Living a Nomad Life – And Then You Grow Up

Brigette Opel

Brigette Opel

Alumni Staff Writer

If you ask a typical Thunderbird student where he/she grew up, you’re probably in for a story that takes you around the world. Many have moved with their parents from one expat home to another, others have been moved around military bases, and some turned their InterRail experience into a lifestyle. Other countries, lifestyles, and languages are something that Thunderbirds know from personal exposure. The adventure of immersing into a new environment becomes addictive. I remember discussions on social media on how to get more pages for your passport. So typical for our alumni community! The Thunderbird student directory on T-bird Connect still asks for a permanent address and a temporary, assuming that we’re still on the move.

When I graduated from Thunderbird, my idea was that I was part of such a fantastic global alumni network that I would never have to stay in hotels again. And often that is exactly how you pick a destination: You know somebody there! Some invite you to stay at their place; others are cool to hang out with. At minimum, you get advice on what to do and where to go. I certainly benefited; I have seen many places that I wouldn’t have considered as a destination otherwise. 

As students, we always had a packed suitcase, ready to go if the opportunity peeked around the corner. Once we settle into our careers, our homes, and our families, the spontaneity of our own travel choices is overshadowed by the choices of others. The first 5 years after graduation, I moved to a different address every 6 months. My household was reduced to essentials, and I packed and unpacked within a day. Then I moved to Amsterdam, a place that is international, fun, interesting, and a good hub for trips to anywhere in the world. Instead of moving on, I switched to exploring the world during summer holidays, work trips, and alumni reunions. Several times, my family discussed the option of moving to a different place for a few years. It would be a new experience for us adults and an inspiring exposure for the kids. And although we all thought it would be cool to do, we couldn’t decide on a place. 

As a family, the criteria for packing up and moving on are very different than for a student who is curious to see the world. We wonder about the safety of the place, along with the social and political stability to ensure that our new household will become a safe home. For our kids, we want to make sure that schooling is well organized and of a high standard. For the rest of the family, we check if the infrastructure is sufficient so we can travel home should that be necessary in the very short term. As I said before, we couldn’t settle on a place. 

In my current profession, I also give expat training. Depending on the audience, I focus more on the differences in workstyle or on the differences in lifestyle. Recently, there have been a few couples that were getting ready to move abroad. Their questions revolve around the school situation: how is school organized, how do the kids get there and back, how will the kids be accepted by their peers, and what is the role of the parents. Obviously, the safety of the kids on the streets in general is a main concern as well. Besides that, there are the questions of (grocery) shopping habits and meal etiquette.

These questions are very different from the young single man who is also moving to the same place. He is much more concerned about the regulations on getting a motor bike and if it’s safe to park it on the street. He also wonders how far it is to the nearest ski resort and what are the popular sports to watch. Needless to say, he chose his apartment in the city center in walking distance to restaurants and clubs – far away from the family that lives just a few blocks down from the kids’ school.

Fortunately, I can relate to both: To the excitement of the single traveller who wants the full experience and to the caution of the family who want this to be a controlled adventure for all. It’s interesting how our nomad preferences change in a lifetime. 

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