Loving A New City: Alone

I recently received two emails on very similar topics. VoilĂ !

“Since you’ve just made a temporary move, I was just wondering, how did you immediately feel so comfortable? It’s been over a month now and I still get so nervous adventuring by myself. Before the move to the city I had all these fantastic plans to take writing classes & yoga… and now that I’m here, it’s like, my body & mind won’t respond to my plans. I just want to know, when will I start feeling at home & how can I?”

“I was reading your blog last night and thinking how fabulous it was that you haven’t been in New York very long and you are by yourself, yet you aren’t letting that stop you from getting out and about and enjoying it. I once found myself in London by myself and was miserable and depressed because I didn’t know how to get out there and enjoy myself whilst being on my lonesome. Now I once again find myself in a new city all alone and am facing the same problem. How do you make friends and enjoy the culture and life of a city when you are all alone?”

I hear you! I know what it’s like to be in a city alone. It can suck. It’s fun for about a week, because everything is fresh & new — you can distract yourself by shopping, seeing the sights & getting lost, but by your second Monday, the gloss is starting to fade & you can find yourself at a bit of a loss.

A few years ago I went to Europe with my ex-boyfriend. We had a great time, but after a couple of weeks, he had to go back home for his job. I had quit my job to go overseas, so I wasn’t in any rush to go back to New Zealand, & my aunt who had an apartment in the middle of London said I could stay with her as long as I wanted to. So I stayed on while he went home, & after a few days of exploring Camden, going wild at Topshop & Miss Selfridge & eating ice-cream every day, it started to wear a bit thin. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I missed my boyfriend, I missed having my own space (I was camped out in the living room), I didn’t know anyone in town & I was just… bored. Idle. Adrift! I watched a lot of MTV, spent a bunch of time on the computer, & eventually decided to go home. It was the right thing to do, given how I felt, but I couldn’t help feeling as if, somehow, that wasn’t how it was meant to be.

Maybe it’s just London?! (Just kidding!)

I have changed a lot since then, & these days I would be much more inclined to push through the homesickness, difficult though it may be, & stay for as long as I wanted. I am also now more able to see opportunities for what they are, & my mindset is completely different. Rather than thinking, ‘Oh no, I’m having a terrible time here, maybe I should just go home’, these days I would probably think, ‘Eeesh, I’m having a rough day but it will be better tomorrow’.

I have been exceptionally fortunate on this trip to NYC, because as soon as I announced I was coming over, I started getting invitations to have lunch, go to dinner, have a shopping spree, camp on my friend’s girlfriend’s couch in Minnesota, etc.! A lot of this I attribute to the people I have met through this website. It’s quite common to strike up an online friendship with someone who you’ve linked to, or who emails you out of the blue.

Now, of course you don’t have to start a full-time blog to meet people, but most people who have been active in online communities for any length of time find that they strike up real friendships with the people they talk to. Then, if you travel, you can reach out to this bunch of people you already know, & see if they want to have coffee, or show you around their favourite museum, or go dancing. So perhaps the key is to get involved somewhere. Find a forum, start a Livejournal, sign up for Twitter, start publishing pictures of your life on Flickr. After all, it’s hard for people to be interested in you if they don’t know that you exist!

I really do think that when it comes to feeling alone in one place or another, it ultimately comes down to how much energy you’re putting out. Do you slink around feeling shy, hoping no one will talk to you, buried under a pair of headphones? Or do you strike up conversations with shop people, chat to women at the bus stop & flirt with the barista across the street from your hotel? While it can feel good to be a bit withdrawn & solitary in a new city — there’s almost nothing better than good music on your MP3 player when you’re walking exciting, unfamiliar streets — if that’s the way you behave all the time, it’s not unreasonable to assume that you’ll remain that way.

There is a girl called Sanna who runs The Vagabond Set. She is a photographer & the site revolves around her, living the party life, taking photos of good times. She travels to foreign cities, lives there for a few months, documents it & then flies somewhere else. It’s pretty interesting to watch. I was shocked while recently reading her blog where she said something like, “I didn’t go out tonight… for the first time in 7 years.” Incredible! Anyway, she did an interview a while ago where someone asked her how she knew so many people. I mean, how does a girl move to Japan & have an instant social circle? She said that the key was to strike up at least 5 conversations a week.

I have found, since being in NYC, that as soon as people hear my accent, they ask me whether I’m living here or on holiday. I am not really sure what to say, so I tend to say “A bit of both”, but here’s the thing. Most people want you to enjoy their city. They want you to like it, to have a good time, & many of them are happy to be a bit of an ambassador. So maybe something to try, next time you’re in a shop talking to a cool sales assistant, is to say that you’re new in town, & ask them what they’d recommend you do. Often they will tell you about a great bar, or invite you to a party, or say, “Well, my friend’s having this thing on Friday…” Then all that’s left to do is accept the invitation & actually go along!

Another thing to remember is that even though the first person you meet might not totally push your buttons, their best friend might turn out to be the most fascinating person you’ve met in years. Or their father’s friend might be able to offer you the job of a lifetime. Or you might just meet someone through them who also harbours a secret obsession for Buffy/My Little Pony fanfic. Do your best not to write people off straight away — give them a chance, allow them to surprise you!

Of course, the most important thing about feeling like you belong in a place is to do your very best to remain open to new experiences. Fabulous things happen to people who are open, alert & alive. If you receive a random invitation, don’t just say no because you’re socially anxious or unsure of yourself. It could be the beginning of an incredible fairytale.

Other than the social aspect of being in a new city, it can really, really help if you have a project of some description that you enjoy working on. It will keep you busy, give you a sense of purpose & help you feel like you’re not just wasting your time in some foreign city. I think that most of us, when we’re not occupied with work, our friends or loved ones, feel a bit aimless. We don’t really know what to do with ourselves, & a holiday alone really amplifies this. People like to be doing something, so find something to do!

For me at the moment, for example, whenever I’m not out in the city, I’m usually sitting cross-legged on my bed, writing articles or responding to emails. iCiNG keeps me very busy, regardless of where I am or what I’m doing — & of course, other than writing articles & emails, there is a lot of stuff that happens “behind the scenes” that you never hear about. So if you have something you love to do, like writing, drawing, programming or finding solutions to complex mathematical problems while you balance on your head, make sure you take the things you need to keep doing that!

Another thing that’s fabulous about being in a new city is the opportunity to find out who you really are. Being alone in an unfamiliar place is always a challenge, & spending so much time by yourself can really cause you to re-evaluate your life as it is. You start thinking about things. Why are you there? Would you like to live there? How could you make that happen? Are you satisfied with your job? How about your relationships? Do you dislike spending time alone, & if so, why? What could you do to resolve that?

Don’t shy away from these questions. Spending a bit of time thinking, writing, & thinking some more can be incredibly beneficial for you. It will help you sort things out in your head, give you a fresh sense of purpose & direction, as well as making you feel better about your lot in general.

Sometimes, if you’re feeling pressured, scared or nervous, it can help to view your life as a piece of art. Sometimes messy, sometimes awkward, & often unusual — but full of magic & genius all the same.