Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A French Woman Never Eats Alone

I once read that a French woman will never eat by herself. It is part of an unspoken national creed to never eat a meal alone. For food, at its heart, is an experience which deserves adequate time to be savored, deserves to be shared between at least two people every time. Funny, then, how eating alone in a French cafe across from a French woman provided me one of the happiest food-memories from this year.



The evening had grown dark early when I toppled into Charleston's Gaulart & Maliclet as a last resort. A Cynthia Rowley store clerk had recommended a particular French restaurant to me when she heard that I would be exploring Charleston by myself for the evening. I trust I am not the only one for whom foreign names do not stick the first time they are heard. By the time I had stepped out of Cynthia Rowley I had already forgotten the name of the French restaurant the friendly woman had pointed out. Thus, two hours later I was exhausted from my seven hour drive, dizzy and fairly dehydrated, standing on the chilly street-corner googling "french restaurants" in the darkness. On a list of my favorite things I've done alone, last-ditch effort restaurant googling isn't one of them. Yet even in my moment of faintness, I was determined to not trot the few blocks to a Five Guys Burgers. I'd come this far. I would not turn back yet.

I noticed "Suzanne" and her handsome son as the hostess led me to a high, community-seating table at the back of the room. Suzanne, tall and thin, graceful and well-bred, sat with perfect posture on the tall chair. Her son wore a Ralph Lauren button-up shirt. They both sat across from me at the narrow table which resulted in my face being approximately eighteen inches across from their faces. In my faint state, I coveted the young man's dewy glass of ice water. How socially promiscuous would it be to grab his glass and drain it? I breathed slow and deeply and balanced my senses, hands spread on the tabletop. It was then Suzanne and her son took notice of me, smiling with that polite brand of geniality belonging to the exceptionally well-bred. Now, you can reasonably avoid talking to a stranger when they're seated a normal distance away from you. Eye contact can be withheld. Conversation can be averted. But no matter how faint you feel, no matter how hard you try, there is no getting out of talking to someone whose face is only a couple of hand-breadths away from your own. Believe me - I tried. And if you think striking up conversation with a stranger + handsome son is awkward, having tried to avoid it and then struck up conversation is about three hundred times more awkward. Save yourself: just go for it. In the end, it was Suzanne herself who extended the hand of friendship. Catching the end of the waiter's question to me, she smiled and said in pretty English:
"You should try the cucumber-yogurt, if you like a cold soup."
I grasped at her suggestion like a life-line and clung to it. "Yes, the cucumber-yogurt soup, please." Why was I ordering cucumber soup? Just because a refined French woman told me to? Yes. Yes, that's precisely why. Withhold your judgement, please.


After Suzanne chipped away the social glass wall between us, she and her son proved to me pleasant dinner companions.
"I do not know if you've noticed," she said with a smile, "but I am from France. We come here a lot." She told me about the weather in Lille. Her son chatted Charleston sites, helpful apps, and where he went to college.
"Have you been to Paris?" Suzanne inquired.
"Never - it's on my list."
"Everyone should go to Paris at least once in their life."
I smiled and scooped a spoonful of my cold soup. "It is definitely on my list."
"So are you a fan of French food?" her son asked.
I now spoke the stupidest sentence I hope to ever parent: "I'm just a fan of food in general. I'm a food blogger and recipe developer."
By the time the words had left my lips, I regretted them. The mental wooliness had not passed, evidently. The son's warm hazel eyes laughed at me, but he politely responded to the comment and turned the conversation elsewhere.
"If you're still hungry for dessert," the son suggested as they rose to leave, "they make an amazing chocolate mousse here. I hope you have a good time here."


He and Suzanne drifted behind me out of the restaurant and I was again alone. Or not. I had only been by myself for a few moments when "Emily" offered a smile. She and her companions made three: a softly curved, confident woman and two men, one a lumberjack; the other, her brother, on the sliding edge of drunk already. Just intoxicated enough to make each comment too loud, each laugh a lengthy challenge to sober reason. He giggled now and poured another glass of wine.
Emily fingered the stem of her glass and raised her chin, entering on a point of conversation the waiter had just placed before me: the storied chocolate mousse.
"I don't understand how you can eat that without a glass of wine."
"I've got to drive, that's how." The faintness had begun to ebb, pushed away by a second glass of ice water and the shrimp toasts, slapped into reality by the dark, silky mousse.
Emily pushed her full bottom lip out in sympathy. "Too bad!"
We chatted a bit - I told her I was new to Charleston. She and the lumberjack asked where I was staying and suggested a location with several good bars not far from my Airbnb. Not that I wanted them, but it was an overture of friendship and I received the information with a good will. The lumberjack sounded to be from Australia. He and Emily, very much in love, held hands and shared wine while quizzing me about my plans.
"If you're wanting to see the historical homes," said the lumberjack, drawing the words out and chewing them with his accent, "most of the good ones are North of Broad. Start at the Battery and come South - you can't miss 'em."
They ordered another bottle of wine. The brother's eyes became blearier, his giggles more audible. Emily's attention swirled back to her boyfriend, and our acquaintance drowsed to an end. I paid my ticket, pulled on my coat. Emily gave me a loud, friendly goodbye echoed by her lumberjack boyfriend and her intoxicated, bleary-eyed brother.

I felt bolstered after my meal and not just by the food and water. Before stepping into the gas-lit doorway of Gaulart & Maliclet, I had been a very lone stranger in a very new city. By the time I left, I had been embraced by the culture of Charleston and the north of France, by the friendship of an Australian man and a lively woman. Never eat alone? But eating alone is what gained me these friends in the first place. And then I realized the perfection of the custom - the French so hate to eat alone that even their restaurants where a solo traveler like myself might take refuge defy solitude. You might be a party of one, but you'll not eat alone.
I stepped into the cobbled street. My head had cleared. A brisk wind blew in from the nearby sea. I liked the French custom. I liked Charleston. I even, for the moment, liked traveling alone.




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