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Blog: The loneliness of a busy restaurant

Sitting at the bar in a busy Mexican restaurant in Madrid, I realised just how lonely I was feeling.

Madrid is a great place to live and is a city full of people who enjoy eating out in the evenings. It can be difficult to get a table in a restaurant without making a booking, even on a weekday. This is how we came to be sitting at the bar. I had positioned myself so that my two friends were situated to the right of me – my ‘hearing’ side – so I had the best possibility of hearing them in this situation.

I don’t often go out during the evenings anymore, as I find restaurant noise difficult to be around, sometimes even painful. For three years I have been living with single-sided deafness and I am conscious of my hearing limitations. I knew that I was going to find it difficult to follow conversation amongst the background noise of music and people chatting. Still, I was feeling excited to be spending an evening in a nice restaurant with such a lively atmosphere and surrounded by the delicious rich aroma of Mexican food, which had enveloped us as we’d entered. We had ordered food to share, and it was going to be brought out to us slowly, one dish at a time. I was eager to start eating.

Both the restaurant and bar area were part of the same small space. As the customers consumed more food and drinks, the energy in the restaurant increased and people began to talk with exuberance; the noise levels steadily started to rise. I soon realised the extent of the communication difficulties I was going to have during this evening when, after speaking with me for a while, my friend next to me turned her body to face the other member of our group, during the course of conversation. I had been grasping at fragments of her words and sentences with determination, trying to make sense of them. I had been studying the shapes her lips were making to help give me some indication of what was being said. Now, looking at the side of her face and with no audible vocal clues, I was alone, and no longer part of the discussion.

I didn’t feel annoyed or even upset; I just felt resigned acceptance. Both members of the group were aware of my hearing difficulties. Of course, my friend was always going to need to turn her head away from me at some point. In fact, the conversation had started with her facing me. She was making sure both her companions were being addressed. But, this usually inclusive method of conversation had been complicated by my hearing loss, meaning that it was only possible for me to be involved in broken elements of the dialogue. If I had been with just one person, communication would have been much easier as I would have had the full advantage of always seeing my conversation partner’s face. Or, if we had been able to sit at a table, I could have sat opposite the third member of our group, enabling me to watch his reactions. I would have been able to study his facial expressions and follow the movement of his lips, and maybe, might even have caught some of the letter sounds and words he was saying.

In accepting my situation and realising my inability to successfully follow the conversation, my experience in the restaurant became one based on sights, smells and tastes. I concentrated on these senses which helped to divert my attention from the noise of raised voices. I noticed the decoration of the restaurant. I focused on the black circular dish behind the bar, full of rock salt, with a peak in the middle, specially designed for coating salt to the rim of a margarita glass. I became lost in my observations. I watched as the bartender meticulously prepared drinks with concentration and care, rubbing lime around the rim of the glass and dipping it elegantly into the salt, so as to form an even rim of crystals. I observed the way he mixed cocktails, vigorously shaking a cocktail shaker, and then bending down to examine each drink carefully before sending them to customers. I noticed the small group of people working in the kitchen at the end of the bar, milling around continuously, some wearing white chef hats. I turned around to look at the groups of people sitting at the tables; I observed them talk animatedly to each other. The atmosphere in this small space was intimate, yet lively. Peoples’ faces looked happy and relaxed. I focused on the taste of the food. I really tasted it, trying to figure out the main ingredients.

When you lose a sense or part of one, there is a theory that your other senses are heightened. I’m not sure if this is the case. What I have realised is that I appreciate the hearing I have left. And, I pay extra attention to my other senses, as I now rely more on these to interact with the world.

I was happy to be out having a meal in a fantastic restaurant. Following my hearing loss, it had originally taken time for me to get to a stage of dealing with noise sensitivity issues to even be able to enter a busy place like this. Yet, this experience, for me, wasn’t one centred around social interaction and conversation, as it seemed to be for the other diners. It was an evening of observation, of noticing delicious aromas of freshly prepared cuisine, and of moments really appreciating the taste of the dishes. I enjoyed the atmosphere and the food, yet without the ability to converse effectively, I felt like I had experienced a lot of it alone.

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