By Jacques Tocatlian.
London With Spaghettini.
Around The World In Eighty Missions.
I remember when I got off the plane I found Heathrow airport crowded. The sky was blue, but everyone had an umbrella. I guess, in England you just do not trust the weather forecast.
As I was finding my way to the exit, I heard a beautiful baritone voice calling across the airport loudly enough to wake the dead: “Signor Dupont. Signor Dupont.” I immediately recognized the chubby silhouette of Dottore Giovanni Spaghettini.
Always joyful and lively, when Spaghettini represented Italy in an international meeting, you could rest assured that it would never lack luster or sink into dullness. Giovanni Spaghettini was colorful, imaginative and unconventional. He always seemed to be performing on stage in front of a wide audience, even in a confidential, tÍte-‡-tÍte conversation. His repertoire leaned more towards the Allegro, vivace, fortissimo… con agitazione . When the subject was serious or sad he would dramatically change his facial expression to convey the proper concern or emotion. You almost expected to hear a Puccini aria in the background.
After the usual warm greetings, he asked to be accompanied to the airport bank in order to exchange money. Spaghettini was a well-traveled man and this was not his first visit to London. Nevertheless, he said that he had never fully understood the local monetary system.
At the bank counter he soon became entangled with pounds, shillings, and pennies. He was wondering whether half a crown was still in use. He said with a smile, “Two shillings and sixpence used to make half a crown, but a crown no longer exists. Strange isn’t it?”
I kept saying, “Giovanni, the line behind us is getting longer and longer.”
“Don’t’ you worry,” he replied “In England queuing up is a national pastime.”
With Heathrow being far from the center of London, taxis being expensive, and Spaghettini in the mood for experiencing the English way of life again, we decided to go the cheap way – that is, by bus and subway. Spaghettini decided he wanted to understand the rationale behind British town planning. He had read somewhere that an attempt to introduce parallel streets in England was made after all towns had been completely built.
So, there we were, trying to solve the elaborate quiz of London. In the process I lost him on the Bakerloo underground line at Piccadilly Station, but found him again, squeezed between two orange-haired punks, at Oxford Circus. The next time the subway door opened, we were ejected with our luggage together with a few superfluous passengers.
In the streets of London we twisted and turned around until we found Bond Street. We were surprised that motorists in London, unlike the Roman and Parisian kinds, yielded at pedestrian crossings. “Sono dei gentlemen !” Giovanni kept saying.
I observed, “Giovanni, you seem to like it over here.”
That was a mistake. He stopped in the middle of Bond Street, put down his luggage and began his analysis of the British. “I like them because they have a deep sense of fairness and spare other people’s feelings. They are basically very decent people. Very polite. They do not like to cause any trouble in public. I also admire their eccentricity. You know, Jacques, they prefer quality of life to wealth. A form of snobbery, I presume. To Latins, it may seem strange that they camouflage their feelings. We may think it is hypocrisy, but it is not. It is the way they are taught to behave by their nannies.”
As soon as I could say a word I suggested that we proceed towards the hotel because we were blocking the traffic with our luggage. We moved fifteen yards and he stopped again and put down his luggage. Spaghettini needed his hands to fully express himself. ” You know, Jacques, what I like here is the sense of democracy and the media. Fantastic ! The power of the media on British life is outstanding. Newspaper circulation is so much larger here than in any other country. And the BBC is the most objective of all televisions. Don’t you think?”
I nodded, picked up my luggage and started walking again. Spaghettini followed and continued to talk, but obviously with both hands busily carrying the luggage he could not gesticulate. Nevertheless, he kept explaining that he did not care for the rigid class system, the well-known British ethnocentricity and a certain arrogance. The fact that they felt superior bothered him.
“True,” I said “the British are not generally credited with humility. Neither are the French for that matter.”
In addition, what bothered Spaghettini is that he could no longer tell whether puritanism or permissiveness dominated life in the United Kingdom. He found it disconcerting that both aspects were concurrent. He put down his luggage again and said that the British deserved an international trophy for their sense of humor.
“Can we award them the trophy,” I asked , “once we have found the hotel, please ?”
