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.

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