Guilt-Free, Pain-Free Solitude When Abroad

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At a recent dinner with American friends who I met in Chile but who are now back in the States, we went around the table and each of us said what we miss and don't miss about that skinny, long beautiful country in South America.

I said I missed the cheap, plentiful lunch menús; the physical beauty and diversity; the on-time metro in Santiago; the challenge of a foreign language. Most of all, I miss the immense stimulation of day to day living in another country. Just walking down the street most days taught me something.

I said I didn't miss the lack of ethnic diversity; how far away the country is from everything else; the challenge of a foreign language; the lack of English language media and books; the poor customer service in companies. I don't miss sticking out so much — so obviously being from somewhere else. (Though, that also had its attractions.)

One person said something interesting. She said she missed "the loneliness of Chile." She explained.

When you're in a place where you don't know anyone and where you're not expected to know anyone, it's easier to enjoy your own solitude. If you don't want to do anything on the weekends, you don't have to — you aren't getting many incoming calls or text messages. If you don't have anyone to hang out with on the weekends when you do want to, well, that's okay, because after all, you are a million miles away from your home base.

When you're in the city or state or even country where you grew up and speak the language, you're expected to have vibrant relationships, wonderful friends, constant companionship. If you want to be alone, you likely have to deal with inbound social requests or feel guilt about not reaching out to your friends. If you want to hang out with others, but have no one to hang out with, you'll feel lonely. If you want to hang out with others, and do, but find your friends underwhelming or distant, you feel even lonelier. Essentially, when home, your expectations for relationships are higher than they would be when abroad, and it's easier to feel disappointed.

I thought that was the most interesting insight of the dinner.

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To be sure, too much solitude over the long run isn't a good thing, and it's a common problem in long-term expats, I think. See my post Urban Nomadism: The Sources of Unhappiness of Serial Travelers.

17 Responses to Guilt-Free, Pain-Free Solitude When Abroad

  1. Dan says:

    Alone in a crowd. It’s the ultimate flâneur context.

    I recommend ‘Introvert Power’ by Laurie Helgoe for a deeper dive on this subject.

  2. Lacey says:

    I couldn’t agree more. There is a certain freedom with not knowing anyone. You can be a fly on the wall. Go places, observe, be however you want to be and no one knows. When you are away from all the people you know, it’s almost like you can be someone else. I love just popping into small local bars, totally displaced (sitting there with old Basque men or French farmers…)and being unnoticeable and quietly soaking up the vibes of another’s life which is totally different from my own.

  3. Well observed. This was, without a doubt, the most powerful and transformative part of my time abroad.

    Your point about expecting more from our relationships when we are home is true, but something we should consciously try to avoid.

    What is it the Buddha said? “The cause of suffering is desire,” or something like it? This should be taken as a stern warning against expectations.

  4. Colin says:

    My best friend here in Colombia hasn’t been back to his home country of Ireland for 25 years. He is the true ‘man without a country’.

    But no matter how much time he spends here, he’ll always be very different than the locals. No matter how many friends you make, you’re still very alone in a sense.

    The only expats I know who have seem to shaken the solitude are the ones who start families down here.

  5. angela says:

    This resonates with me in full. The solitude you find in a foreign country can be pleasant and novel — unwanted solitude at home more often just feels lonely.

  6. HV says:

    Reminds me of this quote by William Least Heat Moon:

    “What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do – especially in other people’s minds. But, when you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.”

  7. Will says:

    There is no greater self-confidence booster then being given time to spend with yourself in a foreign country. So easy to be happy once you realize how much fun you can be. Very freeing.

  8. Tyson says:

    I had the same feelings and experiences when I was living abroad. It was just really fun and refreshing to be able to change my persona for a while.

    It really reminds me of an interesting article I read about Evangeline Lilly a few years back. Apparently, before she became a TV star she enjoyed relocating every 6 months to places unfamiliar to her. In each new place she would take on drastically different personalities and occupations. It would really fun to live like this for a while, but I’m not sure how I would ever be able to explain it to family and friends.

