Tips for Handling Expat Loneliness

I spend a lot of time alone in a foreign country. When I haven't been traveling for work, much of the last five years has been spent alone in Belgium. It is easy to romanticize living in a foreign country - all the great cafes, amazing new foods and incredible sights - but all of that is actually what you enjoy when you are on vacation. Life isn't quite the same when you are living there.

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When you live in a foreign country, everyday life becomes more of a battleground. I've spoken about this aspect before (Solo Living and Forgetting Independence Day) but a bigger challenge for me can often be loneliness.

For much of this past July and August, I lived out of a suitcase. I actually thrive living this way: sleeping in hotels and spending time on airplanes. There is a sense of routine to this lifestyle that I embrace.

I've been home for almost a month and it has taken some adjusting. Work has been exceptionally light, which I appreciate, but that means I have much more time to fill. In the past, when I would wake up during times like these, I would feel overwhelmed with how much of the day I had to occupy. You can only read, work out and wander so much. And I shouldn't start drinking booze solo every day by 3pm.

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The first few days of getting home after a long haul are all about recovery, but once you've slept as much as you can, now you have to start entertaining yourself. Over the years, these are the habits I've picked up to fill my day:

  • Meditating: I try to meditate for at least 10 minutes every morning. I use Headspace and it's a nice way to set the tone for the day.
  • Journaling: I write in the mornings and the evenings for maybe two minutes each time. It helps me reflect on the positive things.
  • Talking: There have been many times where I think I haven't spoken out loud to someone all day long. This can't be good, so I try to speak to people as much as possible when I'm out.
  • Get Out: I head to a cafe, grocery store or shop every single day. Working from home has its benefits, but for me, it can quickly turn me into a hermit. I force myself to go on some adventure every day.
  • Dutch: Learning the language has definitely helped me feel more comfortable living here. While my schedule isn't consistent enough to allow me to take traditional classes anymore, now I make myself do Rosette Stone for an hour five days a week. Once I finish the 12th unit (the entire set), I'll write a review on if it is worth it.
  • Playing Music: From the moment I'm awake until the evening, I have music on at all times. Silence contributes to loneliness, so playing great tunes really helps.
  • Working Out: I have no excuse not to. I walk a lot right now, but in the winter, I'll probably start swimming again more. When it comes to walking, I try to map out different routines or come up with a destination to make it more exciting.
  • Podcast: This almost makes me feel pathetic saying, but listening to podcast makes me feel like I'm with friends. Maybe it's a one-sided conversation, but it gives me a sense of interaction. Currently, my favorite podcast are: Tim Ferriss, Jess Lively--The Lively Show, and obviously This American Life.
  • Making Good Food: This is a task I used to fail at majorly. I saw the times I was home as the best ways to save money and maybe shed a pound or two. This meant I was eating lots of eggs and as basic and simple as possible. It brought me zero joy. I now plan out meals and make every meal of my day an event. Sure, it means more dishes and it cost more, but one thing I have right now is time.
  • Talking with Friends: Most of my friends are six hours or more behind me in time. This means my mornings are particularly quiet without many texts or social media updates coming through. But by lunch onwards, my world begins to come alive. I try to text or call with friends frequently. Google voice and Whatsapp are life savers when it comes to this.
  • Yoga: This is partly because I can feel my body getting older and stiffer, but it is also something I do towards the end of my day to slow things down and transition into bedtime with some flexibility yoga. It helps make crawling into bed solo not so strange.
  • Save TV: Even with my free time right now, I try not to turn on the TV, except maybe when I'm eating lunch. Instead, I wait until the evening to enjoy TV. It also makes the evening feel a little different and gives me something to look forward to. Belgium got Netflix back in November/December of last year and it's been a game changer. I don't even need cable otherwise (but watching it does help with my Dutch).
  • Dog Walking: When all else fails or if I'm feeling especially lonely, I go walk a dog. The Gent animal shelter has volunteer dog walking. Spending time with a dog puts a smile on everyone's face.