When I move back to the US, where should I go?

I just read a fluffy NYT article about New Yorkers moving to LA, which got me thinking about the days when I take a break from constant travel and rent an apartment again. I’ve been researching cost-of-living in various cities and pondering various trade-offs, and I keep being surprised when vacuous, smoggy LA shows up on my list!

I never thought I’d move back to LA, always thought when I returned to the US it would be NYC. But when you look at the prices of apartments out there, and with the new public transit and walkable downtown, it seems like a good deal. The weather is big in my mind too. Last winter in Berlin was really rough for me, and I really don’t want to go through that again. It was just so dark for so long. In Europe, you need to go north because the jobs are better there, but in the US, that’s not the case.

If I’m setting up a US home base, maybe I should consider good winter weather. The proximity to the SF Bay Area would be good professionally. LA has good air connections to the world, and shorter flights to Asia. I’d prefer to live car-free, which I doubt is realistic in LA, but maybe with the new Metro I wouldn’t drive every day. It’s a major world city, with the art, culture, interesting people, public parks and entertainment you’d expect. For the last week I’ve had a short walk to an amazing beach, and I’ve gone swimming every single day and loved it. Maybe I should observe my own “revealed preference vs. stated preference.”

I had a good conversation here with a new friend, and she observed that wherever you go, you meet people and make new friends. That’s always hard, and that’s the big reason I’d rather just go back to NYC or Chicago. But whenever I think of living in those cities, I think, “I’ll spend a few weeks out of town in the winter.” But wouldn’t it be better to just live somewhere that’s nice in the winter? The whole point of having a home is being able to stay there whenever you want! I was pondering a move back to Chicago, and I always read the Cubs game summaries. Lately they always talk about how cold it is, especially since the Cuban Jorge Soler plays much worse in the cold. (if you’re not a Cubs fan, this guy bundles up like he’s in Antarctica when it’s 40 degrees out (4.5 C), it would be funny if he could still hit!) I mean, it’s May and it’s 40 degrees! That idea of spending “a few weeks” during winter being a snowbird just turned into six months.

It seems that the old stereotypes that LA is a cultural vacuum don’t apply anymore. One nice thing is that I’m a member of the California Bar, which might come in handy professionally (not sure exactly how, since I’ve just spent 4+ years learning to program). I still have a few months of travel/nomad life to go before I settle down anywhere, but this decision isn’t going to be easy!

Advertisements

My journey to Bali and first impressions

Check-in snafu

When I got to the Barcelona airport, Qatar Airways told me I couldn’t board my flight! I was required by the airline to have a ongoing ticket from Indonesia, because the Indonesian visa-on-arrival is only for 30 days. Even though Indonesian law doesn’t require you to have an ongoing ticket, the airline wasn’t willing to risk bringing a immigration violator! A helpful staff member suggested that I buy a cheap Air Asia ticket to Singapore for 30 days after my arrival date, so I used my phone to do that on the spot. (Sidenote: the Air Asia app claims there are no tickets available for sale if you set the currency to US dollars, set the currency to Indonesian Rupiah to see any flights.)

Once I had booked the ticket, I showed the confirmation email to the Qatar Airways staff member, he typed the flight info into his computer, and I was kosher. After he printed my boarding passes he looked at them, paused, and tore them up! Then he said, “you’re tall, how would you like to sit in the emergency exit row?”

So I spent my 20-hour journey with unlimited legroom. It was heaven. Best flight ever.

Doha airport

I spent a three hour layover at the Doha Airport, the nicest airport I’ve ever seen. It felt like a mix of Times Square and the most expensive shopping mall in Newport Beach, California (where they have valet parking for your Porsche). The ceilings must have been 50 feet high, there were huge video screens, giant works of art scattered around for you to admire, it has 70 high-end stores, and when I bought a newspaper (they had the New York Times!) the cash register screen showed me the price in four different currencies. You can and pay receive change in any of them. Despite the laws against alcohol, (Muslims in Qatar can be flogged for drinking alcohol) there were several restaurants in the airport serving beer and wine to non-Muslims.

