Cafes, and eating lunch alone

3/1/11 2:48:48 PM -- Boston , Massachusetts Blue State Coffee shop for Lunch Series Photo by Vernon Doucette  for Boston University Photography
Photo: Source

Most days, I eat lunch at my desk, which admittedly is a bad habit, but one I’ll deal with later. Sometimes I’ll go out to a cafe for lunch with a friend. This is my way of socialising: it’s one to one so we can really talk to one another and catch up, and it’s time constrained so it doesn’t wear me out like a whole evening out does. (The weariness is not because I don’t enjoy my friends, it’s because social activity tires me out, much like dancing all night might do for others more gregarious than me.)

There are times, though, when I feel like eating a somewhat more interesting lunch than a sandwich, but I don’t want company. So I go to a cafe on my own and eat lunch. Lunch is, in my view, the second easiest meal to eat alone. Breakfast, especially in a hotel when you are traveling, is the easiest, because almost everyone else in the room is also eating alone.

There is almost no expectation in cafes that you will be with someone. It’s very common to see people sitting on their own, drinking coffee or eating. Often they are working on a laptop, but not exclusively. If you have something to read, be it your phone or a magazine, book or newspaper, that can make it so much easier, but it’s not necessary.

When I’m out shopping on a weekend, I’ll usually treat myself to lunch, and since I can’t abide shopping with other people I will inevitably be eating alone.

If you’re not used to eating alone in public, I’d recommend starting with morning coffee out by yourself. When you’re comfortable with that, move on to lunch on your own, in a busy cafe, and do this on a weekday when the turnover is fast and no-one is paying attention to anyone else. Weekends tend to be a bit more “couple-y”, and if you’re prone to feeling a bit self conscious about your aloner status, that probably won’t help.

For me, time to sit down and eat on my own is a welcome respite from the working day. It’s treasured quiet time. Combining that time out with delicious food and a good quality coffee makes it seem all the more special. Enjoy it.


Going to the movies on your own

Movie-ticketWhen you live alone, you have to make your own fun.

Some people find it difficult to do things on their own that they would normally think of as shared activities. Going to the movies alone seems to be a bit of a litmus test for this. I’m not sure why because it’s not like you talk to whoever you’re with when you go to a movie. You sit there in the dark listening to other people talk to each other.

Perhaps it’s the early association with dating – a typical first date is usually going to a movie. But whatever the reason, going to the movies alone is a great thing to learn to do and get comfortable with.

I usually go to an afternoon session rather than an evening session. Just one warning about that — don’t pick the “midweek pensioner special” session because you’ll be surrounded by incredibly noisy whispered commentary from all the hard of hearing.

I have a profound dislike of popcorn and its smell, so I avoid big box theatres and go to smaller boutiquey ones that serve good coffee, wine and food. They usually have better movies too. I arrive a bit early, treat myself to something nice to eat or drink, and get a good seat.

I get seated early and watch everyone else come in. This is a surprisingly effective technique for avoiding the self consciousness that comes with being on your own. No-one sees you coming in on your own, but you get to watch other people, which is endlessly interesting.

After the movie is over, leaving is a non-event. Since everyone gets up at more or less the same time, and the lobby is just a crush of people coming and going, it’s very easy to move through the crowd and not feel “obviously alone”.

That’s really all there is to it. You get to see great movies and watch what you want. It’s a great ‘starter’ solo activity if you’re not used to doing things on your own. And if you’ve never done it before, it will give you a real sense of accomplishment.

The ‘loner’ tag

Anaeli Rufus wrote Party of One, one of the books I’ll be adding to my list of essential aloner reading, when I get around to constructing the list.

She talks about the media use of the word ‘loner’ and how it’s trotted out as a lame cliche every time some nut job loses the plot and carries out some bizarre, random or truly disturbed act.

People who are alone are not all loners in the sense the media means (where ‘dangerous’ is the usual accompanying prefix.) The media’s loner is someone who feels rejected by others, hence the rage and desire to create mayhem in order to get some kind of recognition or acknowledgement of their existence or to exact revenge against an imagined enemy.

The aloner, in contrast, is neither rejected nor rejecting. The aloner simply chooses to be alone, whether for 5 minutes or 5 decades. There is a world of difference between the two. It’s all about why the choice to be alone is made.

Basic life skills

Living alone tests basic life skills. If you have none it will become abundantly clear very quickly. A list of essential skills would include knowing how (and when) to do laundry, how to clean everything, and how to do the grocery shopping without spending hundreds and coming home with nothing resembling food (tip: write a list, and don’t shop when hungry).

But for my money, the number one life skill is what I call self management.

Self management stops me from spending all day in my pyjamas watching Oprah and eating Doritos. Not that there’s anything wrong with that once in a while, but if it’s every day, it’s time to get some serious self management going in the form of routines.

“Routine” gets such a bad rap. Routine sounds dull, tedious, predictable, but let me tell you, as a Living Aloner, it’s a godsend. Routines mean I don’t have to remember to do all those little things that keep life civilised, I just do them because it’s 10am on a Saturday morning and that means laundry.

Self management is also what gets me up in the morning to go to work. It’s been a long time since I had parents or flatmates to wake me. An alarm clock is of course handy, but routine itself wakes me most mornings. I’m used to getting up at the same time every day, so I wake up then.

When you live alone, it’s all down to you. Sometimes that feels overwhelming, but most of the time, it’s empowering.


Alone is not lonely

There is a world of difference between being alone and being lonely. Far too many people treat them synonymously, which isn’t helpful.

Being alone simply indicates that you’re not interacting with others. It doesn’t necessarily mean there is no-one else around. You can be alone in a cafe, sitting by yourself, even if the cafe is full of people.

The trouble with ‘alone’ is that too many people taint it with a sense of failure. “I went to town alone” is, for some, tantamount to admitting you’re a Nancy No-Mates. It doesn’t mean you have no friends, it just says they weren’t with you at the time. No shame in that.

Lonely is of course a whole different beast. Loneliness has less to do with an absence of people than it does with an absence of connection to people. It’s as possible to be surrounded by people and be lonely as it is to be entirely alone and feel perfectly content and connected to absent friends and family.

Loneliness and aloneness are not the same thing at all. Loneliness is rarely if ever a desirable condition. Aloneness, on the other hand, can be sought out and much enjoyed.

How to be alone

Living alone isn’t hard. There is nothing inherently difficult about it, but for some, the mental and emotional challenges are difficult. For others, they’re not. I’m one of those others. I love living alone, I do it by choice, and have done so for about 25 years.

So if you’re embarking on this way of living for the first time, let me offer you the benefit of my experience of living alone and enjoying it.