"Are you alone?"
The waitress has appeared over my shoulder, and asks the simple question in slightly broken English that is infinitely better than my non-existent Italian.
"Are you alone?": aka, "Do I have to take away one place setting or not?"
I pause, the weight of her words breaking through my cool, confident, independent veneer like a tidal wave striking a dam. A dam that is made of like, really flimsy material that should never have been used to construct a dam in the first place. A tissue paper dam.
I...I AM alone. Oh my god. I am so, so alone. Like, REALLY alone. Holy shit. How did I not realize this before?!
A solo tear slips down my aged, unwanted cheek as I suddenly realize I am surrounded by amorous couples- they are holding hands, kissing, proposing, and most likely pitying the lone woman who DARED to visit the romantic city of Venice by herself. I rise, wordlessly, from my table, embarrassed by my very state of being, and run- run as fast as my ten dollar Ardene sandals will allow me to (so, like, more of a pained, flopping shuffle, if we're being honest here), off to some dark corner where no one can see my shame.
The waitress gives approximately negatives fucks about this. She leaves the table for two as is. It is immediately claimed by a young couple who will certainly not be asked, "Are you alone?" The young man immediately kneels, pulling out a small box from his back pocket, and-
Sorry- I got sidetracked there. Wow. Awkward. This was supposed to be a nice, inspiring post about being a solo female traveller and you had to read a dumb dramatic reenactment of my lunch at a random restaurant in Venice. I really apologize. It won't happen again. For the record, I ended up staying and eating an entire pizza, yes, alone, except for a piece of cheese that was stolen off my plate by an incredibly sneaky pigeon while I wasn't looking. I wasn't even mad. I was impressed. +2 to Stealth, pigeon.
Anyway. Back on track. Here we go.
This here post is for the ladies.
(Please note, if you are not a lady, feel quite free to continue reading! I promise you'll still have a fun time, and I'd hate to discriminate. We'll all learn together!)
As you might know, this post contains the main reason I started this blog in the first place (I know, it wasn't just to write dumb articles about how I fail at mountain climbing and sleeping in appropriate places, I'm as genuinely shocked as you are)- that is, how too often the phrase "Oh, I'm backpacking solo, actually" is followed by one of the two following phrases:
1) "Wow, aren't you scared?"
2) "Oh man, won't your boyfriend worry about you/be upset you're going without him?"*
*This was from a time when I was in glorious possession of a boyfriend, and...no. No, I cannot go on. The memories are too painful. Forgive me. I must retreat to the Shame Corner.
So, ladies (and gents who are hopefully still reading even after I so rudely almost excluded them a few minutes ago): let's take a moment, take a breath, and promise ourselves that we will never say either of those things to a female traveller ever again. It may well come from a place of earnestness and genuine concern, but it does nothing to ease the stigma that travelling solo as a woman is inherently dangerous and we shouldn't do it. Let me dissuade you of that notion right here, right now, WITH the caveat that yes, of course, there are quite a number of countries in the world where travelling solo as a woman might not be the best thing to do. You will never see me write in this blog about my solo travels in Saudi Arabia, for example. I do not foresee myself feeling safe there and thus I don't necessarily advise it. Perhaps women braver than I might do so, but personally, I know the limits of my courage and comfort and they do not reside there.
Because, let's get one thing out of the way right now: I don't consider myself a terribly brave person. To me, there are different types of bravery, and I tick some boxes but definitely not others. I tick what I call my "Gryffindor boxes"- the kind that tell me to do dumb things like sleeping under mountain rocks and dangling my feet of of 200 foot cliffs because goddamnit, my Feet In Fun Places photo series won't be complete without Cliff Pictures*. But when it comes to, say, watching horror movies alone or walking down possible murder alleys in Venice at midnight, I am most certainly NOT brave.
*This is a real photo series. It's beautiful and glorious and ARTISTICALLY IMPORTANT.
