The word awkward is defined in the dictionary as “Not easy to deal with; requiring cautious action,” and “Embarrassing, inconvenient.” That sums up about 75% of my efforts to feed myself in foreign countries. Am I the only one who forgets five years of language classes when it’s time to order food? I say yes even when I don’t know what the waiter is saying, I feel rushed, and I stress over which verb form is the “polite” way to make a request. My allergies and food restrictions further complicate the situation. Even when the food is American (i.e. a Subway in Rio de Janeiro) my anxiety takes over.
It’s even worse when I don’t have friends with me to laugh off my language mistakes (ask a Brazilian about pronouncing the word for “bread” wrong). However, the worst part is when I skip a meal because I’m nervous about going out alone. The only thing stronger than my love of food is my propensity for embarrassment.
Part of me feels like I would somehow be judged for eating by myself, whether at a restaurant or a food cart. As my mom loves to point out, people from the age of about 15 to 25 are crippled by the fear that everyone around them cares what they’re doing. Spoiler alert: they don’t, but it’s hard to convince ourselves of that.
Sometimes I let the fear of being awkward at a table for one stop me from trying the most popular dishes in a country.
I was so inspired by a medical student I met on a solo trip who wasn’t afraid to wine and dine herself. Traveling alone was not going to stop her from experiencing the best cuisine that northern Italy had to offer. I, on the other hand, haven’t quite mastered the art of dining alone, but as a major foodie, it’s something I’m committed to working on.
The few meals I have had alone while traveling have not been as strange as I thought they would be. Once I got past the pretending to read (reading a book while eating is surprisingly difficult) or scrolling past nothing on my phone, I found that it was a great opportunity to people watch. You can even get in a little eavesdropping for listening comprehension practice (shh don’t tell). Eating and doing nothing else is a strange sensation, but I’m trying to embrace it. For me, eating has always been a time to either socialize or catch up on my favorite show. We eat popcorn at the movie theaters, not to stare at a blank wall! But I’m willing to lean into the discomfort.
So join me, friends, so we can eat alone, together.
What’s your advice for getting over solo-travel anxieties?