Chapter 3 - Play hard, then work hard

Travel Nov 03, 2020

I'm returning from an incredible unplanned 3-month journey working from Europe in the midst of a global pandemic, and decided to process the whole thing how I know best - by writing and sharing. Here's chapter 1 and chapter 2.

For someone who was never attracted to remote work, my mind is about to get blown. But first, some time off.

Vacationing

In normal times, I like to follow a self-imposed 2-new-countries-a-year diet. Obviously, I had given up on that in March, but this trip has given me hope that I could make it happen.

There are a few reasons why I try to do this, beyond the cool-factor of saying I've been to X countries:

  • First, expand my comfort zone: moving, renting a car, organizing excursions, meeting locals, weeding out bad accommodation, saying no to strangers, traveling on my own, traveling with friends - none of this is innate. But the more diverse experiences I face, the bigger the pool of obstacles I can comfortably tackle.  
  • Second, keep in mind there are widely different perspectives in this world, and I don't hold the absolute truth on any given topic (no one does).

I'm also the biggest advocate for rest & play when it comes to work, and while I was now in Europe, happy and energized, I hadn't truly stopped since January.

So, I get everything in order with my team, and take 2 weeks off. I delete Slack from my phone, and log out of my professional Gmail account.

I promise my team (and myself) they won't hear from me unless it's to share pictures. I've taken time off before, and I have no doubt that they'll do perfectly fine without me.

Interlaken, Switzerland

Enters, European Patagonia.

I had initially planned to come here in June on my own, so having my brother join this adventure was a cheerful turn of events.

Why Interlaken? Well, beyond the promises of incredible turquoise lakes between mountains, I found it on a list of top places to skydive in the world. And sharing this first-time jump with my brother was... well, we'll never forget it.

We loved it so much that we went for another round in the sky, a little different this time.

(Not my brother) Toby, hang-gliding instructor & I

What about the virus? People were very relaxed about it. Mask wearing was... loose. Not compulsory. We often ended up being the only ones keeping our masks on, which required some mental gymnastic to not feel like we were overreacting.

Still, we got to enjoy this beautiful region without the usual tourist crowds. None of it was supposed to happen, which made everything feel like an even more special experience.

As we part ways, I know I'm gonna miss my brother. Family batteries: 10/10.

Saint-Raphael

Ciao Switzerland, hello south of France. I spend the next week with my best friends from college in Saint-Raphael, where our dear friend Thomas and his parents welcome us.

I realize here how much I've forgotten about my time in college - for some reason, my memory has blocked out quite a few episodes from that time, even good ones. Nonetheless, it's delightful to plunge back into the past, and to see how well we all still get along despite having been through our own journeys and waves of change.

Days are made of delicious breakfasts with long debates about anything and everything, farniente by the pool and playing games, and gorgeous hikes that remind us all of the stellar beauty of France.

Quite the hike. Gorges du Verdon.

This week is blissful in every way. Friends batteries: 10/10.

🇬🇷 🤔 At this point, I'm simmering on the idea of hopping to Greece, inspired by another friend who's been sharing her own Cycladic adventures with me. I spend my alone time doing some research, and start planning while keeping my expectations in check.

Truly working from anywhere

Saint-Raphael

My stay in Saint-Raphael spills over my time off, and I start working again. Thomas and his parents are incredibly welcoming, and I genuinely feel at home. I also get back in the water - or rather, 60 ft under water for the first time in a year. Yes, scuba diving before work.

I also get to go back to Nice, which I'll write about in another post (you can see why here and here).

At this point, I do feel like working later hours comes at the cost of socializing and being with my hosts, which feels a little weird, although they take incredible good care of me and are very understanding - we manage to share meals and play cards.

Greece - A country crush, if there ever was one.

2 weeks before my tentative trip, things look stable for tourists coming from France. I decide on two islands - a week each, to avoid moving around during work days. I book trains, flights, ferries, cars and accommodations. On the latter point, the most important thing is to extra-check with the host they have a good WiFi connection.

By the end of my stay in Saint-Raphael, I'm starting to feel I'm ready for some alone time, after 4 weeks of being with my lovely people. So timing is perfect. It's also the first time I'm going to be traveling on my own for so long.

Paros is a delightful introduction to Greece. Calm, with beautiful beaches and hikes, I drive up and down the island every day. My 7-day constraint stopped me from hopping to too many places, and I get to truly explore.

This is also where I pick up scuba diving again, for real. Not much fish here, but we go looking for octopus, and enjoy the fun underwater volcanic landscape.

  • If you'd told me I would go cave diving this year, I wouldn't have believed you.
  • If you had told me it would be on a weekday before work... well, I would have asked what illicit substance you had taken, and if you needed to see a doctor.

The virus isn't too rampant here, at least not according to official case numbers. Again, I'm often the only one to keep my mask on, and am sometimes called out for it. So, I do my best to be careful while accepting there's some risk involved in all the adventures I'm engaging in.

One important thing to note here: I hadn't realized Greece was one hour ahead of France, shifting my hours to a 4pm to 12am schedule. While it may seem like an innocuous change, I did feel a lot more tired than I was in France.


And then, the big finale. Santorini.

I almost decided not to come, wary of the hyped-up-full-of-tourists-Instagram-famous spots.

That would have been the biggest mistake of the trip, because... WOW.

Everything here was... out of this world. The coastal views from anywhere on the island. The Fira to Oía hike. My Airbnb across the road from jaw-dropping views of the cliffs. The warmth of patrons who exuded kindness and hospitality.

And the food. My friends, let me tell you about the food. Every single meal I've had was an explosion of flavors that got me to "wow" out loud.

My week here was a cycle of hiking-scuba-beach-repeat before work, with incredible delicacies every day.

As for the crowds, the virus & coming off-season sufficed to weed out the tourists tsunami from the island. I kept asking locals how they felt about it - the general answer was that it was terrible for business, but not as bad to let the island breathe.

Self-energized batteries: 10/10. Interestingly, by the end, I'm ready to come back to France, no matter how wonderful this trip was.


Funny enough, at this point I get asked if I'm ever coming back to New York during every single 1:1 meeting I have. And while I never considered not coming back - my gut was telling me to return to the U.S. before Election Day - I know I'd love to do this again somehow.  

Closing thoughts & realizations

  • In April, I'd learned I have two sets of battery - extrovert, and introvert. My total desperation in May was due to my introvert's set of batteries being completely depleted.

And this trip gave me a more subtle understanding of my inner working and perfect recharging cycle: alternating regularly between family time, friends time, and alone time. 2 weeks each was optimal.

  • Time off was SO essential. And I mean: real, disconnected, unapologetic time off. Obviously, being in a continuous play-then-work mode was wonderful, but it wasn't a substitute for a full break.

I "came back" to work more energized and motivated than ever.

  • I've grown up having and accumulating many homes.

I feel like answering the question "where are you from?" often requires a mini-essay to give a meaningful reply. And this whole adventure has planted a little seed. What if I could design a life where I lived, in fact, between several homes?

  • Last but not least, I. LOVE. REMOTE. WORK. The privilege to be able to bring my office in my backpack anywhere I go, and the adventures it opened up for me were truly out of this world.

And maybe that feeds into the previous point. I'm not (yet) sold on being fully remote, but having the option to mix things up comes with a huge amount of freedom. To be taken advantage of.  

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Laila Zouaki

Adopted by New York, I made a few life stops in California, Australia, France and Morocco. I'm curious about product, scuba diving, yoga, psychology, art, writing, and food.