The Weird Psychology Of Your Friends Being Present And Absent At The Same Time

The world has been getting smaller for a long time. Since we invented the motorcar, which made journeys between towns quicker to complete, it seems that humans have been trying to bridge the distance between their communities in new and exciting ways.

The internet, of course, is a perfect example of this. It’s now possible to watch a Turkish political coup unfold on Twitter; to live stream police violence in the USA to Facebook users around the world; to converse face to face with a friend who lives thousands of miles away via Skype.

The beauty and the pain of this shrinking world, as well as the increasing popularity of the “digital nomad” lifestyle, is that our friends are scattered everywhere.

Mine are, anyway.

The joy of this is that almost anywhere I choose to go, I have friends there who can show me around. If I decided to move to many places, I’d have a ready-built friendship group waiting to welcome me.

But it’s less joyful when people inevitably move away. 

And weirdly, in London especially it can feel like the friends who share the same city as you are actually further away than those in other countries.

For a year, one of my closest friends lived in Spain. While she was living there, I saw her more often than I see most of my London friends. Why? Mainly because we had to plan for it. We’d make a concerted effort to fly to each other’s cities and stay for a few days. Whereas a trip on the Victoria line, changing to the Overground, and then a bus at the other end, seems like a big effort at the end of a long day’s work.

In Amsterdam, I have a ready-made network of people I know. Some who used to work with me, some who used to work for me, some with whom I work on forensics projects from time to time, and some I met online.

In Uganda, I have three friends who are constantly asking me to come and stay. One lives in a beautiful house overlooking an idyllic lake, hammocks swinging in the wind.

In Dublin, I have a group of people I meet up with from time to time, either when I head over there for a visit or when we meet up in another part of the world. A couple of my London friends are probably about to move to Dublin too, which means there will be even more incentive to get on a plane.

In Cape Town, I have a group of people who would be willing to welcome me whenever I rocked up. Musicians to show me the gigging life, wine aficionados to demonstrate the fabulous South African vintages, and a friend who has some properties he’s always saying I’d be welcome to stay in.

We’re all the type of people who travel a lot. Often, I don’t meet these people in the places where they live. I’ve never been to Uganda or South Africa, for instance. The last time I saw the Netherlands contingent, we were all in Switzerland for a week. The next time I see the Dublin people might be in Kyoto. And last night, over a couple of bottles of wine with some friends who are thinking of moving away, we spoke about meeting up in Rome, renting some basic rooms in an old monastery for a while and getting away from it all.

I love this life. I love that we’re all so willing to ditch everything and fly across the world to be together for a while, often at short notice. I greatly appreciate the various privileges I have that allow me to do that: reasonable levels of physical health, financial security, a job I can do from pretty much anywhere.

But I also find myself longing for a community.

For people who’ll ring my doorbell because they happen to be walking past, and will drop in for a cup of tea or a glass of wine because why not?

For the feeling I had yesterday evening, when I was carrying a pot of olives to a house a couple of streets away, wine bottles clinking in the bag over my shoulder, ready for an evening of good company.

For a group of people who know me, who don’t look surprised when I mention some random fact about my life, with whom I don’t have to do the small talk thing but can instead cut straight to the important stuff.

That’s hard to find, though. And I’m grateful for the fact that I have friends all over the world. I like knowing many people, a scattered diaspora of friendships which mainly started in London, gradually spreading around the globe.

I guess it’s just that I’m reaching a stage in my life where I’m feeling the urge to settle. I’ve never felt this before – I am a Traveller as well as a traveller, after all – but now it’s like I’m kind of done with moving around. I want to sit down in one place, become part of a community, and not have to get on a plane to see the people I care about the most.

Oh I know this is very much a #firstworldproblem. But it’s also a fundamental part of human nature to desire strong bonds with others. And in an age where the ways in which we make and maintain those bonds are rapidly changing, it can be a tough challenge to face.


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