I say this because I think that there's this notion that you have to be an inherently brave person to be a solo traveller, and I disagree. I think you need two things: a sense of adventure, and common sense. The first is pretty straightforward; the latter is simply that voice in your head that stops you when you think, "Hey, know what sounds like fun? Getting wasted alone in Slovakia and deciding to take a tour of all the murderey-looking alleyways! At 4:00AM! Yeah! Cool! Oh look, an unmarked van!"
Don't...don't do that.
There. Sounds simple? It is! You're all set to go, fellow lady backpacker!
Oh, you're still not convinced, after that incredibly well put-together argument? There are still people telling you that you're going to get abducted and sold for various goods and sheep? Or that it would just be safer for you to go with your Trusty Male Companion?
Well, let's get a bit more specific, then.
(At this point, I will fully admit that I have several friends, both male and female, who have had negative experiences abroad, whether those experiences included assault, robbery, etc. This post is not to say these things do not happen. They absolutely do, through no fault of anyone but the offending douchebags. But, I would argue, no more than they might in any large city. There are areas of Toronto I definitely don't like to go past midnight. Regardless of where you are, shit happens because people can be terrible. Take as much care of yourselves as you can, my friends.)
In my experience, there have been very few places in which I have felt unsafe to journey by myself, even late at night- and this is coming from someone who is sacred of literally everything in every horror movie ever made. There are, of course, certain parts of large cities that should be avoided, and a simple Google search will help you prepare for that. Do your research when choosing hostels- Hostelworld.com has a section for reviews. A few years ago, a hostel in Bordeaux had a review in which someone had written "Nice hostel, but beware: it's in the sketchiest part of the city. Did I say beware already? Because seriously. Beware."
This would have been nice to know before I booked my stay there AND the train that was getting me there at 1:00AM. And yup, it turns out the area was, in fact, sketchy as all fuck. But I just asked a nice couple if I could walk with them on the way from the train station. It turned out fine. Do a little research, don't be afraid to ask for help (fellow travellers are almost always understanding, especially if you're a scared-looking female at 1:00AM in Sketchville, Bordeaux), and you'll be good. Generally, the closer to the city centre you are, the safer you will feel. Sometimes, it's worth the extra 5-10 Euros a night, if you can swing it.
"Won't your boyfriend worry about you? Why aren't you going with him?"
Because you're a strong, independent woman who wants to see the goddamn world on her own and answer to absolutely no one, that's why!
Frankly, the only times I think "Man, having a boyfriend/guy-friend-who-can-act-like-my-boyfriend-in-convenient-times would be really helpful in this situation" is when I am being voraciously and unrelentingly hit on by French dudes. (And please note: this has nothing to do with any physical appeal I may or may not possess. I could be a literal toad, and if they discovered I was a female toad they would still try their hardest to pick me up. Jokes on them, 'cause toads are slippery and hard to hold and sometimes poisonous. Take that, Jacques, hope you like dying of toad poison.) This is entirely due to the fact that French men do not take no for an answer. I have interrogated many of them on the subject and they have fully admitted it. They will literally follow you on the street propositioning you until you throw them some breadcrumbs and yell "Shoo! Shoo!" at them, at which point they will squawk and scatter- oh, sorry. That's pigeons. Ha ha, my bad. Frenchmen are much more difficult to get rid of. Don't bother telling them you have a boyfriend- that will only succeed in making them stronger. Tell them you're leaving the country in 30 seconds. Tell them you have 15 different and colourful-sounding infectious diseases. Tell them you're a ride-or-die Nickleback fan. Tell them anything BUT you have a boyfriend, for your sanity's sake.
And this goes, I've found, for the majority of Europe. Why, just two weeks ago ago I was in Barcelona, wearing a cute but simple yellow dress I brought with me. I got exactly twenty feet from my hostel and this old Spanish dude hissed at me. Hissed! This, truly, was a new tactic. Did he sense I was a cat lady? Was he trying to compliment me in the language of my furry people? I must admit, I was confused.
