Digital nomads, while often portrayed as living the dream life, globetrotting and interacting with new cultures, have a strong tendency to feel disconnected and alone after awhile. Especially for solo travelers who’ve recently moved to a new place, the life can feel quite isolating at times. Your friends back home don’t get you. Your family doesn’t get you. It sometimes feels like the whole world doesn’t get you.
But of course, there’s a remedy for this isolation. The typical methodology is to connect with other nomads.
And there’s no shortage of tools to do so. There’s Nomad List. There are coworking spaces and coliving spaces. There are parties and meetups. There are nomad cruises and nomad trains and nomad sailing trips. Clearly, as a nomad, there’s no shortage of ways to meet people living the same life as you.
But this type of connection comes with a significant downside. Nomads, of course, are nomadic. They are your friend one month, but gone the next.
For some, this might feel fine, at least at first. Certainly it’s a great thing to have a group of globally connected friends, who you might happen upon in the streets of Berlin one day. But it can, and does, grow tiresome after a while.
Luckily, there’s an alternative. A key to feeling connected to the place you’re in, to the culture and the people who live there.
And that key is language.
I’ve spent more than a year mostly traveling in the Balkan region, mostly spending time in Bulgaria. My girlfriend is Bulgarian. We come back to the same village every three months. We have an apartment here. We love it.
As expected, when I first moved here, I spent all my time with other nomads, expats, and travelers. It was great to have that connection. It still is.
But in the time I’ve been here, I’ve also learned a lot of Bulgarian. (Hard not to when dating a local.) And it’s opened up my life in more ways than I can count. I no longer feel like a stranger in a strange place. The small village of Bansko has become home. I’m happy to say I can walk into most conversations and have a general idea of what’s being said. I can hold my own when it comes to most basic conversations. I can translate for other nomads. I can order taxis for my friends and read the menus when there’s no English version. I feel a sense of satisfaction when locals are surprised at my effort (seriously, they’re super surprised). What’s more, because the languages are so similar, it’s fairly easy for me to get by in surrounding countries like Macedonia, Serbia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina with a handful of minor changes to wording and pronunciation.
Now, language learning isn’t the easiest thing in the world, and Bulgarian is not an easy language. Nor am I anywhere near fluent. But something changes in your brain when you begin learning to speak in somebody else’s mother tongue. Your brain changes. Things become automatic. You begin thinking in that other language, when possible.
I also know Spanish. I took courses in the language for four years. It’s safe to say my Spanish speaking ability is miles ahead of my Bulgarian. But because I’m so engrossed in the culture, day to day, I almost can’t think in Spanish. We have several coworking members from various parts of Spain right now and I can’t stop saying “Da” instead of “Sí.” It’s weird, but kind of cool.
Anyway, no, it hasn’t been easy to learn Bulgarian, but it hasn’t been terribly difficult either. I’m taking it in strides. I still have a lot more to learn. But knowing the little Bulgarian that I do gives me a sense of confidence and pride when I speak it. It makes me feel like more than a nomad, more than a tourist. It makes me feel connected to the place I’m in. And that is probably a big part of why this place feels like home.
So if you’re feeling a bit disconnected, traveling the world with your backpack and laptop, I suggest two things:
- Pick a base; a place you love that you can call home on a regular basis.
- Learn the language. A little bit at a time. And get the pronunciation right (it matters).
If you do this, not only will you feel more connected, you’ll become the person the nomads turn to when they need a taxi. And that feels pretty cool.