On Traveling Alone: Thoughts From the Table for One

Years ago, a coworker took off to the South of France by herself and it left me baffled. I could not fathom how lonely it must be travel by yourself, and I wondered if this is the plight of an unmarried woman in want of a vacation to have to be a party of one. At the ripe of age of 22 (and broke), I vowed (with the tenacity of the newly graduated) that I would rather go nowhere than be a pathetic companionless vacationer.

Five years later, as the world is wont to do, I was forced to eat my words. The year was slipping by rapidly and I was approaching a “use it or lose it” status on my vacation time. I tried desperately to find someone to go with me, but my friends are all married and have vacation time and funds reserved for familial obligations, my sister is a poor college student, my parents are terrified of flying, and I am a 28-year-old without a significant other. There was no one available and my nasty inner bitch was determined to make me feel as terrible about this as possible repeating to me in the middle of the night, “Congratulations Katie, you’re now a spinster who has no one to travel with.” I avoided addressing the issue as long as I could, but after a god-awful stressful spring, I knew that my mental health and well-being was approaching critical “get the hell out of Dodge or explode” levels. So I took a chance,  ignored my brain, booked a flight and planned a trip to England.

As my departure loomed nearer I regularly felt myself filled with dread that I would arrive at my little cottage in Cornwall and promptly expire from the loneliness. I would be Scarlett O’Hara cleaving to the curtains and succumbing to the angsty despair of my solitude (my subconscious is melodramatic, OK?). Considering that I am someone who is so rarely alone—there’s always a dog sitting on top of me, a friend a mere text away, or my family bursting in—I had little proof that I was even capable of being alone. In college when my roommate would go home for the weekend I would fall into an pit of despair. Granted I later learned it was the birth control I was on that caused depression (and death), but a little voice kept asking me, “What if you’re just too co-dependent to be by yourself? What if that’s who you are?” It was an odd fear to face since I’ve always liked being alone and having no one talking to me, but I realized suddenly, more often than not, I’m alone with someone else. There’s always someone for me to run my mouth at whenever a thought pops in my head, and trust me there’s a lot in there I feel compelled to share. The idea of ten days of silence was overwhelming.

Gearing up to leave the inner turmoil became public, and I began berating my sister with my concerns, both legitimate and absurd:

  • Who would watch my luggage when I have to pee?
  • Who would navigate while I drive and make sure I don’t drive off a cliff?
  • If something happens to me how would anyone even know? (see concerns about cliffs)
  • All the city guides say women should travel in packs; if I’m by myself in London, won’t I be a target?
  • Who will I talk to?
  • Will I look pathetic asking for a table for one?
  • What if I am far too socially awkward to talk to strangers?
  • Will it mean as much if I don’t have anyone to share it with?

The last was my biggest fear—without another person it would be up to me alone to imbue meaning on this trip. It wouldn’t be a case of sisters making memories together—it would only be me and I would have no one (nor any wifi) to share it with.

Admittedly the first few days were rough. I’d traveled for nearly 36 hours by plane, train, and car and then had to hike to my cottage in Cornwall, and it was an endeavor I was bursting to tell someone about. Once I’d settled I also realized I didn’t know how to do what I want—only that which is expected of me—and found myself seeking out only things that I could share with the folks back home in an attempt to bring them in on the adventure with me, even if only in spirit. The first time I said, “No, it’s just me for dinner” was a little crushing. I was surrounded by tables full of families laughing and making memories, and then there was just me—the clear outsider who had no one. In that moment I remembered clearly that co-worker and wondered again why she would knowingly choose to go it alone. There was also a deeply hidden fear whispering to me that perhaps this trip was just the tip of an iceberg to a lifetime alone.

The turning point in this vicious cycle was also the confirmation of all my insecurities. Buying a gift in a shop in St. Ives, I was chatting with the shopkeeper:

“So who are you traveling with?” she asked.

“It’s just me.”

“No husband or friends waiting for you?”

“No I came by myself—I love England and try to make it to the U.K. each summer. This year no one could come with me, so I came solo.”

“Oh. Well. How brave of you! Doesn’t it feel odd eating by yourself in restaurants?”

Well, yes, it had. It was a sore subject, and here was this shopkeeper picking at the scab. Part of me wanted to go hide my pathetic self and briefly thought, “Perhaps this is why people start feeling desperate for a significant other.” But in the act of having that insecurity confronted head-on, I found myself letting it go. A dark and dirty secret is hardly so powerful in the light of day, and so I responded to the shopkeeper:

“Oh, it’s not a problem. I have my thoughts and my notebook to keep me company.”

And in that moment I realized it was true. Every time I sat down somewhere I felt compelled to write. Every thought and moment I wished to share with someone I put on paper for a later date. This special notebook that I’d been saving since Christmas and my favorite pen were my constant companions. It gave me a sense of purpose while eating, but made me feel more approachable than if I’d put up a wall with a book or iPad. It tucked away neatly in a purse, rucksack or tote and it could hold every memory I feared losing. I had packed plenty of books, both paper and electronic, to keep me occupied, and even more so to give me the chance to slip thoughtlessly into another world, surrounded by people where I would never have to worry about being lonely. And yet I never touched them. I found comfort instead of desolation in my own mind and in the act of writing it down.

It turns out that I did have a travel companion after all, a perfectly good one at that who kept me entertained, questioning, and helped me ascribe meaning into my time in my favorite place on earth: Myself.

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