Tbilisi, Georgia (Photo by Vano Shlamov / AFP)
Artillery Row

Like a rolling stone

The sadder side of digital nomadism

It’s five o’clock on a beautiful, warm and sunny afternoon in Tbilisi, and I’m 300ml of vodka and around a dozen cigarettes to the good. When the sun forced me awake this morning, (after dosing myself with the first shot of the day) the first thing I did was cancel today’s tour with Mariam. Have you ever stood near a tramp and been hit by the smell of pure raw alcohol radiating off them? Last night (like every night) was a heavy one, and I didn’t want to subject her to that on a drag about town.

Welcome to the dark side of digital nomads: the people seized by the romantic ideal of living in, imbibing and embracing a foreign culture, yet who have neither the skills nor the mental wellness to succeed at it. What proportion are we, those who are running from our problems, of the exile community? I don’t know, but I suspect that James Innes-Smith’s recent paean to the joys of digital nomadism is not an entirely universal experience amongst our tribe.

It is about testing oneself in new cultures and amongst foreign peoples

First, let me admit that James’ piece contains much that is true. When you’re not tied to a desk, to a town or even a country, you can experience more of the world’s richness. The architecture, the food, the landscape, the weather, the cost of living and the politics are indeed different in other parts of the globe. Who knew?

Yet James makes one astonishing omission in his otherwise admirable article. Maybe I need to read it a fourth or fifth time, but at no point does he mention the motivation to meet people. Isn’t that exactly what travel (as we used to call it) is all about? If we do not achieve these human connections, can we judge our self-imposed exile to be anything other than a failure?

Paul Theroux understands this better than most. His trilogy of Great Train Books barely mentions the sights. He focuses primarily on people. Theroux recounts conversations and paints character studies of everyone he encounters. In The Great Railway Bazaar, these range from the exquisitely-mannered professor on the languid ride to Jaipur, to the hapless and dithering Duffill, whom fellow passengers suspect is a spy. He ends up stranded on the platform as the Orient Express pulls out of the station without him. 

Theroux knows that dullards play just as important a role as these more exotic characters. In one gorgeously vicious passage from The Old Patagonian Express, he recounts a late night dining car discussion with a self-righteous young health nut. On his tipsy return to his compartment, Theroux replays their conversation in his head. “We had talked about her vegetarianism and her belief that cows’ milk caused human illness; I spoke of Leopold Bloom’s relish for the faint tang of urine in the inner organs of beasts and fowls. I mean, I thought I was interesting. And yet she never asked a single question of me; never offered any insight or sign of a wider culture beyond her own self-interest.” 

(I paraphrase; I do not have the book in front of me. Like stout Cortez burning his boats, I divested myself of my library before I left England.)

For me, this encapsulates the essence of self-exile. It is about testing oneself in new cultures and amongst foreign peoples, about representing your country and your people in the best possible light. Most importantly, it’s a means of measuring yourself constantly against others so you can assess the best and the worst of yourself and thereby (if this doesn’t sound nauseatingly sanctimonious) improve oneself. 

One of the best moments of my convoluted journey to Tbilisi occurred in Istanbul, as I stumbled back to the hostel after a night of merriment with a veritable Benetton ad of fellow travellers, I overheard my new friend Uzair comment to another guest: “The Englishman, he is a good man.” There has not been much to smile about in the last nine months, but that left a glow. 

I submit that travel is less about culture and cuisine than it is about people — or rather the reaction one elicits from people. That’s where I’ve failed. Since arriving in Tbilisi in early January, I have made precisely two friends. One of them I pay for. You know, like you would a prostitute. She is called Mariam, and she is one of the most beautiful people you’ll ever meet. She is kind; she is funny; she is thoughtful and caring; she is deeply knowledgeable about her country and its culture — and she is 25 lari an hour. 

