Bajo La Luna Llena: Solo in Madrid
I have never dined alone at a restaurant. That is, until yesterday. I realize this as I hold up my index finger to the questioning camarero, indicating the universal signal for “just one, please.” I rack my brain as I settle into my two-chaired table and he whisks away the second place setting, thinking that surely I am mistaken and forgetting a solo meal somewhere. But no, I finally conclude, I’ve never gone out to eat by myself.
Though unaccustomed to the solo dining experience, I feel right at home in the cozy cafe. It’s a seven-table spot tucked away on a side street in Chueca, Madrid’s gay neighborhood and one of my favorite areas in the city. Flowers adorn the walls, rainbow flags flutter on the balconies across the street, and vegan-only dishes beckon from the menu. The lone camarero wears head-to-toe black accented by a septum ring and gauges in his ears, his edginess softened by a ready smile and kind eyes peeking out from beneath his punk undercut. Many of the vegan places I looked up on my Happy Cow app bore the word “anarchist” in their descriptions, making me wonder if Madrid’s vegan scene is more radical than the one I found in DC (I hope so).
I order a glass of red wine (I offer a silent thank you to Spain’s cheap tinto) and vegan croquetas, because I’d been craving them and can’t imagine finding a vegan version of the dish anywhere else. I dig out my journal and write through the meal, trying to savor the excellent food and drink despite my unease with the newness of the experience. I notice that I am not the only one dining alone; two men each sit at their own tables, absorbed in their food and their phones. Many of the solo travel guides I’ve read - I’ve spent a lot of time trying to prepare for this - suggest striking up a conversation with your waiter, but since the camarero is solo too and busy behind the bar, I am alone with my thoughts. I scrawl them onto paper, offering my impressions to my diary the way one places them before a new lover: vulnerable, unsteady, searching.
I’d gone on a bicycle tour earlier in the day to play tourist in the city I used to call home, and because I was terrified to try biking Madrid’s crowded streets without a local guide. The website firmly endorses safety equipment, but our small group takes off helmet-free as Nico, our guide, cheerfully informs us that Madrid isn’t Amsterdam and drivers here will squash us if we’re not careful. We zip through throngs of Spanish tourists. It’s the low season, which means few international visitors are here, but many Spaniards come to Madrid for Christmas shopping and holiday lights. I have to work to avoid hordes of very small dogs and very large strollers.
In between stops on the tour, Nico and I chat about neighborhoods in Madrid, switching easily between Spanish and English depending on whether the American couple on the tour with us is paying attention to our conversation. He shakes his head at the scores of Spanish flags that have appeared here since the issue of Catalan independence exploded last autumn. He tells me proudly that he put up a plain white flag on the balcony of his Lavapiés apartment to signal that he’s sick of the squabbling. Many other Spaniards I’ve talked to about Cataluña have echoed his sentiment, and he says his neighbors have started putting up their own flags - a pirate flag, a flag from an African country, a sock flying in the breeze - to join his anti-nationalist protest.
Later, I think about Nico as I eat my croquetas. His sense of humor and leftist opinions made me want to attempt a friendship, but I was too shy to ask him for a casual drink. I know a handful of madrileños but want to know more, always. Maybe I’ll be braver next time.
After a break at home to watch The Bachelor via my sketchily procured VPN change, I decide to take myself out on a date. This is the last week of the holiday lights in Madrid. The Spanish exchange gifts on January 6, el Día de los Reyes Magos, or the Day of the Three Wise Men. The lights are extraordinarily beautiful and illuminate each neighborhood distinctly. I take the bus to the Puerta de Alcalá, my favorite monument in Madrid, and meander from there. I buy myself a lipstick I tried on earlier in the day, in no small part because the shade is called “Single.” The nude color looks good on me: bless you, Rihanna. It stays on as I munch through churros con chocolate for dinner, standing at the bar in Spain’s most famous chocolatería. The exasperated woman at the register assures me there’s no milk in the dipping chocolate when I ask her about dairy in three different ways, but after the second churro I swear I can taste it. Maybe I’m wrong, or maybe she couldn’t be bothered with my typically American dietary limitations. I shrug. The cup is already in front of me, and I’m already eating. No use throwing it out. (Cue militant vegans shouting at me in the comments - I believe that if the damage is done, tossing food on principle isn’t always the best idea.)
As I wander through the streets, drawn to bustling bars like a moth to a flame, I think to myself that I’m good at planning dates. Ordinarily I might have organized a date just like this one - beautiful sights, dessert-for-dinner, a romantic city walk - with a boyfriend, partner, or lover. Instead, I’m enjoying it alone. I feel strange. I’m by no means having a bad time, but seeing groups of friends clutch each others’ arms laughing and couples kiss on street corners makes me wistful. I don’t feel the empowering sense of freedom that I catch from time to time, nor an overwhelming sadness. I feel a sort of melancholy contentment. It’s a feeling that seems to mean that I am sad and lonely sometimes, but that I’m also where I need to be.
The lights are so bright that I almost miss the full moon shining behind them. La luna llena, I murmur, which is one of the loveliest combinations of syllables I’ve ever heard. Bajo la luna llena. Under the full moon. The moon doesn’t electrify the night, at least not now. She is simply there, alone, glowing quietly, changing imperceptibly before everyone below. And isn’t that enough?