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Loneliness or Freedom? The Existential Conflict of the Modern Expatriate

On the expatriate’s experience and her existential dilemma

In the summer of 1951 an expatriate from New Jersey opened Le Mistral in Paris, a bookstore he named after his first French girlfriend. From the very first night 38-year-old George Whitman allowed writers, poets, artists, and bohemian travellers to sleep in his shop on a series of mattresses and towels that he’d arranged on the top floor. Slices of moonlight appeared on the ramshackle floors and the Notre Dame cast a sparkle onto the Seine just outside.

Perhaps now the most famous literary destination in France, Shakespeare & Co. – a name given to Whitman by Sylvia Beach – embodies the expatriate experience, not just as a literary pilgrimage but as a place for Anglophones to meet with one another in a city where they are accustomed to being met as foreigners. For the expatriate, life can get quite lonely. The expatriate desires camaraderie, time with people who are like her, but at the same time this is exactly what she’s running away from.

It’s a particularly odd situation because the expatriate wants both loneliness and friendship, and it’s nearly impossible to separate the feeling of isolation from the feeling of total freedom, of having escaped a set of circumstances that you were born into, and, without meditated action, would never have left.

It was Adam Gopnik in his “Paris Journal” who wrote, “The special virtue of freedom is not that it makes you richer and more powerful but that it gives you more time to understand what it means to be alive.” And yet perhaps the only way to achieve this freedom, and therefore this ability to understand what it means to be alive, is to go somewhere entirely new and foreign, a place where even the most basic actions – a trip to the grocery store or the pharmacy, ordering at a restaurant, or even negotiating the language – become deeply fascinating, trying, difficult.

This freedom and dynamism of life is one of the principle reasons that people from Gertrude Stein to Elizabeth Taylor have taken up residence in new countries. Expatriates crave a new life, one that they can orchestrate with greater precision. You become total master of yourself when no one knows you – you have no background or reputation and the identity you’ve created for yourself back home whether intentionally or unintentionally is entirely null, your life a notebook that’s had all its pages torn out.

Shakespeare & Co. has always been somewhere that expatriates in France can come to try to reconcile these issues. It is a place tailor-made for foreigners and outsiders, a sort of embassy, accessible to all. And while it proves a strong antidote to expatriate loneliness, one must ask, at what price?

Along with trips to English-language bookstores and cocooning oneself in a community of fellow countrymen, some expatriates take heavily to social media or to constantly making calls back home through a multitude of modern technologies, be it Facetime, Skype or Viber. Sure, these are ways to stave off loneliness, but I’m not so sure they’re the best ways. Too often, when you call your old friends or go to English-language bars and bookstores or you purchase peanut butter off of late at night because Nutella just doesn’t quite taste enough like home you sell yourself short. While you might reduce your loneliness, you also, as if on a sliding scale, harm your freedom, a freedom which is so gingerly predicated on newness, on this life being different than the last.

This is what frustrates people so much when they see McDonalds popping up next to the Moulin Rouge or a Starbucks next to the Louvre. It’s not so much the degradation of French gastronomy or coffee culture that tightens britches, but it’s the fact that it’s the erasing of escape routes, the destruction of places that were once exotic and different from where we came.

Often, it can feel as though we’ve no longer control of our own fate, and although we can now cross the Atlantic in six hours instead of six weeks, we pine for someplace different, for someplace that we can dream of and endeavour to escape to that’s inherently unique. In short, we dream of freedom from our reputations, our identities, and the circumstances we were born into.

There’s a picture taken in 1954 in front of the Café Tournon in the sixth arrondissement. George Plimpton, the editor and co-founder of the then-recently-created The Paris Review, wears a wry smile and holds a cigarette and a glass of wine. It was around the same time that James Baldwin was staying in the shabby Hotel Verneuil and Allen Ginsberg was spending time in Paris finishing up Howl. It was a time that globalisation had not yet struck Paris with the force it has now – a time when the cheeseburger wasn’t the hippest thing on a brasserie menu and American-style education hadn’t begun to permeate the rigorous class-separating prépas system through more inclusive institutions like Sciences Po.

