Bratislava can feel big and small at the same time. While it offers many options, it still manages to feel comfortable and familiar, says Annie Erling, a digital nomad working at TripScout, a travel app that provides self-guided city tours curated by local guides around the world, who made the Slovak capital her home for one year.
On the other hand, language barrier and health care may be a bit of struggle for people coming to the city for the first time, she admits in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Why did you decide to become digital nomad?
Annie Erling (AE): My love for travel drew me to the digital nomad life, but the main reason I pursued a location-independent career is because I love having flexibility. A friend once told me that there are four main motivations for choosing a career: fame, fortune, family, and freedom. Freedom is absolutely my main motivation for becoming a digital nomad. I love being able to work anywhere at anytime. I do have a husband and a little dog, so I don’t travel full-time like some digital nomads do.
TSS: Was it a hard decision to make?
AE: The decision to become a digital nomad was easy, but the transition from traditional office worker to digital nomad was an adjustment. When you go into an office you have built-in accountability and a routine and colleagues within arm's reach to bounce ideas off of. When I first transitioned to working remotely, my entire routine was thrown off balance. I started working insane hours, like 14:00 until 3:00 or 4:00. I also felt lonely and struggled to communicate with my colleagues remotely.
TSS: Why did you pick Bratislava, and how long did you stay here? Have you lived and worked in other European cities, or was this your first choice?
AE: Choosing to live in Bratislava was a little random, but I am so grateful I did. I had never been to Slovakia before, and I had no idea what to expect. I chose Bratislava because of its location – I had already lived in Italy years before and wanted to explore a different part of Europe. Bratislava’s proximity to Vienna’s international airport was very appealing, but I was also happy that Budapest and Prague are within easy access.
I was awarded a Fulbright Grant by the US government to teach part-time in Bratislava for 12 months in 2014 to 2015. I taught American Studies at a high school in Dúbravka and spent the rest of my time travelling and freelance writing.
TSS: Is Bratislava a good base for digital nomads?
AE: Bratislava is an excellent base for digital nomads.There are three factors that make Bratislava a good base for digital nomads: affordable cost of living, easy access to a big international airport and a vibrant local community.
Bratislava is not the cheapest or most affordable city in Europe, but I think you get much more value for the money you spend here. I could have lived somewhere cheaper, but I would have sacrificed a lot. Bratislava is a very cool city filled with really interesting people who are doing fascinating things. Every week I’d stumble across a new café or restaurant, and there are constantly performances, art shows, events and more happening.
TSS: What are Bratislava’s pros and cons when compared with other European cities?
AE: The expat community in Bratislava is surprisingly big and very interesting. Bratislava is big, but it can feel very small. I’d run into people I know everywhere! I loved this about the city – Bratislava offers so many options, but it still manages to feel comfortable and familiar.
Vienna International Airport is a good airport, and it is very easy to travel from Bratislava there. Having access to a solid international airport is important for digital nomads. I also rented a car many times during my year in Bratislava and drove all over central Europe.
As for the cons, the language divide can be difficult if you don’t speak Slovak. Moreover, things like banking, health care and living legally in Slovakia can be tricky for foreigners in Slovakia. I was fortunate enough to have help navigating the visa process, but I had several friends who had to leave Slovakia because obtaining a visa was so difficult.
TSS: What was the most challenging for you when you came to Bratislava?
AE: I was very, very homesick for the first two months. I’m pretty adventurous and had planned my time in Slovakia so carefully, so I was surprised and sad when I felt such severe culture shock. And I was entirely alone. I arrived in Slovakia solo and the experience was overwhelming. I was very disorientated the first two months I lived in Bratislava, but once I started forcing myself to go out and make more friends, I recovered.
The language divide was difficult, especially when I first arrived. It was easy to connect with young people – who almost always spoke fluent English – but I really struggled at the grocery store or connecting with my older neighbours. I took a Slovak language course for three months, but Slovak is an incredibly difficult language to learn. I learned just enough to survive and be polite, but my lack of Slovak language skills often made me feel distant from my surroundings.
TSS: You have recently published a book about digital nomads. What was the impulse for doing so?
AE: People often think that being a digital nomad is a rare and specific job, or that you need to be rich to be a digital nomad, or that you can’t maintain and develop a meaningful life while living as a digital nomad. These are all untrue.
Konrad Waliszewski, the co-founder and CEO of TripScout.co, and I wrote the book How to Become a Digital Nomad because we wanted to dispel the myths surrounding digital nomads, to educate people on how to either make your current career location independent or how to find a new career or job that allows you location independence. It is also a guide for aspiring digital nomads – we go through each step of the process, from changing your job to finding reliable places to work abroad, and all the serious stuff in between, such as insurance, banking or taxes.
TSS: Did you also use your experience from Bratislava?
AE: My year as a digital nomad in Bratislava heavily influenced what I wrote. There is an entire chapter in the book about the psychology of digital nomads. In the book, I write honestly about how scary and isolating culture shock can feel and what I did to overcome it.
I write a lot in the book about how to connect with people while travelling. When you’re traveling, it’s tempting to avoid personal connections with people you might only know for one hour. But there is much value in these interactions, no matter how small.
While living in Bratislava, I had several issues receiving proper medical care. I struggled simply because I didn’t understand the medical system in Slovakia. We write a lot in the book about how to solve issues like this, or where to turn if you run into serious problems abroad.
Annie Erling’s tips for future digital nomads
Anyone who wants to be a digital nomad but thinks there is too much holding you back should make a list of all the factors that make you hesitate. What’s holding you back? What is the worst that can happen if you go for it? If the worst happens, what could you do to fix the situation? Truly, consider what’s holding you back from being a digital nomad.
If the digital nomad life seems appealing, but you’re not certain it’s for you, experiment with a trial period. Try working from home once or twice a week, or take a “working vacation”. Rent an Airbnb on the beach for a week and work like you normally would, just in a better location. See how you like this new work-life balance. If you feel happier, more productive and refreshed, the digital nomad life is probably for you.