Chapter 5.Culture: Food


A Muffled Ode to Luxury

There is an age, and a frame of mind, when we are strong enough to treat luxury with every bit of the disdain it deserves, when we know how to pour rightful scorn on its waste, its futility, most of all its vanity.

We know, in that robust hopeful period, that there is no need for an overpriced hotel when a hostel can just as well house our dreams.

We understand the folly of those overblown seats at the front of the aircraft whose occupants will touch down not a minute earlier.

We know enough, and have a future rich enough, not to confuse paid-for kindness with love.

Then there come an age, and a frame of mind, more sombre and melancholy in nature, when – if there is the possibility – we may find our Spartan honesty vibrate and start to crumble.

We may find ourselves in the more ambitiously carpeted section of the cabin we’d once disdained, looked after by a new friend who has troubled to learn our name and has hung our jacket in a closet we never imagined existed. As we cross the Tropic of Cancer, down below in Madhya Pradesh, villages will flicker by the light of paraffin lamps, and we will receive a tray on which an infinitely thoughtful and fascinating-sounding chef from New Zealand will have laid out a small bread roll, a lobster tail salad, a filet mignon and what might be the sweetest hazelnut and chocolate cake we have ever tasted – and we may feel what could be tears at the beauty and kindness that surrounds us.

Or we may find ourselves in a foreign city and be unable to resist the call  of the old Belle Epoque hotel on the main square, with its gargoyles, painted columns and absurd gilded armchairs in the vast lobby, complete with a mural of a battle that mattered immensely a long time ago. After an hour’s immersion in the marble bathroom, we may receive a visit from another friend, baring a trolley that he wheels to the foot of the bed. The meal itself might not be anything wondrous, considered objectively – chicken schnitzel or a salmon tagliatelle – but what it symbolises is immense. They, our new family in the hotel, have kept things warm in a special heated recess under the table or covered it under a small, almost silverdome. Someone, an angel, has wondered if we might like flowers, and has inserted a tulip into a narrow glass vase to cheer us as we eat. Someone else, a ministering deity, has worried that we might be fussy about bread and provided a small but fascinatingly diverse selection. Now kindly George from room service interrupts our daydream. He would like to know if we would prefer still or sparking water. And is balsamic vinegar what we would prefer with the tomato salad?

It matters so much because, in other areas of our lives, so much has gone wrong, for reasons too complex still to fathom. Our child no longer looks up when we greet them at breakfast; our spouse is filled with rightful resentments. There is so much they can legitimately hate us for – and they often do. We have been left in no doubt as to our idiocy and foolishness.

But here, in the cabin or in the room, it isn’t – for a few hours – like this at all. As we sit on the bed half-naked in our fibrous dressing gown and bite into an apple strudel, we finally do let a tear roll. It’s all artifice of course – engineered by monstrous, clinical payments. But thanks to what will later be a painful line on the credit card bill, we are in the presence of something truly delightful: a portion of the kindness and consideration we crave, but hardly ever receive and know we don’t deserve.

Money obviously cannot buy us what we truly want: the warm regard of those we live around. But it can, at points, at least buy us a few symbols of considerateness – and sometimes that might be the very best we can hope for, and that is realistically available to us, in our distinctly bathetic and radically imperfect lives. We may not always have the inner resources to find luxury the silly thing it actually is.

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