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Archive for the ‘Life Journeys’ Category

Taking the step and journeying abroad can be challenging. My biggest fear in transitioning from a digital nomad in the states to a digital nomad abroad was the internet, or lack of it.

Dreaming of the streets of Rome is one thing, but as a digital nomad your dream depends on one source: the internet

Having lived in Italy before, I was very well aware that my expectations of the internet were not the same as an Italians, and that the reality of a bad connection could easily open the door to potentially disastrous results. If I could not work, I would risk upsetting my employers and loosing a significant portion of income only to end up back home at square one. It was a situational red flag that had “stop!” written all over it.

After months of mental debates and endless considerations, I found myself in Rome one beautiful Monday morning, riding the Leonardo da Vinci express into the city center. With the time difference, I knew I would be able to get to my apartment, unpack, shower and rest before “heading” to work (my long three-foot journey to my desk).

Before laying down to ease my jet lag, I popped open my laptop and briefly tested the connection. All seemed well on the digital front, and so I happily dozed off. I had no idea what was awaiting me.

Some hours later, I lazily rolled out of bed, shuffled over to the simple wooden desk, opened my laptop and waited for the magic of the internet to transfer me at the speed of light across the ocean, linking me to my company.

Nothing.

Taking a deep breath, I remained calm. Having travelled and used the internet from different locations in the past, I knew that it could sometimes take a few tries to establish a connection. But an hour later, still staring at a blank screen, I felt like my entire world was sinking around me.

With the clock ticking, I knew that I could no longer cross my fingers and hope for the best of the web, and so I crossed the hall to my landlord’s flat and rang the shrill buzzer. Explaining to her in broken Italian my life and death situation, she kindly took an interest and attempted to help. Unfortunately, nothing could be done. She suggested that I wait a few hours and perhaps her son could be of more assistance when he returned home.

A public phone in Rome much like the one I used that night

Grabbing my purse and coat, I headed out to find a “Tabacchi” (a little Italian shop where you can buy lottery tickets, cigarettes, etc.). For five euros I was handed an international calling card, which I promptly carried to the very first pay phone I could find. As my luck would have it, I ended up standing on the busy corner of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, the road that leads to the Coliseum, engaged in a semi-tearful phone call to my family back home. (Standing on a street corner looking distraught while holding the glaring red receiver of a public phone to your head is probably not the most pleasant way to kickstart a journey.)

With the promise of prayers from the states, I said goodbye to the familiar voice, buried my hands deep in my coat pockets and wandered aimlessly through the darkening streets. Falling away from the beaten path, I came across the large, looming facade of a church, it’s doors still hanging wide open. Feeling like this was something of an invitation, I crossed the narrow street and wandered into the mysterious space.

It was dark, dimly lit and I was all alone, sheltered by the 500-year-old arms of a building that had seen many more souls desperate than mine. I stared forlornly at the flicking candles that whispered prayers to ancient saints, and gazed in sadness at the painted icon above the altar. Step by slow step I made my way down the aisle, passing rows of abandoned pews, until I could walk no more and simply sank down on one of the narrow wooden benches.

Santa Maria dei Monti in Rome, the church that welcomed me that first night

That was when I began to silently talk. To God. In the private corners of my mind I whispered my concerns, and the more I spoke the more distraught I became. Sheltered by the privacy of the semi-darkness, the only eyes to gaze upon me the centuries old statues and paintings of holy men and women, a need began to take over me. It was a need so deep I had not even realized how strong and powerful it was, for it had never emerged in such a way. When the container holding it finally cracked, I was overwhelmed at what poured out.

Sometimes we do not realize just how much we truly want something until the recognition that it could be lost is most tangibly felt. That is how it was for me, and in those moments the tears that poured forth were of an intensity that I had never known while sitting in a church. I even stopped caring if anyone saw me or what they would think. I simply could not and did not want to stop the force of longing from breaking through the suddenly frail container of my humanity.

I talked, prayed and cried until people filed in, lights went up, mass was said, people filed out, and the lights went down again. I sat until only the loving eyes of the ancient statues and paintings remained to gaze tenderly upon me. Only then did I leave.

Santa Maria dei Monti, much brighter when pictured on a sunny day

Hoping that somehow the echoes of my being splitting in two by the force of desire had been heard, I stepped out into the cool night air and made my way back along the busy road. Turning down the little quiet medieval street, I hurried to my flat where with my landlord and her son we tried every option we could think of until we were all exhausted from so much effort and so few results. Perhaps the force of desire had not split loudly enough as I had hoped.

