I read a blog post recently which advised solo travellers to snack a lot, so they don’t have to eat out and therefore feel more alone. This, and one other piece of “advice” which I’ll write about separately, infuriated me.
I mean, seriously? How miserable does that sound? Sitting alone in your room munching on a cereal bar, rather than going out and eating some hot, delicious food? I’m going to break it to you, if you are travelling solo, dining alone is something you are just going to have to get used to. You can’t hide from it or get away with just snacks unless you want to seriously diminish your experience. And even better, if you can, then try to learn to enjoy it. Which is what I’ve done.
Don’t get me wrong, I eat a great deal of street food, often munching as I wander, and I have been known to have the odd meal of granola and milk in my room, but this is for financial reasons (and a desperate need to consume more fibre!) more than anything else. I now genuinely enjoy eating at restaurants on my own.
It hasn’t, however, always been easy. I used to feel exceptionally self-conscious eating alone, and before my first solo trip to Copenhagen, it was the one thing that I was most nervous about. As someone who loves eating, the clue’s in my blog name, I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy meals at nice restaurants as I’d feel too awkward and that they would therefore be a waste of money. Yet as I’d already researched and made reservations at two restaurants (when I was planning on going with someone else), and done some serious menu-stalking, I simply decided to just not cancel. And one of them turned out to be one of the best meals of my life (Geist).
I remember tweeting my fear of dining solo before leaving, and being overwhelmed with responses. Most people said not to worry, to just give it a go, and that it was nothing to be ashamed of. This is, I think, the emotion most often behind the fear: shame. Shame that other people will see you and think you have no friends, that you are pathetic, and that you are only eating alone because you have no other choice. Which is a load of bollocks. There are a hundred different reasons why anyone eats solo, especially when it’s obviously not their home town, none of which are, quite frankly, anyone else’s business. It takes courage to dine alone, and that is something I personally admire.
Nor is it to say that I haven’t had some uncomfortable experiences. For instance, in Kalaw a French couple refused, very loudly, to let me sit at the table right next to them. I felt like I had a contagious disease. And, just the other night, in Legian in Bali, I was sat in the middle of a restaurant surrounded by massive tables of loud, rowdy families, and couldn’t help but feel self-conscious. Then a kid at one of these tables started to have a hissy fit, and their mum picked them up. As she did so the kid kicked me in the back of the head, and the mum simply gave me a withering glance and turned away without apologising. MY HEAD WAS THERE FIRST.
I’ve also definitely had to fake being comfortable until I actually felt comfortable. This is perhaps my biggest piece of advice for dining alone: people react to how you act (and one that I first wrote here). If you act unsure, nervous and uncomfortable, then people will treat you the same. If you fake it, act completely comfortable and happy to be dining alone, then people will respond in kind to that. And eventually, somewhere along the way, it stopped being a pretence.
Rather like going to the cinema, eating is actually one of those things where you don’t need to be with other people. I love long, gossip-filled, one-for-the-road dinners with raucous groups of friends as much as anyone, but eating and talking both use your mouth. They’re not entirely compatible. I frequently only really taste the first mouthful, then return my concentration to the conversation. Plus I can name more than a few dinners where the food was probably fantastic, but the experience was ruined by the person, or persons, I was with. I was too busy trying to think of something to say to fill the awkward silence, or else inwardly cursing the person opposite me for being such a complete nob-head, to concentrate on what I was actually eating. I’ve consumed whole meals that I’ve barely tasted because my focus has been elsewhere.
And this is why I love eating alone so much: it’s all about the food. Maybe I’m just not very good at multi-tasking, but I like that I don’t have to think about anything else whilst I chew. So much so that while I used to always pull my kindle or iPad out the moment I sat down, and stay glued to it throughout the meal, I now, more often than not, put it down when my food arrives. I still read while I’m waiting, but sometimes the hassle involved in trying to hold your kindle in the weak light of a candle, whilst wielding a knife and fork just isn’t worth it, and then you really don’t have any distractions!
This is all in-keeping with my general attitude to solo travel: turning the things you find difficult into something pleasurable. If you’re staying somewhere where there aren’t many other tourists around to chat to, find somewhere to curl up with a book for the afternoon. If your hotel room feels a little too quiet, pop on a podcast as you potter around, or turn up the volume on your favourite song and dance around in your knickers (more on this here).
And if you are still feeling unsure, then eavesdrop on the table next to you. This will either, a) be highly entertaining and provide great twitter fodder (particularly at posh hotels), or b) make you realise just how boring most people’s conversations actually are:
“Weather was good today.”
“Did you turn the oven off?”
“Shall I have the crab or the salmon? Or the pork, it comes with potatoes? I like potatoes. Remember those potatoes I ate in Ireland. They were good potatoes.”
9 times out of 10 your book, or your own mind, will be far more entertaining!
Cover image: Edward Hopper’s Automat.