Not really exceptional encounters as such, but as there has been mention of famous people I thought I'd add them here.
A few years ago I ate at a private club in soho quite often as I had a friend who was working there and she used to slip us in after work for a few drinks. I saw quite a few famous faces there but two of them stuck out as they seemed to be almost caracatures of their public images. They really made me smile.
First of was Simon Callow being a true English eccentric as expected. He ate alone except for two of the sleekest, most elegant greyhounds I have ever seen. One lying perfectly calmly and still on either side of him like statues. Each course that he ordered he ordered three of and each time he was served a plate was also put in front of each of the greyhounds, who daintily lapped up their gourmet supper.
Second up was Sean Connery. He was dining with a young lady who wanted steak and salad; there was no steak or salad on the menu. The waiter explained this and Mr Connery turned to him and said rather threateningly in a low voice "If the lady wants steak and salad, the lady shall have steak and sald". I really found it very hard not to laugh as we were at the next table and it was just all to James Bond for me.
When I have a stranger for a seat companion on an airplane, I generally do not open my mouth for the entire flight unless I see a wing falling off the aircraft, and I additionally come prepared with reading material in a language different from whatever I hear the other person speaking to the flight attendants. That’s just the way I am, because as you all know I find myself of little interest and make almost no posts.
This person wasn’t even supposed to be my seat companion, but I was given my seat at the last minute, and when I arrived on the aircraft, people had already redistributed themselves around the plane in the hope than no more people were boarding. And I found myself suddenly splitting up a couple who thought they had cleverly claimed 3 seats. They were briefly speechless about their bad luck, but then the husband asked if I wouldn’t mind moving to where his seat actually was, an aisle seat a couple of rows up. I instantly agreed and therefore moved next to a weird little man who was equally dismayed to suddenly have “his” empty seat occupied.
So, there I was, and there was nothing he could do about it. Or was there? As the cabin crew went up and down the aisles doing the usual things they do, he intercepted one of them and asked him “Excuse me, but could you please have the purser come and see me when he has a moment after takeoff? It isn’t at all urgent, but I would really appreciate it.”
Grrrrrr, I thought. Any normal person will speak to the flight attendant if there is something that needs to be done. If he was asking for the purser, it was probably to say something like “I can’t stand sitting next to this stinky sweaty man who isn’t even sitting in his proper seat! Please do something about it.”
We were still 15 minutes from takeoff, but the purser appeared as if summoned with a magic wand (which just goes to prove that all of that walking up and down the aisles stuff is bullshit).
Purser: “Monsieur, what can I do for you?”
Strange little man: “Oh, I must tell you that I am working for you at the moment. I was in Business Class on the outgoing flight. I don’t know if messages were not properly transmitted, but here I am in economy, and I was wondering if I could be moved up front.”
Damn him to hell. He could have just said, “I can’t stand sitting next to this stinky sweaty man. Get me out of here!” But he had also broken the very clearly written rules of “working for you”. I am one of those people as well, and I know that rule #1 is “never ever ask for special favors.” Jeez, I have seen people asking the same thing all the time, and I despise them for it. Fuck, you are getting a free or almost free ticket, don’t push it! And yet some such people will always try.
The purser said with grace and dignity that unfortunately, the front of the plane was completely full, so there could be no upgrading. I hadn’t even been the last person to board, and there were precious few empty seats in economy class.
And so the little man began to speak to me against my will. He repeated that Air France had sort of hired him, but it quickly became clear that it was indirectly, and that he was not at all an Air France employee. He was a photographer sent to Vietnam and Cambodia to take photos for their upcoming advertising campaign. (He had boarded the flight in Hanoi.) Okay, I was ready to forgive him for asking for an upgrade, and I even felt that it was inelegant of Air France to send him on assignment in precarious conditions of comfort.
On top of that, he said, “I’m 84 years old.” That really floored me, because he looked more like he was 64 years old.
The plane finally took off, and dinner arrived relatively rapidly. That’s sort of normal, as it was close to midnight. Anyway, the subject of this thread is “exceptional encounters at dinner” so here is the dinner menu:
Thai papaya salad with prawns, slightly spiced (bullshit!) Grilled Siam perch with compote of sun-dried tomatoes, rice and spinach Camembert Sliced papaya and dragon fruit salad Pecan pie
At least that’s what I had. The other hot dish possibility was chicken fricassee with mustard seed, linguini and buttered peas and carrots.