First impressions of Bali after 24 hours

The ride from the airport to my homestay was insane. I will never drive here. There were cars and mopeds everywhere going in every direction! It took a while for me to decide whether people here are supposed to drive on the left or right side of the road. But my cab driver was such a pro he could use facebook on his iphone while driving and still not hit anyone!

I’m staying in Ubud, a very green village up in the hills of Bali. There are tons of good restaurants and cafes here, plenty of shopping, and everything is walkable and easy. Unlike some other parts of Bali, places like bars can’t stay open after 10:30pm, so the big partiers don’t stay here. It’s a place to go to get away from loud obnoxious people, eat healthy, do yoga, and meet other well-adjusted people who are chasing their dream, whatever that is for them! You see a lot of smiling faces here.

My homestay is very nice. I paid 17€/night for a private room with en suite bathroom, ceiling fan, big soft bed, desk, armoire, and my own patio with breakfast, coffee and tea served right on the patio. I walk half a mile (about 1km) to my coworking space down a nice scenic road. The homestay is located off of a main road, behind a few buildings so it’s quiet but centrally located.

This morning I walked down to my coworking space, found a seat outside (half of the space is outdoors) and fired up my laptop. I quickly discovered that reddit is blocked! When looking at the URL’s that Indonesia blocks, they all are porn sites so my guess is that some porn-related subreddits ran afoul of the Indonesian web censors and the whole reddit domain got blocked. Unfortunate, but after living in Germany I’m used to using a VPN to access Internet content. Also, Spotify isn’t out yet in Indonesia, so you need a VPN to use that as well.

I did not pack appropriately for a tropical island! It was so obvious at work that I was the new guy with my jeans and black t-shirt. I also wore socks and shoes instead of sandals, another dead giveaway. I’m going shopping for clothes that can handle the heat tomorrow, should be easy to do in this town.

People at Hubud (the coworking space) are very friendly and excited to be here. The vibe is similar to the Soundcloud office cafe, lots of chill people who know their shit and are happy to help you with whatever you’re working on. There is vegetarian and vegan food available, made-to-order salads and sandwiches, along with some chocolate and other treats. There’s unlimited coffee and tea, and of course the coffee is top-quality stuff from Java. Also reminiscent of Soundcloud: I met three German people today, just at Hubud! (I also sat next to two Germans on the flight here.) I didn’t expect to speak German today, or to learn a new word: ortsunabhängig. (It means location independent.) My streak is still alive of speaking German every day since I left the German-speaking world.

You make fast friends at Hubud. I wasn’t afraid to sit down with people who were just shooting the breeze and join in. I met so many interesting people and learned a ton about Bali, Indonesia, traveling in Asia, which language to study here (Indonesian, Balinese is not as widely spoken), dealing with visas and staying in Indonesia for extended periods of time, business models I’d never thought of, and generally about this version of expat life. And after work I ended up having an amazing (and properly spicy) Thai meal with some folks I met today, including an American from South Bend, IN! (Which is only 180 miles from my hometown.)

It turns out that I have more professional experience than a lot of people who are making this life work. That’s contrary to my expectations that I needed to have more experience before I could do something like this. I could have come here years ago! I’m glad I did things the way that I did, I wanted to live in New York and Europe so I’m glad I’ve done those things.

A few veterans of this lifestyle told me that Ubud isn’t the cheapest place in Asia to be an expat, since India is cheaper. But in their opinions the quality of life is higher here without being too much more expensive. You can live very well here for under $1000/month, and that’s having a place of your own, with a maid, never cooking your own food, and living in the center of a thriving town on the periphery of a major city, Denpasar. This island has a dormant volcano, world-class beaches, a tropical climate, hiking, a good vibe, English is widely spoken, and a place called “Monkey Forest”!

