I am dining alone (happily), leaning back at an outdoor table at a random cafe in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto, sipping a $4.00 glass of tart vinho verde. I would be smoking a cigarette right now if I smoked cigarettes.
Bairro Alto is a picturesque working class quarter dating from the 16th century that has traditionally been the city’s bohemian haunt of artists and writers.
Its grid of streets is quiet during the day, but is transformed at night into the city’s vibrant nightlife quarter. Behind colorful and graffiti-ridden façades is a variety of traditional and international restaurants, tourist-packed fado houses, and a multitude of bars and alternative shops that stay open until late at night. Throughout the week, and especially on weekends you’ll find people of all ages, backgrounds, and lifestyles bar-hopping through the cobbled lanes or standing outside with a drink in hand enjoying the city’s usual mild nights.
THE GERMAN COUPLE
The German couple to my immediate left receives their bill. They inspect it more closely, pulling their itty-bitty, tortoise-shell, rectangular-framed glasses down to the noses to ensure they’re reading the check correctly.
They squint, they mutter. “Butter?!?”…”Butter?!?” they protest. Uh oh, I know what’s coming next.
The livid twosome fights with their server over having been charged for bread and butter that they did not order, but was brought to their table, which they subsequently ate.
I’ve witnessed this scene before since arriving in Portugal. Here the restaurants may deliver unordered olives, bread, butter, or cheese to tables and charge if the items are consumed. Observing the skirmishes that ensue is all part of the fun of dining alone.
ON DINING ALONE
The German couple leaves and I redirect my eavesdropping to the conversation behind me. I can’t see the group, but I hear that it’s comprised of a married couple from New Jersey and two male flight attendants. The four of them shared the same flight to Lisbon earlier today and now are dining next to each other. They order pitchers of sangria to celebrate the coincidence.
I dial-in closer. The husband holds court now, boasting of his recent investment (several million) in a company producing some sort of petroleum-related technology. It converts water to gas, or mud to oil, or something to that effect. I strain to hear the name of the corporation, but I can’t make it out.
I enjoy dining alone. Sure, it’s a little annoying when the hosts asks “only one?” or I’m seated in Siberia, but I’m not otherwise self-conscious about it. I’m so easily entertained by the goings-on around me that, when not dining alone — depending upon my company — I often wish I were dining alone.
ROBERTO & MARCELLA
Another couple has joined our informal community, seated to my left. They appear to be on a date, but I detect no chemistry between them as their conversation jerks and halts.
The man orders for both and the dish — an obscenely large plate of meat — arrives quickly. A look of disgust fleets across the woman’s face and the spontaneity of her reaction amuses me. She catches me smiling at her, which causes her to laugh. The clueless guy wonders why his date and I are suddenly sharing a joke, presumably (correctly) at his expense, without having exchanged a word between us.
The guy looks to me for an explanation, to which I reply that it’s just a really big plate of meat for two people without going into detail of how it’s not the most romantic way to start a date. Introductions are exchanged. Esme. Roberto. Marcella.
Roberto speaks English but Marcella does not, so he and I fall into conversation. Marcella doesn’t appear to mind our private exchange, in fact she looks relieved. I learn that she is from Brazil, currently living in Lisbon, and he lives elsewhere in Portugal. He is visiting the city for the weekend and they met in a bar the last time that he was in town.
“You don’t mind dining alone?” he asks, incredulous. I don’t understand why the thought of dining alone and traveling solo is so daunting and/or disagreeable to so many people.
“No, I often prefer it,” I reply. Looking at Marcella, she seems happier now watching people walk by than when she and Roberto were forcing conversation.
“Until tonight, I was so lonely in Lisbon I nearly cried,” Roberto confesses.
Wow. I occasionally get lonely with I travel by myself, but I simply take a walk or read a book and the feeling dissipates. I’m fortunate that a running narrative in my head keeps me amused. I do understand the desire to share thoughts and observations with someone else, but blogging fills that need for me.
We both take a sip of wine as we consider each other’s situation. Roberto wondering what’s wrong with me that I’m dining alone as I wonder what’s wrong with Roberto that he hates dining alone.
Roberto breaks the silence, volunteering that, as we speak, he is testing “anti-hangover” medication, mail-ordered from Russia.”They’re called KGB pills,” he explains, because the KGB developed them during the Cold War years to ensure that boozy soldiers remained alert. Per the package directions, he tells me, he swallowed three red pills prior to dinner and three black pills await him at the end of the evening.
I ask Roberto if Marcella is also on the formulary in anticipation of becoming shitfaced tonight. She is not. It should be an interesting date.
Finished with my meal, I thank Roberto and Marcella for their company, snap their picture, and offer to e-mail it to them.
Emboldened by three glasses of vinho verde, I interrupt the strangers sitting behind me that I had been spying on earlier in the evening, and ask for the name of the stock they had been discussing. The married man repeats it for my benefit, and we banter for awhile.
They ask me if I am a journalist and also for the scoop on Roberto and Marcella, revealing that when I wasn’t observing the foursome, the foursome were observing my newfound threesome.
I eventually bid the group goodbye, and the flight attendants (who are feeling no pain) urge me to pull up a seat and join them for even more pitchers of sangria. I appreciate the invitation, but decline it. I know my alcohol limits (I took no prophylactic KGB pills earlier) and the difference between three glasses of wine and four is the difference between being silly and being stupid, between feeling fine in the morning versus awaking with a headache.
A very enjoyable evening dining alone in Lisbon, though. If you can call it that.