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Ep. 237: How to make slow travel sustainable with Frank Thomae

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In this episode, I speak with Frank who is the co-founder of The Travels of BBQBoy and Spanky which is a unique travel blog. 

Frank, along with his wife Lissette, are a Canadian/American couple who lived in Montreal for over 20 years. 

In 2014, they left Canada to travel full-time. 

They’re “slow” travelers, usually staying in one location for a month or two and using it as a base to explore a region. 

Their travels have taken them through Asia, Africa, and Europe. 

In 2020 they decided to work on getting permanent residency in Europe and they’re now living in Southern Spain. 

Listen on to find out how Frank and his wife have been able to afford slow travel.

Listen Below:

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Transcription:

Debbie:

Hey, everyone. Thank you so much for being here. I am really excited to speak with my desk today. I’m here with Frank.

Hey, Frank, how are you?

Frank:

Hi there, Debbie. Thanks for having me.

Debbie:

Thank you so much for being here. There’s so much to your story. Can you tell us about you and why you live an offbeat life?

Frank:

Well, we live an offbeat life because I’ve always dreamed of traveling and we’ve made that happen. The last seven years we left Canada seven years ago, we traveled the world. And over the last year, we settled down here in Spain. We’re currently working towards our permanent residency in Spain.

So I’ve done everything I ever wanted to travel, live overseas. We’re not planning on going back any time. So we’re happy. It’s exactly what we planned.

Debbie:

It’s pretty incredible that you’re able to live this nomadic’s lifestyle. I know you’re together with your wife, Lissette, how did you decide to leave the normal life that most people have and decided to live on the road?

Frank:

Well, I have always had the dream. I lived in Africa for a few years as a kid. I traveled around a lot. I lived on the west coast of Canada. I lived in Ottawa, went to the university of Montreal by myself. I had a lot of influences specifically my mother and father.

So it’s all that has been in my mind. And when I used to go to university, I would meet my mother in Africa and it just excites me, the whole idea of traveling, always excited me. In my twenties, I lived the usual lifestyle. I got a good job. I worked, I had a son, I was previously married, but I always dreamt of one day that I would travel full time.

And circumstances changed and I met Lissette. The first year I met her in 2005, I said to her, “I want to travel the world.” And she was okay with that. She’s from New York. She had moved to Canada 20 years before. So she didn’t feel she was based anywhere. She didn’t feel grounded anywhere, and she was ready to just travel the world.

So we agreed to that in 2005, 2006, and took a few years to make that happen. But we did it in 2014 when we were both in our forties and we left Canada. And since then we’ve been traveling.

Debbie:

Wow. That’s pretty incredible. And it’s pretty amazing too when you meet someone who is all for it, right? And you don’t have to kind of convince them to live this unconventional lifestyle that you and Lissette both have.

So you mentioned that it took you a few years to get to the point where you can finally leave. How did you prepare for that journey? What did you do to make sure that this transition would be smoother? And I guess you can’t really prepare fully, but how did you do that together?

Frank:

There are a few things involved. Firstly, finances. You want to make sure that you’re financially secure. I had a good job when we first met, I had a very good job. I had just thought I’d milk it as long as I possibly could. And so I did for a few years more than I really wanted to. So that was one thing.

But then also I had a condo in Montreal and I wanted to be able to rent it up when we left. So we spent the last year renovating it, but then there were a few other things. I had a son who was older and I wanted to wait until he was university age before I left.

So there are all these little things. And then by the time we hit 2013, 2014, we said, “Okay, we’re ready to do it.

Debbie:

Yeah. And you also said that you did this when you were in your forties. And a lot of people think that you can only do this when you’re young, when you’re in your twenties, maybe early thirties, right? But people tell you when you’re in your forties: you have to settle down, you have to be an adult, right?

But you and Lissette did this when you’re in your forties and you’re still doing it now and you’re loving it. So what was that like? I mean, did you get a lot of pushback? How was that transition for you? I mean, were there any doubts or even stressors for you during this situation and really stage in your life?

Frank:

Actually, I think the more conventional way to do it is that you work, you make your money, you save your money and you’re at a point where your kids have grown up and they’ve got their own lives. It just makes more sense to me.

