The feeling that a move is temporary
Plus: travel writing, work, rest, leisure, and running my business from Europe
Greetings from Barcelona—
It’s hard to escape the feeling that this is just another trip to Spain—temporary, but perhaps a little longer than usual.
The routine starts like this: I wake up and I go to Spanish class for two hours. If this were temporary, I would buy a cafe con leche and a criossante on my way to school every morning. But, since I’ll be here a while, I make a French press and eat a banana.
After class, I go to the climbing gym. If this were temporary, I would have bought a ten-punch pass or a month-by-month. But I’ll be here a while, so I got an annual membership, paid the whole thing, and saved a bit of money.
If this were temporary, I’d be drinking more, exercising less. I wouldn’t have gotten a local SIM card. I wouldn’t have figured out the public bike share system. I wouldn’t be trying so hard to make friends at the climbing gym.
When I think about it, these things add up. But I wonder when the feeling of something temporary goes away. How long does it take?
When I was here apartment hunting in April, I found the perfect place in Eixample. Two bedrooms, one bigger for me, the other smaller for the kiddo. A Galley kitchen, a larger balcony overlooking a quiet street. It even had a small office space separate from the large bedroom, which looked like a converted walk-in closet. Perfect to work from home and run my business from abroad for a few months.
I told the agency I’d be at their office in an hour with the deposit and to submit an application. But when I showed up and they presented me with the lease, I could read enough Spanish to pick out the term: 5 years.
I couldn’t commit for five years!
I told the agent, the agent said he would call the owner. But the owner was firm: five years. All I knew was I’d be here 11 months—long enough for my son to finish a year of school abroad. An adventure (the word itself suggests temporary) for us both. But after that, who knew?
Who could know?
But of course, many people know.
I. I wanted to be a travel writer
In my 20s, whenever I traveled, I would take a notebook.
My model was Paul Theroux. I’d read The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux’s 1973 book where he travels by train from London, through Europe, the Middle East, across Asia, up through Japan, and back along the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
This was the dream. Travel, write.
Whenever I would run the thought experiment, what would I do with a million dollars so I could retire right now?, my answer was always that I would be a travel writer. It wasn’t something I wanted to make a career out of or depend on for a living—hustling editors and collecting meager freelance writing paychecks didn’t sound particularly appealing—but as a way of life, it sounded amazing and even noble. I would go to other places, out of the way kind of places, and write about them, maybe even illuminate them.
Thus, the travel notebooks. Romantically inclined, I would carry a moleskin notebook and a few pens wherever I went. In India, when my architect friend photographed architectural details of various buildings, I would sit on a bench and practice my craft.
One of the photos I sent to Chris Blahoot for The Zag interview is from that trip:
I took these notebooks to Europe and to the Caribbean. When I hiked through the Pacific Northwest for three months as part of a NOLS course, I wrote every day and filled three notebooks. At the end of the trip, I typed the journal into a book-length Word document.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those notebooks. Not just because I regret not continuing to keep them, but because I’ve hesitated to go full travel writer here in Barcelona.
For one, I’m not traveling. For another, there are a gazillion travel blogs about what to do here, where to eat, trips to take, how to live as an expat, and all the rest. Where would I fit into all that cacophony?
Yet after a few days here, I felt that old feeling to write and observe, in the model of Theroux, what was going on around me. Not to comment on a restaurant, but to observe a detail in life of the city and what was going on around me.
I saw the four grannies sitting on the bench outside the San Antoni market each afternoon, not just sitting to socialize, but to participate in the stitching together of the neighborhood, ensconced as a regular presence in the lives of everyone who walked by. If there are grannies sitting together outside, catching up on gossip, there you will find a resilient neighborhood.
The men playing chess on the street blocked off to vehicle traffic, smoking, their dogs trying to stay cool by lying underneath the stone tables. The hordes of tourists crowding La Rambla, thinking to themselves, so this is Barcelona (as I did on my first trip here in College), and being so, so mistaken. The beach, the endless urban beach, with its volleyball nets, its pickup futball on the sand, its topless southern European women, and the families all scrunched next to each other, all the way from Barceloneta to Poble Neu, as far as you can see.
The men in the bar at 10 in the morning, already on their 3rd beer—it’s a holiday, after all, another one. And others: young, old, local, international. So many attractive, tanned men and women with tattoos that I wonder if it’s more subversive here to not get one. So many couples, travelers, workers, nomads, and so, so much nightlife.
And yes, hot—the heat wave is here—but on every street, at every octagonal intersection, the gigantic, towering trees and benches and the ever-present opportunity for a cold beer make it all seem not so bad. There is no New York Central Park or Munich English Garden to serve as a haven for the whole city—here, each pedestrianized, tree-lined street is a haven.