I’ve often walked past the Café Tournon where tourists sit out on the terrasse flipping through guidebooks and plotting out their next museum visit on large, unwieldy maps. Tucked between them though there is, almost invariably, a foreigner who has chosen to call Paris home. She often looks lonely. Her eyes dart slowly back and forth, picking out interesting people walking past before she bows her head back into her journal or book.

Loneliness is an especially strong emotion because it is an almost biological push telling you to reestablish social bonds. According to a 2010 study called, “Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms,” loneliness predicts increased morbidity and mortality. That’s to say, loneliness can kill you. But the expatriate doesn’t always want to create these social bonds. Sometimes the only way to find freedom is through a sort of self-inflicted loneliness, by sitting in a café doing almost nothing at all.

At one time, merely living in a different city was freedom enough for the expatriate. There were small enclaves of Americans, but, on the whole, countries like France or Italy or Spain or England or any of the other popular expatriate destinations were unique in and of themselves. Now, the expatriate must actively distance herself from the things she’s accustomed to – English, McDonalds, her fellow countrymen. It can be a terribly lonely task. Perhaps Plimpton was beaming in the picture because he had escaped with so little effort.

But even if the expatriate cannot control globalisation or waves of migration, she can still control how she interacts with the city. Through literature, journalling, exploring, learning the language, and befriending those who have always called the city home, the expatriate can facilitate the sort of reflection that she desired in the first place.

It can be lonely, but one must ask oneself, what is lonelier: is it merely being alone in a new country or is it also staying put in a place you know you don’t belong – a place where you could end up wasting away the most poignant years of your life?

So too, what is the greater horror: The fear of getting lost in some faraway city where you don’t speak the language and you know you don’t quite belong or the process of becoming domestic, of moving to that house with the perfect lawn and the cable TV and the faux-friendly neighbors, where the slow poison of regret and boredom works its way through your veins until you’ve lost even the resolve to try to escape, to live your life as you’d once so feverishly envisioned?

Indeed, we mustn’t forget that while Odysseus spent his whole life trying to get home, all of his fun was had while he was away.

The question of whether loneliness and freedom necessarily come intertwined is a difficult one, and it is one which the expatriate seems to constantly struggle with. But solitude is not loneliness.The silence in our lives – the silence of not having to impress anyone or live up to the identity we’ve crafted for ourselves either intentionally or unintentionally – is perhaps the most beautiful sound in the world.

Author Sam de Brito rather humorously asks, “As a society, do we have unreasonable expectations about loneliness? Are we now at the point where we’re so hyper-stimulated, that anything short of round-the-clock euphoria is deemed ‘something missing’; that to be happy and content, we need to be erect and gleeful, like some excited puppy peeing on the lounge room carpet?”

The expatriate is constantly grappling with these sorts of questions, questioning her very existence, her role in the new city, and often questioning her decision to move in the first place. seems to always be in the expatriate’s browser bookmarks, not because she is necessarily an avid traveler but because she often desires to go home – or at the very least, to know that it’s a possibility.

But if life back “home” isn’t the life you want to live, then there is no reason to stay put. The expatriate experience, although rife with existential crises and constant second-guessing, is often the only way that certain people can find true happiness. Not everyone was born in the place they want to forever live and some were not even born in the same country.To know yourself, to know that deep down you must make the move is a serious but terrifically mature decision.

Life is by no means always smooth for the expatriate. Day-to-day existence can feel a bit like a dream, a touch of fog surrounding your senses at all times, which is at once a pleasant but also deeply confusing. Everything you do seems a bit fake, your participation in your new “home” provisional, and your very life bracketed by quotation marks.

But when the expatriate is struggling, asking herself if she really made the right decision, there are certain instances where she becomes entirely assured, where the whole operation is shown to be worthwhile.

