Table for One

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I travel a lot.  I mean a lot — sometimes as often as once or twice a week.  My father was a merchant marine, for years travelling to various parts and ports of the world, and some of his wanderlust filtered down to me.  As a kid, I bussed tables at a restaurant to save money, not for a car at 16 but for a plane ticket to a far away locale in Europe or Australia.  As an adult, one of the considerations for which job I will take includes the potential to travel to some of my favourite places.

As much as I love travelling, and as antsy as I get when I am home for too long between trips, there is one major downside to it all:  I often eat alone.

People exclaim when they find out:  “You eat in restaurants by yourself?!?!!  You are so brave!”  But it’s not really bravery that drives me to eat alone in restaurants; it is the soul-crushing thought of eating alone in a hotel room that spurs me out into the public.  Room service is meant for lovers having a tete-a-tete who can’t bear to leave the hotel; it is not meant for the solo traveler to be holed up alone, with only the TV for companionship.

So, I often eat alone. In restaurants.  In public.

I hate eating alone.  There.  I admit it.

Man (and woman) was not meant to eat alone.  Eating is a social act, a way to bind friends, family and community together.  Food is not just for sustenance and survival but serves to build community and bond relationships.  The word “companion” derives from the Latin words for “with” and “bread” — in other words, companions are those with whom we eat bread.

Every week, a fellow in Paris hosts Sunday dinner at his place for the first 50 or 60 people who call or email him, with the goal of encouraging people from all parts of the world to meet, to talk, to break bread and to become friends.  He has been doing this for almost 30 years, for free.  Here is a man who understands of the concept of “companion” and opens his home to anyone who would like to come, in an effort to build community among strangers.

Some restaurants offer communal tables where single patrons can sit together for companionship and conversation, reducing the awkwardness that solo diners often feel when sitting conspicuously at a table for one.

There are times when a person might crave or relish the thought of eating alone: when trying to get away from the noise and pressures of too many people at home or the office; when time is needed for introspection.  But if anyone tells you they enjoy eating alone in restaurants, especially on a regular basis, well….don’t believe them.  Trust me. Solitude is often aligned with spending time with nature or meditating, not for eating out alone in public.

Eating with others changes the feeling from “me” to “we”.  So here are some suggestions for those of us who want to establish connections and community with others rather than bury our faces in our books and our Blackberries:

1. Use social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to find friends and acquaintances in places you’re travelling to, and invite them to join you for dinner.

2. Research restaurants with communal tables and venture beyond your comfort zone to talk to strangers.  Who knows — you may make a new friend.

3. Strike up a conversation with others sitting at tables around you or, if that feels awkward, with your server and the restaurant’s chef.

As for me, next time I’m in Paris, I’m having dinner at Jim’s place.

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