Yes, I did dream of being a travel writer.
But I’m no Theroux—I have a day job and kid and I’ve yet to find that mythical method that some writers talk about of turning writing into play so that I can do it over and over and it feels effortless and fun.
So far, I’ve only managed to understand that what is very difficult tends also to be very rewarding, and the same goes for writing, whether I do it here or somewhere else.
II. Spain’s three equal parts: work, leisure, and rest
In Spanish class this week the teacher drew a pie chart on the white board at the front of the room—in the chart, she labeled three equal parts. These parts represented what was important in Spanish life: work, leisure, and rest.
I had to smile. It wasn’t the first time I’d been struck by the Spanish commitment to a different way of living. In the U.S., we have “work-life balance,” a phrase invented to shift discourse away from Total Work Commitment. At best, it suggests a kind of 50/50 split, if not in time spent, at least in terms of mental devotion.
But here on the white board was a different way of thinking, and it wasn’t just the diminution of work’s role in overall life. I was also struck by the idea that “leisure” and “rest” were two separate and equal things, each deserving of their own space in the collective consciousness.
And here I had gone through life thinking leisure was rest.
I thought of my devotion to rock climbing, which feels both like leisure but also gives me community and friendship. Climbing protects my mental and physical health, adds purpose, provides challenge, and—perhaps most relevant to the pie chart—feels like a form of meditation. It is one of the only times in life where I am narrowly and entirely focused on exactly what is is front of me.
The class moved on, and I didn’t have time to ask exactly constitutes rest that makes it distinct from leisure—did rest mean I have to take siesta every afternoon? Or was she referring to every evening around nine when friends coallesce at outdoor seating next to the bars to drink Estrella Galicias and talk for hours (what are they all talking about every night? I always wonder, walking by).
Another example of Spain’s commitment to Things Not Work: last week, our teacher described the government subsidies which exist for old people to take vacations. Since staying healthy as we age isn’t just physical but also mental and social, she said (I thought, wait, Spain actually acts on that knowledge?!), the government will subsidize a retiree to take a vacation during traditional off-seasons.
So, for example, in wintertime, it’s incredibly cheap for an older person to visit Mallorca. The hotels and restaurants get extra business when it’s not busy, Spain’s older population stays healthier and happier, and the government expense is kept low, since it’s only subsidizing off-season prices—everyone wins.
I wondered how long I might have to live here before terms like productivity ceased to have the same meaning. Or whether my deeply-ingrained capitalist beating heart might one day be convinced to chill out a bit more. Perhaps one day I would climb, then rest, instead of thinking of the two as one and the same.
And then I wondered whether I would even want that to happen.
III. Running my business from Europe
Finally, speaking of my capitalist beating heart: someone asked me yesterday how it’s been going to run my marketing business from Europe—so far, so good.
And in fact, easier than expected.
The central thing is the time difference. 9 a.m. on the East Coast is 3 p.m. here. The past few years I’ve gotten used to waking up and doing hard work stuff early, but flipping that schedule has turned out to feel pretty natural.
My Spanish lessons end at 11 a.m., which leaves time for the climbing gym or a workout, and a long lunch. Sometime between 2 pm and 3 pm, I’m back at my desk, having already done all the personal things that are important to me (climbing and language learning).
People don’t even start thinking about dinner here until 8 or 9 p.m., so that leaves a large chunk of time to focus on client work. When I have meetings, they are late—there’s no getting around that. But I’ve tried to schedule as many as possible for morning business hours in the U.S. so that I’m not here at 10 p.m. on a work call. Again, so far so good.
Occasionally, a work email will come in late at night, and in the back of my mind, I know it’s only 3 or 4 p.m. their time. But I try not to sweat it too much, and none of my clients have hired me to be on call 24 hours a day.
The rest is all straightforward, digital nomad-type, remote work-type stuff. Zoom, Calendly, Airtable, and Google Workspace are my friends. Quickbooks gets me paid and money deposited into accounts. Wise gets it transferred internationally. There are a million cafes if I want to get out of the apartment, and an external monitor on my desk in the nook by the window for when I want to stay in—which is most of the time.
Some of my clients read this newsletter and know exactly where I am—others don’t but are nevertheless used to seeing me pop up in various different places around the world. Tough life you’ve got there, I’ve heard a client say more than a few times.
If there’s a recent trend I’m quite grateful for, it’s the broad acceptance of remote work. What I do now is considered pretty normal, and meanwhile, I’ve been location-independent for more than a decade. And so running my business from Barcelona is basically business as usual.
(And I would be remiss if I didn’t say: I’m looking to expand—pricing & services here)