A couple of days ago we went out to dinner with friends who used to live in Amsterdam but who moved to Toronto two years ago. They are back for a short visit and we met up at a family restaurant that serves traditional Dutch fare. The place was packed and as we entered we scuttled around a guidebook-toting, toddler-clinging young American family being turned away because they had not made reservations.
Thankful for my friend’s foresight to have called ahead we took our places, seven of us around an old rustic table, the two men seated at one end. We placed our orders, clinked the wine glasses and had a lovely evening of catching up, until…
“Oh, that’s not so nice,” said my friend across from me.
“What?” I asked, the problem not immediately obvious.
“That!” he replied, pointing with his knife at an almost empty plate of calf’s liver and onion.
I took a look and there, revealed now that the food was mostly gone, was a sauce-drenched housefly struggling laboriously step-by-step across his plate, straining for the dry freedom of the plate’s edge like a miniature B-movie monster emerging from the Hollywood tar-pits.
I stared at his plate in fascination. My brain overcame the wine and fired-up a few long-dormant neurons, ones I was surprised to find still in existence, let alone operational. The first made a connection to Tawfiq Al-Hakim’s short play, “The Fate of a Cockroach” and the other to Friedrich Nietzsche’s only quotable quote: “…the essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is …that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”
(In the fly’s case, “…which, hopefully, makes life possible“.)
“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!” I’ve seen it often enough in films and comics, but had never witnessed this event in real life.
The waitress came and whisked away the plate with its offending creature small and wonderful, and then returned to ask whether she could bring a new plate of liver, or any other plate on the menu, free of charge. But my friend’s mood had change. Glum and subdued, he declined, muttering that he didn’t feel like eating anymore.
Alarmed at seeing an opportunity for free food so easily slipping away, I quickly sprang in the breach and demanded of the girl that she bring us another bottle of wine, on the house. That was pushing our luck, but after checking with the proprietor, she came back triumphantly swinging a bottle of decent red. Still, I noticed, my friend’s evening had been irreparably damaged, and he never quite returned to his pre-fly enthusiasm.
Yesterday I received an email from someone I haven’t seen or heard from in a couple of years, explaining a recent transition he has made in life and work. In his note he gives extensive space to glowingly praise another mutual friend, and recall their work together. It just so happens that this third person, about whom he speaks so highly, is someone I also worked closely with but with whom I ended up having difficulties. Our partnership took a wrong turn.
“Isn’t it odd,” I mused at the dinner table, “how two people can experience the same – third – person in such different ways, and yet that person is just being who they are?”
To which my teenage daughter Eva added her high school wisdom, “Of course! Everyone has friends, even the ones who are jerks to you. They aren’t bad people, they just aren’t good ones for you.”
The dinner experience was fine before the fly emerged on the plate. If my friend had munched it down unknowingly with a bit of liver and onion, the whole evening would have been good. And even though he did notice, in the end one has to accept that any dish, like any life experience, has the potential to end in disappointment. Cherish what is good; get over what isn’t.