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June 2008

So what's it like when reality sets in?

One might think that absconding away to some new country is something that may ultimately bring only disillusionment or regret in time.  Perhaps under the surface of such a sentiment is the notion that, after all, since life is so much better in the United States...Americans living abroad would eventually realize the error of our ways and inevitably return to our lives of sanity and comfort. 

Let me rephrase that in a less sarcastic way: one might expect that, while an American living abroad would certainly enjoy the thrill of his new experiences for a time, eventually he will come to understand the problems inherent in his new country.  He might feel out-of-place and he might miss things about home enough to return.  But would one also expect that of immigrants coming into the USA?  No, in that case most Americans would fully expect the immigrant to fall in love with his or her new country, eventually try to fit in, and certainly to stay.  So, indeed, there is an ethnocentric double-standard involved.  But this isn't my point...I could care less.

My point is that the world has changed.  The notion that the American lifestyle is "the best" is being devalued as fast as the dollar.  I write on the topic of absconding partially to illuminate this new reality.  I will shed light on some of the ways my new life is better than my previous life, but not in this post.  I think there is something deeper and more interesting underlying the question posed in the title.

With any life change, some aspects of life will be worse than what you expected and others will be better.  I find that what is lost in life is usually replaced by something entirely different that is new (if a person is open to it).

But on the topic of expectations; if you expect to feel like an entirely new person, don't.  The old cliche "wherever you go, there you are" is true.  You will fall back on so many of those habits you already have.  You will think the same way about social relationships. You will sometimes get depressed.  You will still worry.  You will still feel like doing all those things you always felt like doing.  You will not be able to escape all those burdens in life, and in fact you will even add more.

So why bother?  Is there more to the experience than the honeymoon phase when a place feels new and exciting?  Well, to exist solely in one culture is to know only 2 dimensions.   To live as a citizen of the world is to slowly discover the third (as well as a few new colors to illuminate it).  While you don't change, possibilities around you do.  The way you are perceived, the opportunities suddenly available to you, the endless stories and perspectives which you will acquire, the wisdom that can only come from experience, and the contentment of knowing you have done everything possible to live a life that is uniquely yours..those kinds of things make it all worthwhile.

To not do something you want to do is to carry that idea with you until either you do it or you die.  If you end up carrying too many of your desires and living none of them, all of that becomes a burden that gets translated into fear, regret, self-loathing, and even feeling like a victim. 

In high school, my dream was to be an NBA basketball player.  I traveled that route the best way I knew how.  My abilities only got me to a division 2 university, and when I realized I had no potential to play big-time, professional basketball...I quit.   But basketball got me out of my small town and off to college.   

Then there was a time I wanted to be a writer.  Though I studied business and was following that track in life, I dreamed of writing a novel.  I wrote that novel for 18 months (after work and on weekends) by age 25 and, to be honest, it probably wasn't very good.   But I did learn to write and I learned to understand myself in a new way.  More importantly, I was able to shed that dream that went something like "what if I had chosen to be a writer?"  After the book was complete, I knew what it meant to be a writer.  I learned that there was never anything standing in my way.  I was either a good writer or I wasn't.  I either wanted it badly enough to work at it and give up something else, or I didn't.  The weight was lifted and the dilemma erased.

Then there's the music thing.  I learned that I am, indeed, a musician.  I plan on pursuing this music thing as far as my skills and inspiration will take me.  Through becoming a musician, I learned that I don't want to be part of the "music business."  I learned that I truly never was destined to be a famous musician because, for so many reasons, I wouldn't want it anyway.  I love my music and who I am as a musician, and I'm having a lot of fun with it.  How tragic it would have been to never learn always wonder what my voice would sound like on an album and never hear it for wonder whether I might have been a successful musician.

My decision to move from Seattle to Slovakia was no different from any of these other decisions.  It is something I've wanted to do for at least a decade, and to not have done it would have been to live and die with the burden of not knowing.  I knew that the thought of carrying that burden was scarier than all of the difficulties and risks I would encounter. 

My wife is from Slovakia, and I felt the same way about her all those years ago.  I was far too young to get married, but I was so in love with her that the thought of not finding out what it meant to spend a life with her was far more terrifying than all that it involved to do so (starting a life together at age 18 against impossible odds without any family to help).

So when I consider the question "what's it like when reality sets in", I realize that the question doesn't even make sense.  Every major life change takes you to a place that you couldn't have imagined prior to living it.  You become a person that you never otherwise could have been.  So, for this reason, there is absolutely no room for regret.

