As a woman, eating at or exploring a new place alone can seem at worst, dangerous, and at best, lonesome; but I’ve found it instead to be life-giving and empowering. The first time I ate alone in a restaurant, and not just to eat a quick bite or grab a cup of coffee, was at an Indian restaurant when I was a junior in college. I had wanted to try this restaurant, Taste of India, for months and had planned to go with my then-boyfriend as our first date after I returned from studying in Kenya. Shortly after returning to the U.S. however, I endured a messy breakup with said boy all while experiencing reverse culture shock. The restaurant fell to the back burner as I locked myself up from the outside world.
One Saturday, I picked myself off my apartment floor, where I had been lying in the sun rays as they came through the window, and decided to go to the restaurant. It was 4 in the afternoon and I was the only patron. I ordered chai, followed by samosas, garlic naan, Palak Paneer, and finished off with a mango lassi. Two kids, perhaps the children of the owner, peaked at me from behind a dividing wall and giggled, probably amused at the sight of a woman with more plates than companions. As I finished my meal, I sat back, full, content, and marveling at my situation. For so long I had dreamt of eating here, but it had been dependent on another. Today I had gone by myself and surprisingly, I had enjoyed it. I felt like a new woman, a phoenix. An independent woman who didn’t need the veil of a date to try something new.
This rush of independence spurred me forward in a quest of solitary experiences. I went to more restaurants to people-watch and learn about new cuisine, movies that I didn’t have to persuade others to watch with me, museums where I danced around empty galleries, and several theatre performances. Before my quest, I was scared to go through life alone. I relied on others for enjoyment, purpose, and my identity. Now I was finally getting the chance to get to know myself.
As a now married woman, my solitary experiences have decreased slightly. Experiencing restaurants, shows, and new places with my “other half” is fun and comforting because I can jump from rock to rock on a beach or twirl around with him in the same way I would if I were alone. Every now and then though, circumstances arise where I find myself exploring alone once more. Most recently, this happened while at a work conference in Boston. I wanted to whale watch, go to Salem, and eat a lobster roll. All of which I did, missing my husband in part, but alone and content.
The sun was very bright as I explored the coast of Massachusets alone.
There is discomfort in being alone. In college, I didn’t have a smartphone as a crutch to get me through the awkward moments. These days I’m tempted by the urge to scroll while I’m trying to enjoy solitary time, partly because I think a solitary person on their phone is a less strange sight than someone thinking and observing. Being a woman comes with extra anxieties, but I tend to stick to experiences during daylight and be in-tuned to my discomfort meter. The social discomfort eases with time and practice and makes a space for a time of re-acquaintance with myself. So often in the constant work-home flow, my thoughts and emotions get jostled to the side where they quietly wait for a time when I’m not so busy. While exploring alone, I have time to process and engage with them. Finally, solitary exploration means I get the chance to engage with the world no matter the external circumstances. For example, whale watching has always been a dream of mine. On my trip to Boston, I could have skipped the whale watching trip, hoping that there would be another time in my life when I was with my friends or family. But what if there wasn’t? Maybe I would always be landlocked. So I went and watched in awe (I may have also audibly shrieked with excitement) as a humpback whale and her calf stuck their heads out of the water, dove for fish, and surfaced for air several times.
The moment I walked out my apartment to go to Taste of India by myself seems like a turning point. Before I had been trying to mold myself into someone I wasn’t and was unsure of myself. When I finished my dinner, I felt a burgeoning understanding of who I wanted to be; someone who engaged with people and the world, someone able to take risks, and someone willing to address the dark corners of myself. That moment led me to a path of great experiences, and not just with myself. It seems daunting to explore a new place and oneself, but sometimes it all begins with a single act of courage, like asking for a table for one.