o n b e i n g a l o n e i n a n e w c i t y
by Arielle Contreras
Last year I made the decision to uproot the relatively calm life I had lived for 24 years in my hometown of Ottawa, and to move alone to Vancouver for an internship. This decision resulted in a whirlwind of crazy, overwhelming, exciting, scary, happy, testing, and amazing moments. The internship, and therefore the move, lasted only a few months. But those months added up to one of the most intensely educational periods of my life. While moving to a new city can at times be a lonesome experience, the following lessons stayed by my side along the way:
Don't Be Afraid of Strangers
From a young age many of us are taught to avoid strangers. Of course, there is a good reason we are taught to be wary of people that we do not know - as children we can't just wander up to any random person and put indiscriminate trust into them. But this important lesson can get warped. Strangers are not inherently bad and when you're alone in a new city, you need to re-wire your way of thinking of them. Strangers are no longer entities to be avoided, but a concept to be welcomed. Strangers represent the possibility of friendships not yet formed. When you're alone in a new city, YOU are the stranger to everyone. So say hello to your fellow strangers; you never know what life stories might be sitting across from you in a cafe, standing next to you on the bus, or waiting behind you in line at the grocery store. Take a chance on saying hi, and cracking open what could be the first chapter of a new friendship.
Get Rid of Your Security Blanket
Yes, there will be those awkward moments when you're alone at a social gathering, and you find yourself sitting idly on your own, looking around the room at all the people engaged in conversations. The temptation to pull out your phone so that you can also engage in conversation with someone via text and not feel alone will inevitably creep up.
But don't do it! Resist the temptation. Own your alone-ness in ways that don't sequester you from your immediate surroundings. So you're by yourself at a party - so what? Practice your best introspective face, and pretend that the reason you're alone is because you felt the sudden urge to contemplate the meaning of life (42), or how many movie deaths Sean Bean has suffered (25 so far).
Or better yet, get up and introduce yourself to someone. Sure that can be scary but think of it this way: You just traveled to a new city - you flew, drove, trained, made a journey of some sort to a place that is completely new to you. Can it really be so scary to walk up to a stranger to say hi?
Comfort zones are incredibly restricting but yet also so malleable. Stretching your comfort zone can be really hard, you literally have to kick and punch, however being alone in a new city pretty much negates your privilege of having a comfort zone so I say just have at it. Keep in mind that in the end, whether or not your comfort zone gives is up to you.
So put that phone; that security blanket; that shield; that false sense of company away, and find peace in being alone. Pulling out technology will only serve to build walls between you and what's happening around you, and diminish the possibility of forming new connections.
One Can Be the Loneliest Number
Moving to a new city can make you feel alone. And there is definitely a difference between being alone and feeling lonely. However, sometimes you can't help but feel plain old lonely and sad and sorry for yourself. That's okay, let yourself feel that way...
But only for a moment! Then turn off whatever melancholy indie playlist you chose on Songza, pull yourself away from gazing morosely out of a rainy window, and go outside. Go to a coffee shop, go for a walk on a busy street, treat yourself to a beer and some dinner like you're trying to woo you into going home with yourself (and in this case, you score every time!). Just get OUT there. It seems like such a simple thing, but to be around people, commotion and energy can help you remember that you are just one boat sailing around on an ocean of billions of other boats, all going about their own destinations. And that your path is an ever-changing concept; that even the slightest wind can re-direct your entire course. If you're willing to put yourself out there and to keep sailing around now that you've found yourself in unfamiliar waters, you'll soon realize that your loneliness is as temporary as everything else is.
One Can Also Be A Liberating Number
As well as getting to feel kind of like Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation, there are a lot of really cool things about being on your own. When you move to a new city with only yourself to rely on, you have the very unique opportunity to carve out whatever shape you want into your new surroundings. Your daily activities aren't as preordained as they are at home, and you don't have all of your familiar habits and daily routines to participate in because you are too busy getting your bearings and just figuring out the simplest aspects of life: where to buy food, how to get from place to place, acquiring basics such as toothpaste and soap, etc.
You have to be self-reliant and self-aware, there's just no other choice. You'll soon realize that this escape from the familiar and the necessity to rely on your own instincts can be intimidating but also really exhilarating.
When you're in your hometown and you go from place to place, there are all sorts of things that can distract you from your surroundings: chatting with friends, texting on your phone, or simply the familiarity of a place that can dull the senses to our settings. This is not the case in a new city. At first, I didn’t have people to chat with as I walked around Vancouver. I wouldn’t text as I went from place to place because I'd been focused on finding my way around, and every single thing I saw was totally new to me. So in a way, my main squeeze those days was Vancouver itself and I came to rely on the beauty of the city as I would rely on the comfort of a friend. When I was sad, I would go out and find a good view of the ocean and let the waves ebb away the negativity. When I was upset, I would go for a walk and explore a new neighbourhood I’d never been in with only the mountains as my compass. Make friends with your new home, and comfort will only ever be a walk outside away.
It Gets Better
“Just wait a few days,” they said, “it'll get less difficult,” they said. And they were right. When I first landed in Vancouver and I realized there was no one in the city who even knew that I had arrived, much less who would be waiting to greet me, it suddenly struck me how far I felt from home.
I wish I could say I got there in a blaze of glory, completely ready to take on the new city on my own, and that I didn't look back once. But that is very far from the case. It was a hard transition, and the temptation to call it quits and go back home threatened to creep in more than once. Through this, everyone told me that it would get better with a bit of time and that I was just experiencing a shock to the system. It's not that I didn't believe them, I was just too distracted with my own feelings of uncertainty about everything around me to put much stock in their reassurances.
But then I made a couple of new friends, connected with old friends, I learned how to get around the city without pulling out the ol’ Google Maps, I tried local beers, I found a spot to go to for tea, and established a favourite place to pick up fresh produce on the way home from work. I went to a beach bonfire, had delicious dinners, went for drinks. I introduced myself to strangers and cried in public without combusting into flames of embarrassment. I found my way home countless time from various places around the city. All of those little things felt like huge accomplishments and each one was another brick added to the new, even if temporary home I was building for myself in Vancouver. So don’t let those first few days of doubt or anxiety shake your resolve. Keep trying and it will get better.
To anyone who's found themselves flying solo in a new place, rejoice! You're in for quite the ride of self-discovery and yes, sometimes it's really tough. But if you're willing to keep your head up, your eyes wide open, and your feet free to suggestion, I think you'll find that world really can be your oyster.