Every now and then, there has been a dip in quality, but Air France food remains generally edible.
Anyway, I learned much more about my seat companion. He had been commissioned by Air France to take photos for their next advertising campaign, and this particular trip had entailed taking photos of Halong Bay and also the Cambodian temples of the Angkor Wat complex. He felt that out of about 500 photos, he had succeeded in taking a truly exceptional photo at Halong, with a remarkable combination of clouds and sunset, and his only worry was successfully removing a mobile phone antenna on top of one of the cliffs. “But I am a Photoshop master,” he added. You don’t come across many 84 year old people who can claim such things. He also felt that he held the Cambodian photo in one of his shots of Ta Phrom, the temple ruins buried under vegetation. “But I know that it will not be truly original, because everybody has already photographed every scrap of it from every angle.” He felt that his selling point would be that it was a cloudy day, which allowed the colors to be richly saturated rather than washed out by excessive sunlight.
He told me that he had moved to Bergerac in Dordogne about 20 years earlier, but that he had lived in Saint Germain des Prés in Paris for forty years. “It really was a village then, and everybody knew everybody. For more than 10 years, I lived in a hotel as many of us did back then. My next door neighbor was Juliette Greco.” And of course he talked about “the Flore” and mentioned that Sartre often bought him drinks. He was 20 years younger than Sartre, so it was only normal for the famous guy to pay.
Although he quickly said that he was a committed socialist, he was a special counselor to President Chirac for the first 7 years, but he said it was a thankless task as governments never really want to accept any advice that is given. We passed in review all of the current political leaders, all of whom he seems to know personally, and he regrets that Martine Aubry, head of the Socialist Party, is a lush.
It was also mentioned in passing that he was president of the cinema technicians union for about 20 years, before going to live in Brazil for 4 years. His own origins are Jewish Greek, he told me, even though he is a committed atheist.
He said that if the plane crashed, he would be the last one off, because he was not leaving without his camera. I asked why he didn’t send his files over the internet ahead of time. “I can’t send files from countries like that,” he explained. “My camera has 21 million pixels.”
Yes, it was an interesting encounter. We shook hands and told each other that we would see each other around one of these days. We did not exchange names.
Great story! And happy to know you're a fellow "silent partner" - I refuse to even make eye contact with my seat mate (unless of course, they are female and pretty - in which case they refuse to make eye contact with me ;D).
I can remember as a child traveling with my grandparents and mother from their house in Tiburon CA up to Portland in their Citroen DS11 they brought back from France (we got a ticket from the OR state patrol en route because of its yellow French headlights) and after some discussion about dinner my grandfather mentioning the governor of Oregon was an old school chum from the HBS we could just pop in at the governor's mansion in Salem- which we did unannounced! My mother and grandmother were quite obviously shocked judging by their expressions at the audacity of cold calling at the mansion based only on my grandfather's acquaintance some decades back.
Well we arrived, and grandfather went up to the door, had a few words with whomever answered, then we were all waved in for a marvelous meal. I am still in awe of how the governor's wife graciously handled what could have (and probably should have) been a complete debacle. We were treated like family and after dinner and conversation they insisted we stay the night in their guest rooms which we did. Knowing my grandfather, he probably tried to have the yellow headlight ticket fixed too!
I was suddenly remembering an amazing dinner I had once. It wasn't exactly an "encounter" since I already knew the host -- he was in fact the person who had approved hiring me at the airline where I worked for 35 years, but it was the first time that I was able to really interact with the human being. When I started in the company, he was the "Country Manager" in charge of France, Belgium and Luxembourg, in other words the local CEO, and the vast majority of us feared ever being summoned to his office, even though he had a reputation of being a nice guy. However, there were a number of tales of things that had happened when his wrath had been provoked, and even though it was clear that his wrath was justified in those cases, most of us felt better never having to see him for any reason. Just taking the elevator with him had most people quaking. That sort of thing didn't even happen to me, because our office was at a different address which he never visited.
