A government travel guide published in Canada recently sparked fierce debate across the blogosphere. The guide advised single women travellers to wear a fake wedding ring if they wanted to deflect unwanted male attention. It even went so far as to advise women to carry a picture of some random man in their purse, so’s to fend off the unwanted advances of letches worldwide. (Can I just point out I don’t actually read the Daily Mail, in case there’s any doubt?)
Having been exposed to a fair amount of sexual harassment on the streets of Barcelona for almost a year, I fail to see how the knowledge that I’ve stashed a picture of a bogus husband in my bag is going to help the situation. And the idea that women even nowadays are still being told to hide behind the patronage of someone else is beyond depressing.
Anyway, the piece got me thinking about the issue of being a single woman living and travelling abroad…and my own ability to be self-sufficient, emotionally speaking, in a foreign country.
Getting over it
The negative press about being a single woman traveller started long before I read the fake wedding ring article. Last year, when I announced I was moving abroad, Edinburgh friends and colleagues reacted in one of two ways. Those in the male camp: “Wow, Barcelona’s brilliant! You’ll have a great time!” Those in the female camp: “Wow, Barcelona’s brilliant! Who are you going with?”
By around the seventh such reaction from an intelligent, educated woman, this question was really starting to bug me. Why was it implausible that I was emigrating alone, without a husband holstered to my side? Is it purely personal safety they’re thinking about, or is it more the perceived social stigma?
If it is, I can sympathise. Eating alone in a restaurant would have filled me with horror throughout most of my 20s. Not to mention going to the cinema by myself or going on holiday alone. Nowadays, I don’t bat an eyelid about walking into a restaurant on my own. Even though I frequently sit there to the sound of ‘All By Myself’ wailing in the background (I’m not actually kidding).
Who knows, maybe I have an advantage in all of this, in that I’ve always been happy in my own company. Actually, more than happy – I actively seek out solitude and get quite out of kilter if I don’t get enough time alone.
Going solo in Barcelona
But actually being alone in a mobbed Mediterranean city can be tricky. Barcelona, like most Spanish cities, is set up for the collective. Spanish society is so deeply based on groups – whether it’s your mates or your family – that being a lone interloper acutely disrupts accepted social imperatives.
Take tapas, for example. The whole premise of those bite-sized beauties is that you order a ton of them, and then proceed to nick everyone else’s on the table. It’s such a social experience, comparing what you’re going to order, planning what to share, swapping tortilla for escalivada. When you’re alone, ordering a single octopus tentacle, it’s all just a bit sad.
Sometimes I think the worst days for loneliness are Sundays. The city’s streets are deserted in the afternoons, with most folk tucked up in the family home eating Sunday dinner for hours on end. It’s then that I’m most conscious of feeling very far away from my own family, despite the wonders of Skype.
How to win friends…and lose them three months later
One great plus point to Barca is the fact that it attracts people from all countries and all walks of life to its sunny shores. (Apparently at the exact same time that I’m trying to find a bathing spot, but never mind.) And I love that aspect of it. At work I’m surrounded by colleagues from Italy, Mexico, France, Germany, Australia, Poland…even the Dominican Republic.
Outside of work, ironically, I think it’s easier to make friends with locals rather than folk from English-speaking countries, despite how notoriously hard it is to integrate into Catalan society. For one simple reason – foreigners will leave and go home. Barca’s a popular city to come and hang out in for a year or two before buggering back off to your own country. I’ve had several friendships here over the last year that were just getting off the ground when it was time for the person to leave.
Overall, though, having to fend for yourself (and what’re more, choosing to) on foreign soil works wonders for your self-confidence. After this last year, a lot fewer things scare me. Apart from octopus tentacles, obviously.