I thought I'd do a post on this subject as it's something I think about and get asked about a lot.
It seems to me that it's 'taboo' in France (and almost everywhere) to do things alone... especially if you are a young woman. Afterall, you can't be seen in public alone! I mean, what a loser! Of course nobody says this to my face but the looks I get when tell people I travel around France alone, go to restaurants and cinemas alone... well it says a lot more about their insecurity than anything else.
It's true though. If I look around the only people walking about alone are old people. It's even worse in countries like India or Muslim countries though. When would you ever see a woman out walking by herself? It's just not done! Ugh. You have no idea how much that infuriates me.
I guess we're fed stories that as girls, we have to be 'rescued' by our fairytale prince and if he doesn't come along we just sit and wait in our tower in the castle... Pffft! I'd rather die than put my life on hold like that. We're also fed stories that the world is full of 'bad people' so we need to go out with a man or in a group for our own 'safety'.
Once upon a time (like most people I know) I had never lived alone. It's actually not very common for Australians to move out of home when they go to university and I know people in their mid-late 30s with extremely high paying jobs who still live with their parents...er... Anyway, I just moved straight from Mummy and Daddy's to live with Boyfriend. But now it's been almost 3 years since I've lived alone and sure there are some lonely and boring times but it's been a HUGE learning experience for me. I honestly could not have learnt anything about myself and especially learnt of my capabilities as a person as well as a woman if I had always been one half of a partnership, always relying on someone else and having someone else rely on me. So for what it's worth I have really enjoyed this time to learn about myself and my strengths!
The Turning Point
One particular moment sticks out in my memory. In my apartment (back in Sydney) I had an old shitty fridge that a friend had donated. It worked fine but the freezer section was always frosting over and needed to be defrosted on a regular basis. Let me tell you it was hard work. I distinctly remember my boyfriend helping me (it had now been several months since we broke up) and my now flatmate didn't offer to help so I was stuck doing it alone. It was not a fun task freezing my fingers off and scraping and hacking at the ice and even using a hairdryer to melt it, swearing under my breath, etc etc... It wasn't just the job itself but also the fact that I started feeling sorry for myself that all my friends had nice, big, new fridges as well...I actually broke down and started crying because it was just TOO hard! I mean, how could I possibly cope without a guy around the house? And why is life so unfair?! But I told myself to get it together. It's just a freezer for God's sake! At least I have one. Get over it. It was a huge turning point for me and now no task really scares me anymore. And then over the next few days I went shopping, researched prices, and bought a nice brand new fridge :)
I guess having lots of single friends really helps as they're the only ones who can possibly know how you feel and they, like you, are always seeking to go out and do 'stuff'. I love my coupled-up friends but I rarely ask them to do stuff with me anymore because there is always one reason/excuse or another so usually I just give up. Plus I don't they don't feel the need to go out because there is always someone at home to talk to and to do 'stuff' with!
What I really miss is living in the same suburb as 1-2 of my good girl friends. I can't tell you how great it is that we could walk to each other's place in 10-15 minutes instead of having to go through Sydney's horrific traffic or worry about public transport. We could just invite each other over spontaneously (none of this giving 3-4 weeks' notice like with some of my other friends), eat together, go to the movies, take photos (she is a keen photographer like me), etc... How I miss those days!
Now here at the school although my friends live nearby, they aren't close enough to me to want to do anything with me on a regular basis. I guess what I'm trying to say is, if you have a lot of friends and a busy, active social life you never really feel that lonely or bored. And pretty much every single person I know has a busy, full life. That's just the way it goes.
Going out alone
I used to be a huge Mr Bean and Rowan Atkinson fan. And when I heard he was coming to Sydney for the opening of his new film, the (first) Mr Bean movie, I thought to myself, "I HAVE TO BE THERE." I called up one of my good friends and asked if she wanted to go and she said, "No" so then I decided not to go, afterall, I couldn't possibly go all the way into the city alone. But that was another turning point for me and I remember it well because I really regretted it afterwards. From that point on I decided if I really want to do something and can't find anyone to do it with me or go with me, stuff them! I'll go anyway.
Adult Education classes
Let's take my learning French as an example. Most people would try to drag along a friend to the adult evening classes but not me. I often think that if you drag along a friend you're doing it all for the wrong reasons - ie you just think of it as 'fun' and don't really want to go to learn anything. I see it all the time. these are the people who never come back for the next term. But if you've actually been to any sort of adult evening class you'll find that the majority of people do go alone and noone gives a stuff! I guess I've always been sort of independent like that, even as a teenager. If I want to do something that's important to me, I'll just do it. I don't need any hand holding (AKA peer support) from a friend.
Restaurants and Cinemas
So back in Sydney I went to restaurants, cafés and the cinema by myself very very often. It didn't even seem weird anymore. I had this one favourite Vietnamese restaurant of mine (that I still salivate over thinking about) that was close to where I lived, had great food, was cheap and the waitresses were super nice. I went there roughly once every two weeks. I remember I'd only just started learning French when I first started going there and would bring my ipod and listen to Michel Thomas and Pimsleur. It was sooooo nice and relaxing to have a nice, hot delicious meal and to do something good for my personal improvement too.
