Table for one
To those who asked me what I was most apprehensive about before embarking on my first solo holiday, my answer was always the same: mealtimes. Being an often more socially- than safety-concerned millennial - hi everyone, my name is Molly and I am a millennial - the thought of what to do whilst eating my dinner in a busy restaurant with no companion opposite me was even higher up on my list of concerns than the possibility of ending up on the wrong ferry (or, as was almost the case due to high winds, no ferry at all) and being stranded on an unknown Greek island. The strong independent woman I strive to be is disappointed that the prospect of being the only lone diner in a taverna, filled with lovebirds or families alike tucking into their tzatziki brought me close to sucking up the cancellation fees for my flights and hotel more than once.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t cancel, and I survived. It’s obvious to me now that as someone who is perfectly capable of ordering off of a menu for herself, using cutlery and asking for the bill / l’addition / la cuenta / il conto / die Rechnung (are you impressed yet?) as I have done many times in the company of others, that I had absolutely nothing to worry about. In the five days I spent alone in Agistri, a small island in the Saronic Gulf, I proved myself as a woman not only capable of ordering and eating a meal by herself, but also by doing so in the busiest taverna on the island, paying little attention to the nosy onlookers - even enjoying my delicious Greek salads, grilled octopus and tzatziki in the process. To add to the list, I also succeeded at: navigating a hidden forest trail and climbing down a rock face to reach the hippy nudist beach (but didn't strip, I'm not quite there yet); booking myself onto a boat trip to explore neighbouring islands; reading 4 books (I know reading is a solitary activity but this satisfied me and I had to mention it here) and had a few very pleasant exchanges with other travellers (both solo and not) along the way. All things that, as I write them down now, and probably as you read them, seem like tiny molehills that my imagination had lumped together to form giant, self-doubting mountains. And yet, I conquered them all by myself. Cue: The Climb - Miley Cyrus.
On reflection I can see that my apprehension was quite silly of me. (As an aside, I have recently started trying hard not to belittle my own or others’ emotional responses to mildly emotional situations as ‘silly’, because too much of this belittling - little though it might be at times - can cause us to doubt or distrust our reactions and intuitions in the long term. It’s a work in progress.) I say this because I love my own company, I thrive off of it and have even recently self-diagnosed myself as an introvert knowing the smallest amount of information about what that label actually means. I reassure myself that my nervousness about holidaying alone made sense in the context that, for me anyway, meals out or holidays abroad tend to be group activities. A sit down meal isn't something I would do alone in London. Restaurants are places to be explored with a plus one or in a group. And I’m fortunate enough that most holidays for me have been made by the people I've been with - made all the brighter, more vivid and memorable because my closest friends and/or family have been there enjoying it with me.
In the wise words of Lena Dunham, which I tend to take as gospel if not only because of how eloquently she writes them, “Alone is a place that nobody would want to go on vacation, much less live permanently.” Yet there is that mysterious echelon of humanity who do choose to enjoy meals out on their own, and would much sooner go for a relaxing vacation to get away from the people they know than to spend an extended length of quality time with them. (And, of course, there are those who may not have much of a choice at all but to go it alone, but do so with gusto nonetheless.) I had always secretly admired the solo adventurer from afar, though until recently never been motivated enough by that thought to do it myself. My own short trip was a knee-jerk reaction to having a week in between jobs and none of my nearest or dearest having either the holiday allowance or funds to come with me - so I somewhat begrudgingly took matters into my own hands. Truth is, if I had longer to think about it, it’s likely I would have talked myself out of it. Now that I’ve done it, those independent explorers don't seem quite so heroic to me anymore. Or, a much nicer thought, perhaps I just consider myself to share a dash more of their heroism.
The reality I found is, it’s actually quite rare to be alone on a solo holiday. Let's not forget that we are all much more Sim-like than we think, each with our own individual Social meters that need to be fed with frequent, if only short interactions. And you don't need to seek them out, they'll just appear. For me, there was Australian Sue who was halfway through her European tour having been to Venice and Croatia, and then following Greece was heading over to Norway and Malta - and she has an 18 year old grandson, therefore Sue is absolute #grannygoals. There was Italian Georgiana who now lives in Athens, and told me about the hidden nudist beach where the hipsters hang, both literally and figuratively, whilst I was waiting for a table for one. And not forgetting British Bruce, who invited me to join him in a toast one evening to his fifth grandson who was born just the previous day, and shared his ambitions for putting his entire career and lifetime of business experience to good use to put an end to this whole climate crisis thing that he and his fellow baby boomer generation got us all into. These interactions didn't define my holiday because I didn't want them to, but they sustained me enough so that I could fully maximise the time spent on my own.
I might be giving myself a bigger pat on the back than may be warranted simply for surviving without any family or close friends to hold my hand through basic daily interactions for five days. I’ll return to my writing crush Lena who seems to have articulated her own experience of this so much more beautifully than I ever could: “It was simple—one foot in front of the other, hands swinging at my side—but I thought, rather dramatically, I will remember this moment all my life. I had made the choice to face the world...on my own, with the power and presence of someone who can tolerate herself.” True, after almost 26 years on this planet perhaps I should have had these experiences much sooner. But for me this is new, and I’m proud to have this as further proof that my own company is enough - and anything else is a bonus.
Now that I'm home, a little wiser and a little more confident in self-navigating the world, I don't think I will be booking a table for one any time soon. But it's nice to know that I can confidently utter the words “Table for one, please?”, without embarrassment or shame, if I ever need to. I hope that I no longer look at solo diners with pity, justifying their presence at a table with only one occupied seat by imagining a work trip, or a friend running late into existence, feeling I’m giving them a small mercy by doing so. I hope to look at them with the admiration they are due for navigating their way around this beautiful city or that, and wish that my home treats them as well as I was treated in Agistri.
I spoke to a few people before my holiday who comforted me by saying they too had been tempted by solo holidaying before, but were a little apprehensive themselves. If you ever get around to it (and I really recommend it), here are some of my second-hand and self-verified tips:
Curate a playlist before you go. I loaded mine with a melange of artists and genres, from Moana to Miley, but they all did the one job of pepping me up in the fleeting moments of worry or insecurity.
It’s not a failure if you retreat to the sanctuary of your room. Just make sure to take a pack of frazzles and a cold beer from the supermarket with you, and stick on your aforementioned playlist. The time belongs to you, no one else, and besides you just don't have to tell people about that part of the holiday (except I just did, oops).
Carry a book or kindle everywhere. Plane, bus, boat, beach, bar, restaurant, walk, you never know when you might have spare time and it's a much more fulfilling centre of focus than your phone. Plus it makes you look so #cultured.
There’s no pressure to start conversations with other travellers, but be open to the opportunities that come along - even if just to get the best beach or restaurant recommendations. Try not to cling to them though, stay outside of your comfort zone, but a 10 minute chat as you're waiting for your table or a short boat trip could top up your Social bar plenty.