People watching or Girl talk (2 of x)
Now people watching: of course it's almost a basic human pleasure, sneeking in on people, watching others, especially unawares. I love watching people in public and making up stories for who they might be. On this particular day I knew the couple in question and had gone out to lunch with them so there was nothing sneeky or kinky in the watching, but enlightening it certainly was.
Let's call them May and Hamada. Hamada is a banker/financial consultant and May has a phd in a scientific field but hasn't worked after obtaining her degree and has been stay-at-home mom since having their second son. They're in their 40s (That's them...) All this is irrelevant really. So we go out to lunch on a weekend to a place which Hamada suggested. Being the modern man that he is he gave us three options, we ruled out Chinese and were left with steak or salad. So he chose the steak option, a newly opened restaurant to which he likes to go for lunch during the week. He was excited about the place and kept telling us about the idea behind it and how it started and so on.
Entrecote Cafe de Paris used to have an outlet in Cairo as well, in Mohandessin, right opposite Nadi El-Sayd where millenia ago there used to be a Wimpy. (Yup, that's how old I am: I actually know of a fast-food chain called Wimpy. But never mind that.) It reminds me of my mother's best-friend, the Lebanese one. She was the one who first told me about the restaurant. It was one of her favorites in Geneva. But she told me this story, which I always remember, about how they had to leave Beirut at one point during the war because it was getting too dangerous, their house had been attacked; some of the staff beaten and tortured and the place itself was burned down. The militia threw all the books off the shelves, into a big pile in the middle of the study, and set fire to them. Only a handful of volumes were salvaged. All the family albums were gone. They went to Europe. It sounds rather luxurious, I know, exile in France and Switzerland. But exile is exile. Her description of her state of mind and soul at the time didn't sound like anything to be jealous of. If I could scream in this letter, she wrote my mother, I would. If I could scream till I die, I would. So she and her husband and son went to Europe, broken and insecure. To cheer themselves up they went to Entrocote Cafe de Paris one Sunday. The maitre d' recognized them from the summer. He was a thoughtful man, apparently. After they paid the bill he did what the maitre d's don't do: he gave them a small box of the secret sauce to take home with them.
See that's the secret behind Entrocote, the secret recipe for the sauce that goes with the steak. That's all they do: entrecote, secret sauce, fries and salad. That's all they offer on their menu. (In Cairo they gave the option of having chicken breasts instead of Entrocote.) And desserts.
Hamada was excited about the place. He told us the story of the sauce and how the owners were originally wine sellers who made up the idea of serving steak and fries in order to sell their wines, to market them. (The website doesn' t mention the wine, but rather how a father and daughter restaurant owners came up with it.) All the pretty Eastern European waitresses smiled at Hamada and recognized him. The maitre d' did his bit as well. Hamada told us that he tried to get some of the sauce to take home once but they wouldn't acccept...
The ambience was pretty casual, mock Parisian, brass, plants, early century Parisian music playing, impressionist prints on the walls.
May was quiet, slowly digesting the place. When the burners arrived for the steak, she quickly made an issue of turning them off because of the smell. She was PMSing, I happen to know, so she might've been extra sensitive to the smell. In a while the meat had cooled down, so Hamada called the waitress to put the burner on, and almost as soon as she'd left they were off again. May hardly ate. We sat discussing the film she and I had watched the day before, Capote. At the end Hamada asked us how we liked the place. I was excited and smiling and saying it's nice and simple and at the back of my mind I was thinking that I should really write to my mom's friend. I like steak and cream sauce myself. May was quietly dismissive: "I don't really like it, the sauce is too heavy, it's too full of cream and butter. I could only have three bites. I like mustard sauce with steak. And this steak is very dry. It didn't feel medium but rather well well-done. I'm surprised you like it more than the fillet I get from M&S," she told her husband, "the one I served with pepper sauce." I don't like pepper sauce, he countered. "I associated steak with mustard," she said. "But this meat is very dry. And the fries are very heavy and greasy. The decor is very boring. But the salad is very good, I must say." What salad, he asked, it's just greens with dressing. "And I like the coat hanger," she added. It was indeed of an interesting shape, the coat hanger, because its wood curved from wall to ceiling and so could take extra coats that way. That's all she liked about the place, the coat rack. She too must've been following some popular psychology advice: don't just mention the negatives, also find something positive to say. Don't put your criticism in negative terms but in positive ones: so rather than saying "I hate this sauce" say "I prefer mustard sauce with steak" and "I prefer fillet to entrecote" and, of course "I like the salad and the coat rack" implying that you don't like everything else. Always formulate the sentence in the positivie.
Of course you might read this and wonder what's there to wonder about. A couple go to a restaurant, one of them likes it, the other doesn't. So what?
Yes, of course. But it just struck me the casual, quiet way in which May dismissed the restaurant. And how Hamada did not seem at all discouraged or snubbed or annoyed, having suggested a place he likes and all that. Probably, the next time they go out he will make more effort to choose a place she likes. He will be still trying to please her. And she expressed her opinion, about this and other matters, clearly without alienating or antagonizing him. That's the lesson.
The whole dynamics inadvertently reminded me of the first lunch I had with a friend who later became "more than just a friend." He took me to a small restaurant in Cairo which is usually not so full for lunch. They had just reopened after closing for a few days for having sprayed the place with insecticides. It smelt a bit of DDT and the like. We were the only customers. It was the first time we'd talked intimately, about our best friends, relationships and families and the like. I genuinely didn't mind the horrible insecticide smell; I thought the fish we had was the best fish ever, the tastiest, loveliest, best-cooked fish ever. And in my utter ignorance, actually said that, or something along those lines. The relationship took different, not all happy turns later, but he wasn't always trying to please me, perhaps because I was in fact so easy to please! We've gone separate ways now. And we've each learned a lesson or two. Mine is not to be unnecessarily critical, but to be sure of one's opinion, to be not afraid to voice it, to be confident of saying what one wants to say and what one believes, without unduly hurting others. I don't think I'll ever reach May's self-assurance though, simply because I recognize when people are making an effort and don't have the heart to snub them so obviously. I wonder if men can be persuaded to love a not-so-bitchy bitch, or do we have to go all the way?