Solo travel is hardly as taboo as it once was, which is why I — a twenty-seven-year-old woman — felt reasonably comfortable and even confident venturing off to London by myself a few weeks before Christmas. Riddled with questions from family and friends leading up to my trip (where would I stay that was safe, how would I get around, had I seen Taken?), I remained calm. In fact, I was eager to wander the busy streets by my lonesome before sitting down to quiet, reflective afternoon tea for one every day. That’s what I did without question from anyone for most of my week away… that is until I had a very unsettling and unwelcome conversation with a male server.
“Your face is nice, but…” his thick Italian accent trailed off. “I don’t want to say,” he mumbled after a few seconds. This server (who, I should note, was not really my server) had asked me for the third and last time as I waited to pay my bill if I was OK. Although he had gone out of his way to be helpful while I dined, I felt the need to ask why he’d asked me this question so many times during my stay at the chic London cafe. Why had my previous responses — each assuring him a little too nicely that I was, indeed, fine — not been sufficient? He was so determined to turn my day or maybe my life around that he even surprised me with a post-brunch dessert I hadn’t ordered but that was his favorite.
“You think I look sad?” I asked, finally saying out loud what he had been unable to. Yes, that was he thought but now that I’d said it for him, he was apologetic. “I’m sorry,” and “It’s OK,” were both statements he said to me in that moment and I wondered how he reconciled the two. He was sorry that he alerted me of my sadness (the same sadness I insisted I didn’t feel) and he wanted me to know it was OK to be sad (which I was not). Exhausted by this entire ordeal that had lasted throughout my meal, I said, “I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m not sad. This is just my face.” He still didn’t buy it but it was enough for us to end our conversation on a mutually awkward note, both smiling to ourselves in disbelief at the other.
I thought about this encounter for the rest of my day. I’d been dining out alone all week and, to be honest, I was loving it. There’s something about being alone in a strange place that makes you feel most at home in your own personhood. But now, my day that had previously started out so positively and so much about me was clouded with thoughts of this concerned but, let’s be frank, self-righteous stranger who insisted I was sad. And you know what? For a few hours after that, I was. I reasoned that this must have been one of those scenarios you see in the movies where a kind, wise stranger sees something in someone else they had been afraid to recognize on their own. By that logic, he had to be right, right?
His words weighed heavy on my mind, “Your face is nice but…” until I realized this was hardly different from the now-memed, “You should smile more,” that women hear all too often. And while I’ve learned to respond appropriately to that, this newly dressed-up version caught me off guard. I hated that I didn’t see it sooner and that he’d made such an impression on my last day. I hated that he’d made me question my own feelings. I hated that he’d inserted himself into the first-person narrative that was my solo trip.
The truth is the first time he asked if I was OK, I thought, “This is literally the most beautiful cafe I’ve ever sat in and I am so, so happy to be in London for the first time. This might even be the highlight of my trip.” I should have shot back that, prior to his interruption, I was thinking about how proud I was of myself for coming in alone. I wish I’d been brave enough to explain, just as bluntly as he would later analyze my face, that I was dining alone because I truly wanted to be alone and that, frankly, he was disturbing me. Instead, out loud, I assured him I was fine with the most welcoming of smiles and kind eyes that I hope still expressed how desperately I wanted him to retreat into the kitchen.
I realize now that I was attempting to defuse the situation rather than assert my own feelings. Here was this stranger prodding ceaselessly about my mental and emotional state in a public place and refusing to take no for an answer. I don’t believe there was anything concerning about my appearance other than the fact that I was dining alone. What he’d seen on my face was vulnerability, not sadness, and what he’d attempted to do was position himself as my so-called male savior. Only, I didn’t need saving and I wish I had been more vocal in my resistance. Sadly, I wish, too, that I didn’t have to be.
Women-identifying solo travelers, like myself, are told that the world isn’t safe. That they should take extra precautions, dress a certain way and miss out on travel experiences that take place after dark. Heartbreaking tragedies like that of British backpacker Grace Millane act as supporting evidence, too. But just like Millane’s family encourages would-be travelers to continuing pursuing their dreams, I remain an advocate of solo travel, especially for women. It doesn’t mean I’m looking for trouble and it doesn’t always mean I’m looking for friends, either.
I am just a woman, on my own, forging my own path.
Yes, I have learned to be more cautious and less trusting through my travels but I also know there’s so much more the world has to teach me. I’m ready to listen and speak up for myself.