It is 7 p.m. when I hear the knock on my door. I have just moved in and don’t know anyone here, so I can only guess it is my downstairs neighbor.
There is no light on the porch, so I can’t see anything outside the large uncovered window on the door. I stall for a second as I peer through the darkness, but I know whoever is on the other side has already seen me, so I swing the door open and hope for the best.
“Hello!” a tall man with blonde hair and red-and-white eyeglasses shouts from the shadows. “I live underneath you!”
“You must be Thomas,” I say, since my apartment’s owner emailed me about him wanting to use my washing machine.
“Yes! Did you get the email about my laundry? I was hoping to do it tomorrow. You can just leave your spare key in this lockbox here. I know the code. I used to live in your apartment!”
Normally I wouldn’t leave a key to my apartment to a guy I don’t even know. Normally I wouldn’t even answer the door if I wasn’t expecting someone.
But travel bends the rules. I say yes, that would be fine. I’ll leave him a key and he can do his laundry anytime.
As we talk, I catch him eyeing something over my shoulder and realize he must see the blue light coming from my security camera propped ostensibly on the dryer behind me. After he leaves, I try to decide if I should explain it to him, hide it, or leave it be.
The next morning, I am in the bathroom when I hear a loud “Hello!” at the front door. I rush to get dressed and meet Thomas in the doorway.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I thought you weren’t home, that’s why I knocked.”
He walks in toting a large garbage can with his clothes inside and begins loading them in the washer while I stand by the entry to the main room, wondering what to say.
“That’s my security camera,” I blurt out and point to the small Wi-Fi camera standing guard on the dryer, its trusty blue light still glowing. “I hope you don’t mind. It’s just that last year when I was in Paris someone broke into my apartment and stole my laptop and the police never found them so I put that there just in case and–”
“What do you do for a living?” he interjects, which tells me he’s a better conversationalist than I am (small talk has never been my strength).
“I’m a marketing consultant. I work remotely for clients back in the States.”
“Oh, so you’re a digital nomad?” he asks me, and I cringe. But he says it without contempt or sarcasm, or even congratulation. He says it as a matter of fact.
“Oh, that’s my area of research!” he says. “I’m doing my PhD and studying crowdsourcing. So I interview digital nomads.”
“Well, you can interview me anytime,” I say as I lean against the wall feeling self-conscious.
“And how do you like it?” he asks, the way someone would ask how you like the new pair of shoes you’re wearing or how you like the meal you ordered.
No one has ever asked me how I like my life, so I stumble over my words. “Oh, uh…it’s…I like it! I mean, because I’m pretty adaptable to different situations…”
I trail off as Thomas stands up from loading the washer and turns to face me. Then I sigh, “The biggest challenge has been finding a community and establishing relationships.”
He smiles a close-lipped smile and nods, as if to say, “That is what everyone says.”
Thomas is from Austria but has lived as a digital nomad for years, traveling for study in places like Berlin, Edinburgh, and San Francisco.
“San Francisco was too…techie for me,” he says.
“It was inauthentic. Fake.” He doesn’t explain, and he doesn’t need to. I know exactly what he means.
He then invites me to his birthday party at a cocktail bar the next night. When I hesitate, he tells me there’s no pressure and he understands if I have other plans.
“I don’t want to barge in on your birthday party,” I tell him.
“I wouldn’t invite you if I didn’t mean it,” he says reassuringly. “I know what it’s like to be in a new city and know no one.”
We exchange numbers and go on our way.
That afternoon, I walk to the nearby coworking space and plop down almost $200 for a month’s access to a large space with shared desks, a pool table, beer, and unlimited coffee and tea.
Upon command, a shiny metal touch-screen machine dispenses coffee into my mug, which I carry to the long table by the communal kitchen and settle in to a chair across from a man with a shock of blonde hair. He has an Australian accent (I know this not because he ever spoke to me, but because he spoke to plenty of people around me) and goes by the name “Dragon,” so I’m pretty sure I’ve picked the right place.
Thirty minutes later, the Wi-Fi goes down in the entire building and the bleach from the cleaning lady’s mop is stinging my throat, so I pack up my things and return to my apartment to work alone.
Recently someone asked me for my definition of coworking. I told her, “Loners feeling less alone together.”
. . .
This essay first appeared in The Wherever Weekly, my Sunday newsletter, on November 6, 2016. To be the first to access my latest personal essays, blog posts, and travel and creativity tips, subscribe to The Wherever Weekly here.