The very pretty dish above was served to me at a table in Chambéry last month. I'd arrived, in the dark, at the station of a town I'd never visited before. Consulting my iPhone for directions, I attracted the attention of a well-dressed fellow whose offer to help me find my hotel was quite probably sincere and well-meaning, but I thought it wiser to manage on my own. . . . although shortly after I'd waved him off, I asked a policeman standing by his vehicle if he'd point me to the right street. Once I had that, all the rest was easy, and the welcome in the hotel -- only a 5-minute walk away -- was warm and comforting. I asked the Front Desk-Cum-Concierege to recommend a restaurant, and he made me a reservation.
Yes, I had to walk on my own several blocks, in the dark, through twisty, medieval streets, but they were lit, and although shops were shut, there were enough people walking and cycling through, that I didn't feel uncomfortable. My sense of security was enhanced by the care the hotel clerk had taken in making the reservation and giving me directions, and I arrived easily at the restaurant, where two hopeful diners who'd arrived just before me, sans reservations, were being turned away. Inside, I was shown to my table, fortuitously positioned so that I could enjoy some casual people-watching while waiting for my food. I used to be shy about eating on my own, would try to bring a book for "cover," but these days, I just as often simply sit and look around, take in the ambience, relax, and anticipate an evening of being looked after. There's always the iPhone to consult, Instagram to scroll through, if I begin to feel restless or exposed, and I often tuck my iPad Mini in my bag as well, just in case I do want to read.
Funny to think that there was a time, not so very long ago, when women eating alone in restaurants were often treated poorly or looked askance at. But consider this passage from Isabel Vincent's charming memoir Dinner with Edward.
I know that for some -- many? -- women, there's a discomfort in eating alone, not just having to overcome shyness, perhaps, but also in being revealed as single, with centuries, millennia, of shame attached to that notion, the idea of a single woman, alone in public. We like to think we've shrugged that weight off, but it's not always that easy. Worth making the effort, though, at least for me,
Of course, the effort involved in eating alone is amplified, when travelling, by many factors, not the least of which is language, but also the cultural differences that so often reveal themselves where food is the focus. No question that there's a good possibility of making errors, embarrassing ones that would be much easier to endure with an ally or foil at the table, someone with whom we could laugh at ourselves, thus taking the sting out of imagining ourselves laughed at by others.
But if we're willing to make ourselves a bit vulnerable (and truly, that's much of what travelling is all about), we will find that most of the other humans in a restaurant are either too busy with their own food and table companions or they are as helpful and sympathetic as the diners in a small Parisian restaurant in the 13th, Au Bon Coin, who told an American woman how to get her bill so that she could go back to her hotel bed. She'd arrived in Paris, for the first time, only hours ago, she ended up explaining to the 20 or 30 of us in the small-ish room of tables pushed together as they so often are in the City of Light. She spoke very little English and was quite pleased with herself for having taken herself out to dinner solo, but she couldn't figure out why the server hadn't noticed she was finished her meal and wanted to leave. Very quickly, she'd been taught how to ask for l'addition while someone caught the server's eye for her, and we all called out Bonsoir as she left.
How, you might be wondering, did she manage to order her meal if she spoke so little French? That was ten or so years ago, and there may well not have been an English menu available -- harder now to find a restaurant that won't hand you an English version at the bare hint of an accent. But even in Italy, where I know so much less of the language, I often ask if I might look at the Italian menu as well -- the translations can be, well, entertaining, if not very illuminating. In Croatia, I'm no good at all with the local menus, but you'd be surprised how helpful Google translate can be. . . even when there's not a translation available, the name of a dish will often bring up a photo for you.
And if all else fails, you can follow the method of a young couple I met in France decades ago. They spoke very little French, and few French restaurants at the time featured servers (or menus) with much English, but they weren't going to let that lack spoil their enjoyment of its rich cuisine. So they would simply look around, they told me, and see what looked good at nearby tables. And then point.
More realistically, these days it's so easy to research online, to find out what restaurants fit your comfort zone, to learn a bit about customs and protocol, even to download a .pdf of the menu from a restaurant website so that you can study it ahead of time.
And eating out doesn't have to require a big adventure factor. Often, for me, it's as simple as finding a decent brasserie within a block or two of my hotel. In Paris these last few solo visits, I go back to spots I've eaten at with Pater numerous times. Relaxed, easy, nurturing, and if I have a second glass of wine, I'm within easy tottering distance of my little room.
Generally, these days, I'm quite happy in my own company, not particularly looking to strike up conversation, and I find it easy enough to make that clear. But sometimes serendipitous meetings arise, for solo travellers, that might be less likely to happen when we're part of a couple or a group. I'll close this post with the journal page describing one such pleasant meeting last month in Paris, an hour or two after my train from Chambéry had delivered me to Gare de Lyon (transcription below, for those who can't decipher my scrawl)
And then the woman at the next table striking up a conversation, sensing we'd met before -- No -- but persisting in exploring connections, et voilà -- she's from Horby Island, was at UVic, took a course from Stephen Scobie, etc., etc., .. . . Turns out she's the former owner of the Marais' Red Wheelbarrow Books. . .
Since then, this woman and I have become FB friends, and I'm looking forward to connecting with her again when I'm in Paris -- and eagerly hoping she manages to open another Paris bookshop. It's possible we would have chatted even if I'd been with Pater -- he's a very amenable guy, after all -- but I doubt it.
So much more I could say about dining solo, at home or abroad, but I think I'll sit back now and hear what you have to say. I don't have enough experience in enough countries to presume to advise, but I'm happy to answer any questions you might have. As well, I think our desire and willingness to travel or to dine out alone depends so much on personality -- as do the skills we might develop to accommodate that desire. Are you comfortable -- and do you enjoy -- eating out, alone, when you're at home? And what about when travelling? If not, why not? And if you have tips to share that might make it easier for others, please do. . . Let's chat about all of that -- the mike is open, the floor is yours . . .