Each time I walk into a restaurant and a host asks me if I'm "just one," I feel a twinge of discomfort, maybe a frisson of failure.
I say, "I'm one," pointedly dropping the "just" to convince myself that solo eating is not the enterprise of the pathetic or the lovelorn. And despite my efforts to say the words both firmly and cheerfully, they sometimes fight their way out from between my gritted teeth.
Because I used to be part of a pair. There will be no reconciliation, only the lawyers' reckoning and divided assets. I am separated and well on the way to divorce — something that it pains me to admit.
It's a pain that I feel most acutely when eating out and traveling alone. Because among our coupled pursuits, my husband and I ate our way around the world.
With necks stiff from staring at the Sistine Chapel, we shared lamb chops and a luxurious tartufo in Rome's Piazza Navona. We shared the same starchy knot of fufu in Ghana. And yes, we committed culinary heresy by eating McDonald's among the gastronomic paradise that is Paris.
But we did it together. For me, travel and eating have always been communal pleasures.
As a newbie singleton, I'm training myself to cure my recently acquired dread of solo travel. I never realized how heavily I relied on my husband to mitigate the many discomforts of globetrotting.
Perhaps it's not very feminist of me, but I depended on his presence and protection when saying no to persistent hawkers in a European market. While I planned most of our itineraries, he was the navigator par excellence — and no, not because testosterone is the compass hormone, but because he had an artist's spatial sense and an inherent talent for sussing out direction in cities with no street signs.
Now that I'm going it alone, I have recalibrated. My travel expectations, behaviors, and sometimes, the actual location are different. I avoid places that are notorious for hassling travelers who are American and/or female. I canceled a trip to Sweden after xenophobic violence because my brown skin and blackness make me an easy target. I stay in hotels with room service in case I don't wish to do foreign-land foraging for breakfast.
While I'm stateside — at home or on a trip — I practice eating alone. My hope is that practice may not make perfect, but that practice may make solitary eating and traveling more palatable.
It's getting easier meal by meal, and I find myself abandoning the affectations of solitary busyness. I no longer tell hosts that I'm waiting for an imaginary dining companion.
I have stopped hiding behind books that I'm not reading over my dinner. (The fringe benefit is that I now own fewer volumes unintentionally decorated with Jackson Pollock-esque sprays of puttanesca sauce or chocolate smears.) I have consciously stopped looking and smiling at my phone, pretending I am in the hilarious throes of an emoji-rich conversation typed on a tiny sheet of glass.
I don't think too hard about what I'm going to do with my eyes or my hands when they are not focused on a plate. And I make myself linger and not clamor for the receipt too quickly after the dishes are cleared away.
I also no longer bristle at being asked if the counter will do. Half the time, I tell the waiters that I deserve my own booth space, quoting that L'Oreal makeup commercial in which '80s rom-com sweetheart Andi McDowell mouthed "I'm worth it" with perfectly rouged lips. The other half, I accept the seat at the counter.
I'm learning to find my place in that strange no-man's land that servers try to tell you is prime space, where isolation and intimacy chafe against one another. You are at the counter because you are "just one" and presumably you don't want to look alone at the same time your knees brush against those of an adjacent diner.
I'm not yet sure how this self-training will unfold, but I'm taking it on the road. I'll be going back to Paris, this time toute seule.
Do you have any advice for me on my upcoming solo trip? What are your tips for going it alone on the road?