You can find them on horseback in the Steppes of Central Asia, in Somaliland between city and sand, off the coast of Madagascar's coral reefs, in the wide open spaces of North Africa or in the unexplored nooks of the US. In our imagination, nomads are people without a fixed home. But above anything else they are far away. Nomadism is an exoticism, a marketed one; the kind that resembles a surrealist French summer hit from the 90s, or a more internalised one of a tempting weekend in a yurt just an Easyjet flight away from home.
So what are nomads doing in big European cities? We aren't talking about Bedouins or Mongolian shepherds, but about those who wander from café to café armed with stylish backpacks and their sticker-decorated MacBooks. Let's get something clear: today's nomads are no longer quite the same. Digital nomads, who have had glorious precursors since the late 80s, have become somewhat common over the last two years. They have come to shake up our imaginations by embodying what it means to be a worker in the 21st century. Digital nomads are not a new version of backpackers, they are hard workers. Their only work tool is a good Wi-Fi connection, but they are hard workers nontheless, even if they enjoy travelling. Anywhere. All the time.
"I love my life"
Still, as nomadic as they may be, these new millennials need a place to shine. If there was a place-to-be (but-only-for-two-weeks) for digital nomads this summer, it was (and still is) Lisbon. The Portuguese capital organises two events dedicated to this lifestyle, including the aptly-named Digital Nomad Conference organised by DNX, one of the many recent agencies to accompany, encourage and coach new nomads. But who is behind the event? Felicia Hargarten and Marcus Meurer, two Germans in their thirties who are already back in Brazil and who offer inspiring conferences and workshops to share their practical know-hows with nearly 600 nomads from 45 different countries.
The LX Factory, which used to be a textile factory before it was converted in 2010 into a paradise for superior creative classes (designer boutiques, restaurants, co-working spaces and premises for start-ups, cooking school, etc.), hosts the digital horde. In an old but modernised warehouse with a bluish twilight, the weekend opens with an Instagram-type slogan: "I love my life." During their introduction, Marcus and Feli explain how their entrepreneurial journey began. It all started during a sabbatical in which the couple realised they could, in fact, continue working while travelling. After this introduction, Pat Flynn, a famous American podcaster in the field of 'entrepreneurial coaching' takes the stage. He also refers to his "perfect life" and everything he abandoned to overcome his fear of the future, to leave his comfort zone and finally feel accomplished.
After an ice-breaker session where participants tell their neighbours what they are most proud of, there is a pause for meditation. Other speakers join the stage; the former digital director of Estonia, for example, praises the merits of e-residence, a new method for digital nomads where they register themselves as virtual European citizens while living and working anywhere in the world. Entrepreneurs and coaches each take their turn insisting on the unconventional aspect of a digital nomadic life, on the inner-strength it requires, on the openness to oneself (and to the world) that it evokes.
Cool labour camps
Whoever claims to be open to the world also ends up being a geographical name-dropper. A 25-year-old German in flip-flops, an ankle bracelet, black leggings and a plaid shirt sports a "Berlin – Sydney – Bangkok – Dahab" bag. A 22-year-old Dutch graphic designer is ready to become a nomad after a few test months of backpacking and working simultaneously. He "did" Bali, Nepal and Eastern Europe. Naming the places you have visited are necessary, as the lifestyle revolves around travelling; the world is a checklist to be ticked off.
According to Marcus and Feli', nomads are "people who love freedom and travelling, who are open-minded and want to grow. They want to bring about change in the world and aren't happy with the classic eight-hour working routine." The duo also organise two-week 'camps' all around the world, usually in nice locations (the next one will take place in Lemnos, a welcoming Aegean island). They aren't afraid of creating a myth of the digital nomad, who has their computer at the edge of the water and takes yoga breaks between their Skype calls. After all, "you can live as a digital nomad your whole life."
There are even nomadic families with young children that find a sense of stability despite a hectic lifestyle. "Why not? As long as we love this way of life, there is no reason to stop," Feli continues, who thinks that "the important thing is to find a community and to be surrounded by people who have the same mindset." Many digital nomads live like this for a period of their lives; they spend a few years changing countries every few weeks or months. But, as a general rule (and this is often the case if one remains a nomad for a longer period) they also have one or more base camps where they can go back to their habits, their routines and their social lives.
