Table for One, please.
If one could ever celebrate such a thing, 2019 marks the five-year anniversary of my table-for-one lifestyle.
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t been eating alone for 5 years now. I am blessed to be surrounded with lovely family, and more importantly, friends who are like the family that I have chosen for my own self. Meeting up with some of my favourite ladies is a soul-soothing affair and something I look forward to very regularly. But, just as often, I head out on my own without waiting for company either. The nature of my work both allows me and forces me to step out, go to a new environment and seek some inspiration. I mostly work alone and, while it gives me a very high level of freedom, it is also extremely dulling every now and then. Time becomes a never ending loop – sitting at the same desk, on the same couch and facing the same wall with the same framed artwork in front of me.
Cut to the present moment.
So here I am at a beautiful café with interiors inspired by the Mediterranean. It reminds me of Greece, the most precious destination on my bucket-list. With the street activity and rain outside the window next to me, my notebook and my laptop are my only companions. In the four hours that I have been here, there have been at-least 3 other “solitary-with-laptop” people around me at any given point of time. Way after our meals or compulsory coffees are done, the servers are kind and accustomed enough to refill the glasses of water on all the “loner” tables. Is it sad? Lonely? A sign of the isolation of our times? I don’t think so. ‘Solitude’ is a much better term to go with. There is a thin line between being lonely and being in a state of solitude, and I do not know if the negative and positive connotations respectively are socially conditioned or indeed a part of the actual linguistic definition.
Psychology Today marks out the difference between both of them in the following words:
“Loneliness is a negative state, marked by a sense of isolation. One feels that something is missing. It is possible to be with people and still feel lonely—perhaps the most bitter form of loneliness." "Solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely. It is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself. Solitude is desirable, a state of being alone where you provide yourself wonderful and sufficient company.”
It is quite understandable then that both might look exactly the same at times, contributing to the many assumptions associated with a “table for one”. Whether you are a foodie who really wants to savour a specific meal of your choice, or you are engaged in some brain work, or have a reason which I simply cannot imagine at the moment – sitting in solitude for some time really works in our favour. My research group and I conducted a study back in 2016, and one of the revelations that was most fascinating for me was understanding the concept of “urban solitude”. Urban solitude is not just something that a few people enjoy, but indeed a well-researched and documented psychological phenomena in society. (We all seek validation from science, right?) Dynamic settings in the urban environment can form the backdrop for social interaction, but also for a moment of solitude. Solitude does not require one to be in a quiet meditative state but can actually be found in the company of other people, in a crowd, in sleep or in chosen isolation. It is not uncommon to notice people on the Metro reading a book or listening to music, not as a mere tool to avoid social interaction, but perhaps to find this moment of solitude with themselves within the realm of their everyday lives. In this sea of people, it is sometimes necessary to tune out. In this over-connected world, we need to sometimes fade into the background and gain the anonymity which we need to find solitude.
With this growing trend of uninhibited solo appearance by many guests, the design and hospitality industry has also taken heed. The Amterdam-based pop-up project ‘Eenmaal’ by social designer Marina van Goor is a stunning example of the same. The Dutch word Eenmaal freely translates into “one meal” and is the name of the world’s first one-person restaurant. Inspired by her own challenging experience of eating out alone in Paris, where she was seated next to the toilet, was asked about when her company would arrive and was being stared at. I am incredibly thankful that I have not faced any of that odd behaviour in these years. But well, at least her experience inspired a pioneering design project, which got widely covered by both magazines and TV shows. My own source of introduction to this project was the exhibition ‘The Future is Here’ at Stockholm’s ArkDes museum, where the project was featured.
In Marina’s own words, in her TedTalk, she shares:
“Being alone in a public space is already suspected… And I thought that we have to design a public space, an attractive public space, where being along is attractive… Having lunch in a restaurant or coffee in a café alone is okay. But dinner – dinner is the most extreme form of togetherness. So I decided (sic) I need to make a space for dinner-for-one. All the visitors left the restaurant… they were reset, they were inspired, and they were also very proud of themselves.”
Her project witnessed a good mix of people who dined there as guests – those who were curious of the concept, those who loved to go out alone but did not know of a place, those who never went out because they had no company, moms who needed a moment of disconnection, and so on. Solitary dining can be an inspiring experience.
Closer home in Kolkata, my evening at the famous Oxford Bookstore was spent in the company of, not just my laptop and good food, but also the eminent Bengali renaissance man – a writer, painter, violin player and composer, technologist, and entrepreneur – Upendra Kishore Roychowdhury. His portrait has been very smartly glued to the column facing a one-person table, and I couldn’t help but feel amused as I sat opposite this very smart bearded man from another time period. (He passed away 104 years back).
Five years back, sitting alone for a meal was a definite awkward situation for a 21-year old. But those months in Goa forced me to step out on my own, because there was really no other way to explore the city that I was in love with. I am finally thankful about having let go of the hesitations. Every time I go out with friends now, it’s truly for the pleasure of their company, and not with the expectation of filling the seat in front of me.
As the server refills my glass of water for the fourth time right now, his thoughts and opinions, if any, are really none of my concern.
Enjoy your table-for-one, you all!