Today I’m talking to Paola Dentrifigi, a 47 year old Italian freelance translator who is location independent for parts of the year. Paola translates English, French, Polish and Romanian copy, working from wherever she is based for translation agencies.
She gives her views on what it’s like to manage family commitments which conflict with your desire for wanderlust, and how to work effectively as a freelancer on the road.
S: I’m so pleased to chat to you today, Paola. Tell us a bit about you.
P: I was born in a small seaside town in Tuscany, around 100 miles from Florence. I work from my apartment in Florence most of the time, but I also sometimes work from my home town where my mom, my sisters and nephews are based.
The rest of the time I travel – either in Europe or outside of Europe. Last winter I went to Thailand… I was actually planning to spend time in Chiang Mai but I didn’t like it so much, so I ended up on the Thai / Laos border, as well as spending some time in Laos itself.
I’ve decided to try and spend each winter abroad after recognising that my heating bills alone were coming to 200 euros a month and I could be spending that money on rent somewhere hot!
S: How did you become a freelance translator?
P: Well, I did my masters degree in conference interpreting and I wanted to go and work in Brussels, to become an interpreter for the EU institutions. My unusual language skills were in demand and I thought it would be a good option for me. But then other things happened in my life. As time went by I kept up my ‘habit’ of a semi nomadic life, and I decided not to stop it as it was so flexible for me. Then both of my parents became sick.
I thought I’d end up doing freelance translating for a short period of time, but I’ve done it for 15 years now and actually, I’m really glad I never went to Brussels! It would have been so stressful – I would have got burned out.
Plus I have so much more flexibility working this way. If there’s a friend visiting Florence and she can only meet at 10am on a Monday morning, I can meet her, whereas lots of my other friends might not be able to do that as they’re in an office job.
S: So here is a deeper question for you to consider – what is the purpose of you traveling and working at the same time? What is about that lights your fire?
P: Other people have other hobbies – you know, going to the movies or whatever. My hobby is travelling and seeing the world. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a kid. Of course, back then – in the 80s – there was no internet at the time. There wasn’t even much TV. So I would open an atlas every day after school and go through it to find out what the flag was of each country, what produce they make and what the capital city was.
I’ve just always been fascinated by all the countries of the world. I mean, that’s why I studied languages. And because I was learning languages in university it meant I had to stay in a country for longer to learn how to speak it properly. And this taught me to appreciate slow travel. Even to this day I don’t like to keep travelling too fast from one country to another, because you don’t understand anything in a few days.
Also I have found that when I’m working in somewhere like SE Asia, I don’t need to work for such long hours as my money goes much further. I can work maybe half the time, and have a better lifestyle and get to do what I love too.. travel.
S: I think a lot of people assume they’re going to be able to travel when they retire… but you don’t have to wait till then now.
P: Yes and there are other things to consider as well. First of all, many people in Europe won’t be able to retire. Our pensions will be inadequate when we’re older so we will have to work for much longer.
Secondly, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when she was 65. And that has affected my thinking as well. Because what if I get it too? I can’t afford to keep postponing a trip. I might not be able to see it when I’m older due to ill health.
S: Yes, I can totally relate to that Paola. My Dad died of cancer aged just 64. He only retired when he got sick. And when you experience this as a grown up child – a parent becoming gravely ill at a relatively young age – it does two things to you. On the one hand, you know you have to help take care of them because they are your responsibility. You owe it to them to do that, even though you might have wanderlust and want to see the world.
And on the other hand, when you do get to a point where you can then start traveling again or living the life that you want to live, you have a new passion for it because you have respect for how short life is, and you understand that you can get sick when you’re older. And it really makes everything so much more poignant and powerful.
P: That’s right. Around 12 or 13 years ago my Mom became sick with Alzheimer’s. Then after about five years my Dad got ill as well, and he found it too overwhelming to look after Mom, so I looked after them both.
It was a very, very tough time. I was either spending my time looking after them or I was working to make ends meet, to keep renting my apartment in Florence as I didn’t want to give it up. And in some ways although freelance work is more flexible, it’s harder work because you don’t get paid days off to take holiday.
So for a long time I wasn’t even thinking about doing what I loved – travelling. I had no capacity to think about that for 5 to 7 years. It actually got a little bit easier when Dad passed away. At that stage, Mom’s Alzheimer’s was so advanced she didn’t even recognise me when I went to go and see her.
