Welcome to “A Location-Flexible Life!” In the beginning of 2013 I left my 14-year position at MIT to become a “digital nomad.” It took me several years of thinking, dreaming, and planning before I felt I could make the leap, and now I have no regrets. I love this way of life!
If you’re new here, you may want to start with these posts:
March 11 was the first day that we didn’t go out in public because of COVID-19. I happened to be working from home that day, and James always works from home. We were beginning to worry about getting COVID, so we decided to stay away from people as much as possible.
Changing our plans for a European move
Just a few days before that, I told my boss and our department head of my plans to move to Budapest in late summer for a job at CEU. My contract was ending on July 31 (it has since been extended to Dec. 31), so I proposed that I could still work part-time for the University of Arizona Libraries — and do it remotely from Budapest. They liked that idea and said they would advocate for it. Later that became moot.
James and I soon realized that 2020 would not be a good year to move to Europe. The pandemic was raging there and would soon be raging in the U.S. We didn’t feel it would be safe to fly, let alone sell everything and plan a move. So we figured we would stay in Tucson for a year (or two, or longer) until things changed.
Needing more space at home
That meant that our tiny one-bedroom no longer seemed like a good place for both of us to be working from home. I used to go to my favorite coffee shops with my laptop while James worked in our living room. We had two desks in our living room, but I rarely used mine.
Now, with no coffee shops open, I was working from home full time. So I got in the habit of setting up a card table in our bedroom and sitting on the edge of our bed while working on that table with my laptop. That way I could close the door when James was interviewing astronomers for his podcast, or when I was making video recordings for online tutorials or for my online class. James has a lot more equipment and a bigger computer, so it wasn’t practical to move into the bedroom every day. I had only my laptop and an external microphone, so it was easy for me to set up and take things down every day.
At first I ended up with back pain from sitting on the edge of the bed all day, but eventually I got used to it. Still, it wasn’t ideal.
So we began to discuss moving. Maybe we could even buy a small house! We wondered if prices would dip because of the pandemic. At least we could rent a house with two or three bedrooms. So we started looking online.
Since we weren’t going anywhere during the pandemic we ended up taking a neighborhood walk or bike ride every day. As we started to find places for rent or for sale, we would arrange our route to go by one of them and see what the neighborhood was like. We were looking in our own neighborhood or nearby ones, since it’s easy to live without a car in these places.
We ended up loving these walks and rides! We went down all sorts of streets we had never been down before. We enjoyed the houses, the trees, the cactus, the birds, and all the desert plants. These neighborhoods are beautiful! We didn’t see very many other people out, so it was easy to stay far away from people.
After much research and looking at our finances, we decided it would be better to rent than buy. The prices weren’t going down much, and the down payment and other costs would have depleted our savings. We would rather have some money to buy some things for fixing up our new place. And it would be easier to move to Europe later if we didn’t have to worry about selling or renting out a house.
Our cute two-bedroom house!
Eventually we found the perfect rental house for us. It’s in a neighborhood called Sam Hughes, full of interesting and beautiful historic houses. Only a couple of miles from where we lived before. The streets are quiet and flat and perfect for biking. The house is small, but much bigger than our little apartment. And it has a free-standing garage that James has turned into a studio for his work. It also has a large backyard with a nice patio under a roof that extends from the garage.
Living in an apartment was not so great during a pandemic
The apartment we lived in before was cute, and the location was great, but it had several downsides for living in during a pandemic. First of all it was behind locked gates, and delivery drivers needed to text us to come out to the parking lot whenever something arrived. There were no buzzers or doorbells. We were getting packages from online stores, grocery deliveries from Instacart, and takeout food from DoorDash. Our mailboxes were located outside on the street, so we need to go through locked gates to get the mail as well.
That meant constant interruptions during our working day. It was also a struggle to keep our indoor cat from running out into the courtyard, which he liked to do from time to time.
At the beginning of the pandemic we (and everyone) were worried about touching surfaces that others had touched. So we found ways to open and close the gates with our feet or shoulders. We needed to use a shared laundry room in the opposite corner of our complex. That meant touching surfaces that the many people who lived there had touched. And waiting to do a wash if it was busy (only 3 washers and 3 dryers, and one was often out of order).
