A few weeks ago, a Swedish girl invited me out to a bar with her friends.
The bar was in Kampala’s industrial district, on top of a warehouse. When I climbed the stairs to the rooftop, I saw a scene out of East London or Brooklyn. There were countless young people drinking cocktails under the faint stars, electronic music blaring in the background.
At first, I enjoyed myself. I had a few G&Ts, smoked a few cigarettes (don’t tell my parents), and danced with a handsome, blue-eyed French guy.
Then I bumped into Will (not his name but let’s go with it), a guy I had been on a few dates with.
Our first date had gone well – I was amazed by how much we had in common. He spoke Spanish, worked in marketing, and loved to snowboard. When he texted me to say he had a really nice time, I was elated.
On our second date, he took me to a swanky Ethiopian restaurant where we shared an injera platter and smoked hookah (okay yes, I smoke a lot in Africa). We talked about our friends back home and app development and where to find the best beer in Kampala. For a moment, I dared to think, ‘Wow, this could be something.’
But by the end of the date the conversation had grown stilted. Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure about it.
Anyway, when I bumped into Will at the rooftop bar he was polite but I could tell there was nothing more. I was bummed but I understood – we had only been on two dates, after all.
Later that night, I bumped into him again. I was walking upstairs when I saw him talking to a girl I knew on the middle of the stairs. I stopped to say hello to them, and soon after, she descended.
But when I looked up, Will was gone – he had BOLTED up the stairs.
I’d like to say I handled this well. I didn’t. I just wanted to go home and cry.
Near tears, I decided to leave. I headed to the gate where I sat with the security guard, fumbling to call an Uber.
Then my phone died.
So where did this leave me? Crying, phoneless, and stranded in a dangerous part of town. GREAT.
Luckily, I ended up running into a couple I knew and we split an Uber home. (The Kampala expat scene is very small, in case you couldn’t tell.)
But when I woke up, I felt terrible. I felt so, so alone, and was practically despondent with hangover anxiety. I walked into my aunt and uncle’s room, and said, completely stone-faced, “Maybe I should just leave Uganda. Nothing seems to be working out.’
I know this sounds overdramatic – so what, a guy you were seeing suddenly lost interest? It happens. So, you were stranded in a dangerous neighborhood with no phone? You survived.
But when bad things happen while living abroad, it can feel SO much worse than back home. Because you don’t have the same support system, at least at first.
If you have a bad night back home, you can laugh it off with your girlfriends at brunch. When you’ve recently moved abroad, you have to shoulder the disappointment all by yourself.
Most of the time when I’m abroad, I’m happy. I feel like the best, most outgoing, most carefree version of myself.
But as high as the highs may be, the lows can be crushing. Sometimes I inexplicably feel so lonely. I miss my friends and family and having deep conversations – small talk can only sustain you for so long.
Dealing with loneliness abroad
After thinking about why I sometimes feel so lonely abroad, I’ve realized a few things.
One, the beginning period of living abroad is the hardest. You’re adjusting to a new job, new culture, a new way of life. This can be overwhelming, even if you’re a seasoned traveler and expat.
Two, it takes time to make friends. When I lived in Paris, it took me four months to find a group of friends. So, be patient – relationships take time to build.
Three, remember that your friends and family back home love you. Even if they don’t call you as frequently as you’d like, it’s probably because a. They might not know how to call you (i.e. my mom and WhatsApp), b. They’re busy, or c. They think you’re having the time of your life so don’t know you might need help.
If you’re struggling, reach out to your loved ones – they probably don’t know that you’re feeling down.
And finally, if you’re feeling lonely, avoid drinking for a while. For many people, drinking exacerbates anxiety and depression, as I wrote in this post. It certainly does for me.
So, if you’ve just moved abroad, remember that everything’s going to be okay. You’re not always going to feel so lonely. You WILL make friends. And if you must go to warehouse bars in bad areas, bring a portable charger, k?
Have you lived abroad? What part of living abroad do you find the hardest?
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