Finding Community As a Digital Nomad
On the road, off the road, traversing the world…
The first question about community is: What Does Community Mean to You? Because it means something different to each person. Some people define it as a group of like-minded people (ie: writers, artists, rock climbers, etc.). Others define it as a group of close friends. Some define it as family. I have asked myself this question a lot recently.
In a few vanlife documentaries (links at the bottom), two claimed the only downside (in the opinions of the people being interviewed) to vanlife was a lack of community.
One of the guys defined community as — when people in your neighborhood know your name. Like the local coffee shop owners, etc. And when you frequent these places you’re able to talk to the people who work there. I definitely have that where I currently live. I know the names of the owners of all my local shops and even became friends with one. I really like them all as people, but it doesn’t amount to much more than small talk.
When I went to Barcelona in 2019 and spent 10 days there, the coffee shop employees at the local cafe also knew my name and made small talk with me. This is not the definition of community for me. I make friends easily so wherever I travel, if I frequent a place several times, I know the proprietor or employees. This is not something that anchors me to a particular town. Small talk, to me, can be shallow.
But when I went to Italy several years ago and sat in a cafe all day to work I befriended the owner (I didn’t know he was the owner until a year later due to the language barrier) and the next day he took me on a trip, on the back of his moped, to an island! We’re still friends, over three years later and I’ve gone back to visit him and spend more time on his favorite island. This, I define as community!
When I lived in Sausalito for 7 years, before moving north-west, I had a small group of friends that would meet every single morning for coffee in a specific coffee shop. I knew that no matter the day, if I showed up, the same 4–7 people would be there and I fit right in. At the time I loved it and was sad to leave until I found out that they were gossiping about me behind my back. It was mostly men, just one woman, and apparently they were talking about me inappropriately when I wasn’t there and spreading around some personal tidbits I had confided confidentially. This was the closest I’ve ever come to what I would define as “community” since my divorce 20 years ago, and blech! No thanks!
Back when I was married I had a pretty tight-knit community and our house was the cool house, where everyone congregated and hung out and partied. But it wasn’t real. It was centered around using drugs. The “friends” came to our house because we had the good weed and I would cook dinner for all of them, and clean up after them. We also had all the video game systems and would sit around getting high and playing video games for hours. I’m clean and sober and divorced now, so none of that happens anymore. I won’t lie though, I loved those nights. I really felt “part of” and I really felt close to those group of friends, who all abandoned me when I left my husband and quit smoking pot.
Since then I’ve developed some very strong friendships with people around the world and people from all walks of life. I don’t have a “community” in the typical sense of the word. I am not close to my family, and my friends don’t know each other. I have one close friend here, another there, etc. I talk to a few people daily but I hadn’t labeled that as my community — until now. These friends will stay my close friends no matter where I go in the world.
So it comes down to the definition. My past definition was a group of people who all know each other and include one another in events, gatherings, hangouts, dinners, etc. But now my definition has morphed.
Part of the reason I wanted to travel was to find a community of like-minded people. But now I realize that’s a myth (at least for me). A dream I can chase but never catch. I am part of several “groups” that I identify with but I don’t feel like I “belong” to any of them. I feel like I’m on the fringe. Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous for example. When I attend the zoom meetings, everyone knows one another and they talk and laugh together. I know many people in the program as I’ve been clean/sober for 13 years but I haven’t felt close to anyone in long time. I realize this is a me problem. And part of this problem, as I stated above, is that I like to go deep. I don’t care much for superficial conversations. I also look for commonalities beyond one specific thing, such as being sober. Lastly, I have an issue with trust, another me problem, which manifests by me keeping people I don’t know well at a distance.
You know how “they” say: you find out who your true friends are when you’re the most in need. I’ve found that to be true over and over again in my life. Something recently happened to me and I desperately needed emotional support. Several people were there for me and after I recovered and told several more that I hadn’t labeled as close friends, they were there too. It’s interesting that some who I have always been there for and who I was counting on to be there for me were not. This also helped shape and redefine my definition of community.
I totally get that not everyone can be available when their friends need them and that’s completely understandable. But unless they accept responsibility for their part and communicate, it’s just hurtful and selfish. I have a friend who I reached out to years ago in a time of need and she told me “I’m so sorry but I’m just not in the right place to be there for anyone right now. It’s not personal and I love you but I just can’t.” That’s communication. That’s genuine friendship. And, we’re still friends today.
So yes, I’ve redefined what community is for me. My community is growing, morphing and changing. I think it always will. Currently, it consists of people that truly care about me and are able to give, not just receive. Friends that span the globe. Some here in California, one in Ireland, another in Nevada, another in New Mexico and beyond. And these people will come with me on the road, not physically, but they’ll be there. They will remain my confidantes, the people I call and turn to in times of need and vice versa. The ones who know I have their backs as much as they have mine. Communication, unconditional love, mutual respect and compassion. That’s how I now define community.
This year’s RTR (Rubber Tramp Rendezvous) and the Homes on Wheels Alliance offer some great classes (free) on YouTube.
A couple of #vanlife documentaries I watched on YouTube:
The Reality of #vanlife: This one is super funny!
I Have a Problem with #vanlife: This isn’t a documentary, but I found it helpful.
I haven’t watched this one yet, but it focuses specifically on the #vanlife community. It’s “free” on Amazon Prime: The Meaning of Vanlife.
Here’s a list of eleven #vanlife documentaries. I haven’t watched them all so I can’t vouch for them all.