It wasn’t quite Into The Wild, but for me it was an epic adventure. And I was doing it alone. A month in Italy, with nothing to do but eat pasta, drink prosecco and marvel at the glorious scenery. The freedom was intoxicating. Every choice was entirely my own and I reveled in the space and anonymity.
Solo travel gave me a blank canvas to know myself in a different context, without the reflective gaze of familiar faces and surroundings. But travelling alone threw up some challenges I hadn’t anticipated. There were the usual personal safety concerns, which all women contend with, but it was the attitudes of others I found most surprising.
My solo status seemed to set me apart from my fellow tourists in a way that at times felt discriminatory. I’d approach restaurants and ask for a table for one and find myself ushered into a poky corner out the back or by the bathroom door. When I asked why I couldn’t have the vacant table closest to the ocean or with the view of the rolling Tuscan hills, the wait staff would tell me it was reserved. Five minutes later and a couple, with no reservation, was ushered to the table I’d been refused. As I ate, despite being quite content in my solitude, all too often, I would weather the pitying stares of fellow diners.
Of course, these people might have been merely momentarily remembering a childhood pet that died prematurely, or wearing holiday pants that chafed, but the look of anguish on their faces suggested it was my very presence they found disquieting. It was a reminder of how distinctly uncomfortable our culture is with the notion of solitude. We are constantly reminded – through mass media, government policy and the Hollywood Happy-Ever-After narrative - that coupledom is life’s ultimate goal.
Women are judged particularly harshly for being without a partner or child-free – described as “spinsters”, “unlucky in love” or, as in the case of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, “deliberately barren.” An entire beauty and magazine industry has been built on teaching girls their most pressing life priority is to ensure they don’t die alone.
To my fellow travelers, a 40-year-old women eating on her own in an Italian beauty spot represented a glimpse into an existence which we have long been taught to fear. Even the notion of “failed” marriages suggest that coupledom equals success while being unpartnered is a sad consolation prize. It is a profound irony that one of the most popular gadgets of modern times has been the selfie stick, yet we have never been more unsettled by the prospect of spending time by ourselves.
In a 2014 study from the University of Virginia, two thirds of college students chose to administer themselves electric shocks rather than be left alone in an empty room with nothing but their own thoughts for just six to fifteen minutes. An untethered life that relies on the inner self for validation and comfort instead of the anchor of another to reflect our worth is, for many people, too much to contemplate in a world where aloneness is actively discouraged.
There are more single person households than at any point in our history and yet every year at Budget time our government acts as if we don’t exist. The norm may be the “working family” but things are changing. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, lone person households are projected to show the biggest percentage increase over the next 25 years. That means the number of people living alone will rise by up to 65 per cent, from 2.1 million households in 2011 to 3.4 million in 2036.
Embracing solitude is good for the individual and the collective. A community built with people who can’t stand, or have never experienced, their own company is not a healthy one. That is not to disregard the very real loneliness that many people feel in a fast-paced society that is big on connectivity yet often pulls up short on human connection. But there is no doubt that spending time on your own teaches you valuable lessons – resilience, the ability to self soothe and even the simple art of boredom, which is so often the breeding ground for creativity.
And after travelling solo I now have the ability to start a conversation with strangers from out of nowhere. (I find that props are a helpful – children dogs, maps, or interesting looking food are all easy segues into a friendly chat with total randoms. “Oh I see you’re having the wild boar, how adventurous” and so on.) But it’s also the simple things that are sometimes more vivid when you are alone. The first bite of a perfectly home-baked lasagne; the afternoon sun warming anxious muscles; a sky so blue and vast it feels painted on.
When we start to celebrate, rather than pity, those who choose to spend time alone, solo life will be no longer be seen as social failure, and we will all be better for it.