The perils of solo travel, or, how to sexually harass someone without even trying

Here at Gadling we’ve talked a lot about the perils of solo travel, from how it can break up relationships to creating feelings of loneliness. On a recent trip to Antwerp I discovered a danger to solo travel I never thought of–people look upon you with suspicion.

I was dining alone in a popular Antwerp restaurant. The waiter had seated me so that I faced another table less than ten feet away. A middle-aged woman and her college-aged daughter sat there. The daughter was directly in front of me facing to my left, so if I looked straight ahead I was looking at her profile.

I didn’t give it any thought as I ordered. Sometime during my appetizer I noticed the daughter kept turning to look at me. At first it was just every few minutes, but by the time I got my main course she was giving me annoyed glances every thirty seconds or so.

Obviously she thought I was staring at her. I tried to look elsewhere. She kept looking over so often, though, that anytime I happened to look straight ahead, she’d “catch” me. I began to feel a bit guilty, like when I’m walking home at night and there’s a woman walking in the street ahead of me. I hate when that happens because I know I’m making the woman uncomfortable. What do you do? Speed up and pass her? Slow down? Both look suspicious and are only going to make her more nervous.

But we weren’t alone in a darkened street; we were in a busy restaurant and she was sitting right in front of me. What could I do, squash my face into my plate of venison?

She started whispering to her mother in French. They’d been talking normally before, but now their conversation changed into a angry, conspiratorial whisper.

At this point my guilt changed into annoyance. I mean, where else was I supposed to look? In fact, for the past half hour I’d been deliberately trying to avoid looking forward. That probably made me look even creepier because now both mother and daughter kept swiveling their heads to check on me.

The bill came and I paid. More whispering. Just as I stood up, both turned on me with snarly little faces, mother and daughter the same snarly little faces.

“Peeg,” snarled mother.

“Peeg,” snarled daughter.

I ignored them and walked off. I would have explained it was all a misunderstanding if they had looked open to that approach. My second reaction was to say, “Sorry to rain on your parade, kid, but my wife is twice your age and STILL better looking than you.” That wouldn’t have gone over too well either. Instead I said nothing, got my coat, and headed out into the night.

So guys, if you’re traveling alone be sure to bring a book to dinner, otherwise you may be mistaken for a male chauvinist “peeg”.

Photo courtesy Alex Castro and the London Anti-Street harassment Campaign.

Table for one? Five tips for solo diners

Traveling by yourself can be an incredibly rewarding and liberating experience, but as any solo traveler can tell you, it’s not always rainbows and sunshine. There can also be times of acute loneliness when you wonder, “Just what in the hell am I doing here alone?” From my experience, nothing on the road will cause you greater feelings of isolation than the frightening prospect of eating at a restaurant by yourself.

Before my first solo trip, dining alone seemed to me only slightly less depressing than bowling alone (which, alas, I still find rather sad). I had always imagined that those who sat by themselves at restaurants suffered from some profound personality defect. What other possible explanation could there be for their solitude? But after traveling on my own for a few weeks, I became much more comfortable with the prospect of sitting at a restaurant by myself, and I eventually saw it as something to be enjoyed rather than simply endured.

It may sound silly, but being able to dine alone is an important skill to have when on the road. Here are some tips to overcome the awkwardness of dining alone:

  • Bring some reading materials to occupy your time whenever you’re faced with a table for one. Not only will this make you appear busy, you’ll also look interesting and bookish.
  • Chat up your waitress, asking for her recommendations on what to see and do in the area. When ordering in a foreign country, try to avoid simply pointing at the menu. People usually appreciate when you at least attempt to speak their language, even when you inadvertently hack it to pieces.
  • Take out your diary (or “journal” for guys) and do a little reflecting about your trip.
  • If you see another person sitting by herself, don’t be afraid to start a conversation. No, strangers don’t bite, and they’ll probably be just as happy as you to talk to someone else.
  • And most importantly, next time you’re face-to-face with the breadsticks, remember how Philip Roth describes one of the main characters in his novel Letting Go: “Though subject to his share of depressions, nightmares, and melancholy, he cannot enjoy any of it thoroughly, (and thereby feel his true and tragic worth) because of a nagging doubt that he is very lucky and ought to be thankful and shut up.” Hey, unless you’re traveling to Pity City, be thankful that you’re even getting the chance to travel. Many people are not so fortunate.

For more solo travel tips, check out Tom Johansmeyer’s post “Don’t become a hermit: eight tips for solo business travelers.”