A table for one?

Mar 18, 2012 by

A government travel guide published in Canada recently sparked fierce debate across the blogosphere. The guide advised single women travellers to wear a fake wedding ring if they wanted to deflect unwanted male attention. It even went so far as to advise women to carry a picture of some random man in their purse, so’s to fend off the unwanted advances of letches worldwide. (Can I just point out I don’t actually read the Daily Mail, in case there’s any doubt? Came across the article doing research on blogger Sherry Ott, who I’ll be sharing a Venice apartment with for work over the next week.)

armour plate for women

Bravissimo’s latest in emotional armour.

Having been exposed to a fair amount of sexual harassment on the streets of Barcelona for almost a year, I fail to see how the knowledge that I’ve stashed a picture of a bogus husband in my bag is going to help the situation. And the idea that women even nowadays are still being told to hide behind the patronage of someone else is beyond depressing.

Anyway, the piece got me thinking about the issue of being a single woman living and travelling abroad…and my own ability to be self-sufficient, emotionally speaking, in a foreign country.

Getting over it

The negative press about being a single woman traveller started long before I read the fake wedding ring article. Last year, when I announced I was moving abroad, Edinburgh friends and colleagues reacted in one of two ways. Those in the male camp: “Wow, Barcelona’s brilliant! You’ll have a great time!” Those in the female camp: “Wow, Barcelona’s brilliant! Who are you going with?”

By around the seventh such reaction from an intelligent, educated woman, this question was really starting to bug me. Why was it implausible that I was emigrating alone, without a husband holstered to my side? Is it purely personal safety they’re thinking about, or is it more the perceived social stigma?

If it is, I can sympathise. Eating alone in a restaurant would have filled me with horror throughout most of my 20s. Not to mention going to the cinema by myself or going on holiday alone. Nowadays, I don’t bat an eyelid about walking into a restaurant on my own. Even though I frequently sit there to the sound of ‘All By Myself’ wailing in the background (I’m not actually kidding).

Who knows, maybe I have an advantage in all of this, in that I’ve always been happy in my own company. Actually, more than happy – I actively seek out solitude and get quite out of kilter if I don’t get enough time alone.

crema catalana

Dining alone, and not dying…

Going solo in Barcelona

But actually being alone in a mobbed Mediterranean city can be tricky. Barcelona, like most Spanish cities, is set up for the collective. Spanish society is so deeply based on groups – whether it’s your mates or your family – that being a lone interloper acutely disrupts accepted social imperatives.

Take tapas, for example. The whole premise of those bite-sized beauties is that you order a ton of them, and then proceed to nick everyone else’s on the table. It’s such a social experience, comparing what you’re going to order, planning what to share, swapping tortilla for escalivada. When you’re alone, ordering a single octopus tentacle, it’s all just a bit sad.

Sometimes I think the worst days for loneliness are Sundays. The city’s streets are deserted in the afternoons, with most folk tucked up in the family home eating Sunday dinner for hours on end. It’s then that I’m most conscious of feeling very far away from my own family, despite the wonders of Skype.

How to win friends…and lose them three months later

One great plus point to Barca is the fact that it attracts people from all countries and all walks of life to its sunny shores. (Apparently at the exact same time that I’m trying to find a bathing spot, but never mind.) And I love that aspect of it. At work I’m surrounded by colleagues from Italy, Mexico, France, Germany, Australia, Poland…even the Dominican Republic.

Outside of work, ironically, I think it’s easier to make friends with locals rather than folk from English-speaking countries, despite how notoriously hard it is to integrate into Catalan society. For one simple reason – foreigners will leave and go home. Barca’s a popular city to come and hang out in for a year or two before buggering back off to your own country. I’ve had several friendships here over the last year that were just getting off the ground when it was time for the person to leave.

Overall, though, having to fend for yourself (and what’re more, choosing to) on foreign soil works wonders for your self-confidence. After this last year, a lot fewer things scare me. Apart from octopus tentacles, obviously.

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  1. Octopus tentacles are okay, but squid tentacles are tastier. I know what you mean about making friends with other foreigners, my first few years here, when I was studying, I made friends with other students, and they always left, and here I am, still here, seven years later….

  2. tracenodent

    Hear, hear!!! Even if in you’re a relationship, who says you want to do everything with your partner in tow?!? Here’s to being happy and comfortable on your own, whether at home or in public (and in any country!). And sod the fake wedding ring! Honestly…

  3. I sometimes envy the Spanish and their close knit families but then I’m glad I have the freedom of being away from mine. Solitude is something my Spanish pals can’t do, they have to always be in a group be it family or friends.

  4. While I have no problem going to the cinema or theatre on my own, dining alone does seem to be very different – I was offered a magazine to read in a restaurant in Edinburgh, what an odd gesture, it was as if the waiting staff were uncomfortable for me? (Totally agree on the octopus tentacles, have a fear of choking on them.)

  5. Cheers everyone for the comments, and sorry for taking so long to reply, still catching up from Venice trip last week. Really interesting point about how Spanish people never seem to be alone…when I think about it, all the Spanish folk I work with always seem to go about in a tribe. No-one ever chooses to go for lunch alone.

    And it’s weird as well, Gillian – somehow I used to think going to the cinema alone would be the worst solitary activity. I’ll eat alone, go on holiday alone…hmm, where would I draw the line? Actually, I know – wouldn’t dream of going to a nightclub by myself. That would just be wrong!

  6. Hi Julie,
    I was surprised when I read about the harassment you are getting when walking the BCN streets. I live in lovely Tarragona (very conservative Catalan city) but I also pop in to Barcelona at least twice a month and never had any problems. Here in Tarragona I often see women sitting on their own in cafés (reading the paper) and (perhaps a bit less often) at restaurant at lunchtime and you never get as much as a glance. Perhaps it’s a sign that things are changing. Living here has been brilliant so far.

    If you are ever around this part of Catalonia pop me an email – we can exchange notes and a few tapas!

    • Thanks for the comment, Gabriella:) Glad to hear you’re not having any problems. I have to say the unwanted attention seems to be starting up again over the last few weeks – am convinced it gets worse as the weather gets warmer!

  7. Oh so many questions when you’re a solo female traveler.

    Does the Canadian government think that D-bags around the world ask to see a photo of your significant other before they try to molest you?

    • I know, Stephanie, it’s faintly ludicrous advice. Can’t imagine what it must be like for you, travelling round Latin America alone. Love your site – you’re blazing an inspirational trail!

  8. I haven’t been to Barcelona but I have been to Spain and much of Latin America. I don’t wear a fake wedding ring because I often find the situations where you get harassed are such that it wouldn’t matter if you were married.

  9. Thanks, Ayngelina. I’ve been in a few places in South America but I honestly can’t say the harassment was any worse than it is here in Barcelona. And no, a spurious wedding ring isn’t going to stop it. I was crossing my own street yesterday in broad daylight and as I passed by a guy coming from the opposite direction he grabbed me around my waist. The motive felt much more sexual than pickpocket. Battered him off me (in broad Glaswegian style) but what I should actually have done is get out my purse and show a photo of a fake husband. Dammit, always wise in hindsight.

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