Yesterday, I had a private online French lesson with an Afro-French man living temporarily in Mexico. The teacher – let’s call him Francois – said he was divorced, and had therefore decided to travel the world without fixed abode. I didn’t ask whether he had children. He seemed in his mid 40s, friendly, and gregarious.
Francois had come to Mexico in March 2020, he said, just a few days before COVID hit. He had been living in Colombia, teaching French online through a platform that I regularly use. He had had to leave Colombia for a few days to renew his visa, and took advantage of the requirement to visit pre-Hispanic tourist attractions in Mexico. He was then prevented from flying back to Colombia because of Corona, and has been in a Mexican Air B and B ever since.
We spent an hour on the call, and instead of reviewing my French grammar, as I was supposed to do, Francois regaled me with stories from his recent years of travel in Latin America. He had traveled to Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and Venezuela, in addition to living in Colombia and Mexico. In almost every country, he rented an Air B and B with a strong internet connection, worked 10 hours a day as an online French tutor, and used his free time to get to know his surroundings. He had thoughts on all the political, social, and cultural contexts he had visited, and seemed both well informed and thoughtful.
Francois had no discernible career goals or agenda. He was getting to know Mexico, he said, and thought he might spend a few more months, or perhaps more, traveling around. We talked about neighborhoods I knew in Mexico City, and he re-emphasized that any place he rented needed to have a good internet connection, so that he could continue his work. Otherwise, anything and anywhere would be just fine.
As far as I could tell, Francois had no intention of returning to France, no family ties that kept him in any single geographic space, and no particular agenda, other than to earn enough money to live and keep traveling. There was no grand plan, no particular focus. Just an openness to the world, and a willingness to go anywhere of interest, as long as his laptop and wifi were in good repair. This, I guess, is what they call a true digital nomad.
I’ve thought about his life ever since our class. I too have wandered a fair bit, but unlike Francois, it’s always been a painful, rootless process. I enjoy getting to know new places, and am always anxious to move on, but I also always miss a sense of belonging, of home, of connectedness. I’ve lived (in temporal order), in Washington DC, the south of France, Cape Cod, Jerusalem, Palo Alto, Jerusalem, Palo Alto, Tel Aviv, Berkeley, New York, Geneva, New York, Belgrade, Providence, Washington DC, Baltimore, Montreal, Ottawa, Mexico City, and Minneapolis (I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few). In none of those places did I ever really feel at home, save for perhaps a few years in high school in Jerusalem, and one year in my early 20s in Tel Aviv. As a result, I often feel lonely and disoriented, wondering what the hell I am doing in whatever city I happen to be residing in at that moment. Minneapolis is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere since my teens – eight years and counting – and it still feels like a new place I just arrived in, and that I’ll soon be leaving.
Francois, however, seemed cool as a cucumber about his nomadic life. He was open to the world, good at making friends, gregarious, curious, and comfortable in his skin. I envied that comfort as much as I envied my old friends in Israel or elsewhere who feel absolutely at home, despite their complaints about the government, economy, society, and politics.
Embrace staying at home, or embrace global nomadism. Living in the grey middle for decades: not so much.
Of course, I have no idea if Francois’ apparent contentment is the real thing. Perhaps, like me, he wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, wondering anxiously where his family and friends are, suffering from the overwhelming fear of getting sick or dying alone with no-one around that I know, or who knows who I am, or what I’ve lived. The image we project on Facebook – or in an online class with a French student living thousands of miles away – is often far from the real thing.
Still, there was something in his self presentation which hinted at more comfort with permanent dislocation than I’ll ever know. It was impressive and refreshing, as well as a sobering reminder of how much I crave the same sense of peace.
Francois was too chatty to be a great French teacher – he preferred to recount his experiences than drill me on the plus-que-parfait – but I’ll book another class with him in a few weeks, if only to learn more about this remarkable person who seems to have morphed into the human version of bytes living in the cloud.