And unlike maybe a lot of the people you have on the show, I didn’t have a digital job to go to. When we left Montreal, Lissette was able to continue her job. She had a marketing job and she continued that for a few years until she was downsized in 2019. But really for us, it was about being in the proper position.

And I’ve met a lot of people traveling who don’t truly have savings, they travel, but they’re stressed. You can tell they’re not really enjoying it. That they’re always wondering, “Well, what am I going to do to make ends meet? And where am I going to be in 20 years from now? And am I ever going to have kids or get married?” Well, that was in the past for both of us.

So I just think it’s easier this way. Now we don’t really have any worries. We don’t have to worry about all those things. We’re comfortable.

Debbie:

That’s a really good point, Frank, because it’s so much more, I guess, easier for you. And you mentioned too, that you waited until your son was in university before you did this as well. So this is a really good way to do it, right? And you have the savings. You’re not stressing out.

And I do agree with you. A lot of people just leave their day job. They don’t have maybe a plan and they just work as they go. And it is, it’s a lot of stress when you’re able to do that. And sometimes you actually have to come home because it’s not sustainable. That type of lifestyle is not sustainable. So the way you did this is actually really smart. And I don’t think a lot of people think of it that way.

Frank:

I think everybody has a different path, different things happen in your life. There’s always a fork in the road and you have to make a decision.

Debbie:

Love that. Yes, that’s really true. I mean, I guess you have to decide what’s right for you at that moment. Whether you’re in your twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and beyond that. I don’t think there’s really anything wrong with trying something new at any age. And as long as it’s something that you want to do and what you love to do, it’s all right, right?

Frank:

Yeah. I agree with that.

Debbie:

So you talked about you leaving and you didn’t have a digital job. How did you actually create income once you left aside from Lissette’s marketing job? Did you do something else to be able to sustain yourself aside from just your savings?

Frank:

Well, initially I also rented out our condo in Montreal. The mortgage was paid, so that was monthly income and it was dependable income. But after three years of traveling, our renters decided that they wanted to move to the suburbs.

And so then, I came to the decision, “Do I find other renters which would require me to go back and handle the paperwork and do all that, or do I sell it?” And at that point, we were three years into it and we were happy with our lifestyle and we just said, “You know what? We’re never going to live in Montreal again, it’s not going to happen. So let’s just sell it.”

So I went home, I sold it within a few weeks, arranged for the shipping of all our stuff, which was in storage and basically everything, all our physical possessions in Montreal were let go. So that was as far as the rental goes, but we had the cash in the account and says, “Good. The stock markets have been doing well.”

After that, I didn’t have anything to monetize, but when Lissette lost her job, our blogs were doing well. So in 2019, I said, “Oh, well, maybe it’s time to monetize the blog,” which was up to then, more of a hobby than anything. So we’ve monetized and it’s done well. And right now, it’s that and our savings. That’s why we live off.

Debbie:

That’s pretty amazing. I love that. Now let’s talk about your blog. And you said that you didn’t have any idea, and this was just a hobby in the beginning, but then you decided to start making money from that. How did you make that happen?

Frank:

I always enjoyed writing photography. It was more of keeping track of our travels. That’s why I set it up, initially. I just thought, “This has got to be nice to look back on in 20 years from now.” And then it got popular. We have some users who come back all the time – readers.

And at a certain point, I said, “You know, we’re getting enough traffic. I can maybe do something.” And it was brand new to me because I haven’t had experience blogging. A lot of the people I’ve seen with blogs have former backgrounds in journalism or SEO, so it’s all been new to me.

But I decided to monetize and it’s been piece by piece really. I mean, it’s just the little things. I started with affiliates. Once my traffic got to the proper level, I joined up with media vine. I do sponsor posts and lately, I just joined up with YouTube. And so now I’ve just started doing YouTube videos and having fun with that.

So it’s just adjusting, learning, and having fun with it.

Debbie:

Yeah. I mean, it’s just a little bit at a time. And I think the great thing about your lifestyle is that you’re able to do this and to commit to it without really being stressed because you had all of these other things that you prepared, the real estate that you have. And then Lissette had a marketing job until 2019.

And then you’re able to now do this blog that you have, which is pretty incredible if you think about it, ’cause you’re creating income sharing what you love to do, which is a dream for most people, right?

