Saturday, September 10, 2011

My Dinner with Carol, Julie, Lyn and Hannah - or How a highly-paid attorney hijacked a pleasant evening

Four of the five of us have birthdays round about the same time, and over the last few years we have developed a lovely tradition of having dinner together some time in March, and also a couple of other times a year. We sometimes exchange tiny presents or drink a glass of champagne to celebrate a promotion, send someone on their travels or welcome someone home.

Last time we met we decided to plan a special event. Julie and I had both read a wonderful account of a vegetarian degustation menu at Jacques Reymond, a much-awarded restaurant, so we booked months in advance, and had this treat to look forward to.

We turned up on Thursday — the restaurant is in a beautiful and huge Victorian house, with high ceilings and perfect-sized rooms — and began our feast. Three of us went with the vegetarian menu; the other two went with the meat version. We began auspiciously with a light-as-air profiterole made with gruy√®re, and then began eight courses of perfectly balanced, delicate food. I am not a fan of over-fussy food, and at times this came close. There was rather a lot of foam, too, which doesn't thrill me at the best of times, though one serve of it, on one of the dishes, was absolutely divine. But I did really enjoy this meal. The service was excellent; the wine was good; and the vegetarian and meat courses somehow complemented each other perfectly, often just variations of each other. Here are a couple of photos: check out the truffle shavings over the egg-white omelette, and the gazpacho served in vegetable jelly rolls with buckwheat on top.



Conversation was going swimmingly: we laughed and chatted, and compared notes about our children, our work, our travels, our lives. Really, the food was amazing. We ate delicious things but didn't feel over-full, as the food was so light, with an emphasis on flavour and texture, rather than richness.

And then something happened that slowly began to unravel our happiness.

As we were waiting for the first of our two desserts, the waiter brought five small wine glasses to the table and starting to pour a late-picked riesling. Sometimes desserts do come with their own wine, but we asked, to make sure there had been no mistake. And we were told that two gentlemen sitting in the corner of the room had sent it over for us.

Well, what to do? None of us were really familiar with strangers buying us drinks in bars or restaurants before, so we were a little non-plussed. It was familiar to us only through the movies. In such a scene, what happens? You look around to the table and catch their eye and thank them. It was so clearly not a scene of seduction, so that didn't seem to be the issue. The waiter reported they had said it was a gentlemanly thing to do...

After what seemed a very long and uncomfortable time, but which was probably only a few minutes, I got up and went over to them. I certainly wasn't going to drink the wine without thanking them, and kind of wanted to close it all down. So I just said thank you very much, that they were very kind, and that we would enjoy the wine very much. I shook hands with them both, but didn't introduce myself, or ask why they had done it: I just wanted to close off the exchange.

But of course, that wasn't enough. One of the two men came over to our table later on and started to talk with us. There are a number of things I remember him saying: that he thought it was great that we were having dinner together; that he was gay; that he didn't eat sweets himself, and that he blamed his mother for that, because she had never let him eat sweets; that we should be doing something, as women, to support Julia Gillard; and that he was a highly-paid attorney. I guess he would be in his early forties.

This is where it really became difficult. We had drunk his wine, so couldn't be too rude, but Carol immediately picked him up on daring to give us his approval of eating without men at the table; and I said I thought it was really men who had the greater problem with Gillard, and who might have to work a bit harder.

On it went. And then off he went back to his table. But then he came over again, and said we had to give him six minutes before we paid our bill.

Now it was really getting awkward. Was it possible he was going to try and pay our bill? That would have been intolerable. So we didn't wait his six minutes, but finished our dessert, moved on to our tea and petits fours ...


... and then paid our bill, collected our coats, and left. As we were leaving, one of the waiters told Lyn the man was wanting to order another dessert for us, but that they had dissuaded him.

As we drove home (I'd driven straight from the airport, so had one glass of red, and just a taste of the reisling, so I drove us all back to the other side of the river, where such a thing would *never* happen!), we became angrier and angrier. It was a classic case of delayed reaction to sexual harassment, or in this case, the insidious attempt to patronise and disempower. Clearly the sight of five articulate women having dinner together is still an affront to some men. Blaming his mother, to a group of mothers in their fifties, was problematic enough, but it was so clearly a case of not knowing what to do with us, and not being able to leave us alone, either. So we could see what it was all about, and how foolish he was, but also how irritating it was that this "gentlemanly" behaviour was such a power play.

