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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Gigi, I read that dogs are Zen. It’s an intrinsic trait for them and I get that, when I’ve had a dog in my life there were always those moments of being on our own, but being grounded and connected with a best friend.
Someone commented on my blog asking how I can hike alone all the time. Personally I really LIKE being alone, but I replied that when you have a dog by your side, you’re never alone. Dogs have some amazing super-powers!
I agree. I’m an introvert (an outgoing introvert, strangely), so alone time is really essential for me at this stage in my life. But there’s something very present and yet un-intrusive about having a dog along.
I’ve been creeping, lol, on you for a year now.
I love your journey, Luna and your flip flops. I hope you get your Switzerland papers! Keep going girl.
Haha – thanks!
I totally understand that when I first moved to my current state I knew no one except for my mom so it was exciting, fun, and scary making new friends when all my friends were several thousand miles away. Now we are all scattered to the four winds.
I love what you said about fighting loneliness with connection to yourself, people you love, and the world around you – so true! Thanks for a great post. :)
You’re so right. Light bulb. I knew that loneliness is about lack of connection rather than related to how many people are in my presence having experienced it a ton before (mostly while NOT traveling) and I’m so into alone time like we’re best friends from way back, but something I hadn’t thought of recently that you’ve just brought to my attention, is that the more I feel disconnected (which sometimes just has to do with me getting off my ass and going for a walk, something I have the most tremendous trouble doing when I’m living in a place, I’ve no idea why, I become complacent even in a vibrant city like Chicago) I start to feel like there’s some lack in my friends or partners (of which I have none). I start to blame my not having an intimate partner for my loneliness, a gap I’m certain even my best friends can’t fill of no fault of their own (there’s just something DIFFERENT about having an intimate, romantic partner, I tell myself, though I’ve rarely had one, nor have any of them been good, so how I would REALLY know), so I begin to get desperate to find one and focus my attention on that and the loneliness and sort of continue sinking when that “meet cute” doesn’t happen and sadly, mass media has put that image in my head where I’ve imagined the moment with a few different hotties I’ve seen roaming around, though I’ve never admitted that to anyone. But, the truth is, the problem is my being disconnected from everything/everyone, not in finding the right person to be connected to. Not that having a partner isn’t great when it’s right, but loneliness isn’t a reason to run off and find one. Nor has that ever worked. Heh. Oh. This is big. A big revelation. Now how to reconnect while I’m back in Fargo semi-indefinitely trying to build that freelance thing and pay off some debt. :\ Thank you for this.
I think many of us have definitely been there. I actually had a big revelation along these same lines this year. Still mulling over how to tell that story, though.
So glad this resonated!
YAY for Luna!!
Gigi this post was absolutely BEAUTIFUL! and inspiring.
I found so much in this article that resonated with me. During my recent travels in India, I found a feeling of kinship with the new friends I met that, while not always identical to what I feel for the people I’ve known my whole life, was powerful and precious in its own right. Thanks for articulating that so well here!
I’ve been living with the same guy for 32 years, but in 2005, I semi-retired from being a full time lawyer to work from home AND, thanks to our son’s urging, now that someone would be around during the day, we got a dog. When people ask me whether I’m lonely at home alone all day, my response is similar to yours—with a dog, I don’t feel lonely and every time we go for a walk, I talk to someone—usually another dog person while our dogs are saying “hi”. Adding blogging to the mix of how I spend my days has also helped to make me feel connected to a bunch of travel bloggers all over the world—ask Montecristo. I had the nerve to invite myself for an overnight when I was in Ontario at a travel blogger conference. (Fortunately, Monte turned out to be the same as his online dogona—a tiny blogging long-haired chihuahua—not an ax murderer). Tomorrow, I’m meeting up with two other Boomer travel bloggers—in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We will be traveling for a month in southeast Asia and then be in Hawaii for 3 months. The one big negative in this is that Dino had to go to live with his aunts and dog cousin in Cambridge, MA. He’s too big at 30 pounds to fit “under the seat in front of you”. It seems like he’s settling in fine in his new temporary home—but I miss him. It doesn’t help that there are stray dogs all over here in Thailand.
Oops, I had a typo in my blog url. Can you fix it for me, please. It should be http://www.boomeresque.com. I put a comma instead of a period after the “www”. (I’m still blaming jet lag for everything, but that excuse is getting ready to expire ;-)
All fixed! :)
I love your point about connecting through your blog. I feel so connected to my little community, both readers and fellow bloggers (like Sonja from Montecristo Travels).
Wow what a great post. I’ve been alone many times but never lonely. I love your statement that “Loneliness is about being disconnected…” I have a lot of friends that I spend time with and that I can reach out to at 1 in the afternoon or at 3am! So your article is so right on! I enjoy the time that I spend alone because it’s my time to reflect, consider, plan my next steps, etc. What a great post! Thank you for your insight and heart!
[…] general solo travel advice from Gigi Griffis, whose blog I spent a few hours on this week. Stellar writing on vulnerability […]
This is an awesome post Gigi! Like honestly, I have nothing else to add. I just wanted to say that it was on point! :-p
Living the solo nomadic life, male or female, this applies to everyone!
[…] Ramble: Awesome advice if you’re worried about getting lonely while […]
Now that I live in the Arabian Gulf by way of Baltimore, Maryland I have the chance – and the amazing extended Muslim and Christian combo-holidays – to travel around Europe. Been a real task trying to explain to people I really don’t mind, and even enjoy, hoofing it alone. Also the constant reassurance that I don’t hate them when I shy away from their big family/group trips, so I was glad to see this site. I was thinking of spending this Christmas in Switzerland solo, and got redirected here. Bookmarked and very much appreciated! Good luck, and great writing!
Right on! Welcome!
[…] :: Hey Solo Traveler Girl, Don’t You Ever Get Lonely? […]
Fabulous article, thank you :)
I just came back from 3 months of solo travel in Iceland (I will keep my shiny – half happy half melancholic eyes for a while…) – where I stayed 2x 1 month somewhere – got to experience the daily life like a local, then back on the road doing hitch hike and couchsurfing, your article really touched me, warmth my heart and helped me puting words on what I just experienced. Indeed, leave every moral duty behing and go on travel, just for myself, has been a big step in my self-love experience :) all the best gigi !!
You always illuminate the answers. Thank you!
I am traveling with my little dachshund cross and yes, loneliness is not the same as solitude. You don’t need to be alone to feel lonely but being alone frees you to be yourself, with no expectations and all adventures and possibilities for awesome beautiful new encounters. When I feel lonely I go within and listen to that little voice that says is sad for disconnection and practice the art of belonging.
Much love to you dear Gigi x
[…] Don’t you ever get lonely? Absolutely. But I was much lonelier living full-time in Denver than I have been on the road. Because loneliness isn’t about staying in one place. It’s about connection. […]
[…] Now, loneliness is nothing new. I was horribly lonely in Denver before I left to travel the world. Traveling helped a lot. Then I moved to Switzerland and it started to creep up on me again, especially as my community […]
[…] want to know how I afford to travel the world. They ask if I ever get lonely. They’re interested in the ins and outs of traveling with a dog. And, since I’m a woman […]