Frank:

Yeah. Sure.

And I’ve met a lot of people who’ve created blogs to make money. They didn’t do it because it was something that they love doing. They just thought, “You know what? I want to travel the world. How can I make money at home? Maybe I’ll start a travel blog.”

But you know what? It shows through when people don’t love what they’re doing, it really does. You can’t be looking at the bottom line all the time. You have to do something you really like and be passionate about. And I think that’s what led me to do it. And that’s why I’ve been successfully doing it. I enjoy doing it.

Debbie:

Yeah, absolutely. There has to be a combination of making sure that there is a passion for what you’re doing and then also being realistic about it, right? And creating income from that. And I think once you have that balance of both, then it’s magic. It becomes magic, which is pretty incredible.

So when you’re doing this now, and I know you traveled in a lot of different places, and I know right now in Spain, that you’re both trying to get your permanent residency. What made you decide that Spain was going to be it for you? Because you both been to a lot of different places?

Frank:

Yeah.

Well, we wanted to get our permanent residency somewhere in Europe.

Back in 2017, after three years, we were a little bit tired of traveling and we settled down in Croatia for a year, in Split, Croatia. And we love Split. It’s a beautiful city. We went through all the work required to stay there for a year. We had a temporary residence, but we just couldn’t see ourselves living there long-term.

There was the bureaucracy, the language, the connections are far from the rest of Europe. We didn’t see it as a permanent solution. And Spain was all as there. We both speak Spanish. It’s an easy flight back to Canada or to Mexico. I have my mother in Mexico. It’s modern, the infrastructure’s modern traveling around. It’s easy to travel around. We can connect to airports all over Europe.

So really it was just a good fit for us. So then, we just decided, “Let’s work on our permanent residency in Spain and it wasn’t too hard.

Debbie:

Yeah. How is that? Does it take a long time to get that permanent residency? Do they require anything in order for you to get that residency?

Frank:

Yeah. Well, first of all, you have to apply in your home country. So it was a challenge because we had decided this in 2019. And in early 2020, we decided to come to Spain and have a look at different places where we could possibly live.

And that’s when we got locked down in March of last year in León, Northern Spain for four months.

And so we had to decide we were stuck in Spain for four months, “Do we go back to Canada? Do we just stick to our plan?” And we decided just to wait it out in León. And as soon as they lifted the state of alarm, we flew back to Canada, we got all our paperwork together. We made our appointment at the Spanish consulate. It took maybe a month to get our documents together.

We had to show financial resources. We had to show private health insurance in Spain, which I had to arrange for, went to fill out a whole bunch of documents. So the document part of it took about a month. We had an appointment on the 1st of September.

By the end of September, actually, it was more like three weeks, they okayed us and on the 1st of October, we flew back to Spain.

So it really didn’t take a long time. The whole process may take two months. But there is a lot of paperwork involved. It takes perseverance and some research, but it wasn’t that hard.

Debbie:

Well, that’s good to know because there’s a lot of places especially in the US where it just takes so long to get anything done. And the system is just so crazy that it takes months, sometimes even years for people to be accepted as legal residents.

So that’s good to know that you’re able to do this in just a few months, and it’s understandable that there’s a lot of paperwork, but at least if you do it right, you get to do it in a quicker way, which is a good thing.

Frank:

So, I mean, we got one year’s residency, which is what we started off with. And then you have to renew it twice. We just renewed it now, it’s been almost a year. It’s for an additional two years, no more paperwork for two years. And then we renew it one more time in two years’ time. And so that makes a total of five years. And after that, you get permanent residency in Spain.

So that’s been our goal. We wanted to get permanent residency before we were 60 before we had any issues with health insurance or anything else, we didn’t want to be wondering, “We’re 65 years old, where are we going to go? What are we going to do? What’s our future?” So we wanted to come into a residency in Europe somewhere.

Debbie:

Yeah, that’s good thinking just in case anything, at least you have a place that you both want to live in.

So Frank, let’s fast forward to about 20 to 30 years from now and you’re looking back at your life. What legacy would you like to leave and what do you want to be remembered for?

