Going solo is fun, when done with care
WHENEVER I see women traveling around the world in twos and threes for safety's sake, I pity them for the experiences they are missing. Women traveling together automatically cloak themselves in anonymous immunity and hardly ever talk to anyone except cabdrivers, waitresses, and room clerks. A woman traveling alone can automatically trigger a desire for communication with others, and communication is the spice of travel. An obvious advantage of solo travel is the possibility of long stretches of solitude that allow for introspection. I have enjoyed long train and bus rides uninterruptedly taking in the passing scenery. People-watching in outdoor caf'es is another pastime that can be indulged in without being pressured to abide by someone else's whims, dictates, or timetable. I can shop at my own pace. If I want to read in bed, or sleep late, I don't have to worry about being inconsiderate to another.
Self-consciousness when dining alone is the hardest thing to overcome. The first few times you enter a restaurant by yourself you're sure everyone is eyeing you with pitying glances. Relax! They're probably not, and even if they are, what does it matter? It is actually quite pleasant to enjoy the undivided attention of hovering waiters, to eat at one's own pace, and to have the opportunity to watch others without the interruption of forced conversation.
There are times, of course, when companionship can add the fun of adventure to a meal in a foreign place. I frequently noticed that hotel dining rooms were like a setting of the play ``Separate Tables,'' with single men and women sprinkled around in solitary, if rather subdued, splendor. One evening in Wales, I sat at a table so close to another that I could have asked its occupant, a scholarly-looking man, to pass the salt. Instead, he and I exchanged intermittent glances throughout the first course. The book he was reading was one that I had enjoyed, and he had it propped against his water glass, but it wouldn't stay put. Finally, exasperated, he shut the book. What possible harm could come to me if I spoke to him? I timidly asked if he would like me to fill him in on the chapter he hadn't read. By the time the third course came, the waiters had moved our tables together and we were sharing the meal and enjoying a literary discussion.
Recently, when I stayed at the family oriented Dan Netanya Hotel in Israel, I invited a young German tourist at the next table to come and sit with me. After enjoying a good dinner enhanced with lively conversation, she told me she was ``thrilled'' that I had invited her. She said she wanted to do it herself, but ``didn't have the nerve.''
Of course, I don't ``have the nerve'' to start conversations with everyone I see in restaurants or at service counters. As a woman alone I've had my share of fending off invitations from men who purposely chose to sit next to me. The practice of people-watching can help, though. Picking and choosing very carefully, following safe instincts, and studying the habits of possible temporary companions before speaking usually pay off.
Two of my best friends are women I met on two planes returning from Israel. One is from Jerusalem; the other is from Tel Aviv. It's a fact that people are more free in conversation with strangers on long journeys than they are with people they've known for a lifetime. Both my Israeli friends have visited me and I have visited them in Israel.
On a train to Frankfurt, West Germany, two years ago, I met a man who not only helped me with my luggage on arrival, but invited me to his home to meet his wife. They made my visit to the city a memorable one. They drove me around the countryside, took me to a May festival, showed me Goethe's house, and even took me to a dinner party.
I have made friends from Italy, the Netherlands, Brazil, Switzerland, and various parts of the United States by venturing to speak to strangers in airport terminals, on ferries, and in department stores, and it has considerably illuminated my travels and broadened my scope. I have learned so much about business affairs that I no longer skip over the business section in newspapers.
When I first started to travel by myself, the mechanics involved floored me. On previous vacation trips, my husband had always carried the luggage, handled the money, and, in restaurants, hailed the waiters. Not the least of his tasks was taking care of the various emergencies that cropped up. Learning to cope alone was, in a sense, like growing up.
While carrying my own baggage has developed my stamina, it has also taught me to travel light. My first vocational investment was two lightweight bags, one for the shoulder, one for check-in. I also acquired an aluminum carrier with wheels for trips that would require several stops. It facilitates hauls through airports and hotel lobbies, and minimizes the expense of porter tips. I pack clothing that can be crushed without creasing, rolling up most garments in plastic supermarket bags to keep them fresh and clean as long as possible.
My shoulder bag contains reading matter for the plane, valuables such as jewelry and my camera, cosmetics, a bathing suit, and a change of clothing in case my baggage temporarily goes astray. When I'm off to a place where the climate differs from that of my home base, I also include appropriate clothing I can easily change into before the plane lands. A cotton shirt and light shoes can be of great help on a sweltering day; a handy cardigan has kept me warm in some distant airport and while en route to a hotel.
My shoulder bag also contains an orange and a box of melba toast for breakfast in the event that the meal is not included in the room tariff. I buy an orange and a roll every day to eat the next day.
A small, early tip to the concierge is always a good investment. A good concierge will tell you exactly how to get to a destination and will write down the name and address in his native language for you to hand to a taxi driver. He can also check museum hours and curtain times and suggest local events of interest. He can steer you to good, inexpensive restaurants where the locals eat.
After a few near-disasters with nonexistent wake-up calls, I learned to request two or three of them, spaced 15 minutes apart to be on the safe side. This alleviates sleepless nights of worrying about whether or not I will miss an appointment or a plane because the operator forgot to call me.
In this age of worldwide travel, a woman has the fortunate choice of discovering the great big world out there. All she has to do is hold on tightly to her purse and act sensibly to realize it's not just a man's world.