on traveling alone: a dispatch from seattle

In which I give some advice on how to have a good time at a bar alone and some stray thoughts on traveling alone.

on traveling alone: a dispatch from seattle

When I was 20 years old I went to London alone. It was almost 4 months into studying abroad in France and I felt pretty comfortable doing things alone at that point. I was still pretty anxious as a person, but I was used to doing things alone as the only option. Then, I went to London and something totally new happened to me— a social anxiety nightmare come true.

I wanted to get pizza near the Airbnb I was staying at, so I consulted google and found a place. I walked in, saw about 5 of 8 open tables and two women chatting by a host stand. I asked for a table. The younger asked for how many. I said just one and I was told no.

Our conversation went something like this:

“Just one?”

“Yeah, I’m visiting so it’s just me.”

“You can’t have a table for just one. We do not have tables for one.”

It took me off guard enough that I dropped my usual unquestioning deference to service staff and said, “what?”

“Well what are you even going to get?” the older woman says to me.

“A cheese pizza? Margherita pizza?”

“You can order and take it with you, but we do not have a table for you.”

I was taken aback by this whole experience to the point that I just said okay then brought it back to my Airbnb and ate most of it in my bedroom.

I’d spent almost four months in France, a country known for its general vibe of rudeness, and not until this moment had I experienced confusing unkindness. Not in central Paris did I ever encounter anybody so visibly unhappy to be talking to me.

Usually if someone is worried about going to do something alone it’s good advice to point out that nobody is looking at you and nobody cares. Everybody is focused on themself. Staff are at work. That pizza place in Camden proved me wrong. I think about it all the time.

You can order and take it with you.

I was thinking about it last night as I went out for dinner by myself in Seattle. Admittedly, when I go out by myself now I choose a place where I can just sit at a bar and not have to deal with hosts at all. Last night I went to a bar that had good food reviews. It had a terrible mural outside, but a warm, divey interior that felt comfortable. One of those places that has a specialty flavor jell-o shot and you’re not sure why. It wasn’t real busy when I got there, but there was a guy setting up karaoke and three bartenders so I figured it would pick up. That’s a sweet spot bar environment for me.

I sat between two guys at the bar. The guy to my left drank Jäeger all night with two friends. Guy to my right was drinking Dewar Scotch and bragged to another guy— who would walk behind the bar to get his straight vodka shots with a flippant, inconsiderate attitude that could only be explained by him being the owner— about how he had just bought a convertible BMW. Owner guy told BMW guy that he’s glad he bought a BMW instead of an Audi. According to him, Audis are for “douchebags who can’t afford a BMW” and I think he might be right. Of course, BMW owners are just those same douchebags who got a raise and a bonus last year.

I opted for a Rainier— a beer I’d never had until yesterday as someone who had never been to the Pacific Northwest. I listened in on the guys to my left, too. One of them ordered something with Tito’s vodka and Jäeger guy asked him what makes someone order a specific vodka. I guess his wife had told him that she doesn’t like expensive vodkas because they stop tasting like vodka after all the distillation and she wants her drink to still taste alcoholic. I get that sentiment when it’s applied to people who say a drink “is just like juice!” but I really don’t think vodka ever stops tasting like vodka as a result of any production process.

I also think people order Tito’s because they hear other people do it. It’s not significantly better than any well vodka. For what it’s worth, I think Stateside is good if you can get it, but I wouldn’t request it at a bar even in Philly. I was expecting Jaeger guy’s friend to pretend he likes how it tastes better, but what he said was way funnier than that. He told his friend that one time the bartenders at this specific bar replaced the pour spout on the well vodka with the one from a bottle of gin and he got three vodka drinks in a row that tasted like gin. So now he doesn’t order their well vodka. I imagine he thinks it runs out slower so they won’t replace the pour top as much. I liked that reason.

When those guys all got a round Jäeger guy included me in their cheers and told me when the bar’s kitchen closed. Eventually they all got excited about a game with Jäeger guy flashing a score on his phone to a friend. I got an ESPN notification on my phone that the Avalanche had lost to the Kraken a couple minutes earlier so I was thinking it was that one, but I asked him which game they were excited about anyway.

“The Kraken won!” he flashed me the score this time. 2-1. Avalanche lost.

“That’s crazy. The Avalanche won The Cup last year!”

He didn’t know that, but he was stoked to hear it. Said it was great for “us,” so when I replied with it being good for “you” he asked where I was from.

“Chicago, but I live in Philadelphia. I’m just visiting.”

“Your teams still playing?”

“Nah, but I don’t feel much allegiance to Philly and you don’t wanna support the Blackhawks.”

He laughed at that then started talking to his friends again. It was a nice interaction. It’s why I like going to bars alone. I like the ambient and casual conversation that becomes possible. I think there’s this idea amongst younger people especially that all social interaction should be something you can control. Maybe it’s an internet thing, but it does feel like there is an aversion to people engaging with you when you didn’t seek it out. Almost an inherent suspicion of people who might talk to you.

There is a level of caution that you need to maintain, of course, and use your best judgment if you feel unsafe, but I think a blanket, internet fueled paranoia toward strangers is a loss for young people— especially young women for whom that paranoia doesn’t actually serve too well. It’s nice to be in public alone. It’s nice to have casual interactions with people. It’s good to have to learn some instincts around what feels safe and develop confidence speaking to strangers.

