It’s coming up on a year since Doug and I “wintered” in Buenos Aires (we spent three months there, from mid-January to mid-April), and if any of you freelancers are thinking of doing something like this, it’s a good time to share what we learned from it.
To refresh your memory: because we’re both self-employed, my husband and I decided we would finally take advantage of this, and spend the worst part of our cold, wet winter somewhere warm and sunny. Besides warmth and sunshine, we had two more criteria: 1) it should be a place we’ve never been before and present some fun challenges, and 2) be gay-friendly. (That last one is pretty damn big, when you consider being gay in many places means imprisonment or even death. Kinda cuts down on options.) Thus, we ended up choosing Buenos Aires.
If you’re thinking of doing the same, here’s a small list of things I learned which I’d like to pass on to you:
- CITY, COUNTRY, GENERAL SAFETY
Do some research about where you’re going. It’s one thing to visit a new city on vacation, where you stay for a few days. But it’s another altogether when you decide to live there for several months. What’s the political and economical situation where you’re going? It could easily impact your stay in either a good or bad way. What’s the infrastructure there like? Are power-shortages common? How about the water? What’s the transportation system like? How are women treated there? How safe is this city generally rated? If you’re mugged, do you know what to do? Do you know where your country’s embassy is? Did you leave copies of your important documents with a friend back home, just in case you’re robbed? For apartment-hunting (and general travel info), some great resource Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, or AirBnB.com but there tons more online. So many, in fact, it can be rather daunting. Ask any friends who have already gone to this country for help; they’ll have tour guides and tons of info to share. Find out how long you can stay there as a tourist without a special visa (this depends on the country you’re from, and the country you’re visiting). And when you go through immigration, for god’s sake DO NOT tell them you’re there to work! Say you are there for an “extended vacation” that’s all!
- WHERE YOU LIVE - NEIGHBOURHOOD, APARTMENT
Find a good safe neighbourhood, and an apartment that isn’t a cheap dump. Choose a living space that is as comfortable as possible FOR YOUR NEEDS. You’re planning on being there for long enough that you’re “living” there, rather than just “vacationing.” Find something that is similar enough to what you’ve got back home so that it doesn’t become an unbearable challenge to live there. A small fun challenge can be nice, but not if that means pigeons tap-dancing on your paper-thin roof every day at 5 am, windows that leak, or a church bell five metres from your bedroom window that starts ringing every hour-on-the-hour starting at 6 am. Every. Frigging. Day.
- YOUR WORK SPACE
Whatever apartment you rent, if you’re planning on working there too, then it should be comfortable. It shouldn’t just be a laptop on a tiny Parisian kitchen counter-top, if back hom you’re used to a 2-desk-and-3-monitor setup. It should at least have an acceptable desk and good chair. Find something that suits your work habits and will be physically comfortable. In addition, try to find a good shared-office space; these are popping up everywhere now and this particular one was a godsend when our wi-fi kept spazzing out in Buenos Aires. What’s that about the wi-fi you say? Read on…
This thing that we didn’t think about 20 years ago now connects you to all your friends and your clients. It’s indispensable. While we were in Buenos Aires, the internet was working only about 2/3 of the time (this goes back to the point up top about infrastructure too). We spent several days in a row with zero connection. At first it freaked me out (because we’re spoiled here in most of Canada), but then I realized, hey, relax, I can do non-internet work in the meantime (sketching, Photoshop, writing, etc…) and the internet will be back on in a few hours. Or a few days.
- PHONE & SKYPE
Figure out how the phone system works where you’re going. The phone system in Buenos Aires was ridiculously complicated to us, and to many other expats we spoke with. And to locals! We never clearly understood what kind of phone cards we were buying, and the phone company’s site had no bilingual information either. Calls in only? Calls out only? Calls in, but not out? Calls out to mobiles, but not to land-lines, and in from land-lines but not in from mobiles?? What about texting? And data? Phone cards? AARHHH!! It was bananas. We eventually depended on a combined system of texting/Skype/Facebook/emails. And sometimes just shouting out the window.
- LANGUAGE & CULTURE
Learn to speak the language passably well. I cannot stress this one enough. Three months is a very long time in a place when you can BARELY SPEAK THE LOCAL LANGUAGE, and most people there don’t speak much English. We self-educated months prior with podcasts, Rosetta Stone (meh), podcasts, and books. Doug and I even tried (unsuccessfully) to have “Spanish-only” days. We toyed with language lessons while there, but it was more expensive than we could afford. Doug had a bit more time to spare, and used a language-exchange site to meet a few people for “talking dates.” These were interesting to say the least. (A British woman chronicled her Argentinian language exchange adventures in her blog, 52 Exchanges.)
Use all your connections (Twitter, Facebook, your blog, etc…) to reach out to peers or friends-of-friends. I met tons of wonderful designers & illustrators during my visit by organizing meet-ups and posting them online. Everyone was warm and welcoming, helped us feel more at home, and gave us lots of insight on living in Buenos Aires. In fact it was a fellow illustrator whom I knew but had never met who helped us find our great apartment there! I made some good friends while in the city and I really miss them.
- YOUR HEALTH, BEFORE AND AFTER
If you have health concerns that are unique to you, you already know to be prepared before you go (like medication, etc…). Try finding a gym near your apartment (Google Maps is great help here, but not everything is listed; ask your networks here again). We used a small gym nearby, but we also did so much exploring on foot during the week that we managed to at least keep trim (sort of; we called it being “skinny-fat”). Food is another thing; a change in diet and lifestyle habits is absolutely inevitable. Like the rest of the Latin world, Argentines enjoy dinner starting at around 11 pm, accompanied with (and followed) by several glasses of beer and wine. And coffee (morning and afternoon) was almost always served with some pastries. And then ice cream at night. I ABSOLUTELY LOVED ALL OF THIS! :) Now, hey, a week of rich food and late nights while on vacation is one thing; three months of that is quite another, especially when you’re not used to it! (Although our tender Canadian stomachs weren’t tough enough for nightly drinking, we did warm up to the late dinners.) Doug wrote a good post about our post-vacation physiques and fitness levels.
Again, research where you’re going and do a cost-of-living comparison (there are a lot of calculators and data online) to see how much money you’ll need for the time you’ll be there. Your apartment may be half the price, but your grocery bills may be double. It all depends where you go.
- BE A TOURIST!
You’re in a new place, go explore! Have fun and do things! You may not ever do this again, so take advantage of it while you’re there and make it memorable. Indulge in the culture while you’re there, explore the city and see if you can afford to plan a few trips to places outside the city.
Would we do this again? YES! But next time, we’d be lazier and pick a country where English (or at least French) are more prominent. Spanish was hella hard for us (although we did get pretty good at reading it), and while English was fairly common among younger folks and people I met in design and illustration, if we spoke more fluently it would really have enriched the whole experience. We sometimes resorted to being shut-ins when the constant translating and speaking got too exhausting.
Plus, you’ll never tire of hearing people exclaim: “I’ve always wanted to do that!” and “You’re really living the life!” or “I’m so jealous!” as you post photos making you look like some kinda rock star… except in reality you’re stressed because it’s more expensive than you thought, and that lady upstairs makes SO MUCH NOISE! And… and…!
Whatever! I still say: DO IT. The only regret you’ll have is if you don’t.
Just thought I’d reblog my tips and experience here for Drawn! readers.