Digital Nomad Life During Coronavirus

Girl in flower blossoms in Austrian countryside
[Hanging out with blossoms isn’t so bad]
This is a weird and scary time for everyone. In reality, I know I’m pretty lucky in my current situation.

But I thought it might be interesting to share what being nomadic and not really having a ‘home’ is like when a pandemic hits.

So, let’s back up and I’ll start from the beginning. Back when everyone had a normal amount of toilet paper in their closet and hand sanitizer wasn’t being upsold for $484993.

Holding snowboards at the top of Plato Mountain in the ski resort in Bansko, Bulgaria
[Learning to snowboard in Bansko with friends – back then, I never thought things would escalate the way they did]
I was in Bansko when I first started hearing about Coronavirus. I remember people at the coworking space occasionally talking about it, but I mostly tuned it out to be totally honest. Back then, I felt like people were mostly just fear-mongering and I didn’t want to get involved in any hypothetical apocalyptic talk.

I mostly just thought, well, I’m not going to even bother worrying about it because that’ll never happen to us.

Ooops.

It was an interesting time to be a VIP Kid teacher. I saw it all unfolding in Asia through my students’ eyes. One student left Beijing and took a train up north to be with family. He told me about being quarantined, and that he kept in touch with his friends by playing games with them on his iPad.

I felt so bad for him, and hoped he’d be able to resume a more normal life sometime soon. Never did I think my fate would be similar.

View of houses from the balcony in Bansko, Bulgaria
[Obliviously enjoying life on my balcony in Bansko. And no, I’m not bragging by saying I had a balcony – living in Bansko is extremely cheap! I paid about $220 a month for my own one bedroom apartment with a balcony on the top floor! With utilities it was more like $300 a month, but still!]
Throughout January I kept up with the news, as new quarantine restrictions were imposed in various regions in China. Eventually, I started hearing about cases here and there around the world – but scoffed at people who thought this would actually turn into something serious.

In my head, it was just like SARS or West Nile Virus. Something I heard about in the news, but never actually affected my daily life.

And wow, how I was wrong. SO wrong.

I wasn’t sure where to go after Bansko – I was actually getting really anxious about it. Normally I try to be more proactive about picking my next destination, but I ended up having so much fun in Bansko that I totally dropped the ball.

For some reason, I’ve always wanted to help out on a farm. Something about being on the countryside, making and growing your own food, and homesteading has always appealed to me. It’s something I’d wanted to do for years but had never found the right time, but this seemed perfect as I had no plans and no where I had to be.

Countryside near Amstetten, Austria in the town of Wallsee
[Countryside livin’]
I applied to a few different farms on Workaway about 3 weeks before leaving Bulgaria (pro tip, use the “last minute” feature, apparently hosts are much more responsive then). The next morning, I had a response from my first choice, a sheep farm about an hour west of Vienna. I was in!

I left Bansko for Austria on Wednesday, March 4. I really wasn’t even concerned about being in an airport. A few people were wearing masks, but other than that, nothing was out of the ordinary. There were no confirmed cases in Bulgaria yet (although that would change a few days later) and the whole ‘virus’ thing still felt worlds away.

Perhaps I was just being naive, as much of Italy was already on lockdown. But somehow it just didn’t feel real.

I was also distracted because I was getting ALL the feels about leaving Bansko. I’d had such a fun time there, and the community was awesome. I was bummed to leave the friends I’d made and was just dealing with the emotions that come with leaving a place you’ve grown so attached to.

I’m an INFP, ok??? I get super nostalgic and emotional and I hate goodbyes, haha. Regardless, I was excited for the farm, just busy adjusting to the change and compartmentalizing everything in my brain.

Sunset in the Austrian Countryside near Walsee
[I LIVE for countryside sunsets]
My first full day on the farm consisted of helping with cheese deliveries. We drove around to different shops and restaurants and dropped off their orders. Everyone was out and about on the streets, no one was wearing masks or gloves, and I started scheming for future trips.

I really wanted to snowboard in the Alps, and visit other nearby cities like Linz and Salzburg. One of my friends from the US was even talking about coming to visit, and I had planned to go back to the US for a little bit mid-May. My youngest cousin was graduating high school, and my grandparents were turning 90! The whole family was supposed to meet in Colorado for several days to celebrate.

Was. Of course, that’s all been cancelled now.

VIew of the church from the forest in Walsee, Austria
[The little church is my favorite thing to look at]
I remember weighing different options on our drive. Should I go home to California first or after Colorado? Should I stay the full 2.5 months on the farm, or stay for a month then go elsewhere before going back to the US? If I went somewhere else, should I try and go outside of the Schengen zone? I didn’t know what my summer plans would be yet, and what if I wanted to spend some time in Schengen? (As a nomad that loves to spend most of my time in Europe, the bane of my existence is working around the Schengen zone).

These were my biggest concerns at the time. And although they seem really silly now, I was legitimately stressed.

How things have changed now – talk about perspective.

My first week on the farm was mostly fun and carefree. I settled into countryside life and a routine. I learned to milk sheep, explored the fields and forests around the area, ate way too much cheese, and laughed a LOT.

After that first week, things started changing, and FAST.

Countryside sunset
[I mean, who can complain when this is basically your backyard?]
On March 11, Trump blocked non-US citizens from entering from Europe, and the CDC issued a Level 3 Travel Advisory for all European countries in the Schengen zone. I knew that I could still go home if I wanted, but it was still pretty unsettling.

