So, you’re thinking of a stint in Berlin? Beijing? Bangalore? Your publication wants a one-person office in a new city, your partner has a cool opportunity, or maybe you’ve just always wanted to spend some time elsewhere, because, hey, isn’t that what freelancing is supposed to be about? Work from anywhere!
When our family had the opportunity to live in Barcelona for a year in 2010-2011, it seemed that the freelancing hassles I’d put up with for years were paying off. No need to ask anyone’s permission. Just go.
In many ways, it was what I expected and hoped for. The romantic cafes, picture-perfect beaches and charming architecture did not disappoint. But I didn’t fully anticipate how lonely a year it would be. Unless you are going abroad to join a big office, chances are you won’t have direct line to meeting people in a new place–and if you don’t speak the language, that can be a big barrier to settling in and making friends.
So, of course you should go! But here are a few thoughts about how to make the most of a trip abroad and especially to guard against loneliness. Let’s face it: if you start complaining to your friends back home that Paris is great and all, but you’re feeling kind of isolated, you’re not going to get any sympathy.
Prepare for culture shock. Some days, you’re just going to feel alienated and wonder what the hell you’re doing there—even if “there” is objectively Paradise. This gets better with time.
Stay connected through social media—but beware. Because I was lonely, I found myself spending a lot of time on Facebook and in online conversations with science writer friends, looking for virtual connections with people across the ocean. One day near the end of the year, after hours immersed in communication with the United States, I stepped out onto the street with a gobsmacking realization that I was in Spain. And it struck me that apart from the relationship with our nanny and a couple of baristas, my life was completely extricable from my surroundings. When we left, there would be hardly a ripple.
Find ways to tether yourself to the community. Look for listervs of local expatriates or people with similar interests. Pay attention to the local news. Sign up for local activities—cooking classes, capoeira or a language class. The language class was a double benefit: it introduced me to one of my few friends, and as time went on, my improving Spanish skills made a huge difference in how at-home we felt. It was a thrill to be able to access more of the world we were living in.
Report locally. SciLancer Stephen Ornes (bio) tries always to be working on a local story for a local publication. Even reporting locally for publications elsewhere makes a difference. Set up meetings at local institutions. Learn about the local landscape and history. A warning: make sure your slate of regular work isn’t so packed that you don’t have time to get out into the field.
In a surprising twist, I realized upon returning to St. Paul, Minnesota, that my local roots were not that deep, either, so I’ve been working to strengthen local connections, personal and professional. Part of the great appeal of freelancing is that you can do it from anywhere, but if you aren’t careful, it can leave you feeling like a citizen of nowhere.