In Praise of the People I’ve Met While Out, About, and Alone

lifestyle

Don’t listen to anyone that says “don’t talk to strangers.” I mean, use your best judgment and obviously don’t talk to people that make you feel in danger, but closing yourself off to the friendly faces in the cafeteria or the waitstaff at your favorite restaurant is a huge disservice to your own world view. The flesh-trapped angels you meet at dive bars offer fascinating anecdotes and kind words. Sometimes they’re just a passing ship dumping a hilarious story to tell your friends, or even a free beer. Either way, use your invaluable alone time to open up your heart to someone new.

I get it, alone time is the best. Living along afforded me opportunities to go to the gym whenever I wanted, order sushi for one on a spicy night in and eat Fruity Pebbles from a mug at 11pm. But too much alone time can be intimidating, especially to extroverts who thrive around people. Yet there’s this odd connotation of going out to eat alone: I feel as if unless you’ve got a laptop in front of you and you’re typing away at your manifesto, you’re a loner, people-watching and drinking a beer. America lacks the communal table culture found elsewhere, and the “don’t talk to strangers” thing only worsens the isolation of being alone in a room packed with people.

Reports by The Atlantic in 2014 and Grub Street in 2017 discuss a return of the communal table in America. I can understand the discontent for communal tables at formal restaurants. Maybe you were hoping for an intimate evening out, and suddenly you’re literally rubbing elbows with a marketing executive slurping tagliatelle at a celebratory dinner. But in places like New York City brimming with not only residents but diners, communal tables should be more commonplace and accepted in casual dining spots. Grub Street cited Zagat’s 2016 survey reporting that communal dining was the second-highest reason folks would not dine at a particular location. While America seemed to try to adapt the trendy communal table lifestyle widely present in Europe, Americans lacked the attitudes to carry it towards success.

But what is the harm in talking to someone at your local bar? What is the harm in chatting up the bartender on a slow night when you’re dining at the closest thing Americans have to communal tables, the bar itself? Don’t be weird, but why not talk to someone new?

Ever since my first solo day trip, I’ve been fortunate to meet a few kind strangers on outings alone. Even on one of my worst nights ever (that I mention briefly in my 30 Days of Thanksgiving post), I spoke to the bartender, tried all sorts of his specialty drinks for free, and spoke with a newly wed couple who were absolute joys. I love kind strangers, you get the best stories from these encounters.

Montepulciano, 2017

Walking through Florence alone at 6am to a part of the city I’ve never seen before was pretty frightening, not going to lie. Market stalls were closed and the only figures out and about were likely there from the night before. Luckily, I’m a pretty no B.S. lady when I’m armored up to go out alone. When I arrived at my destination I felt like such an outcast: I was meeting up with a travel group of European Erasmus students. In case that wasn’t obvious: I was an American study abroad student. Therefore, I was the only American on the trip. I even still have the Erasmus card they gave me with my name scribbled on it in blue ink. I found two girls who seemed to know each other and asked if I could tag along with them. They heard my accent and the flood gates opened.

“Why are eggs white in America?” Girl, you’re not missing anything. “Oh my GOD have you seen that movie? Talladega Knights? I love Ricky Bobby.” I couldn’t stop laughing. We spent the whole day together. I learned that they were linguistic studies students from Scotland part of the Erasmus program which gave students grants to live and study throughout Europe. They were responsible for finding rental apartments and even jobs, very unlike American study abroad programs that could arguably be seen as vacation in comparison. We road buses through the Tuscan countryside and drank wine in Montepulciano. I’m friends with them on Facebook, but I never saw them in Florence again.

Waterbury, 2019

True, this night I was not alone, but it was still a moment spent at an unlikely communal table talking to a stranger. I just wanted wings. We’d stumbled on a place called Ordinary Joe’s and decided we like local dive bars. The place was packed and peanut shells were on the floor. Despite casual Friday at work, I was way overdressed. The only seats were at a communal table with a man drinking beer and waiting for a plate of wings. He said he didn’t bite –  which was true. Doug, this kind stranger, talked to us about the life his immigrant parents worked for in America. He’s a caretaker for a number of mansions in the neighboring town and talked about how Waterbury was once such a gorgeous city with beautiful buildings and parks. It’s now something forgotten.

He also mentioned that his mother makes hand made cavatelli for a restaurant nearby, and we should go there and mention that “Doug sent us.” He bought us two High Lifes, told me to marry Nick, and then sped away on his motorcycle.

Woodstock, 2016

The day after election day left a good chunk of people distraught. We all know this. And this particular day I had an interview for an internship up in Woodstock, NY. I got dressed, put on a black shirt in solidarity with students peacefully protesting, and drove almost an hour to my cloudy and grey destination. It was a damp November day. You know the feeling the day after you fall asleep crying hysterically? That’s what the weather felt like. And I was spending time post-interview in the quaint town. I bought a headband and a bandana and I ended up in a small art and incense shop. The shopkeeper said “how are you?” and without thinking I said “good.”

“I’m not,” he said. In that moment, I definitely was not “good.” In fact I was feeling pretty bad, even though my interview went smoothly. He noticed this and said “take some incense, we all could use a little peace today.” We were then chatting. I introduced myself and he mentioned how his wife had traveled to Italy often. “Ci vediamo, it means we’ll see each other,” I said before leaving to fill up on comfort food.

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