Table for One, Please

My dear friends, normally, when I write to you, it is in the past tense because it takes me a few days to go through pictures, research and verify my facts, and collect my thoughts before I lay them out on the page for you in what I hope you find to be a thoughtful, entertaining, and easy to read post. And I assure you, I’m working on one for you that will explain those recent Facebook posts with elephants, but it’s not quite ready yet. Tonight, however, I had such a lovely evening that I decided I needed to write, in the moment, to mirror my current “live in the moment” lifestyle and convey my feelings while they are still vividly swimming around in my mind. I’ll warn you now that this post has only one picture and no specific travel facts. It also contains a tablespoon of feminism and a heap of encouragement … dedicated in particular to my handful of beautiful, single girlfriends who have never taken themselves out to dinner, i.e. eaten a meal solo in public. I’m feeling a bit cheeky tonight, ladies, especially in my mildly inebriated state, but I’m going to refrain from naming names in a public forum.

I was chatting with one of my aforementioned highly successful, self-sufficient, comfortably content friends on my last visit to the states and she was praising me for having the confidence to travel solo. I was chiding with her a bit, giving her a hard time for not coming to meet me on the road somewhere… and as we joked, she disclosed that she has never even gone out to dinner by herself. I tried to explain to her that there was a time in my life when the same was true for me. And the truth is that it took me a little bit of practice, some confidence building, and a great experience or two for me to realize that it is pretty fantastic. The first time that I dined alone was when I studied abroad in Athens during my junior year in college. Then again for a period in my early 20’s when I first moved to Los Angeles. After this time, however, it wasn’t until my early 30’s after I broke up with a long-term boyfriend that I had to exercise my “solo” muscles again. I assure you that just like a long lull from physical exercise, it’s a little hard and a little uncomfortable when you have to start back up again. But tonight is one of those perfect examples of why I’m so glad that I keep this particular muscle in tip-top shape.

It was 106F today in Chiang Mai, Thailand and after a rather poor night of sleep and a morning of exploring the town and visiting a few Wats, the sun had taken its toll. I came back to my guesthouse room and inadvertently fell asleep for a good two hours. When I woke, I went through some pictures and started trying to figure out where I should go next, thinking that the islands were sounding more and more appealing in this weather. Maybe I’ll even leave tomorrow I thought. When I start researching and planning like this, I get sucked in to some sort of Trip Advisor, Google Maps, travel blog vortex and often the hours pass without me even realizing it. Tonight, however, my stomach let me know that I had to set my computer aside, pull myself together, and go find food. On most of my prior nights here, that has meant wandering across the street to the food stands and ordering some incredibly delicious street food because it’s quick, easy, cheap, and still allows me to experiment with new dishes. Tonight, though, there was a restaurant that I had been meaning to find because the reviews were great and I liked the name of it, Cooking Love. Last year, when I had taken a Thai cooking class in Phuket, highlighted in A great escape: Phuket, our instructor had told us that we had to smile while we cooked to ensure that we were putting love into the food, so the name of this restaurant resonated with me. I consulted my city map before heading out the door around 7pm in search of Cooking Love.

The Old City in Chiang Mai is essentially a grid, which is great because then I can’t really get lost. And I love zigzagging my way through the streets and stumbling upon little artist shops, or clothing stores, or coffee shops. Tonight, I turned down a street that was lively, transitioning from the day shops to the night bars and restaurants, when I staggered into a bookstore just before it closed. I was thrilled! I haven’t had a book to read since Vang Vieng, when I finished the one that I was reading and thoughtlessly left it at the house. There has been no bookstores in all of the towns that I’ve visited since then, only coffee shops or guesthouses that would not sell me a book. They would only accept an exchange because they wanted to maintain a reading library for their patrons. Finally, I would be able to buy a book, to read of course, but also for future exchange scenarios. The owner was delightful and helpful and the store had the best collection that I have seen since I left Bangkok.