A few months ago, I sat alone on the quays of the Seine with a book, a baguette tradition, and a few tiny wheels of cheese. Shakespeare and Co. was just across the water and the lights from the Eiffel Tower reflected on the river as the din of the cars breezing past sounded like whispering leaves. It is here, where loneliness gives way to freedom, where your imagination of the life you always desired coincides with reality, that the expatriate finds that while loneliness is ever present, while freedom is ghost-like, and while it may be impossible to run away from yourself, your worries, and your insecurities, you can, in fact, run away.





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  2. Today I heard someone say “there is hardly anything else that defines the millennial but the belief that a move to a new country ensures happiness.” An interesting perspective taken, but that doesn’t negate the truth of this piece (and the fact that I’ve come back to it over and over again– especially now that I’m an expat myself.) A seriously beautiful read, so thanks again!

    • with pleasure. and whilst they were saying it sarcastically, they may be on to something…

  3. I am so happy to have found this post today. I was online, looking for anyone who might be able to write about the loneliness/solitude of being an expat in a way that I found meaningful, and I am grateful to have found this voice. I am inspired by your thoughts about loneliness and freedom and how closely connected the two are. After all, this is what I wanted, so how can I craft my alone time in a way that uniquely serves me? I am going to continue thinking about it and use it for my own blog/personal reflection. Thank you.

  4. Perhaps we’re just contrarians, but I found this post disturbing and off the mark. We made the decision to live an expat life very deliberately. Our initial search encompassed several countries. We holidayed for several years in the region that we had chosen. And when we finally moved, selling our home in the States and not looking back, the reality has exceeded our expectations. Certainly life isn’t all chocolate-covered peanut butter and we would like to have a greater proportion of native French friends to our wealth of fellow English-speaking expat friends from around the world, but we are confident that will come in time and with improved language skills. In the meantime, meeting new and interesting people (and some not so interesting), exploring new geography and new culture, preparing food that tastes as it was meant to taste and not bred for ease of shipping or shelf-life, and discovering perfectly drinkable wine cheaper than Coke has left us little time for loneliness or regret. Perhaps we’re just contrarians.

    • I don’t think you’re contrarians. I’ve lived abroad for the past 20 years and have found that you bring your life with you. If you tended to depression and loneliness at home, then you will in your expat life. If you tended to anxiety, then you will be an anxious expat, etc.

      I’ve found the adjust and loneliness are a quality of expectations. Those of us looking to recreate the 20’s or 50’s Paris scene in 2016 will be sadly disappointed. Those of us wishing to find a stimulating environment that will challenge you in unique unexpected ways will be stimulated and thrive.

      I’ve found the past 20 years to be some of the most stimulating and rewarding of my life. I couldn’t return to North America to live just because it would be too easy and boring.

  5. Reblogged this on k7vdo and commented:
    It was a time that globalisation had not yet struck Paris with the force it has now – a time when the cheeseburger wasn’t the hippest thing on a brasserie menu and American-style education hadn’t begun to permeate the rigorous class-separating prépas system through more inclusive institutions like Sciences Po.

