Does solo dining feel more like the last supper to you? Do you feel self-conscious and out-of-place walking into a restaurant on your own?
If so, join the crowd - thousands of other traveling women feel the same.
It is unfortunate but society has decreed that women on their own are to be pitied, suspected or avoided.
As a solo woman on the road, you'll probably have to eat out alone a lot of the time.
Of course you'll find plenty of dinner companions when you're on the beaten backpacker trail. But what if you wander further afield?
You may find yourself in a huge city like Shanghai or Rio, not knowing anyone, and hungry. Or maybe you're in a small African town after dark, wondering whether it's safe to wander out in search of food.
Whatever your circumstances, solo dining can be daunting, even for the most adventurous. I've watched women who climbed Everest or worked as war correspondents cringe at the thought of walking into an eatery by themselves.
No more! We need to reclaim our mealtimes.
I can't say solo dining is my favourite pastime but I'm comfortable eating alone - even though I wasn't always. I enjoy my own company, and I don't feel like missing a meal just because I travel by myself. A good thing, or I'd spend a lot of time starving!
If you're a woman for whom solo dining remains paralyzing, read on. One of these tips might help!
Bring something to read...
This is a classic escape - not only do you mentally leave the restaurant, but you have a physical barrier between yourself and other diners. And who knows - an intriguing title might do just that, intrigue, and next thing you know, someone might lean over and strike up a conversation.
If you'd prefer, write some postcards or make an entry in your travel journal. Someone might take you for a restaurant critic... Or use your iPod to listen to music or watch a podcast. Or use the restaurant's WIFI to surf the net on your smartphone. And relax.
Eat earlier in the evening
Eateries are less formal in the early hours, and that's when families go out. You'll feel less out of place when the crowds are more mixed - later evenings are more crowded with couples.
Eat outside if you can
Sidewalk cafés are more casual than indoor restaurants. If you have a choice, sit outside. The atmosphere will be more congenial, and you'll feel more comfortable.
Learn about the food
Your self-consciousness quotient might skyrocket when confronted with an indecipherable national food. Do yourself a favour and find out about local foods and eating habits beforehand. Your guidebook should have a food section, and you can look at pictures on the Internet at flickr.com or by searching Google Images. Having an idea of what you want ahead of time will help relieve some of the pressure.
Do some advance work
Scope out your eatery ahead of time. While you're exploring in daytime, take down names and addresses of places that look welcoming. You'll have fewer surprises.
Check out prices before you go
Make sure you know how much this will cost ahead of time. You don't want a financial shock to add itself to any discomfort you might already be feeling. Chances are you're on a tight budget - make sure your restaurant matches your means.
Master a few basic words
Learn a bit of the language - at least enough to ask for the menu, the bill, toilet, and to say please and thank you. Take a small phrase book with you - if in need, you can just find your word or phrase and hand the phrasebook over.
That's right, pretend you feel at ease! You'd be amazed at how some of that acting will actually rub off, making you feel more confident. Be clear and firm and simply refuse to be seated behind the potted plant. A snooty restaurant will respect you more for it - and you'll feel more at ease as a result.
Sometimes we're shy because we feel out of place. I usually carry something dressy in my backpack - something black that never wrinkles, along with some black ballerinas or sandals. I always feel I fit in better when I enter in style.
Remember: you're not the center of attention
As human beings we have a tendency to think everyone is looking at us when we enter a restaurant or sit alone. They're not. Think about it: do you stare at each and every person that walks in? Of course not. Do you wonder at length about women eating by themselves? You don't really notice them - unless they look uncomfortable.
Eating alone can actually be an ice-breaker: you may well be approached by waiters and fellow diners curious about where you're from. After all, that's what the guidebook on full display on your table is for, isn't it?
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