The most scandalous act in Europe isn’t what you might expect. It’s something most of us have to deal with every day in the United States. Doing things alone. But in Europe, perhaps an offshoot form of terrorism is doing anything in public on one’s own. It turns heads, especially as a woman and especially if you’re eating alone.
“Have you got any friends with you?” “Are you here on your own?” “I think I’d go crazy if I had to travel alone.” “So what are you doing here?” Olivia Velencoso didn’t fucking know. Like everything that drove her to action, it came from a place of boredom and restlessness, ultimately always leading her back to the city she thought she hated, New York. But, in the end, she came to realize that it was the outer influence of other people’s opinions that made her feel like she should leave it. Isn’t that what everyone did to it, anyway? You reach a certain point, a certain age and you “want more” or you “can’t take it.” The daily struggles of a city that one has to be a bit mad to live in.
So Olivia, wanting to evade the risk of getting tired of her city, of forgetting the sparkle it once held, booked a ticket to Edinburgh. She’d be lying to herself if she said it was a totally random choice. The seed had been planted in her mind when she started hanging about with a Scotsman she encountered frequently at the bookstore in her neighborhood. It was one of those bookstores that had the good business sense to also implement a coffee shop area on its main floor, which is where she often ended up talking to Ainsley Gordon, a 29-year-old who, like us all, still seemed to be “figuring it out.” This meant his technical job title as a bartender was all people saw him as, though his pursuits were, clichely, artistic.
“I got an audition for a guitarist with the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. I can’t fucking do it,” he lamented. “I think I’d rather be a bartender for the rest of my life.”
Olivia smiled. It was rare for someone to have such integrity anymore. To risk the potential to live like Salieri for all one’s life merely because they don’t have the bombast of Mozart to match the talent. Olivia always thought of that story in strictly Amadeus terms, so she may have been a bit off in her interpretation of the analogy. In any case, she felt Ainsley was doing slightly better than her, in terms of self-respect. Her lifelong desire to write had turned into accepting a copywriting job for Gilt. It was the height of embarrassment. She should have been working on a novel, or at least half-assing it with a collection of short stories. But she didn’t have the strength left at the end of the day or the belief in herself anymore. The only benefit of the job was that it allowed her to work from home two days out of the week, which is how she so often found herself encountering Ainsley. He was coming out of another failed relationship and seemed to enjoy telling Olivia all about it. But as their conversations evolved into the more philosophical, she sensed an attraction blooming, like one of those sped up montage scenes of flowers growing before they get to the point of shriveling. She didn’t allow herself to see that part in her mind.
In any case, how she came to Edinburgh was, at least in some way, related to him. For one day, when she came into the bookstore to seek out a copy of The Constant Sinner by Mae West, she was shocked to find he wasn’t sitting in his usual perch. The barista, a mocking sort in his late 30s with tattoos that didn’t stand the test of time, smirked and asked, “Looking for Ainsley?”
She tried to play it cool, answering, “I guess.”
“He’s gone. He went back to Scotland.”
“For how long?” she inquired with only the slightest hint of urgency.
“He didn’t say. Maybe forever. I don’t know his life. I just know he was depressed or some shit. Jesus Christ, if I was European, I’d be depressed as fuck after coming to America, too.”
It was coincidence that she had already been germinating in her mind the plan to flee to Europe for awhile, for the aforementioned reason of rejuvenating her interest in New York, for getting out of the rut of routine and untangling herself from the day-to-day dramas of those around her. It was further coincidence that among the cheapest cities to fly into was London, which was just a stone’s throw from Edinburgh, thus she added it to her tour itinerary, along with Paris, Barcelona, Lisbon and Kotor in Montenegro (you know, before it could end up losing its UNESCO World Heritage status).
At first, she didn’t pick up on the stigma of being alone while traveling as a woman (as a man, you were “adventurous” or “sowing oats”). London is such a “cosmopolitan” city, after all. It was only upon arriving in Edinburgh that she started to feel the heat, a heat that would only intensify as she made her way to the Latin language-based countries. Though she found the courage to communicate with Ainsley on WhatsApp and secure a rendez-vous with him, she found their meeting to have fallen somewhat flat, as though it was too forced by her hand to feel natural, which, she supposed it wasn’t. He took her out to an Indian dinner (the Indian food in the U.K. is far superior to that of the U.S., in case you hadn’t heard) and spoke with her as he always did. But there was something different about it, something strained. He was clearly working through something in his mind, preoccupied with some other internal issue. Thus, she didn’t attempt to make things any more awkward by offering herself up to him. Instead, she let him drop her off at the Airbnb she was staying at after, once again, mistaking the right side of the car for the passenger side. She felt a little foolish for doing it twice, for being so easily indoctrinated by American culture.
And yet, the one thing she wouldn’t trade for anything from America was the relative lack of judgment when it came to dining alone. It was starting to become a practice she feared more than being found dead with shit in her pants. She tried to grocery shop, but was scarred by buying “egg pasta” from the freezer section at Tesco that smelled like a rancid fetus. No, no, cooking had never been her bag, and it wasn’t going to be just because being a social pariah warranted it. So she went out, even earlier to avoid “the crowds” that trickled in around 8 and 9. To avoid being an imposition to those who looked upon her with pity. It was the ultimate offense–the most egregious scandal–she found, when she did this at a restaurant called Asti. The waiter looked as though he might pass out when she said, “One.” Collecting himself, he returned, “Let me just check with the manager.”
The manager, an affable enough woman, emerged from some recess, looked Olivia up and down and motioned to the bar area. “You’ll have to sit there. And you might want to order quickly, we have a full house tonight.”
Olivia nodded, wanting to run out of the restaurant but knowing that she had already endured too much shame for it all to be for nought. And then there was that persistent pang of hunger in her stomach that she knew she had to succumb to. Ugh, she thought to herself, who goes to an Italian restaurant in Scotland? At least if she’d gone to a bar, she could sit demurely in the corner getting pissed and feeding off fish and chips. But no, she always had to make everything harder for herself.
“You want the big glass of wine, right?” the manager assumed for Olivia.
Olivia nodded sheepishly, wanting to refute the inference she had made, but also wanting the wine more.
When the manager brought it to her, she practically buried her head in it. She felt like she was wearing a dunce cap and had been relegated to the corner for no real wrongdoing other than despising humanity and being unable to find anyone in her life with the time or (fake) money to travel with her.
By the end of the glass, though, she was feeling somewhat more confident, defiant even. She wasn’t going to rush. She had just as much right to be here as any other asshole with a companion. Since when did being alone become being looked at like a caged animal in a zoo? Like some sort of spectacle to be pointed at and photographed. And the more the manager and her waitstaff seemed to be staring at her as she ate her orecchiette more slowly than a clock at a workplace, as though willing her to hurry up and leave, the more she wanted to take her time, to stay and prove to herself and all the rest that this was not a scandal. That being alone is what we all are when we strip away the illusions that anyone cares about us, that they’re not foremost concerned with putting on their own oxygen mask first, so to speak.
And as closing time rolled around and she had consumed roughly five glasses of pinot grigio, she would not be shuffled out by the manager. She would, however, be shuffled out by the police, making headlines on the local evening news channel that Ainsley would happen to catch while strumming some chords languidly on the couch at his mother’s house. His mother was so stunned by the title “American Woman Traveling Alone Refuses to Leave Italian Restaurant” that she even stopped knitting for a brief moment to remark, “What on earth was she doing traveling alone?”