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The empty seat

When the tour guide requested that the group of fifteen return to the bus in half an hour, everyone was accounted for except for a solo male traveler. Someone went back to the Irish cemetery to see if he had gotten lost meandering through the gravesites. Finally, the bus driver maneuvered the road a mile down to the center of town if he had thought that was our meeting spot. There he was sitting on a bench unperturbed. He hopped on the bus without apologizing for holding up the rest of the group. It left a bad taste in everyone's mouth on the first day of travel together.

This proper gentleman in his late sixties joined a backroads tour through southern Ireland. He stayed to himself, respectfully skirting the usual conversation with others during the "getting to know you" phase of the trip. He was guarded in answering questions from the more outspoken of the tour group. Everyone settled into gossiping about him instead. "Could he have the onset of dementia"? "What about his facial bruise stumbling entering the hotel the night before?"

Solo traveling with a tour group has its own set of challenges. You have to step out of your comfort zone and reach out a bit more to engage with fellow travelers or remain elusive and hopefully satisfied like this gentleman.

One noontime on a quick lunch stop in Kinsale, County Cork, I went down the street to the Lemon Leaf Café with a couple of retired ER nurses from Seattle. I found that we had similar interests. Although they had been working pals for decades, they accepted the third person readily.

The small café was packed, and we had to find a seat on a semi-enclosed porch to the rear at a table for four. Still, we were elbow-to-elbow with other tables. We began pouring over a very extensive menu of healthy choices. While doing so, a little bird perched on the top of the extra chair wanting a bit of company. We took turns shooing the birdy away.

The wooden chair sat there empty in a room packed with diners until one of the nurses spied the solo gentleman searching for a table from the front of the café. She went to invite him over, and he appeared pleased by the smile on his face and the softening of his shoulders. We carried on our discussion and made sure to include him. Little by little, he opened up about himself. He had retired from a government job in Chicago and now had time for travel. He had traveled with two others in the past, and it seemed that both could no longer handle it. One of the nurses checked his bruise and asked if he was continuing to have a headache. He replied, "I'll be OK. I was disoriented when I arrived. Jet lag."

After we finished our lunch and separated on the sidewalk, I asked the ER nurses if he sounded like he had dementia. They were a little vague but thought that he was OK to be on his own for the time being.

You couldn't say that the solo gentleman ever warmed up to the group, although he appeared to be enjoying himself more and more. It might be best to leave it at that without reading into the story.

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