Does solo dining feel like the last supper to you?
Do you feel self-conscious and out-of-place walking into a restaurant on your own?
Would you rather be anywhere else?
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. Equally irritating is the occasional reticence of restaurateurs who would rather fill their tables with groups of heavy tippers.
By dining out solo, we help push back these perceptions and take our place where we belong - in this case, at the table.
As a solo woman on the road, you'll probably eat alone often.
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.
1. Eat earlier in the evening - or later
Eateries are less formal in the early hours, when families go out. They're less packed later and the welcome might be warmer. Early or late, you'll feel less out of place away from peak hours.
2. Have lunch, not dinner
Lunch tends to be more casual, and plenty of women take their lunch break in restaurants. In Paris I was having lunch on my own and the waiter plopped someone right across from - without even asking.
3. 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 intrigue someone enough to start a conversation - if that's what you want. (If not, just grunt.)
4. ...or write
Write some postcards (remember those?) or make an entry in your travel journal. (Maybe someone will mistake you for a restaurant critic!) I carry a little notebook with me wherever I go and I'm a compulsive scribbler so you'll always find me writing away at a table.
5. Escape into sound
If you really want to block out the world, use your iPod to listen to music or a podcast. If you're in an elegant restaurant, put on some Vivaldi or Beethoven or Carmen. If you're in a diner, try some pop or country music. Get yourself into the mood!
6. 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.
7. Eat at the bar
Some people are more comfortable at the bar and you may be one of them, chatting away with the bar staff and looking like you belong. I can see a potential side effect though - other solo travelers, the kind that are looking for company. Keep that in mind as you pull up your stool.
8. Learn about the food
Your self-consciousness quotient might skyrocket when confronted with an indecipherable national menu. 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.
9. 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. Are any solo women eating there? Do they look like they're enjoying themselves? You'll have fewer surprises.
10. Check out prices before you go
Make sure you know how much this will cost. You don't want a financial shock to add itself to any discomfort you might already be feeling. Match your restaurant to your means.
11. Master a few basic words
Learn a bit of the language - at least enough to ask for the menu, the bill, the toilet, and please and thank you. Take a small phrase book with you - you won't have a conversation but at least you won't end up with a steak instead of lasagna.
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 better as a result.
13. Dress up
Sometimes we're shy because we feel out of place. I often 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 look the part.
14. Meditate and stay in the moment
You've heard it before - the 'live in the moment' approach? Sometimes we're so busy worrying or criticising that the present passes us by. Try having a mindful meal: pay attention to each condiment, each ingredient, each bite. Look around and notice every detail. Immerse yourself in your surroundings. This should distract you from your fears and worries and focus your attention where it belongs: on your food.
15. 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 glare at each and every person that walks in by themselves? The only time you'll look twice at a solo woman is if she looks uncomfortable, right?
There are alternatives - although you're only putting off the inevitable. If you're staying in a guesthouse or hostel, look for other solo guests. If you're in a hotel, order room service. If you really want to eat in a restaurant, try the one in your hotel - they're usually full of solo diners. Or ask the concierge if there are any nearby eateries with communal tables. Or make a reservation at one of the many new "eat with a local" outfits that are springing up in every city.
As for me, I'm happy to have the time alone: I just treat it like a mini-vacation and do my best to enjoy the experience!