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ALONE AT THE TABLE

It was back in 2009. We were on vacation hiking in the Alps, and I was dropping Karen Odessa (henceforth “KO”) at the airport in Geneva. She was leaving a day before I did, there was a conference she didn’t want to miss – if memory serves – and so she changed her flights and I was dropping her off. I myself would fly back the next day from Zürich, as we’d planned.

I parked in the short-term lot and walked into the airport with her, to see her checked in and make sure that all was well. We said goodbye as she got to security. I have always struggled with goodbyes. It was no different this time, and made worse by the distance she’d be traveling, all the way back to America. She would call me when she landed; I’d be well into my evening by then.

The day was late-summer warm and hazy in the lowlands, but I decided to drive over the mountains to my station near Zürich, at Kusnacht along the lake a few miles from the city. The haze persisted – not a day for photography – but finally as I drove over the Susten Pass, which I think is the greatest mountain road in all the Alps, it relented a little at 7,000 feet. We’d driven that road together, KO and I, and I missed her acutely. She’d be over the Atlantic by now, as I regarded the glaciers.

I got to Kusnacht in the late afternoon, a little worn out from the drive, and checked in to my hotel. I was alone? they asked. I’d reserved a double; they could downgrade me at a lower price if I wished. But I declined; it would have been too wretched to occupy a little room by myself.

We’d had a dinner reservation at a sweet little place in Kusnacht down the road from the hotel, which was to have been our last-night-of-vacation celebration, at a Michelin 2-star called

(“Art-Tavern” for some reason), which isn’t there any more but a new 2-star has moved into the space in the meantime. I’d called ahead to say I’d be solo and would want to start early.

Dining alone is interesting. I always dread it but then once I’m doing it I don’t mind at all. It’s actually fun in its own way. You’re hyper-aware of everything in a way you cannot be when you’re “with” someone. I was tired from an early morning and a long drive, and I was almost alarmingly hungry for a day with no exercise. I walked an out-of-the-way loop to the place, just to feel the blood move. It was still warmish and hazy. An amateur of solitude would have been keenly pleased, but I was kind of down in the dumps. I felt her absence brutally.

They seated me. I looked around and was grateful; the lighting was perfect, like being inside a hazelnut, and the room was welcoming, lulling and calm. The walls were the color of potato skins. Yes I would have an aperitif. The house Champagne was a very good Legras, and I had a glass though I wasn’t in a Champagne “mood.” But much can be said for the consolation of a cold glass as you come inside from a warm day, feeling markedly (but not disagreeably) alone.

I let the sommelier suggest a Swiss Savignin for my white wine courses. Blessings! It had but 12.5% alcohol. It was nice and weedy, showing its Traminer parentage but with a tangy cut that feinted toward Sauvignon Blanc. I’d be glad to be kept company by such a wine.

The somm knew her stuff; she had Dönnhoff on her list, along with Leitz, Hirsch, Müller-Catoir and Bründlmayer. I was either the first or second to have arrived, so we schmoozed a little and I told her I knew those growers and was happy to see them. We had accord.

The first amuse arrived; they ran from precise (and packing some heat) to richer as they sequenced, finishing with a superb foie gras. Amuse foie is ideal; I'm reminded how good it is but it isn't more than I want to eat.

The first course was actually the best course of the entire trip. You’re missing it KO! A timbale of tepid, almost raw veggies on a perfect sweet-pea gelée with sesame-and-honey-lacquered quail, and the quail egg encased in a gorgeous subtle aspic. It's Trotters-good. KO and I had come here before but never had a dish like this one. I didn’t want to be alone but if I had to be alone then I wanted to be eating this lucid beautiful thing.

I looked at other peoples’ plates as they went by. All the food coming out was lyric and head-turning - "Why didn't I order THAT?" I gave a passing thought to changing my own flight back just so I could come here again – but they’d be closed tomorrow. Lucky for me and my burgeoning waistline. The Savignin gets a little arch. The food isn't right for it, but the wine too is kind of mingy. But I'm only charged for what I drank, not for the whole bottle, a nice touch. Besides, an absent lover is a bigger tragedy than a disappointing bottle.

