Back in the U.S.A.

At the beginning of this month I landed back in the U.S. after two years of living abroad, in Oaxaca, Mexico and Berlin, Germany. Bringing the adventure to a close was bittersweet. It was hard to be sure when the right moment was for it to end, but I’m so grateful I had these experiences, and I’m also glad to be back.

The experience was overwhelming, and over the last two years I had less time for reflection, and sharing my reflections, than I’d expected. I didn’t do as much blogging, or writing, as I wanted. Most of the time I felt pulled along like by an ocean current, and simple everyday things felt like a big achievement. And often they were, given that I was struggling with a language and culture that I barely understood.

There’s no way to sum up life in another country, and I’m avoiding it as much as I can. In some ways I feel like these places I lived are as much a mystery now as they were before I left. But of course that isn’t true. Likewise, it’s pretty foolish to dwell on what I didn’t do instead of what I did – seeing and doing things I never could have imagined. Intellectually I feel like I’ve had a huge meal and it’s going to take me years to digest it. I’m glad we did a year in each place. A year is long enough to get used to things, to start to take them for normal.

Friends have asked me how we did this, especially considering Aurora and I have a small child. The answer is that having Mazzy was part of what pushed us to do it when we did. Instead of Aurora rushing back to work, and sticking our baby in childcare, I was able to support us as a digital nomad. We knew we were going to have to leave San Francisco if we wanted more space. There were issues with our apartment (that’s another story). Now, we’re coming back to sobering realities of housing costs that are a potent reminder of why we left.

I would never discourage anyone from trying to do the same thing – seeing the world outside the U.S. is incredible, fun and instructive. But I would advise caution: it takes a lot of effort. Hustling gigs remotely and bringing in an income from outside the country is most definitely harder and more complicated than freelancing when you’re on the scene. But – it’s definitely possible.

My hope is that it’s going to get easier for people to do this: finding and securing quality jobs or freelance gigs remotely from anywhere in the world. People in their 30s and under are pretty wired in and understand that many jobs can be done well from anywhere, using email, Skype, and phone, as long as the person doing the work is responsible, hard-working and can follow through without someone breathing down their neck.

Coming back to the U.S., and the Bay Area after such a long time away, everything looks odd to me: the sidewalks, the buildings, the telephone wires.

The people: amazing in their diversity, and unique in the world this way… a reminder to me that although we fail all the time at living together with mutual respect and decency, and need to do so much better at it, there isn’t any country in the world that is doing it at this scale. It really is an experiment, a work-in-progress. And at our best, it’s really beautiful.

Strangest of all: the stores, the aisles of plenty, the packaging, the prices.

Comparisons always fall short, but they’re impossible to avoid. There’s things I like best about Mexico, about Germany, and about here. Things each country gets right in a way the others don’t. And so I end up pointing out these things to people: the warmth and hospitality in Oaxaca, the amazing public transit in Berlin.

But what I’m actually talking about is experiences of my own. The time the owner of the ice cream shop in Oaxaca came out from behind the counter, asked to hold Mazzy, and then, delighted by the kid, passed her around to all the other staff while Aurora and I sat back and laughed and ate our ice cream. I’m talking about the days and nights exploring Berlin by train, the psychedelic tile designs and medieval-looking blackletter in the stations, the howl of the U-Bahn as it comes down the tunnel.

Those are the things that don’t let go of you.


2 Responses

  1. Kirk says:

    My friend Matthieu and Mareille lived all around the islands, and mountains of Asia with one and then two small kids in tow. When asked how the kids handled the nomadic existense they said, the kids can handle anything, for them its normal. The question is always can you handle it yourself.
    Wishing you much joy and success on your homecoming.

  2. Justin Allen says:

    Thanks Kirk, hope all’s well with you and yours in Berlin. Truly the kids are more adaptable than some people think, they’re always in the moment while we tend to be the ones pulled forward and backward and feeling displaced.

Leave a Reply