Ilana Fox, 36, has a flat and a cat in London, a storage unit in New York, boyfriends in both cities and four desks around the world. She reports on the rise of the career nomad
Photography: Gemma Day
So, you’re English huh?” the man commented after hearing me ask the air hostess for a Diet Coke. I was on a plane flying from New Orleans to Philadelphia and my Hermione-from-Harry-Potter accent unmistakably stood out among the American ones. “I am,” I replied. “But I’m also American.” The man looked confused. “Do you live in England?” he asked. The answer to that was complicated too. I took a sip of my drink while I worked out how to reply.
I’ve always been a free-spirit. As the daughter of a British father and an American mother who met on a hippy Kibbutz in Israel in the Seventies, my first long-haul flight was as a tiny baby to meet my American family. To complicate matters further, my English grandparents spent every winter in Longboat Key, Florida, so my brother and I spent a lot of time on planes going back and forth across the Atlantic. Since then my travel habit has never really stopped: last year alone I travelled over 40,000 miles by air, and collected enough airmiles for a free return trip to Australia.
Growing up managing dual lives on both sides of the Atlantic gave me a taste for wanting to have it all, so it seems perfectly natural to me that I now have a dual career as well as dual homes. By day I’m the chief marketing officer of audioBoom, a spoken-word audio platform that hosts, distributes and monetises audio from listen again radio shows to podcasts (we have more than 6,000 active content partner channels, including the BBC, and 35 million listens a month). The company is headquartered in London but it’s global – with offices in New York, Melbourne and Mumbai. Wherever I am in the world, I seem to end up doing 14-hour days: when I’m in England I wake up at 6am so I can work with the Australian and Indian offices. I get to the London HQ and work with the British team until about lunchtime, which is when the Americans wake up and start responding to my emails. By the time I’m going to bed the Australians are waking up again.
On top of that, I’m writing my fifth novel. When I get home at about 7pm I turn on my laptop and try to write for a couple of hours – but it’s difficult. I’m always aware of what time it is around the world and my friends in other cities – especially in the States – start texting when they’re at work, just as I’m thinking about shutting down for the evening.
As well as my flat in London (which I let friends stay in when I’m away; their contributions to the rent help with the cost of living abroad), I have a storage unit in Manhattan, a preferred Airbnb in Brooklyn and a life in New York. I’m in the States at least once per month for varying amounts of time – I decide when I need to visit each office and for how long. I also have desks in Melbourne and Mumbai, and as audioBoom is expanding so rapidly in India, I expect to be spending more and more time there. It sounds ridiculous, but I’m such a regular at Bread & Butter in NY and F*ckoffee in London that both places know me and my coffee order. But what makes London feel like home is my cat Torres, who I’ve had for six years. If I didn’t have her, I’d probably be in London a lot less. While she’s more than happy to live with neighbours when I’m out of the country, she loves it when I’m at home and is constantly looking for attention.
I’m even casually dating two different men on both sides of the Atlantic, who both know about each other and live in a similar way. They both also work in the tech industry. One works in management for a start-up in San Francisco, and when I’m in the States and our schedules allow it, we fly to meet each other. He travels a lot too – although mainly in America – and he jokes about having a girl in every city. Neither of us wants a serious relationship and we enjoy each other’s company. He makes my time in the States a lot more fun. The other runs a well-known website in London and we’ve been dating on and off for several years. He’s the only man I’d consider settling down with, but the timing’s not been quite right for us (not yet, anyway).
Not so long ago, this sort of life would have been unusual – especially for women who stayed at home while their husbands went on business trips abroad. But with technological innovations and cheap flights, being a global nomad is quickly catching on – especially with my friends. The majority of us don’t have children (although several do) and want to combine our love of travelling and new experiences with our careers.
In 2012, digital analyst Mary Meeker called people like me the “asset-light generation”. And she’s right. Not long ago I had a big clear out because I realised I didn’t need stuff. Yet the one thing global nomads like me – and increasingly many of my friends – won’t cut back on is apps. We are part of the sharing economy – all through apps on our iPhones, which allow us to sync our work wherever we are, run several social lives simultaneously and seamlessly slip into a new city at the touch of a button. I still have a car in London but I don’t really need it – I took more than 2,000 Uber trips last year alone. I also use Yelp (to find local chemists, decent restaurants and bars) and Deliveroo for takeouts. When I was sick in New York last year I used Google and Yelp to find a doctor. I store my documents using Dropbox, stream my music, watch TV and film on demand (I have a premium Spotify account, watch Netflix and of course use audioBoom). And I love the Find My Friends app, so I can see which of my friends is near me and feel connected to them. If I didn’t have my laptop it wouldn’t feel like home – no matter where I am in the world I can log into my social networks and my friends are instantly there. My laptop – and my phone – give me a sense of security that I carry around with me.
I have a carry-on always packed with my ‘travel uniform’ of basics: jeans, black T-shirts and tanks, plain dresses that can be dressed up or down, Converse and boots. I use my grandmother’s house in New Jersey as an East Coast base where I keep a seasonal wardrobe of clothes. I have several adaptors in each of my cases, extra phone chargers, headphones and a Kindle – and my secret weapon is lots of clear freezer bags in which I put cosmetics, laundry, snacks and medicine. It might sound expensive, but it often works out cheaper. I wear the same things in both countries, and Ubers and food cost around the same, so I save on the exchange rate. The jet lag can get rough so being organised helps when you don’t know which country you’re in.
It sounds complicated, but all my best girl friends – who are all English – live like this too: one is an author in Amsterdam, one is a creative director in New York, another writes novels in LA and one is a journalist in Melbourne. They use these cities as their base, but spend a huge amount of time elsewhere. We try to coordinate our diaries as much as possible and fly into various cities to meet each other: last year I met Holly, who lives in Amsterdam, in New York, and I flew to New Orleans to hang out with Lindsey, who’s based in LA. We may only physically see each other a couple of times a year, but we keep in touch via FaceTime and Skype. I have friends who run tech companies in Paris, Tokyo and San Francisco, and a group of nomadic friends who hang out in Buenos Aires and Bangkok. It’s not uncommon for me to be out with friends in London and to realise I’m the only English one in the group – my social circle is made of people from every nationality who live as I do.
I love living like this but, of course, there are downsides. There’s always a sense of home-sickness and missing out. I celebrate Christmas with my English family and Thanksgiving with my American one but this means I’m always away for my twin nephews’ birthdays in November (they live in Kent). FaceTiming into a rowdy birthday party for toddlers isn’t quite the same as being there. Planning things to do in advance is difficult too – last year I sold a lot of concert tickets on Seatwave because I ended up not being in London at the right time.
“So you live all over and manage to work remotely wherever you are,” the guy on the plane concluded when I told him how I live. I nodded. “What about you?” I asked in return. It turned out he does something similar. And even though we’d never met before and came from different parts of the world, it turned out we had loads in common. We talked non-stop for the rest of the flight and we’ve agreed to meet up again soon. Despite the downsides, I wouldn’t swap this way of living for the world.