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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Down With Digital Nomads

American remote workers are reshaping Europe, from visa policies to housing markets.

George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2)
(Wikimedia Commons)

On the 200th anniversary of Lord Byron’s death, many celebrated him as the archetypal rake, romantic hero, ne’er-do-well playboy, and gifted poet. Less appreciated is the fact that he was arguably our first modern tourist. From Venice to Albania to Athens and Istanbul, Byron partied his way across the Mediterranean world, reveling in exotic sights and customs, dressing up in local finery, and chasing lovers of both genders along the way. A typical British stag party carousing through the streets of modern Budapest may be less refined, but its priorities are not appreciably different. 

Byron’s example inspired waves of imitators. After the Greek War of Independence, an enterprising Scottish publisher started printing regular editions of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Greece to reassure distraught Victorians that the flea-infested inns and run-down tavernas they encountered were living links to the world of Pericles, Aristophanes, and Plato. Today, smartphone-wielding travelers of all nationalities have supplanted upper class Brits on continental tours, but the aim of modern tourist traps is much the same as their comparatively primitive 19th century antecedents, namely fleecing affluent foreigners as gently as possible. 

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Seasoned travelers go to great lengths to avoid such places, but tourist traps at least try to remind visitors, albeit in crude and over-the-top ways, that they are in a foreign country. Sometimes this leads to unfortunate misunderstandings involving novelty drink specials or garbled English menus. In Hungarian, “paraszt konyha” roughly translates to “peasant kitchen,” meaning a restaurant that serves traditional countryside dishes. Divorced from this context, “paraszt” is a serious insult, a bit like calling someone a “bastard” in English. Something to keep in mind the next time you’re looking for traditional Hungarian fare in Budapest. 

Still, the occasional misunderstanding can be a useful lesson in the culture of your host country. The multi-layered connotations of “paraszt,” which, depending on the context, might mean “serf,” “farmer,” “bastard,” or an adjective to describe something traditional, actually says something interesting about Hungarians’ complicated relationship to the countryside. On the one hand, rural Hungary is still seen as the source of all things traditionally Magyar, from good wine to hearty meals. On the other hand, rural visitors to bustling, cosmopolitan Budapest sometimes resent their big city cousins. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, himself a country boy, has found a great deal of political success playing on rural Hungary’s inferiority complex. 

Inadvertent crash courses on foreign taboos may soon be a thing of the past. A new mode of travel has emerged in recent years, pioneered by a wave of affluent, tech-savvy young people who seek to iron the awkwardness out of foreign sightseeing. These are the digital nomads, and the influence of their peculiar subculture can be felt everywhere from visa policy to the coffee menu at a typical Eastern European cafe. 

Digital nomadism is not quite traditional tourism, nor is it the same as moving to a foreign country, learning the language, and adapting to local habits and customs. Nomads tend to stick to their own enclaves and interact mostly with fellow expatriates or well-heeled Anglophone locals. Nomads might stay in one place for a year or two, or they might quickly relocate in search of better weather, more favorable visa policies, or a different “vibe.” Anyone with a smartphone and a remote job can aspire to the lifestyle. Digital nomadism was popularized on American social media and is enabled by a suite of technologies developed by American companies. 

Armed with ride-sharing apps, QR codes, booking websites, and sophisticated machine translation, a visitor to Paris, Berlin, or Prague can handle travel arrangements with nothing more than a smartphone and internet access. These features insulate visitors from all but the briefest scripted encounters with locals. And if your Uber driver or food delivery guy is too chatty or insufficiently deferential, you can immediately leave a negative review. Instant technological feedback is training a generation of foreign service employees on the social hang-ups of American millennials.

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The app that exemplifies this model is Airbnb, an online booking service that originally sold itself as a more authentic way to travel, the idea being that your host would also serve as a personalized concierge for his city or neighborhood. Now Airbnb bookings are frequently outsourced to agencies that manage multiple properties. Instead of handing you a key in person, your host is just as likely to send you a code to a dropbox. Communication is done remotely via the Airbnb app or website, which naturally includes a translation feature. All of these interactions can be conducted without a single face-to-face encounter. 

Digital nomadism has spread rapidly from Phnom Penh to Perth, but its heartland is continental Europe. Indeed, traveling the European Union in the 1990s and early 2000s was a bit like being a digital nomad avant la lettre, thanks to the dissolution of internal EU border controls, cheap Eurail passes, and widespread English fluency. 

Now apps and social media, in addition to making travel much easier, have exported the aesthetics of Brooklyn and San Francisco across the Old World. Go to a trendy cafe in any major European city and you’re likely to encounter the same menu of cappuccinos, iced lattes, and cortados, with oat or almond milk if you happen to be vegan. Playlists are algorithmically selected to be vaguely hip and welcoming without being objectionable (or memorable). Interior decor tends toward raw wood tables, exposed brick walls, and other features popular on Instagram. Many places don’t even bother to include the host country’s native language on the menu because their customers, even the locals, all speak English. 

For young Americans, digital nomadism has certain obvious advantages. You can travel across Europe with a minimum of hassle, all while continuing to enjoy a salary that is considerably higher than what you would make if you permanently relocated. You also enjoy the many benefits of European social democracies, from cheap and reliable public transportation to free health care. For decades, wonks searched in vain for a formula that combines a generous European-style welfare state with America’s dynamic private sector. Nomads have actually cracked the code. 

European tourism is already being reshaped by the practices and preferences of the nomad class. Italy, Portugal, and Croatia, all heavily dependent on foreign visitors, now offer special visas for remote workers with incomes above a certain threshold. Others are less enthused by this new mode of travel. Airbnb’s transformation from a way for locals to make a bit of extra cash to a professionalized rental racket has hollowed out entire neighborhoods, causing Florence and Barcelona to restrict online booking services. 

Funnily enough, many nomads have borrowed a symbol previously associated with a less glamorous class of traveler. Once the province of sailors and other dangerous or vaguely disreputable professions, tattoos have become almost standard for younger sightseers. Inked motifs, symbols, and messages still invoke romantic notions of foreign adventure, though their bearers have done everything possible to remove friction and uncertainty from the equation. Ubiquitous tattoos bring to mind another British writer with an international background. Joseph Conrad once wrote that, to sailors, all foreign ports are identical. The same can be said of the bars, cafes, and neighborhoods that cater to digital nomads.