Freelancing from abroad

"Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the Earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, "When I grow up I will go there...." — Joseph Conrad

"He who seeks adventure will not grow old." — Dinka proverb

One of freelancing's fundamental truths is that you can ply your trade from anywhere. Buy yourself a laptop and the right kind of adaptor for your power plug, book a plane ticket, and voila! An office in Trondheim, Norway--or Sao Paulo, Brazil, or wherever else you like -- can be yours, and your clients need never be the wiser.

But before you buy that one-way ticket, it's wise to prepare yourself for the freelancer equivalent of culture shock. Yes, you moved to Norway/Timbuktu/Outer Mongolia to experience all the variety that the world's cultures can lob at you. But in the euphoria of the move, it can be easy to forget that the cultural differences don't stop at the cloyingly sweet rommegrot in your supper bowl or the funny looking road signs that mean the other guy has the right of way. Freelancing from abroad sometimes means you'll encounter inexplicable responses to innocent questions, have a hard time getting interviews, or worst of all, be doomed to a slow connection to the Internet.

Nevertheless, freelancing from abroad is fun, and more importantly, it is possible. But you'll spend less time dealing with hassles and more time working if you've mentally prepared yourself for some of the inevitable difficulties that come from working in a foreign land.

I know. Two years ago, my plant physiologist husband accepted a post in Trondheim, Norway, at Norway's big science and technology university. What an adventure, I thought, and boy do I have just the right job to tag along. I figured I had everything I needed to set up a thriving freelance career--15 years as an established science writer in the US, a book to my name, a love of cold places, and six pairs of cross-country skis. What could be better than Norway? So what that everyone speaks Norwegian! They all, particularly scientists, speak English, too! So we bought one-way tickets, loaded all of our earthly possessions into a shipping container and headed off.

So what did I learn? By far and away the most important challenge you face once you've unpacked your belongings is learning a new language. Of course, if you've made any kind of money as a journalist, you probably thrive on steep learning curves and learn quickly. Those skills will stand you in good stead, but even with this kind of edge, it is amazingly difficult to master a new language as an adult. You will find an impressive number of folks who do speak English, but your ability to really understand the culture and to form deep friendships will be directly proportional to your ability to speak the local lingo.

Moreover, don't be fooled by the conventional wisdom that "everybody speaks English." Yes, they do--at least a few words. The problem is, many of the critical folks you need to communicate with--the secretary who organizes the schedule for the scientist you're looking for, the folks who hook up your telephone and internet, the plumber, the school nurse, the guy who issues license plates for your car, the person who can send you the schedule for garbage pickup--don't. So plan on working hard on learning the language of the land--or at least be aware of the problems you will face if you don't.

Another challenge you'll face is perhaps the most obvious: the "We don't do things that way here" problem. Well, duh! Of course they don't do things the way they do in the USA--that's part of the reason you've chosen to move overseas. But what is difficult to fully appreciate until you've actually experienced it, however, is how substantial this difference can be.

For example, I have sometimes found it difficult to get Norwegian scientists to refer me to other scientists for additional expert help. This turns out to be a cultural thing. Norwegians are taught early on that group efforts are more important than individual achievements, and that to draw attention to yourself, or to pick someone else out of the crowd as being better or an expert is simply not done. Now that I know about this aspect of the culture I am finding ways around it, but it has not been easy--especially early on when I couldn't figure out why my sources would clam up when I asked for referrals.

As with a move to any new place, it takes time to find the most dependable sources of news, and figure out the local customs and systems for news dissemination. It's important to factor this time delay into your financial planning! Things often don't work the way you might expect, and time has a very different meaning for different cultures. In Norway, for example, as is true in much of Europe, people take their work hours quite literally, so most people arrive on time and leave promptly at quittin' time, often around 4 p.m. Weekends, particularly Sunday, can be sacrosanct. One of the biggest surprises we had here in Trondheim was discovering that all the university libraries were closed on Sunday, and most (but not all) were even closed on Saturday! More significant is summer vacation time, when office hours change and offices may even shut down for weeks as people leave on holiday.

Communication customs are bound to be different--and it may be hard to get someone to explain the unwritten rules to you. In this respect, however, it's a little more like America. Some people use e-mail, some people don't. Some people use e-mail but don't respond for days or sometimes weeks later. Some people have voice mail, but many may not. Cell phone etiquette can be the toughest to figure out. When is it appropriate to use one, and when is it taboo? It was easy in Norway: Not surprisingly, cell phones are ubiquitous and people use them all the time; without one, you practically don't exist. Cell phones are so much a part of the culture here that we have come to call the lofting of the cell phone to the ear "the Norwegian salute."

Language and culture will also affect what you can find on the Web. Chances are, if you are writing about things happening in your new home, the Web will not be nearly as of much use to you as it is in the US. Somewhere I have read that 80 percent of all web pages are in English and are generated by English-speaking countries. This number will change but for the moment, consider: although the Internet will certainly allow you to access tons of stuff that has been generated in the US or the UK, unless your new country is an exception, the Web will be frustratingly devoid of the kinds of local information that can help with stories. And all the really useful stuff will be written in the local language.

My best advice to anyone contemplating a move is to buy those language tapes before you buy the plane tickets. And don't be afraid to speak once you've arrived in your new home and are immersed in the language. If you persist, one day you'll find yourself sitting down to yet another incomprehensible nightly news program, and will suddenly realize that you understand what's being said. Not only that, but those slightly exotic-looking newscasters are actually saying something that's real news, news that you can report on your own and sell to your favorite magazines, because you've got a story that no other native-English speaking journalist has. Now, that's a scoop!

Nancy Bazilchuk is a freelance science writer and editor living in Trondheim, Norway.