Friday, September 7, 2007
When dining out alone, there are several things you can do to feel a little less conspicuous. None of these techniques actually hide that you are eating alone, but done with sufficient brio, they can at least help you forget that you’re eating alone.
Lots of people like to take a book to read, but I often find it hard to keep a book open on the table while holding a fork and knife at the same time. If I’m going to have to let go of my utensils, I’d rather take my journal. I fancy that maybe I look like a serious restaurant reviewer, or a travel writer, or best of all, a writer, period. Ever since I read “A Moveable Feast,” the only Hemingway book I truly like, the romance of sitting at a café table with a glass of wine, a notebook, and a pen has sustained me for many a solo meal.
But eating lunch at El Escapulario last week, I realized the absolute best way to distract yourself from your solitude is to go to a foreign country and practice your foreign-language skills by eavesdropping on conversations next to you.
I’d passed El Escapulario maybe a hundred times since I got to Oaxaca. It’s on the second floor of a building on Garcia Vigil, just across from the Iglesia de Carmen Arriba, with a little cut-out of a window on the corner that makes it look almost magical. No matter that escapulario doesn’t mean “escape” but “scapulary,” or a religious garment. Lina had recommended it, too, but I never seemed to find myself in that part of town during comida time.
I wasn’t impressed walking up the stairs, which were dingy and dark. The first thing I saw at the top of the stairs was a kitchen and a storeroom, and I didn’t really want to look at either too closely. I am definitely of the “see no evil” school of restaurant hygiene. But then I saw the room with the window I had admired for so long. The room was painted white, with art on the walls, and the tablecloths were bright, colorful, and clean. The best table, the one right by the magical table was taken by a gringo and his Mexican friend, so I positioned myself the best I could to catch some of that window view.
The waitress took my order with such a sincere smile, the menu del dia with sopa de conde, barbacoa de cordero, an agua de guayaba, and a free beer! I opened up my journal and started scribbling my thoughts on the restaurant, the day, but I soon realized there was so much more to occupy me, right there in the restaurant.
The gringo at the window was truly a gringo of gringos. Even sitting down, he towered over the Mexican man eating with him, and being blond, buff, and dressed in a tank top and army green pants, he couldn’t be anything but American. His Spanish was exactly like mine, exceedingly earnest with a capacity for quite a wide range of verb tenses, though far from fluid. Because he was trying so hard, he spoke a little louder than he might normally, and I could hear him perfectly from my table. He said two words for every word his lunch-mate said, probably because, like me, he had been thinking so long about all what else he could say in Spanish, he had whole conversations planned out in his head. I found out that his name is Sky, “Like cielo,” he said, that this was his first vacation in years, and that he had worked really hard for the past couple of years. He asked his friend if he liked the weather, if he liked the beach, that he had heard some Mexicans don’t like, “Hmmm, como se dice ‘sand’?”, and so they don’t like the beach.
I understood every word the Mexican man said, but I can’t remember a thing because he said so little.
Knowing that my Spanish sounded as good and as bad as Sky’s made me depressed. Thankfully, I could drown my sorrows in the excellent food at El Escapulario. The sopa de conde was a pureed black bean soup, with chunks of queso fresco simmered in it and garnished with strips of fried tortillas. It was really really really good. I’ve now cooked black beans 4 or 5 times in Oaxaca, and it never ceases to amaze me how much flavor there can be in a handful of black beans. The waitress brought me a little cup of spicy avocado salsa, and though I don’t know if it was intended for the soup, it made it taste even better.
Barbacoa normally describes goat or other meat wrapped and roasted in banana leaves until the meat is deeply tender. This barbacoa was a lamb chop, and it really did fall off its little bone, almost dissolving into the sauce of guajillo chile and avocado leaf. I suspected that the sauce had been cooked with hoja de aguacate, and I felt so proud when the waitress confirmed my suspicions. The little pile of rice accompanying the barbacoa was perfect, each kernel surprisingly plump.
There was even a little postre, or dessert, a syrupy canned pear, its slices arranged in a sweet fan on the plate. I hate canned fruit, but it wasn’t too sweet and I enjoyed it.
By then, Sky and his friend were also done with lunch. I lingered to listen to the last scraps of conversation, sipping at my little baby bottle of beer. It wasn’t that their conversation was so fascinating, really. It’s just that when you’re learning a language, anything you can understand becomes instantly riveting, just because you’re so happy you understand. Even though I still have trouble with casual conversations, I can generally understand anything that is announced, and I’ll watch, rapt, commercials for shampoo and baby formula.
What a fantastic meal. I’d had a delicious three-course meal, with drinks, for 35 pesos plus tip, about $3.50, and been entertained while eating it.