I HAVE had to spend some time dining alone recently.
This is not of a consequence of anything I have done. I have exemplary table manners. I wouldn’t even know how to burp the alphabet, and anybody who suggests otherwise had better have video evidence or I’ll see you in court.
It is just that I have had to work in a couple of strange cities and have wandered out alone into the night searching for restaurants, which is as close as I get to having an adventure these days, apart from getting a hand car wash.
On my last trip, I went to a high-end pie and mash place on my first night. It was an unnecessarily complex affair. I had to choose the variety of pie, mash (“Mash? Just “mash” mash, please. You know, mash”), peas, and liquor. By liquor, they meant “gravy”. God knows what Cockneys actually drink.
It was all right. I was pleased with my mushy peas, which were really mushy, and not like the mushy peas they have in chip shops these days, which are less “mushy” and more “slightly distressed”.
On the second night I chose a Pizza Express, and that all went reasonably well at first. I was provided with a wheel cutter, in case I wanted to eat my pizza like a barbarian.
I had a go across the diameter just for the hell of it, but, as usual with wheel cutters, as soon as I reached the crust, it lost all its effectiveness, and I had to saw back and forth for a couple of minutes until I finally broke through, all the time fearing that I would smash my plate with the pressure I had to exert.
Still, after I had reverted to my knife-and-fork comfort blanket, I enjoyed my pizza, and when the waitress asked me if my meal was all right, I replied with a big smile and an actual thumbs-up gesture, like a person from the 1970s.
Obviously, I couldn’t go back there again after that – nobody could – and so on my third and final night away, I found myself standing outside a Chinese restaurant.
I am not sure what I was thinking. Possibly if one feels like a stranger in a city, one might as well embrace it. I am rarely taken for somebody of Chinese extraction. I don’t recall the last time somebody said, “Oi, you there, the six-footer with the green eyes and slightly ginger-tinged sideburns, what’s the Cantonese for ‘lazy racial and cultural stereotype’?”
I walked in and was hurriedly ushered to a small, out-of-the-way table, possibly for my own good. For, apart from a single table of Western-looking types, the restaurant was filled with Chinese people. A single, Western diner, I would have looked less conspicuous dressed as Wonder Woman.
Still, this was promising. I have always been taught that if Chinese people eat in a Chinese restaurant, it must be a decent establishment. I’m not sure why this is the case. Restaurants in Hong Kong are jam-packed with Chinese people and they can’t all be good.
Then I looked down at my table. In front of me were a spoon and two chopsticks. And no knife or fork. This was no good. I had never eaten with chopsticks before. I am not James Bond.
Panicking, I looked across at the Westerners. Surely they had knives and forks? No! They were using chopsticks, the turncoat swines.
I’m sure I could have asked the waitress for a knife and fork – they probably keep some for emergency idiots – but I made a decision. I was going to try chopsticks.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to pick up a steamed dumpling with chopsticks, but it’s like trying to pick up jelly with a safety pin.
But I persevered. And eventually, if painfully, I was picking up actual rice with actual chopsticks, and getting a significant amount in my mouth. It felt like a great achievement. But nobody noticed. I wanted to shout out,
“Look, I am doing this thing that all of you have been able to do since you were about 18 months old,” but I would have looked silly.
Sighing, I picked up my rice bowl. There were some soupy grains in the bottom and I used my spoon to scoop them out.
And the waitress saw me do that single thing. As far as she knew, I had eaten my entire meal with my spoon. She gave me a small, understanding smile.
I smiled back weakly, defeated, and, without thinking, gave her a thumbs-up.
So I can’t go back there again, either.