My sister loves to cook curry. Japanese style, the way an old lady cooked it for her when she visited Japan for the first time, last year. ‘This stuff is delicious, you must try it,’ she told me. My sister would make the sauce and my mum would fry chicken breast, so we could have chicken katsu curry: sticky white rice, crispy chicken and the thick sauce on top. They prepared it for me the day before I moved to England to start a new job and we ate it together, sitting on the sofa, watching an episode of my mum’s favorite crime TV series.
The following day, at Rome’s international airport, my dad hugged me and told me to enjoy the new adventure. Was it really worth it? Leaving my home country, and my parents? I was aware that they were growing older without me, and that my younger sister was growing up faster than I ever thought. I was conscious that I was following my own path and that it was taking me away from them. At the airport, I hugged my dad and kissed his shaved cheeks. He waved at me while I stood in line for the security check, and I knew he wouldn’t leave until he didn’t see me getting through.
When I got to the gate area, I could smell freshly prepared croissants, and stuffed bagels; focaccias and sandwiches were nicely arranged behind the counters of the many restaurants and coffee shops. I could have eaten a bowl of traditionally cooked pasta, or a slice of my favorite pizza, before boarding. I had half an hour to kill, but I didn’t even look at the menus. I knew that I would never sit and eat alone in a restaurant, not even in a busy airport terminal. Instead, I ordered a cappuccino to take away and sat in front of one of the departures screens, waiting for my plane.
I grew up in a busy household. My parents are doctors, and while I was growing up they were frequently away on business trips, but my sister and I were never unsupervised, because my dad’s father, Nonno Roberto, lived with us. We wouldn’t see much of him during the day; he spent his days working in the garden, listening to the radio, building wooden objects that he would then give away as Christmas presents, and occasionally reading books that he would then confess to find quite boring. When my sister and I came back from school, we always knocked on his door to say hi, we are back, how are you? Good? See you later then.
Nonno Roberto might have looked very stern on the outside, and some members of our family couldn’t really stand his temper, but he was different with my sister and me. He was caring and gentle, laughed a lot at his own jokes, and insisted to read my history essays, and correct my math’s exercises. Even when I went to uni, he would always help me revise the day before an exam.
We always ate dinner with him – that was an important family moment for all of us. He asked my sister and I how school was and if we’d finished our homework. He talked about his day, about what he saw on the news and the people he met during his daily walk to the newsagent. He hated sweetcorn and would never eat it when my mum served it for dinner; he said it felt like he was ‘robbing chickens of their food.’
If he realized I was upset or sad during dinner, and didn’t eat my share of food, he would always ask what was wrong. I never felt there was something I couldn’t talk to him about.
On my eighteenth birthday, when it was time to blow the candles on my cake, he stood next to me and we locked arms, and took a picture together. A line by an Italian poet I studied at school perfectly described what I felt when he died two years later: “I descended, with you on my arm, at least a million stairs, and now that you are not here, every step is emptiness.”
On Sundays, we would always go out for lunch. My grandad would choose the restaurant and call to book a table for five. He would eat potatoes from my sister’s plate, because he wasn’t allowed to order a whole portion for himself, due to his diabetes.
For a very long time after I moved away from the house where I lived with Nonno Roberto, my younger sister and my parents, sitting at a table for dinner or lunch remained for me a moment to be shared with loved ones. A moment I couldn’t stand spending alone.
Summer was just about to come to an end, when I sat for the first time alone at a restaurant table in Soho, London.
My boyfriend was meant to meet me for dinner. Stuck in a meeting for another hour, do you mind going ahead? He texted me. I was in the tube and almost missed my stop when I read the message.
It’s ok, I texted back, even though it wasn’t ok at all. I am going home, see you there, I wrote. The tube was just pulling in at Piccadilly Circus. I deleted the text without sending it and got off.
My initial thought had been to wander around Soho until he could meet me, but I knew that could take hours, and I was hungry after a full day at work.
I ignored the gurgling in my stomach and decided to head to Carnaby, where I knew I could walk around for a bit, looking at shop windows, enjoying the last rays of London’s summery sunset. On Carnaby Street, I walked all the way down, from Garton Street to Beak Street, and then turned left.
On my left again, I found a shop selling beautiful vintage glasses; at the end of the road, an expensive-looking sushi restaurant was opening its doors to the first visitors of the evening. I followed the road without a clear destination in mind. The bars were filling up, and young people were drinking cold beers, sitting on plastic chairs outside the busy pubs. I turned right on Dean Street and on the corner, a traditional Japanese restaurant caught my eye.
I had lived alone, away from my family, for nearly three years, and I had never eaten alone in a restaurant. It was easier to eat something by myself in the silence of my own kitchen. If I wanted, I could turn on my computer and watch Netflix, or call my best friend on FaceTime.
At a restaurant, it was different. I was so used to going to a restaurant with my family that I couldn’t see myself doing it alone. There was no point eating something delicious if I couldn’t share it, if I couldn’t share a conversation or a laugh with the people dining next to me. I found dinner and lunch quite difficult when I had to spend time alone: I kept thinking about my family and how far they were from me. I kept thinking: who would I talk to, while waiting for my meal to arrive? Would people think I’m lonely because I’m sitting at a table for one?
I checked the menu of the traditional Japanese restaurant, and before I could change my mind, I stepped inside. Table for one? Asked the waitress, and I nodded. I sat at the counter, in front of a window, right on vibrant Dean Street and ordered my food. I took my copy of An American Marriage out of my bag, I laid it flat on the table and started reading. From time to time, I glanced up and I noticed that there was a boy, about my age, who was eating his ramen, alone. And he didn’t look miserable at all. Did people actually enjoy going to restaurants by themselves? I thought. Maybe.
At the back of the restaurant, a woman in her forties was looking at the menu in front of her, sipping a colorful cocktail, she was sitting alone too.
By the time my food arrived, I was comfortable in my seat and I was enjoying watching people walking by, my book now closed at one end of the table. I finished my chicken katsu curry, and I stayed at the table long enough to enjoy the feeling of doing something for the first time. I am not alone, I thought. I am just far from the people I love.
Born and raised in Rome, Italy, Anna Colivicchi is a journalist and writer based in Lancashire. A graduate of the University of Warwick’s Writing Programme, she writes about politics, art, food and gender issues. You can follow her on Twitter @AnnaColivicchi
Anna’s essay As Elegant as a Violin was published here on NITRB in 2018. She’s also reviewed serveral works of fiction for us, including Julian Barnes’ The Only Story and Slack-Tide by Elanor Dymott.