To all my friends, old and new...
To quote Tim Minchin (who is, in my opinion, an undervalued philosopher of our time):
“Love is nothing to do with destined perfection
The connection is strengthened, the affection
Simply grows over time… Like a flower
Or a mushroom, or a guinea pig
Or a vine, or a sponge, or bigotry... or a banana
And love is made more powerful by the ongoing drama
Of shared experience, and the synergy of a kind of symbiotic empathy or... something”
As Minchin eloquently observes, all love (familial, platonic, and romantic) is strengthened and solidified by the impact of the things we experience and share with that person, and the time we spend in their presence. When we stay in one spot, we accrue a kind of tribe – people with whom you interact on a daily basis, people you live with, work with: people who are easy to reach out to and for, because they exist within our sphere of everyday convenience. But for the traveler, this is not so: when one moves from place to place, one has no sphere of convenience or routine. So who are the people who make up the traveler’s tribe? At this point in my life – having just moved countries to live in a new city where I know no one - I am able to divide the people I know into three distinct groups. Old friends: who I have known for years (this includes family), and with whom I have shared many experiences; transient friends: who I met on the road, and with whom I vaguely keep in touch; and new friends: the connections I am trying to forge with the people I meet in my new home.
My friend Sam and I have known one another for nearly thirteen years. We endured the adolescent stigma that comes from being best friends with someone of the opposite sex in high school, and we share a similar taste in obscure Australian bands, comedians, and music festivals. Since graduating from high school however, Sam and I have never lived within a six hour drive of one another, and for the better part of five years, we lived in different states. And yet in all that time we have not gone a week without speaking to one another: we have gone through relationships and heartbreak and family dramas and travel headaches and nervous breakdowns, and he is still one of my best friends. Indeed, he is the one who prompted me to write this very article. In this instance, convenience and location are a non-issue. There are several other people in my life who fall into this category, with whom I make an effort to stay in close contact no matter where I am in the world. These are the friendships that continue to be strengthened by the “ongoing drama of shared experiences”: even when the sharing takes place over Skype.
However, it must be said that there are only so many hours in the day that one can spend on Skype; and the compound inconvenience of different time zones, shoddy internet connections and the harsh reality that it is just that much easier not to stay in touch, means that when you move, you will lose people. It isn’t a reflection on you or them, it just becomes impractical to maintain the same level of intimacy once you physically remove yourself from the picture of their daily lives – and visa versa. As new friends are made, it is sometimes hard to justify the effort required to keep in touch with old acquaintances. The people who you hung out with occasionally, whose company you really enjoyed, but who you never counted as ‘close’ friends, tend to gradually drop away the longer you stay, and you must be content with the occasional “how are things?” message every now and again. It is hard not to mourn the passing of these potential friendships, especially when you are someone who wants to be involved in everything all at once (like yours truly), but when you no longer share you day to day dramas with people, the connections between you inevitably loosen.
When I was on the road in 2012, I met literally hundreds of people. In hostels and campsites, everyone is looking to make friends, and putting a group together is as easy as holding up a bottle of rum and saying “who wants to play never-have-I-ever?” You feel an instant connection to these people, partly because they are excited and open minded and interesting, with great stories about the places they’ve seen and dreams about where they want to go next; but also because you are simultaneously having new and exciting experiences every day. You band together with people who you may not ordinarily have much in common with, for the simple reason that you are outside your collective comfort zone, and are undergoing some intense emotional bonding due to the sensory overload that is the unknown. The flip side to this, is that most of the friendships you make are fleeting: you spend days, weeks, or even months, travelling with these people, but you rarely keep up a close connection afterwards. You will, however, end up with an impressive collection of international connections, which can prove invaluable sources of advice – or even accommodation - for your next adventure. It should also be pointed out that these ‘transient friends’ are not always as inconsequential as they seem: the reason I’m writing this article from Chicago is because of a chance second encounter with someone I met in a hostel…
The practical upshot of this routine of instant but brief friendships, is that you are constantly in your “introductory” mode. You are striving to be interesting and approachable, you offer up the same few facts and stories – “where have you been?”, “where are you from?”, “where are you going next?” – with each new encounter, and after a few weeks or months on the road, it becomes tiresome. Now this is not to devalue the incredible people you will meet; amazing stories you can hear; and beautiful friendships you can form when you travel. It is just to say that for the most part, when you travel alone, you spend the majority of your time with people who you have only known for a few hours. More often than not, I have found that once you stop moving, you lose the impetus to stay in touch with most of these people, and you realize that all you had in common was the place you were both passing through. Bottom line: when you travel it is easier to make connections, but harder to maintain them.
Moving to a new city, as I have previously observed, is very different to merely passing through one. There are three reasons why it is harder to make friends in a place where you intend to live as opposed to in a place you intend to visit. Firstly, the excitement and novelty of being somewhere new is one sided: you might be feeling like a fish out of water; but to everyone else it’s just another day at home. Thus it is harder to cultivate that feeling of shared discovery and excitement that makes friendships so easy to come by on the road. The second reason follows on from the first: you are the new kid in town; but everyone else already has their routine, their comfort zone, and their tribe well established. They don’t have the same need to make friends that you do. That is not to say people are cold or unsympathetic, they just aren’t, for the most part, lonely. As a result, the people to whom I have grown the closest since coming here are those who have only recently arrived themselves. The third reason why making friends in a new home is harder than making friends while traveling is a little more intuitive: it is harder to make friends because there is more at stake. You want to forge connections that last, you are on the lookout for those people with whom you have something tangible in common, rather than just a geographical convenience. And this takes a long time.
Moving around necessitates a certain degree of - at least temporary - isolation: that window between leaving your old friends and finding new ones. Although traveling will garner you an impressive list of stories and social media connections, you may find yourself with fewer daily friends and acquaintances, and this is something with which you will have to make your peace. Luckily, in my experience, it is possible to maintain a few important connections and keep them strong by sharing your dramas, your joys and the "synergy of a kind of symbiotic empathy" no matter where you are in the world.