Dining Alone in France (h2so4 10)

I dined alone at respectable hotels in the southwest of France for seven nights last summer, and became a source of great amusement for seven hoteliers and their well-heeled European guests.

I had imagined that dining alone would be remarkably meditative. I had assumed the stars, the fireflies, the pastoral loveliness of evening, and so forth. I came well-prepared to blend into the scenery. Indocrinated at the age of sixteen by a Viennese family in the art of European table manners, I hesitated at bringing a book, or even a journal, to table. Two nights into my travels, however, this compunction dissolved under the weighty stares of my fellow diners. When smiling, saying hello and goodnight politely, and keeping to myself did not earn me the invisibility I desired, I threw caution to the wind and began scribbling away madly in my journal between forkfuls of gigot d'agneau.

I soon realized that I had in fact broken a cardinal table rule: One does not dine alone. To do so, in my case, as a so-called attractive young woman, rendered me a blank space upon which the speculation of five or so bored European families per night could be projected. On one occasion, my fellow travellers spent a great deal of time arguing among themselves about just how it was that I intended to 1) cheat the hotelier, or 2) run off with somebody's husband. Finally, when I routinely brought my journal to each meal, I secured for myself a buffer zone. I also started coming very early or very late to dinner, and choosing corner tables. By the end of my trip, if my fellow diners were curious about me, I did not notice.

However, it struck me as somehow illuminating that this most simple and non-confrontational of acts, this sitting alone and eating and looking at the world and not speaking to it, this act preparatory to, and dependent upon writing should seem so natural to me, and yet so aberrant to all these strangers surrounding me.

In another era, I might simply have said that I was a pilgrim, travelling a hard road prescribed by a common faith, and this thought bought me some peace. I thought about this possibility on the third day of my journey, when I climbed up a cliff past all the stations of the cross to a 13th century shrine. Later that day, I sat on a terrace halfway up the cliff and sipped a cassis. I wondered where in the present day and age I might find an excuse for desiring solitary contemplation. Not that companionship is dispensable. But we might allow one another the opportunity to walk in the world alone every now and then, and consider the silences of nature around us, or the silences of the past within us. We might have more patience with the introverted few, even if they appear as so-called attractive young women, and not be surprised when they choose to vacation, or even dine, alone. What they say when they return to us might be richer, more human, and more true, if we give them the time to find the words.

Laura Schattschneider