  9. Krishna Mony says:

    Make it your takeaway from such short stints away from home and then cut and paste it on your personality even while you are back home…Tough indeed, but can be improved with practice…Results could be fabulous – chopped of prejudice, the mind is clear and enables a dispassionate world view…!!!

  10. Lloyd Morgan says:

    After moving to a non-English-speaking country a year ago I’ve battled and thought about solitude quite a bit.

    Without your old friends around you, without your old job, and without the people and places you visited for your hobbies (the same gym, your speaking club, etc.) solitude can be a godsend when you need time and a curse when you need company.

    I’ve come to think that the cause of this is that when you are displaced you no longer have your personal “identity” grounding and guiding you in your everyday actions. Like it or not, at home our smallest and largest actions are sometimes guided simply by what we are used to doing: by this identity of ours that grew from our surroundings over the years. Without this companion, life can be liberating and daunting.

    I know I, on occasion, have felt confused and lost; sitting at home unsure what to do as the only limit was my imagination. I was spoilt by choice and the choice was daunting. And then, on other occasions, I would roam a city, listening to the strange language and letting my thoughts and creativity run wild in my mind. I often wonder what exactly it is–what properties of an entity–that allows me to intuitively understand some things and have no idea about others.

    I believe that this identity, not able to endure border crossings without something–anything–to reconnect to the past, is what can cause this feeling of solitude.

    Thomas Szasz said that people do not “find themselves” on travels as “the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates”. This idea is exactly what I mean. You created your identity in one place and time. When you travel and you are alone, you no longer have this and you must create it anew and create it internally, not externally through our surroundings.

    “The best mirror is an old friend”, according to George Herbert. And why? Because we see and recognise the person we are now or the person we once were.

  11. Roberto Castillo says:

    Pleasant dinner and superficial conversation… No sin in that. I used to facilitate exit orientations (disorientations we called them) for American high school students after a year in Chile. At the time I was a returnee from the same exchange program in the US. So year after year after year we’d hear the same boring, sentimental, and ultimately uncritical observation: “now I appreciate what I have in the US”. One year I decided to make a new rule: we’d assume that everyone appreciated their home more etc., and we’d make an effort to figure out what else to say. It worked wonderfully, the richness of each individual experience was allowed to come out after the commonplace answer was off the table. It seems to me that the initial question in this conversation was very good, but people reverted to the the old self-centered cant of the returnee. The comment about solitude says it all. It could have been Burundi, or Chile, it doesn’t really matter, as long as you get to enjoy your solitude. Bo-o-oring. :)

  12. Kelly says:

    loneliness, whether abroad and at home, feels the same to me. though i like your description of balancing different relationships at home – i feel like i am constantly managing my “social capital” among different groups of friends in the US. but now that i’m living in Singapore, it’s the same but with a smaller pool of people. net time experiencing “loneliness” is the same.

  13. Arti K says:

    I second that recommendation. It’s an excellent book that lays out the benefits and pitfalls of being an introvert, without excessively evangelizing being an introvert (she does a little though).

  14. Michal says:

    Compare the lifestyle today with let’s say 50 years ago. Today we are suppose to have: 1) good relations at work 2) keep up with maintaining relations with our friends 3) be fit = exercise 4) be up to date with movies/ books/ trends 5) eat healthy 6) go to fancy places for holiday, 7) have interesting hobby 8) work work work / career 9) family life… one can add much more. Life’s demanding from us from so many directions. and being lonely on a trip / living in other countries can be a bless indeed.

  15. Elena says:

    Liked this a lot. As lonely as I sometimes feel in Malaysia, I know I’ll miss having the freedom to spend my time however I want to.

  16. Hammer says:

    What you mean is putting your feeling into the chacter? is that what you mean When TRAVEL Abroad? I love writers who remind me what common sense means. Goatripsindia

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