Frank:

Okay, well, I want to be remembered as someone who set out and achieved what he wanted. Somebody who had dreams and was going to make that happen. And really that’s what I achieved. I made my dreams happen. I don’t know what’s gonna happen over the next 20, 30 years. We probably won’t be in Spain anymore. We might be somewhere else in Europe.

But I always wanted that life of travel. And we both did, it was unconventional. What we did was unconventional. I know a lot of people who had the same dreams, who had good jobs, just like I did, who would never walk away. And we walked away.

And for me, it was a tough choice, but it was also easy at the same time because I knew what I wanted. So I think I want to be remembered for having a dream and setting out and planning how to achieve my dream and achieving the dream.

Debbie:

I love that. And it’s also a great lesson to share that you can achieve your dream at any time. There’s really nothing wrong with doing it early, middle, later, wherever you are. And you’re right, there’s a lot of people that are afraid to take the chance, even though they know it’s something that they really want to do because there’s a lot of fear that goes into it.

And there’s a lot of uncertainty when you do something, right? That is unconventional like you mentioned, and something that most people don’t do. So it’s definitely a risk, but it works out.

Frank:

You know what, Debbie? You don’t have to be a millionaire. That’s the question I get all the time, “Oh, you must be a millionaire.” No, you don’t have to be a millionaire. You don’t have to be.

Debbie:

And you know what? I think a lot of people feel that way, or maybe think that because they want it to be impossible for themselves, right? Otherwise, if you say, “Hey, you don’t have to be, you can do it right now.” then there’s less of an excuse not to do it. And then you’re like, “What am I doing with myself?”

Frank:

Actually, you’re right. I believe that.

Debbie:

Yeah, you definitely try to take it out as an option for yourself because it becomes an excuse. But then when you hear Frank and Lissette’s story, and so many other people that I’ve interviewed on this show where you can do it at any time, you don’t need to be a millionaire.

You can do it in a way that works for you and your lifestyle. And however, you want to do it. So it’s never impossible. I think, for the most part, it’s just our mindset that stops us from doing it as well. So it’s pretty insane what our minds can do for us. It can either push us through or hold us back.

Frank:

But I would never tell anybody to just get up and leave. I think some people tell you that you should. I would never tell you that. I think it’s based on you have to have the financial resources. You have to be ready or to have something that you can do overseas.

I mean, my son is a perfect example. He’s got a good job. He was working in Toronto. He made about 50K a year and he wasn’t able to save any money, Toronto’s an expensive city. I said, “You know, if I was you, I’d go to Thailand, I’ll travel around and do my work remotely. You can do that now. I couldn’t do that eight, nine years ago.”

Debbie:

Yeah.

Frank:

And he was like, “I don’t have the same interest. I don’t care about travel.” But at least it was there for him. He could have done it. And I’m sure a lot of people are in the same shoes. They could do it if they really wanted to.

Debbie:

I love that. You’re the dad that tells a son to go out there and travel most of the time it’s the opposite. It’s the son that’s like, “Dad, I want to travel. I want to go to Thailand, to Shang Mai. ” Like, you’re the total opposite. And your son is like, “I don’t care about that, dad.” And you’re, like, the total opposite. That’s hilarious.

Frank:

If he didn’t have a job, it would be totally different. He says, “You know, Dad, I’m going to be a blogger, a YouTuber, and I’m going to go travel to Thailand.” I said, “Forget it, don’t. You’re wasting your time. Don’t do it.” But he’s got a good job in finance and I just thought, “If I was in that position when I was his age, I would’ve done this 20 years ago. Really, no kidding. I would’ve left Canada many years ago so I could travel. But we’re different.

Debbie:

Yeah. Well, like you mentioned, there’s a lot of different opportunities now. So if you are interested in that, of course, there’s a lot of different things that you can do to be able to work consistently and also travel like what Frank is doing right now and what he just mentioned.

So there are a lot more things that you can do if this is really what you want for yourself.

Before we say goodbye, Frank, I have five rapid questions for you. Are you ready to answer them?

Frank:

No.

Yeah, I’ll do my best.

Debbie:

Okay, well, we’re going to ask it anyway.

Frank:

Ok.

Debbie:

So what has been the best money you’ve ever spent while you were abroad and why?

