When Loneliness Strikes Abroad

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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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

17 thoughts on “When Loneliness Strikes Abroad”

  1. That guy, what a loser! As your papa Bill used to say, “He is not worth
    the powder to blow him to hell!” I hope your decision is after you come home in June? That you decide to stay, until you decide where you had rather be. I guess you can Just chalk this up as another
    learning experience!
    I have not lived in another country. I have thought about it , but
    I know it would probably be England or France. I especially liked
    England. Probably that would be my first choice.

    I love you, my sweet, Gamma

  2. I think the hardest part is finding your own “new normal.” Finding a new “routine” is most difficult because there are so many small differences that they can add up. Keep it up though, I’m going thru it as well!

  3. I lived in and traveled a lot in Africa. I now live in France, but have lived elsewhere in Europe. The expat scenes differ widely. Africa is rarely a long-term assignment, and it’s rare to find anybody looking to get into a serious relationship. You can run into that anywhere (commitment-phobes know no boundaries), but some places are more set up for it than others by the nature of the work and the general culture of settling down.
    On the other hand, your friendships can be more intense. I still stay in touch with friends I met in Africa, many years later.
    Good luck, chin up, and keep your phone charged!!

    • I’m starting to realize that – it seems like a lot of people are here for a year or less, which is a bummer. Glad to hear the friendships can last though. Thanks for the encouragement, I really appreciate it! :)

  4. I feel this so much. Especially the parts about “hangover anxiety” and having a phone that dies inconveniently all the time. As much as I love traveling and living abroad, it can get almost inexplicably lonely when you’re actually alone. You just think, “Man, home would be SO much easier. Maybe not as fun or exciting, but definitely easier.” I hope things get better – I love hearing about the expat life in Africa!

  5. What a courageous post Ashley.

    Like yourself, I’ve lived abroad. Four times! However, the hardest one was actually when I moved to Germany!

    And this is mainly because I hadn’t actually planned to live in the other three countries, it just sort of happened organically! I mean, I went out to Prague for 6 weeks, and came back 2 years later!

    However, moving to Germany was properly planned and I applied to officially emigrate from the UK to Germany, which has proved useful as I get invited to British embassy stuff, and even the German parliament, as one of Berlin’s successful British-German citizens..!

    Anyway, at the time I became home-sick after just 3 months, and used to cry a lot as I found the German language difficult, and their culture just got on my nerves! There weren’t a lot of Brits about in those days, and most of my expat friends were actually American or Irish! However, by the 4th month, I went to the UK for 24 hours and met my brothers which really helped, and then I went back to Germany. After that, it all just clicked!

    And after more than 17 years, I’m still here….!

  6. Sad to say but somehow this is a relatable post. I totally get that when things happen during trips it feels worse.
    I remember one morning in Siem Reap in 2015, I was getting ready in my dorm and suddenly got a message from my ex (our break-up was not easy)- I bursted into tears..in the middle of the dorm..while people were still sleeping… Luckily one girl put an arm around me and took me out for brunch, which was great, because I couldnt call my friends because of the timedifference.

  7. Loneliness was something I suffered heavily with abroad. In Japan I felt everyone was hanging out without me and I didn’t have the confidence to initiate things myself.
    I feel you. Hang in there, it will get better, as well you know

  8. Four months to find a group of friends?! That’s amazing!! It took me a year in Switzerland to make two *maybe* friends!
    I’m very lucky that I have my boyfriend so I don’t feel as lonely as I might, but I do miss having at least a few friends close by.

  9. I know what you mean, I moved to London two years ago and % months ago to Paris. Always my choice. The hard part is not meeting someone once but keep that interest going in the other person – can be both a guy or a girl, I’m talking about friendship – and see he/she a second/third time.
    I meet many people through different apps or in real life occasion but almost always only once and that’s the hard part of living abroad.

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