I was not, however, surprised. You kinda get used to it. You can either ignore it, or embark on a one-woman educational crusade against the male populace of Western Europe, and frankly even typing that felt exhausting. It's a different culture over here. I just find it easier to grimace slightly at them and walk on. Sometimes they succeed in making me feel angry or irritated or uncomfortable, but I tell myself it's a small price to pay for being able to explore these kickass cities. It's a tough pill to swallow, but it's generally harmless, and if you can get used to firmly saying "No" every so often, in every conceivable language, the rest is a breeze. I have felt legitimately harrassed infinitely more living in Toronto than I ever have in Europe. So: you got this.
Solo travelling is, in my experience, not a scary thing! It can be stressful, frustrating and confusing, yes, but not scary. I've spoken to a bunch of women over here on this trip, and the one thing that's actually come up more than once is the issue of feminine hygiene products: that is, in certain countries like Cuba, Costa Rica, etc., they are harder to find than you'd like, and often are super expensive. Bring 'em from Canada. Don't wait to buy them here. Same with sunscreen, because Oh My God it's so expensive here because they KNOW you need it and they KNOW you'll pay a lot for it because skin cancer is generally regarded as a bad thing, so basically it's more expensive than everything forever.
The best thing about travelling alone is that you can eat nothing but pizza and gelato for five days in a row and NO ONE WILL BE AROUND TO JUDGE YOU. I know this from experience, aka I did this in Italy last week. #livingmytruth #hahawhatsafilmcareer
HOWEVER. Let us briefly address the things that, in my experience, have been the most genuinely terrifying things about travelling alone. Warning: some of these are pretty awful. Prepare yourselves.
1) Not having a friend or group of friends to provide an alibi when you finally decide to murder the man sleeping across from you. He has snored like a wet chainsaw (yeah, let THAT imagery sink in, suckers, if I have to experience it, so do you) for the last three nights, and his phone charger light has continuously beamed across at you like a blue flashlight straight into the back of your retinas. He is blissfully unaware that everyone is awake at 4:00AM because of him. He is blissfully aware that he has but seconds to live, as you finally snap in a sleep-deprived haze and beat him to death with your super cute travel hair dryer. The authorities will be sympathetic, but you will totally still get arrested for murder. It...is probably not worth it.
2) Not having anyone to stop you from eating nothing but pizza and gelato five days in a row. I know I just said this was the best thing, but Jesus. I really could have used some outside help on that one. I'm pretty sure I have scurvy now, and I didn't even get to be a pirate to obtain it.
3) Discovering how many people are ACTUALLY incapable of figuring out how to take a decent picture of you using your camera. You'll eventually give up and find creative ways to take timed pictures of yourself in awkward places. It's super character-building.
4) Foreign clowns.
Lightning Round of Possible Objections, Refuted
"I'm so bad at directions! I don't want to get lost all the time!"
Have...have you met me? I routinely take the wrong direction on the Toronto subway. And it has TWO LINES. Trust me. You can't be worse than I am at this, and I haven't ended up in the wrong city yet. YET. Give me time.
"I don't speak the language!"
Everyone speaks English. Literally everyone. Even if you DO speak the language they will speak to you in English, after laughing at your pathetic attempts to speak like them. I'm lookin' at you, all of France, you judgmental cheese-eating bastards.
"I want to travel alone, but I don't want to be alone all the time. That sounds awful."
Your hostel will be your best friend. Seriously. You'll exchange numbers, add each other on Facebook, get drunk together on cheap wine and have, like, totally the best night and you're totally going to keep in touch when you leave. You totally probably won't.
(But actually, you will meet the best and coolest people in hostels without fail, if you reach out even a little. I promise.)
"My friend/brother/cousin/iguana went to Europe and hated it/fell off a cliff/got eaten by whatever eats iguanas, probably, like, raccoons or something."
They sound super lame. Drop them from your life immediately.
"What if Murder Alley looks really cool? Like, it has sparkly lights and shit?"
Murder Alleys must always be avoided at all costs. Your safety takes top priority, and- wait... did you say sparkly lights? Well, count me in.