IT IS RECEIVED wisdom to think of nomads as primitive; as the ‘other’ of civilisation and its attendants: settled agriculture and cities. Nomadic herders, hunters, raiders, and traders have had a profound impact on the contours of civilisation, but it is literate, urban cultures and the fixity of their written words and addresses that have emerged from our common historical ancestry, as the mainstream to the itinerant periphery.
The stigma attached to being nomadic was exemplified by the antipathy across European states towards their Roma or ‘gypsy’ populations, who were seen as a rebellious confederation of thieves, tinkers, fortune-tellers, and troublemakers, in need of being tamed and place-bound. Efforts towards this focused on forcing them to settle, putting an end to their destabilising movement.
In Spain, for example, the Catholic monarchs, Isabel and Fernando, established a set of laws in 1499 which made it mandatory for gypsies to bind themselves to a permanent address within 60 days or else face one of three possible consequences. First, be whipped 100 times and banished forever from the kingdom; second, have their ears cut off and be held in chains for 60 days, followed by banishment; or third, remain as captives for the rest of their lives.
The centuries-long persecution of gypsies in Europe found its apotheosis during World War II when the Nazis decided to wipe out the entire ‘race’ along with Jews and other ‘unsavouries’ in their death camps.
The hippies that emerged from the 1960s counterculture movement were the next iteration of global nomadism. And while not reviled like the Roma, as a group they were viewed by the upstanding in society with suspicion, if not outright derision. As with other wanderers before them, hippies were people who had opted out of the mainstream by eschewing a permanent address. And where there was no address, the state’s ability to tax and control an individual was curtailed.
But there is now a new type of nomad: a 21st century, laptop-toting version that is inverting this paradigm of centre and periphery. Spain, the country I live in, has recently become the latest in a slew of European countries that are actively trying to woo ‘digital nomads’ to come and work from their shores.
The visa is open to non-EU nationals who intend to make use of Spain’s beaches and lively cities as a remote base for their work for non-Spanish companies. Applicants can only earn a maximum of 20 per cent of their income from Spanish employers. Both freelancers with multiple clients and remote workers employed by a single company outside of Spain are eligible to apply. The visa is valid in the first instance for 12 months. It can then be renewed for up to five years. To maintain the permit, the holder is allowed to be absent from the country for a maximum of six months in a year.
In opening up its borders to digitally enabled freelancers, Spain follows Portugal, Germany, Hungary, Greece, Italy, and a number of other countries, all attempting to rev up their Covid-hit economies by enticing gainfully employed tech workers to spend their cash on the host country’s goods and services. The pandemic proved that work is no longer an address, as much as a stable WiFi connection. And so, a new historical epoch seems to have dawned where the state views the condition of itinerancy as desirable. Governments are now vying to act like nationwide Airbnbs.
A digital nomad visa allows the holder to acquire residency in a country without the need for investing in property, which was the basis for European residency schemes in the past. Often, although this differs from country to country, the nomad is not even required to be a registered taxpayer in the country of residence
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A digital nomad visa allows the holder to acquire residency in a country without the need for investing in property, which was the basis for European residency schemes in the past. Often, although this differs from country to country, the nomad is not even required to be a registered taxpayer in the country of residence.
IN A FURTHER INVERSION, it allows access to Fortress Europe for IT-savvy people from the Global South, in theory, allowing some parity to the one-way access that people from rich countries customarily had to poorer ones. But the flows of digital nomads are complex, rarely mapping onto any straightforward continuum because nomadism is at its core.
An example is 37-year-old David Muñoz, who specialises in search engine optimisation and has been “location independent” since 2018. He spent most of that year travelling in Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, only returning to his home base in Spain for Christmas. In 2019, he explored Turkey, Hungary, Latvia, and Estonia. Muñoz was in Athens when the Covid lockdown forced him to spend an entire year in Greece. His clients are based in Israel, Spain, and the US.
Muñoz traces his nomadism to his natural disposition, saying that he was easily bored of routine and keen to explore the world from an early age. But he also stresses that the term “digital nomad” and its associations with sipping margaritas on the beach while sending emails to clients is a misleading one.
“That kind of image is only for Instagram,” he says. The reality is less glamorous and requires stringent self-discipline. It is a daily struggle to balance professionalism with a life on the move. “It’s important to know that I am not on holiday, I am just working from different cities,” he explains.
Other downsides include the loneliness that comes from constant travel in countries where you often don’t speak the local language. Going forward, Muñoz is considering staying in co-living spaces, the tech-bro manifestation (according to statista.com, 80 per cent of digital nomads are male) of the commune or kibbutz, in the hope that it might make it easier to make friends.
These days, there are various digital tools available to help people like Muñoz. Nomadlist, for example, offers the chance to make friends via meetups, in addition to providing information on how to get residence and work permits in various countries. It can also help users to determine their tax status in different parts of the world. Cities are rated along different parameters from how well the locals speak English, to air quality, and whether it’s safe to drink the tap water.
THERE IS SOMETHING of the gap year, Euro-railing circuit, to the digital nomads of today: youth, country of origin (more than half of digital nomads worldwide are from the US; the majority of the rest are from rich nations), sense of adventure, and confidence. When my brother and I spent a month Euro-railing as teenagers in the early 1990s, we were the only Indians as far as we could tell on the circuit.
Almost three decades later, this asymmetry in point of origin is evident in today’s location-independent tech workers as well. Despite India’s huge population and association with the digital economy, the country is still more likely to play host to developed country digital nomads than be the source of these freelancers. But with Europe now actively soliciting anyone with the right skills and attitude, regardless of passport, perhaps this is set to change. It is certainly worth watching this space.
About The Author
Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has spent the last two decades reporting from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. Her most recent book is Orienting: An Indian in Japan. She is a contributor to Open
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