Yesterday some friends and I took a day trip to the attractive town of Bath. It was a wonderfully wintry experience. The air was unyielding and bitter, and a thick mist shrouding the building and seeping through the streets.We wandered around a twisting Christmas Market, little wooden booths brimming with jewelry, toys, and pottery. These were for the most part curiously uninspiring, often hideous to a degree only craft fairs can achieve. But there were also enticing booths overflowing with cheeses, great wheels of Stitchelton and Cheddar. Others sold locally distilled spirits, liqueurs, cider and beer. We nibbled and sipped and used the cold as an excuse to indulge in mulled wine before noon.
Lunch was a letdown as we were too cold to care and stumbled into the first cafe sighted. So while we revived lifeless toes and fingers, we did what those with any interest in food tend to do: eat one meal while discussing the next. After some deliberation we decided to opt for a place called The Moon and Sixpence. I was sold on the name alone.
The room was warm and candlelit with chunky wood and bold slabs of stone everywhere. It felt strangely out of place in Bath, better suited to Aspen or Vail. We sat down with menus and I thought about M. F. K. Fisher. In her autobiographical classic The Gastronomical Me she writes that she “learned for the first time that a menu is not something to be looked at with hasty and often completely phony nonchalance.” And at that moment she began to concentrate on the words. The writer Peter Mayle would agree. He eulogizes about that moment during a Sunday lunch when everyone has received a menu and is examining it as though it contained the key to eternal youth. Glancing around the table I felt in good company; my friends were silent, brows furrowed and heads bowed. But for the surroundings it looked like we were sitting an exam.
My eyes moved over the room to where, not far from our table, the waitress was seating a man. People watching is the best of restaurant pastimes, especially when you need distraction from a growling stomach. As usual I wondered about him. Tall, middle aged, and out to dinner all alone. Years ago I would have felt immediately sorry for him, blinded by my own insecurities into thinking it utterly impossible to be happy eating alone in public.
That was before I went to Spain when I was eighteen. I arrived with a week to spare before starting the flamenco dance course. Those first few days were interminable and as lonely as any I’ve known since. I knew no one in Granada. And in that most social of cities, where everyone moved about in great gaggling groups of grandmothers and shrieking babies and handsome men, my loneliness was thrown into miserable relief. I lost pounds, to my great satisfaction, in those few days, because I couldn’t bring myself to sit down a solas to a meal in the harsh light of public. So I wandered interminably around the city, up to the white washed Albyzin and down to the plaza again, subsisting on baguettes and coffee, and few of those because of the ashes in my stomach.
Then, on about the fourth day, I became very angry. Suddenly I couldn’t stand Spaniards and their dense, riotous sociality. I was sick of venturing into a bar only to have the six men laughing together turn and stare. Above all I was hungry. Never one to suffer diets with grace, I shoved my pride into my suitcase, threw my head back in defiance, and hurled into a restaurant.
It was a turning point, that first meal alone. Perhaps I was lucky because my waiter was a sweet, clean-cut boy, not much older than myself. When he came to take my order I burned at first, wondering what he thought. But he smiled and handed me the menu with a flourish. He was impressed with my Spanish and asked chattily where I was from. Relaxing into the chair, I chose the cheap yet copious menu del dia, with wine thank you, such was my defiant mood. Somewhere around dessert I realized I was enjoying myself. An hour later I swanned out, waving merrily to my waiter and feeling, aided by wine, like a chic and worldly woman, drunk with the fullness of my stomach and infused with an unfamiliar confidence.
As we left The Moon and Sixpence, I smiled at the man on his own. He smiled back and in that brief exchange I felt I’d been right. It was a quiet contented smile, a solitude without loneliness.