I thrive off of interaction with others. As an extrovert, I am in my element and at my happiest when surrounded by friends exchanging conversation, positive energy and laughter.
That being said, I sometimes need a moment to myself to unwind, recharge and sink into my own thoughts. But my idea of alone is far from lonely -- I often seek solitude while surrounded by strangers. Even in my moment of escape, I desire refuge in the presence of others. Although radio or television can provide an acceptable level of input while alone, my absolute favorite retreat is to be alone... in public.
My most recent public escape was during a trip to Europe to see friends and quietly relive my time there as an expat. I spent one-on-one time with friends, visited old haunts, walked along paths that I used to frequent, and decided that I earned an evening out to myself.
I nostalgically walked into a familiar German Brauhaus, found a small table, sat down, and removed my jacket and scarf. “Just one?” greeted the server in English with a smile. “Just one,” I confidently replied. She removed the other menus and brought only one fork, one knife and one napkin. I made a point to put my phone away so that I’d be devoid of any distractions and could fully immerse myself in the experience.
After ordering, I gazed around the restaurant. I observed a bartender lost in his thoughts, energetic servers carrying trays of Wurst and Bier, a group of professionals shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, and a collective of friends happily smiling and saying “Prost” as they toasted their beers with proper German eye contact. Then it happened -- the ultimate eye contact. Across the restaurant, from my table for three occupied only by one, sat an elderly German man at the head of a table designed for ten. Properly dressed, fork in left hand, knife in right, we locked eyes. We were both dressed in black, both eating Schnitzel and both dining alone. Throughout the evening, we made eye contact from across the restaurant, occasionally holding a gaze. In Germany, it is socially acceptable to stare and I didn’t hold back. I wanted to know his story and wondered what brought him in that evening. Was it loneliness? Did he outlive his spouse? Did he ever have one? What of his friends? His family? Then it hit me -- he may be just like me. He wanted to be isolated while surrounded. Enjoy a unique silence, filled with sound and activity, but devoid of direct conversation. Looking, watching, experiencing, and effectively being an outsider on the inside.
This sort of experience provides me with a stimulating relaxation, a bustling calm, a noisy silence, the opportunity to tune in or out as I please, to explore what I want and abandon what I don’t. I couldn’t help but feel that my dining companion across the Brauhaus was a kindred spirit.
As I completed my meal and exited the restaurant, I gave him a smile and a proper nod as I passed his table. He replied with a warm, genuine smile. He was like me, I was like him, and we both knew it.
As I stepped into my rental VW Golf, I smiled to myself and realized that this is a pleasure I will continue to enjoy throughout my life. One that allows me to to find seclusion while maintaining a connection. Perhaps one day, years down the road, I will catch the gaze of a younger person dining solo, and together we’ll share a quiet understanding while alone in public.