Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Table for One -- a Solo Travel post


As lovely as it is, when travelling with a friend or a romantic partner, to be able to share pleasure in new sights, sounds . . . and tastes! . . . as lovely as that can be, I find an equally compelling, if different, pleasure in savouring the new experiences to/for myself, lingering on and in them without distraction, storing them up for future sharing, perhaps.

The very pretty dish above was served to me at a table in Chambéry last month. I'd arrived, in the dark, at the station of a town I'd never visited before. Consulting my iPhone for directions, I attracted the attention of a well-dressed fellow whose offer to help me find my hotel was quite probably sincere and well-meaning, but I thought it wiser to manage on my own. . . . although shortly after I'd waved him off, I asked a policeman standing by his vehicle if he'd point me to the right street. Once I had that, all the rest was easy, and the welcome in the hotel -- only a 5-minute walk away --  was warm and comforting. I asked the Front Desk-Cum-Concierege to recommend a restaurant, and he made me a reservation.

Yes, I had to walk on my own several blocks, in the dark, through twisty, medieval streets, but they were lit, and although shops were shut, there were enough people walking and cycling through, that I didn't feel uncomfortable. My sense of security was enhanced by the care the hotel clerk had taken in making the reservation and giving me directions, and I arrived easily at the restaurant, where two hopeful diners who'd arrived just before me, sans reservations, were being turned away.  Inside, I was shown to my table, fortuitously positioned so that I could enjoy some casual people-watching while waiting for my food. I used to be shy about eating on my own, would try to bring a book for "cover," but these days, I just as often simply sit and look around, take in the ambience, relax, and anticipate an evening of being looked after. There's always the iPhone to consult, Instagram to scroll through, if I begin to feel restless or exposed, and I often tuck my iPad Mini in my bag as well, just in case I do want to read.


Funny to think that there was a time, not so very long ago, when women eating alone in restaurants were often treated poorly or looked askance at. But consider this passage from Isabel Vincent's charming memoir Dinner with Edward.


I haven't yet read the book Vincent is quoting here, although I have it on my For Later shelf in my Vancouver Public Library account after a commenter,  my friend Brenda, mentioned it back on this post. I'm very much looking forward to recognising these words when I get to it, and meanwhile, I couldn't resist copying them out.

I especially like this idea of ordering "as if I were a guest of myself, to be treated with infinite courtesy."


I know that for some -- many? -- women, there's a discomfort in eating alone, not just having to overcome shyness, perhaps, but also in being revealed as single, with centuries, millennia, of shame attached to that notion, the idea of a single woman, alone in public. We like to think we've shrugged that weight off, but it's not always that easy.  Worth making the effort, though, at least for me,

Of course, the effort involved in eating alone is amplified, when travelling, by many factors, not the least of which is language, but also the cultural differences that so often reveal themselves where food is the focus. No question that there's a good possibility of making errors, embarrassing ones that would be much easier to endure with an ally or foil at the table, someone with whom we could laugh at ourselves, thus taking the sting out of imagining ourselves laughed at by others.

But if we're willing to make ourselves a bit vulnerable (and truly, that's much of what travelling is all about), we will find that most of the other humans in a restaurant are either too busy with their own food and table companions or they are as helpful and sympathetic as the diners in a small Parisian restaurant in the 13th, Au Bon Coin, who told an American woman how to get her bill so that she could go back to her hotel bed. She'd arrived in Paris, for the first time, only hours ago, she ended up explaining to the 20 or 30 of us in the small-ish room of tables pushed together as they so often are in the City of Light. She spoke very little English and was quite pleased with herself for having taken herself out to dinner solo, but she couldn't figure out why the server hadn't noticed she was finished her meal and wanted to leave. Very quickly, she'd been taught how to ask for l'addition while someone caught the server's eye for her, and we all called out Bonsoir as she left.

How, you might be wondering, did she manage to order her meal if she spoke so little French? That was ten or so years ago, and there may well not have been an English menu available -- harder now to find a restaurant that won't hand you an English version at the bare hint of an accent. But even in Italy, where I know so much less of the language, I often ask if I might look at the Italian menu as well -- the translations can be, well, entertaining, if not very illuminating. In Croatia, I'm no good at all with the local menus, but you'd be surprised how helpful Google translate can be. . . even when there's not a translation available, the name of a dish will often bring up a photo for you.

And if all else fails, you can follow the method of a young couple I met in France decades ago. They spoke very little French, and few French restaurants at the time featured servers (or menus) with much English,  but they weren't going to let that lack spoil their enjoyment of its rich cuisine. So they would simply look around, they told me, and see what looked good at nearby tables. And then point.

