Updated: Aug 17, 2018
I eat most of my meals alone in cafés and restaurants. I can't remember when I lost my self-consciousness about this, probably a long time ago. As a new expat in a hostile city like Nice or Paris, your options are limited to staying at home or going out alone. Of course, as you work out the city the motivated will throw themselves into expat groups, Internations, meetups, OVS (the equivalent in France). Expat or local, Paris or London, fresh or established, I have learned to relish these moments of solitude whilst sitting on a terrace and watching the world pass me by.
I know many people who find the idea of eating alone horrifying. This intrigues me since it has become a completely normal way of life for me. Are they fearing others will judge them? Thinking you sad cow sitting by yourself, with no friends or partner to share the moment? The fear of others' opinions, their view of life contemning your choices and making you feel uncomfortable? Surely, they are judging in this way because they themselves are not comfortable with being alone in a public space, their judgment is a reflection of their insecurity, an inward fear, triggered by a confident person at ease with themselves.
Every day in Paris I see Parisians sitting at little tables on a terrace with a café or a glass of something, sometimes with a book, mostly not. Sitting, pondering, people watching, listening, smelling, thinking, savouring the three precious sips of their expresso. Paris is designed for this, spacious terraces overflow pavements and pedestrian streets, in winter they add heaters and temporary sides and rooves to avoid the EU smoking laws. London, on the other hand, is not modeled around tables for one, for buying a three-sip coffee and pondering away the afternoon.
On the rare occasion I am invited for Sunday breakfast with my mum and the Rabbi in Hampstead there are only a few places that have terraces. They seem to be an afterthought to café owners who cram a couple of spare tables on a busy pavement normally in a dark, damp wind gully. The French seem to have got the knack of a sunny terrace. The only place I have found in Hampstead that is in the sun is Café Rouge. Leaving me with the debacle – dishwasher coffee and sun, or fresh beans and sit inside. My pursuit for good coffee, on a terrace with rays where I can ponder continues...
The chicken or the egg: Do Bobo (bourgeois bohemian) Parisians ponder because Paris has an outlet for ponderers, or is it because Paris has a one-person table terrace infrastructure that the Bohos ponder? Le Terrace breeds pondering, and pondering creates a need for a terrace.
Paris like London is fast and stressful and self pondering could easily die. But it hasn't, why? Because the notion of self and reflection is a product of their Lycée education where philosophy is compulsory, and the great French writers Sartre, Proust, Hugo etc. mandatory reading. The idea of ‘soi-meme' (one's self) therefore continues to resonate with successful Parisians in spite of life's' challenges and time pressures.
Despite having a nanny state and a national standardised education programme, France seems to breed more independent thought than the UK. Both countries are under pressure from social media and the '9-second attention span'* of your average goldfish. But the Boho French seem to manage to keep the online war at bay. They are a country of moderates whether it be drinking, eating or exercising. But they are also contradictory; they learn in exactly the same way and exactly the same content, and then these clones group around common causes such as unions and protests. Yet in spite of this en-mass activity, they still steal time for themselves each day, often on a terrace with a drink, to ponder. Few Boho's own a television which support this self pondering institution.
France as a nation is very sure of itself; its history, language, borders, cuisine all contribute to this. A confidence that the UK lacks, Orwell summed it up perfectly in his Essay ‘England your England' when he wrote ‘we call our islands by no less than six different names, England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion'. We are so confused and uncertain, we don't even have a common word for the island in which we live. We can add a seventh name to Orwell's list, the island of Brexit.
I do admit it's easier to eat a dinner by yourself in a foreign country than in your native country. I am not a local, not expected to be established with friends or a partner, I could be a tourist or a businesswoman passing through. As a foreigner abroad, you can recreate yourself as you like. As a white 35-year-old middle-class English girl its harder to do the same in London with its invisible ladder of life; the benchmark in which everyone compares everyone with: partner, homeowner, married, children, fancy schools, second home etc.
Mindfulness has taken grip of the UK, but the French seem to naturally practice its principles before it became fashionable. Consumerism may be flourishing in France but the idea of the soul, of nourishing the soul, and of doing so alone, over a coffee on a terrace watching, smelling, hearing, tasting, feeling, thinking is an ancient pastime and one I hope never dies.