Now it’s end stage and she is has continuous care at home. What that means is that she doesn’t really have any awareness of what’s going on around her, meaning that, you know, from my perspective, as long as her needs are taken care of, I don’t feel so bad anymore about putting my dreams first. Especially when I’ve looked after my parents for so long and I’ve worked so hard.
I remember a friend saying to me once… “oh are you sure you can work in a co-working space, because you usually work at home and it’s nice and quiet?” But I think she had no awareness of what it was like for me to work at home. Thankfully my Mom was quite a sweet lady and fortunately her Alzheimer’s didn’t result in her being too loud or shouting, but my Dad was completely different. It was a very, very hard time.
That’s why when I travel now, I’m so much more thankful. In my youth, I was quite critical of everything. Now, I’m so thankful for everything. Even just being out in the sun – it makes me so happy.
S: And now as I understand it, your biggest obstacle is your pet cat in Florence?
P: Yes, it’s so funny… I want to travel the world and he wants to spend most of his day in the closet. He’s eight years old now and when I got him it was at a time when I didn’t even imagine that I would be travelling again, due to my parents’ illness.
I’ve been thinking about using Trusted Housesitters to look after the cat whilst I’m away, but I need to sub-let the apartment in Florence in order to afford the rent when I’m gone, so that won’t work. Another option is to offer slightly reduced rent in return for someone looking after the cat. I have also been considering giving him up for adoption, because I can’t let the cat get in the way of my dreams (even though I love animals!) and I’d find it selfish to deny him stability.
S: I wanted to ask you about a statistic that I read recently in Forbes lately – apparently 54% of digital nomads are over the age of 38. I wondered what your thoughts were on that?
P: I think that when you reach a certain age, around the age of 45, you realise that you don’t want to wait to live your dreams, and that you potentially don’t have that long. You don’t want to keep saying to yourself “oh I can do it next year”. Because you never know… something can happen. But you don’t think like that when you’re in your 20s.
And at the same time our generation – Generation X – has seen our parents live a very traditional lifestyle. One where they get married, get a job, and then retire. But retirement is probably not an option anymore for many of us. So most of the people I know on these forums are our age and younger. They are aware that things are going to be difficult when we are older, and that there are not enough resources to go around: for example, health care etc. And there’s also climate change to consider as well. So all of this makes it quite likely that people of our generation will travel.
S: If you were going to give some tips to somebody who was just looking to start out as a freelancer, what would they be?
P: OK, my first tip is to develop your network. I did this at the beginning and I’m still taking advantage of this. Then you can relax knowing you will have people contact you. Also commission a professional website, with good photography advertising your offer.
Consider in your early days where you intend to travel to. You might need to be in places which are easier and quieter to begin with, so you don’t make mistakes. When you feel more confident about what you’re doing that’s when you can travel to louder places which are more transient – for example party hostels etc.
You need to be really confident in your job and abilities, and you need to perform well, and it’s easier to be like that in quieter places when you first start off.
What you don’t want is for your self-esteem to suffer in anyway – you need to be resilient. Because the truth is that no one thanks you when you’re freelance and no one ever says well done. They just expect a great service. So you have to be resilient and take care of your own self-esteem, partly by doing the job to the best of your abilities.
S: I’ve experienced the same in my freelance work. But I’ve become much better as I get older at not letting things bother me.
P: Yes exactly. Before I would have spent ages analysing a situation to check whether it was my fault and what I could have done about it. But now I don’t. I just pick myself up and say to myself “it’s ok, I just didn’t have a good day”. Because I refuse to lose my self-esteem. If you lose your self-esteem, you’re more likely to sell your services cheaper and then it becomes like a vicious cycle, because you aren’t secure.
I’m talking about all the negative aspects of freelance work here and to be honest, that’s why I want to travel, as otherwise you just have all the disadvantages of freelance life without any of the advantages. You know, being alone most of the time, trapped at home with my cat, receiving no thanks from clients. I don’t want to only experience the negatives – I want to experience the positivies – the flexibility and autonomy, the fact I can travel anywhere and make the most of different cultures and ways of living. Which is why I’m determined to continue travelling.
S: Thanks so much for speaking with us Paola, and I do hope I get to meet up with you on our travels sometime soon!
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