If you’re a person— especially a young woman— who would like to be the type of person who can go to a bar alone and have a nice time but you feel anxious about it, here’s my advice as a woman in her 20s.

Learn what you like to drink. Make it quick to order. Practice ordering in the mirror and in your head if you need to.

If the bar is kind of dingy and the bartender looks like he might wear a Lawrence Arms t-shirt, I’ll order either a beer or a vodka soda. It is my opinion that a vodka soda should come with a lime, but I won’t specify the first time I order. I like a wheat beer or a hazy IPA for draft or craft stuff. It’s more important to learn what you like in a beer than to learn what beers you like. Learn keywords. I encourage you to try the local cheap beer. I like Rainier, I hate Yuengling, I love Old Style, I tolerate LaBatt Blue. For cheap national brand beers, my preference goes: Miller Lite, Miller High Life, PBR, Tecate. If none of those are available, return to the vodka soda idea. No reason to suffer through a Bud Light or whatever. Unless that’s your thing. I don’t know you.

At a bar with an extensive wine and cocktail list, it is once again all about keywords. I like things that are quite floral and elderflower is pretty much a cheat code. I prefer a gin cocktail. With wine it’s more about knowing what I don’t like. I grew up in a household where wine meant super sweet white wine, so it’s been a lot of trial on my own to find stuff I like otherwise. “Full bodied” means I’m out. Chardonnay means I’m out. I like natural wines. I like orange wines and pet nats more than anything. A Riesling is a safe bet, but not worth the $13 a glass price tag you get when you order wine at a bar. My best advice for figuring out what wine you like as an embarrassed adult is to date someone who works at a nice restaurant or specialty store. Access is everything!

Take an interest in sports.

You don’t have to know a lot, but there’s value in knowing what’s going on in the culture. Up until I was in my early 20s I really didn’t give a shit about sports. I liked the Cubs because my family liked the Cubs. Going to Bears games were freezing cold nightmares. It wasn’t my thing. I liked music and art and movies. I really didn’t pay attention to sports— and sort of actively resented being forced to acknowledge them— until I realized it was way more fun for me to hang out with whatever boyfriend I had if I could buy in. Not because it makes me seem like A Cool Girl, but just because finding reasons to be annoyed with your partner sucks and isn’t fun. I got introduced to Jon Bois videos and it suddenly made more sense to me. Sports are a fun thing full of drama and compelling story lines.

Anyway, a side effect of me being jock adjacent in my adulthood is that I also grew to recognize that sports are the easiest thing in the world to talk about with a stranger. It’s perfect small talk. The highs and lows of it are low stakes but passionate! It’s so good.

Here are some things you can say:

“You know, when he’s on he’s ON, but when he’s off— jeeeeesus.”
“Eh losing builds character”
“Do you think Jokic is gonna win MVP again?” (basketball conversation only)
“Do you like the [insert team] stadium?”
“Who scored?” [Wait for answer] “Damn. Finally making good on his potential!”

The thing is that you don’t even have to be right, you just have to read the vibes. People like sports! It's easy!

Bring a book.

Not a long book or a book that demands a lot of undivided attention. Bring a book that you can read casually that fits in a pocket. Last night I was reading Human Relations— a book of essays described as “Aaron Cometbus and three fellow booksellers write about the strange books they love.” It was the perfect bar book. For a while I would read Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill at bars. Just about any Cometbus or Proof I Exist zine I own has been read at a bar alone. Stuff that is engaging enough to actually entertain you while it’s kind of loud around you, but is okay to kind of skim, pick up and put down over however long you’re there.

Some people think it’s annoying and pretentious to read while at a bar, but I think it’s far better than staring at your phone. You’re still sitting alone.

Whenever I tell my mom I’m traveling anywhere by myself she almost tries to convince me I should be scared, but I think traveling alone— and being alone in public— is the greatest thing you can do for yourself. Learning how to navigate new places is invaluable. Being around people you don’t know is invaluable and will teach you things about yourself that you can’t learn anywhere else.

Some other stray thoughts on traveling:

  1. It’s valuable to check your expectations of how other people should act at the door. It’s not worth it to get worked up about people not acting exactly as you think is “proper.”
  2. Most people will be nice to you if you’re nice to them and making an effort. I didn’t ever feel like people were unkind or rude to me in the Parisian neighborhood I lived in.
  3. Some Europeans who speak English want you to be embarrassed to be an American more than anything, but you don’t have to kiss their ass to prove you’re “a good one.” The same guy in Paris who wanted me to say Americans are idiots who know nothing about geography also told me that Chicago is the same place as Minnesota. A guy in Bristol told me he couldn’t understand a Welsh accent. It’s unbecoming to debase yourself for their benefit.
  4. People who work in the center of any city are gonna be way more rude to you than people who work anywhere else in that city. You would be more rude too if you were in their position.
  5. You might want to buy vinyl. It’s probably not a good idea.

Of course, this is just my experience.

Miranda Reinert is a music adjacent writer, zine maker, podcaster and law school drop out based in Philadelphia. Follow me on Twitter to hear more about beers I'm drinking: @mirandareinert. You may also send me small bits of money at @miranda-reinert on venmo if you want to help me drink more of those beers. As always, thanks for reading!