More realistically, these days it's so easy to research online, to find out what restaurants fit your comfort zone, to learn a bit about customs and protocol, even to download a .pdf of the menu from a restaurant website so that you can study it ahead of time.

And eating out doesn't have to require a big adventure factor. Often, for me, it's as simple as finding a decent brasserie within a block or two of my hotel. In Paris these last few solo visits,  I go back to spots I've eaten at with Pater numerous times. Relaxed, easy, nurturing, and if I have a second glass of wine, I'm within easy tottering distance of my little room.

Generally, these days, I'm quite happy in my own company, not particularly looking to strike up conversation, and I find it easy enough to make that clear. But sometimes serendipitous meetings arise, for solo travellers, that might be less likely to happen when we're part of a couple or a group. I'll close this post with the journal page describing one such pleasant meeting last month in Paris, an hour or two after my train from Chambéry had delivered me to Gare de Lyon (transcription below, for those who can't decipher my scrawl)

I'd written about my walk from Gare de Lyon, and then I recount  stopping at that first too-busy Brasserie across from l'Institut du Monde Arabe, then leaving after I didn't even get a menu after a ten-minute wait [should add here that I did get seated, however]. Getting a very good Entrecôte & Frites at one a couple of blocks along. 
     And then the woman at the next table striking up a conversation, sensing we'd met before -- No -- but persisting in exploring connections, et voilà -- she's from Horby Island, was at UVic, took a course from Stephen Scobie, etc., etc., .. . . Turns out she's the former owner of the Marais' Red Wheelbarrow Books. . . 

Since then, this woman and I have become FB friends, and I'm looking forward to connecting with her again when I'm in Paris -- and eagerly hoping she manages to open another Paris bookshop. It's possible we would have chatted even if I'd been with Pater -- he's a very amenable guy, after all -- but I doubt it.

So much more I could say about dining solo, at home or abroad, but I think I'll sit back now and hear what you have to say. I don't have enough experience in enough countries to presume to advise, but I'm happy to answer any questions you might have. As well, I think our desire and willingness to travel or to dine out alone depends so much on personality -- as do the skills we might develop to accommodate that desire. Are you comfortable -- and do you enjoy -- eating out, alone, when you're at home? And what about when travelling? If not, why not? And if you have tips to share that might make it easier for others, please do. . .  Let's chat about all of that -- the mike is open, the floor is yours . . .

51 comments:

  1. i remember a wonderful early Saturday solo-breakfast in a restaurant in front of a fireplace with a delicious cup of coffee. My husband was out of town and I treated myself after having a full week teaching high school biology. I had taken time to get casually dressed and put makeup on. I felt confident, very content, and ready to begin a leisurely weekend. The ambiance of that morning has stayed with me for over a decade. I had the same experience in Brugge, Belgium. I love playing the "older, confident woman" (finally!) at sixty-plus years.
    Thank you for bringing up these precious memories.
    Charlene H.

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    1. You've captured it exactly -- that sense of playing, but also of being, of feeling, the "older, confident woman." It can be such a celebration of self!

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  2. Such an inspiring post, for someone like me who feels quite awkward dining alone away or at home. But I find it easier nowadays than I used to. Perhaps an age thing?

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  3. Dining solo has become one of my treat and pleasure, especially since Hubby and not that fond of “fine dining”. I enjoy it all by myself, people watching included, and I must admit these modern phones are a great company if you ever need to give yourself a bit of “contenance” at some point during the meal. I actually enjoy it more than when I need to concentrate on conversation and pay less attention to the food!

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    1. I love it! There's a line I've always remembered from Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley, "I never met anybody whose talk was better than good food," -- although I've been lucky enough to meet a few (or unlucky enough never to have tasted food quite that good?)

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  4. I have always enjoyed eating alone (not exclusively) at home or away. Like you, I used the book as a screen for a long time. Now, I eat, sip my wine and sometimes if I'm feeling bold and have been alone for a bit, I will speak to other diners if they speak in familiar accents. When I'm away I do tend to patronize neighbourhood brasseries or gastropubs and to get to know the servers. I have an MFK Fisher book in one of the infamous boxes. One day....There are too many books to read.

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    1. You're such a confident and experienced solo traveller.
      Yes, too many books, but we love the challenge, right? ;-)

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  5. Pointing at a fellow diner's dinner can lead to some interesting meals. Years ago in France my parents, who knew no French, told the waiter they would have what the table next to them was having. It turned out to be a very expensive seven course meal with a different wine for each course. They staggered out the restaurant and ate bread and cheese for a couple of days until the budget (and their digestion) was straightened out. It's one of my favorite memories of their travels, but one that also taught be to be careful!

