“La cuenta por favor?”
The bill came to 22 euros and all I had to show for it was a disappointing serving of who knows how old paella, a bottle of water, and a heaping plate of frustration spiced with embarrassment.
So ended my first meal as a lone traveler.
When I say “lone traveler” I don’t mean that it was my first time taking a plane or a train or a bus by myself. What I mean is that it was my first time traveling and touristing alone.
My first stop was Madrid.
The city is lively and modern. I stood sandwiched between fellow merrymakers in a packed-to-burst Puerta del Sol, stuffing 12 grapes into my mouth as the city rang in 2013. I went to a sold-out late-night showing of “Les Misérables” (in English!). I took in panoramic city views from the dome of the opulent, neo-gothic Catedral de Santa María la Real de la Almudena.
But it was also more intimate and accessible than I had anticipated. I walked almost everywhere, only using my metro pass to get to and from the airport. I constantly found myself turned around in the quaint intersecting streets near my hostel. I got up close and personal with elaborate, 16th-century church façades.
While I often felt connected to my surroundings—a small piece of a living, breathing whole—I also felt isolated. Especially anytime I had to eat. It got to the point that I started to dread meals, and this is huge, given how much I normally love food and eating it.
Let’s go back to that first meal, to my frustrated embarrassment.
First off, I felt frustrated because I don’t speak Spanish, but thanks to my French can garner meaning from shared root words and context clues when I see it written or hear it spoken slowly. In the restaurant, this made it so that I could pretty much figure out what I was ordering. But when it came to making verbal precisions about tap versus bottled water, I was out of luck: If I’d known my beverage was going to appear on my bill, I would have ordered a cerveza.
Secondly, I was embarrassed because every time I tried to say a Spanish word or phrase, I got flustered, lost what little accent I had held onto from my middle school Spanish class days, and was immediately pegged as an English speaker.
Being an English speaker in Europe is a complicated experience. On the one hand, I know I can almost always get by while traveling (at least in major cities) because English enjoys immense privilege. In airports and museums, major signs and important information are conveniently displayed in English, as it is often used by Europeans and other foreigners (not just linguistically-inept Americans) as a base language while traveling.
On the other hand, having a waiter respond to my broken question with a sneer and his own stilted English can easily leave me feeling humiliated and insulted. It means that despite my best efforts, I failed both at blending in and at communicating efficiently. (And I usually feel even worse when this happens in French.)
Even when the switch to English isn’t meant as an insult—maybe that snooty foreigner is trying to cut me a break, maybe he even wants to practice his English—eating alone in a foreign country is still less than savory. And language barriers are more daunting when you don’t have someone to share and laugh about failed interactions with afterward.
If you find yourself alone and hungry and don’t feel like mustering the strength and courage for a solo sit-down meal (but also don’t feel like giving up and going to McDonald’s) there’s still hope: markets.
Markets are perfectly acceptable places to be alone and they’re usually bustling, which in turn makes you feel less alone. They’re also great places to get a taste of the local culture.
Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel is more of an indoor gourmet tapas food court than a market in the traditional sense, which makes it the perfect place for a meal—so perfect, I went there for dinner twice.
Take a smattering of small bills and euro coins, your camera, and your sense of adventure, and plunge in.
I recommend starting with your wine, that way you’ll have it with you as munch croquetas, nibble olive skewers and eat creamy gobs of mozzarella precariously balanced on bread and garnished with things like prosciutto or arugula.
And once you’ve finished your churros con chocolate, you’ll have forgotten all about that bottled water and overpriced paella.
Click here for more photos from Madrid.