I love the movies but I didn't go to the cinema all that often because it's really expensive in Sydney. But I try to go when I can here because the cinema in my town is really cheap and nice.
It's probably one of the best things you can do alone because it's all dark so noone can see you and noone cares! I guess for me there is a downside though. If I missed something they said, I have noone to ask, and then after the film I have noone to talk about it to.
It was only over Christmas when I was in Paris that I realised that museums are a GREAT thing to do by yourself! In fact it's probably better so you can fully absorb and appreciate the artwork.
Of course there's the old classic. Who needs friends when you have books? ;) Or magazines, or newspapers, or blogs, or anything... I've always loved reading. These days, I read on the internet because I don't have much money to buy extraneous stuff nor any space to store it.
I love love love my music! My ipod is practically glued to my ears. Can you believe I actually forgot to pack it to bring to France? So I had to go without for several weeks until my dad sent it to me in the mail. And then my earphones broke so I had to get new ones and it was hard living without it for so long... The French seem to love their music too as almost everyone I have come across has asked me what sort of music I like and then told me what sort they like, and asked me if I play any instruments etc etc. So it's a good conversation starter as well!
Have a Bath
I don't have a bathtub here and miss it like crazy. One of my favourite things to do in winter was to have a nice long hot bath where I'd almost fall asleep and start meditating because I was that relaxed. And when you live alone you have NO distractions. Noone nagging you about one chore or other or wanting to talk to you about their boring day at work, or having to hear the tv blaring in the background... It's pure bliss and a real treasure to have this quiet 'me' time.
When you have no responsibilities to anyone else and only yourself to answer to, you have all the time in the world to devote to your health and exercise. When I exercise I feel much happier and relaxed afterwards and it's so nice to go for a walk or a jog anywhere... To all those people who say they can't find the time.. if you don't have the time when you are single, you certainly won't find the time later when you have billions of chores to do and kids to look after!
I LOVE shopping alone and would choose to do it alone for the rest of my life. I feel anxious when I'm with others and never end up buying anything. I hate feeling rushed and I get impatient with others.
Learn a new skill, Start a new hobby
Now is the perfect time to do that thing you've always wanted to do but put off. For me it was learning another foreign language and to get involved in volunteer/charity work. I accomplished both those things successively in 2009 and 2010 and I felt a lot more fulfilled because of it. I actually wanted to do more but ran out of time. I also wanted to tutor kids after school in English who were refugees from their countries. I think that would have been incredibly rewarding but unfortunately I couldn't coordinate a time/place with the organisers as I lived quite far away from that area. I think most people (myself included I'll admit) spend so long thinking about ourselves that we don't take the time to think about others and how we can help them. I don't want to get to an old age and know that I made absolutely no contribution to the world. As soon as I move to a big city I can't wait to start finding out more about volunteer/charity work again. I cannot describe the amazing feeling you get when you give all your time and expect nothing in return. The thing is though, you receive a LOT in return. Those warm fuzzy feelings.
OK so if doing all those things isn't enough..
Make more friends!
By being alone/single it actually forces you to get out there and meet new people, create new networks and friendships and keep your current friendships strong. All of which are important skills I think. I'm constantly searching for ways to meet new people. Trust me it's hard when you live in a small town and where you can't go anywhere without a car (and you don't have one)...
Here are some websites I recommend:
Look for events in your town:
• Couch Surfing
• Meet Up
• Meet In
• On Va Sortir (France/French)
Find a language exchange partner. Learn a foreign language AND make a new friend!
• My Happy Planet
• Shared Talk
• Hello Hello
• Lang 8
There are more sites but they are the only ones I've used. It takes a while to find someone with whom you can connect and communicate regularly with but just keep persisting... NB: These are not dating websites although some people seem to think they are!!
Another thing is, if you are invited to go somewhere, go! The more time you spend thinking about it the more the fear develops and then you decide to change your mind and not go. As Nike says: Just Do It. Something that carried over from my Sydney days... I go to pretty much anything I'm invited to because then you increase your prospects of meeting even more people and who knows where that can lead you? I think you have to be more open-minded and allow possibilities to happen. I met both my last exes (one here in France and one in Sydney) because one of my friends invited me to a party at her house. I can honestly say that I did not go because I wanted to meet somebody, but it kind of just happened that way because I was being myself and being happy I guess. Look at it this way. You could meet someone that helps you find a new job, or helps you find a great new apartment or just gives you great advice about a pressing problem, or anything. But you'll never know if you never go.
Even when I was younger I'd been invited to parties where I knew noone other than the host and trust me that is scary as hell but I still did it and met some very nice people because of it.
People usually applaud me when I tell them some of the 'scary' things I've done by putting myself out there... However I don't really think it's such a big deal. It's just that I never had to do that before because I was always one half of a couple. It's quite liberating to be my own person and to know that I'm the only one responsible for my own happiness.
