It’s official. I’m no longer a full-time traveller.
I’ve got a one year lease, a gym membership, and Portuguese bank account. Last week I went to the municipal offices here in Lisbon, and officially registered as a resident.
I have a desk, a chair, and a monitor, and more clothes than can fit in my backpack. My fridge is full of food, and my calendar is full of social events.
For the first time in nearly five years, when someone asks where I’ll be in a few months, I can answer their question with certainty.
I’ll be at home.
Although the decision to stay in Lisbon is a recent one, we knew long ago it was time to stop somewhere. We were tired. In fact, to put it bluntly, we were fucking exhausted.
Surprisingly, perhaps, it wasn’t constant movement that wore us down. For the last couple of years, we’ve been travelling more and more slowly, spending weeks or months in each place. We were trying to find the elusive balance between work and travel, since doing both at the same time had meant doing neither well.
Work time was scattered and inefficient, fighting with slow Internet and uncomfortable surroundings in between rushing around a city, trying to experience a week’s worth of activities in a couple of days and not enjoying any of it.
Having defined periods of work and travel helped for a while, but turned out to not be enough. We were still exhausted most of the time, and it took a while to figure out why.
In the end, it was a bunch of things.
I’m an extrovert, and I need people around me regularly. Trying to find, and slot into, a new community every month or two was hard and, ultimately, unrewarding. Maybe some people can handle the continual highs and lows of making and farewelling friends every other week, but I can’t.
Saying goodbye has always been my least-favourite part of the travel experience, and after five years of it, I was done. I needed friends who’d be in the same city as me next week, next month, hell, even next year. Skype and WhatsApp just isn’t as good as grabbing an impromptu evening beer at a riverside cafe, and hanging out with people every day for a month doesn’t make up for not seeing them the rest of the year.
I was out of shape, and felt I couldn’t do much about it. Before starting out, I used to run several times a week — in fact, I ran my second half-marathon just a month before moving to Thailand.
Being in hot, humid climates sapped my energy, though, and the broken pavements, pollution and traffic of the South East Asian cities I spent much of my time in made it even harder, if not downright dangerous. While I could occasionally stay somewhere with a gym or get a membership for a few weeks, it wasn’t common, and I’d never really been a gym person anyway.
Couple that with rarely having a fully-equipped kitchen and eating out for almost every meal, and the end result was putting on at least 15 pounds of pure fat. Bleurgh. Poor diet and little exercise left me sluggish, prone to getting sick and did nothing for my mental state.
Much as I hate to say it, the joy of full-time travel had dwindled. I was finding it harder and harder to get those “wow” moments from things that would have blown my mind a few years ago. Like anything else, when something becomes your new normal, it stops being exciting. Working all the time and moving regularly also gave less time to research the next destination, which often meant missing out on the things that might have revitalised my travel spirit. It was a privileged problem to have (let’s face it, all of this is), but an increasing one regardless.
With the lessening of excitement came a little perspective. My life had become very one-dimensional, totally consumed by travel. Researching, booking, moving, exploring, writing about it… travel was all Lauren and I ever did, all we ever talked about. We hung out with travel bloggers in each new city, since that was our only community, and we talked about travel with them as well. The longer we spent on the road, the harder it was to have a conversation on any other topic, especially with the few people we met who weren’t travelling all the time.
We wanted hobbies and activities that weren’t related to travel. We wanted to try new things, many requiring equipment that wouldn’t fit in a backpack, and to be able to stick with them for months if not years. We wanted to spend less time in front of our laptops, but still needed to make enough money to live. That meant having a regular routine, reliable Internet and a comfortable workspace to get stuff done more effectively, none of which we could guarantee on the road.
That search for somewhere to stop took much longer than we expected. We came up with a short list of what we’d like from a new home — affordable cost of living, agreeable climate, good local and international food, a small group of friends, no visa hassles. That last point, in particular, cut the options down significantly. We both have UK passports and I’ve also got my New Zealand one, so we had more flexibility than many people, but several of our potential choices were still off the table.