On March 12, I received an email from my insurance stating that coronavirus coverage was no longer included in heavily affected countries. I figured that meant China, South Korea, and Italy. My heart stopped as I continued scrolling and saw that it included not only the aforementioned 3, but ALL countries in Schengen. That meant I was no longer covered in the case that I contacted the disease and had to be hospitalized.

The email also said that they’d pay for our flights home if we wanted out of our current country (it’s an insurance specifically for digital nomads).

The problem? I really really really didn’t want to go ‘home’. I’d been traveling for over a year – I didn’t really feel like I had a ‘home’ back in the US anymore.

I considered going to Ireland or the UK to wait it out, but now am happy I didn’t since they eventually saw the same fate.

Bottle feeding lamb on farm
[Hanging out with lambs isn’t a terrible way to spend my days either!]
 I also didn’t have US health insurance (mine is only a travel health insurance, so they only cover you inside your home country for a certain number of days before/after your trip) and the thought of the costs if something were to happen there was semi-terrifying.

Like, one time I went to the doctor for what I thought was an ingrown toenail. It wasn’t, but the doctor clipped part of it off for me to be safe.

I had insurance at the time, but later got a bill in the mail for over $100 because my insurance only partially covered the visit. Had I known it would cost that much, I wouldn’t have gone to the doctor at all! But that’s the problem – you almost never know the true cost of a doctor’s visit. They’ll tell you you’re covered, but can never tell you how much. You just have to take a chance and see what the bill is in the mail later on.

But enough of me complaining about our medical system – back to the timeline of events!

On March 13, Trump declared a national emergency.

On March 15, Trump limited gatherings to 50 people. Some schools closed. And on the 16th, Austria locked down, with many other European countries doing the same if they hadn’t already.

Quarantini during coronavirus
[When all else fails and you’re stressed AF just make a quarantini]
It still felt silly passing up a free flight when I’d been planning to come home for a bit in mid-May anyways. Over those 10 days (that was the amount of time the flight would be covered for) I was a total stressball. It didn’t help that every single day felt like waking up to more borders closing and more restrictions and more cases.

I didn’t sleep well during this time (but did anyone?), and kept waking up after having stressful dreams.

However, I wanted to stay in Austria. I didn’t want to deal with multiple layovers and possibly catching the virus by going through different airports. I didn’t want to go back home and live with either of my parents (love them both, but living with either one of them was not my dream scenario), and I didn’t want to impose on my aunt in Colorado by staying with her for an indefinite amount of time. Yes, I know AirBnbs and hotels were still open, but seeing countries like Spain shut down all establishments made me feel nervous that the US could be following suit, and I’d be left without a suitable place to stay.

Taking photos in a forest
[Ive been spending my time indulging in creative endeavors like taking photos]
My visa is valid until June 1, and I figured (hoped) that flights would be running again by then. I also called the US Embassy in Austria, and they told me it was likely visas would be extended due to force majeure if need be. I even asked what they recommend I do – and the employee responded with, “I can’t tell you what to do. If you stay in Austria, it’s fine, and if you go back to the US, it’s fine, too.”

But my biggest concern was something happening to someone I loved back home, and me not being there. After some deliberating, I realized that even if something did happen, I wouldn’t be able to visit at the hospital anyway.

After talking to my aunt, mom, and dad about it (and also doing the embarrassing thing and posting about my dilemma in a digital nomad group on Facebook for others to weigh in on, LOL), I decided to stay. I’m extremely lucky as my hosts said I could stay as long as I wanted, so in the end, I figured that would be the best option for me.

Sunset and two girls standing amidst flower blossoms in the Austrian countryside
[A photo I took while the trees were in bloom]
So I’m still here. And I’m so happy I stayed. I’m in the countryside, so my daily life really isn’t affected. The only difference is that I can’t travel anywhere on weekends, but I don’t mind so much to be honest. I’m pretty happy on the farm. There’s plenty to explore with almost no people in sight – only the occasional tractor driving by. I spend my time going for runs and walks around the woods and fields, helping out with the sheep and learning how to make cheese, growing vegetables, cooking and baking, working various freelance jobs online and on the blog, teaching, reading, writing, keeping up with friends and family back home, and just enjoying life with the people I’m with.

Who knows what the future will hold. I’m still not sure if I’ll be able to go home anytime soon. I may end up having to extend my visa into the summertime (it sounds like most countries in the Schengen area are making it pretty easy to do so, which is nice). I may end up trying to hop over to a close non-Schengen country at the end of May to wait it out for another 3 months, like Croatia, if borders are open and it seems safe to travel.

Digital nomad girl on laptop sitting on a couch in a living room in Austria
[Traveling virtually for the time being]
Of course, if I end up traveling to a nearby non-Schengen country or going home I’ll most certainly self-isolate for the recommended 14 day timespan. With how things are looking now I’m assuming my options will be pretty slim. Go back to the US if I can get a (reasonably priced) flight, or stay in Austria if I can’t.

It helps having other nomads that I can stay in touch with in the same situation. I’m especially grateful that I met 3 other nomadic Americans while I was in Bansko that are also sticking it out in Europe.

Who knows what the future holds – all we can do is sit and wait. I’m not too nervous about it anymore, though. I know something will work out – it always does.

That’s probably one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from digital nomad life.

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