This complicates matters somewhat. I like to think we are friends. She once travelled 90 minutes across town for no other reason than to give me some delicious leftovers from a family feast. I’m writing her website copy and helping her brush up on her already-fluent English. Chaste as it is, our relationship feels genuine — we laugh a lot — and yet I cannot call it a true friendship when there’s money involved. It’s becoming especially awkward now: when we go out for dinner, do I compensate her for her time? Or is dinner enough?

My other friend I met on a dating app, but it was to be a brief romance: shortly after our encounter, she texted me from the local Bedlam where she’d been admitted for manic depression. Our only real intercourse these days is the occasional request to top up her mobile.

What fugitive from his homeland can flee from himself?

If we are judging the success of my nomading by the friendships I’ve made, then you can count the whole thing as an unutterable failure. What then, realistically, could I do to improve my pitiful record? 

There are of course the co-working spaces that have sprung up everywhere from Madrid to Managua. Aside from baulking at paying £80 a week for what is essentially just deskspace and WiFi, I don’t particularly want to be around North Americans and Western Europeans talking about bitcoin, HTML5 and all the other dull digital stuff we nomads do. I get enough of that in my job.

For men not averse to sleeping with other men, there’s always Grindr. In fact, that initially showed some promise. I got a hook-up with an American guy who was on his way to what most people would consider a pretty cool party. “Finally,” I thought, “finally I’ve made it.” Pissed as I was, I reckoned I made a good impression: I was putting the effort in to do what we autists hate to do, which is to engage with strangers. They laughed at my jokes; I wasn’t sick on the floor. Job done.

Or so I thought. The first signs that it hadn’t gone so well was when I contacted one of those partygoers, a Lebanese man, on Insta, and he mentioned that I had been “too intense”. Then, when I mentioned this conversation a few weeks later to Liza, a young exile from Belarus who had also been there, she baldly told me: “Yes. It was clear you were in crisis.”

Golly. I knew I wasn’t well. I suspected I stank of alcohol. I was aware my face looked lined and sallow, that anyone watching me pour a drink would see me shaking like a shitting dog. But crisis? And so obviously? 

Thence I began to look at my fellow exiles in a different light — with the suspicion that some of them are maybe not living their best lives but are, like me, in the midst of a nervous breakdown that no number of miles and hostels and new languages or landscapes can cure. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they call it a “geographical”: the illusion that a sudden, impulsive change of scene will spark sobriety. Horace put it more poetically: Patriæ quis exsul se quoque fugit — what fugitive from his homeland can flee from himself?

For instance, I saw it in the harrowed, haggard, hungover face of the Argentine I until recently shared rooms with. I never asked what he was doing in Georgia. Anyone with the least knowledge of Argentina knows it is not far off becoming a failed state. Why stay in a country with little or no economic opportunity, where inflation eats away your wealth faster than you can earn it? For multilingual and tech-savvy Argentinians, escape makes sense. Yet when he was telling me about his future plans (Portugal because “why not?”) the bleakness in his eyes was shocking even to me. He looked, as I imagine I do, and certainly appeared to Bolz and Liza, lost. 

Why do we do it? I’m not talking about successful nomads like James, eating (and I hope sharing) tapas in the glow of a glorious sunset, but we who are making such a hash of it. I don’t think there’s any single reason, but the obvious thing that unites us is failure. It is not just our own professional and personal failures — the inability to afford security or a good quality of life; our failed relationships — but just as importantly the failures of our nations.

Inflation and the cost of living. The slow collapse of public services. A toxic political culture, where our elected representatives spend their time debating what a woman is at precisely the time the barbarians are hammering at the gates. 

In former times we had no choice: we had to stay, and suck it up, and maybe contribute to turning things around. Today, some of us can run.

So we do. We run, for whatever reason and we know not where. We do it because if we’re able to run, it means we’re still alive. Maybe we can find some friends along the way. It’s not that we think they’ll be of any particular use to us, nor that such relationships have especial meaning or longevity, but perhaps only to prove we can still make friends at all.

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