No. He had to rest. With both hands free to punctuate his speech he went on saying, “An Englishman is prepared to laugh at himself and at any of his defects. To the bewilderment of foreigners, he can make jokes that no one but an Englishman can understand. A Frenchman, such as yourself, my dear Jacques, may pride himself on the clarity of his intelligence, his Cartesian logic or his wit. But only an Englishman can greet adversity and make fun of himself with such unique humor ! Do you remember who said:’ English is understood practically everywhere, and the English practically nowhere’ ?”
We asked our way to the hotel where all the participants of the Meeting had been booked, but to no avail. A lady who had lived on that street for thirty-two years had never heard of it. We walked some more while Spaghettini continued his in-depth analysis of the United Kingdom. Eventually the Lord had mercy on our souls (and legs) and with a great sense of triumph we found the hotel.
It was quaint, charming and totally antiquated. No comparison with some of the luxurious hotels we had come across on our way. “I am afraid,” we were told upon our arrival “there is a slight problem with the heating system. A pipe has burst.” We were also made to understand that pipes in that hotel sooner or later always burst in winter and, in any case, it was not healthy to keep bedrooms over-heated, as they do on the Continent.
A nice fire was lit in the open fireplace in every room. Spaghettini said jovially that England was “molto romantica !” However, for no understandable reason, once in a while the wind came down the chimney and blew smoke into the room and romanticism out of the window.
After a little rest, all the participants gathered in the hotel lobby and walked together to the meeting place. I immediately went to see Sir John to tell him that Unesco was in full agreement with his plan, that I would support it during the meeting but, because of budgetary restrictions, we could only offer moral support. Very elegantly, Sir John said that moral support was all that mattered. I felt good. Looking straight into my eyes, he added convincingly, “Jacques, you look remarkably well.” I felt very, very good, indeed.
The meeting’s main objective was to advise on the preparation of an international conference our hosts wanted to convene on ‘information technology in the library school curriculum.’ They were looking for support and contributions and, because of the international dimension of the planned conference, they had invited Unesco.
When I entered the meeting room I overheard Sir John telling the Greek delegate, Kharalambos, that he looked remarkably well. He looked rather greenish to me. I glanced around the table. They were all smiling. Undoubtedly, they had all been told by Sir John how well each of them looked.
I sat at my place, next to Mr. Brown from the United Nations. I do not know why on earth I did not find anything smarter to say than, ” I was in New York last year and met your new English secretary. Very efficient, indeed.”
“Oh, yes,” he said “By the way, she is not English but makes a commendable effort to sound so.”
“Where is she from ?” I asked.
“From Oshkosh, Nebraska,” said Mr. Brown.
The meeting started and I was not going to let Mr. Brown’s secretary from Oshkosh, Nebraska, Maurice Chevalier or anyone else distract me this time. I listened carefully.
Under the elegant and skillful chairmanship of Sir John, the meeting proceeded very smoothly. We have to admit that in international circles where English is often the common language, English participants are at a great advantage over the rest of us. Not only do they handle the language superbly but they also possess the traditional British diplomatic dexterity and, consequently, make very good moderators, excellent rapporteurs and astonishing chairpersons. What they say is often difficult to fathom but it is said with such elegance! Things which may meet resistance or hurt someone’s feelings are left unsaid. You do not always know where you stand, but they make it clear for you. Some call it ‘diplomacy’ others ‘hypocrisy’. Whatever it is, they are masters at it.
That day, nothing could possibly disturb Sir John in his function. Every difficulty was surmounted, every enigma clarified, every problem solved elegantly, placidly, eloquently. And if things seemed to take the wrong turn, a little English humor would do wonders. Sir John had no inhibitions about making a fool of himself, if need be, to relax the atmosphere with a few bursts of laughter in order to obtain what he wanted. At the end of the meeting we were totally hypnotized and agreed to almost everything.
Now, we had less than two hours to rest, freshen up and go to dinner at Sir John’s house. On the way to the hotel, Giovanni Spaghettini stopped at the laundry to collect his shirt. Instead of a shirt, he was given back a pair of Victorian panties with lots of lace. I can still hear his fine baritone voice exclaiming, “Mamma mia! Mamma mia! Ma come si f‡!”
