Day 34: The loneliness of the long-distance traveller

Day 34

I get by with a little help

Brain-storm ideas on a challenging task with your friends. (Friends? What friends?)

When you move to another country, the most challenging task is finding new friends. It’s one thing to understand how you should behave in your new country: how far apart people stand when they talk, when they shake hands, how much they smile, etc. And it’s one thing to find out where to get information when things go wrong: how to find a plumber, where to go to fix a broken toe, who can fix your car, etc. And it’s one thing to get all the paper work done: get a national ID card, get insurance for the car, pay bills online or at the local post office, etc. And it’s one thing to take care of the kids’ problems: transport them to their capoeira, help them adjust to a new class in a new country, help them make new friends. Etc.

These are all one thing, and they can be hard enough. But you manage. There’s always someone who has written about the very same problem somewhere online (usually a forum for mothers), there is always ways of finding solutions to all kinds of practical problems, and if nothing else works, you can always ask someone at you wife’s office. After all, it’s their job to take care of Norwegians in Denmark.

Another thing altogether is finding friends for yourself.

Oh yes, you know how it’s supposed to be done. Just start a conversation. Find out what the other person likes to do, what his hobbies are, how he thinks. Be open. Find things to do together. Be like your wife’s uncle: he can talk with anyone, and even more, he likes to talk with anyone, he feeds off social energy, he gets restless if he is alone, when he’s around there’s always stories and laughter and never a moment of silence.

The problem is, of course, that I am not like that. I like discussing topics at length, for hours and hours, to understand more — or I like to be silent. (There used to be a time when I was convinced that you can measure how deep a friendship is by measuring how much silence you can handle.) And I often don’t mind being alone. Sometimes I even need to be alone.

Oh yes, I know how it’s supposed to be done. But I usually don’t. Since coming to Denmark six months ago, I’ve run with a fellow barefooter for 40 minutes, I’ve had lunch a couple of times with a photographer I know from Norway, I’ve nodded and said hello to some neighbours, I’ve been exchanging pleasantries with parents from my sons’ school and kindergarten, sometimes hourlong pleasantries when they come on a play date with their kids, I’ve been talking to waiters and shopkeepers and teachers  — and that’s about it. I haven’t been invited to dinner anywhere. Or lunch. I haven’t been to a museum or gallery or the Tivoli with anyone except family and old friends from Prague.

The fact is, I haven’t really tried. I know that we’ll be moving back to Norway in two years, I know that I don’t have that much time to get to know people here, and I know more or less how one should go about to do it. And yet I shrink away from it, most of the time, shrink away from all the pleasantries and words and social interactions, and I long for solitude, knowing full well that solitude often won’t do me any good.

But sometimes, solitude does me a world of good. And how do you explain that to potential friends? “I want to be your friend but right now I can’t stand being with you, that’s why I am unpleasant, it’s nothing personal, I just prefer solitude sometimes, would you mind waiting here so I can get back to you once my mood changes”?

When our best friends from Prague visited us in Copenhagen, I felt that way. I had been looking forward to them coming for a long time, our kids really play well together and I like the adults, and despite that, I only wanted to be alone, only wanted to get away from everything, to take care of my own feelings. After being more and more unpleasant for days, in the end I got up from the breakfast table one morning and went out, unable to control my crying. After walking around the søerne for half an hour or an hour, I forget, I came back and went to bed and continued crying until I fell asleep.

“Sorry, sometimes Jostein is like that, don’t take it personal”? No, that won’t do.

I try not to be. And it seems that that episode made me try even harder, and possibly even better. But still. How do you make friends when you sometimes just don’t like being with people? (Because one needs friends, that is beyond dispute, one needs someone to talk to and be around and do things with.) And how do you keep friends when you have to move again after a few years? And how do you keep a healthy balance between solitude and being with people? And how do you explain your particular need for being alone?

And perhaps most of all, how do you find the courage? People are scary, and they will hurt you and bore you, and you can’t handle it. Often, you don’t dare to be with people! Without knowing what you are afraid of, without knowing why you should be afraid, just knowing that it’s so much easier to crawl back into your shell instead. And then, suddenly, for some reason, you face those fears head-on and feel that you can talk to anyone. And you go out and do just that. You find all the courage in the world.

And then you lose it and crawl back into your shell again.

One of my most challenging tasks is finding friends, is making and keeping friends in Copenhagen. I would have loved to brain-storm how to do that, but then I would need to have some friends first. It’s not quite a catch-22, it’s one of the lesser catches, but still.

When you move to another country, you should either be good at keeping your old friends or good at finding new friends. I am neither. Oh, I know how to make friends, and I know that eventually, I will. I am not worried, just slightly annoyed at my own moods sometimes.

Slightly annoyed I wasn’t able to do today’s task. I need to practice tending and befriending others. But that’s for later this year.


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