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Last weekend, my aunt and uncle decided to open their home to some business colleagues of their lodger.  The lodger, A, is a young man around 30 who works for a Japanese bank.  He thought it would be nice to have a barbeque in a relaxed setting, and have his team over.  He sold it to them as an opportunity for my aunt’s family to make business connections with Japanese bankers.  They are nice people, very hospitable and friendly, and agreed to have the barbeque at their lovely home.  After all, they are in possession of a large and very beautiful garden, so space wasn’t an issue.  The event quickly escalated from an intimate BBQ to 50-60 people.  By the time our family gets together, we are 35.  Add to that another 20 or so Japanese, Korean and other assorted nationalities, and there you go, 60 people.  Because of the relaxed nature of the event, everyone was going to bring something.

As far as I could tell there was one fairly major sticking point.  A tiny insignificant detail, really.  My aunt and uncle are not in possession of a barbeque.  They agreed all gung-ho to host a BBQ at their house, and never thought that perhaps one of the most – nay – the most essential piece of equipment for said BBQ was a grill.  They made noises about borrowing one, or maybe setting something up in the bottom of the garden.  (Maybe a fire pit, or I don’t know, just a bonfire).  My mum and I went to B&Q, did some research, and finally, they were in possession of a shiny bright spanking new flatpacked BBQ which then sat in its box near the garden for about two weeks.

The BBQ had been in the plans for about a month.  It was set for June 2nd.  On May 31st, the BBQ was still in its box.  My uncle was really relaxed about everything:

“Shh, shh, don’t worry dear.  Relax, it’s all under control.” he kept saying as my aunt panicked and tried to plan ahead.

“What do you mean it’s all under control, we don’t have chairs, tables, plates, cutlery.  The house is a mess, the BBQ is still flat-packed.  We don’t know what everyone’s bringing and it’s all happening the day after tomorrow!”  she said, stress evident in her voice and general anxious demeanor.  I was over there a lot because my parents were staying there with them.  My Mum hadn’t slept for two weeks worrying about everything, and she would come over to mine every day and hyperventilate at the thought of everything there was to do.

Step 1 was to find out what everyone was bringing.  There was no point in making a huge potato salad if everyone was going to bring potato salad.

So here is a list of what the 20 guests were bringing.

Some sushi

Rice Wine

A dessert

A salad

Something tasty

Alcohol.

With such a specific list to go on, we then started to plan.  My aunt and uncle were going to get the meat and a large fish.  I was asked to do three desserts, and two vegetarian dishes. My brother J and his wife were in charge of Pimms.  My cousin X made a delicious vegetarian pasta dish. Personally, I don’t see the point of a lot of vegetarian stuff at BBQs, I mean really if you want to eat vegetarian food, stay home and leave us carnivores in peace, but I suppose the veggie stuff does accompany the meat rather nicely, and gives the illusion of healthiness.  I mean, to Greeks, vegetarians are complex and curious creatures, but we acknowledge their existence and try to just avoid them really.  Kind of like poisonous snakes, or very large spiders.

So, that was the food sorted.  Now for the logistics.  60 people means 60 bottoms and 60 bottoms require 60 chairs.  I don’t know who has 60 chairs lying around waiting for people to come over, but it certainly wasn’t my aunt.  So my cousins were now bringing the pasta, some chairs, and some picnic rugs for the kids to sit on.  (Little bottoms don’t need chairs).  I was also roped into bringing all my cutlery along, and my other uncle was bringing glasses and plates.  Let’s just say it was a family effort.  Anyway.  Every so often I would get panicked calls from my aunt/uncle/mother asking for skewers, foil, bread, recipes etc etc.

The weekend before was a bit hectic because my aunt and uncle suddenly realised that they had 60 people coming over for goodness’ sake and they should probably take the opportunity to have a massive clear out and make their house more presentable.  So, furniture was moved, books were sorted, trips to the dump were made, and general busyness was the order of the day.  I stayed at home on Friday cooking, and then took the stuff over to my sister K’s house to store it in her fridge. Friday evening saw me out and about looking to buy skewers and tin foil.  Seriously, what an exciting life I lead.  I know all my friends with kids are insanely jealous of my carefree and crazy single lifestyle…

Saturday we had to take a break from proceedings as it was my Dad’s birthday and we had arranged a party for him.

