How to be a girl alone and see the world
Have a yen to travel, but afraid to try it on your own? Nonsense! says globe-trotter Marika Robert. A girl alone has all the fun, if she knows how to say no — and when to say yes
You KNOW WHAT I’ve discovered? Thousands of Canadian women who really want to travel won't take the plunge because they think that if you can’t go with your husband, or at least with a woman friend, you’d better stay at home. I say, nonsense! You need four for bridge and two for love, but you can travel all by yourself.
In recent years I’ve traveled alone through most of Europe on both sides of the Iron Curtain, in the Middle and Far East, in the West Indies and in Latin America—and enjoyed it thoroughly. From every trip I returned with my limbs and my luggage unharmed. Nobody took advantage of my “status,” and the danger of losing my passport, my money, my head or my way seemed slim. I met interesting people, learned far more about the countries I visited than if I had traveled in company, and accumulated all sorts of unusual and rewarding experiences for which I wouldn’t have had a chance if 1 had not been on my own.
Since then I’ve started a crusade to persuade women, regardless of age and marital status, not to shy away from traveling alone. Sure, it’s easier and cozier to have a man along: you can share the joys of travel with him. Also, you can let him cope with the hardships, such as looking after the luggage, tickets, hotel reservations and tipping. But everyone doesn’t always have this choice. It’s better to go alone than not to go at all and, to my mind at least, far better than going with a woman friend.
Most of the women I talk to or who write to me asking for advice seem to be full of fears: “I would like to go but . . . Won’t I feel lonely? What will I do in the evening? Will I have to dine in my hotel room? Will there be anyone to talk to? Won’t strange men molest me?” Or even: “If I go abroad on my own. what will my neighbors think?”
Who cares what the neighbors think? You can’t stop them anyway. And for all the other
problems there are solutions. Here are my welltested rules for taking a safe and enjoyable trip:
Unless you want to risk spoiling a friendship as well as a vacation, leave your friend at home. Even if she’s your best friend, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to do the same things all the time. Time is too precious on a trip to spend it waiting for each other, or doing things the other wants to do.
If it’s female company you want, you don’t have to import it. Wherever you go you’ll stumble oven women traveling alone, or in pairs, bored stiff with each other. They’ll be happy to share their meals and time with you. You can take them or leave them and at least you’ll have something different from what you have at home.
Your chances of meeting men will be far better without an attached woman friend. Men don’t usually travel in pairs. Nor does one man ask two women for dinner. If you’re more attractive, he’ll ask you — 1 continued on page 39
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Pretend you’re a writer—it can open doors to adventure
and what will you do with your friend? And if she’s more attractive, who needs the competition?
Alone, you’ll be more conscious of your surroundings and have more opportunity to get acquainted with the local people. Last year when I flew from Copenhagen to Stockholm the seat beside me was occupied by a prominent Swedish lawyer. When he found out that 1 would be in Stockholm for a week and didn’t know anyone there, he invited me for dinner with his family and later introduced me to several of their friends, who all took me under their wings. For a week I had the chance to observe the life and habits of a rather select Swedish group. If the seat beside me had been occupied by a friend from Canada, I would have probably spent the week observing her habits.
Maybe at times you’ll feel lonely. So what? Maybe at times you’ll also feel too cold or too hot, but is that a good enough reason to avoid seeing the world? Anyhow, there are many things you can and should do to prevent yourself from feeling low. Plan your days ahead of time. As soon as you arrive in your hotel, collect all available folders, get out your guidebooks, and make a detailed plan of what you will do when. It will save you from that what-am-I-going-to-dowith-myself-all-week feeling.
You don’t have to keep to your schedule, of course. A friend of mine arriving in Athens mapped out for herself a week crowded with ruins, museums, and a generous portion of Byzantine art. She never saw one Byzantine picture and had only a glimpse at the National Museum. Instead, she wound up cruising the Greek Isles with a group of Dutch journalists, and she never regretted the change of plans.
It’s good to have a special interest: antiques, china, rare books — anything. It will give your walks a purpose and may help you to meet people
with whom you’ve got something in common. I never feel lonely on my trips because I work. I make notes and interview people even if I don’t have the slightest intention of writing about them. You can do the same. Pretend that you’re a writer. Making notes is an almost failproof way of meeting people. Hardly anybody can
resist asking a girl who is alternately looking around and busily scribbling, what she’s writing about.
Don’t ever snub the people who want to start a conversation with you, unless they’re drunk or obnoxious. It's most unlikely that they have evil designs. Some of them will be fellow tourists, driven by loneliness, friend-
liness, or both. The others, local inhabitants, might want to practise their English or may be attracted by your “foreignness.”
