La Matandeta in Valencia on any given night is packed with locals, tourists, and anyone with half a tongue to appreciate the taste of good paella. Any traveler would be missing out on a culinary and cultural institution by visiting Spain without eating good paella.
The only thing is, as the hostess clearly states for all around to hear, “I’m sorry, but paella is only served for parties of at least two.”
What’s a solo traveler to do?
Traveling solo, whether while on business or backpacking, can feel down right lonely. Especially during that moment when the hostess at a restaurant or the attendant at a theatre asks “how many in your party?” And after a seemingly endless scan of the couples and groups of friends laughing and chatting throughout the venue, you look back and sigh, “Uno.” And so some of us never leave the hotel room, or worse, never leave home to travel at all.
Yes, sitting holed up in a hotel room eating a TV dinner by yourself is lonely. But going out, even by yourself, and exploring a city surrounded by 10 million people is the furthest thing from lonely, if you let it be. Traveling alone doesn’t have to mean traveling lonely.
- Use pickup lines:
I was in a touristy coffee shop in Buenos Aires, traveling solo as usual. As soon as I heard English 2 tables down, I stood up, walked over and said, “Sorry, my table over there’s pretty boring. Mind if I use yours?” That’s all it took. Another time a bird flew onto my table at an outdoor cafe and scavenged my breakfast. As everyone stared, instead of getting embarassed, I walked to a table where I saw English-language guide books and said, “Would you guys be willing to take in a refugee?” In both cases they were just as excited to meet another English-speaker, trade tango stories, and we ended up spending most of the day traveling around together. Pickup lines usually are terrible for hitting on girls, but they usually work wonders when trying to pickup friends.
- Bring a book:
On a train from Rome to Bari, I saw a girl reading a book in English. I had no idea what it was, and I couldn’t even pretend to fake an understanding. So I pulled out my book, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” I had read the book years ago and had no intention of reading it on the trip. But I knew a lot of other people had read it as well, and had very strong feelings about it either in love or disgust of it. Sure enough, as soon as I opened up to page whatever-I-happened-to-randomly-open-up-to, she looked over, told me how much she loved James Joyce, and we spent the next 2 hours talking and making plans to hang out together in Greece for the next few days. Nothing about it was a lie; I just needed an excuse to start an interesting conversation about something I could sustain, and the book did that.
- Know the beautiful game, or at least look like you do:
Before I ever got into soccer, I packed a Barcelona jersey every time I traveled abroad. Not just any Barca jersey, but the jersey of the world’s most iconic player: Messi. I knew enough about soccer to know that people either loved or hated Barcelona, and that Messi’s worldwide appeal was beyond any other player’s. The shirt does the work for me: I wear it, and strangers approach me with cheers or jeers. I then get to choose who I want to continue the conversation with.
Some days I spend more time with people I meet than I spend by myself when I travel solo. Other times, I start a day solo and end it solo. Some nights I end up in some awesome conversations with locals who show me around their city. Other nights, not even close.
Which leads to the most important part of traveling solo: being comfortable being alone. You may end up in an awesome/not so-awesome conversation with a stranger; you may find yourself the life of a party you weren’t even invited to; you may end up not talking to a soul all evening. You need to be ok regardless of which of those things comes true.
“When we cannot bear to be alone, it means we do not properly value the only companion we will have from birth to death—ourselves.” —Eda LeShan