I sat at an outdoor café off the square in Krakow enjoying my breakfast. So much for cooking this morning.
About half of the tables were filled, which meant the waitress had time to practice her English.
She asked me if I always ate eggs for breakfast.
I answered that as long as someone else is cooking, then I like eggs.
She laughed and asked if I wanted juices.
She told me that I am difficult to please.
I ate another bite of my omelet and nodded in agreement.
She said, “Vodka?”
I laughed and shook my head, “Could you please wrap my food so I can take it home?”
She walked away repeating, “So I can take it home.”
A handsome fifty-ish-year-old man wearing a suit jacket in this heat asked if he could join me.
My first thought was that he might be a Russian sympathizer, then I remembered that I was no longer in Ukraine. In Poland we didn’t have to worry about such things. His accent reminded me of a good friend who lives in south London.
I told him that he could only join me if he had a good story or two.
He said he was up to the challenge.
I laughed. I wasn’t going to sit with him while he ate his breakfast, but I am always up for a good conversation.
He ordered a coffee and then asked if I was traveling alone.
Little alarm bells went off in my head: that’s a bad first question. I rarely tell strangers that I am traveling alone. Why does he need that information?
I nodded to the waitress to let her know I was ready for my leftovers and gave my head a quick tilt to the side to let her know I was ready to leave. I said to the man, “No. I never travel alone. My husband is at the hotel.”
The man mumbled something about a beautiful woman eating alone and how I misrepresented myself and made him think…
I cut him off. “And my husband is a bear when he’s hungry.”
The waitress brought me my leftovers and my change.
I handed her a tip, picked up my food and as I was pushing in my chair, I reminded to tip the waitress.
He lowered his voice and said angrily, “You don’t have to run off so fast, you know.”
Oh, interesting. He’s manipulative, too. Hmmm.
“Yes, I must go.” I said firmly, but playfully. “I must tame that bear.”
I walked in the opposite direction of my apartment and stood in the shadows of a building to watch him for a moment. People assume that I’ve never experienced difficult situations since I continue to travel alone, but I have.
Was he going to pick up his phone and call someone who might also be watching me? Yes, that has happened. Was he going to run after me himself and try to lure me somewhere? That’s happened in the past, too. Maybe one day I’ll tell you about the taxi driver that tried to kidnap me and a friend.
I’m a terrible victim. He said it wasn’t worth it.
I know. Being annoying can be such a win.
Now that I’m older I keep thinking that I don’t have to worry about strange men messing with me, but unfortunate things happen to people of all ages.
He paid for his coffee before it arrived by leaving money on the table, an odd move in Europe, and sat with a woman at a different table in the restaurant without asking her first, another odd move.
She bristled and sent him away.
I walked down several busy side streets and stepped into a grocery store while I watched the front door out of the corner of my eye. Parchment paper. Butter. Yogurt. Almonds.
I put my hair up into a bun and when I left, walked into a crowd of people who were waiting for a tram, then took a busy side street to my building. This is the same place I stayed last summer. I love that it has a double locked entry before you get to the stairs.
It feels safe here.
Young women from around the world write to me to ask if it is safe to travel alone and wonder if I can give them any tips.
Yes: it is safe to travel alone.
No: it is not safe to travel alone.
Your job as a traveler is to know which end of the pendulum each event is on: safe or not safe.
That man was not safe. It doesn’t mean that he’s a hatchet murderer, but asking if I were alone and his moodiness were both bad signs.
Walk away from bad signs.
I always talk to the waitstaff and bartenders, so they know who I am. I always tip well so they remember me. I always have cash to pay the bill in case I want to leave quickly. I always have an exit strategy and know my way around.
I give myself permission to answer a stranger’s question any way I want to. And if something goes wrong, I make a lot of noise to draw attention to the situation. I’m never afraid to yell, “Fuck off!” to a man who won’t go away.
When you curse, the people around you pay attention.
Since I travel a lot, I've seen a lot.
I met two American twenty-something-year-old women in Turkey who had befriended a man from Ireland who invited them to a restaurant for dinner and then sold their whereabouts to some traffickers. They were drugged, robbed and attacked two days before I met them.