Another downside, now that we were cooking and eating at home for every meal, was the tiny kitchen. It had a smaller-than-usual fridge, and no dishwasher. I washed SO many dishes. I don’t mind cleaning, because I’m not much into cooking. James loves to cook and is very good at it. But wow, it’s nice to have a dishwasher and a full-sized fridge in our new rental house!
We also didn’t have enough space to store food that we were stocking up on. So we put packages of pasta and cans of beans inside the lower levels of a cat tree that our cat Max liked to sit on top of. We laughed when one day he dragged some of the packages out and put them near our bedroom door! As if to say… don’t put your stuff in my cat tree!
Setting up the house kept our minds off the pandemic worries
Like many people, it was easy to freak out about the pandemic and the state of society (especially in the U.S.) Every time we had a little cough or sneeze or throat tickle we worried. Is this it? Are we getting COVID? Luckily we haven’t got it (so far).
Moving and setting up a new place gave us a welcome relief from thinking too much about all that. Instead we obsessed with finding the best place, and then setting it up. It was fun! A huge decorating project. I’ve always loved decorating my living space. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed nomadic living for those five years. I kept having new places to fix up. Or I could choose an already furnished place based on how I liked the interior. Both were fun.
Before I became a nomad, I had a condo in Somerville, Massachusetts (part of Boston). I enjoyed decorating it and I thought I would never want to leave it. But my spirit of adventure and wanting to live as a nomad won out. Since 2013 I’ve decorated the following:
We worried about how we were going to move safely during a pandemic. Especially since we live car-free (for me since 2005, and James since 2016). In normal times I would rent a car for a week during a move to help with errands and shopping, etc. But not this time.
Luckily we found good movers for a reasonable price: Team Hustle. It was 3 guys and a U-Haul. They wore masks. James (and our cat Max) went to the new house first in a car driven by my co-worker/friend Maribeth (we all wore masks). I stayed to direct the movers on what to do (the door was kept open). Maribeth came back to get me after they got everything out and drove me to the new house then. We got takeout hummus plates from our favorite bakery/grocery: Time Market. The three of us sat around eating (with the house doors open) while the movers brought in the final pieces of furniture. Max the cat stayed near us in his little tent-like catio (so as not to run outside).
So it is possible to live without owning a car in Tucson and get everything done, even during a pandemic.
Before moving day we spend about a month getting rid of stuff, bit by bit, so that we could have a lean moving experience. Normally we would sell a few things, but we didn’t want to have contact with people who might have COVID. So we donated some things to people in our apartment complex. We dropped off used clothing in a neighborhood donation bin for Boys and Girls Club.
The biggest thing we donated was our bikes. We gave them to our upstairs neighbor (hers was stolen). We had already ordered new e-bikes from Rad Power Bikes – due to arrive about a month after we moved. And we didn’t want to deal with trying to sell our old bikes during the pandemic.
How being a digital nomad prepared me for the pandemic
Living in so many different locations for six years (2013 – 2018) made it easier to adapt to the pandemic. You wouldn’t think so, since now we can’t travel. But the flexibility I had to learn for adapting to new situations and cultures somehow made it easier. And of course, I was completely used to working remotely.
I was used to communicating with coworkers using various technology tools. I also became good at scheduling my work day to coordinate with my best energy levels at different times of day. When we thought we would be moving to Budapest, my University of Arizona colleagues were willing to advocate for extending my contract so that I could work for them from afar.
Now I’m working remotely for U of A while living only a few blocks from campus. I’m also working remotely for CEU in Budapest. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I could be living almost anywhere in the world and still working for both universities.
A virtual social life
The other thing I got used to during my nomadic years was being physically alone most of the time, but virtually close to my friends. Just like now, during the pandemic.
Two of my closest friends (Melissa and Evelyn) were in the habit of staying in regular touch by texting, email, and Facebook Messenger. Several of my other friends would Skype with me from time to time, or arrange to talk on the phone for a while.
After I met James in Vermont in 2016, I left for the winter in Tucson (for 7 months). But he was great at keeping in touch virtually! We had online dates where we watched Westworld together and chatted online about it at the same time. Fun!
