How House Sitting Taught Me the Difference Between Loneliness and Solitude
There’s an important distinction to be made between thinking you’re okay traveling on your own and actually being okay traveling on your own. House sitting taught me the difference.
I started house sitting in 2013. I left the U.S. for what was supposed to be a year abroad and began my adventure in Australia. Working as a freelance writer and editor as I went, my experience and references snowballed into a lifestyle and suddenly I had 40 house sits in 20 different countries under my belt.
For the first half of my house sitting career, I had a boyfriend who traveled with me. For the second half, I traveled alone.
I’m outgoing, but I wouldn’t call myself an extrovert. I have a writer’s personality, which means I like long periods of solitude to reflect and create, and that’s ideal for solo house sitting. I imagine not everyone is well-suited for that lifestyle. If you’d asked me at the beginning of my house sitting journey if I was lonely, I would have said only occasionally. I’m good with solitude, and I always manage to meet people wherever I am, especially on my own.
House sitting while traveling often made me feel more connected and alive than anything I’d ever done before in my life. It led me into the lives of the most incredible people, in places I would never have visited otherwise: a social entrepreneur and TED Talk speaker in coastal Turkey; circus performers in Ojai, California; a celeb-status DJ in Portland. I met my best friend while house-sitting in Seattle and fell in love while house sitting in France.
Meeting New People While House Sitting
House sitting is conducive to meeting people in unique ways. The best example of this was a three-month house sit I did in Honfleur, France in 2017. The homeowner threw a party for my arrival and invited half the town. I became close with her social circle during my stay; her friends would invite me for dinner, take me to the movies, or bring me sightseeing to discover the historical monuments in the neighboring towns. I even ended up falling in love with a Parisian boy who came to visit his mother - a friend of the homeowner’s (but more on this in a bit).
I chose this specific house to sit in part because I wanted to spend time in France and write a book, but also because the listing explicitly advertised social connection - “a vibrant community at your doorstep.”
If you want solitude, there are plenty of sites on remote islands available. If you want community, house sitting offers some of the best, most unique opportunities for that. As a house sitter, you almost become a stand-in in someone else’s life, that deal often comes with friends and family attached.
The Thing About Independence
Traveling while house-sitting was empowering, and suited my independent spirit. However, after a while, I started noticing a hollowness that couldn’t be remedied by seeing new faces the way it once could. I just wanted to see the same people every day, without a reset button in sight.
The novelty of new places and new people can be an intoxicating distraction from lasting connections. I wanted to have someone around that I could trust, who knew me and my life story. It felt like I’d been too independent for too long. As David Brooks says in his brave and powerful TED Talk on what really matters in life, “Political freedom is great, economic freedom's pretty good, but social freedom sucks.” There’s no substitute for people who know you well.
I didn’t even notice how lonely I’d been for real connection until I moved to Berlin and wasn’t anymore.
Finding my place in Berlin
In the summer of 2017, I house sat in Berlin for six weeks. When I arrived in the city, I didn’t know a soul. I’d just had my heart chewed up and spat out for the first time (yes, the aforementioned French boy) and while being in a foreign place might have been too much to handle if I’d been staying at a hostel or paying for an Airbnb, there was something about the combination of a brand new environment and a (free) home base that I couldn’t have replicated through other means. It gave me a chance to start over, comfortably.
I ended up falling in love with Berlin and decided to make the city my home. Berlin is a place you can reinvent yourself, and I love it deeply because of this. One thing about Berlin that impressed me, and made me want to move there, is how easy it is to meet people.
Being such a young and international city, there are countless Facebook groups and meetups for people looking to connect. In a city like Berlin, you can always find fellow expats and travelers who are up to meet and sightsee or explore. Apps and social media really facilitate making those connections. Using apps like Panion, you can find other, like-minded people locally who share your passion.
What I find particularly useful are apps like Panion that help you find someone looking for the same thing you are. I was on the hunt for fellow expats and activity partners, so getting more specific with my search would have allowed me to connect more easily with people who share my interests and passions.
Through social media, I ended up digitally meeting a few friends before actually meeting them IRL at a meetup. It surprised me how easy it was to connect, and at that moment I decided Berlin was the place I wanted to put down roots. I love the friends I’ve made since moving there.
I am still comfortable on my own, but I don’t need as much alone time as I once thought I did. The idea of a two-week solo house sitting on a remote island doesn’t appeal to me anymore, though neither does spending all my time with people.
Looking back on my journey in house sitting, I can see how and when my healthy need for solitude started shifting into loneliness. House sitting helped me understand my needs better than other forms of travel because it taught me how to balance independence with the community. I’m forever grateful for the lessons learned through it.