Yeah, that's right, we're a quarter of the way through this thing. How is time moving so fast? Why is it only a year? I'm interested in, like, "Remote Decade." Can someone get on that?
It seems like a good time for a summary of the trip, the vibes, the thoughts, the lessons, the places, and the program; here's how Remote Year is shaping up in the early season.
Overall, the Darien itinerary is a pretty good one. There was only one city I wasn't thrilled about, and in practice it wasn't any better than I expected; but hey, we're past it now! Let me break it down for ya:
Prague is the perfect city for a group to start out in. It's small enough that getting around is easy, a lot of the locals speak English, it's inexpensive, there's lots to do, and it's BEAUTIFUL. It's also far enough removed from typical tourist Europe that it feels unique; yes, you can go to an H&M in Old Town, but you can also get away from the super run of the mill box stores and restaurants and explore like, actual Czech stuff. There are tons of sights to see, and a bustling trade in tourism means there are plenty of companies and activities that will help you see it. In short, it pushes you you to move outside of your comfort zone, but not so far that you start freaking out. If I were RY, I'd start as many groups out here as I possibly could. 10/10, would recommend.
I really loved stop number two, but I know some of my group members struggled in Belgrade. It's shabbier than Prague; nothing looks like Disney there. You're not going to find quaint little buildings and gorgeous old structures, it's lacking in destinations and things to do, and it feels entirely foreign from an American perspective. If, however, you want to try on a new culture for a little while, Belgrade is pretty friggen great. The buildings are communist era snooze-fests, littered with graffiti and bullet holes, full of so much soul you can feel it leaking through the cracks. Slow moving old men sip rakia at kafanas all day long. Young people party on barges until the wee hours of the morning. It's an experience more than a sight, and I loved that about it. Belgrade falls a little further outside of the comfort zone, and it was a welcome push. 7/10, not great for 'tourism' but a really interesting place and exactly what I hoped for on Remote Year.
London is... London. How do you find a new way to describe a city that everyone's already been to? To me, London felt like a real crack in the itinerary. I get why we were there: when Istanbul fell off as a possibility on our agenda and RY had to scramble for a non-Schengen city that could easily accommodate three groups of seventy five people on short notice, London probably looked pretty good.
That being said, I couldn't help but find it disappointing. Yes, there's cool stuff to see and do in London. I have family in the UK and visiting them was heartwarming and necessary for my sanity. It's fun and lively and there are all sorts of great scenes-- but is it any different from what I could find at home in New York? Not really. Old stuff is fun for awhile, but a lot of places have old stuff, and when you strip away that layer you're left with a pretty generic city that falls smack dab in the middle of that comfort zone we talked about. Is it a bad city? No, it's great. Was it right for fulfilling the sense of exploration and adventure that I signed up for Remote Year to find? Not at all. 2/10, too normal, too expensive, too far in the comfort zone.
I can't give RY enough credit for putting such an awesome group of people together on this trip. I can honestly say there isn't a single person here I don't enjoy; some in smaller doses than others, but overall interesting, kind-hearted humans. What's so fun about this group is our inherent similarities-- among my RY family my goals and dreams are par for the course, my attitudes and morals are reflected in many of my peers, and my overall personality has found a home with others like it.
Like family, sometimes we get on each other's nerves. Like family, we love each other in a way that feels unconditional. That might just be the overwhelming sense that we're stuck together for a year and we need to find a way to get along, but it feels more like inclusivity and acceptance.
Now, to get sad for a sec. I've been trying to write little blurbs about all of my fellow remotes, with the goal of addressing them all before the year is up. For five friends, it turned out I didn't have a whole year. Five people left the program last month, and I'm going to tell you a little about each of them now.
It's tough to even start on this one. Meera has been one of my best friends on Remote Year from the very start, when we were roommates in Prague. She's cooked me beautiful meals, listened to me whine, provided me with sleeping pills when the construction outside of our apartment had me losing my mind, and made made me laugh on so many occasions they would be impossible to count.
She's one of those people that just becomes a rock in your life; whatever you need, she's there for. She can pull funny faces or listen in a way that makes you feel like she's really interested. She remembers the tiny details of your life and asks about them. When I was dying for a bagel in Serbia, she brought me one from London. She's the best kind of friend a person can have, and I already miss her so so much. I can't wait to see you in Valenthia, Meers.