Once in the bazaar in Cairo an Egyptian approached me and asked where 1 got the shiny white raincoat I was wearing. 1 said I got it in Canada, and he suggested that 1 have lunch with him in a floating restaurant on the Nile, where he expected to meet his sister who would be most interested continued on page 42
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GIRL ALONE continued
Ever hear of a girl being ravished in a crowded dining room?
in seeing my raincoat and in hearing about Canada. I thought, What a line! But he looked rather nice and soigné and the floating restaurant, according to my guidebook, was a famous, exotic place within easy reach. And so I did have lunch with him, and his sister did turn up and was very interested in Canada. She was a
teacher in a French school. For the next two days they showed me the mosques, museums and night spots of Cairo. I gave my raincoat to the sister and we’re still exchanging Christmas cards.
Unless you’re dead tired, don’t dine alone in your hotel room; it’s too hard on the morale. Contrary to what
you may think, walking alone into a dining room is not like walking into a lion's den. The place serves food and you’re going to consume it; that’s all there is to it. So people stare at you. Okay, let them. Maybe they like your dress or your hat. There’s nothing pathetic about a woman dining alone, especially if she’s smartly dressed, self-
assured, and seems to enjoy her food.
Should a strange man send a message to your table with the waiter or try to join you in some other way, consider it a compliment and not a nuisance. You can always say no. You can also say yes if you feel like it. In Italy or Spain a native woman mightn’t do it, only a foreign visitor, but it’s quite acceptable in central European countries such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Hungary. So why not try the local custom? I’ve heard of many women meeting fascinating men over dinner, but never of one being ravished in the middle of a crowded dining room.
It’s depressing to retire to your room early and spend your evenings writing postcards home. Go out instead. In Paris, London, Vienna or other big cities you can go to the opera, ballet, a concert or the theatre if you understand the language. And even if you don’t, it can be an unforgettable experience to see an original Greek tragedy in a 2,000-year-old open-air theatre in Athens, a performance at the Comédie Française in Paris or a play in the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, where Garbo started her career and where Ingmar Bergman is now director.
Where the men are
Get the hotel porter to help you plan your evenings. The local tourist offices are also very helpful as a rule and might have all sorts of suggestions: local folk dances or lectures that might interest you. I attended a lecture (in English) in Copenhagen on contemporary Danish art, and a tourist representative in Bangkok arranged an invitation for me to a convention of visiting businessmen, who were entertained by a group of Siamese dancers.
Don’t contact the Canadian consul: he is not likely to invite you to a cocktail party.
Whether you’re young and beautiful or neither, if you travel alone you’re bound to meet men. It’s not any easier to find a husband or even a romance en route than it is at home, but the opportunity for casual acquaintance is far better. You can meet men on planes, trains, sightseeing tours, while cashing your cheques at American Express, or in the lobby or bar of your hotel (the cocktail hour is the best time). In central Europe you can go to five o’clock tea dances frequented by men of all ages and social strata. In the Berlin Hilton’s Palm Court, for instance, the local doctors congregate every Wednesday afternoon. Museums are also good for meeting and conversation. So are such American hangouts as Harry’s Bar — there’s one each in Paris, Rome and Venice—or such bohemian hangouts as the pubs of Chelsea in London or Schwabing in Munich or the local equivalent, or any crowded sidewalk café on the main drag, anywhere.
If you don’t sit in your room but go out and do things and wear a friendly expression on your face instead of an I-want-to-be-left-alone frown, you can’t help coming across men who will want to chat with you and who may invite you for a drink or dinner. Should you accept such an invitation? If you like what you see, let
Don't panic: a leer is just part of the giriwatching game
your instincts guide you. There’s no reason to believe that every man you meet without a formal introduction is a sex maniac or jewel thief. More likely, he’s a respectable citizen with a lonely evening on his hands; all he wants is company and you may have a very good time with him. Ot course, you should watch where your escort takes you and use common sense: a first-class restaurant in the centre of town is a better risk than a sailors' hangout in the local red-light district.
If you want a really safe escort, you may try what a friend of mine did. She walked into the closest police station and asked whether any of the policemen would be willing to show her around after dark. Several volunteered.
Many women won’t go out with a stranger because they feel that if they accepted dinner they would owe him something. Nonsense! Dinner is dinner and you’ve got every right to take it literally. It is not a pledge for romance. If your escort has “ideas” that shock you, just tell him you’re not interested. The chances of being hit over the head and abducted to a seraglio are, to say the least, slim.
If your problem turns out to be avoiding men, rather than meeting them, make allowances for local customs. There you are in Naples, for instance. On your first morning the 15-year-old elevator operator propositions you. Over breakfast the 60-yearold waiter does the same. Out in the street, groups of dark-haired, darkeyed leering males — who may range from bums to counts — stand along the curb blowing kisses at you and making remarks on your charms. You can’t walk five steps without being approached by someone who grins broadly and insists on showing you the town and the time of your life. Wherever you go, flocks of men follow you. and if you stop in front of a store window or sit down at a café they surround you, uttering compliments and suggestions.
