Standing alone, fretting and perspiring on Independence Mall, I knew it was crunchtime: Did I want to spend my final hours in Philadelphia in line waiting for a chance to peek at the Liberty Bell or did I want to see the world’s first pizza museum?
Many people, understandably, would have chosen the former. History, patriotism, America. I get it.
Thankfully, in that moment, I had only one opinion to consider — my own.
I flagged down a car and booked it to the primo pizza haven. Browsing its food-themed memorabilia collection, which included kitschy goods that included a pizza-party Barbie doll and silver “Star Trek” Enterprise pizza cutter, I probably should have felt guilty for choosing a public shrine to the Italian pie over America’s most famous broken bell. And for the two scoops of Little Baby’s chocolate pomegranate ice cream I devoured for lunch. And for the fancy, frozen craft cocktail I splurged on the night before.
But I didn’t. For the first time, I didn’t have to explain, rationalize or compromise my travel plans to fit anyone else’s mood, budget or schedule. The possibilities were endless. And the decisions — bad, good or indefensible — were all mine to make.
When I told friends and family I was going to Philadelphia for the weekend, their responses were all the same: “With who?” Once I told them I was going alone — and that it was my first foray into solo travel — they perked up.
“How brave of you.”
“I’ve always wanted to do that!”
But there were some outliers.
“You’re going to a new place, by yourself . . . by choice?” said an acquaintance, with a quizzical expression.
I can’t deny experiencing some pangs of doubt when my Amtrak train arrived at 30th Street Station. For years, I had viewed solo travelers’ accounts of their journeys with awe and admiration — also, a smidge of envy. Their polished, glossy posts made solo travel look alluring and adventurous. What if my experience fell short? What if I failed miserably at being a lone ranger?
A day of exploring Center City and Old City helped me get my footing and calm my nerves. It was liberating, albeit a bit daunting, to know I had nothing to consider but my own (loose) itinerary. I proceeded each day at my own pace — snapping secret selfies at the National Liberty Museum, losing myself in the quaint beauty and peacefulness of tiny Elfreth’s Alley and re-creating Rocky Balboa’s famous movie run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Solo travel forced me to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. Whether it was navigating my phone’s GPS system in a new part of town or figuring out how to talk to the person in the bar stool next to me, I had to acknowledge that the feeling was new, weird and unusual. Then push past it. But there were times when traveling solo challenged me. For example, dining.
“The reservation is under McDonough,” I half-whispered, half-mimed to the Talula’s Garden hostess. “For one.”
My heartbeat quickened, and a wave of anxiety flowed from my flushed cheeks to my grumbling gut. It was dinner time and, after delaying my reservation twice, I had finally conjured enough moxie.
While I have eaten many meals by myself — at home, at my desk and on the run — nothing could calm my nerves as I entered the beautifully lit patio alone. At first, I was convinced everyone was watching me, wondering whether I had been recently jilted or was simply friendless. I felt I needed to broadcast that I was eating alone by choice.
Despite my initial discomfort, I soon came to appreciate the benefits of dining alone. Small, simple details often missed in the company of others — textures, colors and music — were evident and impressive. Suddenly, my lonely dinner became both manageable and enjoyable. I was tempted to swing by Federal Donuts for a late-night treat, but decided on Writer’s Block Rehab for a quick nightcap.
As the trip progressed, I realized that although I was alone more often than not, I was never lonely. By the last day, my longing to share my Philadelphia experience with others was dissipating. After all, it had, in fact, been shared with multiple people — from the whipsmart Talula’s Garden bartender who offered me drink ideas to the friendly National Liberty Museum docent who offered to charge my phone in the backroom to the jovial Ben Franklin impersonator who offered me directions on the street.
Though solitary, I had established genuine, if fleeting, connections with an entire community of people I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
And thanks to the City of Brotherly Love, I was in good company.
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