Todd Horne, Table for One
Something there is about traveling alone that recalls, inevitably, Barbara Pym. One feels self conscious, a need to be perhaps that little bit tidier, quieter, less obtrusive. Like her hypersensitive gentlewomen, one seeks a quiet table to the side, waits for more obstreperous parties at the checkout, watches the world with a mix of amusement and foreboding.
It has been a year since I've been back in the U.S., and on my first day out, jetlagged, exhausted, and rather disoriented, it seemed a very foreign place indeed - one full of large, loud, and alarmingly capable people, all going somewhere rather faster than expected. There are - and this is a very good thing - a great many dogs out and about, doted over and noted approvingly by passers by. It is cold, comparatively, but crisp, and after a block or two I realize how out of touch with urban walking I am - the necessary rhythms, the numbers of distractions, even the mechanics of crossing the street. It feels, I think, a fraction of what it might for a longtime invalid to go for a first tentative walk after weeks or months of being housebound.
I wandered about for a while, appreciating any number of things - a used book store full of richness, a farmer's market heaped with unimaginable treasure - even as others tended, it must be admitted, to appal: the clothing, which seems quite purposely atrocious, as if people stood in front of their mirrors muttering appreciatively, "yes, indeed, that does make me look cheap, fat, and slovenly!"; the noise, unfettered and inescapable; and the sheer muchness of it all. It makes me realize how restful on the eyes the monotonous landscapes of the Sultanate (white villas, dusty hills, sea) must be.
I finally found a quiet, eccentric little café, recommended by the used-book store's bemused proprietor on the basis of being "reliable and not a chain, with a decent breakfast" and settled in. It was all that had been promised and more, with people hunched over their laptops taking advantage of free wifi, a little quiet Classical burbling in the background, and a very respectable plate of eggs and ham on offer, delivered by the waiter/cook/manager/man of all work, who looked to be Central Casting bohemian, lank black ponytail and large silver earring.
He later came to top up the coffee. "I'm so glad you're here," he confided, stopping, hand on hip with the coffee pot in the other. I suppose I looked surprised, a stout middle-aged party in boatshoes and buttondown, Trollope novel in hand, not being the demographic I would have thought this particular café was seeking. "Oh, you see," he said, "we've had a lot of negative energy in here this morning, and I can see you're not like that."
"You're positive energy," he added, looking thoughtful for a moment, before passing on. Well, thought I, I suppose, as a lone traveler far from home, that's something.
I wish I could report that with that good portent in hand I made something terribly useful and fulfilling of the rest of the day, but no. Instead, I returned to my hotel - an imposingly chic assemblage of what is described as "Early American-influenced minimalism" - and collapsed into one of those inadvised jetlag daytime sleeps. Now it's the middle of the night and I probably won't sleep 'til dawn. Knowing me, I shall endeavor to be positive even about that.
Just as, I'm sure, Ianthe Broome, Mildred Lathbury, or Miss Pym herself would do.