Just me. Table for one please. I was tired of eating in my hotel room out of take-out containers in front of the tv and my work laptop. This was a great restaurant and I always enjoyed it there but this time I was by myself. That should be ok I bravely told myself following the hostess. Everyone has to eat. She led me to a table by the window overlooking the water and as I sat down she cleared the other place setting and left me with the menu. The telltale sign I was by myself.
I usually avoided this at all costs due to the uncomfortableness of it but not this time. I was tired of hiding simply because I was traveling alone. It was a nice evening out and I wanted to be part of it. I opened my book from my handbag and read while taking in the sunset over the water and thoroughly enjoying it all. The bravery for what I was doing now made me smile in remembrance of an important piece of wisdom I’d come to learn from a traveling nurse I had dinner with a few months prior to this night.
It was one particular trip to Chicago in January. Like a true Chicago winter the wind was blustering off Lake Michigan making the drizzly snow come down at a hard angle. I was ready for something hot and comforting after the long cold walk to the hotel from the office that evening. How on Earth do people do this for so many months I said to myself? It was damned miserable out and my feet were soaking wet. When I got to the hotel I unbundled the layers of clothing and changed into my warm thick socks and tennis shoes, heading to the split bar restaurant off the lobby for food and wine to finish thawing myself out. There was a big fireplace there and hopefully I could get one of the big oversized chairs near it at this time of evening. It was still early, I could avoid the busy crowd that usually collected there.
As I slid into a chair next to the fireplace, I ordered a merlot and sat with my hands over the top of a magazine I’d brought along. The heat felt incredible and I could feel the gradual melting of the stresses and coldness of the day ease back. As I sat waiting on my drink I scanned the menu thinking about what I would take back to my room to eat. This was such a comfortable spot I could have easily sat where I was, reading and eating, enjoying my wine but I hated doing that by myself in a busy bar or restaurant. It was embarrassing I thought. People would think me weird if I was by myself, wouldn’t they?
I never liked being in many places by myself. Not because I felt unsafe but rather it felt awkward and was lonely hearing all the conversations around you and not having one of your own going on. I felt confident to do some things on my own but eating out somewhere just wasn’t one of them. It was the downside of traveling by yourself I always thought. Those evening hours when we connect with people on a variety of topics and share laughs. I didn’t have that usually when I traveled for work. I didn’t mind most of the time but it was nice to sit in pretty places like this one, have food presented prettily on plates instead of containers and real silverware compared to plastic ware.
A woman came up taking the other oversized stuffed chair across from me at the fire. She commented about the snow outside as she wiggled out of her puffy coat and put her handbag and laptop bags down. I quick look out the window told it was snowing harder now and I nodded in agreement about the fierceness of the weather and sipped my wine in comfort. We enjoyed our drinks in relatively silence as I waited for the bartender to come back around for my order. She made several comments trying to start a conversation and I participated nicely, making the most of the time getting warm. We exchanged names, occupations and the typical things about each other. She then asked if I was staying here in the bar to eat and could we eat together. She said she really didn’t mind eating alone but much preferred company. The fireplace sure did feel good and they would raise the table between us for eating. How could I say no to that? We were both two solo business travelers who would otherwise have eaten alone so why not I said.
She was a traveling nurse in the area doing an assignment at the hospital. Quite a few years older than me, she proudly said she was retiring at the end of the year and would only be doing pleasure travel from then on. I asked her how she had liked it, the traveling I meant. What I really wanted to ask her was how she liked doing it by herself all the time. The hardest part for me was always this time of day, the evenings when it was meant to be with others for pleasure and conversation. That was always hard for me to eat and be mostly by myself. I never seemed to know where to look other than my plate, phone or book I had with me. It seemed eating was just a function when you were by yourself and not an experience like it can be when you are with others.
As if reading my mind she smiled knowingly. Her words flowed in a mix of funny stories and typical mishaps that happen on business travel but her message was clear. I wasn’t alone in what I felt about the awkwardness of solo travel. There was nothing wrong with me at all. The idea that people would point out the woman eating by herself as some weird situation was not likely though. That part was in my own insecurity. She told me in all her years of traveling alone she finds most people too wrapped up in themselves to notice others anyway so why was I letting it bother me? I should be making the most of the opportunity I have to be in different places like this one.
She had traveled the world with her job, going to different countries, time zones and unique places she probably would have never otherwise visited. At first it was intimidating and scary even. She told me at the time she was first starting out most of the business travelers were men, even now most still were but there was a marked increase in women these days. She told me that just like in the boardroom women had to overcome the limitations of where they could be strong, independent and confident by themselves when it came to business travel. That meant learning to do and enjoy things by ourselves too, including going to eat somewhere.
It was at this point our meals came. We dug in the hot food and continued talking. The sun dried tomato bisque soap I had that night was incredible and I still order it every time I go there. The one thing she told me that sets women apart from men is our own awareness of ourselves. We notice other women. We see each other and that is our gift when it comes to business travel. Too often though we let our own intimidation get in the way of making connections with each other that would not only solve our own problems but most likely help another out too.
She told me the more she grew comfortable in her own skin the less she cared what other people thought about her doing something alone. This afforded her many great experiences seeing museums, movies, ballets, opera and more when she traveled. You have to stop hiding in your hotel room otherwise you will miss the experience of where you are entirely. Obviously, always be aware of your surroundings and keep yourself safe but nothing prevented us from going anywhere we wanted. We should eat, drink, see and experience as much as anyone, even when we are a on a solo business trip.
We had an after dinner drink and she continued to tell me her stories of traveling. It wasn’t always easy she concluded but she was thankful for the experiences it had given her. She encouraged me to do the same with the opportunity I had too. I thought about her words long after that trip. I started using my downtime to see some of the sights of the cities I was in or doing things that made me leave the security of my hotel room. At first it did feel incredibly awkward and lonely but afterwards I would always be thankful I had done it. On my next trip to Chicago in fact, I went to the museum to see the impressionistic paintings that were on loan at the time. I had wanted to do it for some time and finally went.
From then on I did look for things to do in my evenings that did not involve take out to hide in my room. The hard part still was eating by myself in restaurants though. I made a deal with myself that I would only do take out one time per trip and all my other evening meals had to be somewhere out unless I was just super tired or had a lot of work to do. At first I ate at the bars, making small talk with the bartenders and forcing myself to get through it. Eventually though I started asking for a table. It still is not my favorite thing to do but I have had some incredible meals that would not have been the same in a take out box.
She was right all those years ago. It has been rewarding going to the different cities and places that I too would otherwise not necessarily go. I’m thankful for the art, culture, and things I have been able to experience when I stopped just going to my room. It certainly makes business travel more interesting and I have met some incredible people along the way. When it comes to eating out somewhere I just take a good book with me and use it as my conversationalist partner for those moments when the oddness of eating alone come into my awareness. It doesn’t last long anymore.
The other thing I adopted from her is being brave in talking to other women I see sitting by themselves. That connection to share in a drink or meal as two solo travelers is very rewarding most of all. We as women are so strong at so many things it seems a trivial thing to not be able to eat by ourselves in public. I decided this was true and stopped letting it be the barrier to me experiencing all that life should be.
As the word returns to work in person and travel resumes, I invite you to share a table with me if you see me somewhere. Use the next time you go on the road to be an experience to meet new people and form a confidence in yourself that lets your natural curiosity flow freely.
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