An hour later, we were all clean and shiny, ready to go. We decided to buy some flowers before getting a cab to Sir John’s. Some of us stood in line at the flower shop and waited for a long while. The shopkeeper had to discuss the weather with every single customer, while a complying queue stood by, each one serenely awaiting his turn to comment on the weather. It is astonishing to discover the incredible variety of statements that can be made about a single dreadful, rainy day. In England, an educated man must know how to talk about the weather : the weather we had the past days, the weather we are having, the weather we should have had, the weather we will have. Pierre Daninos said that when the good Lord created the world, he thought of a changing weather so that the English could discuss it.
After paying for the flowers, we suggested that Mr. Spaghettini offer the bunch, on our behalf, to the lady of the house, since he was known to be able to deliver lyrical speeches with the most flowery vocabulary. But from another point of view the choice was incongruous. Poor Mr. Spaghettini was short and chubby and tended to disappear behind the huge bouquet.
We entered one by one, in a sort of procession, and were greeted at the door by our hosts . Mr. Spaghettini – his view obscured by large red dahlias – tripped over the last step and landed at the feet of Sir John’s wife.
When the commotion was over and we had resumed our best composure in harmony with the style of the house, Mr. Brown, his eyes twinkling with delight, whispered in my ear, “We had asked him to deliver a lyrical speech not to kiss her feet.”
Having finished our sherry, we entered the dining room. At the table, I was placed between Mrs. Van der Loan from the Netherlands and Ms. Pringgoadisurjo from Indonesia. I had known both ladies for a long time but had never dared call Ms. Pringgoadisurjo by her name. The spelling scared me to death and paralyzed my tongue. An American friend of mine had once said, “When in doubt about a name, you can always say ‘hi, there!'” Ms. Pringgoadisurjo must have wondered why I always called her “there” whenever I greeted her.
At the beginning, the atmosphere was solemn, in spite of the urbane and courteous efforts of our hosts. It was partly due to the stately surroundings, to the shyness of some of us and, no doubt, to the widely accepted clichÈ defining the English as class-conscious, snobbish, exclusive and arrogant. I noticed Mr. Brown was gazing all around. Was he looking for some informality? That was too soon. Wine had not had its relaxing and buoyant effect yet.
The table was set with exquisite taste. I noticed that the British hosts and guests had their hands under the table. All the rest had theirs on the table. As Spaghettini would say, this is what their nannies had taught them. As it is always the case in England, all the cutlery to be used during the meal was placed to the right and left of each plate. The impressive number of forks and knives indicated that we were about to have a feast. An English feast, no doubt, but a feast all the same. As I was observing the cutlery, I suddenly remembered the day I had been taken to the Saint Louis Hospital to have my appendix out and had noticed at the corner of the operating room all the torture instruments arrayed on a table, ready for use.
Table manners are, of course, arbitrary. They differ from country to country and, in some societies, acquire an exaggerated importance. The regulations involved seem to have been created by the ruling class and imposed on the rest. In England, great attention is given to the strict application of such rules. You are expected to keep your fork in your left hand and your knife in your right hand at all times. The passage of the fork from one hand to the other, as Mr. Brown did after cutting his meat, is disdainfully considered in England as a juggling exercise fit for the circus. After cutting the meat, the knife is supposed to push the morsel and a sample of vegetables on top of the fork. English peas, which are notoriously big and hard, may constitute an insurmountable obstacle. But, ours being an international gathering, it did not matter too much. You could tell by looking around that table etiquette was far from standardized.
The rules of conversation also differ from country to country. In England, numerous are the subjects which are considered taboo, at least in the upper class. Anything polemical, critical, controversial, political, sexual, religious, personal, contentious, or anything which may embarrass or hurt anyone, is to be avoided. You are allowed to make fun of yourself, talk about sports, say something nice and, of course, discuss the weather. Silence is very much appreciated. These English rules had originally tinted those prevailing in America. However, the latter have become looser and more flexible with time. One very ‘British’ rule concerns the topic of food. As opposed to countries, such as Italy, France, China or Thailand, where table conversations may very well include reference to food and cooking, in England it is considered ill-mannered, if not vulgar. Such topic is never, never broached at Buckingham Palace. Remember!
We had had several courses and several glasses of Chablis and Margaux, when suddenly Spaghettini, either innocently or provocatively, broke the ice by saying, “At the beginning of a meal in Italy we say ‘Buon’appetito,’ in France ‘Bon appetit,’ in Germany ‘Guten appetit’ or ‘Mahlzeit,’ in the US we now say ‘enjoy.’ What do you say in England?”
