On a recent trip to northern Italy, I was sitting at dinner with a few girlfriends. The restaurant was mostly filled with tables for two (honeymooners, babymooners, newlyweds, you get the picture), but a few tables to the right of us, there was a woman dining solo. She was enjoying a glass of red wine and feasting on truffled pasta, and reading a rather lengthy book.
"Awwww," said one of my dining companions, with an expression of sadness on her face. "She's alone!" This comment immediately sparkled a tableside debate over whether this woman was indeed sad and lonely, or a complete badass.
The female solo traveler has been characterized and stereotyped through film and literature for centuries now. If she is traveling alone, she must be a loner (a loser, even), or looking for love and/or selfhood, or the most propagated archetype of them all—heartbroken. Perhaps nothing in recent pop culture has promoted these stereotypes more than Elizabeth Gilbert's monstrously successful Eat, Pray, Love.
But what if a woman is traveling solo for none of those reasons? What if she is simply indulging in her curiosity for other cultures and looking for enrichment? Gasp! In this day and age, she's probably even married or in a relationship and just wants to get out and explore on her own. Solo travel is on the rise more than ever, according the 2015 Visa Global Travel Intentions Study, and roughly 24 percent of people traveled alone in their most recent overseas vacation (that's 15 percent more than in 2013).
I travel solo several months out of the year, and I am of the firm belief that you truly have not lived if you have not been out on the road alone. It is life altering, educational and enriching, and wildly freeing. Oftentimes, it's scary, and sometimes even dangerous, but I can think of few things in life that can offer such a transformative and rewarding experience.
Let's start with the fears. Travel, solo or in a group, is loaded with uncertainties from the minute you leave your house. Some are more grave concerns—disaster could strike (especially in the wake of the recent Paris attacks, it's on the forefront of travelers' minds), or you could get sick or injured. And, there are more trivial issues (by comparison): language barriers, getting lost in a place you don't know, eating foreign foods, understanding social do's and don'ts in a new place, and even flying. All very valid concerns that feel amplified when traveling solo. But perhaps that's why it's so much more rewarding when you succeed at tackling all of this by yourself. You're forced to test yourself and confront your fears (some of which, you probably didn't even know you had).
Earlier this year I was in Tokyo, and grabbed a bite at a little sushi spot that several locals had recommended to me. Plenty of people in Tokyo speak perfect English, but this place was the exception. I remember walking in and communicating with the hostess by holding up my pointer finger: table for one, please. She got it. I snagged the only available seat in the joint―score! Then the self-conscious fears set in as I sat down to my small table in the center of the room, surrounded by packs of Japanese businessmen. I thought: Are they talking about me? Do they think I am a loner? How will I even know what I'm ordering? The thoughts continued to flood my head.
This is probably a good time to admit that up until I was about 20, I didn't even like seafood, and especially not sushi. As adventurous as I am now when it comes to eating, I still shy away from sushi loaded up with super foreign-looking creatures, so you can only imagine my fears about what might land on my plate that day. I ordered by pointing to other peoples' dishes around me that looked appetizing, and then going with some things on the menu that sounded familiar. The result? It was one of the best meals I had while in Tokyo and remains memorable to this day. That's not to say some pretty weird foods didn't come my way that afternoon—I can recall a glassy-looking worm in the middle of one of my sushi rolls that nearly killed my appetite.
What made the experience unforgettable was not the worm, but rather, the fact that it was an extremely sensory experience. I was not distracted by companions and what they were talking about or how they liked the food, instead, I focused on every bite, every smell (good and bad), every noise around me. I remember wondering if it was appropriate to pick things up with my hands, or if it was a chopstick-only situation. I remember watching the people around me and following suit. It's easy to tune out the people around you when you are eating with a friend or family member on a trip, but when you are solo, they are your education and your entertainment.
When I finally found my way back to my hotel near the Imperial Gardens that afternoon, I remember sitting in my room high above the capital, looking out over the expansive city and thinking I had achieved something that day. It would have been far too easy to have stayed in my hotel room and ordered room service (something familiar, like the seemingly universal club sandwich) and watched an episode of Orange Is the New Black on my laptop. No language barriers, no navigating my way around, no uncomfortable moments.
Every solo dinner or meal since, especially in a foreign place, I have felt a little more at ease. I find myself letting my walls down, allowing myself to be open to every part of the experience: give the food a try (even if it doesn't sound like your cup of tea), allow yourself to really get lost, put your cell phone away, take in everything around you (or read a book), and enjoy the silence that comes with traveling alone.
These days, when I head to the airport with my passport in hand, I still feel that nervous energy that comes with venturing into the unknown, but the tingling is from excitement more than anything else. Waking up in a foreign place with the world at your fingertips and no one to stop you is a sensational emotion. Should I go troll the souks of Fez today, looking for saffron and a Berber rug? Or, should I go for a deep-sea dive through ancient shipwrecks off the coast of Hvar (but first, I need to take a diving lesson)? Or, perhaps I should learn to play the ukulele from a Hawaiian native in Kauai? It doesn't even have to be all that grand. My fondest memory of Istanbul is taking the public ferry with the locals to Kadikoy, the side of the city that is officially part of Asia. In keeping with the constant tea-drinking rituals of Turkey, everyone gets a cup of tea (in a glass cup and saucer, no less) while on-board. How civilized! I loved observing people in another city during their routine, daily commute. They were completely numb to this magnificent and scenic boat ride, while I was feeling thrilled by moment of it.
As I think back to that older woman, sitting alone at that table alone in Italy, I can only wish I that people would stop feeling bad for her. She wasn't unhappy or lonely, she was probably having the best trip out of anyone there.
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