Sidebar:  We arranged this party for my dad in a restaurant that only I had ever been to before.  Shock! Horror! When I first suggested it, he looked at me as if I had gone certifiably insane and had just suggested that we just swing by McDonalds and get everyone a happy meal or something.  It is a fairly new place, and I thought it would be nice to open up our repertoire a bit as we always seem to end up in the same tired restaurants.  I know it isn’t easy to pick a restaurant that everyone would be happy at, especially since there are over 30 of us, aged from 9 months to 83 years old.  Still I soldiered on, insisted we go see the place, spoke and emailed the chef several (thousand) times and in the end we had an absolutely delicious meal, everybody found the place (thanks no doubt to Dad’s insistence on sending everyone a detailed map of the area with a giant arrow pointing at the restaurant) and nobody died from newrestaurant-itis.

After the party though it was back to business.  I went back home to prepare desserts and stuff.  I was making two pavlovas.  One regular one, and one chocolate one.  The white one worked out really well, and I was pleased with it.  It had been cooling all day and so the oven was ready for the chocolate one that evening.  I got the mixture ready, arranged it all on the baking tray and put it into the oven.  About 10 minutes later the smell of burning comes from in the kitchen.  I go in to investigate.  The tray had slid back into the oven, the baking parchment had caught fire and the side of the pav was aflame.  I pull it all out, extinguish the flames, and return it to the oven.  An hour and a half later, it seemed ok, so I turned the oven off and left the pavlova in there to dry out.  I went to bed, setting my alarm for 6:30 the next morning. (On a Sunday.  Oh the humanity)

I woke up the next morning with a lot to do, and I had to be at my aunt’s at 11 to help set up.  I pressed the button for the kettle and switched the oven on to preheat so that I could roast the vegetables to add to the couscous.  10 minutes later, the smell of burning chocolate filled the air.  Shit!  I had forgotten the pav was in the oven!  I rushed over and pulled out the tray, noticing that the back part of the pav was scorched.  I thought I could trim it off and it would be fine.

I chopped the veggies, and put them in the oven to roast.  Then it was time to decorate the pavs.  I went and got the vanilla one as it was already cool.  I whipped the sweetened cream, and washed the fruit.  I got it looking gorgeous, covered it and started to work on getting the chocolate one presentable.  I lifted it off the baking parchment, flipped it over and realised that there was burnt paper sticking to the bottom from where it had caught fire the night before.  I started to remove it holding the pav over the sink when suddenly my hand goes through it and it falls into the (dry thank goodness) sink.  I picked up the pieces, trimmed off anything that looked burnt and set about making it look like a pavlova again.  Good thing I like puzzles.  I whipped some more cream and put it onto the top to make it look like a whole one.  It was like DIY really, but it looked whole, I put the fruit on and it looked as good as the other one.  I finished with the veggies, and was contemplating 4 trips to the car and a trip to my sister’s house to get the other stuff when my sister D woke up.  She and R took the stuff to the car while I answered the phone to my Mum who asked me to go and buy bread.  I went off to the supermarket, bought the bread, drove to K’s house, loaded up the car and finally arrived at my aunt’s house.  They had been busy there too.  All the meat was marinated and prepared and there was tonnes of it.  There were lamb and pork kebabs, chicken breasts, chicken drumsticks, halloumi cheese, sausages (hundreds), sticky ribs and pork belly.  Not to mention a huge fish boiled and ready to be laid to rest on a pretty dish.

My uncle and I started to put the tables together using boards and trestles.  We all then started to put on the tablecloths, put all the chairs around them, debated where we should set up the buffet table, located serving implements, and generally got ourselves ready.  My aunt had told everyone 1pm and we were all under strict instructions to be there on time.  As Greeks, we are aware of the fluidity of time.  In Greece you give people a starting time as a guideline.  Whatever time you say, it will be interpreted at will.  Sometimes, I think that times are only given to illustrate whether it is a morning, afternoon or evening party.  Certainly, people arriving exactly at the time stated in Greece are met by the host/hostess in their pyjamas talking about should they start defrosting the chicken.    But, in this case, because many of the guests were Japanese, and the informal BBQ had business undertones, we were all to be there on time under pain of death.  We were therefore rushing around trying to get ready for the arrivals and had planned to have the first food coming off the BBQ at 1:30.  That gave everyone enough time to have a drink before they could tuck into the first of many waves of food.  At 1:05pm the door knocker sounded and we all thought it would be 20 assorted business colleagues of A having arrived on time.  It was my sister, brother and cousin.

