“How do you do it?”
I have changed cities 10 times in the last 8 years, which means two things: I’ve gotten pretty good at moving my shit, and the Post Office hates me.
One frequently asked question is “How do you do it?” They don’t mean mentally, I presume, but practically. How do I move? What’s the process for relocating?
This is likely different for everyone, and my time frame for moves certainly tweaks the formula. Most people relocating from one city to another are doing it with the intention of making the new city, at the very least, a semi-permanent home. They are probably moving for a job or a relationship, and in either case they have some form of stability awaiting them.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the dedicated nomads, those who might stay in a city a few days, a week, or at most a month. Backpackers, couchsurfers and buskers roll into town with some clothes, maybe an instrument and (with greater frequency these days) a laptop/iPad/Tricorder and make due. Such rapid transitions come with their share of difficulties and risks, but they also unburden the traveler from things like rent or bills (except maybe for a phone).
I guess if there were to be a corollary to the way I move, it’d be someone in the military who gets shipped from base to base on a semi-regular basis. The main difference there, though, is that while they too must live in a state of perpetual transience, there is an infrastructure in which they move. It might be chaotic, their residence might be a crap hole, but the military provides an occupation, both in the sense of finances and time.
I have no structure, except for what I provide myself. I am often asked if I’m being supported by somebody, if my project is being funded. It is not. From day one, the money I’ve had is the money I’ve earned. That’s not to say that there haven’t been financial gifts and people helping me out, because there definitely has been. But they weren’t gifts I was counting on and as a rule the only money I can rely on is the money I make on the job (whatever that might be).
I don’t have the luxury of living like a rolling stone (not that that’s a luxurious life), nor do I have the security of a permanent relocation. Right about the time my savings have rebounded and I’m getting to be completely comfortable in my job and with my friends, boom, I’m gone.
The day after I arrived here in New Orleans, my new roommate looked at me and said, “Just 364 days left.” Exactly. Every day in a year is a short one when the 365th day is an ending.
So, after 7 years of this project (and two moves the year before I began it), what have my experiences taught me in the art of non-permanent relocation?
How To Move
Research: Both before and after I’ve selected a city, I research it. I’ve preached the absolute majesty of the Not For Tourists guides here plenty, but I truly must reiterate that those little black books are invaluable. Unfortunately, they don’t exist for every city, so I can’t always rely on them. Other travels guides are alright for getting a basic lay of the land, but they’re all pretty much designed for tourists with their focus on touristy spots and so-called “off the beaten path” locations that are really just as touristy. If an NFT guide doesn’t exist for a particular city (such as New Orleans), I’ll scan through another guide at the bookstore just to get some general ideas of where to look for housing. I also use Wikipedia to research neighborhoods, and any online resources that provide a voice for the people who actually live there.
I’m always looking for a neighborhood that has the right mix of livability, accessibility to work options and safety (though, this latter point is flexible).
Finding A Place: After I’ve decided on a few neighborhoods that interest me, I start looking for apartments. I’ve never made a move to a new city without already having a living space arranged. So far, I’ve ended up with only one apartment that was a true dud, which was a mix of nearly unlivable size and bad location. But, hey, it was only a year and I survived.
Craigslist is my resource. Yes, it’s full of scams, and yes, there are some wackjobs on the site, but you’re never going to find a better listing of apartment locations for free (free is an important word; remember it). If you insist on living by yourself (and there are definite pluses to that, but also negatives), you’re going to be at the mercy of the landlords. I’ve never had the money to afford a professional apartment finder, so the two times I’ve made solo moves on my own, I’ve had only the word and pictures of the property owner to go on.
In Philly, as I mentioned, this led to a tiny little hole of an apartment. In Nashville, on the other hand, I ended up with a rather spacious two bedroom apartment (all the more so because I had no furniture), though it was in a fairly deserted area. When I am scouting an apartment location from afar, Google Maps is my favorite tool. You can not only see that such an address exists, you can cross reference the pictures the owner sends with the streetview image. (Oh, did I mention that you need to have the owner send you pictures? Well, you do.)
If I’m going to have a roommate (and I definitely recommend this for first-time movers, though roommates in general can be a good resource for the recently transplanted), I post in ad on Craigslist saying what I’m looking for and I let them find me. So far, so good. Now, in San Francisco, I did end up living with a couple of psychopaths, but they weren’t my only roommates and as a rule, I’ve had great success with this process. I like to talk with the future roommates (by phone or video chat) and get at least a little idea of who they are (and let them know who I am).
Anyone who has ever had a roommate or moved in with a girl-/boyfriend knows that you don’t truly know a person until you live with them, but at least you can have a general sense of whether or not you’re compatible.
Once I have a roommate locked down, we search until we’ve found the perfect spot. And by ‘perfect spot’ I mean, place I can afford that hopefully isn’t next door to a drug lord. Perfection is a relative term.
Find A Job: Honestly, though I’ve sent out resumes before moving to my next city, I’ve never had any luck finding a job before I actually arrived in the city. In the line of work I’m in (retail and food), no one’s going to hire a person they haven’t met face to face. But once I’m in my new home, I email blast jobs (again, using Craigslist) and hit the streets looking for places with “Now Hiring” signs or going on the recommendations of locals who have heard of work opportunities. There’s no secret, I just have to keep at it.
Send My Stuff: 7 years of this project has helped me whittle down my belongings to a fairly small collection, but I still have my share of things to get from one city to the next. The United States Post Office does most of the heavy lifting in that matter (both figuratively and literally), and what I don’t ship in boxes, I take with me in a suitcase and a couple of over the shoulder bags.
Getting There: I’ve driven to a new city and taken a bus, but ultimately I’ve found that flying is the most economical. Yes, tickets are more expensive, but what I save in travel time and eating crap food on the road more than makes up for it. Of course, having said that, I am contemplating renting a car and driving up the coast when I move to Boston. I haven’t researched it enough yet to be sure, but there are some spots I want to check out (and I’d love to revisit D.C.), and if I did rent a car, I wouldn’t have to ship anything so I could save money that way. I’ll make that decision later.
Make A Home: This is the truly tricky part. A year is a long time to live some place if I can’t feel like my apartment is my ‘home.’ I need my own space, I need a private area to write, read, listen to music and, honestly, just veg. At the same time, I need human contact and to feel like I’m part of a community in some way. It’s a balancing act that is all the more difficult because I know that in a matter of months, I’ll be gone again.
But I do make a home. I make a living and make friends and make memories. It’s not enough to just make due, I want to make a life for a year.
And that’s how I move. If you’re about to relocate across country or just across state, maybe my methods will work for you. Or maybe not. But these are my means, and for the better part of a decade they’ve served me well.