On being a gentleman

Today is Freedom Day, 13 years after Nelson Mandela’s election as the first president of a democratic South Africa (make that “democratic”).

Freedom Day means a public holiday, which means not having to be anywhere before you want to be there. With today’s rain, I planned a brunch of homebaked fruit loaf (fig, apple, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg) with goat’s cheese, some crispy smoked bacon from my local butcher, a drizzle of honey and a glass of Gewurtztraminer.

My plan got derailed by an invitation for lunch at Leinster Hall, one of Cape Town’s very own “gentlemen’s” clubs. I have long wondered what it would take me to get an invite to a gentleman’s club, and perhaps it was dressing all in black or perhaps it was being with two well-respected gentlemen (who share a French surname) that did the trick, but I got in, and the treatment was all that I would expect of a gentleman’s club.

We had lunch in the “bistro” section of the establishment which, for you plebeians out there, is a very glorified sports bar. The kind of place, in other words, where ladies’ chairs are pulled out for them and their napkins arranged on laps, all under the watchful eye of the rugby on the corner TV.

The man who waited on us was someone who appeared to have been there for many, many years. He reminded me of the chief waitor at my favourite restaurant as a child, the Lourenco Marques in Mbabane (Swaziland); an old, partially toothless man who was as permanent a fixture as the orange leather seats and the domed lamps, so cheesy and so familiar, like coming home.

My smoked salmon sandwich was good and just the right size for a Freedom Day lunch. The wine was decent and the coffee shit, though probably forgivable. It seems too tall an order to expect everything to be perfect these days. Our expectation of as much may very well be linked to how good we’ve all become to taking things out of context. If you’re at an Italian restaurant, sure, bad coffee would be inexcusable. Same for French, or anything that goes under the name “cafe” or “bistro”. But I think we would do well to remember that not all culinary establishments have made, nor need to make, their mark on the strength of the coffee they serve. Besides, there’s bound to be a Vida close by, if real coffee proves to be essential to end off a good lunch.

It was for me, and now that that’s been sorted, the only thing that remains is to get through the next four hours of having to be where I don’t want to be. Not that it’s a bad place to be (how many people get to moan about sitting in a wine shop for an afternoon?), but only because I could think of other places I’d rather be.

But I will accept these as the requisites to being a gentleman, and look forward to the steak that awaits, because even if I have reverted to being a lady by 8pm tonight, when I close up, I know that there will be a gentleman at my dinner table. The real kind; the one who defies the niceties of language. I’m talking about a gentle man.