A dinner invitation, once accepted, is a sacred obligation. If you die before the dinner takes place, your executor must attend. So said Ward McAllister. Do you know him? No? I didn’t either. Apparently he was an American celebrity who lived from 1827 to 1895. He coined the phrase ‘the four hundred’ (am wondering now if that’s what Budapest’s bar 400 is called after?). In his mind, only 400 people in New York really mattered; those who felt at ease in the ballrooms of high society. (‘If you go outside that number’, he warned, ‘you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease.’) Regardless of his snobbishness and his appearing to be something of a prat, I tend to agree with his view of a dinner invitation – once accepted, it is sacrosanct.
I like having people to dinner. I enjoy setting the table, bringing out the good cutlery and the crystal. I enjoy thinking about the menu, wondering how creative I can be with what’s in the fridge. I enjoy figuring out the guest list. Who will get on with whom? Who will have what in common? I like the idea of introducing people to people they might never otherwise meet. I like the camaraderie, the civility. Most of all, I like how it transports me in time to somewhere other than today.
That might sound a little odd. For me, dinner parties are a form of escapism. Not that I have anything in particular that I want to escape from – I have a grand life. But there’s something other-worldly today about bringing a group of people around a table for dinner – in your home. Yes, we all do it in restaurants and bars. But at home, it’s different. More personal. It requires more thought, more effort, more involvement. The very nature of our lives these days dictates that most of our public living is done in public spaces – on Facebook, in chatrooms, in bars – and although we may know many people very well, it’s interesting to stop and wonder how many of them have we visited at home.
At home in Ireland, this isn’t an issue – because it’s home. My friends know my friends; my parents know my friends; my friends know my parents. Here in Budapest, though, in expat life, it gives me pause for thought. Although we have extended social circles and know lots of people, although we connect regularly with our myriad acquaintances, how many of them know where we live? How many have been invited inside?
Earlier this week some friends left Budapest and others told me of their plans to leave. Both couples have been to dinner at mine. This weekend, I had another dinner party. And it ticked all the boxes. Good food, good company, good conversation. As this week draws to a close, I am grateful to those who humour me by joining me for dinner. I am grateful to those who give me a reason to cook and an opportunity to engage with another world.
Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52