One of the challenges of traveling solo is eating alone. Me, I’m fine about it. Find table back to the wall and a good view. Order food, look around, eat food. If bored, turn on kindle, read. It’s others that have the problem. So I am careful. I look fierce. Only a damn fool would event think to engage.
On my last night in Nabeul Plage I walked along to a seaside restaurant I’d noticed earlier – always packed. OK, it’s packed with men. That’s because they serve alcohol. But the men are also eating, and the tables are littered with fish bones. A good sign. Deep breath, stroll in, sit at table. Check out menu: order grilled calamari and a glass of wine. Am persuaded by the waiter that a half bottle is much better than a glass (as in 2.5 times better to be precise). Why to argue with the waiter? Plus that gets me upgraded to snacks: big fat broad beans encrusted with crunchy grains of salt, tiny olives like rabbit poop. But much tastier. Relax. Munch. Sip light and flowery muscat wine. Feeling good about self. Look around. Mistake.
Suddenly, a dish of fresh almonds arrives. The waiter indicates that this is a gift from a guy also eating alone. He looks harmless. I raise my glass to say ‘Thank you’; he raises his glass to say ‘Welcome’. He raises hand to say ‘Join me’ and I think ‘What the heck? Why not?’ (complicated hand gesture). I gather my beans, wine, olives and almonds and move across, expecting light conversation, some shared travelers’ tales.
Ah. Not so easy.. He’s Italian. He no speaka English. Or indeed French. And no Arabic either. In fact no other language. ‘Senora dina sola – no possiblay’. It was a strange evening. I think I understood that he is a pilot. Here for 3 days to test a small plane. Birds in engine.. engine replaced… test engine. What kind of plane? (‘que tipo avianay?‘ See how easy it is? ) ? VIPER , he replies.. which sounds convincing name for a smooth ride: ‘Ah, VIPER, like a snake? (como serpente)’ I reply to check common understanding. ‘No! VIPA – verrry imporrttantte personna. Haha. Then I realize it’s the way Italians say VIP. It’s a small plane for very important people.
We then move on to chat about English for Flying, since that’s the area where we have (apparently you would think) some shared vocabulary. He rattles off examples of communication with control tower. The only one I recognize through his thick Roman accent is : ‘I flying 500 feet’. Imperial measures. Imperialist language. America rules the airwaves. No wonder so many bloody pilots crash. He goes on to describe how they say: flight path choo choo for choo’ .. which I take to mean he’s spotted the train line and using it to navigate.. .but apparently it was ‘two two four two’ This described the degrees off the axis of arrival against the crossed threads to guide them in to land. Or something completely different. He demonstrates on the table cloth with knives and forks and spoons to show me how the pepper pot is about to land. .. My wine glass somehow tumbles.. thank god it wasn’t red wine, or this would have been full scale crash. I take this as a warning I have had too much to drink. I smile and look interested.
He’s harmless maybe, but still Italian. Encouraged by my dumb blonde giggles he’s offered to fly me from Enfidha to Tunis in the VIPA plane.. He’s invited me to Roma. … He wants my contact details.. Time to go. He insists on settling the bill. (why do men feel obliged, in this day and age, to play the chivalrous gentleman?) We are talking £6 – so it’s not that grand a gesture. He pays, we leave. Mindful of the need to protect my reputation, I make my goodbyes on the steps of the restaurant: Grazie and Arrivaderci. He turns left, me right. I stumble through hotel gates, up to my room and zzzzzzzzzzz into deep sleep. My dreams peppered with fighter pilots, navigation errors, flocks of kamikaze birds attacking VIPAS, feathers spitting, engines stalling. I woke at three with a fuzzy head and drank a litre of water.
In later months, this restaurant became my favorite, but I made a deal with the waiters not to accept strange gifts on my behalf. I’m fine dining alone.