Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Table for one?

Several people have asked me if I'm bothered by travelling alone. For the most part, travelling alone is great -- you get to set the agenda, the pace you want to travel, the budget. You're not building a consensus with anyone and no one's feelings ever get hurt. You are the decider.

But it sometimes isn't as great. Though you're slightly more vulnerable when traveling alone, few things have struck fear in me. There's one big exception, however -- the nightly ritual of walking up to a sit-down restaurant and asking the hostess, "Table for one?"

You see, traveling doesn't need to be a social activity. Sure it can be a lot of work to get decent pictures in your camera which actually have you in them, or maybe you walk around for several hours without actually talking to anyone.

But, see, dining is a social activity, especially dinner. Few things bring people together better than food and drink. You can't avoid making time for it, so you might as well share the time with other people. This principle is ingrained in just about every culture worldwide.

Breakfast can be as easy as a takeaway pastry and lunch can be a simple sandwich or a la carte entree. These meals can be taken casually and the solo diner feels welcome.

But dinner is different. In the US it's the big meal of the day, and though other cultures sometimes focus on lunch I haven't adopted this mentality -- takes too much time away from seeing things during the day.

Sometimes in big cities, you can slip into a takeaway restaurant, saving your wallet and preventing social awkwardness. In tourist destinations, where the locals tend to eat at home, you're forced to dive in somewhere less accommodating.

There's a method to finding an appropriate dining destination for the solo diner. Fancy restaurants just aren't worth the splurge. From the restaurants that are left, you don't want to sit in a place that is empty. Though the restaurant staff should be grateful for your presence (they usually aren't), the silence is deafening, and you have lowered yourself to a restaurant that no one else deemed worthy of patronage.

The key is to find a restaurant that is moderately full, but has ample spare capacity such that you're not feeling guilty about partially utilizing a 2 person table. Unless you're really splurging the solo diner is worth less to the restaurant than a couple, and if you're preventing a couple from sitting down the restaurant is looking to churn you out of there.

You also need to beware for what I will call "the Valentine's Day effect". You know that feeling women tend to get on V-Day when they realize they're not in a relationship, and therefore aren't receiving dinner or chocolates or flowers or anything nice? If you're in a restaurant with young couples at candlelit tables, and you're just the solo diner...not a good place to be. That chair across from you is shouting its emptiness at you, and your PDA radar amplifies several notches. You try hard to keep your chin up, hope no one notices your solitude, and end the meal as soon as you're no longer in need of sustenance.

Dinnertime is one of the few situations where I have welcomed the street hawker. If a restaurant is begging for my token business as a solo diner, they have saved me the awkwardness of asking for a table. Not my fault if I'm boxing out that party of 4 at the door.

I'm perfectly content with myself and not one to get lonely, and traveling hasn't changed that. So save for dinnertime, or perhaps the occasional evening when you want to visit that "it" nightclub you read about in your travel guide, there aren't too many times when solo traveling is a problem. And you do meet people, especially staying in hostels, meaning not every night will be uncomfortable.

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