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On Dating Myself; or How This Solo Traveler Got Over Dining Alone

When I first went to college, my biggest anxiety was probably dining alone. I had done enough of that in middle school, when the divisions between popular kids and losers started and I wanted nothing more than to wash my hands of the whole manipulative farce. Seriously, dealing with 11-year-old girls is like staring straight into the depths of hell. It was never the solitude that bothered me in those cafeteria days. It was the judgment.

Judgment from so-called former friends, offended that I no longer wanted to partake in their reindeer games. Judgment from well-meaning classmates who insisted I join them, but deep down just pitied me. Judgment from jocks who made no attempt at concealing their disdain for having to share a table with me because it was the last free spot in the room. Judgment from teachers and guidance counselors who assumed my distaste for grade school politics to be a cry for help.

I stand by my two-week stint as a solo brown bagger. If I had stuck with the same Satanic cult preppy blonde clique I knew in elementary school, just for the sake of that comfort zone, I would have had a pretty miserable time in school. As is, after a couple weeks of really getting to know classmates, I found a group of friends that wound up sticking together all the way through high school. Many of us still stay in touch.

At the same time, I’d be lying if I said that little episode didn’t leave me with some pretty deep scars over dining alone.

But hey, this is a travel blog, right? Why am I unloading my middle school traumas here instead of on my therapist’s couch?

Because much like starting middle school or going to college, embarking upon solo travel is a big lifestyle change. In the U.S., going out by yourself to eat is very unusual and in some places, potentially even frowned upon. I, like many new travelers, struggled for a long time with dining alone.

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My first night in Barcelona, I spent three hours walking up and down the same street by the Sagrada Familia. My perfectionism and my anxiety had formed a borderline-paralytic cocktail whose main effect was a complete inability to go into a restaurant and request a table for one. I kept convincing myself that this place was too busy, the next too quiet. The prices were too high, the reviews on TripAdvisor too low. There was always a reason it wasn’t right.

In retrospect, I see how ridiculous this is. Hell, in the moment, I could tell how ridiculous it was. But I still couldn’t make myself pull the trigger.

So, whether at home or abroad, should you find yourself in a similar solo diner quandry, here’s my advice:

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Pick a place in advance

I hadn’t had this problem on the first week of my RTW trip in Reykjavik. So why was it a problem in Barcelona? The reason, I think, is two-fold. First, Reykjavik is a very small city. Barcelona is huge. Second, because of that difference in size, my research on Reykjavik was much more thorough than my research on Barcelona. There is a limited number of budget dining options in Reykjavik and while I didn’t try them all, I certainly knew about most of them by the time the plane landed. The sheer size of Barcelona means at every corner, you can be overwhelmed with choices. And overwhelmed I certainly was.

So my next night in Barcelona, I picked a place in advance. I went with a restaurant within walking distance of my hostel, on the very same street I had found so intimidating the night before. I practically already knew the street like the back of my hand, so I figured on second impression it would be more comfortable. The food was fairly mediocre, the service was abysmally slow, but I did it.

On future occasions, such as in Florence, I made a less arbitrary selection by searching the blogosphere for recommendations. If I can find a blogger’s recommendation for a solo diner-friendly restaurant, I’m in.

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Eat outdoors

There’s a huge difference between a casual beachfront cafe and a restaurant where the only thing more heavily starched than the tablecloth is the waiter’s shirt. On another night out in Barcelona, I opted for the former. Being able to simply swing in and take a seat in a place where servers are friendly and easygoing goes a long way to easing a solo diner’s anxieties. Having an ocean view at dinner and plenty of people watching helped take my mind off that sense of being a solo sore thumb. This night was easily one of the highlights of my entire two weeks in Spain.

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Treat yourself

My real solo dining breakthrough, however, came a month into my RTW trip in Paris. Returning to the site of my first overseas trip after 10 years was like reconnecting with a childhood sweetheart. I’m more convinced than ever that the streets of Paris will always seem to whisper “You belong here” as I walk by. Case in point: it has a phenomenal solo diner culture.

The French are no strangers to the concept of enjoying food and wine for the simple sake of individual pleasure. Going out by yourself isn’t a necessary evil as it is in the States. It’s an enjoyable way to treat yourself.  As I settled into a dim-lit, crowded bistro in Saint Germain des Pres, I had a minor epiphany.

Dining alone is like dating yourself. You have so much more time alone with your thoughts. Before taking this trip, I had never put together that my difficulty eating alone in college and even now was connected to my experiences in middle school. When you travel alone and eat alone, you’re getting to know yourself better. You’re treating yourself to a nice meal and a glass of wine. You’re admitting that you actually like the person you are.

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I’ve gone on to have many fun solo dates from duck confit in Paris to a trendy new watering hole in Florence where you write your order on a chalkboard. From downing a whole pizza in Naples to cozying up with a warm bowl of goulash on a rainy night in Ljubljana. Choosing roughly one night a week to go out and treat myself to a nice solo dinner out is a highlight of arriving in a new place.

So go forth and eat by yourself. You’re not alone.

 

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21 Comments

  1. Well I am happy to hear that you conquered that eating alone bugger! It took me many more years to get over it but over it I am! People watching can entertain me all night!