It's a tricky one, this one. Even the waiters struggled a little with how to manage us, and address us. I suppose the idea of the "ladies who lunch" sits behind this. We are supposed to giggle and flirt with the waiters, are we? and with the other guests? We weren't wearing suits and didn't look corporate enough to be forbidding? As we were leaving, the waiters presented us with tiny little white cardboard boxes which we weren't supposed to open till breakfast. So wicked, we didn't wait and in the car discovered there was one tiny rum ball in the box. Was this a token of restaurant apology for the unpleasantness? Was it the sense that a little more sugar would sweeten the evening?

I was exhausted by the time I got home. I'd been up early, gone to the hotel gym in Canberra and spent all day at a meeting, then flown back, and driven across the city before the dinner started. I was in bed by midnight, and in spite of my big meal, didn't feel I had over-eaten. And yet I barely slept, as the evening had kind of unravelled for me. The funniest thing, really, was his making sure we knew he was a "highly paid attorney" as it's a word that really isn't used in Australia. For us, it absolutely betrayed his own sense that he was acting out a scene from a movie.

Ridiculous. Irritating. Angry-making.

14 comments:

Mindy said...

What a horrible little man (in spirit if not in size). If you are able I would go back, as it sounds like the food was good, and reclaim your experience with your friends (maybe ask the waiters not to accept any wine or desserts on your behalf first? Just in case) and have the dinner you should have been able to have.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Thanks, Mindy. We would have to save up again, so not for a while! But I like the idea of salvaging through calm repetition of what L has just described to me in an email as the bitter after taste of the evening.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

I am still trying to work out what his motives might have been. The details don't add up to anything coherent.

One sad truth that occurred to me while I was reading this is that the restaurant is probably very unused to female diners who are there spending their own money without benefit of partner. Ladies who lunch are one thing, financially speaking; ladies who dine are quite another.

Do you remember the Adelaide lunch with Lyn and Sue M and me, when you were all here for ASAL in 2005? The one with your lovely mandarin dessert? The two blokes up on the next level were fascinated by us, but at least they had the good sense not to actually invade.

WV is ablex, which seems to be some sort of advice.

Nici said...

Oooh I love this story (not in a good way) but it's emblematic of so many things that are still so wrong. And it is like the scene of a movie - the start of a horror movie. Who in Australia calls him or herself a ''highly paid attorney''? It's so American and I've never heard any highly paid lawyers say it. Maybe he was a conman thinking he had a good set of targets. What a worm.

Stephanie Trigg said...

The more I think about his "motives" I agree they are confused. But I guess his desire was clear enough: to buy our attention with his wine, because we were so clearly demonstrating we had no need of any other company.

elsewhere said...

It sounds very surreal...a bit Talented Mr Ripley somehow.

I'm reminded one of the comments Sophie made in her Big Ideas talk about feminism, about how men are sometimes threatened by the sight of women talking together. At the end, the first person to ask a question was one of those badgery 60-ish men (probably from the Carlton Push days), who began by saying something about how perhaps women were threatened by the sight of men talking together. Then there was another question from one of those badgery 60-ish men...I couldn't believe it. I sat there thinking, what can I ask?, but fortunately other people including younger women asked questions. Afterwards, I heard more badgery 60-ish, Carlton-Push-type men behind me swapping notes behind me about Sophie's position and performance re: various feminist issues. Of course, everyone should be up for critique or whatever of their views and performance. But I'm just floored sometimes by the territorialism of men in response to women doing or saying anything...the very idea that should appoint themselves as arbiters of feminist viewpoints!

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Hijack is the right word. While his motives might be inscrutable, what was undeniably wrong is that he inserted himself into a story not his, breaking a community.

If "highly paid attorney" is an Americanism I must also now apologize on behalf of my nation for infecting Australians with that one.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

I think any man who can describe himself to a group of strangers as 'highly paid' has really serious social problems whether he's an attorney or a lawyer or a solicitor or a barrister or whatevs. What you had there was someone who doesn't know how to behave in any situation, with or without a gender agenda. I can't help wondering what relation the other man bore to the one you were having trouble with, and what that second man was thinking.

