I think the second most common question I get as a full-time traveler (after some form of “how do you support yourself?”) is this:
Don’t you get lonely?
It makes sense. I think one of the greatest fears people have, whatever their culture, background, age, or credo, is just that: being alone.
And so it seems strange to people that I would choose to take off, to live nomadically, to be a solo female traveler. And they ask if I get lonely.
* * *
Recently, I did a series of interviews for a magazine. I called up expats living in Europe and asked them a bunch of questions about their lives. Why did they move to Europe? What were their lives like? What did they love about living in their new countries, new cities?
One common and unexpected theme was this: they felt less lonely here in Europe than they had in the states. Without prompting, both of the single interviewees added this to the list of things they were grateful for about their moves.
Their answers resonated strongly with me. Because in the year and a half that I’ve traveled the world full-time with just my backpack and dog, I’ve felt far less lonely than I did living in Denver.
How could that be? That in cities where I know one person or no one at all, I feel less lonely than in a city where I knew dozens of people, where I could always find someone to have coffee?
When I look back on it now, my conclusion is this:
We tend to believe that loneliness is about being alone. But that isn’t really what loneliness is about. I mean, who among us hasn’t felt utterly isolated in a room full of people? Sometimes even people we love dearly.
So, no. Loneliness isn’t about being alone. Loneliness is about being disconnected.
When I was living in Denver, I was struggling with depression and anxiety. And part of that struggle for many, many people (including myself) is not only a feeling of disconnection, but an unwillingness to burden anyone with our struggles – a decision that only drives us deeper into disconnection.
I think it’s important to start my answer to this question with that backstory because, for me, leaving my permanent address behind wasn’t a case of leaving behind a perfect feeling of connection and community for a solitary life on the road. In fact, it was precisely the opposite. I left behind a life of being surrounded by others, but feeling solitary, for a life that allowed me to reconnect with myself and with others.
I should also mention that my best friends in the world did not live in Denver. One is in the military and was in Afghanistan when I started traveling (and is now back in Pennsylvania) and the other had moved from Denver to Chicago and then California. So, those dearest to me were actually already far away.
So, when I left Denver behind, I wasn’t worried about feeling more isolated. In fact, I thought, hey, if I have to feel lonely, why not do it somewhere new and spectacular and beautiful? If I have to be alone, I’d rather do it in Switzerland than Denver.
Beautifully, there was also something magically healing about leaving. I desperately wanted to travel, to do something new and different, to see more of the world. And by giving myself permission to do it, unconventional and crazy as it may be, I started to reconnect with myself.
I’ve always been the kind of person who spends too much energy taking care of everyone and everything around her, and so traveling – doing something that was just for me – felt like a revolutionary move toward self-love. And, in fact, it was one of the first and biggest steps in learning to love myself, flaws, successes, wrinkles, failures, quirks, and all.
So, when people ask me about loneliness, I tell them that I am happier now than I’ve ever been. That I’ve learned that the opposite of loneliness isn’t togetherness, but connection. And I feel absolutely connected – to myself, to those I love, who are scattered around the world, and to the world itself.
I also tell them that I’ve learned a few things about travel and connection and facing that loneliness fear.
First, that you always have an exit.
If you want to leave, no one will stop you. If you want to go home, you can go home. You are the driver of your adventure. Choosing to plan a trip, even a long-term one, doesn’t marry you to it. If you feel lonely, you can always go home…or simply go visit a friend. This is what I do when travel disaster strikes and I need a familiar face and a hug.
The beauty of a flexible life is that you can do anything you want with it. Want to visit your best friend for 10 days or even 2 months? Go do it. Want to be somewhere new where no one knows you, to make new friends or just to get a hefty dose of alone time? Do it. The nomadic life is 100% what you want it to be. It doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s nomadic life. And it doesn’t have to mean being away from friends and family all the time – unless you want it to.
Second, that making friends in a foreign country is actually easier than at home.
On the road, it’s easy to make friends because I’m so fascinated by everyone I meet. The people I meet are locals of a city that intrigues me, they’re world travelers, they’re expats with stories of falling in love with a new place. They’re fascinating and it’s easy to start getting deeper with people when you’re fascinated by them.
On the other side of the same coin, people are intrigued by my accent and my story. Why am I traveling the world? What adventures have I had? How did I make it happen? Travel makes us all fascinating and encourages connection, community, and love.
Third, that you don’t have to be alone unless you want to.
There are always ways to make friends and connect with people. One of my favorite things to do in a new city is make a couple acquaintances and throw a dinner party for them. Everyone brings a dish or wine and we sit for hours getting to know each other, laughing, talking, learning about different cultures. For some reason, inviting people to come to your home (temporary though it may be) and break bread makes immediate and deep connections.
This is the beauty of solo travel. You can surround yourself with people, or you can choose to be alone at any moment.
Fourth, that it’s okay to spend time alone.
More than okay, it’s healing. It’s beautiful. It teaches us something about ourselves. It encourages us to connect not just with those around us, but with ourselves. And it’s tough to be lonely when you really love yourself.
Finally, that traveling slowly helps.
It’s hard to feel connected if you are moving every few days, which is one of the reasons you’ll find me settling in for a month or two at a time. Last year, I visited just eight countries, even though I traveled full-time. A month or two in a new place gives me time to really connect with people, to throw fabulous, multi-cultural dinner parties, to host a girl’s night (or three), to start to be recognized by the local grocer and the coffee shop owners, to really connect.
Of course, my world-traveling dog Luna, happy to see me at the end of a solo shopping excursion, by my side for long, beautiful hikes, and sleeping across from me on the couch while I write also goes a long way toward making me feel like I’m not alone. Traveling with a dog is tougher than traveling alone in some ways, with paperwork and limitations on where we can go, but it is also beautifully and unexpectedly grounding.
So, don’t I ever get lonely? I suppose sometimes I do. But overall, I feel more connected, joyful, grateful, and grounded than I ever have before.
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