Why did I come to Ubud of all the places in the world? I take a lot of inspiration from Pieter Levels, who’s well-known in the digital nomad and entrepreneur community. The first place he went when he started his new nomadic life was Hubud is Bali, so that’s where I went too. The story is in a long blog post he wrote.

So that’s my last weekend and first day in Bali. Can’t wait for tomorrow!

Odds and ends after digital nomading for two weeks

  • I’ve heard German every day I’ve been in Barcelona. Last week when I was in Vienna, German came in very handy too! 😉
  • Vienna is a beautiful city and I understand why it wins so many “best city in the world to live in” contests. I had a good time visiting there but I was ready to move on after a week. Maybe all the Viennese people who like nightlife move to Berlin?
  • In Barcelona I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of speaking about 10 words of Spanish. People are really nice to me here when I try Spanish before we switch to English.
  • Coming to Barcelona for only one week was a mistake. I was on a plane last weekend and I’ll be on a plane this coming weekend. That’s not a nice lifestyle when you’re working 40 hours/week. From now on I’m spending a minimum of two or three weeks anywhere I go, maybe longer.
  • I love the neighborhood I’m staying in in Barcelona, Poblenou. I’d love to come back to Barcelona, rent a place in Poblenou, and make a life here. Time enough for that later though, for now I want to see Asia!
  • Living in Berlin I forgot how much I like to walk down to the shore. I’ve gone on a stroll along the water every day here.
  • Having control over my time during the day is a huge blessing. I can take a four-hour lunch break and walk around the city during the warm, sunny part of the day without bothering any of my coworkers. One of the worst things about a NYC/Berlin winter is leaving work when the sun is already down every day, and basically never getting to be outside in the sun. That seems like a distant memory now.
  • I’m a very social person and have always preferred traveling with a friend to traveling alone. Staying in an Airbnb was a calculated move to get enough sleep and be able to get work done, but I really miss the aspect of hostels where you meet other travelers and have someone to have a beer with at the end of the day. In Bali I’m working in a coworking space so hopefully I’ll meet some people there to be social with.
  • I know you’ve read this 100 times elsewhere, but it is *tremendously* liberating to get rid of all your stuff and live out of one backpack. I’ve only been doing this for two weeks and I’m already laughing at myself for how much stuff I brought. I seriously brought eight shirts, and four pairs of pants with me, wtf? I read a blog post by a guy who got all of his stuff down into one *carry-on* bag. That is seriously hardcore. Not sure if I’ll ever get quite that far, maybe if you only visit parts of the world that have hot weather all day and night. In Barcelona you need a jacket at night.
  • I’m concerned that I could go overboard with this lifestyle and suddenly realize I haven’t built up a life and social circle anywhere, just floating around the world like a dilettante, sampling various cultures but never diving in deep to any one in particular. Wherever I go, I want to do what I did in Berlin: make friends with local people, live in the whole city, not just the expat parts of it, learn some of the language and culture. But you can’t do that in six weeks, which is how long I’ll be in Bali.
  • I couldn’t have done this without so much help from so many people. My friends and family have been universally supportive of me and done me lots of favors lately. Thanks everyone! You helped one guy achieve his dream!

Some places in Berlin where you can buy imported beer

When I first moved from Brooklyn to Berlin I was surprised at how limited the beer selection is at the average liquor store or Späti. It turns out you can find any kind of beer you want in Berlin, but you need to plan ahead and make a special trip. Here are a few bars and liquor stores where you can get imports like IPA’s or Belgian beers. Be warned: even though Berlin has a well-deserved reputation for low prices, that does not apply to imported beer. All of these places are cash-only.

Bars

Kaschk

This bar sells tasty imported microbrews, good atmosphere and the only shuffleboard table I’ve ever seen outside of the US. It could be my imagination but the beer glasses here seemed smaller than normal. They have some stuff from Mikkeller if you’re into that, personally I find their stuff way overpriced and more hype than taste. I liked all of the tap beers here.