Dr. Virago said...

Wow, that's just weird and awful. What was his problem? What a jerk!

I blame the restaurant, too. A restaurant of such upscale cuisine and cost should be as much about the service as the food; a good meal is a total experience. Their allowing your meal experience to be interrupted and hijacked like that is *bad* service. They should have *asked* if you wished to accept the gift of a bottle of wine from the gentleman. That way, when you said no (politely, of course), none of the rest would have happened.

So I'm not sure you *should* save up and go back, but I do think you should speak or write to the manager and suggest they take up the practice of *asking* first whether women wish to have drinks purchased for them and tell them how your experience was made unpleasant by their not asking. Who knows -- maybe you'll get a meal on them in recompense. But even if you don't, they need to know this.

And I'm so sorry your experience was so soured since that meal really does sound and look fabulous. I'm actually a fan of modernist cuisine (including all the foams and bite-sized sous-vided cubes and so on) because of its emphasis on combinations of flavor and texture without heaviness. Often a modernist meal is packed with many multiples more flavor sensations than a traditionally cooked meal. So I hope you get another such meal soon, completely uninterrupted by jerks!

Meredith Jones said...

Dreadful. I think we've all been trapped in situations similar to this, although not quite so extreme perhaps. I've vowed that the next time it happens to me I'll say something like "I don't want to talk to you, leave me alone" as early as I can. My downfall, and I think many women's, is politeness.

Casey said...

Wow, what a tale.

"Was it the sense that a little more sugar would sweeten the evening? "

This story circles around the motif of sugar, I reckon. The sweet substance which functions as nurture through the first site of pleasure - the mouth. So it seems to me that this encounter was an attempt to instruct on how women should be the sugar, should give the sugar and how the sight of women eating sugar all by themselves drove a man to buy his way into a completed circle in order to point out the deficiencies of women. And where their sugars should go.

"We had drunk his wine, so couldn't be too rude"

The gift of wine was the pretty horse: All strange and innocent - yes a bit weird - outside the happy circle, until, as one does - not wanting to be rude, you accepted it in. That entry then also swept in the power of the dollar which trumps sugar any day or so this moneyed lawyer was at pains to inform you. In the guise of the gift, which is no gift, it bought him a space where he launched his complaint. Because it operates as a gift, one becomes somewhat muted in response. Why not? It is a gift and one is now in the foreign land where the unspoken rules have been violated. His money allowed him to throw away the rules of the gift and it became instead a financial exchange. You drink his wine (also sugar laden - generous) and he got to tell you where to put that sugar. The nature of his gripe is about the first woman who, having barred him from sugar has not nurtured him and thereby all women must be reminded to nurture (support Julia why doncha - we all know women don't like women or whatever).

"So wicked, we didn't wait and in the car discovered there was one tiny rum ball in the box. Was this a token of restaurant apology for the unpleasantness? "

And so this fable, and it is one, ends on yet more instructions regarding sugar. You are to wait until morning before you open yet another gift. What did you see when you ignored those instructions? More sugar. Sweet treacly sugar loaded with a world of sexism and stereotype and the ancient stink of pathalogical maternal revulsions.

What a story. It's all Freudian. Was his name little Hans btw?

Stephanie Trigg said...

Brilliant comments, all: thank you very much.

Casey, your analysis is spot on. And the most disturbing thing about it all is how insidious it was. It all looked perfectly grown-up and polite and civilised from the outside, I'm sure, whereas we were being all churned up inside. So Meredith is right, but we also know how hard it is to summon that presence of mind when it starts so modestly...

Dr Virago, your idea of writing to them is extremely clever. I am going to do that right now, and make your suggestion to them.

Again, thanks everyone: your comments are soothing the bitterness of "the sweetener".

This side of the river said...

It is possible the "gesture" was also about this person intimidating his friend, or a work colleague; a case of a double power play. His companion must have found him pathetic too.

The the restaurant's gift, a secret parcel, "don't open it until the morning", takes it to the level of a bizarre folk tale. What were they thinking!

Stephanie Trigg said...

Yes, indeed! The other man looked a tad embarrassed when I went over the first time, and played no active role in the story. It's possible, indeed, he was being played in that way, too.