We’re a digital nomad couple — two men who sold our house two years ago and have been traveling around the world, working remotely, ever since.
When we started writing about the experience on social media, and on our website BrentAndMichaelAreGoingPlaces.com, we knew we didn’t want to be like a lot of travel bloggers who make their lives seem like non-stop adventure and romance.
Look at us here in Rome! The beaches in Thailand are amazing! Don’t you wish you were us?
That’s annoying. So we decided we wanted to tell the good and the bad. Be honest and authentic.
The truth is, things have mostly been really good.
But not always.
Sometimes being a digital nomad really sucks. In Bulgaria, our apartment even caught on fire — more on that in a bit.
How bad does it get? Let us count the ways.
THE SMALL STUFF
Some of the little annoyances could happen anywhere, but they happen to us more frequently because we’re moving around so much. We’re talking about beds that sag like elephants have slept on them, crappy pillows with icky stains that you don’t want to think about too long, and dogs barking.
Ironically, being digital nomads often works in our favor in these situations because we almost never pay more than a month’s rent in advance. So if we hate a place, we just get the hell out of Dodge.
Other minor annoyances? Foreign washing machines often make no sense — and it doesn’t help that the settings are usually in a language we don’t speak. One washer in Switzerland was so complicated it looked like an airplane cockpit. And why does the fastest setting still take three hours?
And we’ll just say it: while it’s worse for the environment, sometimes it’s nice to have a damn dryer. (People in almost every country other than the U.S. air-dry their clothes.)
Then there are the foreign coffee pots. In Italy, for example, they have these little steel moka pots, which are actually fine and make great coffee — except for the fact that if you do it wrong, the whole thing explodes like a bomb, complete with metal shrapnel, impaling everyone within a fifteen foot radius.
That said, it’s always satisfying to see a European perplexed by an American drip coffee maker. “It’s so complicated!” they say, as we smile smugly and go through the mysterious process of putting in a filter and adding coffee.
Finally, there’s the question of sidewalks. Or, rather, the lack of them, at least in many Asian countries. Often, you have to walk along the street, keeping an eye out for trucks, tuk-tuks, and the occasional dangling power line.
THE GAY STUFF
No, we’re not brothers. No, we’re not twins, and frankly, we don’t look anything alike, except we’re both reasonably fit middle-aged men with glasses. Brent is bald, for God’s sake! And Michael is five inches taller.
We’re a same-sex couple. And yes, we’d like a room with a queen or king bed.
But at the same time, sometimes were not sure we can openly say any of this, because we might be in a country where such things are frowned upon.
So it’s awkward. And sometimes it’s tense, because if things do go south, we’d like to think we can count on the people in authority, the police and the like, to take our side. That isn’t necessarily the case in a place like, say, Armenia, which is extremely religiously conservative.
(This is actually the biggest worry about traveling in homophobic countries: not necessarily that we’ll be beat up, but that if something bad does happen, like one of us is taken to a hospital, our right to, say, make medical decisions for each other won’t be respected by the people in charge.)
All that said, we definitely take advantage of the Weird Foreigner Rule, which exempts Western travelers from most local norms. We already dress and talk and act like freaks. As long as we keep spending those tourist dollars, they usually don’t care what we do, as long as we’re reasonably discreet.
THE TOILET STUFF
There are a great number of things folks in Western countries take for granted: that you can drink the tap water, for example, or that the power will almost never go out.
And that when you go to the bathroom, you won’t have to squat over a hole in the floor.
Toilets in some Muslim and Southeast Asian countries can be…interesting. In addition to squatting over a hole in the floor, don’t assume there will be toilet paper. To this, we can only say, WTF? What is the thinking here exactly?
Oh, and whatever you do, don’t flush the toilet paper they don’t provide! Oftentimes the pipes aren’t meant for that, so you have to put the used toilet paper in a little bin — a bin that’s already full of other used toilet paper.
Um, yeah, okay, roger that.
These countries often helpfully provide a little hose that is used in lieu of (or in addition to) the toilet paper they don’t provide.
And yes, in many other countries, you’ll probably have to pay a few cents to use the facilities (but this isn’t necessarily bad: if you pay, the toilet is more likely to be clean, and — what a concept! — they’ll even have actual toilet paper).
This is the bad part of foreign toilets. The good part, at least in Europe, is the magical world of bidets. Why hasn’t America discovered these wonderful devices?
Also, most European countries have little toilet “rooms,” not just open-air stalls. In other words, they provide actual privacy. Heaven!
THE OTHER CULTURAL STUFF
Travel would be really boring if people and places were the same the world over. We love the fact that Italians take two-hour lunches, and that the Thai are so polite, and that the Swiss love everything in its place (and that the buses and trains really do arrive exactly on the minute they’re scheduled to arrive. It’s surreal.).
But other differences can be harder to get used to and understand. In Malta, almost everyone shouts. At first, we thought they were mad at us. But that’s how they talk to each other too. (Unfortunately, they start shouting at each other at 7 AM, which isn’t so great for Brent, who likes to sleep in.)
In Tbilisi, Georgia, it felt like folks weren’t terribly friendly. Michael is the sort of annoying American who goes around smiling at everyone and saying “Gamorjoba!,” which is Georgian for “hello.”
That isn’t the Georgian way. In fact, it isn’t the way in any country except America, which still hasn’t stopped Michael from going around most other countries grinning and nodding like an idiot.
THE “OH MY GOD, WHAT HAVE WE DONE?” STUFF
No one wants to be in a foreign country when things go way off the rails. But off the rails things sometimes go.
One morning in Bansko, Bulgaria, we smelled smoke outside — someone burning garbage, probably.
Except when we closed the window, the smell got stronger. The smell was coming from inside the apartment — specifically, from the bathroom.
Sure enough, a recent repair to our water heater had been done incorrectly, and it had caused an electrical fire.
Brent opened the door to the bathroom, letting in more oxygen, and the whole thing burst into flames. It’s one of the most terrifying moments of Brent’s life.
It was then we learned our apartment didn’t have a smoke detector or a fire extinguisher.
Brent ran downstairs shouting “Fire!” but no one spoke English, and everyone looked at him like he was crazy.
Really, people? Talk about a bad time for locals to practice the Weird Foreigner Rule!
Our phone coverage wasn’t working either, though eventually Michael managed to get a text through to our landlord, who called the fire department, who came and put the whole thing out. Frankly, it’s a good thing most Bulgarian buildings are made of concrete.
We survived, and more importantly, so did our laptops. But for a couple of very tense moments, we both thought, “Why the hell did we ever decide to become digital nomads?”
We had the exact same thought that time our airplane over the Atlantic also caught on fire.
But that will have to be the subject of another column.
Brent Hartinger is the author of the gay teen classic Geography Club, which was adapted as a feature film, and Michael Jensen is the former editor of AfterElton.com. Visit them at BrentAndMichaelAreGoingPlaces.com, or on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.