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The Good, the Bad, and the Viability of Co-living
What it's like to live constantly in communal places.
Not a long time ago, I decided to quit the traditional city life I had in Lisbon to embrace nomadism. I called my landlord and requested to end my tenancy in the shortest possible time. A few days later, I was sitting on a bus heading to the north of Portugal with nothing else than a foreseeable horizon of one week. I began my trip in Porto and found this place to be a sadder version of Lisbon, which urged me to run away from it and preliminarily jump to my next location. In the meantime, I did some online searching and discovered the existence of Co-living. Luckily, I managed to secure the last available room at the nearest living community located a hundred miles away – in the region of Galicia, north of Spain – and after several hours of commuting, I joined an old house, isolated in the mountains above a lake. I was first welcomed by the host, who gave me a quick tour of the place and introduced me to the other members. The first few days were an overwhelming experience given the pervasiveness of social interactions that I had never been used to before, but I gradually became more comfortable in most social settings, especially at dinner time as each meal had to be cooked by a randomly designated portion of the community, forcing us to collaborate, freak out, and laugh at the Gordon Ramsey vibe we were giving ourselves. Two weeks later, I felt part of the community and was unusually acquainted with the whole place, as if I had lived there for a long time. From that day on, my nomadic journey has been mostly guided by communal places and after a year, I had lived in ten of them.
In the nomadism landscape, the perception of what Co-living is has considerably changed as a result of its definition being reclaimed by the hotel industry while franchises like Selina or Outsite like to advertise themselves so. Nonetheless, I'd rather consider them as more apparent to luxury guest houses than proper Coliving, and besides that these places are soulless and expensive, one of the fundamental aspects that can distinguish a Coliving from anything else is the purpose. In almost every community I've lived in, the founders weren't primarily driven by money, although they were undoubtedly subject to financial constraints. The overarching story that lies behind many Colivings designed for nomads, is usually someone who has pursued a similar lifestyle and decidedly, adapted their living space to accommodate and meet like-minded people. Each Coliving has its own affinity and attracts certain kinds of people looking for a community to bond with. Alternatively, when you struggle to grasp the identity of a place, it's usually not a good sign. A good rule of thumb to spot a genuine Coliving is when it leaves you with the impression that you're joining a gigantic flat-share. Additionally, if nomadism is something you might consider and wonder where to find honest Colivings, traditional search engines are a good way to start. Personally, I like to use this explorer, it's a bit old-fashioned and glitchy, but the selection of living places – especially for Europe – is quite curated, and once you find a Coliving that matches your vibe, it's worth checking if they have Instagram as they usually follow each other.
That's it, many successful ideas are fundamentally simple, albeit undeniably limited.
The case of social exhaustion: one reason that may explain why Colivings has become so popular is perhaps that they cover a primal fear that most nomads dread, loneliness – and for the most part, they successfully deliver on this promise. Ironically, this feature in the long run is deeply consuming as every new Coliving is an everlasting Groundhog day-like process of meeting new people and having the same conversations over and over. Add to this recipe a high turnover rate due to an average stay duration of no longer than two weeks, and you can apply the same process multiple times per Coliving if you're planning your stay in months. In numerous instances, I shared a house with up to twenty people at a time, and in the end, I met over two hundred individuals.
The diversity bias: traveling around the globe while staying in different communities is supposedly a way of meeting a wide range of people, which is not entirely true for Coliving. I've indeed met a multitude of characters as neuro-singularity is not intrinsically linked to socio-economic background, and despite the substantial number of co-livers, it primarily consisted of a fine selection of software engineers, UX designers, and customer support agents who mostly identify as liberals and love to travel – and the remaining could be quantitatively compared to the number of useful cryptocurrencies. Another selection bias comes from the overwhelming success of certain Coliving which, consequently, implies booking one's stay several months ahead of time, further reducing the scope by favoring conscientiously-boring persons – I'm one of them – at the expense of free-spirited minds.
The sustainability of relationships: nearly every person would naturally connect with this soup of digital workers as our brains tend to make positive associations with the people we see on a daily basis, and eventually, let the magic happen. However, since the dynamic of this way of living forces you to constantly relocate and meet new people, building long-lasting ties is unlikely to happen. You might “stay in touch” with some of the people you were related to, and even consider seeing them “on the road”. The truth is they will probably end up in a different place than where you'll eventually settle – if you ever consider ending this lifestyle.
I've been considerably fault-finding the viability of living in hyper-gregarious surroundings – and often in stunningly beautiful landscapes – but it would be disingenuous to complete this article on a negative note. Admittedly, – and in hindsight – I also benefited greatly from Colivings in many respects: my self-confidence improved dramatically due to receiving feedback from ongoing social interactions in a safe environment; it allowed me to explore and work in places that were beyond my own travel insecurities; it was an excellent buffer to change my mind and move on from my previous relationship.
Nowadays, I'm living alone and have since started a new chapter in my life, henceforth I'm still nomadic and recently moved to Bali – mainly because it's a good compromise for the price, weather, surf, and adequate working environments in spite of being a mainstream and congested island. Regarding the community here, it's seemingly a microcosm of entrepreneurs, questionable holistic life coaches, Ivermectin advocates, and beyond question, influencers – it's also much more than that, but do you frankly care about positive and light-hearted stories? As an alternative to Colivings, I've opted for a more à la carte mode of living by choosing my own accommodation, co-working, and activities. It's definitely less easy to meet people – and reasonably harder when you score above one standard deviation on the autism-spectrum quotient – as sit-and-wait is no longer an Evolutionary Stable Strategy to foster serendipity. When I'm not surfing, I'm mostly at the co-working space, binging on the next topic I'm erratically curious about; eventually hosting meetings that talk about ethics and lead to uncanny conversations; eating in restaurants for locals, because those for foreigners provide an excessively good service to the point of being profoundly unsettling, that I prefer to get food from a grumpy old lady as precisely the atmosphere I grew up with in Paris.
Strangely enough, when I'm reflecting on my past communal-driven voyage – and despite feeling nostalgic about the whole experience – chances seem very little for me to consider this way of living again. Yet, I have never felt this degree of freedom and I don't mind spending more time on my own if I can selectively choose my next encounter.