No matter how many foreign towns

September 13th, 2010 § 3 comments § permalink

I’ve been to on my own, the prospect of dinner alone the first night always intimidates me. My grasp of the language, if I do speak it, grows halting, my step on the threshold hesitant. I can’t decide if the eatery I’ve blundered into looks promising or if I’ve made a mistake: but really, it’s neither, just the fear of ordering and thereby confirming what must be obvious from my dress and demeanor: I’m a foreigner. It must be written on my face, the way nerd was when I loitered in the doorway at middle school dances, afraid to go in: into the dimness and the swaying and the crepe paper and the bored chaperones by the soft drinks. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.

You don’t want to be known—you want to pass as, be taken for—but you will be found out. My solution used to be the anonymity of fast food, served up by dead-eyed, indifferent cashiers, their curiosity extinguished by repetition and exhaustion. My first night in Edinburgh—my first time abroad, fourteen years ago—I wound up in a McDonald’s, sitting and stewing in a defeated embarrassment which, like the fear it had replaced, only I was aware of, even as I took comfort in the food’s familiarity.

Sunday night at six when I get in the hotel’s dead. I’m not sure why I expected some program coordinator to be on hand, or excited Fulbrighters to be chattering on lobby sofas. I’m the second-to-last to arrive—when the clerk hands me the information packet with my name on it, there’s only one more envelope waiting. I expected, I suppose, something like the first night of a conference: relaxed and informal introductions. Chill, not chilly. I expected us all to be on one floor and maybe one of the doors open, with someone spreading out their info packet on the bed, or some enterprising sort to be going around knocking, sticking a hand out, taking you aback with alpha extroversion. But there’s no bar and the breakfast-only restaurant is dark behind closed doors. After half an hour of strolling, and eyeing prices in the dimming evening, I walk into a warm Moroccan restaurant with many lanterns and low, plush red chairs. A few weeks earlier, a date to have tajine with a French friend had fallen through, and so now I give in to a deferred craving.

Where am I?

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