I’m hungry, I have some time to kill before the next bullet point on my itinerary, and I’m alone. It would make sense to sit down somewhere and enjoy a meal, punctuated with an espresso and a cigarette.
I’ve got the time, but not the lunch companions.
So instead, to avoid looking desperate and friendless in the eyes of the locals, I aimlessly wander the streets around Ventas, eyes peeled for takeout.
It’s a hot day in Madrid and the couples in patio seats under umbrellas, clinking chilled glasses and sharing a dripping bottle of sparkling water, are making me question this whole “solo traveler” thing. It’s all fun and games until you’re that weird girl in the corner scarfing down the seafood paella plate meant for two.
And although I’m not quite ready for the judgy look of the hostess when I ask for a table all by my lonesome, I’m sweating, and I’ve already circled the block twice.
I can’t take it much longer.
I suck it up and walk into a restaurant. A waiter with a wide smile directs me to a table and clears the second place setting.
Up until this point, I’ve never felt comfortable enough to enjoy a sit-down meal all by myself. Even after three glasses of the house red, my best friend could never be as brutally honest as that noticeably empty chair across from me.
As I sit down at my table, I imagine that the eyes of every diner in the establishment will focus on me. I envision them chatting with each other and creating storylines about me in their heads. “Do you think she got stood up?” “Is that the lady with the five dogs that lives upstairs?” “Probably she’s alone because that top is so unflattering. Ew.”
The hypotheticals terrify me.
Of course, I’ve cafe-sat for hours, or quickly grabbed something in a casual dining atmosphere. But as a rule, I’ve avoided eating alone at any establishment where a waiter takes your order.
[Tweet “”It’s all fun and games until you’re that weird girl in the corner scarfing down seafood…””]
And suddenly, I’m by myself in Madrid, face-to-face with an empty chair, and the waiter is asking if I want to start with something to drink. “Water,” I awkwardly gasp out.
The waiter leaves me to my menu and I use it to cover as much of my face as possible. In the 15 minutes it takes for the waiter to return, I’ve already established in my mind that I’ll die alone, comforted by my French bulldog, Marcel, in a tiny studio apartment with one of those couch/bed/tables.
Because of my raging insecurities, I’m completely unprepared to order. But I still point to one of the lunch specials. The waiter takes my beloved menu away and leaves me completely exposed.
Now the real wait begins. My hands won’t stop fidgeting.
Thankfully, there’s a notebook in my purse. I pull it out so that my hands have something to grasp, and my mind has something to dwell on besides my lonely future. My heart rate slows a bit.
The food arrives.
While I still feel isolated by the groups of cheery tourists passing around bread rolls, with my food in front of me I no longer feel completely alone. I begin shoveling in spoonfuls quickly. And as I fill my stomach, I also fill my well of confidence.
After I’ve finished my first course, I feel myself melt into the scene with a naturalness that seems innate. I’m fulfilling a basic bodily need, and, without distraction, I’m enjoying the hell out of it.
By the time I get to the second course, I’m taking my time, eating slower, and contemplating the scene. It’s wonderful just to sit, eat, and think. I’m processing, and enjoying the careless chatter of those around me. And since the plate is my only friend, I’m thoroughly tasting everything.
Oh, and, reality check — the other diners aren’t paying any attention to me at all.
When it’s over, I realize that I just consumed one of the most significant meals of my life, not because of the food (I don’t even remember what I ate now. Three courses I think? Something chicken for a main?), but because of how this experience forced me to get comfortable with my personal thoughts on the space, taste, and foreignness around me.
There was no body across the table for me to bounce ideas off of, meaning I took in both scene and food and confirmed or denied them for myself. I discovered that this led to an honest assessment of everything I experienced, and the meal was better for it.
In fact, I enjoyed the solo dining experience so much that the next day I was the single occupant of another table for two. (And here I remember what I ate distinctly: A huge plate of seafood paella.)
Now, I have a new goal when I travel.
After that first solo meal in Madrid (albeit at a kind of touristy restaurant), I now challenge myself to eat at least one sit-down meal alone when in a new city, preferably involving local cuisine.
By now, I’ve learned a few things about how to get through the solo wait for food. For example, I always bring a notebook and pencil, taking notes on all there is to observe.
Also, I play with the foreign words on the menu and try to pronounce them correctly. (Try ordering in the native language instead of just pointing. If you mess up, who cares! You’re alone and you’ll never see this waiter again…if you don’t want to.) Sometimes I study my itinerary or my bilingual dictionary. In short, I keep myself busy.
I won’t say that the self-consciousness completely goes away (especially if you’re painfully shy like me). But that pit in my stomach has relaxed somewhat after waiting for a dozen solo meals. And I’ve learned how to distract myself and deal with it calmly.
When the food arrives, that’s when I’m reminded that facing my dining insecurities is not only a healthy practice, but totally worth it.
[Tweet “”Food is the love child of culture. It’s a quality of society that cannot be expressed verbally.””]
The thing is, food is the love child of culture. It shows a quality of society that cannot be expressed verbally, but must be played out in rich broths, succulent meats, and softly crumbling cheeses. And, if we are to truly experience it, the meal needs to be taken presently, calmly, and with a degree of self-reflection.
It’s personal. Or, at least, it should be.
It’s a date between you, that plate, and the city. Don’t invite a crowd.
Have you ever faced the anxiety of eating alone while traveling? Share in the comments!
Images courtesy of the author.