© Girl in Luxembourg/ RTL Today
In her latest Girl in Luxembourg column, Christelle McKillen grapples with the art of eating alone - a practice which isn't as easy as it looks, it seems.
Growing up with three brothers, my mealtimes could be described as somewhat brisk - big portions consumed in a short space of time. We didn't have that leisurely continental vibe that the French/Italians/Spanish do so well with their long, slow wind-down to the day with various courses and/or potentially wine. Irish mealtimes were usually a meat and two veg kind of dish served at 6.30pm and of course a never-ending supply of 'spuds' (an Irish cliché that’s actually true) and you better eat fast before your brothers take all the food.
My first-time at a homecooked meal 'on the continent' was a revelation –Apéritifs and digestifs, the fact that cheese had a course of its own, bread baskets, people taking their time, the entire concept of the aperitivo – mind blown.
In the realm of dining etiquette, I had yet to master that kind of 'Cool effortless European' solo-dining. You know the type - those people usually on a Parisian side-street café enjoying a meal alone, perhaps a cigarette too, a solitary glass of red wine - looking perfectly content with the world.
On my first ever solo business trip to Paris I thought I would try this radical act out, I would BECOME that cool chic French girl having dinner, drinking red wine, people-watching, pretending I know how to smoke and generally oozing nonchalance.
In reality, I was furiously checking my phone every two seconds looking around me smiling at strangers trying to say 'I’m not usually a person who dines alone' with my eyes. I felt enormously awkward, I was acutely aware of everyone's conversations around me and found myself scanning the café for other people alone in a bid to reassure myself - of course there were some, but they all looked pretty comfortable with the situation.
Facing up to the fact that I wasn’t going to become one of those self-assured solo diners in the next few minutes, I called it a day, downed the remaining wine and made my way back to my hotel to bask in my sweet solitude without the (imagined) judgment of café-dwellers.
Subsequent business trips followed and the art of eating alone got easier, but never quite what I would call enjoyable. Shortly after, I came across this article about a young woman explaining the pleasure of dining alone, describing it as "something of a personal rebellion, an effortless rejection of a societal norm." I had a renewed determination to find the fun in this supposedly rebellious act.
Soon after opportunity knocked once again, I found myself in Spain with some time to kill before my company arrived. Fully equipped with my kindle, my phone, a magazine and a resolute attitude to have a nice time, I set off.
The fact that I was in a vacation destination meant there were hordes of tourists high on holiday hedonism, secondly, I had unfortunately selected a tourist-trap restaurant but considering how much courage it took me to go in the first place I whispered to myself that I would sit here and damn well enjoy it.
To begin with, the waiter asked would someone be joining me, "umm no" I replied uncertainly. He smiled and proceeded to make a "What’s a nice girl like you dining alone for?" kind of lighthearted joke to which I awkwardly laughed and shrugged (#wineplease).
Getting ahead of myself, I then thought, oh maybe I’ll be one of those interesting people who effortlessly strikes up conversation with their fellow diners…. hmmm not exactly. I didn't even look once in anyone's direction - I was quite absorbed in my book which alleviated my perceived awkwardness, but I still couldn’t exactly reach those lofty levels of a 'good time’' Perhaps it’s something that comes with age and knowing one’s self better, I wouldn't say I have given up entirely on this personal mission, but I do believe one day I will confidently stride into a restaurant request a table for one and give zero F's.
Luckily Luxembourg is only a hop, skip and a jump from Paris which is said to be of the most appealing destinations in the world for solo dining. After googling the topic at length I realised that solo dining is on the rise, according to this wonderful long-reads piece. The American author has enjoyed most of her solitary meals in France and lives by the motto 'la vie est trop courte pour boire du mauvais vin' – which I wholeheartedly agree with. I also randomly watched a documentary on the story of Starbucks, which gave me a surprisingly deeper insight into the psychology surrounding the act of partaking in food or drink alone – did you ever wonder why so many of the small Starbucks tables are round? (of course, you didn't, but I’m gonna tell you anyway).
Apparently, research shows people feel significantly less lonely at roundtables, and so Starbucks strategically designed their space with solo coffee-drinkers in mind.
And so, my solo-dining journey continues, you will now find me on a one-woman mission - sampling small round tables in Luxembourg.
So is it just me - is solo-dining an acquired taste? Let us know in the comments!
Christelle McKillen works in communications for RTL Group and in her spare time writes about expat life, like many a millennial she considers herself a budding Instagram aficionado @girlinluxembourg