  2. This post makes so much sense. As a person who recently started solo travel, it was always a nightmare to go out to dine alone. During my last trip to the US, I used to be so wary of dining alone that I used to skip meals. Even though I had friends in most places, there were some instances when I had to dine alone. But by the end of that trip, I finally enjoyed my ‘me’ time. After getting back to India, I try going once every few months for a nice quiet buffet breakfast. So by the time I went for a totally solo 6 week trip across Europe, I was ready. It is really nice to get that ‘me’ time. In India, you rarely get that opportunity.
    Soumya Nambiar recently posted…Planning A EuroTrip From IndiaMy Profile

    • Danielle Bricker

      September 28, 2016 at 6:09 pm

      I know exactly what you mean! I definitely skipped meals when I started college and a few when I was in Barcelona too. I don’t blame you for feeling the pressure in the States – solo dining is NOT popular there at all. But in larger cities, it’s starting to become more widely accepted.

  3. Oh my, I can so relate to this post from middle school all the way through. I think I’ve only dined out one or twice in my life. And I haven’t traveled alone. I’m right with you on the perfectionism and anxiety. But these are really great tips. People watching is a great past time. Sometimes they’re fascinating.

    • Danielle Bricker

      September 29, 2016 at 11:40 pm

      I’m an introvert, so I’ve always loved alone time. I think it’s being perceived as lonely that makes dining alone so hard sometimes. I hope you find your own comfort zone!

  4. I dined alone in Paris and it was great. Food , of course but people watching. No one bothered me. It is not for everyone. In the states, i just sit by the bar. Always meet people there. Glad overcame it 🙂

  5. I remember my first solo trip (for work) and dreading eating out alone. I would order room service to avoid it, but finally after getting tired of room service I ventured out. It was so awkward at first, but I got used to it. I think the thing that still kinda bugs me is when people ask, “You’re by yourself?”. I see businessmen alone all the time and I doubt they get asked that question every single time they eat out alone!

    • Danielle Bricker

      September 28, 2016 at 6:33 pm

      Ugh, what a double standard! I’ve been lucky enough not to get direct questions like that yet, but I definitely get some odd looks and way worse service as a solo diner in Greece.

  6. I know the feeling all too well! I traveled a bit for work on solo trips and it’s always a funny position to be in, especially when in a completely foreign place. I’d have to agree that American culture kind of paints a solo diner as someone who is lonely, rather than someone who is simply enjoying a nice meal to themselves. I am guilty of this judgement as a restaurant hostess during my high school years, I always felt a smidgen of sympathy for those dining alone, but as I’ve grown up I’ve really come to admire those individuals and enjoy meals by myself as well. 🙂 Happy travels!
    Desiree recently posted…8 Unique Ways for the Offbeat Traveler to Experience Palm SpringsMy Profile

    • Danielle Bricker

      September 28, 2016 at 6:44 pm

      I think we’re all guilty of some host/server judgments. 😉 While I was saving for my trip, I hosted at a tiny Italian restaurant where there was an even number of seats at the bar. Solo diners always threw our numbers off. I would definitely be a lot more sympathetic now!

  7. I remember when I went to a beach side restaurant in Bali by myself and felt really lonely. I never had this feeling before on my travels as I love travelling by myself. However something in that atmosphere made my feel really sad. Like I needed to share that experience with someone. Probably because it was a very romantic place.
    Thanks for your tips about dining alone. I’ll keep them in mind on my next solo trip,
    Eniko Krix recently posted…Weekend getaway to the Peak DistrictMy Profile

    • Danielle Bricker

      September 28, 2016 at 6:58 pm

      I know what you mean. There have definitely been places I wish I had my boyfriend with me. But for the most part, since adopting this ‘dating myself’ mindset, I find I really enjoy going to more romantic spots alone. Hope you enjoy your next solo trip as much!

  8. I used to have the same issue as well years ago – dining alone. It was scary and uncomfortable, but with time I managed to overcome this. In fact, I actually began to enjoy my own company. It gave me a chance to reflect over the day, gave me a chance to get to know myself better…and plus people watching can be fun! I agree with you – eating outdoors is much more fun than indoors…especially if there’s a view. Great post

    • Danielle Bricker

      September 29, 2016 at 11:32 pm

      People watching is great – I just try to be discreet about it. Part of why I like dining al fresco more. It’s easier to disguise the staring. 😉

  9. I’ve only travelled solo a couple of times and for short trips but yah, it was hard in the beginning even though I learnt to dine alone since young – it’s just different when you are not at home. But I’ve met nice people, mainly fellow travelers, when I dine alone when I’m abroad and it’s great sometimes that we just start chatting 🙂

    • Danielle Bricker

      September 29, 2016 at 11:34 pm

      Yes! Depending on where you are, you can absolutely meet people while you’re out. I’ve come to enjoy the solo time, though. If I’m craving company, I usually invite someone from my hostel or hop on Couchsurfing to find fellow travelers.

  10. This is a really useful post. I cant say I had the same problems when I was traveling Europe by myself, I think hunger overshadowed those anxieties for me. I would think twice about eating out alone in my home town though… haha

    • Danielle Bricker

      September 29, 2016 at 11:35 pm

      I’ve certainly had my share of utilitarian meals! But usually when I’m that hungry, I’ll opt for takeaway rather than a sit-down meal, which is far less stressful.

  11. Glad to here that you were able to overcome! Those are some good tips on dinning for one. I would also say that bringing something to read actually helps a lot. I always find that when you are doing an activity while dining alone puts you in a different space

    • Danielle Bricker

      September 29, 2016 at 11:38 pm

      Good point! I do pretty much always have my phone out. I’ll chat with my boyfriend or browse Facebook or choose some reading material. One of my most recent solo meals was over a transcript of the Trump-Clinton debate. Having something to keep your brain occupied is great.

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