There are a few cities in the US we’d definitely have considered, but the cost and effort to get a residence visa there are significant, with no guarantees. Nowhere in South East Asia has an appropriate visa for us other than Cambodia, and much and all as we love travelling there, we couldn’t envisage a long-term stay in the country.
Mexico and Taiwan were high on the list, and I’d happily live in both, but in the end we decided to go for somewhere that didn’t require applying for a residence visa. Many people just run the risk with back-to-back tourist visas, but we’ve done that for long enough. If we were going to set up a life somewhere new, we decided we needed some certainty about it. Ironic, given subsequent events.
Lauren could have easily got a working holiday visa for Australia and New Zealand, and something longer-term with a little more effort, but the cost of living in either country put them out of reach. The same applied for the UK, especially London where we’d most likely want to live, so almost by default, we settled on somewhere in Europe.
After spending months in Granada and Madrid last year, and visiting many other European cities for shorter periods before that, though, we still hadn’t found the spot that ticked all the boxes. Three weeks in Porto got me thinking about Portugal, however, and after glowing recommendations of Lisbon from a couple of friends, we decided to at least check it out for a month.
It took all of three days to realise the city was exactly what we were looking for… and the rest is history, a blur of apartment hunting, shopping, banks and government offices, eating, drinking, beaches, friends, and more walking uphill than I ever thought possible. More on that, undoubtedly, in a future post.
We’ve been here since mid-April, and have barely left the city. A few days in Spain, a day trip or two, and that’s it. This is about as long as we’ve spent in one place since starting out, and in the past, we’d have been getting itchy feet and preparing to pack our bags for sure. Not now.
We’re loving our life here, and I couldn’t be happier doing very mundane things. Cooking at home. Going to the gym several times a week. Buying a third pair of shoes. Last week I symbolically put my house keys on the little souvenir key ring I’ve been carrying around since 2010, and it felt so damn right to do it.
Apparently, what I need at the moment isn’t travel. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’ve realised that as long as I’ve still got the freedom to travel, I’m happy. Knowing I can still get on a plane for a week, a month or more at the drop of a hat means I don’t feel trapped, like I used to in corporate life. I can still go anywhere I like, whenever I like, without asking permission from anyone.
For the last three months, though? I haven’t wanted to go anywhere at all.
So far, so good. We’ve both lost loads of weight, are eating healthily, feel fantastic, and have found the work-life balance that seemed to continually elude us on the road. We’ve got a great little group of friends here, live in the perfect neighbourhood, and keep finding gorgeous new streets, buildings and viewpoints every time we leave the house. This is one seriously beautiful city.
Apparently, though, even when we do finally find a place to live, there has to be more to the story. The baffling result of the Brexit referendum in the UK last month has thrown any certainty about our long-term future out the window.
While we’re remaining hopeful that (a) freedom of movement within the EU will ultimately continue, (b) anyone already living in a different country can remain there or (c) we could get a residence visa like non-EU citizens if we had to, nobody knows for sure. We’re banking on being able to stay at least a couple of years in Lisbon. After that? Anything could happen.
While that’s hardly ideal, it’s far enough in the future that I’m not losing any sleep over it. Let’s face it, up until now, I often didn’t know where I’d be even two months later. Two years in one place seems almost-unfathomably long. It’s like the endless summer holidays that stretched ahead after the last day of school, looking for all the world like they’d never end.
Speaking of summer holidays, we’ll finally drag ourselves away from Lisbon next month, for what feels like the first true vacation we’ve taken in half a decade. A couple of weeks with family in the UK beckons, followed by a few days in Corfu, then sailing with friends around the Ionian islands for a week. After that, I’m heading back to Portugal to start my second Camino de Santiago, from Porto in the north of country. This one is shorter than last year’s walk, somewhere between two and three weeks depending on where I feel like stopping.
After that? I’m going back to Lisbon, of course. Back to my neighbourhood, back to my little apartment, back to my terrace where I sit in the evenings with a glass of wine and watch the sun go down.
Back to my home.
Right now, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.