Uncertainty Principles

Photo of a male hiker standing atop a ridge overlooking a vast panorama of green mountain peaks just below the clouds.

Once again, we are leaving our summer retreat without a solid plan. It’s not for lack of trying (see “Vis-a-Visas” and “Farewell Maine, Hello…?”). But it’s possible that this kind of annual uncertainty is just how our crazy lifestyle is going to go. We’ve always said that flexibility is going to be key for us to enjoy living in so many different places. In fact, in an early article about choosing which countries we might live in, I called adaptability the most important part of our approach. 

I had no idea how that would play out in our first two years. Last year, Covid travel restrictions, vaccination rates, and new waves of infection were all big factors in our decision to stay flexible in the fall and ultimately go to Ecuador—without a plan—in late November. As it turned out, that left us free to explore the incredibly diverse landscapes of Ecuador and take it region by region, never planning ahead more than a couple of months. We don’t regret that approach at all; in fact, it showed us a whole new way to approach our travels. 

photo of a signpost with 8 wooden, handpainted signs pointing to Spanish destinations in all directions.

This year, we find ourselves at the mercy of Spain’s visa process—it’s now been a month since we submitted our applications and paperwork, and we have yet to receive even an acknowledgement that they received it. We tracked the package, so we know it arrived at the consulate in Miami. After that, it’s been in a bureaucratic black hole. Since the administrative machinations of the consulate are entirely out of our control, and seem to have a gravitational force that is both opaque (no one has responded to our emails and there is no phone number we can call) and unique (each consulate behaves differently), we are finding this kind of uncertainty to be more challenging than last year’s.

This leads me to formulate some new Uncertainty Principles. These have nothing to do with quantum physics, so my apologies to Heisenberg and all of you who understand his work, which I have read supposedly has no real application to the practical world in which we live. The principles below, on the other hand, are directly relevant to our daily lives, so I find them more comprehensible (and, ahem, worthy of consideration for future textbooks should any of you have influence with academic publishers).

  1. The degree of discomfort with uncertainty is inversely correlated with your level of control over the outcome. Perhaps the biggest out-of-control situation I can think of is climate change, yet despite its enormous consequences and uncertainties, we all feel a little better if we can do something to contribute to a solution—recycle, buy an electric car, use less water. On a much smaller scale, if your personal fate rests in the hands of some anonymous, external decision-making body, you are likely to be irritable and fidgety while their deliberations continue. But if you can make your case directly to those in control, or if you can develop a plan B to fall back on if Plan A doesn’t work out, then you can sleep more easily.
  1. The degree of pleasure derived from uncertainty is also correlated with the stakes of the outcomes. Some level of uncertainty is enjoyable: think about pleasant surprises, wondering how a plot will turn out, or watching the Super Bowl. If you know in advance how they will turn out, you lose a lot of the enjoyment. This enjoyment increases up to a point—the more you care about the outcome, the more exciting the tension feels. But at a certain point of higher stakes, uncertainty just becomes stress. Uncertainty about climate change is never fun, but it’s especially troubling if you live on a low-lying island or a wildfire zone, or if you don’t have the resources to escape whenever you please. So low-stakes uncertainty can be the spice of life, but high-stakes? Not so much. 
  1. Uncertainty is more difficult for some people than others. It’s true. Some people are planners, some are fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pantsers. Some thrive on charting a new course through the unknown; others won’t leave town without a printed daily itinerary. Some bet it all on the “mystery box” on Let’s Make a Deal, others research the pros and cons of each kind of paper towel before buying to ensure that they get the best value. And in truth, I think each of us has a little of both inside. It’s the proportion that makes us more or less comfortable with uncertainty—always influenced by Principles 1 and 2, of course.
photo of a darkened doorway in a courtyard with a woman in a summer dress walking through into the light.

Clearly, our situation falls somewhere in between climate change and paper towels. Let’s take a look from the perspective of these Uncertainty Principles, shall we?

  1. We have no control over Plan A at this point, which is to get a year-long visa from Spain in time for us to enjoy the year there. That now rests in the hands of the Spanish consulate in Miami. Until we hear from them, we have no means to make our case beyond what we’ve already done, to speed up the process, or even to know when the decision will be made or what else they may require of us. But we can certainly work on Plan B. (See below.)
  2. The stakes are not life-threatening for sure, but we do have to figure out where we’re going to be this winter. There’s something exciting about the novelty of being in that position every year, but it might be comforting to at least have a rough sketch of an outline of a skeleton of a plan. (See below.)
  3. I think Rachel and I both like to know what’s next, although we proved to ourselves last year that it doesn’t have to be a detailed plan. I confess to being an obsessive researcher of purchases; Rachel is a more enthusiastic researcher of itineraries. But we also both crave novel experiences and serendipitous sidetracks and tend to make the best of any situation. That attitude, in the end, may be what gets us through.

