March 14th, 2011

Take Yourself to Dinner (In Another Country)

Venice Italy 2001

Most people don’t voluntarily go out to dinner by themselves nor see a movie in a theatre, go to a concert, travel locally or overseas. Why would you ever do anything that is normally a social activity – all by yourself? What would be the point?

The first time

I was faced going to a concert alone 12 years ago. A concert! No one could go with me. So I made a decision. I could either go alone or not go at all. Not going meant eating the price of both tickets and missing out on a concert I was really looking forward to. Going alone meant parking my car, walking by myself in crowds of happy people talking with each other, sitting next to an empty seat, cheering by myself without anyone to nudge, smile with and share the experience with, walking out by myself with no one to review with.

The problem was that those activities also meant something to me every step of the way. Not having a single person who wanted to be there with me meant something about me. It could mean that I was a loser without friends. And it was those feelings that were the hurdle to overcome. It was the meaning I attached to “attending a concert alone” that was so unbearable.

So I attached a different meaning. What was really going on? It wasn’t true that I had no friends. It was true that some of them already had plans, some didn’t like these bands and I hadn’t reached all my circle of friends in time. That’s something to learn, not something to lament. So I set out to enjoy the experience. And I did. It was a wonderful concert.

Making a habit of it

I started taking myself to the movies alone when I really wanted to see something no one else wanted to see. Going to concerts alone, on purpose. When I was hungry and wanted to go out to dinner on a whim I didn’t have to find a companion to go. I just went. Usually I took a book along with me to substitute for the conversation. Sometimes I took my little notebook and made plans and brainstormed. These activities became as valuable to me as the social interactions with friends would have been. Instead of taking myself out as a last-ditch less-desirable outcome I started actively making this choice. I started looking forward to pre-meditated alone time.

Stepping it up a notch

Then came the epiphany. I wanted to go to Italy and no one would set aside the time or the money to go with me. I waited for ten years and all that time I was setting aside my own dream. The vision of traveling to Italy would not dissipate and the person to share it with would not materialize. Something had to give.

I got in touch with someone who traveled to Italy by himself. He begged me to take this trip by myself. “You will see things that you would never notice if you were with someone else.” He told me to be sure to visit Assisi. He talked about the attractive qualities that are found in a person that travels alone and the changes it would bring about for me.

I was convinced. I could go alone. I would go alone. (Eventually.)

A few months later Giovanni and his brother died in a car accident. Several months later my grandmother (who often inspired me by traveling alone and marching to her own tune) was in the hospital and was sure that she was dying. Then September 11, 2001 happened. In that year it finally became obvious to me that time was of the essence. I was done waiting.

Two weeks after 9/11 – during a time where it was sketchy to be traveling – I booked my ticket. Then I said to myself “now what?” I didn’t know where to stay, what to see, what to do. This trip had become such a huge thing that I suddenly felt every decision needed to be perfect.

I stumbled into my local AAA and picked up a few tour travel brochures. One 10-day tour fit neatly into my 17 day tickets, and it included Giovanni’s recommendation: Assisi. Decisions started to fall into place. The travel agent recommended Capri for the few days before my tour started.

I don’t speak Italian, I only took a few years of French and that was way back in High School. I bought a little dictionary and some maps and renewed my passport.

While I was waiting for my trip date to arrive, my grandmother died. I would be both grieving her loss and celebrating her life when I traveled alone.

The big leap

So I did it. It was the trip of a lifetime (and seven years later I did it again). The fear of the unknown was the biggest obstacle, but every thing you do and every moment you spend there turns the unknown into the known. It’s all new, exciting and nerve wracking — then it becomes comfortable and familiar  — while it’s still exciting.

Italy became my lover, my friend, my companion. We share our own secrets. The streets I walked and discovered are my own private stories – just me and my alleys. I conquered the nervousness walking out of my hotel in those first few hours and then conquered the fear of finding things on my own in a foreign place amongst a foreign tongue. I love that I did that. I found deeply hidden pieces of me by doing it. I noticed the sounds, the sights, the smells and the tastes in greater deal than had I been distracted by the conversation, needs, desires and presence of a companion. I can still remember those feelings almost 10 years later. Everything became more vibrant.

Seeing differently

A line from Robin Williams’ (Sean’s) monologue to Matt Damon (Will) in Good Will Hunting rang in my ears as I was visiting the Vatican:

So, if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo. You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”

I’ve done that now. I also spent an hour gazing at his David in Florence and realized looking at pictures of this sculpture from every angle isn’t anywhere close to the experience when you can stare at “him” in person for as long as you like.

Would your companion allow you to stare at anything for as long as your eyes want to drink it in? I also stared at The Rape of the Sabines in the main square of Florence for an hour the first time I visited – and two hours the second. You get to do whatever you want at your own pace when you’re solo.

On my own I was more likely to strike up conversations with strangers (and they were more likely to strike up conversations with me). I was a curiosity. I people-watched more. I shopped in the stores I wanted to and lingered or moved more quickly whenever I wanted to – I was beholden only to my own agenda, which was extremely flexible. I wandered until I was lost and found again – all experiences that would have been different were I with a traveling buddy. There would be compromises about what we did and saw. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s just a different thing.

Of course there are things I missed while traveling alone. I couldn’t point at something and say “look at that” and instantly share that moment with someone. But I could upload photos and videos later and send emails to stay connected. I could “share the experience” in other ways.

By breaking down the barriers that tell us which activities are meant to be shared, I have experienced parts of life in new ways and I’m forever grateful that I crossed those invisible but powerful lines.

Just go

These have become the things I recommend most to people:

  • Go to dinner alone.
  • Go to a movie alone.
  • Go to a concert alone.
  • Go on a trip alone.
  • Go to another country alone.

And don’t do them once or twice, just because you have to or just when you’re forced into solo business travel. Do them because you want to. You need to.

Some people do this all the time. Some people do it right after high school with a backpack and very little money. If you’re looking for that kind of adventure travel, there are a lot of great resources to get you on your way.

The Sistene Chapel doesn’t have any identifiable smell, by the way. But please don’t take my word for it.

What have been your vibrant solo experiences that you think others should try?

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