The Loneliness of a Busy Restaurant

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.

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 focussed 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.

This article was recently published by Hearing link.

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The First Time… Part 2: Being Brave and Feeling Proud

When I first experienced my hearing loss, I couldn’t contemplate doing normal things such as going to a bar; which is a big part of the culture of Spain, where I live. I remember walking around the city, watching people spilling out of bars chatting sociably, and wondering if I would ever be able to feel comfortable again in this kind of animated environment; alive with noise. Then one day my best friend invited me to go to a bar where she was exhibiting some of her photos. I didn’t want to say no. I didn’t want to let her down. I wanted to see her, and her photos. So, the first time I went to a bar, with unilateral hearing, was to see my friend’s exhibition. Of course, it was going to be noisy, and I was mentally prepared for this. When we arrived, I immediately submerged myself in the sounds of vibrant conversation.  I managed to communicate with everyone and listened to them by tilting my head and making sure my good ear was facing them. Although it was exhausting and my tinnitus was ringing aggressively, I was really proud of myself for confronting such a challenging situation.

The first time I went, with unilateral hearing, for a haircut, I was so nervous. I knew the salon would be noisy and I knew the hairdresser would want to chat with me. I didn’t want her to think I was being rude if I failed to respond to her during the conversation. So when I was sat on the chair explaining to her what I’d like to have done with my hair, I also told her that I was deaf in my left ear. She barely had a response, apart from saying “OK” and giving me a smile.  As she was cutting my hair she sometimes spoke to me on my deaf side. When she was blow-drying my hair, it was impossible for me to hear her, and she continued chatting happily. I could see her mouth moving in the mirror, but didn’t know how to answer her. Yet she didn’t seem to be phased. I guess hairdressers see so many different people every day, with so many issues, and learn to take it in their stride.

I love eating out in restaurants; in fact, it’s one of my favourite things. If I go to eat in a restaurant however, there are only a few tables that are accommodating to my needs. The best table for me is one that is in a corner, with a chair situated in a position that will allow my deaf ear to face a wall, and my good ear to face the direction of any possible conversation. The worst positions are: at a table in the middle of a room; sitting with my back to where the waiter will approach; and anywhere where my deaf ear is directed towards the waiter – This will result in me jumping up in my chair in surprise as I turn to unwittingly see a waiter standing next to me, who I hadn’t sensed was there.  The first time I went for a meal in a restaurant, with my unilateral hearing, was when my boyfriend’s sister came to visit. We went to a Thai restaurant on a weekday, and earlier than the average Spanish person eats. The restaurant was almost empty and I managed to get a good position at a table. Although there was very little noise from people talking, I found the Thai music that was being played, a distraction. My good ear struggled to filter out the music and it was difficult to focus on conversation. It was quite a difficult experience, in terms of my hearing-related problems and communicating. But I was really proud of myself for going, and it was worth the struggle, to have the experience of eating Thai food in a restaurant.

Every time I did something for the first time, I gained a bit of confidence. Things weren’t easy and often weren’t pleasant, but every day I was trying to do something ‘normal’. I was positive I would be able to enjoy things again. I just needed to familiarize my body with the new experiences and learn strategies to deal with any new issues. My life was still going to be full of experiences; it was just going to be a bit different.

 

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