The shorter one said, “We thought we could trust him since he was from Ireland. He wasn’t Turkish.”
I still can’t believe that they escaped. They can’t figure out how long they were missing or how they got back to their hotel, wrapped in towels and got into their room. Luckily their hotel room wasn’t touched.
I told them to get a different hotel room.
They asked me for advice on how to get a new passport.
I told them to go to the US Consulate, but before they could respond, a cute 20-something Turkish man joined our little group at the tram stop where we had just met.
He asked them if they wanted a drink.
They both agreed that they wanted a drink.
They had bruises on their heads and their arms. I lowered my voice. “Girls. Weren’t you going to work on your paperwork?”
The shorter one said they could do that later.
The taller one said that they really needed a drink.
Seriously? After the night or nights from hell they had just lived throgh, they’re going off with another stranger? Right now?
I worried that they were still in shock and tried to stop them.
“Lady,” one of the girls said to me, “If we call our parents they’ll make us go home. We’re not ready to go home.”
I tried to give them fifty dollars, but they turned me down and said that the guy was going to buy the drinks.
And then they were gone.
If you are a young woman who read the story about the women in Turkey and think that it was smart of them to go and get a free drink after their night of hell, then you should not travel. At all.
Or not until you can tell the difference between a safe situation and one that isn’t safe.
I know. I know. I just got back from a war zone.
But that’s a different kind of danger. And unusual, even for me.
When it comes to traveling alone, I am always on alert.
I started climbing the 111 steps to my apartment. If a bad guy tried to chase me all the way up to my place, he would be so out of breath that he would be harmless.
I like that.
Oh, and a few more tips on safety when traveling alone: I never get a room or apartment on the ground floor, and I like to stay in places that either have a 24-hour reception desk or people who live on the premises.
I always wear comfortable clothes when I travel alone and simple jewelry, which can be tough since so many people dress up, especially in Europe. I feel more invisible if I’m not wearing dressy or revealing clothes.
If I’m stopping for the night in a motel close to a highway, I always pay for two people and tell them that my husband is picking up our dinner.
Once I paid for my husband and a dog. I was too tired to keep looking for a place and the guy at the counter was strange.
He asked what kind of dog.
There are many statistics about how many women traveling alone are attacked in motels, likely because the clerks sell the keys or give them to their friends.
Yes, that is a real thing.
After that, I never waited until I was tired to secure a room. Generally, for long drives I start by 4:00 AM and look for a place to sleep by 4:00 PM. An advantage to this is that the clerks generally change shifts after 4, so the new crew will have no idea of who I am or what I look like or that I might be traveling alone.
Also: I never open the motel room door if someone knocks. Never.
And if someone bumps into me, I don’t apologize. If he does it again, I say, “Fuck off.” If he does it again, I get help right where I am.
And if a stranger/Uber driver/clerk/random person askes if I’m traveling alone, the answer is always a resounding, “No.” And I never call an Uber from where I’m staying. An Uber driver last week asked me if the hotel I stood in front of was the hotel I was staying at.
I said it was. Sorry to lie, Best Western Old Town.
In the end, I follow my intuition. When I first met that man, my first thought was that he was someone who could mess with me – a Russian sympathizer, or a spy.
Pay attention to those thoughts.
As I climbed up to my place, I found Ella at the reception desk. She and her husband own the building and they live here, too.
“Oh good, you’re back.” She said, slowly.
“I got back late last night.”
She hugged me. “I’m so glad you’re safe.”
I gave her a tired smile. “Me too.”
She said that it occurred to her that if something happened to me, she would not know who to contact.
I told her that I left a note in my apartment with the phone numbers of people where she could have reported me missing.
She asked how it went.
I said it was successful journey; we delivered all of the aid to Ukrainians who needed it most. I told her about the orphans and the soldiers and the people who live in their basements while under constant attack.
When I got to the part about the soldiers’ dog that stayed close to the building after it was blown up, she said that I need to bring that dog to her.
I laughed. I have no idea how I would take a stray dog on a 14-hour train ride. Or get it across the border.
She asked if I was going back into Ukraine, again.
There were so many factors to consider, but rather than explaining all of that to her I said,
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