Of course I wasn’t alone all the time during those years. Evelyn visited me in Oaxaca, Budapest, and Portland. I made a new friend in Seattle (Philip) and later he visited me in Tucson. I also dated various people from time to time before I met James. But most of the time I was alone with only virtual communication. So I was used to feeling connected that way. I know it’s not the same as being physically with people, but it helped me feel connected.
Living car-free is not an advantage during a pandemic
I’ve been free of car ownership since 2005 (when I lived in Boston). I’ve always loved not owning a car. It’s been easy with so many options — public transportation, Uber, Lyft, biking, and walking. I get more exercise, save money, and don’t contribute as much to air pollution and traffic.
As a digital nomad, I always chose locations that were very walkable and bikeable. I used Walkscore to find neighborhoods to live in when I was researching places to live. Yes, you can live without a car even in places like in Los Angeles (I lived in Echo Park) or Tucson.
So now that we need to stay isolated from people, it’s the first time that I ever thought having a car would make sense. We didn’t feel safe taking Lyft or Uber, or renting a car during peak pandemic times. And with hot Arizona temperatures being over 100 for days on end, it was not so comfortable going places on foot or by bike. At least not very far.
Of course we try not to go anywhere anyway. We get all our groceries delivered. We haven’t been to dentists, doctors, or hair salons. But sometimes you need to go somewhere. Like when some furniture we ordered came early (before we moved into the new house) and was left at a FedEx location for pickup. (My coworker with a minivan helped us then). Or when we needed to get our CSA food (Community Supported Agriculture). We used to live only one block from the pickup area and now we live a couple of miles from it. Our pickup time is between 4 and 7 pm on Wednesdays. There was a month-long gap between when we gave away our old bikes and when our new e-bikes came in, so we only had our feet to rely on. And it’s been super-hot, reaching 107 or 108 degrees many days.
In normal times if it was too hot to ride or walk, we would call a Lyft. But we didn’t want to breathe the same air as our driver, who may have been exposed to many people (with community spread so high here in Arizona). So I thought… just for pandemic times, it would be nice to have a car. But that wasn’t enough for us to get one. Life is so much better when you walk and bike every day and don’t have to deal with traffic, car repairs, maintenance, and all the related expenses.
Now that we have our e-bikes, it’s so easy to bike anywhere (like to our CSA pickup). Eventually the heat will subside and we’ll have seven good months of fabulous weather. (November through May is wonderful in Tucson). We currently bike for fun and exercise around our neighborhood. Lately it’s been mostly after dark since it’s so hot. We have very bright lights so we can be seen from all sides.
We are actually planning to rent a car for two days in late September for my birthday. We now live only a 30 minute walk from a car rental location, and they can meet you outside for the transaction. We want to go to a drive-in movie. (We miss movie theaters!) And maybe drive out to Gates Pass and look at the beautiful sunset in the desert.
It’s been 2.5 years since I last wrote on this blog! Wow. Time flies. I am unexpectedly staying in Tucson for a few years. Here’s my story.
Moving with James from Vermont to Tucson
Since I last posted, many things have happened. James moved with me to Tucson in May of 2018. We brought his beautiful black cat Fiona with us. We rented a small one-bedroom apartment near University and 6th Ave. A perfect location for biking and walking! (I’ve been free of car ownership since 2005).
We both worked freelance. I worked in coffee shops with my laptop while James worked from home. We visited many interesting nature sites in and near Tucson, went to LOTS of movies (The Loft Cinema is our favorite local movie theater), and several street fairs, museums, festivals, and music events.
In November of 2018, our cat Fiona died of cancer. So sad. After our usual trip to Vermont for Christmas in 2018, we came back to Tucson and visited a shelter and found a new cat to adopt. His name is Max! We love him.
Getting a full-time job
Since 2018 was a low income year for my freelance business (several gigs fell through), and James was just starting a new freelance business, I decided to look for a full-time job at the end of 2018. I ended up getting the perfect job for me: e-learning developer at Univ. of Arizona Libraries! It was a temporary one-year position (January – December of 2019), but it got renewed for six months through July 31, 2020, and then another six months through Dec. 31, 2020. (I’m hoping it will get renewed again in 2021).
