“To not needing a man!”
I shuddered as the shot of rakia hit the back of my throat, grimacing at the sudden burning sensation that was centered in my chest.
“And to Lauren’s solo travels!”
I grinned as my newfound travel friends took another shot of the potent liquor our guesthouse owner had handed out. There, in the company of four cheering girls, I began to wonder why I’d been so afraid to travel.
Earlier that morning, at 6am on the 17th July 2011, I’d reluctantly shuffled onto a plane with a one-way ticket in hand. I was flying from London to Dubrovnik and I had no idea when I’d be returning. I’d never travelled for more than three weeks before, never travelled alone. I had no idea what I was doing.
I felt liberated, exhilarated and afraid. This was it. This was me following my dreams. I’d planned on travelling the world with an ex-boyfriend but he’d gone on to break my heart. I was proving that I didn’t need a man to make me happy and I didn’t need someone to accompany me on my travels. I was looking forward to one day being able to describe myself as fiercely independent because at that very moment I felt anything but.
That night, surrounded by newfound travel friends, we toasted the start of my solo trip and they told me I was brave. I’d been surprised at how easy my first day had been — I’d made friends with four other solo females within minutes of arriving and we’d spent the day together at the beach, sunbathing and asking each other the questions every backpacker goes on to eventually despise. I’d devoured hundreds of blog posts on the tedium of seemingly forever asking and answering “where are you from?” “where have you been?” “where are you going?” but I was so stupidly excited when I finally got to experience it myself.
I was a backpacker now and travelling was so much easier than I thought it would be.
The following morning my friends took a day trip to Montenegro and I found myself truly alone for the first time since stepping off the plane. I grabbed my Kindle, a beach towel and some sunscreen and set out to prove I was capable of solo travel.
That evening, my friends still not back from their trip, I went out for my first meal alone.
My first meal alone ever.
I was determined to love eating alone — after all, I foresaw a lot of solo meals in my future — and purposefully strode down to the main strip of restaurants by the beach. I wandered along the waterfront, surprised by the sudden appearance of butterflies in my stomach. I peered in each and every restaurant, noticing that not a single person was eating there alone.
Could I really do this? Maybe I should just go to the hot dog stand instead?
I forced myself inside like I forced myself to get on the plane. Clutching at my Kindle I stood awkwardly in the middle of the restaurant until a waiter greeted me.
“Hi! Um… a table for one… please?”
“A table for one?!”
“Yep.” I met his eyes and attempted to appear confident, like this wasn’t the first time I’d ever eaten alone.
“Why are you alone? Where are your friends? Don’t you have any friends here?”
“I…” I trailed off, thinking of my friends I’d left behind in London. “I don’t… know…?”
The waiter led me to a table and handed me a menu and I did my best not to cry. My mind drifted to the goodbyes I’d racked up during my final week in the UK and how suddenly, unexpectedly, I felt so incredibly lost and lonely. My eyes darted around the room, afraid to make eye contact with any of the other diners. The couple at the next table smiled at me and I was filled with the urge to run away.
I switched on my Kindle but it was out of battery. I ate my meal in silence, watching everyone around me laughing and joking and smiling and not being alone like I was. It was depressing to be surrounded by happy couples, friends and families who were enjoying an evening out with the people they loved. I didn’t have anyone.
I felt alone and I hated it.
For the rest of my time in Dubrovnik I ate with friends, and if there was nobody around I’d go to a grocery store and buy junk food. I had been well and truly scarred by my first attempt to eat alone.
However, over the next few months, I made a conscious effort to get to the root of my solo eating-related fears.
After struggling with an eating disorder several years ago, I knew that this was where a lot of my issues stemmed from. Many months of battling to swallow food had left me uncomfortable with eating in front of people — I never knew when my anxiety was going to flare up again. Furthermore, existing on very little food for months at a time significantly shrank the size of my stomach and my appetite has never really grown back to its normal size — I’ll eat children’s portions and be full. I eat about a quarter of every meal that’s put in front of me, which then leads to somebody taking offense and asking why I hated the meal. My small appetite leads to so many questions that draw attention to the fact that I’m not that great at eating. So there’s that.
On top of that, despite my best efforts over the past year, I struggle tremendously with caring too much about what other people think of me — a negative comment on Never Ending Footsteps will ruin my week and make me feel like I should shut down my site forever — and I take everything so personally. At a restaurant I feel that other diners are judging or pitying me, even when I know that 90% of the people there haven’t even noticed me.
As an now-occasional solo traveller, this can be a challenge. I’ll sometimes skip meals or buy snacks from grocery stores because I don’t have the energy to deal with yet another meal alone. I don’t want to do this anymore.
Overall, I love the idea of eating alone. I want to enjoy it. I have a vision of sitting in a cosy restaurant, reading a book and drinking a glass of wine, enjoying the silence and having time to myself to think. I’m an introvert at heart and love spending time alone, just not when it feels like everyone else around me is having fun.
It has got better, though. I’ve learned that taking a Kindle and wrapping myself up in a good book distracts me enough that I don’t notice the people around me. I’ve learned to choose my restaurants and mealtimes carefully so that I don’t end up somewhere that’s crowded and noisy, which only acts to make me feel lonely. I’d say that after two and a half years of battling with eating alone I’m finally starting to feel comfortable with it.
However, I’m nowhere near 100% comfortable and that needs to change. My mindset needs to change. I’ve decided that 2014 is the year where I work on trying to minimise how much I worry about what people think of me. Case in point: I’ve agonised over this post for three days because I’ve been so concerned people will judge me and think I’m pathetic for not being able to eat alone!
No more! It’s time for a change!
Over the next few months I’m going to force myself out of my comfort zone repeatedly and eat at least a couple of meals alone each week until I can be well and truly at ease with eating alone. I’m hoping that by the middle of the year, I’ll be able to sit in a busy restaurant without a book and genuinely enjoy the experience of eating alone.
We’ll see how it goes.
Do you like eating alone? Do you have any tips for me to feel more comfortable?