Eating Alone

In the last 2 weeks, about 4 times I had lunch in my office cafeteria. After a small health scare in early October (high HbA1c), I carry my own (self-made) lunch to office every day now (since I can’t reliably find low carb food around). On these days, I took my lunch to the cafeteria and ate along with colleagues, some of whom had brought there own lunches and others bought from the on-site caterer.

This, to me, however, is highly unusual behaviour. First of all, taking lunch to office is highly unusual – something that till recently I considered an “uncle thing to do”. Of course, now that I’m 40, doing “uncle things” is par for the course.

More importantly, eating lunch in the cafeteria is even more unusual behaviour for me. And in the last couple of days, most days I’ve sat there because a colleague who sits near me and brings lunch as well has called me on his way to the cafeteria.

A long time ago, an old friend had recommended to me this book called “never eat alone“. I remember reading it, but don’t remember anything of its contents (and its average goodreads rating of 3.8 suggests my opinion is not isolated). From what I remember, it was about networking and things like that.

However, as far as I am concerned, especially when it comes to lunch on a working day, I actually prefer to eat alone (whether it is at my desk or at a nearby restaurant). Maybe it is because my first “job” (it was actually an internship, but not my first ever internship) was in London, on a trading floor of an investment bank.

On trading floors, lunch at desk is the done thing. In fact, I remember being told off once or twice in my internship for taking too long a lunch break. “You can take your long break after trading hours. For lunch, though, you just go, grab and come and eat at the desk”, I had been told. And despite never again working in an environment like that (barring 4-5 weeks in New York in 2010-11), this habit has struck with me for life.

There are several reasons why I like to eat alone, either at a restaurant or at my desk. Most importantly, there is a time zone mismatch – on most days I either don’t eat breakfast, or would have gone to the gym in the morning. Either ways, by 12-1230, I’m famished and hungry. Most others in India eat lunch only beyond 1.

Then, there is the coordination problem. Yes, if everyone gets lunchboxes (or is okay to but at the cafeteria) and goes to the cafeteria, then it is fine. Else you simply can’t agree on where to go and some of you end up compromising. And a suboptimal lunch means highly suboptimal second half of the day.

Then, there is control over one’s time. Sometimes you can get stuck in long conversations, or hurry up because the other person has an impending meeting. In either case, you can’t enjoy your lunch.

Finally, when you have been having a hectic work day, you want to chill out and relax and do your own thing. It helps to just introspect, and be in control of your own mind and thoughts and distractions while you are eating, rather than losing control of your stimulations to someone else.

Of course it can work the other day as well – cafeteria lunches can mean the possibility of random catchups and gossip and “chit chat” (one reason I’ve done a few of those in the last few weeks), but in the balance, it’s good to have control over your own schedule.

So I don’t really get the point of why people think it’s a shame to eat alone, or thing something is wrong with you if you’re eating alone. I know of people who have foregone meals only because they couldn’t find anyone to go eat with. And I simply don’t understand any of this!

Where you get coffee and tea

An old cranky professor once joked that “cafeteria” should be pronounced as “coffee tea area”, since it was the area where you got coffee and tea. We had laughed back then, both at the poor joke, and at the poor professor who attempted the poor joke. He was out of his wits as usual, we had assumed.

After my recent trip to Spain, though, I realise that he was not actually joking. “-eria”/”-aria” is a Spanish suffix that indicates a place where the prefix is sold. So a place where they sell Cerveza (beer) is a Cerveceria. A place where they sell Bombon (chocolate) is a Bomboneria. I even saw a “Churreria”, where they sold Churros.

So what is a cafeteria? The Spanish word for coffee is “cafe”. The Spanish word for tea is “te” (pronounced thay or something of that sort). So what would you call a place where you get cafe and te?

Cafeteria, of course! The old cranky professor wasn’t so cranky, after all.