What it's really like to be a digital nomad

You know those digital nomads who are on never-ending vacations? Yeah, they don't exist.

I'm a digital nomad. Almost all my worldly possessions are in storage. I'm currently, but temporarily, living in Sparta, Greece, and have been doing so for more than two months. Next month, I'll be moving to Africa.

You may have heard of us digital nomads. We use mobile computing and the Internet to work from wherever. You'll find us on any of hundreds of digital nomad-focused blogs. A small handful of these blogs are fantastic, but most of them are annoying fluff. ( Here are some of the great ones.)

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The fluffy digital nomad bloggers tend to show pictures of themselves on a deserted beach or mountain top, which makes the lifestyle look picturesque, but lonely and pathetic. (Just scan ( Google Image Search for the term "digital nomad" for some choice examples.)

Digital nomad blog posts gravitate to breezy lists of jobs that lend themselves to the digital nomad lifestyle (freelance writer, freelance illustrator) and justifications about why being a digital nomad is awesome (you get to work on the beach, no commute).

Taken as a whole, the digital nomad blogs are shallow, useless and grossly misleading.

What's wrong with most of those blogs

The digital nomad lifestyle is often interesting and exciting and people want to express that. So when they're on the beach with a laptop, they feel like that's a digital nomad scenario so they take a lot of pictures of that.

They don't photograph the sweaty slog through the dirty city earlier in the week, or the 12-hour bus ride, or the two-hour hunt for Wi-Fi, or the nine hours spent in a dark, shabby room meeting a deadline. They don't photograph the power failures, the plumbing, the traffic, the mosquitos, the poverty, the roving packs of feral dogs, the corrupt policemen, the mangled street beggars and other such things they encountered along the way. That might compromise their relentless sales pitch for the idyllic digital nomad lifestyle.

As a result, the public image of digital nomadism is all postcard-perfect landscapes, charming restaurants and relaxing hammocks in the shade designed to torture the cubicle-bound.

What it's really like to be a digital nomad

Living as a digital nomad is exactly like working from home in some ways, and totally unlike it in others.

I get up in the morning when my iPhone alarm goes off, make coffee and start my routine. I catch up on email and the news, interact a little with my friends on Google+, then get to work. I'm glued to the same laptop and iPad I used in Silicon Valley (though I do miss my 27-inch iMac). I use the same software and web sites.

My personal life is similar, too. I'm not a tourist. I live here. I have a local library card and a membership at a local gym. I run into friends I know on the street. Most of the food I eat is made by my wife or me in the kitchen in our apartment. I do dishes and take out the trash. I recently saw Batman and Resident Evil at the local movie theater.

The difference is that when I look up from my laptop, I can see the breathtaking Taygetus mountains, where ancient Spartans used to hunt wild boar for their black soup, instead of my old apartment complex parking lot.

When I look up from my laptop, I see the Taygetus mountains, where ancient Spartans used to hunt. (Image: Mike Elgan)

When I have an occasional day off, I can visit other historic places like Olympia or Athens.

Man-made things are smaller outside America. Smaller cars, smaller houses, less water pressure in the shower, less air conditioning, less food variety and so on.

And things for digital nomads are smaller still: The screen on my MacBook Pro, which I use to watch downloaded iTunes movies, is much smaller than the giant flat-screen TV I've got packed up in storage. My wine opener, bottle opener, can opener and scissors are all attached to my Swiss Army Knife. All my possessions fit into two backpacks.

What's really great about being a digital nomad

The great thing about being a digital nomad isn't the ability to work on the beach (which is uncomfortable and annoying, by the way). Digital nomad living gives you two quality-of-life loopholes.

First is a financial loophole. Generally speaking, pay is higher in expensive places and lower in cheaper places. You get paid like you're in an expensive place, but you're actually in a cheap place.

The second is a psychology loophole. Our minds crave something new. And when you're a digital nomad, novelty is free. Let me explain.

As we live our lives, we get used to everything around us. It bores us. That's why we try a new restaurant or go to the movies or remodel the kitchen or buy new clothes - we want something new.

When you stay in one place, novelty is expensive. But when you're a digital nomad, novelty is free.

For example, I'm currently renting a small studio in Sparta. It's much smaller and simpler than any place I've owned or rented in America. Yet it's a perfect place to live for three months. Why? Because it's new to us!

Last night, we had the most fantastic meal at a nearby taverna, a traditional family-owned neighborhood restaurant. To the locals, the restaurant is no big deal. But to us, it was fantastic.

And that's the secret sauce of digital nomad living: What's ordinary for locals can be the experience of a lifetime for visitors. And when you're a digital nomad, you're always a visitor.

What's not so great about being a digital nomad

The worst thing about being a digital nomad is that nobody understands what you're doing. Friends and colleagues treat you like you're on Mars, even when you're available (as I am) via the same phone number, same email address and same social network. Location doesn't matter anymore, but you've got to work really hard to remind people of that.

Plus, there are situations when paying bills, getting things shipped, interacting with various companies and government agencies grind to a halt because you don't fit into their pre-existing categories. They need a home address. They require you to pick something up in person. They need you to send a fax.

Another chronic problem is with the dreaded ( Schengen Area, a collection of 26 mostly European countries that act as a single entity for visitor limits.

You can stay for three months for each six-month period in the whole Shengen Area before you become an illegal visitor.

So, for example, if you want to stay in France, Spain and then Germany for two months in each country, you'll be lucky to escape from Spain without a big fine. And they won't let you into Germany at all, because you violated your three-month Shengen time period.

In fact, you may be banned from Germany and the rest of Europe for up to five years. Your passport can even be stamped "illegal immigrant." That's not what you want on your passport when your plan is to enter a new country several times a year.

So Europe-loving digital nomads have to leave Europe after three months and live somewhere else for at least three more months before coming back to Europe.

Violating Shengen stay requirements is just one of many ways to screw yourself as a digital nomad.

Short-term accommodation sites like AirBnB have a dirty little secret that nobody talks about: Honesty can get you blacklisted.

You'll notice that nearly all the reviews of places to stay on AirBnB are positive. Why? Because if you post a negative review, the host is likely to post a negative review about you in retaliation. And once you have a negative review as a guest, nobody will rent to you. So if you use AirBnB, you must never be honest about a bad experience or you risk being blacklisted forever.

AirBnB guests naive enough to tell the truth have been excluded from participation. As a result, the reviews are useless, and every AirBnB experience is a roll of the dice.

When you're a digital nomad, you're cut off from many of the online services available to Americans in the United States. Amazon.com, Pandora and all the other streaming music services, Netflix and other video sites are simply blocked abroad.

Amazon will ship only to the country where your credit card is based. Content streaming services are for specific countries and regions only. You don't realize how great these services are until you're no longer allowed to use them.

If it sounds like I'm complaining, I'm not. Living as a digital nomad is the coolest thing I've ever done. But the reality of the lifestyle is far different from the shallow, skewed vision trotted out by the average digital nomad blog.

If you're interested in the truth about digital nomad living, circle my Google+ page, called The World Is My Office, where I'll share my real experiences, and also point you to the posts and stories by others who are also telling the truth about what it's really like to be a digital nomad.

Work is work, no matter where you are. But in Athens, you also get a view of the Acropolis. (Image: Mike Elgan)

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about mobile/wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.

This story, "What it's really like to be a digital nomad" was originally published by Computerworld.

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