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 gruyère, 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.