I have always — Always — considered myself almost painfully independent. I’ve always told myself that I like to do things alone… I like to run errands alone, I like to study alone, I like to go shopping alone. I’ve never been the sort of person to need (or even want) someone else around all of the time.
So, as I began planning my solo trips, I wasn’t the least bit worried about being on my own. On the contrary, I was thrilled by the prospect of it…my own personal version of Wild or Eat, Pray, Love. I began imagining how my own novel would unfold almost immediately after booking my first flight.
I imagined all of the amazing things I would see, all of the new and interesting people that I would meet, and all of the things that I would learn about myself along the way.
The one thing I did not imagine was the sheer panic that would overtake me the first time I said those four little words.
“Table for one, please.”
I swear, the waiter had to have been able to feel the utter terror rolling off of me in waves as I stood there — suddenly hyper aware of my surroundings and completely sure that everyone in the restaurant was staring at me with pitying eyes, thinking to themselves “that poor girl has no friends and has to eat alone.”
So, as I sat down to what was turning out to be the most stress-inducing meal of my life, I had only one thought: “How quickly can I eat my lunch and get out of here?”
I spent the first two weeks of my time abroad with that same mindset…rushing through meals as quickly as I could so as to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of being a lonely bug under a microscope — a solo spectacle for other travelers to gawk at while they enjoyed their meals.
Of course, it is highly probably that no one was paying attention to me at all (what with me not being the center of the universe and all). And, its even more likely that the few people who did occasionally glance my way simply shrugged their shoulders and went on about their days.
Because, the thing is, there’s nothing sad about seeing solo travelers. I have never seen someone traveling alone (or eating alone) and thought that it was sad, or depressing, or a sure-sign of a friendless loser.
But when I became the solo traveler (and eater), my entire mindset shifted, and what had once been awe-inspiring became embarrassment-inducing.
So, in an effort to escape the embarrassment, I either rushed through my meal and made a subsequent bee-line for the door or I sat there with my eyes glued to my phone — constantly refreshing my social media accounts and texting anyone who would reply — trying to give off the impression that I did in fact have friends (even if they weren’t currently sitting next to me), and thus totally missing the opportunity to make new ones.
About a month into my time abroad, after realizing the nasty habit that I had created, I made the conscious (and, honestly, terrifying) decision to spend a minimum of thirty minutes in every restaurant I entered, and to only look at my phone if I really needed to (and, lets be real, to take food pics of every single meal I ordered).
I won’t lie to you and say that it was always easy or that there weren’t numerous occasions when I caved and pulled out my phone to scroll through hundreds of pointless memes on Facebook, but slowly my mindset did start to shift.
Suddenly, I was able to actually enjoy my meal without worrying about what everyone else was thinking.
Suddenly, I was able to have a conversation with my waiter without panicking that the only reason they were even talking to me was because they felt bad that I was eating alone.
Suddenly, I found myself noticing the subtle cultural differences between the restaurants I visited and the people who dined in them.
And, suddenly I had this new found self-confidence that I hadn’t even known I was lacking before.
So, for any future solo travelers, a word of advice:
Be present. Don’t waste your time. It may feel like you have infinite amounts of it, but you don’t. At some point it will all come to an end and you will be left only with memories.
The way I see it, you have two choices — you can either look back and remember that time you were sitting in a Budapest café watching cat videos (shameful but true), or you can look back and remember the time you were eating in an Welsh Pub and an old man came and sat down at your table and told you all about the time he met Bill Clinton (yeah, it really happened).