Having flown well over a million miles in my career and having conducted business in some seventy countries; I am no stranger to eating in new restaurants. Unless I am entertaining a client or breaking bread with a sales partner, that typically implies that I will be dining alone too. I have never had a problem with the pleasantness of my own company; but truth be told, it can be a little lonely at times.
I usually find myself seated right next to the large table filled with business associates. The loud roars of laughter permeate the air as they celebrate a colleague’s latest promotion or hold a retirement party. The other scenario invariably puts me across from the lovestruck couple, holding hands and gazing deeply into one another’s eyes. More than once I have been the witness to an unexpected marriage proposal. The good news is that I have yet to endure the tragedy of hearing the woman proposed to say no!
Imagine my delight one day in Italy when an unexpected turn occurred in my usual dining routine. I approached the maitre de and politely requested a table for one. His eyebrows arched and he restated my request with a puzzled look on his face. In my most elegant Italian, I assured him that I was indeed dining alone that evening. He spun around on the heel of his well polished dress shoe and beckoned me to follow him.
As we wound around the dimly lit and somewhat cramped bistro, I began to take notice of the clientele. It appeared that I would be eating in Rome’s version of “Lovebird Central!” Every table seemed a replica of the previous one; the dapper young man seated across from the cosmopolitan well dressed lady. Giggles echoed through the establishment, the result of fledging romance blossoming everywhere. I suddenly found myself homesick!
Tall by European standards, my host stopped at a corner table and drew a chair out for me. My attention mercifully diverted away from what I was sure would end up being another nuptial proposal; I was astonished by what I saw. There was an elderly woman already seated at my table! I pulled the maitre de over to one side and again explained that I wished to have a table for one. Drawing his fingers across a well-trimmed moustache, his exasperation became evident. There was only way I would be enjoying a meal in his restaurant, and that was by taking the seat offered to me!
I considered walking out at that point. More than once in my life I had relished the solitude of a room service meal. The hotel I was staying at seemed to have a very robust menu from what I remembered when inspecting my room after check-in. I looked back at the candlelit table to see the elderly woman smiling. Her warm eyes were beckoning me to join her. What else could I do? Thanking the host, I took my place at the table.
The next hour can only be described as one of the most enlightening episodes of my life. My initial suspicion had been that the restaurant enhanced its seating capacity by doubling up lone patrons. I was confident that it was a ploy to increase their revenues. Much to my surprise, this premise did not hold true. My charming companion for the evening, a Tuscan blueblood by birth, explained that it was socially irresponsible to allow somebody to dine alone. The enjoyment of a well-cooked meal was meant to be shared with others; much the same as life was intended to be celebrated in groups!
Every day is an opportunity to join a fellow lone diner. How often do we see somebody off in a corner by themselves? Do we take notice of the countless others who yearn to share a few moments of companionship? Are we driven to isolate ourselves from the possibility of having to encounter a complete stranger? Do we sequester ourselves to the relative comfort and safety of complacency? Or dare we open ourselves up to the beauty of interaction with others, even if they are entirely unknown to us?
As we finished off our potent cups of cappuccino, my default dining companion for the night, made a simple toast. She gave thanks for a wonderful meal and the gift of a new friend. I walked her outside, my arm offered to her in respect. We made our way to a busy taxi stand, where I waited with her until an empty cab stopped for her. Assured she was safe and on her way back home, I stood waving to her until the taxi’s tail lights disappeared into traffic.
Walking back to my hotel, I looked up into the sky. It seemed that the stars in Rome were shining a little brighter that night!