We may emerge from this lockdown with a very different take on our friendships

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Annabel, right, and Ekin, left - a friendship gamble that paid off
I once spent three years on my own, and isolation has a way of sorting your good friendships from the bad...

Now several weeks into lockdown, I've only really been missing two things: travel and friends. Everything else that's important in life (eating, working, exercising) I can do versions of at home. But the VR 'virtual reality' adventures that have become trendy of late wouldn't even come close to scratching my travel itch, and don't get me started, when it comes to maintaining friendships, on the creepy, awkward horrors of FaceTime or Zoom.

And so, in isolation and with considerable time to ponder, I've been thinking a lot about these two things I'll be glad to have back when this is all over. Friendship is never more important than when you find yourself alone. And this was certainly the case in my late 20s, during a three-year stint of solo travel.

If that's anything to go by, it might be that when we do eventually re-enter society post-lockdown, we will do so with different priorities when it comes to who we spend time with and why.

Humans are naturally inclined to bond over things they have in common. It's why we tend to drop or gain friends as the decades pass and our objectives change. Your once close-knit university clan will drift as people leave to pursue different careers, those that marry will form clubs with fellow couples, new mothers inevitably end up spending more time with other mothers.

And then you have compulsive travellers. In my experience as one of them, people who take off alone across the world after a certain age (mid-20s onwards, post the mass gap year exodus) often relate when it comes to one aspect the most: that they're running from something. 

Not necessarily from something wretched, like the person who broke their heart (though that's a good enough reason), but just as frequently from a job that was stagnating, or a town they've outgrown, or simply the banality of home. To be on the run, whatever the reason, breeds a certain sense of solidarity that tends to bind people.  

A combination of the aforementioned factors led me to press pause on my life in London and spend three years roaming the planet on my own as I crossed from my 20s to my 30s; an endeavour only made possible, I should point out, thanks to my job as a travel writer. As a result, I have amassed a moderate contingent of foreign friends that far outnumbers the paltry few I have at home. Here’s what it all taught me.

Thailand, best enjoyed with someone you get on with Credit: istock

There’s no easier way to ruin a friendship

Just as I imagine the divorce rate will rise after this lockdown period, so too does a holiday test the limits of a relationship. I’d been friends with Sophie all through secondary school, which is to say that I’d seen her on a near-daily basis for more than six years, so upon embarking on a month in Thailand together, I wasn’t expecting any big surprises. How wrong I was. For better or worse, there is no swifter way to spot-test your compatibility with someone - anyone - than to pack your bags and leave the country together. 

Where Sophie’s pettiness had at school been mildly grating every now and then, it was, in Thailand, profound and agonising, all the time. Free from the constraints of a packed class timetable, her no-tolerance approach to boredom did not serve us well on seven-hour cross-country coach rides. Her tantrums over the temperamental air conditioning were frankly alarming. In short, we couldn't stand each other and had already stopped talking by the time we got home.

By contrast, I later took a relatively new friend on a family holiday to Australia with me and it only solidified my assertion that I shall know her forever.

If you make new friends while travelling...

Then you know you’ve got a keeper. I first met the gang of cohorts with whom I would go on to travel with extensively in the subsequent years, on an Antarctic cruise, which was a good a test as any. You don’t realise it until you’ve done it, but the vast majority of a two-week voyage to the world’s southernmost continent is spent not on land but on the voyage itself; three days there and back, seasick, across the most tempestuous ocean corridor on Earth; and the rest sailing around its edges. Only for a precious few hours a day do your boots hit the snow.

If you can make it in Antarctica...

Among the majority of over 50s couples, there were only a small handful of solo passengers aboard this vessel; all five of us the same age, one Briton and four Americans, all running from something. Together, under a sun that, at this time of year, never sets, over every meal and shore excursion, we were inseparable. Amid all the raucous laughter, there wasn’t a single dispute. Compatibility-wise, it was a rare and resounding win.

