In August 2021, I left my flat in Brighton, UK and headed back out on the road again, with just a large bag and a small laptop. Me and my ex had amicably split a few weeks earlier and so I was travelling alone. I had no clue how it would be, how well I could survive. I was just up for a new adventure in life.
I had chosen to first visit Kyiv, Ukraine. This was not for any good reason, more the kind of decision made by sticking a pin in a map. I booked an Airbnb in Podil, the area of low-land down by the river. The day after arriving, I got a local SIM card, a gym membership and a travel-card and figured I was all set.
Work I already had. Having been a therapist and workshop leader for years, I had begun running online courses in the body-based therapies that I knew. During the Covid lockdowns, these had taken off, so I made a reasonable living from creating content and doing administration.
After about 2 weeks of a daily routine consisting of work, gym, wandering about visiting stuff and sleeping, I realised that inside I was climbing the walls. I was missing social contact big-time. Back in Brighton, I had heaps of friends. But here I only knew one person. I needed to create friendships, people to hang out with. And, as I didn’t speak a word of Russian, they needed to speak English.
I soon found four portals where local social meet-ups might be found - CouchSurfing, Meetup, InterNations and Facebook Groups. (Later on, I also joined NomadList). There was a CouchSurfing thing happening in the middle of Kyiv that evening so I went along, got trashed with a load of twenty and thirty somethings and became friends with one Chinese-American guy.
Making a connection with one person, I soon discovered others that they knew and friendships quickly developed. For sure, not everyone did I vibe with, or they with me. But I was impressed that I could still create friendships when I put my mind to it.
About a week or two in, however, I realised that I was drinking more alcohol than I was comfortable with. The CouchSurfing scene in Kyiv seemed heavily booze-orientated. It was a lot of people younger than me and they enjoyed swapping stories of how wasted they got in Luang Prabang last year, Almaty the year before and how much they were looking forward to getting utterly trashed in Medellin. I realised I needed to shift scene a bit.
Being a native English speaker, I discovered, could also be pretty handy for making friends. In big cities, there are social gatherings for people to practice speaking English and native speakers are welcomed. I found some on Facebook and started going regularly to one near the opera house. It was in a co-working cafe and you paid by the hour but got free coffee, tea and biscuits! One thing I loved about this weekly gathering was the huge diversity of people. 20-year old students from Taras Shevchenko Uni, 35-year old IT workers who learned English from coding, 55 year-old surgeons, dentists and lawyers - all gathered together to speak only English for an afternoon.
They displayed remarkable Slavic stoicism too. Rarely did I hear a word of Russian or Ukrainian being uttered. The group was great and I soon branched out into other conversation clubs.
Trying to create new friendships I found both exciting and scary. I felt like I was a kid going to a new school, trying to get accepted by the group. I felt very vulnerable at times. I can recall walking up Khreshchatyk to a meetup, my heart beating fast and my mind telling me “You don’t need to do this, just go home and listen to podcasts!” I put one foot in front of the other. That anxiety diminished a bit over time but not totally. Six months later, I was walking up Avenida Alvaro Obregon in Mexico City with the precise same inner dialogue happening. At times, I also found myself wondering if I was just being a pleaser to get in with the crowd. What did I really believe about such-and-such a topic?
What I came to realise through this whole process was that being honest about my needs was crucial. If I wasn’t feeling good, there would be a reason for it. If I allowed myself to be open and to look inside, I could try to figure out what I was missing. Then I could find a way to get that need met. It was kinda scientific - to work I had to test it out and see if I felt better afterwards.
I’ve realised that, for me, having real physical friendships with others is important. I catch up with old friends in video calls. But I also need people around me. If I don’t have good local friendships then I will spend too much time staring at a screen and my body will lock up and I start to feel like I’m contracted. Having got to a place of basic openness in my life, I’m very clear that I don’t want to go back to a shut down, purely functional, machine-like state.
Since my time in Kyiv, I spent months in Mexico and then some time in Istanbul before arriving in Tbilisi in the middle of 2022. At that point, I felt like I had had enough of having to make new friends every few months. It just felt like a chore and kind of hard, repetitive work. Introducing myself, telling people what I did, asking them the same.
One topic I was learning to avoid was my job. Heaps of nomads work in IT - software design, coding, this stuff. The average go-round of “what do you do” lasted just a minute, with everyone acknowledging that they’re in IT. I’m a body-based therapist and so this immediately stands out and people want to discuss it at length. I don’t mind once or twice but then I’ve had enough! Human psychology seems to always be a topic people that have a take on, which they want to discuss with someone perceived as knowing. It soon got to where I would just mutter something about content creation in a dull way and hope we moved on to the next software designer.
So, finding myself in a new city, Tbilisi, I resolved to stay longer and build-up friendships, not so much with other nomads, but rather longer-term stayers, ex-pats, and locals. This felt really good. I put down deeper connections, started running workshops in one centre, and hung out a lot with Russian ex-pats fleeing Putin.
I realised that when I committed to stay longer, I naturally made connections with other longer stayers. I seem to have this economic principle in how I connect. You’re off next week? I make a mental note not to connect so much. You’ve been here three years? Wow, that’s fascinating! What has kept you in Tbilisi?
After six months in Georgia, I’m ready to travel the world a little more. So the bug hasn’t entirely subsided, or been supplanted by the need to create friendships. I’ve also learned that getting some decent massage on a regular basis is great for me. Weekly trips to the sauna for cold-bath / dry heat rotations also excellent.
I feel basically good with how I’m doing, some eighteen months after leaving the UK. And there’s always more.
Cool account. I can certainly put myself in your shoes and see myself having exactly the same problems and seeking same solutions - and requiring same levels of courage and gumption. This is probably how I'd be living if I wasn't bound to London by parenting (which I celebrate too, btw). In fact, I moved to SE London after 10 years in NW London. Akin to landing in new city. Worked hard on building connections locally too, and continue to do so. Territory, for info: cafe staff, neighbours, gym groups, other parents, banya, meditation. It builds slowly and feels precariously small, but is what gives this place meaning.
I get it. A decade ago I experienced three losses. The end of my consulting business, being fired from the non-profit ED job I had, and the end of my marriage. After two years of working, I moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Between September 2014 and March 2020, I traveled to 15 countries on three continents and traveled across the US by car at least twice a year. I learned a lot. I established relationships with people who I had only known on social media and ones who become life long friends. I see that our similarities are greater than our differences. If you come this way, you’ll have a bed at my house.