Pinned to a wall and with no other options, the next evening I found myself at a local internet cafe. Wired in and uncomfortably seated in a hard metal chair, flourescent green walls screaming at me from every angle, I logged on and went to work. Later that night, I sleepily wandered down the little medieval street to my flat, climbed the 7 flights, and lay across my bed staring at the darkened ceiling. I talked to God a lot during that time.

Some friends back home had suggested that the problem was just temporary, and that perhaps the internet would resume functioning again. I put a little hope into this suggestion, but it did not take me long to recognize the true source of the problem.

Staying in the flat next to mine, and renting from the same landlord, was a group of young girls who were studying abroad. As the days passed, I quickly began to notice that when they went out in the morning, the internet suddenly came alive. I could surf for hours and utilize all my programs without a glitch. But the moment I heard their door unlock and the sounds of furniture moving on the other side of the wall, I came to recognize that within 10 minutes or less the internet would disappear for the entire night. All night. Into the early hours of the morning. My problem was not the internet, but bandwith-sapping neighbors who were using the internet for some unknown but clearly intense purposes.

To my dismay, I learned that they were scheduled to remain there for many months and so I finally knew I had no choice. The internet would never be reliable as long as they were “sharing” (hogging?) it. I had to either find another flat in Rome, or quickly purchase a plane ticket back home.

Deciding that after all my trials option B was the most desirable choice, I began contacting prospective apartment owners zealously. I parked myself on my sofa for days (during the hours the girls were away), sending e-mail replies to every internet add, signing up with every apartment finder service, and clogging my account with reply after reply in the negative. “Sorry, we do not have internet.” “We have internet – want to go in debt to live here?” “We are connected, but nothing is available for another 3 months. Your request is too last-minute.” “We have a nice place with a great connection and it is available – if you take a train for 45 minutes outside of Rome and walk another twenty you can come see it.” It seemed hopeless, and time was ticking.

In those questionable hours of my life, I kept returning in my mind to the church I had sat in on the first night. In the little chapel of my thoughts, I spoke at length with God about everything I felt and feared. I threw all of my trust into His hands, telling Him time and time again that I was certain He would not abandon me. I threw my faith into overdrive and dwelt on one thought alone; that I trusted in Him.

But time was growing too long, and I had to make a radical decision. Either move somewhere far on the outskirts, go broke living in a place beyond my means (but stay in Rome, where I truly longed to be), or purchase a ticket home. Spun into a world of uncertainty, I was amazed when I came home Sunday evening and found a little blue paper that my landlord had slid under my door.

Picking it up, my eyes widened as I read the letters inked upon the unlined page, “the girls are moving out.”

I stood there, still weighed down by my bags and coat, half out of breath from the seven flight climb, and just starred in what could only be understood as joy and shock all rolled into one. In my hand I was holding a little piece of paper with words that would literally save my Roman dreams. My gratitude was enormous, and all that echoed inside my head were the two words “thank you” over and over. The force of desire and longing that had split my heart so powerfully that first night, and all the prayers after it, had somehow been heard.

A few days later, the girls did indeed relocate to another flat in Rome. And that evening I happily shuffled to work in pink flip-flops, turned on my computer, and peacefully went to work. It was as if nothing had ever happened.

Yet something had happened. I had not only discovered the force of my desire to be in Rome, which I had never truly known until the moment I realized it cold be taken away from me, but I had also been given a glimpse into the power of faith. While I will never know what would have happened if I had not poured out my heart to God in those moments, and turned to him in my little trust, I do know what happened when I did.

Travel showed me a side of my own heart that I had not known and the kindness of God to my simple human desires. And chapter one of my life as a digital nomad abroad ended with a challenge presented, and a priceless lesson learned.

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While it may seem unusual, I can literally pinpoint my obsession with Europe to one single day in the fall of my 21st year.

At 21, all I wanted to do was sail off into the sunset.

From the summer after I had graduated high school just over three years prior, there had been a constant tug of war between both my mother and myself. I had dreamed of heading off to the islands and gaining my “education” through adventurous experiences, crewing on a boat around the world. However, this free “diploma” was not the one my mother had intended to hang on her wall. Being the coercive leo that she is, she did everything she could to literally stuff me in the car and drive me off to college right on time with everyone else, at the young age of 18 (while I played Jimmy Buffett tunes and sang about how “I don’t know where I’m a gonna go…”).

Feeling defiantly boxed into a corner, I made good on my outspoken promise to be seen but not participate. I went through the motions of heading to class, but engaged all of my effort into my fraternity boyfriend, throwing the biggest parties in the dorm, and living the “coolest” new-found life of freedom that I could.