Travelling as a single female
All those scaremongers will have you believe that it's impossible to travel as a single woman, or heck, a single anything but millions of people do it every year. Why the hell not?
Now before I start, I have to say that I grew up with extremely overprotective parents who instilled fear into my head till it got to the point where I was afraid of everything but over the last few years I had to turn it all around. I got sick of them telling me what I was supposed to think. I fully believe in the Law of Attraction in that the more you think about something, the more likely it is going to happen. When I'm out alone (particularly at night) I don't think "OMG I'm going to get mugged and killed!" It's simple really. Just don't think about. It doesn't mean you can't be cautious and wary but don't be so bloody scared about everything.
Now here's a true story for you. I have been mugged 3 times in my life.
The first time was in China. Someone tried to get into my backpack and take my camera out. Luckily I'm highly sensitive and felt it and stopped him and then he just ran away.
The second time was in Paris at an ATM some guy tried to steal my credit card.
The third time was in China again (different place) and someone tried to steal everything I had on me - my handbag with all my money, my video camera, and my normal camera. I wrestled hard for my camera (it was just an instinct) and luckily he only made away with my purse (I say 'lucky' because money is easily replaced but memories from photos/videos are not). I ended up with a bruised and bloody nose because of what happened and I was rather traumatised for a few days afterwards. It was honestly one of my most traumatic experiences ever.
Now I'm not telling you these stories to get sympathy but because I wanted to say that in each of those 3 times I was with someone else.
The first time I was walking alone with my mother, the second time I was with my then boyfriend who only left me for a split second, and the third time I was with both my sister and my then boyfriend who once again left me for a split second.
In each of those times I had some else with/near me and yet, when I travel alone nothing like that has ever happened to me.
Well I think it's obvious. It's because when I travel alone I know that I'm the only one responsible for my welfare so I'm much more alert and sensible than usual. I'm also a billion times more organised. I know noone is going to rescue me if anything happens to me. And what would I do if something happened anyway? Call my parents in Australia?! So I'm pretty vigilant but I'm not at all paranoid. I believe that if you keep thinking "OMG someone's going to mug me!!" then really you're not going to enjoy your trip much, are you? It's like those people who think, "(insert nationality here) are so rude" and then wonder why when they go to that country the people really are that rude. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I've had so many female friends and my sister question me when I say I did ____ alone. I've read that 'baddies' can smell fear, and they can only attack you if you are weak. I don't go out displaying 'fear' so I don't attract 'baddies'. Then again, I'm not stupid and would not purposely go into some dark dingy alley in a shady area late at night nor have I been to any stereotypically dangerous places but as a single woman I've travelled in cities in: Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, China, Malaysia and Singapore and never had any incidents. In fact I have FAR more incidents when I'm with somebody else!
One really good thing about travelling alone
No fights! How many stories have you heard of couples that broke up because they realised they couldn't get along after spending 24/7 together during their vacation. By travelling alone there are no compromises to be made. You do whatever the heck you want, when you want and how you want. And you can spend as much as you want. No negotiating or arguing. It's GRRRReeeat!
- Tell someone when/where you're going and when you'll be back (just in case).
- Try to stay as close to the centre of town as possible (you don't want to be stuck in the outer suburbs and have no way of getting back).
- Do not come back to your room/hotel too late. If I'm alone I usually try to get back at 8-9pm at the latest. I think it's still safe then because there are still a lot of people out. I also turn my back every few minutes to make sure noone is following me. And if I'm in a really dark place at night I never take out my map or camera and I never use my ipod so I can be more aware of my surroundings.
- Do not stand in the middle of a busy road with your map opened out. What I do is to fold the map so only the most important part is visible, or I simply take a photo of it and look at it through my camera.
- Do try to dress like the locals. Many tourists tend to stick out like sore thumbs because of the way they dress.
- Avoid eye contact with strangers.
- Don't talk to strangers (unless they seem decent of course)
- Always have your mobile phone with you (and remember to fully charge it up beforehand!)
Disclaimer: I will say though, perhaps it's 'easy' for me because I think I'm a reasonably experienced traveller. I can find my way around places and navigate public transport, understand/speak several languages and here in France it's really pretty safe so I don't have a problem. I wouldn't recommend travelling alone if you've never travelled overseas before as that is daunting enough in itself.
Here are some links for finding a travel partner:
• Trav Buddy
• Mango Tree
• Lonely Planet Thorntree Travel Companions
• Help X
• Travel Chums
• Boots 'n' all Travel Buddies
This whole post was spurred on because I was talking to one of my language exchange partners on Skype (where both of us talked about doing things alone and it's always other people who have a problem with this) and he said: Mais si les gens ont toujours besoin d'être accompagnés, c'est qu'il y a un problème aussi (If people always need to be accompanied, it's also a problem). I have to agree as I know many many people who can't seem to do anything alone (and going to the shopping mall for 2 hours doesn't really count. I'm talking about spending an extended period of time alone or travelling alone). And for me, knowing how to be alone is an important life skill to have. If you can't stand yourself, who else will? Voilà ! Ma vie.