A woman dining alone in France gets a better welcome than one in Italy.
By: Jennifer Allison/The American in Italia
t happened again. If no one noticed and continued eating and talking it would be one thing. But Italians notice everything. It’s in their DNA. I notice things too, but more discreetly.
So what was it? My trousers? I always dress appropriately for country and occasions. It couldn’t be my dress. Maybe it was the shoes? They were last year’s models after all. Or did I have something in my teeth?
But it wasn’t about clothes. I was alone, and alone in a restaurant, and alone in a restaurant in Italy (insert gasping sounds here).
There’s a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.” He obviously never tried to get a table for one in Italy dressed as a woman. If a woman does get a table, she is most assuredly in a place few women ever reach.
Before entering the restaurant, I thought to myself I should have picked up a sandwich at a highway rest area before heading into town. But I hadn’t. Instead, I was forced to deal what I call the “entry of shame,” the lovely moment when pitying restaurant staff tell you they’re sorry, they have no tables left — and everyone stares. You bring all conversation to a halt. Apparently single people eat in bars, not restaurants. Or so I’m told.
A woman traveling alone in Italy is noticed. No, let me rephrase that: a woman over the age of 25 traveling unaccompanied in Italy sticks out like a sore thumb. Italians are “group people.” They do things collectively, especially women. You might get a coffee on a work break alone or pick up some groceries, but to eat a meal alone in a restaurant? That’s pushing it. It messes with the natural order of things.
College-age trekkers wandering the country through youth hostels catch a break. They’re expected to go it alone; it’s cool. For them, it’s welcome to the bars, the pizzerias (if you can afford them) and generic eateries. “C’mon in you cute little traveling youngin’…”
I travel alone as much as I’ve travel with others and my experience isn’t limited to Italy. I’ve dined with friends and alone in elegant Spanish restaurants, German dive eateries and everything in between. This particular trip began in Verona, where I dined out with a friend nightly (not one look of pity, mind you.) After that, I rented a car and headed into the Italian countryside, destination southern France. I was alone.
It wasn’t necessarily by choice. I just haven’t found that special travel companion. Months ago I thought I might have finally met someone who fit that bill. But our future hopes, and travel plans, were fleeting — along with my hopes of getting a table in Italy. Edward Hopper must have had Italy and me in mind when he painted “Hotel Room, Compartment C,” “Car 293” and “Automat.” I wasn’t born yet but he must have seen me coming.
After experiencing Italy, I was leery about France, a country I didn’t know well. It didn’t help that I entered French territory after my Italian fiasco the night before. The first night seemed like a fluke. They sat me immediately and also gave me good table near locals (not grouped with the foreigners, another Italian risk). The maître d, waiter and entire staff were polite, welcoming, and the place was far from empty. I’m not sure how many times I thanked the waiter.
In the days to come my foodie needs were finally satisfied – alone. I dined on mouth-watering Wagyu beef carpaccio, arugula salad, fresh asparagus, cheeses to die for, perfectly sautéed aubergines, roast duck with cherry sauce, and head-spinning fresh bread.
Pleasantly, on my last night in France I had company. I dined with a spry and polite elderly Frenchman who made me laugh, repeatedly toasted us, and, in the middle of conversation, sweetly forgot that I wasn’t French, reverting to his native language. Even the chef joined us to ask about the food and share some laughs. I wanted to say, “Are you kidding me? You people are so nice I want to kiss you!” I worried the French might take me literally so I just smiled and thanked all involved as politely as possible.
All this made me rethink my Italian experiences. My next Italian trip I’ll dine out with friends only. No more messing with the collective. It’s their country. They can play by their rules. I’ll save my “table for one” for France, where they happily don’t seem to mind.