The other day, I was speaking with a friend about eating at restaurants. He was explaining to me that he couldn’t eat at restaurants while traveling because the people traveling with him wouldn’t spend money on that. So I asked him why doesn’t he just go on his own?” He looked at me and very firmly said that he was not going to go out and eat alone. His answer struck me. It didn’t make sense to me at all that someone wouldn’t go out for food just because there’s nobody else to go with, especially while traveling (I probably wouldn’t go out for a pizza alone here in my home city anyways). For me this was natural. Maybe it was because I didn’t have any other option while I was traveling Europe, but also maybe because I truly enjoyed doing so.
Don’t get me wrong here, I enjoy people’s company, and even more so when sharing food (and even more if someone is cooking!) I love the long conversations you can have at a table with someone that can last even after all the food is gone. Because, and I’m quoting my friend here, “eating is also a social act”. The quality time I spend with my family is usually at night when we are all at home, and we eat together while sharing about our day. It is what my family does on birthdays, and also when getting together with friends we haven’t seen in a long time. When you feel the need to catch up or just talk about something, you call a friend and go for a cafe. Most first dates are at restaurants, or at least at a pub/bar. Celebrations are also the excuse to go for a nice meal, or just to cook something nice together with someone you like.
So, if we enjoy so much sharing food with other people, if doing so seems to be our default mode, and if we constantly look for the socializing aspect of it… then how is it that going out on our own for food can be better?
Here’s my guess on this. Being alone is a huge problem for many of us –and here I’m including myself because I have issues with enjoying solitude–, and we rarely do something about it. Our comfort zone is with others around us; we depend on the company of other people to feel good. Not in a “I need approval” kinda way, but more in the sense that we just feel comfortable with others. The reasons for this are countless; for me, I guess it has to do with placing my attention on something else than me and my own problems, because I’m not as self-conscious when I am with other people as when I am alone (again, this is not something to be proud of, but is the truth). But the problem with this kind of behavior is that, surprise surprise, at some point you don’t have people there to keep your mind busy. You don’t have someone to share your day with, or just to agree on how good or disgusting the food is at the restaurant. And then you have to confront the fact that you don’t wanna starve and that you’re actually dying to eat something more than just rice and eggs.
The first time I went out to eat alone I was in Paris (this is not entirely true; the first time I had to go for food alone I was in lovely Inverness and I went to a McDonalds. But I bet that doesn’t sound as romantic as Paris). It could have been weeks before, in Brussels, but I was unconsciously panicking about it and I found some random but very nice guy to have lunch with. While traveling I learnt to eat whenever I was staying, and cooking pasta and making salami sandwiches became almost a ritual every day. So, the day I had to eat alone at a restaurant I was actually FORCED to do so. The guards outside the Grand Palais didn’t let me go in with my bag full of water and salami sandwiches, and I was left without food for the rest of the day. I walked forty five minutes to a seemingly nice parisian restaurant, just to find out it was closed. I convinced myself I could survive the rest of the day without food, and so I walked almost 2 more hours along Canal Saint-Martin before giving up. I found an apparently cheap, small cafe to eat a ham and butter baguette (that cost me 8 euros, Jesus), and I sat in their small second floor, entirely made of wood and with a very steep ladder. There were probably no more than 5 tables, and it was full. I sat, checked my phone that was running out of battery, and waited restlessly for my food. I had nothing to do meanwhile. I had no internet, my phone was dying anyways, no book, no one to talk to. Finally the waitress left my sandwich and a weird type of soda (which I thought it was coke when I ordered it) on the table, and I look at it without knowing exactly what to do. I felt weird and very, very lonely. I wasn’t even able to message someone through whatsapp. The people around me were sharing their food with more people, and I was there, sitting all alone. Alone. Alone alone alone. I eventually started eating, very aware of the sound of the crunchy baguette, of the breadcrumbs accumulating on my plate, of the weird taste of the drink and of my own place there, in a cafe hidden in a tiny, stretch street, alone. I was carrying a small notebook with me, and I wrote on it for the next half hour I stayed there. I ate my sandwich slowly and drank the entire bottle of whatever drink I was having. I enjoyed the music and warmth of the place. And I also enjoyed the food, even though I have never liked ham and butter in a sandwich. Even though that feeling of loneliness never went away, I know I made peace with it. I left the cafe a little bit more at peace, and with the strength to survive a very long day with a very long walk ahead—a strength I didn’t have when I went inside looking for a quick bite.
I didn’t realize this at the moment. I didn’t even realize it when I started going out for food more frequently. I think I did it that day with my friend, when he told me he would never go to a restaurant alone. I did it there, when his comment sounded weird without really knowing why. When I had to defend something I had done more times that I actually realized. It was there that I noticed it, and it is now while writing this that I can recall that day in Paris, and realize how scared I was of doing things alone, things as simple and enjoyable as going to a cafe or a restaurant. I can look back and see the small progress I made that day, and the slow progress I made during that trip. I am still a bit scared of my own presence sometimes; I am still scared of my thoughts and the realizations I have during those times. But I have learned to like and enjoy my own company, to celebrate that self-consciousness and make the most of it. And now, I would definitely go sit at a restaurant with a big plate of pasta al Pomodoro and enjoy it without thinking twice.