Every risk I've taken has brought me to a place that is far different from where I first intended to go.  In every case, the "place" I, in fact, ended up was better then where I least in that it was right and inevitable for me.  So to suggest that one ought not to chase a dream for fear that it might not be what he or she expects...I guess that sentiment is completely opposing all I have witnessed and experienced in my life.

In the true spirit of Carpe Diem, the original question posed is also irrelevant because nothing need be forever.  You will follow future impulses just as you have learned to follow this one.  If a life abroad isn't working, change it.  The question remaining is this:

What are your dreams and why are you not chasing them?

A life of freedom?

I suppose human beings have always been faced with a fundamental life choice: accept social rules and cultural expectations in return for certain benefits or ignore them to your own detriment.  We all must depend on others to some extent, so we cannot have freedom in an absolute sense.  Yet I've always thought of myself as someone who seeks freedom, and have only recently come to understand what freedom means to me.

Freedom is something like choosing which party you want to go to, how long you want to stay, and when you want to go home.  To seek freedom is to make sure you are never trapped by circumstance, unable to opt-out from something or make changes.  So when you take on debt, you are giving up freedom because you have no choice but to pay it back.  When you rely financially on a spouse or parent, you give up freedom because you have no choice but to remain loyal to that person.  When you live without savings in the bank, you are not free to walk away from a job that is wrong for you.  It is sad to notice how these three examples have entirely to do with money.   

Anyone serious about achieving a life of freedom needs to start by understanding his or her relationship with money.  The entire concept of money was invented to control the populace; to get us to do things we wouldn't otherwise do of our own free will.  Indeed, the more financial resources we have, the less willing we are to accept flawed circumstances and the less we are controlled by others. 

Money can either be used wisely (saved, used to generate more money, spent on education) or foolishly (spent on cars, clothing, unnecessary stuff).  To spend money foolishly or to take on unnecessary debt is to enslave yourself to the very people who you are allowing to become more free at your expense.  They have such power over you because you give it to them.  Of course we all need transportation, we all enjoy beautiful things, but isn't freedom more important than an impressive car or a designer handbag?  It is my personal policy that money can only be spent on foolish luxuries when you reach the point at which spending that money will not affect you at all...when you have already reached the level of wealth and freedom desired.

One might argue that there is also something beautiful to be found in a life with nothing to lose.  I've had friends who have lived this way and, the truth is, I envy their tendency to live entirely in the moment.  It is true that people who are financially well-off tend to isolate themselves.  But if you have little money, you also have few options.  Without financial independence, there are many, many things you simply cannot choose to do.

My intention is not to argue that my way of life is in any way superior or ought to be held up as an ideal.  There are certainly many other ways to live a rich, fulfilling, happy life.  Some people would trade freedom for the security that is to be found in dependency.  Some people care more about what they own than the experiences they have.  I respect those decisions.

What I'm suggesting is that one cannot even contemplate absconding without first getting real about money.  If you want a life of freedom, whether that ultimately includes living in a foreign country, a new city, starting a band, traveling, or even leaving a job which is inconsistent with your values, then you have no other choice than to start paying off debt, saving and / or investing.  You have to sacrifice and it may take a while.  You have to start by taking care of any financial problems you have created, and then just keep going.

When my wife and I moved from Colorado Springs to Seattle in the year 2000, we had something like $8,000 in the savings account, but credit card debt and student loan debt totaling probably $25,000.  We had two cars and were renting a comfortable apartment, but we were in debt.  For various reasons (one being the idea that one day we might move to Europe), we decided to stop spending and start saving.  First we started paying things off (the cars and the the credit card debt).  Then when that was done we started saving.  When we had enough money in the bank to live off for a year without income, we started investing.

During those 5 years, we didn't buy much (no new cars, minimal furniture, no house) despite the fact that we were both earning a good income.  Our friends and colleagues wondered what was wrong with us that we continued to drive one car that was dented and another that was 12 years old.  But freedom meant more to us and we just kept going.  By 2004, we started to imagine that it was possible to buy ourselves a bit of put our stuff in storage and spend a year in Europe.

Yet, in my wildest dreams, I wouldn't have been able to imagine what was awaiting us.

