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Seagulls fly overhead, adding to the mystique of Porto, the second city of Portugal. From my balcony in Rua do Almada, a side street in the center of Porto equally occupied by visitors and locals, where I often watch an older man in the apartment across the street who also follows the comings and goings, I ponder on the sights below. I see women walking alone at all hours of the day. The sight of a solo woman maneuvering a suitcase with a smart phone set to a navigation app becomes a familiar sight. Purposeful, assured, and independent they pass.
I, myself, am a solo visitor in Porto, my solitary state a choice. I like traveling alone for the clarity of thought and freedom of movement it brings to my very busy life as a suburban mother and wife. Since I started this wandering seven years ago, I’ve often been asked why I travel alone, sometimes in awe and other times in consternation but always in surprise.
Within my circle of friends, I am the only married one who wanders strange streets alone. My closest friend dismisses the thought as absurd. “But I don’t want to travel alone; I need someone to share the experience with.” A position I fully appreciate but feel is not an exclusive mode of travel. For Middle Eastern women, learning and enjoying being alone is something we are not culturally conditioned to do. To my surprise, we are not the only ones with this perception.
The previous year, curiosity took me to Bristol, a city with a town feel, west of London. After a somewhat tough year, I was alone at last in the crowd. My first night there, I dressed leisurely and walked idly toward “The Old Duke,” a jazz pub established in 1967 and named in honor of that great master of jazz, Duke Ellington. I got there and ordered my standard bar drink, cranberry juice. The bartender told me this was his last evening. He was flying to Cuba for a month-long vacation. I sat at the edge of a table, strategically placing my body away from other patrons, a drink in one hand and my iPhone in the other, a practice I have perfected to ward off unwanted attention. The crowd grew louder and louder, their alcohol-induced merriment feeding my very sober spirit.
As I sat waiting for the music to start, a deliberate tap on the shoulder jerked me out of my Facebook perusal. I looked inquisitively at the lady seeking my attention with a proverbial raised eyebrow.
The lady, part of a trio of women in their fifties dressed sharply for a night out, looked at me with curiosity saying, “We want to hear your story. We want to know why you are here alone.”
With some confusion and more than a little apprehension, I replied, “I’m not sure I understand the question.” I really didn’t.
“We are very curious why you are here alone,” she repeated.
“Here in the jazz bar?”
“Yes, are you single?”
“No, I’m married.”
“Where is he?”
“Home, many miles away.”
“Why are you alone; what’s your story?”
“I’m alone because I choose to be, because I like jazz, and if I waited for others to go places with me, I would never do anything.”
“But you are very beautiful.” As if there was an unspoken correlation between my looks and being on my own. To them, alone equals desperate, alone equals lonely.
“We, as British women, are very self-conscious about being seen alone in public places like at movies or in restaurants,” she added. I stared at them in amazement, not expecting such a declaration from Anglo-Saxon women. The inhibition comes from within!
They then asked me where I was from, going through the usual list, Italy, nope, Greece, Turkey, you’re getting warmer, it’s Egypt. I was met with blank stares and tight smiles as if, again, my profile did not fit into a neat box. The ladies stood up. The music was about to start. “Good luck. You are very inspiring.”
I did not think I was inspiring. I was here to listen to jazz.
This episode threw me back three years ago to Berlin. On my last night in the city, I asked the concierge, an efficient young man named Moritz, to book me a ticket to a jazz show. After handing me my ticket to Schlot Jazz Club, as an afterthought I asked him, “I will be alone. Will that be a problem?”
“If you don’t mind being alone, no one else will,” he answered casually. Years and half-a-dozen cities later, his words ring true.
The following day, I was at Bristol Temple Meads to catch a train to London. A hopeless over-packer, I stared at my two bags in desperation as the unexpected sight of a flight of stairs separating me from the train platform greeted me. As I looked back and forth between the bags and the platform, as if willing them to self-transport, a voice greeted me.
“Do you need help?” a young lady a few years my junior asked.
I answered, smiling, “It’s ok. I’ll just make two trips.”
“No, let me take this one,” she said. Camaraderie between strange women is one of the pleasant surprises of traveling alone.
Back in Porto at Hot Five Jazz Club, four of the eight tables are occupied by solitary women, drinking to the free tunes. I find Portugal to be a European country friendly to women on their own. At midnight, five songs into the program, the lady barkeeper orders me a taxi and walks me to the door where she pauses to light a cigarette, staring longingly into the night. The taxi driver takes me back to Rua do Almada. While I’m handing him a tip along with his fare, he murmurs, “You’re the best.”
Porto was a diversion I took this past January prior to presenting in a conference on alterity in Lisbon. Alterity is a theme that fascinates me; alterity is a mode I cherish.