What do you do about all this? You don’t get outraged and threaten to call the police. You take it the way it is meant: a harmless game, a ritual, a tribute to your femininity. If you can't enjoy it, just accept it as a local curiosity. It’s certainly different from what we have in Canada.
To avoid unwanted amorous advances, all you have to do is to say no. Say it firmly but graciously, and your admirers will get the message.
You II probably find that men abroad are much better at taking no for an answer than many Americans, who consider it a personal insult. A Latin may think that something is wrong with you il you refuse him, but certainly not with him. Nor will he feel cheated if his time and money don't bring tangible results. He enjoys female company per se and values the game at least as much as the prize.
Once when I arrived at Orly airport, a Frenchman helped me to carry my luggage to a cab. As I was getting in. he suggested that he pick me up for dinner at eight. I said. “No thanks,” and he said, “I’ll be there.” He knew neither my name nor where I was
staying, yet at eight sharp the phone rang and the concierge announced that there was a gentleman in the lobby waiting to take me to dinner. Flabbergasted. I went down to find out how he had traced me. “Easy,” he said. “I knew that your plane arrived from Montreal. I made a note of the number of the cab, tracked down the
driver and found out where he deposited you. For a few francs the concierge was quite happy to tell me the name of the girl from Canada who checked in around five o’clock.”
After that, who could resist dinner? With his broken English and my pidgin French it was a rather silent affair, with only occasional La plume-de-ma-
tante sparks, but he sat through it apparently blissful and never once made an advance. “A most memorable evening,” he said finally, in parting. It certainly wasn’t / who made it memorable; it was his self-effacement in playing the game so well.
That evening also proved to me that language is seldom a serious problem. Wherever you go you’ll find people who speak English. The ones in the tourist business nearly always do. On the other hand, don’t expect every-
GIRL ALONE continued
Act helpless—you’ll have more fun
body to understand you, and don’t get outraged if they don’t. After all, English is not their native tongue, nor do they always like to have it foisted on them. It’s very useful to learn a few local phrases and use them, no matter how incorrectly. It generates good will. In Latin America I frequently found that if I started to speak English, people avoided talking to me. But if I threw in my three and a half words of broken Spanish, they immediately answered in English — to show how much better they spoke my language than I could speak theirs.
As a tourist, you can easily become an Ugly North American. I say North American, because few foreigners distinguish between Canadian and U.S. tourists. Even sporting a maple leaf, you will still be regarded as the member of a rich, privileged class, to be slightly resented. And if you keep complaining that your toast is soggy, your steak overdone, your mattress not springy enough, and that you wouldn’t dream of spending a night in a room without a bathroom, you’ll be resented more.
When in Rome do as the Romans do. Don’t wear slacks in the cities or, heaven forbid, curlers in your hair, and don’t insist on an extra-dry martini in an Arab sidewalk café. You’ll have far more fun if you leave home at home, sample the local dishes and drinks, and learn and respect the local customs.
A tourist’s objective, besides having a good time, is to see and learn new things just the way they are, not to improve on them. On a trip in the Orient I met an American girl who kept pointing out to the Indians how many people they could feed if they slaughtered the sacred cows, and how unhygienic it was to brush their teeth in the Ganges where the ashes of the dead are thrown. In the glorious, patinaed Raffles Hotel in Singapore, she tried to persuade the manager to replace the giant fans with air-con-
ditioners, and in Rangoon she had a heated argument with a Burmese politician, explaining to him that if they sold the gold bricks and one of the world’s largest diamonds from their Shwe Dagon Pagoda they could boost their economy and might not need foreign aid. As you’d suppose, she wasn’t very popular.
If you wander around starry-eyed and show enthusiasm, people will approach you with protective friendliness. A friend of mine, an aggressive career woman with a public-relations agency of her own, always says that if she could be born once more she would like to be a helpless woman who inspires others to take care of her. If you’re traveling alone, do what my friend can’t do — pretend you’re helpless. It will bring you ample rewards. Not all foreigners cherish the emancipated, self-sufficient, superior North American female. But what man can resist a helpless woman? Chivalry isn’t quite dead yet.
Ask people questions, let them advise you and help you with your problems. If luggage, tickets or reservations worry you, just ask for help — with a friendly smile, of course. There’ll always be someone around to carry or look after your trunks or trace them if they get lost, to tell you how much to tip, how to find your way, how to make your bookings; and if you stand, roomless, in front of a hotel desk after dark, they won’t leave you to sleep in the street.
No matter where you go you’ll find, perhaps to your surprise, that most people are nice and will go out of their way to aid and advise a woman alone and help her to have a good time in their home — if for no other reason than national pride. If you’ll be friendly, outgoing, unprejudiced, well-mannered, interested in the places you visit, and use your charm and femininity, you should have no trouble in having an enjoyable and memorable time. Bon voyage. ★