You might have noticed I disappeared from the Agenda for the better part of a month right around Christmas. I was off finding myself, or whatever we call it these days, in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, alone in a foreign country for the first time in my 24 years.
My first night in Zürich, stop number one, I found myself sitting at the tram station around 9:30 p.m, wrapped up in a thick North Face jacket and topped off with a beanie that might have been too small for my head, and just as cold as I was hungry.
I’d already walked through the middle of town a few times, looking at menus before peering into windows of restaurants that were decidedly too crowded and communal looking for me to find the nerve to walk in and make myself at home with rotï and anything warm.
Eating alone for the first time will be the real test, people had told me. You’ll just have to do it. After the first time, it won’t even faze you.
It was fazing me, and I didn’t have much time to decide, as the tram would be there to take me back to my Airbnb right on time, as always, two minutes later. Silently, I argued with myself from every angle: I’d look like a total loser if I walked in, backpack on, and sat by myself with a book. But if I couldn’t eat alone on the first night, would there ever be a time in the next three weeks that I’d be brave enough to? I signed up for a trip alone. What did I expect?
When did I become such a baby? And why did I care so much what someone else might think?
As the tram rounded the corner, I stood up and said aloud, much to the alarm of the man on the bench next to me, “Forget this. I’m going to get some dinner.”
In the name of full disclosure, ‘forget’ was not the f-word that I used.
Without giving myself time to think twice, I rushed through the front door of what I would learn later was one of Zürich’s hidden gems and told the hostess, while surrounded by parties of four or larger, that I’d just need a table for one.
Tables? No, they don’t do tables, I was told. It’s all communal seating.
As I was seated at the end of a table next to a group of young adults just a couple of years older than me, my fears were coming true and I couldn’t stop them. I was going to look like the weird one with no friends.
But one warm meal, a few glasses of wine and 50 pages on my Kindle later, I left content and no worse for the wear.
From that moment on, being alone in a foreign country was nothing to me except for life-affirming and comforting. A meal alone? Bring it on. A drink in a bar by myself? Two, please. Tours through national landmarks and museums? Casual strolls down hidden side streets and asking strangers to take my picture because I knew I’d regret not having them when I’m old and gray? Like magic, these things no longer bothered me, and the next three weeks were spent mostly alone and almost always content.
For the first time in a few years, I’m single and, really, somewhat alone here in Charlotte.
I didn’t and still don’t have a backup plan when it comes to a significant other, my best friends are still states away – one’s even an ocean away – and sometimes, when I ask my parents to get dinner, they’ve got plans.
In a city like Charlotte, that’s intimidating.
But coming back in the middle of January, I was excited to be here alone, because if I could do it in a place where the first-, second- or third-most-spoken language was anything but English, I could do it in a city I know like the back of my hand. And I could be happy and content.
As it turns out, that wasn’t the case.
While I was in Zürich, the first round of marketing for Discovery Place’s Harry Potter-themed Science on the Rocks hit Facebook and I immediately told two people here and bought a ticket. When the time came, though, tickets were sold out, and I was the only one in my group of friends who had one.
I didn’t go, letting the $10 I’d spent go to waste instead.
I could blame this on the bad sinus infection I’d developed earlier in the week, but when I’m honest with myself, I didn’t go because the prospect of walking alone into a situation where I might see someone I know terrified me.
Much like my luggage in the Berlin airport, the confidence and sure-footedness in being alone that I’d developed during those few weeks disappeared without a trace.
Why was it so easy to walk into a situation alone in a foreign country, where I had anything but the home-field advantage, but impossible to do it on my actual home field? And was I the only one that felt like that?
The first person I asked left me feeling discouraged.
“I’ve just grown tired of having to rely on everyone else to do what I want, so if I want to treat myself to a meal and a beer, I’d go alone,” he said. I was skeptical.
“So you’d be comfortable walking into Sycamore Brewing on a Saturday night at 8:30, when everyone’s in a group?”
“Honestly, if I wanted a beer and was down to chill, yeah,” he replied.
The next person I asked assured me that my fear was rational and common, saying that she “absolutely [hates] the thought” of walking into any social situation alone, despite the fact that she’s able to do things like run errands and pick up food with no problem because she lives alone.
In a nutshell, she described exactly what I was feeling. So is it a male versus female thing?
A quick phone call with a male friend immediately put that theory to rest when he said that despite the fact that he classifies himself as an “extroverted introvert,” the chances of getting him to walk alone into a situation, specifically one that he’d normally walk into with friends, are slim to none.
“There’s not a chance in hell I’d go out by myself,” he emphasized, explaining that when he does go out, it’s to hang out with other people around other people. If he’s doing something alone outside of an athletic activity or seeing a concert, he’s more likely just to do it at home.
It was reassuring to realize that I wasn’t the only one that thought this way and that no, I wasn’t making a thing out of something that’s in my head and my head alone.
“Unless there’s a purpose or excuse to be alone, you’d probably be branded as creepy if you’re just there by yourself,” someone told me before launching into a theory as to why we feel this way.
It goes like this, and makes it all make sense: The insecurities we have today, especially when it comes to doing things without looking creepy or lonely, stem from what was cool and uncool to do in high school and college.
In high school and college, there was pressure, both spoken and not, to have your group, no matter the size, at your side in any social setting.
Take, for instance, the situation that had me so terrified: Eating. In high school, and, depending on what kind of school you went to, college, eating alone screamed ‘outcast.’
And showing up alone to a situation that’s inherently social, like a party? Might as well tattoo it on your forehead.
The transition from college to the Real World is a weird one during which everything changes – except, apparently, the need to feel accepted.
It’s not that we won’t do things alone. It’s just that we’re hard-pressed to do so, and the willpower to do it stems from the same place that approaching another group at a bar or brewery does: A common denominator or a shared experience, like an intramural sports league or concert.
But if we do walk alone into what would normally be considered a social situation, whether it’s a bar on a Saturday night or a busy restaurant on Taco Tuesday, does anybody notice? Why are we so afraid of the admittedly slim chance that they will?
And beyond that, the big question on everybody’s mind: If they do, do they care?