As A Semi-Nomad, Home Is Whatever City I Move To Next

When you float between cities living paycheck-to-paycheck, this is what life is like.

In August 2020, two months after I virtually graduated college, I arrived in Honolulu with two suitcases and a lease agreement fresh from COVID-conscious, I quarantined in a studio apartment for two weeks with a roommate I’d never met before: We split grocery delivery, swapped the bed and futon, and toasted to our new home in ceramic tiki mugs. After our release, we tore through the ghostly streets of Waikiki at midnight, floating in the ocean with a 2-liter bottle of bad chardonnay and swearing we’d never leave.

A year later, I did.

Towards the end of my lease in Honolulu, the idea of New Orleans burrowed into my head. A graduate program in Scotland. A job lead in Charleston. Once you leave abruptly once, it’s much easier to do it again.

I don’t bill myself as a digital nomad so much as semi-nomadic or a floater; at 24, I can’t see myself committing to a city for longer than a year at a time. As a freelance writer, I have the flexibility to move around: Some contracts may have me shuttling between several spots, an ideal setup for my indecision. Hawaii was a hotbed for the type of photography, writing, and marketing work I did; I still wanted to end up in the travel industry, even if jobs were at a standstill, and this could count as worldly experience.

My parents were staunchly against me moving so far away at such a volatile time, and I did so entirely on my own dime. I was determined not to take out loans or get myself into credit card debt, meaning I lived off savings and inconsistent freelance income. Still, living paycheck to paycheck with such a low overhead was only possible due to my lack of student loans, a definitive privilege. I also have the ability to come back to stay with my family if I have to, a benefit I used this past winter to save up an emergency fund. Having that safety net gave me the freedom to take risks, an opportunity that many people don’t get. Honestly, without that protection, I don’t know if I would have the bravery to do it again — because as it was, I was constantly stressed about money.

Without a stable living situation, I always had to be aware of my finances, and live as minimally as possible: I spend very little, and rarely eat out or shop. In Hawaii, most of my leisure activities were free, which meant I really only spent money on food, transportation, lodging, and business expenses. I devoted about $1,500 for initial expenses, hoping I wouldn’t get scammed on the few major purchases I made. The most stressful part of living in Hawaii was the cheaper-than-cheap car I shelled out for, which regularly broke down and often made me cry. It was expensive to rebuild the basics solo, even at Costco or Goodwill.

Courtesy of Grace Smith

After Hawaii, I headed to Ontario in the fall of 2021, to the lakeside cottage my family spent a month at every summer. Our family trip had been delayed due to the Canadian border closure, but we agreed to meet up there as soon as it opened. I stayed there for a few weeks before driving down to Lexington, arranging my schedule around my rescheduled graduation. After, I crashed in Raleigh for a month with my twin sister. Finally, at the beginning of November, I ended up in my hometown of Tampa for the holidays, deciding to spend the winter saving up for my next stint. Next is New York, Jackson, or Denver, depending on work.

There are some places I return to every year that seem to settle and invigorate me. There are others that challenge and change me. When I'm immersed in one location for a while, I imagine the version of myself that would thrive there. I’ve come to realize that something doesn’t have to feel permanent to feel like home — home, ultimately, is made up of the places I keep returning to, not the places I’ve been for a long time. I feel that core ideal of “home” as soon as I have a routine somewhere, no matter how long that lasts.

It’s not that no place feels like home, but that multiple spots do.

Standard advice tells nomads to “live lightly,” but I gave myself the freedom to settle and spread out. I figured even if I ended up not extending a lease, I might end up back somewhere seasonally or in the future. While it wasn’t practical to haul a lot of stuff across the country, I chose not to be afraid of decorating. The things I did buy often had a direct correlation to home. Psychological principles of nostalgia — like scent’s strong impact on memory — influenced my comfort levels when I was uprooted. In Hawaii, I’d light a candle with a neroli fragrance from home when I was lonely, or use the lavender shampoo I associated with one vivid semester of college.

For me, nomadism (or in my case semi-nomadism) is appealing as a test run, a way to figure out where I live and thrive best. It amplifies and aligns with certain aspects of my personality, which comes with its own flaws and drawbacks.

I define myself more by where I am than what I’m doing or who I’m around, but I’ve also found that relationships are an important piece of the puzzle. I’ve always been a floater: friends with everyone, but unwilling or unable to function in a group message dynamic. My friendships in new places are deep and satisfying, but I miss out on the growth and intensity that history will give them over time. Wavering on how long I’d stay made me feel like I projected distance, like people shouldn’t try to befriend me because I wouldn’t stick around. I plan on returning to Oahu at some point, and next time, I tell myself, I’ll socialize as if I’ll stay forever.

Courtesy of Grace Smith

Romantically, I don’t date and I haven’t kissed anyone in over two years. Without the genuine belief I’ll end up somewhere for a while, any desire has completely evaporated. I have to know someone deeply before I’m attracted to them, which is antithetical to the lifestyle I currently want. Any temptation to date is often financial, which sounds heartless. But the truth is it would be easier to split the costs of moving around with somebody else. Many other nomads I see are coupled up, splitting the obscene expense of an overpriced short-term sublease or furnished apartment.

Ultimately, I’ve struggled with the idea of where home is for me now. It’s not that no place feels like home, but that multiple spots do: A place can both return you to some core version of yourself while also marking how much you've changed since you've last been there. Home is Tampa, Florida. Brevard, North Carolina. Gore’s Landing, Ontario. Oahu, Hawaii. Lexington, Virginia. It’s more about where I choose to return, than where I spend my time.