So last night I had a surreal dining experience.  I met up with B, a girl I used to look after for a long while who is now 16 and amazing and studying for her A’Levels.  It was lovely to catch up with her, we try to get together a few times a year and I am always blown away by how together and switched on she is.  Anyway, she suggested Carluccio’s and I went along.

She is a recently converted vegetarian.  (You know you do your best with these kids, you give it your all, but sometimes… they turn out vegetarian).  We sat down in the restaurant and as I was unzipping my coat, the Italian waitress approached our table and said:

“Are you ready to order?  Can I get you anything?”

“Not yet, thanks, we’ll have a look at the menu first.” I said, taken aback.

“Take your time, take your time” She said holding her hands up defensively. 

B and I looked at each other and giggled nervously. We started to chat and catch up.  Two minutes later, (I was still removing my scarf) she came back.

“Are you ready to order?”

We broke off our conversation to look up at her,

“Er, we haven’t looked at the menu yet, sorry, could you give us 5 minutes?”

“OK, ok, take your time.  What are you going to drink?”

“A glass of water for me, tap water please.  No lemon” I said, B asked for the same.

“Olives? Bread to share?”

“No thank you.”

“Take your time.” She said and disappeared.

We carried on talking and a minute later she came back with the waters. 

“You ready?”

“Not yet,” I gritted out.  “We’ll just have a look at the menu”

After we had fished the lemon slices out of our drinks, (why oh why do they insist on lemon in the water?  If I had wanted lemonade, I would have ordered lemonade.) We looked at the menu.  It felt a bit like we were cramming last minute for a test.  We chose and continued talking.  As soon as we put our menus down, she came back.

“Ready?”

We ordered and settled back into the benches.  We see each other infrequently, so the first hour of our conversation runs a bit like an interrogation.  I should point out here that it is not just me asking the questions.  B gives as good as she gets, and it’s a fun way to fill each other in on what’s been occurring.

The starters arrived, and we started to eat.  After we had each taken about three bites, the waitress shows up again.

“How is your food?  Everything ok?”

We nodded, mouths full.

“Take your time, don’t worry, take your time.” was her response.  By this point B and I were laughing before she got to the table. 

We continued eating.  She came twice more during our starters to tell us to take our time.  Then the main courses arrived.  She plonked them down in front of us and said (yes you guessed it)

“Enjoy your meals, take your time.”

We ate.  Well, B ate, I pushed my excuse for pasta carbonara around the plate.  It was awful.  Anyway.  She came several times and asked us if we were finished, when clearly B was still eating.  We began to wonder if she needed the plates or something.  When we would say no, she would repeat “Take your time” and back away.  When B finished and we had both stopped eating she approached us again.

“Finished?  You want dessert, coffee?”

“We’d like to see a dessert menu, please” I said.  She left our plates where they were and went off to get the menus.  After being harassed to within an inch of our lives to finish, we were left with the plates in front of us. We got the giggles in a major way.  We debated whether or not to get dessert and in the end, B wanted one so when she came back, the conversation went like this:

“You ready to order dessert?” She was looking at me, so I said

“I’d like a cup of tea please.”

She turned to B, “You want dessert?”

B ordered her dessert, something with meringue and cream and raspberries.

“She looked at me again. “No dessert for you?”

“Just the tea please.”

“What tea?”

“The tea I just ordered.”

“No tea.  You want tea?  Peppermint, breakfast?”

“Breakfast please.”

“Ok, one moment.”

She left again.  Without the plates.  By now, B and I were wondering if in fact there was some sort of force field around me that made me invisible.

Eventually, she took the plates and brought my tea.  She put the tea down on the table, picked up the milk and began to pour it into my tea.

“Please don’t add the milk!” I put my hands up in horror.  Sorry but that is crossing a line.  I know I am a control freak, but really?  She brought the milk in a jug, did she need to take it right back or something?  I was really annoyed.  (Sidebar – the other day I went to a local café for breakfast and ordered toast which arrived buttered.  I lost it completely.  Who butters your toast for you? Incredible.) 

She was most apologetic. 

“Oh, so sorry, you want I bring you another one?”

I had stopped her before she had put too much in. 

“No, it’s ok, just please don’t put any more in.  Can you leave the milk jug here?

“Yes, yes, sorry, I just did it automatically.”

“OK”

A few minutes later, B’s dessert arrived.  It was served in a rounded tumbler.  I am all in favour of serving dessert in a glass instead of a bowl.  It looks pretty and original, and TV chefs do it all the time, which is why I assume most restaurant chains also do it.  Ever the practical bunny however, my only reservation is that the glass in question should be able to stand up to the demands being made of it.  B was five bites into her dessert when her spoon went through the glass and there was whipped cream, meringue and glass all over the place.  She got a fright and was extremely apologetic, especially since the tables around us started to look around for pieces of broken glass.  I told her that it wasn’t her fault in any way.  She didn’t throw the glass on the floor to show she had finished like in old films where Russians are drinking vodka for goodness sake. 

The waitress stopped by a few minutes later. 

“What happened, Oh no, I bring you another one”

Sure enough two minutes later, another glass arrived with dessert in it and B started  slowly and carefully eating it.  I was still drinking my tea at this point.  She looked at me.

“You want a coffee?”

“Er, no thanks.  I haven’t finished my tea.”

“Bill?”

After a glance between us, I said: “Ok, yes please.  Just the bill.”

“Take your time.” she said.

B ate her dessert, and we continued talking.  B had a revision schedule for the next day which involved an early start, so we started thinking about leaving.  No bill.

We started to look around and try to catch her eye but for 10 minutes, it was as if we had both been engulfed by the cloak of invisibility.   After making us feel like we were being too slow in her restaurant, she was now avoiding us like the plague.  Eventually, we caught her eye.

“Could we have the bill please?”

“Just a minute” was the impatient response. 

I mean at this point I was looking around for hidden cameras.  I thought maybe I wasn’t reacting as I should be.  Maybe I was supposed to be throwing all my toys out of the pram and losing my shit in a spectacular fashion.  Or maybe I will turn up in some documentary about how English people will put up with the most unbelievable service without saying a word.

The bill arrived, she hovered over me when it was time to add the gratuity on the machine.  Eventually we left.  It was one of the weirdest and most uncomfortable restaurant experiences I have ever had.  We talked about it on the way home, and we worked out that maybe she didn’t know what ‘take your time’ actually meant.  Maybe she thought it meant thank you, or enjoy your meal, or hurry up.  Either way, I have never heard it said so often, and so clearly insincerely.  And the pasta was inedible.  I won’t be rushing back there any time soon.

On another note, I had to walk an extra 10 minutes in the snow the other day because I was avoiding the fruit and veg man at the end of my road.  I was going to brazen it out,  honestly  I was, but all I needed was a courgette…

Maybe next time.

 

 

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