So, I mentioned Plan B. This is what we’re working on while we (im)patiently await word from those who control Plan A—and frankly, it’s sounding pretty appealing, and may even eclipse Plan A!

  • We go to Spain on a 90-day tourist visa. In fact, we just bought our tickets for this, from early October through the end of December. Once there, we tour around the country, much as we did in Ecuador, getting to know the regions, seeing the sights, hiking the hikes, and scouting potential locations for a longer stay.
  • If we get the call from the consulate that our extended visas are approved, we may have to fly back to Miami to get them (if we still want them). If we still haven’t heard, or haven’t gotten the visa yet, by the end of our 90 days, we will have to leave the Schengen Area (a collective of 26 European countries, including Spain, that share a common visa policy) for at least 90 more days before we can reenter.
  • The options for those 90 days from January to March are many. We could return to the states to see family & friends. We could use the time to explore areas that we’re closer to when we’re in Spain but are not a part of Schengen—perhaps places that interest us but where we might not want to live for a year. For example, northern or western Africa; Montenegro and Croatia; Cyprus; the UK. We’re just starting to look into these options and welcome suggestions in the chat below! 

Having these plans to work on while the rest is out of our hands: a) makes the stakes seem lower, because the alternatives are so great; b) shifts the locus of control over our fate back in our favor; and c) fits nicely in our comfort zone between obsessive research and last-minute leaps. 

And that brings me to Uncertainty Principle #4: Uncertainty is both a challenge and an opportunity. Not knowing how things will turn out is just how life works—we can try to fill the void of foreknowledge by seeking the best outcomes we can dream up, or we can succumb to paralysis and stress. Here’s to all of us making the most of the uncertainty in our lives.

Photo of Al in a blue t-shirt, tan pants, orange baseball cap and dark sunglasses, standing on a hiking trail amidst trees, holding his hands upturned in a "who knows?" gesture, with a yellow tape reading "Peligro" ("danger" in Spanish) dangling from a tree in the foreground.

8 thoughts on “Uncertainty Principles

  1. Lane Klein says:

    Fabulous post and relevant for everyone. Tuck a few good books in your bags, locate an attractive pub and hang out with fellow travelers while you muse about the opportunities ahead for you. I’m enrolled!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Al says:

      I think you are being amazingly adaptable right now, and so is Denny. I had you both in my thoughts when I was thinking about uncertainty and the stakes involved. You are heroically adaptable IMO!


  2. Beth Balawick says:

    I love that this period of your lives is just one big learning opportunity. I recommend reading Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity as you pass through this time of uncertainty. That text always helps me chill out when things get out of control.


  3. Eleanor Jaffe says:

    Wonderful explication of how we all face the uncertainties and frustrations life hands us. After all, who among us has a 90 day certainty of the future??? Our health, our legal and financial affairs, the needs of our family, the “world” with its myriad complications, laws, crazy politicians and their adherents, etc. …
    I really like the alternatives you have developed….thinking outside the box that the Spanish consulate has put you in. keep us posted!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Steve says:

    Hi Al, I enjoy your posts. I often ponder the psychological aspects of being a constant traveler so this was an especially interesting post to me. I think your concept of 1 year in each country is cool but it also will include a lot of bureaucratic activities (which I abhor, lol.) In the little I’ve learned, Georgia is a potential country you should have on your list. Georgia gives you a no-fuss 365 stay on arrival, no visa required. It’s a beautiful country to explore and the people are famously warm and welcoming. Also, Albania gives you 356 days, and no visa is required. If you stay on the southern coast you can easily pop into Greece or take a ferry to Italy. There is always going to be a conflict between what you can do vs. what you want to do. In any case: safe travels and best of luck. Keep the posts coming.



    1. Al says:

      Thanks Steve! Those countries haven’t been on our list, especially during winter in the northern hemisphere, but we should learn more about them before saying no! And I do think looking into visa requirements may become a more important upfront task before deciding in the future…


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