The position of "Country Manager" is only supposed to be held for 3 years (although there were many exceptions over the years, which I had the opportunity to see in my long career), and he was bumped out of Paris on schedule. He didn't resist because rather than just getting another country, he got one of the top finance jobs and over the years he worked his way up to #2 in the company with the title EVP Finance. Oddly enough, I had already gotten to know him better before then, because after only a year in the company, I suddenly became acting finance manager while my British boss was in the hospital (and then he was fired for fraud, but that's another story). I had to go to the "budget seminar" in Jeddah, a prospect which just about made me shit my trousers because I had been hired fraudulently (by my fraudulent British boss) and had absolutely no accounting training, contrary to what was on file for me. I needn't have worried because I quickly discovered that just about everybody in the company was a fraud. I became friends with the finance manager from Geneva who was also making his first trip to Jeddah and who was even more terrified than I was. And actually, I had absolutely nothing to do in spite of all of the things that I had learned (salary budgets for 12 Gregorian months for European employees but 13 Hegirian months for Saudi employees...) because our Paris manager had just been transferred to the head office as an "acting" finance employee, but he was still officially the manager for France, Belgium, Luxembourg and he absolutely wanted to fill out all of the budget papers himself. My job was to bring them to him. (My god! The office! I almost went blind in the golden glitter.)
Okay, I'll skip all of the rest, but the important thing to know is that he always loved loved loved France and never really accepted having been transferred away from Paris. Yes, I'm getting to the exceptional dinner soon. Anyway, he even made sure that the flight schedules remained convenient for him so that he could spend as much time in Paris as possible (long Saudi weekends with late arrivals on Wednesday and early departures on Saturday). And, lucky for us, he loved all of the Paris employees that he had left behind.
A few years later, a employee tourist trip was organized to go to Jeddah. This was an extremely rare treat since non-Islamic tourism is forbidden in Saudi Arabia. The visas referred to "professional familiarization" and indeed we spent a lot of time visiting offices and being served an excellent first class meal at the catering department. But the highlight of the trip was being invited to a special private dinner at our former manager's home. There were about 30 people in our group.
We were taken to his villa, which could not quite qualify as a palace, but only just. All such houses are surrounded by high walls in Saudi Arabia, so that what happens there stays there. Actually, we had also just had an excellent dinner at our current country manager's home, but there was no comparison. He remained very formal, and even though female and male employees were welcome at his huge table, his wife and other female members of his family were never seen, except for a very brief appearance of his #1 wife at the very end of the meal.
At Mr. B's villa, everybody finally felt that they could relax. He was a bachelor approaching 60, but he had taken full advantage of his influence over the female flight attendants over the years, which is probably not a good thing, but the fact that a Saudi could remain unmarried during his entire adult life (without a handicap or deformity) was totally extraordinary. Who knows? Maybe had had an official wife stashed away somewhere, but most definitely not at his villa.
His Filipino employees had set up a huge table next to the swimming pool, and the food just kept coming and coming -- entire roast lambs, mountains of rice, huge platters of roasted vegetables of every sort, incredible desserts. No wine or any sort of alcohol was served, because he was not crazy -- there is no way that you can break a rule like that with 30 guests when you don't know all of them.
At least 75% of the food remained uneaten, which distressed all of us in terms of wastage. He told us not to worry, because all of the poor neighbours were advised that there was food to be picked up the next morning. True? There is no way of knowing, but I would like to believe that it is true. Unfortunately, the Saudi (and probably Qatari, Emirati, etc.) concept of "entertaining" is wretched excess. You have to show guests that you have so much of everything that it doesn't matter at all if it is hardly touched.
I continued to see Mr. B when he came to Paris for the next 20 years or so, because he almost always dropped into the office, even after retiring. He was always charming, but the last few times he walked with a cane with difficulty. I think he is still alive, but I am not sure.
This is an interesting, mind-boggling kind of thread that I'd never seen before! I have certainly enjoyed reading it through.
I suppose I've had a few dinners interesting to me, but nothing along the lines of what I've read here. I was seated next to Ted Turner at an awards dinner in the 1970's. He seemed nice and very down to earth at the time, though I only have a general memory of our conversation.