the clearer it becomes to me that to truly satisfy my needs, it will have to be so much more than that. Sometimes it seems that the more I search, the more elusive my dream of home becomes. And more recently, I’ve began to understand and explore what it truly takes to create home.

Throughout this year, I’ve been thinking a lot more about choosing a place and creating my home base there. It’s been at the back of my mind for a long time to the extent that I had the somewhat arbitrary goal of establishing a home base by the end of this year (spoiler alert: it’s not going to happen).

Sometimes I think I might as well remain a nomad for a little longer. With so few responsibilities and ties to anywhere or anyone in particular, I have a unique opportunity to truly savor this lifestyle a little longer. The longer I do it, the more I know about my needs and the pitfalls, and the more I am able to set it up in a way that truly supports my work, health, and personal development. Or does it?

While exciting, this lifestyle has also been challenging. I’ve found it incredibly hard to stick to routines, stay healthy through diet and fitness, and maintaining meaningful relationships. I often feel utterly exhausted by the prospect of starting all over again in a month or two, leaving behind the few comforts and routines I found in the current place.

I long for the physical comfort of a home base: my own furniture, a proper mattress, some luxury items that are just too much to travel with, perhaps a pet. But most of all, I desire to have a place to build a circle of friends that I can see every week, on a consistent basis. I’d like to set up my environment and daily routine in such a way that the practicalities of life can move into the background, making space for deep, creative work, continuous growth, deepening relationships. I desire to — finally, after all these years, start building a life.

I’m nowhere near an ultimate conclusion here, and all I can offer at this point are a few perspectives that all ring true to me individually but seem utterly incompatible.

  • Perhaps home isn’t just about where you are, it is about who you are.
  • Perhaps we can feel simultaneously grounded and boundless in this incredible experience of life
  • Home has to be created rather than found.
  • Home is about so much more than a place and its characteristics. It’s about memories, community, commitment.
  • Home is fluid and multi-faceted — my parents are still home even if I live, literally, as far away from them as possible on this planet, and even though they have moved to a different country since I moved out. My memories are still home. The country I grew up in and its culture are still somewhat home, albeit with decreasing significance.

PS: I am considering to write a book about home and my search for it. In this book, I’d be sharing my own journey that takes place between the (apparent) poles of freedom and home, my thought processes and insights in regards to home. As I am writing this, I still haven’t reached any sort of ultimate conclusion, but I have a feeling that this book might end in a coming home of some kind. If you’d be interested in this book, please sign up here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScWWwO_1eVq1TuPmrwylp7s3LyH_nMyeZhZFVo24_3YmNm1FA/viewform?hl=en

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