Date: 9 August 2015.
Location: in the park, in the sun, Barnesbury.
It’s as bad as I’d expected.
Two vulpine greeters dressed in sleek black take in my outfit from top to toe. Hair: acceptable but manifestly damaged by London’s hard water and in need of a hair dresser’s expensive touch. Shirt: Top Shop, not real silk. Skirt: cute, edgy, but not ironed. Sandals: cute, white, laser-cut, on trend. Toenails: chipped red-lacquered, only dreaming of a pedicure. I’ve made an effort with my appearance but it’s immediately obvious that I’m getting a strong C+ at best here.
Nevertheless I say the magic word — my cousin’s name — and am ushered into the dark and sweet-smelling sanctum. Into Hakkasan, the beautiful bunker that is the epicenter of haute Chinese cuisine in London.
I’m here to have dinner with my Canadian cousin (once removed, I had to look that up) and her family. She has three little boys and a husband with a wonderfully wicked sense of humour and I’m massively looking forward to seeing them all. And the dim sum. Let’s not forget the dim sum.
After hugs all around — and after I finally stop exclaiming like an idiot how ‘big the boys are now!’ in legitimate shock — we settle into our meal. My lovely cousin has opted for a Sunday Yum Cha package that includes drinks. Let’s be honest here, I could do without drinking yet again (ahem, having just come the pub in Notting Hill with Legally Blonde) but that’s simply not going to happen. Especially once yet another fox of a waiter settles an ice bucket and French champagne by my elbow. The meal is wonderful and so is having a ‘family dinner’, even as an intruder. They’ve also invited along another friend of the family, a twenty-something girl whose softly-uttered name I can’t quite catch over the hum of Sunday dinner conversation (Marianne? Marine? Martine?), who is Parisienne and here on an internship before starting her MBA in autumn. Just in case I wasn’t feeling quite shabby enough, I’m now seated by a stylish French waif.
The addition of Martine (Marnie? Matinee?) adds an interesting dimension to dinner because my cousin is French Canadienne. She’s fluent (indeed, garrulous) in both French and English. On the other hand, Marine has wonderful English comprehension but is hesitant to speak it — and I’m the same but for French. So, our end of the dinner table is a wonderful melange of bilingual conversation. My cousin will talk in French, I’ll feebly contribute but break into very-fast Aussie-accented English and then we’ll be back to French. For the first time in a very long time I’m reminded that French is actually quite lovely and it’s a gift to understand it.
Dinner is impossibly glamourous and involves so much alcohol that I mightn’t have noticed if it hadn’t been. I’m prompted to select my ‘pre-diner cocktail’ then plied with champagne, then we get heavily involved in a parade of wonderful oriental dishes. There are exquisite, plumpe dim sum adorned with jewel-like caviar, colourful tangy salads, salty, lush meats and a lemon tart I don’t need but adore. Then we’re promoted to choose our ‘after-dinner coctails’. It’s a Sunday night but Now Alex decides that any fallout is Furure Alex’s problem and picks a basil and lemon-vodka concoction.
Meanwhile, we play a bit of musical chairs. I get to chat adult private equity business stuff with the dad, then move on to the boys. I remember them from 2010 when Boy 1 always wore red, Boy 2 blue and Boy 3 green. Now, Boy 1 is about 15 and just on the cusp of becoming a real heartbreaker at high school, I can tell. He’s sweet and earnest. Boy 2 is the intellect of the family, if perhaps less socially aware than his big brother. Boy 3, at 10, is — without a doubt — going to grow up to be an Evil Genius. His parents seem to have made peace with this. The three of them tumble over one another to tell me stories and we have way too much fun telling inappropriate jokes, re-enacting Family Guy skits and sniggering at our end of te table.
All of this (right down to the vulpine greeters) is repeated on Thursday night when they graciously invite me to join another ‘casual family dinner’ at the very swish OXO Tower restaurant. The boys steal one another’s French fries, we grown ups drink buttery Chardonnay paired with venison and enjoy themarvellous view over the Thames and all the poor suckers trying to home during a tube strike. The food is, again, lovely, but what I enjoy most is the family vibe. The boys tell me about their summer camp pranks (mattress tipping is a thing). More Family Guy is quoted. Multiple times their parents have to shush the kids and I have to control giggles, caught guiltily between laughing with the boys — but relating better to parents. I tell the table the story of my little sister’s long-gone imaginary friends, Handy and George. George was her virtuous right hand, Handy her sinister left. Handy and George would get up to all sorts of mischief (the latter always trying to no avail to keep his brother in check). They would confer quietly together, my sister’s hands curled into puppet shapes, and then my sister would translate for the wider family. A cupcake was missing? Handy took it. A mug had smashed on the kitchen floor? Handy threw it, George had warned him not to. Stories of Handy and George keep everyone I stitches. Boy 3 swears to avenge Handy and bring him back to life. I feel a little concerned for the ramifications on the rest of my cousin’s European holiday…
Outside, the family calls a taxi to head back to Kensington, then on to Paris. I give my impossibly glamorous cousin and all her bots a squeeze goodbye and, naturally enough, find myself thinking about families and what I’d like my own to look like some day.
A lot like that, I think.