“You’re so brave” a friend once said to me.
“Going to all those places, on your own”
I explained to her that most of the places I go to are pretty civilised – Canada’s hardly a war zone.
“Yes, but – how do you eat?”
“Bars, restaurants – “
“Yes, but – aren’t you worried that people will think you’ve been stood up?”
I’m not often lost for words, but this threw me completely. In all the years I’ve been travelling, it had never once occurred to me that anyone would think anything of the sort. Here I’ve been, going wherever I want, eating whatever I want, having fun – when apparently I should have been – what? Hiding behind a man? Staying in my hotel, ordering room service every night?
I enjoy eating alone. I can eat exactly what I want, without compromise. I can eat at a five star restaurant, or at a roadside burger van, depending on my inclination – or my budget. Going out for meals in a group can be so frustrating – I can’t manage three courses, so I often end up sitting there, bored, watching the others eat their starter – only to be stared at, hungrily, by calorie counters as I enjoy my dessert. Heck, if I want to order an ice cream sundae for breakfast, I will.
And I’d much rather eat alone, than be part of the couple I’m watching this evening.
I love people-watching in restaurants – much better than trying to have a conversation – you can guarantee that someone will ask you a question just as you’ve taken a big mouthful of something (not very ladylike, I know). Plus, my habit of accidentally making people laugh does not go well with lunch – I was in a diner once, and thought I’d have to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre on a friend, who laughed so much she nearly choked on her waffle.
But back to people-watching. This couple (they are a couple, though I was wasn’t sure initially, as she is older) are discussing plans for their engagement party. She is reading the menu aloud, and telling him which dishes he can’t have, because of his allergies – it’s sweet, I guess.
But then the waitress arrives, and the woman orders – and tells the waitress, in great detail, exactly what will happen to his digestive system if he eats the wrong things – sooo embarrassing.
I catch the man’s eye, and want to yell “You’re not married yet! There’s a fire escape over there – I’ll club her with the pepper mill, and you run, run while you still can!”
I don’t, of course. Maybe he’s happy – but of the two of us, I know who I’d rather be.
I’m in Cafe Chianti, in Halifax, Nova Scotia – one of my favourite restaurants. I haven’t managed to try everything on the menu yet but everything I have tasted so far is delicious. Today it’s lasagne – at first sight, I think the portion is small – but it’s so rich, so dense, I can hardly finish it.
I’m staying nearby at the Waverley Inn, a lovely old bed and breakfast. Several of the rooms are named after people who’ve stayed there in the past, including Thomas Fysche. He was a banker, whose mother-in-law was Anna Leonowens – and if that name sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen the musical The King and I. It was based on her book, The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), which is what I’m reading on this trip.
In 1862 Anna went to Siam with her young son to teach English language and literature to the royal children (sixty seven of them!), as well as some of the king’s many wives. She stayed for six years. If I’m brave eating alone in public, what does that make her?
It’s a fascinating account of what would have been an incredibly alien world to Victorian eyes. We take it for granted that we can travel to other countries and take photos to show people when we get home, but travel tales like this were once the only way most people would experience foreign cultures. And like most travel tales, it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt…
The book doesn’t really read like an autobiography, or a novel. It’s oddly structured (the chapter where she leaves Siam is not the last chapter) and each of the chapters is about one particular subject (art, religion, monarchy – Anna certainly had an eye for detail, particularly architecture). It’s almost like a series of lectures; Anna did lecture about her travels once she came to North America, so presumably the book was written later.
One thing that does grate a little (in common with other older books) is the assumption that being English automatically equals being superior. Also the language might not suit a modern audience, as it’s fairly heavy, with phrases in French and Latin It’s certainly unlikely source material for a musical.
Anna does seem to have an ambivalent attitude towards the king. She describes him as frugal and greedy, tyrannical and liberal, fickle and devoted. She doesn’t seem to be comfortable with the power of an absolute monarch – even though Queen Victoria was ruling almost a quarter of the world at that time.
King Mongkut had been a Buddhist monk for over twenty years before becoming king after the death of his half-brother. He studied science, theology and languages, so it seems a bit cheeky of Anna to criticise his English – I’m sure it was much better than her Siamese.
But if the king was really as capricious and prone to temper tantrums as she claims, and if Anna was as stubborn as she seems, then it might have been fun to watch some of their meetings…
Anna eventually lived with her daughter in Nova Scotia for several years. During that time she helped set up what would become the Nova Scotia College for Art and Design. The original building was later used as a morgue for the Titanic victims and is now a restaurant, but the current NSCAD building has a gallery named after Anna, so I check out an exhibition while I’m there.
That may not be her only legacy. Unlike most of South-east Asia, Siam was never colonised by the French or the British. Now called Thailand, it’s still a constitutional monarchy. The king wanted his country to be taken seriously, treated as civilised by the powers that might otherwise have taken it over. We’ll probably never know just how much Anna’s teaching (and her stories) contributed to how Siam was perceived – but I’m sure she made a difference.