“Are we late?” they uttered breathlessly carting in chairs, bags, bottles, picnic rugs and dishes. “Are they all here already?”

“No, you’re ok, they’re not here yet.”

The Pimms was made, the rugs and chairs set up, and the first halloumi hot off the grill when the door was knocked again. It was one Japanese girl.  Lovely to meet her, and very sweet, but where was everyone else?  My aunt had gotten so worked up about the importance of the guests that she was loath to let anyone else touch anything as the afternoon progressed.  By 2pm, there were three of A’s colleagues, and all of my family standing around getting tipsy on Pimms.  We had eaten the halloumi while my aunt wasn’t looking. The kids were running around the garden playing hide and seek.  My Cousin J, R and I were at the grill taking it in turns to flip food, and generally try to rotate what was cooking so that there was some of everything ready when my aunt finally announced that we could eat.

At 2:30, still no new arrivals,  one of my nephews came up to me and whispered

“Is there anything to eat, Auntie?”

We got some crisps out for the kids and smuggled them a few sausages.

Finally, at 3:15, with loads of food now just going cold waiting for the illustrious guests, people started arriving.  The kids were starving, the adults were tipsy (Pimms goes down really easily) and the three amigos at the grill had everything almost ready.  After spectacularly awkward introductions, (and I was at the grill at the time, so I think they assumed I was catering staff) my aunt declared lunch served at about 3:30pm.  We put their offerings on the table with ours and the multicultural BBQ  began.

It went quite well I think.  Obviously, the two groups separated with A’s colleagues on one end of the patio and Greeks on the other.  Attempts were made to get chatting among the groups and with some success, (although my aunt R latched on to one poor Japanese man, questioned him until he was sweating and then took his plate away while he was still eating.  When she realised her gaffe, she spent the rest of the afternoon following him and force feeding him.)  My brother covered all the smokers at the back of the garden and the kids all got along like a house on fire.  It was one of those glorious English Summer days (about 5 a year) where the weather was just right, the sun shone brightly and it was cool in the shade.  All in all,  a lovely day.

My aunt remained slightly annoyed by the lateness though.  I personally feel that latecomers shouldn’t be waited for.  They know what time to come, I always plan for a time to start serving food, and if people haven’t arrived, well they can have whatever’s left.  I am very British like that.  I think it’s rude and disrespectful to be late. It’s as if you are telling the hosts that all of their efforts are unappreciated and insignificant.  Frankly anyone who has received guests at home will know and appreciate how much thought goes into these things.  I mean the other day I had my parents and brother over for dinner and had to move every item of furniture in the house so we could sit around my dining table which usually sits against the wall.   I have become slightly more relaxed about timekeeping as I have gotten older, but really anything more than 15 minutes (unless something unavoidable has happened) is not ok.  Let me just define unavoidable.  Unavoidable is – the babysitter arriving late, getting a flat on the way or encountering unexpected traffic (I include getting trapped behind the level crossing near my brother’s house in this category by the way!).  Getting lost on the way, or being unable to find parking is also unavoidable.  I was having so much fun with the kids, the time got away from me is avoidable.  I didn’t think it would matter what time I showed up? Also avoidable – after all, if everyone thought like that, parties would never happen.

Also, could I just say at this point that couples who accept invitations should state if they aren’t both coming.  When you invite a couple, and they say yes, you are expecting 2 people.  I mean, when I am invited somewhere, I go.  I don’t send someone else instead.  I admit that sometimes it would be nice to just phone in these appearances, or send someone along who you think would have more fun, but people have asked you because they want to spend time with you.  Not your husband/wife/significant other/lawyer/representative. You.  OK, rant over.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the late guests.  My aunt was, understandably, upset that her guests should arrive two and a half hours after the stated time.  She told A that she had been unpleasantly surprised by this display of bad timekeeping by his Japanese colleagues.  His response was as follows:

“I asked them about that.  I told them that we had very clearly said 1pm, and given them detailed directions to the house, so why did they all come so late?  They told me that they had all discussed it, and seeing as it was a Greek event, they unilaterally decided to arrive late so as not to make you, their hosts, uncomfortable.”

You couldn’t make this stuff up.  They had turned up two and a half hours late so as not to offend their hosts.  And we had all showed up exactly on time so as not to offend the guests.

So, in case you were wondering, the cultural divide is well, sends its regards,  and on Sunday was residing at a BBQ in North London.

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