Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | June 18, 2010

I Dine Alone

 

"Hmmm, where should I go for dinner?"

 

While it could be argued that the most meaningful moments in one’s life are the moments shared with loved ones, there are also some things that are more pleasant when you do them alone. Standing in line is one of them. Going to a restaurant in Paris for dinner is not.

I took a day of my time here and went to visit Versailles.  As it turns out, every other tourist within 500 miles had the same idea.  The line to buy tickets was endless.  I wondered briefly if it was worth the wait, but since I had nothing better to do, I took my place in the queue and waited.  I stood listening to the conversations of the people around me. I had some diverse company. Lots of Italian tourists, several older English tourists, a lot of young(ish) American couples.  It all made for excellent people watching.

Ahead of me was an Italian family with very unhappy children. I don’t speak Italian, but I did not need a translator to discern that somehow the wife held the husband responsible for either a) the long line, b) the children’s crankiness or c) both. The poor man didn’t stand a chance. His only option was to apologize blindly and try to keep the children under control.

Meanwhile, the older British couples kept wondering if they were in the right line.  They debated the issue endlessly back and forth between themselves. Finally, they sent a representative off to find more information while the remaining members of the party held their place in line.

The young American couple behind me simply played on each other’s irritation.

“Good Lord, this is going to take forever.”

“Probably an hour.”

“At least an hour.”

“Maybe two.”

“Totally.”

“Are you sure that Museum Pass thingy doesn’t work here?”

“Pretty sure.”

“Can’t you ask someone?”

“Who should I ask? This is the line for the ticket office and I don’t see an information booth.”

“Well, what is the point of that Pass if it doesn’t work?”

“Honey, it works elsewhere, it just doesn’t work here.”

“Well this is ridiculous. Just ridiculous.”

“Honey, what do you want me to do?”

Clearly, the inmates were getting restless. I, on the other hand, had all the time in the world. No where to go, nothing better to do.  Standing in line or sitting in a cafe, it’s all about killing time. I was quite complacent about the whole thing.

Had I been with someone else, however, a host of other emotions would have invaded. Regret that we hadn’t arrived earlier. Concern that I hadn’t brought enough snacks and/or diversions for the kids. Worry that we’d be late for dinner. Anguish that we’d simply made a bad choice and came on the wrong day. Indecision over whether to stay in line or go back to the tourist office to buy tickets there. Irritation at the entire predicament.

But I had none of those. Other than occasionally wishing I could sit down, I basked in the warmth of the sun, took in the view, people-watched, and wrote this post. My main concern was that my battery on my phone would die before I got to the ticket window. While waiting in line, I had a chance to study the sociological phenomena playing out before me. It would have been a nice grad school research project. How do people react to the task of standing in line and how does the size of the group impact their experience?

I was in line for close to two hours, so I had plenty of time to conduct my research. Here is what I concluded: large groups, five or more, fared best. They were constantly engaged in conversation, frequently laughing and smiling. Due to the large number in the group, they could converse together as one unit or break up into subgroups of two or three. Groups of 3 or 4 also fared well but slightly less so. Frequently one member of these smaller groups was left out of the conversation, fated to staring off into space and wondering “Who really gives a crap about Versailles anyway?” Couples fared the worst. They engaged in the most bickering, sighing, rolling of eyes, and in general they showed greater signs of irritation than the other members of the crowd. Young American couples on their honeymoon seemed to be the worst. Solo travelers like me simply hung out and watched it all. So, the moral of the story is, unless you have a big, fun group, go solo.

Dining alone, however, is a different matter altogether. Dinner out at a restaurant is supposed to be a relaxing, enjoyable experience, especially in a place like France where dining has been elevated to an art form. Dinner in France is about the experience as much as it is about the food. And the experience when you are alone doesn’t quite measure up.

Parisian restaurants tend to be, well, let’s say “tightly packed.” Tables are mere inches from each other. The thought of sitting down alone in a small, cozy, romantic restaurant felt….pathetic. I might as well wear a sign saying “Big Loser Who Must Dine Alone in Paris.” Lunch wasn’t so bad, since it is generally a quicker, less intimate affair. But dinners in Paris are long, luxurious and romantic. Not quite as appealing when you have just yourself for company.

And yet, a girl’s gotta eat. On some nights (namely Saturday night, also known as Date Night pretty much across the globe), I knew eating alone would feel awkward, so I stuck to a baguette-based picnic in the park, and then chatted with my husband via Skype once I was back at the hotel, my version of a romantic dinner on this trip. But it was Paris; skipping the food scene for a night or two was fine, but more than that would be a crime. So I needed to find the right spot: a place with a good menu (preferably with my favorite item: confit de canard) but an atmosphere where I would not feel like I was crashing everyone else’s romantic date.  Fortunately, most nights I was able to find the magic combination: a restaurant with outdoor seating (so I could sit and stare at the street scene around me for entertainment), an appropriate table available (in a corner or by the door, not wedged between two romantic couples) and a desirable menu. Yes, sometimes I was drowning in self-consciousness and felt I was sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the kissing couples around me. But when that feeling hit, I would simply order another glass of red wine. French wine, it turns out, is a panacea.

So, the moral of the story is: if you go to Versailles, buy your tickets in advance. If you go to dinner in Paris alone, get a table facing the street and go for the second (or third) glass of wine. Or better yet, call me. I’ll be happy to meet you.


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