A few weeks ago I booked a four-day trip to Montreal because I’d been having that kind of cabin fever that tingles, in which everyone seems deliberately annoying, and I had to get out of New York temporarily to stave off fleeing permanently. It would be the first time I’d traveled completely alone.
And despite the novelty, even though I am a control freak to my core and a major planner, and boy am I making myself sound SUPER fun, an unbelievable good time — anyway, atypically, I didn’t plan much for Montreal. I got my train tickets and my rental apartment and I left it at that, unorganized but for bright blue blocks of time marked off in my Gmail calendar.
The worrying was postponed, but inevitable: Past experiences in going new places have indicated that I seem to have a significant, weird thing (among other, smaller weird things) about going to get food by myself. In my junior year of college I went to Madrid to study for a semester, and I spent much of it hanging around my señora’s apartment feeling hungry, broke, and homesick. I made some sort-of-friends there, but I’m not sure we liked each other much, so I was alone a lot. It was only in the last month that I started taking myself, on weekends, to the Prado, and only then that I started furtively buying myself gummy candy from the shop across the street. Before desperate boredom set in, the idea of venturing out alone — let alone sitting down to eat with no one else there — just seemed too terrifying.
I must, on some level, fear food. I love it and eat a lot of it, I think, and am not consciously worried about what any particular meal will do to my body, but the process of obtaining it stresses me out. I don’t mean that I can’t prepare it well or easily, though that is also true. I mean that leaving my home or office to go buy food from a restaurant overwhelms me. I get anxious, and spend too much time looking at menus online, and in pre-Google Maps app days I’d draw little maps of the routes, made primarily to overcome my pathetic sense of direction, but also to prevent myself from flaking out, and later claiming plausible deniability. (I can’t get there if I don’t know the way!) This is actually an OK way to get yourself to do something you’re ambivalent and/or nervous about, if symbolism works on you; I once got myself to go on an OkCupid date by putting our meet-up spot at the end of a hand-drawn map. But maybe you don’t find it hard to just go places.
It’s not hard if I’m with friends, or meeting up with them — if that’s the case I could stroll out the door right now, no map needed, except Google Maps, because I’m not one of those freaks who gets off the subway, looks around her, and is like, “That’s north!” before striding confidently off toward the compass convention, or wherever. It’s only when I am by myself that I fold inward, confining my world to the comfiest places and activities in my immediate surroundings, only occasionally leaving them with the concerted-but-minimal effort of an introspective neurotic who kind of wants to change, but not that much.
I am not sure, but maybe what makes me so self-conscious about going to restaurants alone is that it feels to me, quite literally, like conspicuous consumption — not the economist version that means buying nice things to show I can, but something more sensitive and sillier-feeling to say: Going out into the world alone, with the purpose of serving a basic human need so directly, makes me uncomfortably aware that I am all I can rely on. And I am sometimes not that reliable.
A day before I left I Gchatted my friend Dan, who went to college in Montreal, to ask him for tips and last-minute advice. It had vaguely occurred to me by then that I had not asked myself some of the questions one should ask prior to traveling internationally, even if it’s “only to Canada.” I kind of forgot about exchanging money, for instance. And then, in talking to Dan, I realized I had forgotten (or at least not been thinking about) the fact that they speak French in Montreal. The menus would be written in it too, he said.
So that’s when I started to worry.
While Dan rattled off restaurant names and types in my Gchat window, I left my computer entirely, seeking out co-workers who’d been to Montreal. “Is everything in French??” I asked, not hysterically, necessarily, but with… verve. “Mostly,” some of them said. “Kinda?” said others. My stress was not soothed by these ambiguities, but I accepted the futility in trying to learn another language that very day.
The next morning, I arrived to Penn Station 45 minutes before my train’s departure. I remembered my passport. I forgot my glasses and mascara.
Just 11 scenic hours later, I was in Canada, at Montreal’s Gare Centrale. I got some shiny, colorful Canadian money out of an ATM and caught a cab outside. I asked the driver, who spoke perfect English in a lovely French accent, about the snow still on the ground in early April. (Instead of saying they “got” snow, he says they “received” it: “We received a lot of snow this year.” This must be a language difference thing, but it seems like such a nice way to think about it, and I’d like if we started speaking of snow like this, too.) I got into my lovely rental apartment without difficulty, and after walking a few blocks down the nearby Boulevard Saint-Laurent, went to sleep alone in a foreign city. And maybe it was just the long trip, or how quiet it was there compared to my bedroom in New York, but I haven’t slept so well in weeks.
In the morning I bought breakfast and lunch all together, from a grocery store and bakery a block from my apartment. The writing on the storefronts and the packaged food there is indeed French, and the default greeting is “Bonjour!” but everyone I encountered that morning spoke to me in English. Going home with food — it’s like I pictured myself a cavewoman hunter-gatherer or something; all I did was put things in a basket — buoyed me, and when I got to the apartment, I unpacked my laptop and pulled up Google Maps.
Montreal, I’d very recently learned, is known for its pastries, croissants especially, and because I have a mouth full of sweet teeth, getting a good one quickly became my trip’s own Holy Grail. There was a shop with good reviews about a mile and a half from my apartment, and I decided I’d walk there that afternoon. I did bring a map, and good thing, too, because near the end I made a wrong turn and walked in the wrong direction for a while, but other than that, I didn’t consult it much.
I went into the shop, said “Bonjour,” and was asked something in French, which I presumed to be some version of “What would you like to eat?” I said “Cafe au lait, and —” and, looking into the glass display case of beautiful bready-y things, pointed to an almond croissant. “That’s frozen,” he said, having efficiently picked up on my ineptness in French. “But if you want to sit down, we can heat it up?” I said, “Oh, yes please,” and he said, “It’s CRAZY-good.” And then he winked at me.
I sat down, alone, and read the book I’d brought with me, and drank my coffee while I waited. After a few minutes a server slid the plate onto my table, and I took a picture of it, because I could tell it would be really good, and I’d want to remember. It was. It was crazy-good.
I sat there eating, and drinking, and reading alone, all afternoon. It was the simplest thing, but so nice, and it made me feel like I understood the appeal in something I’d read so much about, admiringly, but from a distance. Traveling somewhere alone, and even eating somewhere alone, does position you as this small and sometimes-confused individual in overwhelming external largeness, and that is scary, at least for me. But the only way you can ever be sure a scary thing won’t kill you is to do it.
The night before I left Montreal I called a cab company (another thing I’d worried about, because how could I politely indicate my language barrier without helpless gestures?) to arrange my ride for the next morning. The dispatcher spoke English, of course, but when he asked for my street name, and I tried to say it in the best approximation of the French pronunciation I could, I THINK (I am pretty sure) he corrected me before saying “COME on.” I think that was fair, and probably overdue. Even still, my cab came in the morning, on time, and I arrived home with a little less anxiety dedicated to a few particular things. Which is great for me, because now I can use it somewhere else.