Sunday, December 26, 2004

Napkin Scribbles

La Platería, Plaza de la Platería, near el Prado

Eating alone in Madrid. It's a handicap in this city of lovers. Refusal to serve only half a ración; these hearty appetizers are always meant for two or more. Fideuas and paellas at the ChampagnerÌa Gala are always for two, never for one. The host won't seat me, even if I'm willing to pay full price.

One evening I eyed a platter of ripe-green pimientos de padrón under at the bar and I decided to return the next night to savor this Galician specialty. Faithful to my craving, I returned, sitting at the bar of this modern, busy wine bar and restaurant, sipping a glass of crisp white alvarinho, I patiently waited for my table.

The waiter and I exchanged glances. I knew this meant table for one lady, assured. But when I stood to follow him, the couple next to me, a man and a woman who had been completely oblivious of their surroundings until that moment, leered at me and demanded a table because they had arrived before me. Yes, of course, before me, how appropriate, the world before ME. Single me out, yes, I'm a single woman, eating alone, and my only purpose in life is to keep this seemingly happy couple from the additional pleasure of filling their bellies. Well, I thought, perhaps they did arrive first, but I didn't have some handsome man fondle me while I waited for a table. Yes, yes, now that I think about it, they were before me, literally, flaunting their love, companionship, shared meals, conversations before me, in my face, as if nothing matter but themselves and their gurgling stomachs.

In the love-busy eateries of Madrid, you've got to wait for that, that unique request, table for 1, why, no one ever asks to be seated alone, unless you're an eccentric American writer.

The manager pours me a second glass of wine. Consolation prize. On the house. Sorry to make you wait, señorita.

And so I envision a rare restaurant where everyone dines alone, silently, blank gaze staring at the distance, looking into nothing or perhaps the memory of forgotten eyes, listen to the half-words of half-remembered conversations. What an odd, mechanical, lifeless restaurant that would be: only the clank, clink of silverware, the occasional slurp and the nearly silent wipe of a neatly folded cloth napkin against a hardly soiled mouth.

Yes, eating is social, isn't it? Eating alone is an anomaly here, but still, I'm human and I've got to eat. So I swallow my pride and wait.

The waiter who seats me is terribly busy. Service that is so slow by American standards, and which I normally enjoy, seems unbearable tonight, as if I had marked this evening with a musical direction of lentissimo, symphony of the reluctant diner and her humiliation.

The waiter seats me in the middle of the crowded plaza. The antisocial writer scribbles frantically on her napkin. I miss my book terribly. The menu arrives. Relief. They serve half raciones. I order dinner and when it finally arrives half an hour later, the pimentos de padrón are missing. I politely note the omission. But my heart silently demands, oh yes demands -- after all that, after feeling invisible, ignored, neglected, treated as a lonely diner -- those little green peppers mean the world to me. Twenty minutes later my waiter appears with a saucer full of the fresh peppers, tossed in exquisitely flavored olive oil and covered in coarse sea salt. One bite. Ah. I'm redeemed.

1 comment:

Late Bloomer said...

Why are you in Spain alone?? Not that I haven't met women traveling alone in far away places. Question is: Are ppl reading you? I am now. And I can surely vouche for the feeling I get when seated in a not so "single-eating-alone" friendly resturante. One in particular, I have never returned to. I always reveled in the feeling that aloneness gives me when dinning, movies, hiking, although, I do like it when I ski with a partner. Some things are better done in pairs for safety's sake. Take care. Stay well, play safe.