"The problem is that people in those locations don't want to meet us," Ash, a 30-year-old Indian explains. He has lived as a nomad for five years, never staying longer than two months in one place: "I have to go to Africa, I only know two or three countries there... It's not easy to integrate into local communities, they have no time to spare. They have their lives, their jobs, their friends and their families. Loneliness was a problem at one point."
After five years of being a digital nomad, Ash, who is a software engineer but who "defines [work] depending on the opportunities," seems to be a little tired of the constant need to resettle. He met Rosanna, a 33 year old Portuguese/Dutch woman who had been a nomad for two years, and together they started a group to overcome this loneliness. She looked for other nomads on Facebook groups or Slack, but ended up dropping off flyers saying: "Do you work online? We should meet!" in several cafés. Rosanna and Ash now host a group of about 1,500 members, 500 of whom joined in the last two months, who meet at least once a week to discuss their common aspirations and issues and discover the Portuguese capital together while having drinks. The first thing a nomad does when they arrive in Lisbon? "Find a meet-up group, our group in particular, and meet people."
Since remote work has no reason not to become widespread, and tomorrow we might even live in perpetual motion, in self-driving cars, the notion of a fixed home might have to be revised; we may as well get used to the nomadic way of life. Rosanna defends a point of view that doesn't necessarily romanticise digital nomads. Sure, there's nothing wrong with kitesurfing and capoeira. But it's also important to work hard and, above all, to have professional skills in your field and more importantly: a network and customers that you can find amongst your peers while drinking a porto tónico. "I only have a sofa, a mattress and a table," Ash says. The typical digital nomad wants so much more than to own things. It's good because "when you live this lifestyle, it's very complicated to have a social status," Rosanna says, explaining that broke freelancers attend their events as much as those who do it for fun and are financially comfortable.
The "Portuguese spring"
So why Lisbon? On a nomadic scale, the city reaches 3.67 out of 5 points. With an average internet connection of only 13 mb/s, a number of work places considered 'too limited', an "ok" air quality and nightlife, the Portuguese capital stays in the top 300 cities for digital nomads, trailing behind Asian (Bali, Chiang Mai and Bangkok) or European cities (Berlin, Barcelona and, the leader, Budapest). That being said, Lisbon is one of those places that the nomadic community appreciates for its quality of life [NB. Lisbon is ranked No. 1 worldwide on this criterion, from the point of view of expats]; the anti-cool mentality of Portuguese youngsters, its surf-spots and the special status for non-habitual residents, which makes it possible to reduce the base of their taxed income.
Until today, Lisbon was losing inhabitants. That's 200,000 people in 50 years, meaning two thirds of the original population, that have left its historic centre. The crisis and austerity measure didn't help either. However, economists have been proposing a nicer story for some years now, one which includes a deficit that has never been so low, and the press talks about a "Portuguese spring". Nice. But is it true? Rosanna, who landed in Lisbon in 2015 after not having set foot in the city for six years, was "completely amazed". She had never known a Portugal that wasn't in a 'crisis': "When I came back, there was a positive energy that I had never felt before. In the past, the dream of Portuguese youth was to emigrate. Now, when finishing school, even if they don't necessarily have a job, you hear them say something like: 'Hey, let's try to do something here.'"
The city can bounce back through tourism, whose income has increased by 10% per year on average over the past ten years and employs no fewer than one inhabitant out of eight today. But it can also bounce back through economic attractiveness, especially with regards to all things digital. The most beautiful catch of the city? The Web Summit – the largest conference related to new technologies, snatched from Dublin in 2016 – has become the city's new banner, while waiting for the World's Largest Campus dedicated to digital entrepreneurship that is being built in the former industrial district of Beato. Start-up incubators are displayed on billboards, trying to make people forget the debates related to the impacts of mass tourism for the city, an unavoidable subject for mayoral candidates of Lisbon. In this dreamy Lisbon, attractive and proactive, are digital nomads only passing through? "It's no use making plans," says Ash. "We will always do the opposite anyway," adds Rosanna.