Brianna Parkins: Why can’t a woman be left alone with her book and a pint in a hotel bar?

There’s a fake wide-eyed laugh all women do when they don’t want to continue a conversation, but feel they have to be polite to avoid being assaulted

“If you want to be interrupted, just be a woman alone with a book and a pint in a hotel bar,” said my friend, flopping down on my couch. She had just spent the last couple of weeks driving alone around Ireland, attempting to recuperate and recharge the parts of herself she had worn out working as a medical practitioner during a pandemic.

The idea was to slow down, reset her nervous system and enjoy some well-earned silence away from the constant bleeps, bloops and alarms of the hospital. Instead she found her inner voice being talked over by the outer voices of the men who kept plonking themselves next to her.

Unlike me, my friend is kind (which I think is her first mistake), and has resting nice-girl face that strangers love to talk to. She will sit patiently through meandering stories that have no purpose.

I look forward to gracefully sliding into my wizened, cranky hag years to harness their true power

“Then I says to myself, that’s not the car he usually drives, he has a Toyota ... Now what year was that? Did he buy it after or before the year we made it to the All Ireland semi-final?”


She will smile, and even encourage long-winded attempts to find a connection.

“Ah I did once know a fellah with your last name, he was the 1998 darts champion then I think he got arrested for bigamy. Surely you must know him?”

She genuinely enjoys human connection. But she also enjoys her book and her pint and her precious free time. So after half an hour or so, she will give the international signal for “thank you but please kindly bugger off” in the form of a polite “it was nice to meet you”, while turning her attention back to her book. But this time, it didn’t work.

The man pulled up a chair for himself at her table without bothering to ask if he could join her first. He assumed she welcomed his company, that she wasn’t satisfied with her book, a good seat with a high back by the fire and a lovely pint. He felt her afternoon would only be complete with his tales of a county final he had played in before she was even born.

She loves a nice banter with chatty aul’ wans in small towns as much as the next person but as she observed, “It wasn’t a conversation, he just talked at me and expected me to listen.”

It was the entitlement to her time that bothered her, because “time is the one thing I can’t get back”.

Time is a precious resource that quadruples in value when it’s holiday time. That time is the rare allotment of our lives given over to relaxing, to doing whatever we want, without having to perform the emotional labour the workplace demands. We’re free from the “hope this finds you well” emails and “how was your weekend?”

If you want to spend your holiday time on a swingers cruise navigating polyamory outside societal expectations, you’re entitled to that. Or if you just want to read books in peace without having to mind the feelings of complete strangers, you also deserve to be left in peace.

Large chunks of my adult life have been filled travelling for work, usually alone. In all my years loitering in hotel lobbies, restaurants, airports, lounges and Starbucks, most of the time I was approached, almost always by an older man.

Sometimes it would just be a friendly chat, and I had some truly lovely exchanges with all kinds of interesting people. But far too often they would say something along the lines of “I was wondering what a lovely/pretty lady was doing all by themselves?”

“It’s because I’m actually a lizard person who feasts on the souls of the living,” I would say.

Except I didn’t, because I was afraid of upsetting a bigger and stronger human who might follow me back to my room if I hurt his ego. So I did the fake wide-eyed laugh all women do when they don’t want to continue a conversation, but feel they have to be polite to avoid being assaulted.

It happens less as I get older, thanks to a developing frown furrow between my brows that sets off my resting bitch face perfectly. I have the kind of unapproachable face that leads new friends to comment, “I thought you were a wagon before I got to know you”, as if this is a compliment.

Maybe I am a wagon. It’s an image I’ve worked hard to cultivate for good reason. For example, charity fundraisers never approach me on the street with guilt-induced sales pitches.

I look forward to gracefully sliding into my wizened, cranky hag years to harness their true power. Currently I am looking to invest in some black tassel shawls, with at least one in a compact travel size; handy for repelling people in hotels who think a woman reading her book is lonely, and not just enjoying being alone.

Brianna Parkins

Brianna Parkins

Brianna Parkins is an Irish Times columnist