I looked around more while I waited for my next plate. The wall art is all "cool," and lightens the room. My table has eight individual flowers, each in its own thimble, including four roses. Here comes food; my loup de mer is beautiful, every flavor precise and breathing. Even the "starred" flourish that's often merely a flourish is delicious and sensible. It's the difference between craft in service of the "experience" versus craft in service of the actual food. Not that I mind craft-as-experience, but silly melancholy me wasn’t in the mood for theater this evening. My food was so perfect it almost felt affectionate.

Time for red wine. Burgundy: a 2001 Beaune Bastion from Chanson. Pure griotte. Drinking lovely. The somm suggested it, and smartly; the wine is complex, sweet and wry. I was wary of the vintage but the wine was just what I needed. I glanced at my watch; KO would be landing any time now if she’s on time, and she’d call. (I wasn’t texting back then, I know, don’t yell at me…) My “main” arrived, a veal prep that was extremely tasty but a little like a red wine served too warm (which mine was) - it needed treble. The roasted red peppers were stunning but also too sweet. The sweetbread schnitzel ROCKED. I had the wine iced for two minutes, and I’m sure they giggled at me behind the curtain - the equivalent would have been welcome in the

food. It was a November dish on a warm September evening. But I'd eagerly return here to graze on starters and fish.

The Burgundy gets better and better. I’m drinking it too fast. Why doesn’t she call? My dessert presentation is fabulous without being precious. The dish itself is an artful blob of mara de bois, kefir and passion fruit, faultless but unexciting. The mignardise are very sexy. I’m a little tipsy. At the next table a geeky guy gives a major necklace to a not completely convinced looking lady who is maybe just undemonstrative. But they don't look right. She makes love like a baker, he makes love like a banker. It won’t work, necklace or not.

My call comes in. It’s 9:30 and winding down. I like this moment in restaurants, the diminuendo toward the end. I'll be sad to leave this space.


Finally I’m back out into the cooling early Autumn night. There’s a path that leads directly back to my hotel, which I will take. It’s been a long-feeling day; up early for the drive to the airport, the infinite pathos of parting (I chuckle slightly at “infinite pathos”), the long drive up and down over the Swiss Alps, to arrive at this little bedroom community of Zürich, along its cool lake. When the pathside buildings part I can see the lakeshore and the faraway lights on the other side. The gravel crumbles beneath my footsteps. No birds, just the occasional shoosh of some traffic going by over the way on the road.

I pass a lovely villa in the near distance behind a dark lawn. I slow down to admire it. The lights are on inside, and now and again a shape glides in a window against the warm inviting yellow; it’s the kind of scene that gives you a universe of dreams, of rich unknowable lives floating spectrally through rooms the color of mangoes. What is this place, I wonder? There’s a little gold plaque at an entrance gate; I can just make it out in the gloam. Oh! It’s the Carl Jung clinic. Of course, Kusnacht, how could I forget?

Now I am suddenly sober and my senses are churning. I think of Jung in his upstairs study, writing by an open window and hearing the lake water slap against the pebbly shoreline, or pausing one night – he’d enjoy writing at night – to look out over the black water at the tiny lights across the void. I hear the yapping of a restive duck and it makes me laugh. I can’t stand here forever.

I resume my distracted shuffle back to my bed. I feel like the smallest dot the world has ever seen. My wife is a remote little satellite somewhere in space. Human shapes are gliding in the house of dreams. It is hard to understand anything. The lights of my hotel appear around a corner a few minutes in front of me, and I will walk in and say Guten Abend to the people behind the reception desk, and I will unlock the door to my room, and eventually do my evening ablutions, and then climb into bed below the comforter, and the day was full of waking up and being at an airport and saying a pitiable goodbye and driving over mountains and glaciers and forests and coming to a lake and being alone and eating a delicious dinner and now at last I turn off my bedside light, and there I am in the bewildering darkness.

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