“No one is looking at you,” I assure myself for the hundredth time, glancing up at the Italian family across the room talking excitedly amongst each other. I’m glad that they’re speaking a language I can’t easily eavesdrop on so that I can focus on the only other companion accompanying me to this restaurant—my kindle.
I’ve positioned it just to the left of my plate so that I can both operate my fork with my right hand all while eating and reading simultaneously—I’ve had a lot of time to think this through.
Because there isn’t anyone to talk to, I find myself eating too quickly as if I have to be somewhere soon, but I definitely don’t. In fact, I don’t have any plans.
I force myself to take a bite of my sandwich, read three or four pages, drink my beer. Bite, read, sip—I repeat this three act rhythm until I realize it’s gone quiet around me. The Italian family has left and I find myself alone with the exception of one other couple in the corner.
And I realize I am enjoying my own company.
I am in Dublin, Ireland and at 23 years of age, this is the first time that I’ve ever taken me, myself, and I out to a meal alone. As awkward as I currently feel, I’m considering this a lifetime achievement.
I’ve always loved being surrounded by people. Large groups do not intimidate me and I pride myself on my ability to strike up conversation with nearly anyone. For a long time, I equated being alone with boredom. I felt unproductive just by myself, as if having another person alongside validated whatever I was doing.
Even throughout school, most of my classes were shared with several friends. In fact, most everything was shared—lockers, lunch hours, crushes of the day. Even when I went home I’d often invite a neighbor over to watch Survivor with or go to 7-11 for Slurpees.
Inevitably, getting older demands more responsibility of yourself and less dependency on others. The dreaded “alone time” became more and more frequent and it wasn’t until I started traveling that I began to notice how transformative it can be.
When you’re traveling, you’re in a constant state of decision-making. Where do you want to stop for coffee? Do you have to go to the bathroom? Do you need to charge your phone? Where’s the nearest Starbucks for wifi? Is this all worth the steep credit card bill? Should I just turn back now?
It doesn’t have to be an eight hour train right from Zurich to Toulouse—you might find yourself schlepping solo during the thirty minute bus ride to work. These are windows of time where everything is up to you and they become empowering, almost medicinal because there is no one to answer to beside yourself.
What’s more, the results of prolonged time solo brings with it a high reward. After my first time abroad, I’d never been more confident in my abilities to maneuver a foreign city map or an uncomfortable situation.
The sense of independence gained is empowering. Gloria Steinham writes of her life spent traveling: “More reliably than anything else on earth, the road will force you to live in the present.”
And certainly, some of my best experiences have happened serendipitously because I was alone. Sure, sometimes you accidentally order a pitcher of sangria for yourself because your Spanish sucks. But sometimes you happen upon an Elvis cover band gig on a Saturday night in Glasgow, surrounded by new friends showing you how to properly taste whisky.
I’ve since been out to eat multiple times on my own since that restaurant in Dublin, and every time becomes more and more comfortable.
And no, I no longer have to chant “no one is looking at you” over and over inside my head.
I know I’m alone, but I am more than enough.