While my shallow existence could have easily continued on for a lifetime of trivial pursuits, a series of unexpected events that would quickly unravel over the next few years taught me first-hand the meaninglessness of the path that I was on. It was as though someone grabbed ahold of the steering wheel and made a very sharp, dramatic turn, setting the car that was my life onto an unknown road I had never seen before.

Once I was on this unexpected road, however, I never had any interest in turning back. The road began to hurriedly climb a steep mountain which I now knew had always been near at hand, but had never noticed. As I sat helplessly in the passenger seat, I turned my head to gaze out the window where I could see everyone I had left behind, all so far below. They seemed to be congealed together in a great mass, all struggling and writhing for the little bits of happiness that they could find here and there. It looked miserable, almost shocking really, and I wondered why I had never viewed it that way before.

And then, suddenly, the car stopped someplace far up the deserted mountain, surrounded by a dense, misty grey fog. Like a magic trick it disappeared and I was left standing alone never to know who the driver was or why I had literally been abandoned there. All I knew was that I now only desired to continue journeying upwards.

Symbolic metaphors aside, daily life continued on and my mother, still desperate to hang on to her dream of seeing me through college, found a school she thought I would like and suggested their program to me. A little more open to the idea of education at this point, which stemmed from a burgeoning intellectual curiosity about life, I wandered through the catalog until something caught my eye. At first it was religious studies, but then it was humanities. Before long, I was registered in courses for both European history as well as European art history.

And that leads me to the day that I mentioned earlier. The one day where it all definitively began.

My mind filled with so many fascinating subjects, I now felt a deeper calling to be in a place with so much history and culture.

Completely alone, I had locked myself in my bedroom to study. Sitting on the small round carpet on my floor, I leaned against the wall, tilted my head to the right and gazed out the window next to me. The textbook I had been reading lay idle in my lap, its pages open to an image of medieval Europe and the great universities that had once paved the way for the educational system that we know now. My mind seemed to bob gently up and down in a sea of art and history, the middle ages and the Roman times, culture and legendary figures. I gazed at the blue sky so far above, dotted with gently drifting clouds and thought to myself both dreamily and yet with a deeply profound determination that I did not recognize yet, “I am going to live in Europe some day. One day, I am going to be at one of those universities. One day.”

It was as simple as that. A seed was planted in fertile soil and I never could forgot that moment and the call to Europe that I had first felt. That one, single thought lingered in my life, like an anchor that I somehow knew I needed, and continued to grow. It was a part of me in a deep, hidden way that was unexplainable, and still is.

I hung on to it through many trials. Such a radical turn in an individual’s life as the one I was experiencing was hard to prove stable to others, but I began to work seriously at my studies and eventually was accepted to a solid American university where I graduated Magna cum Laude.

But I was not done there. I continued to hang on to it even when others told me that it never could be. My boyfriend used to laugh good-naturedly at my insistence that I would go to school in Europe some day. Acquaintances thought I was full of smoke and enjoyed gossiping about how it was all a pipe dream. Maybe a study abroad program for a semester would be nice, but to get a full degree somehow seemed unreasonable to them. Yet the more that small seed grew, the more I hungered for what was trying to manifest itself into my reality.

I hung on to it as I made my applications to graduate school abroad, hand shaking from a fiance who had tried to tear all hope out of me. I continued to hang onto it on the airplane the day that I finally left, as the engines revved and the aircraft began to slowly pull away. I hung on to it as sitting there in my window seat the realization that this was it brought a sledge-hammer down on my life, tearing it apart and dividing it in two.

I hung onto it that first night in Ireland, when all I could do was lay on the unmade bed in my dorm room and stare at the ceiling, too overwhelmed to understand where I was or what I was doing. Through homesickness, culture shock and a multitude of challenges to complex to describe here, I refused to let it go. I hung on to it because it was the one thing I knew I could not let go of without loosing apart of myself. It was truly apart of me. It was my dream. The anchor of my life.

In the end, I walked down not one but two aisles to receive two European degrees. And when everyone had thought it was over, and it was time for me to stop living in a dream and to take up reality, I still hung on to it. I ran with my gut and listened to what it was telling me, and went in that direction only. And today, I write this from my flat in Rome.

I will always hang onto it. It is apart of who I am. You know you were destined for something when it comes true despite what everyone else is telling you. Promises are like that. They only whisper to the promised and no one else can hear them but the one they are speaking to.

It can be hard to listen and let yourself be led. But a call will lead, if you allow it, as mine is still leading, up that misty, mysterious mountain, to a destiny shaped only for you.

As I fall asleep tonight, I cannot help but wonder what it is that I am journeying to. What awaits me at the highest peak of the mountain? It is a question whose answer continues to elude me, in the most tantalizing way, and so I am thankful for the still unknown journey that lays ahead.

And, for mom.

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