Courtnee joined our group late, but was an immediately cool presence to have around. She always has a great story to tell and her smile is super infectious. I didn't get the chance to know her very well, but she's missed all the same. Good luck in London, Courtnee!
When I went to draft Ee's little avatar, I struggled to put my finger on what was unique about her appearance. She's always well dressed, and she has some signature items that she's worn many times (don't we all). I quickly illustrated her outfit, the shape of her face, her hair-- but it still wasn't there.
Finally I just sat back and thought about every interaction I've ever had with her, and it totally clicked; what's distinctive about Ee Yeen is her constant, beautiful smile. She greets you with one, wears one while she talks with you, keeps one on her face as she waves goodbye. She gives you this immediate feeling that she's happy to see you, even when you barge into her Czech apartment unannounced at random hours of the morning. I'm really going to miss Ee's light in this group, but I'm wishing her all the luck in the world with her travels going forward.
Susan and I ran into each other maybe three times throughout the last three months. She and I always seemed to floating in and out vastly different experiences; while I'm often with large groups doing activities, Susan seemed to be more than anything a genuine explorer.
So no, we never had a heart to heart or a coffee one on one, but to me Susan was still incredibly present; I got to know her through her art, her blogs, her beautiful photographs. I'd often open instagram to see a picture of hers from some place in a city that I had never seen or heard of and think how are you finding these? And that's the beauty of Susan: she always seemed to have her eyes open.
Justin is another remote who I never got to spend much time with, but every time I did see him I can truly say I enjoyed enjoyed his presence. In Prague I saw him more often than not in run-ins on the street, and was always greeted with a massive smile. In Belgrade he threw a birthday party for the books, and it was awesome to celebrate with him. One day in Serbia we played volleyball and went for a swim together; the five minutes we spent in Lake Ada were probably the only five minutes we ever shared just us, but I remember immediately thinking I have to hang out with Justin more. He's kind of the best.
Sadly for that revelation (and happily for Justin), he spent most of London traveling around Croatia and Montenegro, and officially left the group at the conclusion of month three. I hear he's going to be visiting us along the way, and I'm psyched to get to know him better when he does. Bon voyage, Justin! Keep the photos coming!
Remote Year, overall, is a really amazing platform. There are so many aspects of the program that are totally smooth; two shining examples are our program leaders Jenna and Aline. Jenna has the patience of a saint, a perpetual smile, is easy to talk to, and successfully handles the travel and accommodations and all program-related questions and issues for all of us every month. Aline works tirelessly to provide us with great programming, and has organized some of the best speakers and events I've attended in a long time.
Are there some glitches? Yes. It's a growing program, and some aspects of it can feel kind of hard. When you end up in a crappy apartment or your wifi doesn't work or the workspace kind of blows or other issues arise, people are quick to remind you to temper your expectations. That being said, we're traveling to (mostly) very inexpensive countries, and we're paying $2000 a month to do it, and unavoidably it sometimes feels like you're just not getting your money's worth. My expectations are governed by the monthly fee and the relative cost of living in each country and I can honestly say it's been mostly good, but there has definitely been a disappointment or two along the way. I'm completely confident Remote Year will figure it out as they go, and I'm totally fine with being a guinea pig. All in all, the good to bad ratio is something like 8:2, so I really don't have anything to complain about.
What's most interesting to me is how much I feel like I've grown in the last hundred and four days. I've learned a lot, and one day I hope to list every little thing I've walked away with. For now, here's my top 5:
- It's ok to be a little lost in life. Sometimes not having any direction leads you to the best places.
- You really, actually, don't need stuff. Sometimes I wake up and lament the lack of variety in my closet, but all in all I don't miss tchotchkes or furniture or my nine million pairs of shoes. Life is simpler this way, and you learn to appreciate the weightlessness of having next to nothing.
- Keeping in touch is hard, but important. When your life seems to be moving at a million miles an hour, it can be tough to remember your check-ins with people back home. Someday, though, you'll really miss them, and you'll hate the distance that forgetting those phone calls has caused.
- You're allowed to be sad sometimes. Even though you're traveling around the world with amazing people and seeing incredible things, it's ok to have bad days or sit in bed watching Netflix. We're all only human.
- You can really have the life you dreamed of. I'm sitting in Portugal doing it right now. Thanks for everything, Remote Year.