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    1. I'm sure they "dined out" on this delightful anecdote for years afterward! Sometimes too much is just right (in retrospect!).

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    2. Such a good story, Lynn -- thank you for sharing it!

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    3. Yeeks -- I need to proofread. Three typos on one short paragraph! Sorry.

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  6. I love your post, Frances, and am glad to hear you had such lovely solo dining experiences during your recent European travels.

    Yes, dining alone is adventurous, and I've done a lot of it, while single for 15 years between my first and second marriages and during decades of business travel. Fortunately, I'm an extrovert and not overly intimidated by a dining-alone scenario.

    But even extroverts are not always in the mood for connections and know that solitude can make for an even sweeter dining experience -- focusing on the food, ambience, adventure, novelty and beauty of the meal and surroundings.

    BTW, one of my bucket list items is to spend a month in Paris studying beginning French. I don't speak the language, although Duolingo tells me I'm now 7% fluent in French -- bless its heart! ;) When I'm attending one of those over-priced Sorbonne month-long courses I'll get beaucoup d'expérience dining alone. And I look forward to it. :)

    Ann in Missouri

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    1. Ann, try the Alliance Française as another option for your month-long course. Excellent standards, with branches all across France in lovely towns, and good social programme for students which I felt very comfortable in as a more mature student. I thoroughly enjoyed my time recently at the Bordeaux one. Oui, je fais de la pub!

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    2. Merci, Linda!

      Ann in Missouri

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    3. I'd like to try the course Linda did as well. And you might also check in with Madame Là-Bas, who commented above and who has written on her blog about her stay in Paris while attending a French Civilisation course at the Sorbonne.

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    4. Thank you, Frances! I've just subscribed to Madame Là-Bas's blog and have already located some posts about her time at the Sorbonne. Very, very helpful.

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  7. When I was much younger and did a bit of travel for work, my lack of confidence had me always order room service. Now, I think I could learn to enjoy a meal out on my own, although I rarely have the opportunity. I do enjoy people watching while eating, even with my husband. Sometimes we sit in companionable silence and do just that, occasionally comparing notes or discreetly drawing the other's attention to an especially charming scene.

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    1. Room service can be a real treat as well, of course. Interesting that the confidence to dine out on our own (or simply to imagine it, even if we haven't reason or need) seems to come with age, with life experience -- as Charlene notes above.

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  8. I've loved to eat alone for a while now - I suppose it started when I traveled for business and had to learn, then it was such a welcome respite in the first terrible days of my divorce.

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    1. Ah, I can imagine that. If we're not stressed about eating out on our own, as some might be, it is so nurturing to order something we like and have it brought to us, with just enough solicitousness. . .
      I think I grew to love eating alone during my stay-at-home years with children. Such a respite, much as I loved my kids.

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  9. I don’t mind eating in restaurants alone. I have never done so outside of North America though. I tend to people watch and my over active imagination invents stories and dramas around me. I always feel that I’m in the middle of a dinner theatre. Shakespeare was correct.
    Ali

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    1. It's true, all the world's a stage, and to be able to get dinner and a show -- Win/Win! ;-)

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  10. Will come back later to comment but just to say - what a lovely treat to discover a long post from you to read over breakfast!

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  11. As well as Charlene H.,after a well concluded bussines deal (after I retired - it has helped me to see different possibilities) I treated myself with a weekend in Vienna (I wasn't single,as well as when I started to travel with my son. Also,I wasn't tightfisted- it had become a pattern that our trips as a family were procrastinated and procrastinated....)
    Although I had friends there (and ,when I think about it,I had friends or son studying or working,or husband working.....almost everywhere I traveled,but to dine alone was either a must-the latter two, who were busy - or my choice for most of the days-the former)
    I've planned it completely : from the hotel I've admired when I visited Vienna before, to the restorants I wanted to explore. I've felt great,enjoying the food,glass of wine,the atmosphere.....
    Than I've spent a day (and two dinners :-))with my friend and her husband
    When I'm somewhere abroad,I'm not so adventurous in the evening,as for the lunch, I dine near or in the hotel. As the hotels are situated in the centre,it is not a problem
    And here,I must admit again,I don't go out to dinners alone-there was always someone I know and than they wanted me to join them (or vice versa) and I don't feel comfortable. Not to mention my friends who will feel affected that I've chosen my own over their company :-). As you can see,we are very sociable people here
    Dottoressa

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    1. When you've travelled to a place where you have friends to eat with, dining alone doesn't really make sense, does it?! I get the impression you would have no problem eating on your own in a restaurant if circumstances dictate.

