A couple of weeks ago, in the middle of one of the coldest New York Februaries in recent memory, I hopped a flight north—from one frozen tundra of a metropolis to another—to spend a long weekend in Montreal, a city I haven’t been to in 20 years, on my own, all by myself. (Did I mention it’s cold in Canada this time of year?)
There were a handful of objectively sound reasons I did what I did: most important of all was that Jay-Jay Johanson, one of my all-time favorite singers, was making a rare North American appearance at this year’s Montreal en Lumiere music-food-culture festival, and I’d been invited by the tourism board to check it out. He was fantastic, by the way. The last time he played Montreal, 12 years ago, he proposed to his wife from the stage (she accepted, they’re adorable).
I’d also heard some amazing things about Montreal’s food scene, and from the finite and limited number of meals I fit into my two-day whirlwind weekend, I’d wholeheartedly recommend a trip to Montreal
just to eat
the foie gras ice cream at Brasserie T (though make sure to call ahead to avoid disappointment as it’s not always on the menu).
As for the unobjective, unsound reasons I skipped town, well, besides a general sense of Manhattan winter cabin-fever malaise (seriously, I’d estimate that this is how I’ve spent the last two months of my life: 50% studio apartment, 30% Glamour HQ, 10% Craftbar, 10% restaurants near Craftbar), I’d realized a few weeks ago that I was at a point in the year where I needed to reassess and regroup—on everything: relationship, career, ambitions, projects, personal goals, life in general. For me, without going into too much/TMI detail, 2014 was a year marred by uncertainty—and 2015 wasn’t starting off all that much better.
In my (limited years of) experience, I’ve found that one of the most effective ways to get perspective is to remove yourself from the situation—even briefly. And while getting away with your significant other or taking a long weekend out with the girls can be chock-full of memory-making good times, being alone in an unfamiliar city with just a small suitcase of your belongings and an iPhone as a dining companion effectively strips away all the noise and stuff from the everyday grind—and leaves room in your day (and your mind) to remind yourself who you really are.
You don’t have to go somewhere remote. Seriously, if you need to retreat to a cabin in the woods or do a full-on Eat, Pray, Love pilgrimage, go for it, but sometimes it’s refreshing to just get lost in a sea of unfamiliar faces. If you don’t live in New York City, come here—it’s vast and anonymous. I’ve done a few solo trips to Vegas—the strip is surprisingly safe and single-traveler-friendly—and some weekends I’ll wake up Saturday mornings, hop a bus, and take myself to Philadelphia for the day. Other cities that I’ve personally found very solo-female-traveler-friendly: Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo—in broad strokes, I like a walkable city and places with robust public transport and friendly/safe taxi drivers.
Be safe. You won’t be able to relax and think if you’re constantly worried about personal security. So, first and foremost, when you’re traveling alone, plan the logistics of your trip based on the principles of safety and convenience—book a well-staffed hotel in a safe neighborhood where you’ll be comfortable venturing out on your own. Lots of good, close-by dining options can’t hurt either.
Wander around, do only what you like. One of my favorite things to do in unfamiliar cities is hailing a cab, getting dropped off in the middle of a shopping hub, and wandering around for hours, either chatting with local shopkeepers or spending the afternoon pretending I don’t speak the language and talking to absolutely no one. You know how some people go off into nature to clear their minds? Yeah, this is my version of it—urban hiking. Directionless, consumer-behavior-ish meandering is a great way to tune in to the present (being in the now), relax your mind by allowing it to process pretty meaningless data (all the new stuff you’re seeing), and, also, acclimate you to new surroundings.
Take yourself out. Go to dinner alone somewhere nice (it’s scary, but less scary if you eat at the bar). Take in a show or a concert (seated concerts are less awkward when you’re by yourself). Walk around a museum and be that person who reads every single word on every single placard in an interesting exhibit. Take the time to enjoy something and the luxury to not have to discuss and dissect an experience with someone else immediately afterward.
I know this is vague, but after a weekend in Montreal on my own—my first real solo trip since last March (Malibu: much less cold, highly recommended, hit me up for wallet-friendly tips)—here are some things/lessons I remembered and rediscovered.
· I know how to do this. After half a year of being one half of a couple and constantly thinking for two, I’d sort of forgotten how to be by myself—and I remembered that I was more than OK and actually really good at navigating solo.
· It’s important to have little adventures now and again. Every baby step outside your everyday life—whether it’s talking to strangers while eating alone at a bar, hopping a plane to a new destination, or even walking through piles of snow in a strange city just to get to HMV (we don’t have big mega-chain record stores anymore in New York City)—is not only super fun but feels like a little accomplishment.
· The balance between independence and vulnerability is constantly shifting. As women, we’re bombarded with messages about strength, power, and self-sufficiency—everything I believe in. But cultivating any kind of close relationship—with best friends, significant others, spouses, partners, anyone—means letting your guard down and allowing yourself to become vulnerable. A lot of times, relationships don’t work out the way you want them to, and it’s hard to take back that vulnerability without being reactionary—building new walls so strong and high, no one else has any hope of getting through. Instead of approaching this balancing act with a metaphor of self-defense, I’m trying to think of it more in yoga-ish terms: redefining and finding my center, grounding myself in my own identity without sacrificing all the personal progress I’ve made up to this point. There’s my little spiritual/self-help spiel for the day.
Have you ever traveled alone for the express purpose of reconnecting with yourself? I know, there are books and books written on this subject, but I’d love to know where your favorite place or favorite experience is. Tell us in the comments below.
In case you’re thinking about heading up to Montreal for a long weekend, here’s what I did: I checked out Montreal en Lumiere, an annual music-food-culture festival, stayed at the Delta Montreal (I walked all over the place, so it’s in a great location), and had great meals at Brasserie T and La Coupole. Next time, I’m booking myself a table at the legendary Joe Beef ahead of time!