But timing is everything

When the cruise was over, all of us bound our separate ways, we promised each other that we’d reconvene. And we actually did, on explorations of Bali and Berlin to South Africa and the Nevada desert, with cameos from new friends and other-halfs scooped up along the way.

As with most bands, our world tour only came to an end when gradually its members switched course. After one had an unexpected baby and took it as his cue to lay down roots back home, I got a proper job in London and another of us did in California, it spelled the end of what had collectively been the funnest, freeist chapter of our lives. We still check in occasionally, of course, but inevitably…

Bali, on the world tour

Long-distance friendships are hard to maintain

This is not to say that upon reuniting again, relations don’t spring straight back to normal, or that being far apart breeds animosity. Just that different lives on different time zones will go their different ways. Incidentally, being on the road for long stretches of time provides a good indication of who your real friends are when you get back…

Coming home can be the loneliest part of solo travel

This sounds counterintuitive, and it was the last thing I expected when I returned and started settling back into life in London, but it rapidly became clear: three years had passed and I had hardly any friends left. The group I’d left university with had all scattered - either moved away, changed beyond recognition, or vanished into married life. What was left, though, was a handful of people (one from my old job, one from school, one from university, one I’d met in the loos of a party all those years ago) with whom I clearly shared friendships that were impervious to time and distance. These are the ones to treasure.

Travelling with a platonic friend of the opposite sex

… is marvellous, if you can swing it. This is an anomalous scenario in which to find yourself, but contrary to Billy Crystal’s immortal words in When Harry Met Sally (men and women can never be friends because sex always gets in the way), occasionally, they can. When I spent a week in South Africa with Steven, one of the Antarctic five, we enjoyed all the perks of being a couple (namely everything being half the price and having someone to talk to) and none of the spats. I’m still a bit wary of going on female-only holidays, but perhaps Sophie just scarred me for life. 

Steven and Annabel, being platonic

Strangely though, holiday flings can turn into long friendships

In a dynamic that simply does not apply back home, the few fleeting romances I’ve had abroad have all translated into lasting comraderies. You generally know, when meeting someone at a destination you’re only passing through, that any courtship isn’t going to last, which takes the pressure off. You probably get on very well as humans, or you wouldn’t have found yourself in a position of involvement in the first place. Combined, this can carry forward curiously well in terms of remaining friends after you part. 

A shared love of travel really does bind people

Two years ago, I dipped my toe into the world of online dating. Which is to say that I downloaded Hinge, had three conversations, then lost interest and deleted it a week later. But one of them was with MJP, an American who wasn’t even in London, rather flitting from country to country, running from things. We didn't meet in person until very recently, but must have exchanged hundreds of messages and video clips as we’ve hopped between various dots on our respective maps. Again, it’s entirely platonic, but MJP and I share a similarity in the precise nature of our lone ranging that has forged a unique union. Quite often we find ourselves on our phones, stuck at airports in weird time zones, drilling through our problems and putting the world to right.

Stranger syndrome is a real phenomenon 

In the same way that psychotherapy works, there’s something disinhibiting about spilling your secrets to an outsider; a third party who knows nothing of you or your inner circle. There’s also science behind why being on a plane leaves us feeling bound by humanity in a manner we don’t on solid ground. Which is perhaps a convoluted way of explaining why last autumn I found myself, not for the first time, in a deeper-than-surface interaction with a stranger on a plane.

I was exhausted, upset about something that had just happened at home, messaging MJP (of course), and hiding my tears behind a magazine on a flight from Los Angeles to London. The lady seated in front of me, a plucky Kentucky horse breeder as it later transpired, asked me what was wrong (it was private; I told her anyway), imparted some brief wisdom, offered me a Xanax, then left me alone for the duration. We’ve since exchanged emails, and though we’ll probably never see one another again, I shall always be thankful for her kind, passing friendship.

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