My colleagues are very flexible about how much I work in the office and how much I work from home, so I started working from home (actually in coffee shops) about 2 or 3 days a week.
In addition, I continued to work part time for the library of Central European University in Budapest. I make updates to their website – the one I redesigned for them in 2015 while I was in Budapest. I also teach online courses for librarians from time to time. I haven’t written any new books recently because you can only do so much work on the side while also working full time!
We both work remotely
James has been building up his business of astronomy journalism and education. He writes on Medium, has a website called The Cosmic Companion, and offers a video podcast series where he interviews astronomers about their latest research. He even has a comic strip called Max on Mars! It’s the story of a cat who stows away in a spaceship to Mars, and it’s based on the personality of our adventurous cat Max. He also writes a newsletter on astronomy news with both free and paid subscription options.
Here’s an example of one of his interviews with astronomers.
In the fall of 2019, we started discussing the idea of moving to Europe in the summer of 2020. Most likely to either Vienna or Budapest because I had a potential full-time job offer from Central European University. I enjoyed my three months in Budapest in 2015 and my three weeks there in 2017. James has visited other parts of Europe several times and was excited about the idea of living there. He can do his journalism from anywhere, since it’s completely remote. My job at University of Arizona was always a temporary contract anyway and also has the possibility of working remotely.
On December 26, 2019, James and I got married! One of the reasons we decided to get legally married was to make our move to Europe easier — James could be on my work visa as a spouse (much harder to arrange as a live-in companion). Of course, the main reason was that we love each other and are extremely compatible!
Since we go to Vermont and Boston every year for the holidays, we figured it would be convenient to have our wedding in Vermont, while our group of friends (who are family to us) was gathered anyway. So we rented an art gallery space in Brattleboro, only a few blocks away from the apartment where we were staying with our friends. We ordered vegetarian pizzas and salad from a local place, and got a cake made at a local bakery (Amy’s in Brattleboro — one of our favorite places).
Our friends helped us decorate the place, and two of our favorite people (the grown children of my best friends) did the readings. Xavier read from Carl Sagan and Mr. Rogers, and Rosa read from Dr. Seuss. My friend Melissa got certified to be the officiant, and my friend Sandy did a wonderful toast. James’ best man Brian did another toast (super-funny), and Brian’s son Phoenix handed us the rings. Sandy’s son Isiah was our sound guy, controlling a Spotify playlist on the sound system. We had a slide show projected on the wall of some of our favorite photos of the two of us. Melissa bought us a night in the local hotel (so we could have privacy instead of staying in the big group apartment). And we extended the stay in the Latchis Hotel because it was so nice to stay there and have our own space for a few days.
All together we had about 30 people there and it was just perfect. Neither of us has parents who are living, and neither of us has children (by choice), but our group of Vermont friends really are long-term family to us (especially me, since I’ve known them for over 30 years).
A few days later, we flew back to Tucson, rented a car, and drove to an Airbnb in the foothills of Tucson (instead of going home right away). This was our “mini-moon” and we had a great time. The weather was perfect, and we went hiking in Catalina State Park on New Year’s Day.
Back at our apartment we had a “Trusted Housesitter” named Marci who stayed in our place and took care of Max the cat while we were away. That worked out so well! She played with Max and enjoyed being in Tucson for a week or so. And she sent us photos every day (since we missed Max). I recommend Trusted Housesitters if you ever need to find someone to stay in your place and take care of your pets.
We were so happy to see Max when we came home!
The Pandemic Era
Everything changed when the pandemic hit.
And at the same time, as a remote worker, many things felt completely normal. Read more in part 2 of this post.
One good thing about having location-flexible work is that you can choose when to live as a nomad, and when to stay in one place for a while. After “nomading” for 4.5 years, I’ve been staying in one place for almost 9 months (a record for me)! It’s beautiful Brattleboro, Vermont.
Before this 9-month period, I spent my third winter in Tucson (Nov. 2016 to May 2017), and it was lovely. The weather is so great during those months (especially compared to New England), and I have some Tucson friends that I enjoy spending time with. I loved riding my bike, living in a micro-apartment, and using the co-working space in downtown Tucson. See my last post for details: A digital nomad in Vermont & Tucson: good friends and the joys of coworking.