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    2. Yes,indeed,I actually like it very much :-)
      D.

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  12. I've been happily eating out alone for about 40 years but what has pleasantly surprised me is how, without really noticing, I have become much better at cooking properly for myself when at home. I used to be someone who would make a cheese sandwich and be done with it but now I enjoy cooking just for me. A lot of it has to do with having more time but also, I think, because I stopped eating meat some years ago so often eat differently to the rest of the household. Hence I eat only what I want. This doesn't seem to be a problem here though I know some people struggle with this. Excuse me while I put the kettle on for coffee and go organise my breakfast. Bon appetit.

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    1. This is a definite plus. My husband likes a lot of carbs, processed breakfast cereals and not too many vegetables. I love lots of vegetables and prefer pulses, nuts and unrefined grains to pasta, white rice and potatoes. Although slim, he also eats biscuits (cookies) whereas I realise I have never bought myself a packet of biscuits. The joy of cooking a dish that you actually want to eat!

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    2. I don't enjoy cooking for myself quite as much as my husband does, but we spent the last five or six years of his career working in different cities, at least during the week, and you can get very tired of grilled cheese sandwiches. . . I remember someone asking me -- and rather incredulously, too -- if I actually opened a bottle of wine when I was eating on my own during the week (Hells to the Yes!!).

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  13. I enjoyed that post . I agree that travelling is to make yourself vulnerable & perhaps that’s why many people play safe as they get older , returning to favourite places or going on organized trips . Which is fine if you are happy but there is real excitement in tackling strange places , especially alone . It seems to heighten your senses . I’ve never eaten alone in a restaurant but often have a lunch when out shopping . I don’t think it would bother me , though a large fancy place might be more intimidating . Like Ali above , I’ve always concocted little stories about lone travelers & older women always seemed to give more scope for invention . You have probably featured in many such stories .
    Wendy from York

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    1. I think there's something to that, Wendy. Adding the vulnerability of travel to the increasing vulnerability of age might be why so many prefer to draw in their horns.
      And I'd love to think I feature in such a story -- one that I too have concoted from time to time, and you're right: as lone travelers, I think older women do offer more scope for invention.

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  14. I enjoy the luxury of eating out, savouring the pleasure of good food well prepared and laid out, reading and writing as I see fit, people-watching (and I'm not terribly self-conscious when being watched, as I am sure others enjoy people-watching too). I enjoy the interaction with the waitstaff, often struggling college students - I make sure to tip them especially well, recalling my relatively penniless student days - and I'm not shy about making reasonable requests, which I find are gracefully granted if the interaction is a civilized, mutually respectful one. Even if the server is temporarily grumpy - who knows for what reason - 99% of the time I can turn it around with a smile or polite comment. Then the meal is a mutually enjoyable interaction. Also, I'm not shy about complimenting parents of young children if the latter are well behaved (considering age). Usually parents beam with pleasure!

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    1. I'm so pleased you mention the tipping. Duchess (at Passage des Perles) posted on this a while ago -- we women of a certain age have a reputation for not tipping as well, and I like to counter that whenever I can. In turn, yes, we should also feel comfortable making reasonable requests. Like you, I can generally turn a grumpy server into a more amiable one, and like to set that little challenge for myself. I love that you make a point of complimenting parents of young children on their little ones' behaviour. I remember appreciating such comments very much.

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  15. Like many posting here, I used to be a bit intimidated by dining solo, but now I like it. Glad you are going to read The Gastronomical Me. I co-wrote a paper on it years ago.
    No-one else has asked but what is that dish? I see caperberries, but cannot figure out the rectangular food. Is it fish? Bread? Do tell! Brenda

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    1. So glad you asked, Brenda. It was exquisite, the thinnest slices of bread on the outsides, holding a filling of very finely shredded white fish, seasoned and perhaps with egg, perhaps flour, so light, the buttered outsides just crisp. You're exactly right in your guess. Yes, it's fish, and yes, it's bread. Wish I'd snapped a photo of the menu so that I could remember what it was called. . .

