The author's most recent outings. Clockwise, from top left: Pintxos outside La Basilica de Santa Maria del Coro; alfresco pizza; Breakfast at a cafe in Bilbao, facing the Guggenheim; her most recent meal out alone at a Russian restaurant in south-west LondonSofia Johanson

Content note: this article contains references to disordered eating

There are certainly pros and cons to embarking on your year abroad adventures three months before most of your peers do. In the advantages column: you have an excellent excuse to spend the entire summer abroad, you get a sense of empowerment from experiencing all the intimidating parts of the year abroad before most other students, and you can justify coming home for Christmas more easily.

However, with universities broken up for the holidays, young people were lacking in the northern Spanish city of San Sebastian. Moreover, the young people who were there were not seeking to befriend the random British student wandering around their city. The effects of this solitude gave me a new sense of independence and the ability to enjoy my own company. But the biggest discovery of my year abroad (aside from the beautiful Basque villages, wonderful beaches and one particular bakery pleasingly situated on my route to work) was that I was no longer terrified of eating alone.

“The sense of empowerment and agency I gained from eating alone gave me a serious confidence boost”

The night I moved into my flat, I was forced to eat out by myself for the first time because of the wildly erratic and profoundly irritating timetables of Spanish supermarkets that prevented me from buying any dinner ingredients. The daunting nature of the experience was quickly overcome by the friendly waiter (who was very patient with my nervous delivery of Spanish), the setting sun, the children playing football (at 9pm, obviously), and of course, the delicious food.

Granted, eating out was made easier for me considering San Sebastian-Donostia is often considered one of the culinary capitals of Europe. Despite this, I truly believe eating alone can be a liberating experience for anyone if you can just push past the stupid taboo that it’s embarrassing. On the other hand, telling people to just walk into a restaurant and ask for a table for one (potentially the worst part) is futile, so here are some tips:

  1. Scope out the place beforehand. Personally, family places always make me feel safer. Even though a table of six Basque teenagers probably had just as little interest in me as the family next to them, they always felt slightly more judgemental.
  2. Ask for a table in the corner, or against the wall – you’re already going to feel watched, so being in the middle of a room is not going to help.
  3. Sit down, look around, acknowledge that no-one is going to watch you. It’s tempting to immediately pull out a book, but forcing yourself to note that you’re really not that interesting to stare at can be a very calming exercise.
  4. Having said that, maybe do bring a book if it’s your first time. It can be a little boring to just stare at the empty seat across from you. Busying yourself will also make you feel less conspicuous.
  5. When you interact with the waiters, fake confidence. Believe me, you’ll feel so much more embarrassed if you look at the floor and try to get the ordering over with quickly. They’re not judging you – they’re just trying to get through their eight-hour shift, and a smile from you will not be missed. Having worked in hospitality, I can confirm that you’re likely going to be admired more than judged by those serving you.
  6. Really try and eat without being on your phone. Be present, just enjoy the food and the atmosphere around you. I’m sure that this was easier in Spain than it will be in Russia, where I’ll be sitting in some freezing, dingy cafeteria eating boiled potatoes in two weeks’ time.

“I truly believe eating alone can be a liberating experience for anyone if you can just push past the stupid taboo that it’s embarrassing”


Mountain View

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Realistically, if you’re a Cambridge student, an hour of sitting alone with a fresh meal and a book (that is unrelated to your course, please) is going to give your mind a rest and thus do you some serious good. For those who already have a depleted sense of independence, or a slightly questionable relationship with food or their body, even entering a restaurant alone may seem like a gargantuan task. However, as someone currently trying to reframe their entire mindset around eating, I can say that the sense of empowerment and agency I gained from eating alone gave me a serious confidence boost. Yes, I may still occasionally struggle to eat a whole banana (the illogicalities of disordered eating will never cease to amaze me), but I can, in fact, confidently order a two-course meal in a restaurant, enjoy it, and not feel a tsunami of guilt afterwards. So whether you just need lunch and don’t want a meal deal on a park bench, or you want to challenge yourself to do something that actually requires quite a lot of confidence, I implore you to try eating alone.