Vagabund

The name means “vagabond.” Another bar serving microbrews, some that they make themselves. Their IPA has a proper full flavor and is served in a proper glass, possibly because this place was founded by an American guy. Again, I liked all the beers on tap here.

Herman

This bar specializes in Belgian beers, and has a very large selection of bottled beers, including some hard-to-find really good Gueuze beers.

If you don’t feel like paying €9.80 for a botte of Gueuze there is always a nice Belgian beer on tap for about €4, one of the best bargains in Berlin. The bartenders are very knowledgeable about Belgian beer and despite the minimalist décor this is a fun bar.

ROOM77

Room 77 is located in Bitcoinkeiz (“Bitcoin neighborhood”). They serve proper burgers and fries just as good as you’d find in the US, and they have a good local beer on tap they call Rotbier (“red beer”). It’s not imported but it’s a break from the local monoculture of 500 similar-tasting Pilsners. You can pay your bill here using bitcoins and the vibe is awesome. Great place to talk to random people.

Monterey Bar

This is the best bar in Berlin to drink beer in. They have proper beer on tap and the prices are competitive for Berlin. They have a huge bottle list. And best of all, there is a pub culture there like you’d find in New York or Scotland. You sit down on a barstool and have a chat with the bartender and the other patrons. If I opened a bar it would look a lot like this.

Liquor Stores

Getränkefeinkost

The name literally means “drinks delicacies”. This is one of the few liquor stores I know of in Berlin where you can buy bottles of Belgian beer to take home. The prices aren’t much lower than buying the same beer in a bar. They also sell beer from the US but the prices are so high I always decided to wait until I was back home. This is my favorite beer store in Berlin., the prices are high but they almost always have what I came for.

Berlin Bier Shop

This place was a bit of a letdown. It’s almost never open so you have to make a special trip, and it seems like every beer they have is some unusual beer with this huge backstory so you’re expected to pay €10 for a 11.2 ounce bottle. There is beer stacked randomly all over the place and the place is pretty dusty, which is kind of a cool atmosphere for a store… unless they sell things you eat or drink. Every time I went here I didn’t find what I was looking for and paid a lot of money for beer that tasted good but wasn’t worth the price.


If I left your favorite place off the list feel free to leave it in the comments!

Software Developers have it very good these days

Four years ago I abandoned a fledgling legal career to become a professional software developer. I couldn’t be happier with how its turned out. I’ve enjoyed the last four years very much. Our skills are in high demand, jobs are plentiful, working conditions are good and we receive all kinds of perks. But there is one perk in particular I value above all others: working remotely 100% of the time. After a lot of thought, I’ve decided to try to become a digital nomad, moving from place to place every few weeks or months, experiencing all the joys of travel while simultaneously writing software either as a paid consultant or entrepreneur.

I didn’t make this decision lightly. I loved my last job at Soundcloud in Berlin and without my experience there this would be a lot harder. They’re a great company. Unlike when I was working as a lawyer, I have many good professional options!

There are lots of downsides to freelancing, like managing your own taxes, health care, and retirement, unpredictable cash flow, and losing the camaraderie of your coworkers. I’ll manage the taxes by hiring an accountant in the US, and one in the country where I’m living if I stay there long enough. Health care I’ll buy on the private market, and retirement I’ll manage by contributing to a retirement account. I’ll try to manage cash flow by having enough in savings to outlast a long dry spell, and find camaraderie by renting a desk in a coworking space. Despite all this I’m going to give it a shot, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll happily go back to being an ordinary developer at one of the many great companies in this industry.

When you can live anywhere, choosing where to live is an embarrassment of riches. For my first stop, I’ve chosen Barcelona, Spain. It’s my favorite place in Europe: the food, nature, and weather are top-notch, the vibe suits me well, and there’s a tech/startup scene I hope to plug in to. The Internet is fast there and lodging isn’t too expensive. I’ve dived into Spanish study and am looking forward to sharing a language with over 400 million native speakers.

Wish me luck!