A new direction for this weblog

Now more than 3 years into this life I have chosen outside of the United States, I want to begin sharing my experiences.  I hope that, in doing so, I may eventually be able to speak to others who contemplate a similar path.  I know I'm not the only one who seeks a life of freedom, experience, adventure, growth, challenge, and bliss.  I'm also not the only one who believes, for whatever reasons, that such a life can be found far away from the influences of the United States.  While the dream is compelling to many, the idea of making such a drastic move can be frightening to most Americans.  By sharing what I have done and what it has done to me, I hope to provide some level of demystification.

Most people would say that I'm an "Expatriate."  Well I've never met anyone living outside the US who refers to him or her self in these terms.  I don't feel like an expatriate...I just feel like me living my life.  Perhaps the term was invented long ago to make "those people" seem like outcasts, irrelevant and far away?  Perhaps that is how things invariably were long ago, but recent technologies have changed things. 

That's precisely what I'm hoping to write about: how technology is making it possible to live a life on our own, individual terms anywhere in the world while doing practically anything...leaving behind those pieces we want to leave and taking along the ones we want to keep.  I call it absconding.  For me, absconding means hiding away from the world's conventional wisdoms, social norms, and if necessary even its rigid legal restrictions, in order to seek a life without compromise...a life conceived on your terms and in which you can become your authentic self.

Perhaps more than 10 years ago now, during one of my nearly-annual trips to my wife's native country of Slovakia, it occurred to me during one of those perfect sunny days strolling down the city center of Kosice, that if Internet technologies continued to advance, there'd be no reason why one day we couldn't live here without sacrificing our careers.  At the time, I guess both of us thought we were dreaming about the distant future.  We imagined ourselves living among the people we cared about, in a place that somehow fits us, without having to give up all of the advantages we had come to enjoy in the US.  We dreamed of the best of both worlds.

The funny thing about holding a dream in your mind is that your life begins moving in that direction.  How could it have been so that less than 10 years after the initial idea, we found ourselves living in an apartment on that same street in the center of Kosice...both of us having kept the same jobs we had in Seattle?  My explanation is that, when you have a dream and you mean it, you unknowingly start down that path by making small choices each day which take you slowly from where you are now to the life you envision.  If the dream fits you in the deepest sense, the process is nearly effortless...almost inevitable.

To dream is to begin the process of walking toward that dream. 

Strumming and drumming for rain

After a long winter in the city, lately I've been craving time spent in nature.  Yesterday I picked up Kevin (my good friend and the other half of Sungod Abscondo) as well as an Australian friend living in Presov, Slovakia, and we headed out to the country for a day with the guys.  We loaded up the car with our guitars, some bongo drums, some sausage, a football, and a fair amount of alcohol.

After driving through a field, we arrived at a spot Kevin had been to years ago.  As we unloaded the car and made our way through the trees, we discovered a couple sunbathing in their underwear.  Though we invited them to join us, I guess they decided to pack up, and soon left. 

Kevin brought out a little radio and put on a traditional Hungarian radio station as we went into the forest to gather wood for a fire.  Soon after we had the fire started, two younger Slovak friends arrived, by bus, with another huge bongo and some more food.  We enjoyed their company and for the opportunity to practice our Slovak. 

After grilling some sausage and having a few drinks, we settled around the picnic table with our instruments: two guitars, three bongos, maracas, an another percussion instrument that I don't know the name of.  For something like 3-4 hours, all of us joined in as we played our Sungod Abscondo songs (including a bunch of new ones) as well as a few covers. 

One thing you find out as you play guitar in the forest is that the birds start singing as if it were morning.  I guess those birds became backdrop to some sort of mildly hypnotic state as we just kept on strumming and drumming.  Slowly we noticed that the perfect, sunny sky had begun to change.  The temperature gradually cooled and the rain clouds started to form.   During our new song, "Thunder", we heard just that in the distance.  It started to seem as though we were the ones changing the weather.  After all, Sungod Abscondo does mean something like "hiding the sungod".  Well the thought was good for a laugh.

Eventually our music was silenced by the rain.  We put everything away, but still didn't feel like leaving.  After standing around the fire to stay warm, we somewhat foolishly decided to play some American football in the rain.  First we had to teach the Slovaks and the Australian how to throw a spiral (without much luck).  Then we had to improvise the rules for a 5-person game of football on slick grass.   I'll just say that, somehow, the Slovaks ended up beating us.  I think it was because they were younger and less afraid to fall than us 30-somethings.

Not a bad way to spend a day with the guys.