  6. Reblogged this on moon.flower.medicine and commented:
    This. I am getting increasingly getting comfortable with labeling stigmatized emotions when I feel them. Per the last blog entry, I labeled myself, ‘not ok’ because that is the truth. ‘Not being ok’ isn’t the point per se. Not having familiar and ready access to the things that I know would make me feel better has been a complete new thing. The paradox of freedom and loneliness – now I’m asking, “freedom to do what,” “freedom to gain what,” “freedom for how long,” “freedom from what” — wtf is freedom? lol Why do existential crises feel so overbearing? It is so painfully beautiful. It is so exhaustingly anxiety and depression-inducing … and yes, the word I have not wanted to say because “isolating” sounds so much more neutral – this journey can be quite…lonely. I have been torn regarding whether a new landscape requires me to renegotiate my values … my final answer is still no. And at that point, I can often hit an emotional brick wall. There are just some things that are non-negotiable because my personal politics say so. I’m still exploring solutions. I don’t foresee an end to the traveling. Not traveling would also cause me grief. I’m literally learning the meaning of being ‘adaptable’ no matter how hard I’m being stretched and pulled. I’m increasingly meeting more folk who I can build with – but these people are transient, as well. I foresee myself getting less attached to the concept of being ‘attached’ to any one set of human beings – it feels necessary for survival. But, that feels so cold and counter to who I “am” as a person…Expat? Immigrant? International worker? I do not quite know the appropriate name and it turns my mind upside down. One of the things that can also be very isolating is reconciling all the legal things I don’t know to protect myself … the law may or may not matter as long as I have the “right” people in my corner who like me, care about me, etc and can make phone calls on my behalf. And even that is quite foreign for me. Of course, we call that politics at home but that was still something that I critiqued and didn’t find democratic … but now it works on my behalf as I float through this new chapter ….my mind and so much that I know/knew feels flipped on its head. Those who adapt the fastest reap the most rewards … but I would rather not blindly adapt. In the event I can’t rely on my networks here, I know I can barter English lessons for help possibly. Global education and life skills – this all can literally be a book.

  7. Kathy Segal says

    Loved the article. Ive tried the expatriate experience more than once. I find myself going back home. But oh the freedom of sitting on a bit of grass, trying to count the puffs of white on a distant pasture (sheep), watching waves hit the rocks below, listening to seagulls scream at each other, breathing the smells of burning peat, sea air, flowers and damp freshly mowed grass. I remembered how alone i felt and yet, how free.

    • Stephanie Gahan says

      Yes,I too know that feeling. This article has been an interesting read as I had thought that I was alone in feeling lonely as an expat!

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  9. recovery77777 says

    Congratulations this is very interesting article!
    Good luck!

  10. Excellent piece. I cannot imagine ever returning to my birthplace as I have found my home in the sun and sea.

    David, resident of the Last Frontier

  11. Beautifully captured. So many exceptional points – not living a faux life, never fully belonging even as an expat, having on the ready should you choose to leave. Amazing…just amazing..thank you.!

  12. Reblogged this on The Intentional Expat and commented:
    So very many excerpts I could quote here from this beautifully crafted essay on the dilemma of the modern expat. But one that particularly stuck out to me was the following: “But if life back “home” isn’t the life you want to live, then there is no reason to stay put. The expatriate experience, although rife with existential crises and constant second-guessing, is often the only way that certain people can find true happiness. Not everyone was born in the place they want to forever live and some were not even born in the same country.To know yourself, to know that deep down you must make the move is a serious but terrifically mature decision.”

  13. Your posts describe perfectly what I think without writing it down. Thank you for articulating ‘me’.

  14. You nailed it! I’ve often felt lonely during my longer-term stays abroad. Sometimes I asked myself if I wouldn’t be happier if I just stayed home. I would not, of course. I think there is a difference between comfort (staying home) and the kind of happiness that comes from broader experiences of the world.

  15. Thank you for this excellent, insightful post. As a serial expat I often wonder what lies behind the recurring urge to move on at various stages in life. As a septuagenarian expat who still has these urges one begins to suspect a lack of maturity never to be attained. Until I read your post I’d actually given up thinking about it too much. I don’t know whether to thank you or curse you for reminding me. Either way I enjoyed the reading. James

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  19. Having just moved to Paris from New York two weeks ago without any friends in Paris or French language skills, I really enjoyed reading this. I have to say that I haven’t really felt any loneliness yet in the negative sense; I think it comes down to the distinction you make that being alone isn’t necessarily the same thing as loneliness. I think most expats crave potentiality (a type of freedom, you could say), which is easier to amass alone.

  20. Very interesting read. I too am an expat living in the north of Italy. It is a small town 1 hour of Milano. I completely understand your blog. My conclusion is that my dreams have now become my reality, a huge realisation, finding that balance between freedom and loneliness.

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