After a little silence, Sir John’s wife demurely answered, “In England, we are not expected to enjoy food”. Pandora’s box was now wide open! Every one felt obliged to refer to how tasty the Dover Sole was…how palatable the pudding… how green the peas.
Spaghettini was in heaven. He had managed to drag everyone closer to the kitchen oven. He spoke at great length of Italian cuisine, explaining in minute detail how one prepares ‘risotto con le vongole’ and ‘scaloppine di fegato di maiale.’ “Oh, you should taste, at least once in your lifetime, ‘l’imbrogliata di carciofini.'”
At this point, everyone had gradually stopped eating our English dinner and had been carried away in spirit miles away into a Trattoria. You could almost hear the mandolins.
Then, our Italian delegate, self-appointed leader of conversation, decided that it was the French cuisine’s turn. “Signor Dupont,” he said “tell us all about the ‘Cassolettes d’escargots.’ Do you know how to prepare the ‘Coquilles Saint-Jacques au foie gras’?”
Fortunately, before I could attempt an answer, he was already describing ‘Les Anguilles au vert.’ Since we were in the middle of a culinary discussion, Mr. Brown asked Spaghettini the origins of his name. I had been intrigued by this unusual name – to say the least – but had never dared ask. Unfortunately, I could not hear the explanation as Mrs. Schl‰ger from Austria gently drew me deep in the preparation of a ‘Linzertorte” while Kharalambos was showing how to roll grape leaves.
By now, everyone was baking, roasting, frying, boiling, stewing, poaching, broiling. It had turned into an international cooking orgy right under the nose of astonished Sir John! A loud thunder suddenly silenced all the cooks and established law and order. You could hear the rain. Mrs. Van der Loan quickly referred to the storm and in no time the conversation shifted back into the safe topic of the weather. Sir John’s wife looked relieved.
Nevertheless, we continued to drink, talk and laugh. By then, thunder or no thunder, all the international diplomacy and the English reserve had dissolved in the Chablis. I do not know who gave the signal, but I found myself standing in a queue on the way out. Thanks and greetings were exchanged. As I remember, we did not look remarkably well any longer.
There was a lot of rain. The lugubrious black cabs that had been ordered stood in line as in a funeral procession. I was glad that Spaghettini had not suggested to go by bus and subway this time. Miraculously, after a while I was in bed and quickly fell asleep. As usual, after a full busy day crowned by a heavy dinner my night was tormented by a confusing dream.
We were at Buckingham Palace. Her Majesty had a purple hat on and was staring at Spaghettini with surprise as he spread rose petals all over, graciously dancing a Boccherini Minuet. Her Majesty explained that the fireplaces were lit because the pipes had burst. Spaghettini was trying to have Mrs. Van der Loan accept the pair of Victorian panties with lace he had been given at the laundry.
Then Mr. Arianayagham from Sri Lanka ( what was he doing here?) asked her gracious Majesty to explain how the social classes were organized in England because he did not know where he belonged. It was explained to him that people can be cast as ‘upper middle’, ‘middle middle’ or ‘lower middle. And proceeding down the ladder as ‘upper working class,’ ‘working class proper,’ ‘lower working class,’ etc.
“And how do you assign a class?” he asked.
“Simply by the dress, the origin, the address, the accent – especially the way you pronounce an ‘h’ and, of course, the way you hold a fork”.
At that point I was astonished to hear Brigitte saying what she thought of the English and other participants at the meeting. To my great embarrassment she said that the English were badly dressed, were obsessed with horses, gardening and cricket, and their mannerisms were faintly ridiculous. The Swiss and the Belgians were dull, the Spanish and the Italians were noisy and the Germans were too German.
I began to run away when Sir John asked me if I agreed to what my wife was saying. The first door I found led me into the kitchen, where I stumbled over some escargots, walked over scaloppine, tripped over a smoked trout, slid on grape leaves and finally slipped and fell on Mrs. Scl‰ger’s Linzertorte.
Fortunately, at that moment a loud clap of thunder put an end to my dream and established law and order into the rest of my night. Bonne nuit !
Copyright © 2000 by Jacques Tocatlian
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