I’ve traveled alone to dozens of countries for almost six decades. In most matters, I am undaunted, but I have always hated to dine out alone. I’d rather order room service or pick up a sandwich than take a solo table. This aversion is neurotic, but has a gauzy relation to reality.
In 1965, I was driven by hunger to sit down at a café table in Lisbon, though there were only men in the café, and in all the other cafes I had passed. The waiters flocked to me as if I were their baby sister, offering me a free glass of green Portuguese wine, and making recommendations from the menu. I didn’t think that they were disparaging my ability to figure out what I wanted to eat. I thought they were protecting me from advances they might expect from the other, all-male, diners. I felt like a rare bird.
In 2004, I was doing research on the endangered status of the Macedonian language in Greece. When evening came, I ventured into the hotel dining room, and the waiter sat me at a table in the bow window, separating me slightly from the rest of the tables. I had been warned that people had gone to jail for asking too many questions about the Macedonian language. Academics in Athens advised me to pay attention to cars that were following mine. It is rare that a foreigner knows semi-fluent Greek, and the hotel clerk became cautious when he learned that though I spoke Greek, my heritage was not Greek. Why was I there? Did the other diners think I was an agent provocateur. Was one of them a plainclothes policeman? That was an unusual situation, but even under ordinary conditions, I feel people are looking at me when I eat alone.
In Paris, I often found myself an unwelcome optic, seated near the toilets. Was it my imagination that detected a flash of “Oh no, what are we going to do with her?” when I showed up?
I can’t say whether a single man would feel similarly. When Dean Martin died, I read that he ate alone every night at the same restaurant in his declining years – a fact important enough to be included in his obituary.
My husband always brings a book when he dines out alone, but I get sauce on the book and it’s awkward to hold it open with one hand while eating with the other.
I believe that the root of my neurosis was the embarrassment that I felt in dancing school in the 1950s. I was taller than most of the boys and skinny as a stick, and was often left a wallflower, sitting grimly in my chair because nobody chose me as his partner.
Three men have married me, and I wrote a whole book about the men I dated when I became single at 60, so you’d think I would have expiated the embarrassment of dancing school, but the feeling of abandonment must be lodged somewhere near my spleen, difficult to get at and even more difficult to remove.
My embarrassment began to turn one evening in New York City a few years ago when my husband and I visited the new restaurant in Lincoln Center. It was full, so we sat at the bar, near an attractive middle-aged woman. I found myself committing the very mistake that I feared others would make if I sat alone at a restaurant bar – I wondered if she was cruising for a date.
My husband and I struck up a conversation with her, and I told her that I hated eating in restaurants alone.
“Hah! I’d starve to death if I did that. I have a line of tableware, and I go on sales trips all over the country. I’ve eaten out alone more times than I could count.”
How ridiculous I was! How old-fashioned! How pre-feminist! Why would I imagine that a successful businesswoman should closet herself in her hotel room out of embarrassment that she was alone?
“If I hadn’t come out alone, I would never have met you, “she smiled. “I’ve met the most interesting people of all at restaurant bars.”
She had done the field work on this experiment, yet I still demurred.
On my most recent visit to my son in Burlingame, California, I was alone at dinnertime. I wanted a fine dinner, maybe not the cuisine my son would prefer. I marched up to the hostess at Il Fornaio and requested a table, “On the patio, if possible.” She scrambled to clear a patio table, and I caught myself wondering if she was thinking she should go the extra mile to accommodate this abandoned older woman. But I smacked my brain down. “Ann, you can’t think that people in Paris are putting you in an obscure corner because you’re a woman alone, and at the same time object that people are going to extra lengths because you’re a woman alone. You’re being hypocritical and illogical!” I was an insult to feminism.
I enjoyed the heck out of it. Without chatter, I could savor my food. There is a yoga practice of silent meals, during which you are invited to pay attention to what you are eating – note the colors, the array of tastes, think where the food has come from and to whom you are indebted for it, from the person who planted the seed, to the truck driver who delivered it to market. I carefully crunched down on the sprig of decorative parsley, savoring its bitterness. I tried to identify the herb flavoring the sauce on my gnocchi– I think it was basil, maybe a hint of oregano, too. I took the time to remember the first time I had ever eaten gnocchi, at the table of the Sala family in Merate, Italy in 1961.
There was no shadow meal going on across the table, just my own plate, with my own gnocchi. I ordered a glass of wine, and enjoyed pacing the meal without regard to another person’s preferences.
Women’s liberation comes from the inside, and some of the outdated thought patterns of my childhood have been slow to dissolve. This aversion to eating alone was one of the last to go.
I wonder which ones are left.