I’m in Moscow, a bit jet-lagged, getting ready for a guided tour of the Kremlin. My hotel has a lovely view of at least part of Red Square, and I managed a comfortable vegan breakfast this morning. I’m on my own for this trip, the main purpose of which is a lecture next week. My wife and daughter are back home, and it’s for the best — I’m not sure Heloise is ready for the cold. It’s -5 Fahrenheit outside, not counting the wind chill, as I write.
There’s a not entirely undeserved stereotype about men traveling alone. I’m fortunate to have traveled a great deal in recent years, often with my wife (and in the last year, quite a bit with my daughter), and also frequently alone. I’ve noted over and over again the subtle (and occasionally, not so subtle) distinction between the way I’m treated when I’m by myself and when we’re together as a family. I’m keenly aware — and this is probably an awareness rooted in my work — that I’m often seen as a potential predator when I’m by myself. Young women in the service sector (in nice hotels, for example) tend to be just a bit more guarded with me when I’m alone than when I’m with my wife. It’s not that my behavior is any different whether or not my spouse is with me; it’s that a great many women the world over know that single men can be “troublesome”, particularly for young women who are employed to serve them in some capacity.
Part of being a responsible single male traveler — particularly a relatively affluent male traveler in a less affluent country — is to be cognizant of the potential threat (and in a few instances, the potential opportunity) that one poses. I don’t hide from my Americanness (I may have a UK passport, but my manner and bearing are very much of the New World), and of course, I don’t disguise that I’m a man. I know very well the “ugly American” stereotype, and I know the stereotype (grounded in considerable but not universal truth) that men of my age traveling alone are very interested in using whatever leverage they have to get sex.
And so while I hope I’m hardly impolite when I’m with Eira and Heloise, I’m even more aware of my manners when I’m traveling abroad by myself. I know full well that though it might seem the job of hotel staff, for example, to put me at ease, it’s also my job to make them comfortable. That doesn’t mean I don’t ask for extra pillows if I need them (and I frequently do; I tend to like to build small fortresses on the bed). It does mean that when making requests, I make sure that I am cordial, appreciative, and utterly and unmistakably safe. Having a wedding ring helps, but the number of philandering traveling husbands (and, to be fair, wives) has done much to vitiate the power of that symbol to indicate a particular kind of safety.
I have a private tour guide this morning, a young woman who has already phoned twice to make sure I will meet her at the appointed place and time. I know that when we do meet in person, in about half an hour’s time, I will do my best to project myself as an earnest, inquisitive, ever-so-slightly bumbling, desexualized American. Yes, that comes naturally to me now (especially the bumbling bit).
I certainly don’t expect others to adopt my personality quirks. What I do think is reasonable is to ask ourselves — as well as our boyfriends and brothers, fathers and friends — how we behave when we’re alone “on the road” and around women whose livelihood requires serving us in some capacity. Do we flirt for validation? Do we tip more generously those who flirt with us, or those who are more attractive? If we do — and a great many men do — we aren’t having a little “innocent” fun. Ask women who have worked as a server in the food and beverage industry; flirtation is frequently mandatory. After all, there are few things more disheartening than watching a middle-aged man in a restaurant leer and fawn over a young waitress half his age merely because she doesn’t have the power to tell him off or avoid him. Most of us have seen this countless times.
It’s not enough to not be part of the problem. We — and in this case, I mean single male travelers and business professionals — have a moral obligation to make sure that those who are paid to care for us and provide us with comfort on our journeys know that we are safe. We each need to practice our own form of gentle, polite reassurance.
Oh, and newsflash, people: when you’re in a hotel, you tip the cleaning staff. Every day. Don’t wait until the day you check out to leave a single amount; the maids generally rotate, and everyone who comes to tidy your mess needs to be recognized.