After the bookstore, I managed to find Cooking Love, which was tucked away down a small ally off the main road and just across from Thapae Gate. The waitress approached as I stepped through the entrance. “Table for one, please”, I said. It seemed that it was a quiet night or I had arrived at just the right time because I was able to sit and order almost immediately. Now, sometimes when I’m eating alone, I specifically choose spots that offer good people watching opportunities, which can be invaluable when trying to assimilate to a new culture. But tonight, since I chose my location especially for the food, I was happy to have discovered my bookshop first. The universe is so great like that. I opened one of my books and started reading but my order of green curry was delivered before I had even finished the forward and before they had even managed to bring my watermelon shake. The chef was a slender, elderly gentleman who concocted his meals in an open, outdoor kitchen at the corner of the restaurant. He watched as I took my first bite and smiled as I savored the explosion of flavors in my mouth. It was delicious! Everything that the reviews said it would be.

I know what you’re thinking… wouldn’t it be nice to share the experience or even the food with someone? I know, I know, sometimes that is nice. But, I had been craving green curry since the moment that I crossed the border into Thailand and unfortunately, most of the restaurants that serve it were closed last week due to the Thai New Year. This was the first week that they were open again. Thai Green Curry happens to be one of my favorite meals and it’s not as good if I take it to go. I like to eat it hot, over fluffy brown rice. While I’m relishing the flavors, and appreciating the love that was put into it, I don’t want to talk to anyone or make idle chit chat. I don’t want to be judged for eating the entire bowl because I can’t bear to waste any of it and I don’t have a refrigerator in my room. It’s a little bit like that old Carl’s Junior slogan, “Don’t bother me, I’m eating”. This is my ideal dining alone experience. I sat there eating, slowly, relishing every bite of spicy curry and every sip of sweet watermelon for nearly an hour. An empty bowl of curry and a dozen or so mosquito bites later; I decided I needed to walk. As I was leaving, the chef stopped me to ask how my dinner was and when I praised him for his superb skills, he encouraged me to come back tomorrow. “I will”, I said with sincerity.

Next, I walked a few blocks and decided that a coffee would be nice. It was still 100F outside, so I took myself to an upscale, air-conditioned coffee house that had both decaf coffee (since it was 8:30pm by that point) and soymilk, which is rare in these parts. It too was fairly quiet this evening except for one table of six that was celebrating a birthday. I read my book and I sipped my rich, delicious coffee. And I assure you, no one cared that I was there by myself. When I finished my coffee, I sauntered down a new street and enjoyed the sights and sounds coming from the bustling bars. I decided that I would make one more stop before going home.

North Gate Jazz Co-Op band, Chiang Mai.

North Gate Jazz Co-Op band, Chiang Mai.

There is a jazz bar only a block down the street from my guesthouse and on two prior nights, I had intended to visit it. Each time, though, it was a little early, the band hadn’t started playing and I chose to go back to my room to freshen up and cool off, and then told myself that I would go back out. The going back out never happened of course. Tonight, I decided to march my frizzy haired, dewy skinned, sticky self right into that bar and order a beer (yes, beer, it tastes better in the heat and the wine is shit here) before going home since this was likely to be one of my last nights in Chiang Mai. The band was singing Madonna’s Like a Virgin and people were eating it up. I scanned the crowd and walked over to a young couple, who had an extra chair at their table, and asked if I could join them. They looked at me, smiled and nodded yes. I introduced myself, and Isaac, who is from Malaysia, asked where my companion was. I told him that I was traveling solo and he smiled and said, “So are we”. It turned out that Isaac had met Mayo, from Japan, at the hostel where they were both staying and they just decided to join one another to come to the bar tonight. We listened to the music and chatted about where we had been and where we wanted to go next. A new band stepped in for the second shift and Santana’s Black Magic Woman left us all happily bobbing along to the beat.  After a myriad of other songs, exchanging contact information, and just before turning into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight, I bid my farewell to my two new friends and strolled back to my room.

I can scarcely think of a time when I haven’t met someone interesting or had a fantastic time when I have dined alone or taken myself out.  And I certainly haven’t had any bad experiences. So, my dear, dear girlfriends, I say to you… stop waiting for an invite, or a date… just go take yourself to a nice dinner because you deserve it.  And, ya know what?  That goes for you single guys and couples alike.  You may be in a relationship, but you’re not attached at the hip, are you?  Work those “solo”  muscles until you can flex them without flinching. Practice in the mirror… Table for one, please.

Go revel!