The most difficult problem I’ve had as a nomad is to maintain strong and active friendships. I’ve hesitated to write about this before as I never felt that I had a good grip on the issue. I thought that if I just gave it a bit more time, I’d ‘fix’ the issue, and I could then come down like Moses from the mountain with ten pithy directives to fellow nomads on how to deal with friendships.
Two years later and the problem is as intractable as ever, and I can’t wait any longer to write about it. This site is meant to inform and guide those considering a nomadic lifestyle, and so I must be honest and forthcoming especially with the difficult aspects of nomadic life. The issue of friendships may be the only deal-breaker I’ve come across so far; anyone considering the path of a nomad must reflect on the potential cost to his or her friendships.
This article will only focus on my personal and subjective experiences of how my friendships have changed since I began my journey. I will not try to explain why these changes happened nor suggest ways to deal with them because I honestly haven’t got a clue.
During my ten years in London, I formed a wonderful circle of friends. We played board games, gossiped over coffee, complained about work, bragged over conquests and drank ourselves silly like any good group of friends do.
At times, a friend would move to establish a new life elsewhere. Despite vows to stay in touch, within a few months of their departure, the communication dwindled to a trickle, then stopped completely. The only time we really interacted was if they returned to London for some reason.
I didn’t want that to happen to me. So I took steps to prevent it. I had heart-to-hearts with friends telling them of my concerns over the impact my nomadic life would have on our friendships. I invited people to add me on Skype so we could video-chat.
This very blog was a big part of my strategy for keeping in touch with my friends. I figured that if I wrote about my whereabouts in a personal, honest and entertaining way then my friends would read it, and when later we spoke or e-mailed, then I could focus on hearing about what has been happening with my friends rather than repeat my travel stories for the 25th time.
What is it you say about plans? Best laid plans of mice and men often come crashing down like a hydrogen airship in a thunderstorm?
In reality, communication between me and most of my London friends stopped immediately upon my departure. It wasn’t a slow gradual tapering off; it just stopped dead. I was shocked! I felt like a useless loose thread cut away from the fabric that comprised my circle of friends.
Out of sight, out of mind.
I had hoped that writing this blog and having my friends subscribe to it meant that I would at least be ‘in sight’ whenever I posted a new article and therefore, albeit briefly, be back ‘in mind’. That hoped faded when I found out what a small fraction of my friends actually follow The Modern Nomad.
There are of course exceptions to the above. I won’t mention any names, but you know who you are. Thank you for being there for me. I can’t express how much it means to me.
This next bit is important, so I’ll write it in bright and bold pink.
My friendships did not end when I became a nomad, only our communication.
Every time that I’ve returned to London, my friends have received me with eager embraces. Then it is as if I never left. We act just the same way as we did before I left, over two years ago. We have coffees, dinners, game nights and all the other fun times as we always did.
Then when I leave again, the silence resumes. It is as if the friendships hibernate when I am gone.
This is exactly the same pattern as I have with my childhood friends back in Ljungby, Sweden. We see each other only once or twice a year, but when we do, we hang out effortlessly and in much the same way as we did back when we were teenagers. Those friendships have survived 13 years of dis-location, hibernating for much of the time.
There are degrees of hibernation as well. Some friendships are in full torpor, and there will not be as much of a whisper from them until your return to their city. Other friendships are just lightly frosted, and these friends will stay in touch occasionally. And then there are the few golden exceptions, the heroes who see the inherent challenges in long-distance friendships and decide to do whatever it takes to maintain an active and rewarding connection.
The above patterns repeat themselves when it comes to the new friendships I’ve formed since becoming nomadic. I settle into a location for a few months during which I establish new friendships, sometimes deep and intimate friendships. However, when I move on, the now familiar silence descends. Out of sight, out of mind.
Just as there are exception among my old friends with whom I stay in touch, so are there similar exceptions among these new friends of mine. In fact, I think the tendency for these new friends to stay in touch is slightly greater.
It goes both ways
Communications stops when friends become de-located. That has been my recurring message throughout this article. I am not going to go into why. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I do want to stress that it is not only my friends who have stopped contacting me; the reverse is also true. Days become weeks become months and I suddenly realise that I have not written or phoned a particular friend once.
Whatever forces are at work to kill off communication between long-distance friends, I the nomad am in no way immune to it. I believe I resisted it for longer, fighting for the communication to remain open and flowing, but I have had to make it a conscious effort. The default and seemingly natural tendency is for distant friends to fade from the front of one’s concerns and eventually, the friendships hibernate. I don’t want that to happen, but it does. I love my friends, of course I do, but amidst the hubbub of everyday life, they quietly slip out of mind.
The effects of this lack of contact with my friends draw a trajectory through emotions over time. At first, there was surprise and disbelief. I couldn’t believe that the effect of distance would be so immediate and drastic. Surely, this was just a short-lived transition period during which I and my friends would figure out new ways to remain important and present in each other’s everyday lives, despite the distance.
When I accepted that so was not the case, I got angry at and disappointed with my friends. What egocentric and inconsiderate bunch they were that they could cut me off like that, and how callous must they be to do it with such ease.
As the extent of the problem dawned on me, and as I saw the pattern repeat itself with new friends I made around the world, I shifted the blame from my friends to myself where it turned into self-doubt and self-pity. It was unreasonable to think that everybody else was wrong and I right. The much more likely theory was that they were just normal people and that the problem was inherent in me. I figured that I must be so unremarkable and insignificant that I was simply forgettable – unimportant.
At this point, this was becoming a real dampener on my mood, and I dedicated some serious reflective time to analyse the whole mess. My self-pity theory could perhaps explain the phenomenon if the majority of people who move cities reported strong and resilient bonds of friendships with those they left behind, but almost no one does. Most have experiences that resemble my own down to the details! Thus, the explanation is not to be found in me or my friends but rather human nature and the nature of friendships.
Which leaves me at my current emotion: doubt. I’m no longer angry or sad, but I am starting to doubt the validity of the nomadic life. Is the nomadic lifestyle inherently volatile when it comes to loneliness?
Loneliness is the final destination for anyone travelling through life without strong and active friendships. In my current situation, whether I am lonely or not depends on if I’ve made local friends in my current location. This is not conducive to emotional stability and probably not very good for me. But what can I do about it? I see three options.
- Abort the nomadic experiment and conclude that it comes with too high of an emotional price due to our dependence on friendship and friendship’s inherent dependency on co-location.
- Accept that friendships will hibernate whenever I leave and accept that the active friendships I can rely on at any given time are limited to the local friends I’ve made and the few exceptions among my distant friends with whom I naturally stay in touch.
- Fight. Fight with all the research, ingenuity and strength I have to defy the natural tendencies for friendships to hibernate. Refuse to give up and refuse to accept a poor compromise. Instead, I’ll shape the world around me to be what I need it to be. I’ll experiment with new ways to interact with my friends until one leads to a solution which will, in the long term, allow me to naturally and effortlessly remain connected with my friends, no matter the distance.
What do you say, my dear reader? Which door should I pick?