by Carrie Kirk
The young woman was no bigger than a minute. If my mom had been there, that's how she would have described the girl sitting next to me at the dining table in the B&B where we were both vacationing. Bird bones, pale skin and with a curve to the back and shoulders that signified a profession where sitting and stress were two of its major prerequisites. It was our second encounter but our first conversation. And I walked away from it thinking how great it is that a simple table set for four strangers can be a welcome one.
Our first meeting was the day before. It was the middle of the week at the end of the summer season in Napa Valley. The creaky Victorian house was hosting just a handle of winery-goers so only two tables of four were set for the all-inclusive full breakfast. The only other guests staying at the inn were sitting at the table near ours. The four large "New Jerseyonians" tested the diminutive chairs. Their thick accents and abundant opinions kept me entertained as we worked through our meal. Alas, my poor John lost his dining partner as I intently filed away each detail of the table's conversation and all mannerisms. (Example to be said with character accent: "No berries in my fruit salad, please. I just hate those little seeds. Strawberries, kiwis, tomatoes. But I DO like cucumbers.") It seemed as if the young woman and her partner (Husband? Boyfriend? Illicit lover? Damn you, B&B's and the curiosities that you ensue!) had timed it just right as the four Jerseyonians and we Hoosiers filed out as they entered the dining room, allowing them to sit quietly and undisturbed at a table set for two.
The next day they weren't so lucky. Yes, our small mafia contingency had checked out and moved on, taking their distaste for small seeds with them, but John and I coincidently finished our morning run at the same time our two young friends were just beginning to cut into plates of sausage and French toast. Ugh, I thought, Give me a big hotel any day. Even though I'm nosy and can be pretty chatty, who really wants to make friends first thing in the morning? But I am a woman of conversational duty, so we sat next to the couple and engaged.
There has been a lot of talk about the return to communal dining. From the family kitchen table to restaurant lunch counters, cafeterias, bars and Benihana, of course, the idea of eating together isn't something new. Like Black Market, the wonderful restaurant on Mass Ave, a table should invite many to enjoy much. But with space denoting status and comfort in our culture, and the lack of liquid libation to assist you and your table mates in letting the proverbial hair down, then what? That's when the return of good, old-fashioned manners must persist.
It seemed appropriate that these two couples -- one young and engaged, the other not-so-young and footloose, sat together in a heavily-curtained, gilded room and got to know each other. La Belle Époque B&B is named after a period in French and Belgian history that overlapped with the late Victorian era in the United Kingdom. It was a time of optimism, peace and prosperity with a foundation of "refined sensibilities."
As we ate during our time together, they learned a little about us and we learned a lot about them (I told you I'm nosy). And we even shared a long laugh with these New Yorkers, who both work in finance, about the over-the-top wedding announcements featured in the Sunday New York Times. Conversation is an art form. Food is also most definitely an art form. And when the two have the opportunity to collide, life can briefly be a work of art even amongst strangers.