Frank:

Well, I can’t think of one big thing except maybe going to South Africa. We went to South Africa for three months and it’s a bit expensive. And while you have to pay for expensive flights, since you can’t fly a discount airline to South Africa and the commendation Airbnb market, isn’t the greatest. So you paying quite a lot for accommodation.

But we had such a great time in South Africa. And for me, it’s still the highlight of our seven years of travel. We spent three months there, the people are so nice, the food is so good. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been – love South Africa.

And we did things there like paragliding, doing bungee, and just so many activities. We rented a car and there’s so much to see. It’s such a beautiful place. So that was the best money spent, I think.

Debbie:

What about your ideal day? Can you describe what that looks like?

Frank:

Well, waking up seeing something special. For me, my ideal day would be going on a long hike. And when we lived in Croatia, we had a few Croatian friends and every couple of weekends, we would go hiking in the mountains around Split. And that was always the highlight for me.

So a long day of hiking with a bottle of booze and a lunch, and just coming home after and taking a dip in the sea and having supper. And that’s a pretty good day.

Debbie:

Yes. That sounds idyllic for sure.

Now, where would you say has been the best place that you’ve lived in as a remote worker?

Frank:

Okay. That’s easy. Prague is a place you would go back to all the time and some people say Prague is over touristy, but they don’t know what they’re talking about because the center of Prague is touristy. But Prague is a wonderful city and we go back every time we stay in Vinohrady which is a beautiful neighborhood.

We have a Czech friend who rents us her place, and we’ve really got to know Prague. The first time we stayed there for three months, we actually stayed in the suburbs. I know it was a bit rough, but since then we’ve learned, and now we have a beautiful place and we go to every time we get our dental stuff done. We go to the doctor there, we get our checkups done. We buy any new equipment we need – computers.

It’s been just a great base. It’s a city you can get around easily. Food is good, people are nice. So Prague has been a great base, a place we’ve gone back to maybe six, seven times.

The other place that we really enjoyed was Lviv in Ukraine. And we discovered that in 2018, and especially during mid-summer, whenever everybody’s on vacation, the price of apartments in Europe goes sky high. We’ve moved back to Ukraine and we’ve loved Lviv. We call it the mini Prague. It’s a beautiful city. So that’s another favorite.

And during the lockdown, they’re the two places that always come to mind for us. And we really miss Prague and Lviv.

Debbie:

I love it. I will have to check that out. Once things start to open up more here in the US, but love those.

So Frank, if you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Frank:

To be able to transport and go anywhere at a moment’s notice.

Debbie:

That’s a good one. I wish we can all do that right now. That would be great.

Frank:

Maybe not stick too long, but at least for a few hours. You’ll have lunch here and have supper here or do a hike here…

Debbie:

I love that. Unless you decide to stay there longer, you never know.

Frank:

Exactly.

Debbie:

So what’s the one thing that you wish you did sooner?

Frank:

I wish we had started traveling sooner, sooner than 2014, but hindsight is 2020. We didn’t feel secure before then leaving. We didn’t know COVID would happen so that throws everything off. You think that you can do this anytime you can travel, that your life is laid out in front of you and you can do anything anytime, but as COVID has shown us, that might not happen, then stuff might happen along the way.

So we regret that a few years where maybe we could have left a few years sooner and we didn’t.

Debbie:

Yeah. It’s crazy how these last two years have really shown us how things are not… It’s just so crazy because there are so many things that we can’t do right now. And we really just took for granted before the pandemic happened.

And now even just seeing your loved ones, like, you’re separated from them for so long. It’s been so incredible though, but I think a lot of us have become so much more appreciative of what we have, which is really nice to see that.

Frank:

That’s very true.

Debbie:

Love it.

Well, thank you so much for being here with us, Frank. I really love hearing your story. I think it’s so incredible. Thank you again for being here. If our listeners want to know more about you, where can they find you?

Frank:

On our blog: The Travels of BBQBoy and Spanky.

Debbie:

Love it. And I love that name by the way. So you all make sure that you visit that website because it’s a really funky and awesome website and make sure you follow along with Frank and Lissette’s travel journeys along the way.

Thanks again, Frank. We really appreciate you.

Frank:

Thank you, Debbie. It’s been fun.


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Show Credits:

Audio Engineer: Ben Smith

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