Before I started traveling on my own, I periodically experienced a strange sense of loss. I found the early years of wifehood and motherhood to be overwhelming. I would often stare at my reflection, wondering who I was beyond being part of a collective, trying to negotiate a place between self-love and family-love. Guilt and desire warred inside me, fighting for a middle ground. In 2017, Lauren Elkin published her book titled Flâneuse: Women Walk the City. The flâneur is typically a male figure who walks the city streets, interacting with the urban façade in leisure and style. At one point in Elkin’s book, the flâneuse is described as “someone who has slipped the bounds of responsibility.” While Elkin continues her lengthy exploration of the cultural significance of the flâneuse, I am arrested at the words, “The flâneuse does exist, whenever we have deviated from the paths laid out for us, lighting out for our own territories.”
Deviation from the laid-out path can also help us stay the course. When you are on your own, getting lost becomes a privilege. Flânerie becomes an ode to the self and its wandering desires; a breathing room and a space for reflection; a chance to indulge but also to self-assess and self-adjust. My soul feeds on the different energy each city offers, shifting shape with every urban interaction. But as I interact with the spaces and people of the cities, I often wonder can female flânerie be taken at face-value?
My perspective on dining alone changed after my encounter with the ladies of Bristol. “Table for one” would become a proud statement. In Madrid, I sat at the Chocolate Bar to eat churros for breakfast as locals do. I placed my order with my limited Spanish, also asking for green tea. Seated on a high stool at the marble counter, I found a Spanish article about counterculture. I immersed myself in it, trying to read it with all my linguistic energy, and limitation. The bar at the heart of Barrio de las Letras was occupied by young locals, mostly construction workers, and a few tourists. The barrio housed eateries and music venues; the floors of its streets were etched with literary quotes, its walls marked by colorful art. A bald man in his late sixties entered and sat on an adjacent stool. He looked at me with kind, time-weathered eyes. He pointed at the foot of my stool. My coat had overflowed onto the floor. I adjusted it and myself on top of it. A few minutes later, he pointed at the foot of the stool again. I smiled. He looked at my magazine and mumbled a few words while gesturing with his hands. I understood that he was saying I am too concentrated on my magazine to notice the state of my errant coat. I chuckled, nodded, and we each went back to our churros. As I got up to leave, energized from all the chocolate and dough and ready to tackle the city and make it my own, he got up too. I looked at him gingerly. He took my coat and held it up for me in a chivalrous gesture that spoke of old-world beauty. I buttoned it as I stared at him for a beat before turning around to leave. I inhaled the crisp air of the literary quarter. Wishing I could freeze that fleeting moment with a beautiful stranger. A mute exchange in which nothing was lost in translation.
In Porto, I sign up for a food tour, a rare feat for me as I like to roam freely. The tour has only three people on it, myself and a married couple from Boston. The guide, a local man in his late twenties, takes us around small joints sampling local delicacies and regaling us with anecdotes and stories from his life as a young man in Portugal. The curiosity shines in the eyes of the Bostonians, Sally and Jim, as soon as I introduce myself and say where I am from. Taking the opportunity as her husband and the guide walk a few steps ahead, the woman, an elegant retired teacher in her sixties, whispers, “Are you traveling alone? What is that like? I’ve never done it before.”
Always unprepared with an answer, I mumble a few words on how traveling alone is my way of clearing the cobwebs in my head, getting in touch with myself, being unquestionably and uninterruptedly me.
The movement of female bodies has always been a contested issue, where and when we should go, how we should dress, and outrageously, when and how we should speak and whether we should cover our bodies. The policing of women’s bodies is a question that interests me greatly. But unlike other, braver women, I’m not out to set things straight for women everywhere. My flânerie is a selfish act of self-survival. For a moment, I’m not a wife, a daughter, a mother. I am just me. Seeking breathing room, my flânerie a form of self-reconciliation.
The city in which I perfected my flânerie was Edinburgh. A compact metropolis with enough darkness to lure my melancholic soul yet with an air of welcome that offsets its daunting architecture. I spent hours getting lost in its multi-layered vistas and hidden alcoves. It was in a jazz bar, situated just a few minutes from the Old Town, that I came to peace with my many conflicts within. On Sundays, the tunes are accompanied by a group of dancers, who I have observed over three separate visits spread over three consecutive years. The group seemed to me like dance aficionados rehearsing their apt yet unprofessional moves. They swapped partners, forgoing the male-female pairing for random coupling, trading tradition for passion. Each visit, I would sit there and watch them sway and skip with such abandon, wondering what it would be like to be this uninhibited. Edinburgh and this particular jazz club hold a special place in my heart. For it was here, between the darkness, the vistas, and the passion of music that I started reclaiming my sense of self. I remember distinctly standing on Calton Hill one rare sunny day, as I took desperate selfies against the backdrop of the city in a moment of ardent self-search.
Back in Porto in 2018, I am eating an exquisite meal of Duck Maigret, listening to the white noise of the crowded room. The Frenchwoman, part of a group of four, sitting at the adjacent table, is eyeing me in camaraderie. She keeps smiling at me. Halfway through the meal she reaches over and taps my table with an open palm. She raises her glass towards me, and we clink across the narrow divide.