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  16. I've realised that the questions you pose often lead me to reflect to the point of procrastination and the conversation has moved on before I get round to commenting. This is not a criticism, on the contrary, you often raise issues I have not considered. For example, your last travel post, together with comments from other readers, gave me a real jolt as I have always been a confident traveller and it had not occurred to me that this confidence might diminish with age. Perhaps I had subconsciously avoided thinking about this as I can't bear to think of my horizons shrinking at some stage. My 80 year old Mum is still happily globetrotting, often with friends and sometimes travelling alone to visit family members. I can only hope I follow in her footsteps. In the meantime, I am perfectly happy to eat out alone at home or away if the situation arises but I much prefer to have company, especially at dinner. Thank you for raising these issues. Wilma D

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    1. Thanks for this feedback, Wilma. I, too, can find it hard to send comments out into a conversation, especially online, without taking time to reflect first. I'm really pleased you added yours this time -- often the conversations here do last for a few days.
      I'm not sure that the confidence in travelling necessarily diminishes with age so much that we often fall into patterns that don't require independent travelling. . . then years pass, and we discover we feel more diffident about what we used to take for granted. I think if we keep using these "muscles," that's less likely to happen -- your Mum is a great example!

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  17. I am comfortable doing things alone - shopping, the movies, dining. Only thing is, when dining alone, I always have a book along But then, when I dine alone at home, I also have a book! I like to read while I eat.

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  18. I'm happy to eat out alone ... In fact I quite enjoy it. It always feels like a "treat" . When I was younger, I'd keep a book or notebook handy, just in case... Now I just relax, enjoy my food, wine and soak up the ambience! Towards the end of our building works, 12 years ago, when there seemed not one room in the house that I could totally relax in during the day ... I'd take a picnic to a park or go out for lunch occasionally. This actually lead to me finding some new restaurants, that my husband and I went on to enjoy together! I don't seek out others to chat to, as I quite content on my own but I have had some great conversations that probably wouldn't have taken place, had I not been by myself.
    I also enjoy making meals for myself as I can try something that others in the family may not like .... I also enjoy a quick sandwich if I don't feel like cooking!!
    Another great post Frances! Thank you ...
    Rosie

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    1. It always feels like a treat for me as well. Interesting that a number of us have found, with age, that we don't always need the book or notebook as a cover.
      Several other good points here as well -- thanks!

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  19. I don't mind eating out alone, although it can be hard not to rush/be rushed. I sometimes feel a little silly drawing out a meal (I eat way too fast at home, too!) Just don't get to travel much on my own.....

    Also, I enjoy preparing a lovely meal for myself on the rare occasions I'm dining at home alone. Proper food, proper plating, even if it's only pasta with butter and parmagiano. We should always find ways to treat ourselves!

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    1. As long as there's not a long lineup waiting for a table -- and sometimes, even if -- I've got a few tricks up my sleeve now so that I don't get rushed unduly. I suspect that "sensitive poet," above, does as well. When we eat out, we're paying for an experience beyond just the food and while I think we shouldn't be inconsiderate, neither should we allow ourselves to be "given the bum's rush" -- I very much like the image of the meal you make for yourself, when you're on your own. Very self-nurturing.

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  20. It's a fine art, isn't it, while eating alone to relax and look around without seeming to be a) anxiously scanning the room for your dinner date who is running late b) wanting attention from waiting staff c) being a bit creepy and lugging in to what other people are saying/doing. That's where a book/e-reader/phone can help break up the looking around bit.

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    1. It is a fine art and an acquired skill. The prop of a book or e-reader or phone can really help us feel comfortable until we really ARE comfortable enough to own that space unapologetically. It takes a while, but practice does make it easier, as I'm sure you've found.

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  21. Is it only me who used to need a book to protect herself against unwanted company and annoying advances from men unable to believe that a female could be content all by herself? Luckily, this problem tends to disappear with age ...

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    1. Did you ever find a book was enough protection?
      But yes, it's not such a problem anymore, and I can't say I mind that very much.

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  22. Love your sketch from the cafe!! I have enjoyed so many meals travelling with others but my most vivid memories are solitary meals. For some reason at these times the sense of travelling alone crystallizes and I have the same feeling I had as a child, venturing out on my own into the world of my neighbourhood or local woods--a delicious sense of my own "being in the world," and all its rich possibilities...

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    1. Yes!! Interesting that you're tapping into a similar feeling to what Charlene describes, above, but you're pulling the child and the comforable-in-her-skin older woman together. xo

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  23. I can't believe I didn't comment here. I adore dining alone, or at least I do when I travel. I'm working on dining alone at home, or at least on taking myself out to dine alone in the city of my residence. I dine alone at home all the time. I find my observations are different, and my sense of place and moment. It feels as if I am both of and in and apart from the world all at once. Marvelous feeling.

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    1. Yes, observations are so much more attentive, although we do have to be discreet about them. I like your description of being "both of and in and apart from the world all at once." Very nice for a social introvert, really. . .

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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