Community - what does it mean?
On the road, off the road, traversing the world…
I think 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.
I watched a couple of vanlife documentaries (links below). 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 coffeeshop 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 day after we met he took me on a trip, on the back of is moped, to an island! We're still friends, years later and I've gone back to visit him and spend more time on his favorite island. This, I now 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 different “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 12 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 endless 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. 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 means for me. My community is growing, transforming and adapting. 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 visa 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, it's short and I found it helpful:
I haven’t watched this one yet but it looks good and 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.
I got clean and sober in the summer of 2008.
Prior to 2008 I used all day, every day, for twenty years. I like to say it doesn’t matter what I used because an addict is an addict and we’re all the same. Twelve years later, I still believe this to be true. But I also heard someone share at a meeting years later saying her drug of choice was “s’more”. It didn’t matter what she was using or drinking, she just wanted some more of it. I like that description. When I share at 12 step meetings I tell people to insert their drug of choice (including alcohol) wherever I use the words “used” or any other word to indicate my use. That way no one is alienated.
After I made the decision to get clean and sober I went to twelve step meetings.
When I was nine months sober I traveled to China. I went with a group of about a dozen people that I knew from the master’s program I was attending. We studied medicine there. One friend of mine and I stayed at the same hostel and hung out together too much. It was not a good situation and I tried desperately to get away from her. She was a using addict with no respect for my sobriety. She used in front of me, even offering me alcohol, knowing full well I was in recovery. That’s the thing about addicts, they want you to use with them so they don’t have to look at their own addiction. I acted exactly the same when I was using. In retrospect I’m really glad I spent five weeks in China but I also think it was a mistake to go when I was so new to recovery.
There were two extremely difficult times in particular where I almost used but I didn’t. And if I had, that would have been okay too, it would have been part of my story and it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have quit again.
What’s important for me, looking back, is knowing the people I surround myself with. The people I was with in China did not have my best interests at heart. The two people I ended up spending the most time with were hard core addicts. Neither of them gave two sh$ts about my sobriety. They were not supportive, understanding or helpful. Quite the opposite. So what I learned is that I can’t count on someone else to have my back unless they’re also clean and sober or respectful. If they’re not, I have to do this myself. Before I left for China I contacted NA (Narcotics Anonymous) world services and was given the liaison for English speakers in China. It could have been AA (Alcoholics Anonymous but at that time I was mainly going to NA meetings).
I contacted the liaison before I even set foot on that plane. He was my lifeline and he went out of his way to help me. After a close encounter on Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), I called him shaking and scared. He invited me to Shanghai. He met me at the train station and took me to a friend’s house, an American from the program who agreed to let me stay in his extra bedroom. The guys threw an impromptu meeting for me, inviting others over and I couldn’t be more grateful. They showed me around Shanghai and took me to daily meetings the entire time I was there. It was exactly what I needed. Freshly armed with my new support group I went back to Hangzhou with abandon. Three weeks later I decided to escape the two alcoholic “friends” and booked a ticket to Yangshuo, Guilin. They followed me there. In a restaurant one night they were double fisting beer in front of me and I fled, crying, to my hostel room. My solo room. This is important for sanity, age and sobriety. I was already too old, in my forties, to share a room with six bunk beds for $5 a night and sprung for the hefty $15 a night to have my own domicile. It was huge, it was glorious and most importantly, it was away from the alcoholics. My sanctuary. My refuge.
Because of that trip, I learned to travel smarter. For many years after that I traveled solo, I still do mostly. And whenever I land somewhere new, I look up the twelve step meetings and I go to them. Mostly I go to AA because there are more meetings options for AA.
I’ve been to meetings all around the world, both NA and AA. From Berlin to Venice, Italy. From Mexico to Canada. From Los Angeles to Miami to NYC to Maine to Alaska to Hawaii. Even in the Grand Caymans. And whenever I arrive, I know I’m home. The faces are different but the stories are the same. Familiar, heartbreaking, heartwarming and real. There’s instant camaraderie. I’ve been at several meetings where the people couldn’t be more different than me and it didn’t matter, I was accepted. This is what it’s truly like, to travel sober. I need that support group. Desperately. Because sobriety is one of the few things that I, a fiercely independent fifty something woman, cannot do alone.
On my next adventure, in my van, driving around the United States there may not be the opportunity to go to meetings in person. Not in the time of Covid. And if that’s the case, I’ll go to zoom meetings. It may not be the same but it’s definitely better than the alternative.
If you’re a sober traveler looking for support, please reach out, we need each other 🙂
I talk a little more about what it’s like traveling sober in this guest blog post…
Thank you for being on this adventure with me!
:) KA ©
Hi, I'm Kimberly Anne! (aka K.A.)
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