I’ve learned a lot from travel and living abroad. I’ve learned about my own ignorance, arrogance, and resistance, but also about kindness and compassion. 

One of the most liberating lessons of being a foreigner, however, has been learning to love the feeling of anonymity that comes from hanging out in places where no one knows me.


Sure, there are times when being away from home feels lonely or frustrating. When, for example, I crave the company of a cherished friend or advisor. Or when an unfamiliar language prevents me from connecting at a deeper level. But mostly it feels like freedom.

As a traveler, by the very nature of my foreignness I am granted a reprieve from constricting social norms. And as a visitor, I am free (even expected) to spend my days playing. 

There’s a quote by author William Watson Purkey that has made its way into the public lexicon: “dance like there’s nobody watching.”  When I travel I get to live like there’s nobody watching.   

Strangers don’t care that my Spanish isn’t perfect, that I’m curvy instead of slim, or that I’ve reached middle age without amassing a fortune. Or if they do, I’m blissfully immune to their disapproval. I don’t know them, they don’t know me. There’s no need to impress, no requirement to conform.

It doesn’t matter to the shop owner, the hotel clerk, or the coffee house barista, that I wear the same black sweater every day, that I wear hiking sandals in the gym because sneakers take up too much room in my suitcase, or that my hair hasn’t been professionally styled in months. 

No one cares that I spend my mornings drinking coffee or my afternoons reading in the sunshine and writing a book no one asked me to write.

Nor does it matter to anyone that I walk for the sheer pleasure of moving my legs, clearing my head, and without a plan for where I’m headed, where I’ll end up, or how far I’ve gone. 

And here’s the kicker, it doesn’t matter to me either anymore. 

Which is awesome because that means that I am free to enjoy the journey, learn about myself and the world around me, and to live (and dance) like there’s nobody watching.   

Does being anonymous give me permission to be unkind, dishonest, or antisocial? Not at all. In fact, with the freedom comes a responsibility, I believe, to reciprocate: To let go of judgements and embrace differences, to bring a spirit of broad-mindedness and acceptance to my interactions with others. 

And herein lies the real miracle of anonymity; freed from self-consciousness, I am able to experience the deeper joy of seeing myself and others anew.

What about you? How does being an outsider in a strange place make you feel? Share a comment below to continue the conversation. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Image by wili_hybrid via flickr creative common license. 

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Ellen Barone is an American writer and wanderer. She co-founded and publishes the group travel blog YourLifeIsATrip.com and is currently at work on her first book "I Could Live Here".