The Things You Do For Food…
16th January 2018
One of the joys of travelling for business is that you have the chance to eat or sample a whole range of foods that you would probably not otherwise encounter. In Georgia last November, I had the pleasure of sampling some very tasty dessert snacks, one of which had the texture of Turkish Delight but was made mainly from grapes. I may never see these outside Tbilisi, and in a way that’s good because it will be one of the things that will encourage me to go back.
Food is a great leveller. On the one hand it can be a bit like when you find someone has the same taste in music or supports the same football team. On the other, there is often a ritualistic element and etiquette to sharing food with ‘strangers’, and of course there are certain cultures in which what you eat, when you eat it, and how you eat it are all part of their welcome and part of how you show respect for your hosts.
Before I left for Georgia I read that it is rude to sip your wine, not that it really poses a problem for me! Toasts are traditional throughout the region, and apparently in Georgia a toast is followed by drinking your glass of wine down in one. I didn’t encounter that on my November trip. Some distance north in 2004, the tenth anniversary of a Russian distributor coincided with the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg’s charter, so vodka-accompanied toasts of flowed into the early hours and led me to take refuge in the men’s room several times in order to draw breath!
Food can be like a language in itself. In some countries and cultures, to decline food is an insult to your host. I am not referring here to Hollywood imagery of sheep’s eyeballs or fresh snake that has been ritually killed beside your table. To decline an offer of bread in countries where there is a food shortage can be seen as disrespectful to your host’s generosity, and to their family and their culture.
On a business trip to Istanbul in 1999 I had taken a number of gifts for my distributors. I selected tins of toffee in the shape of familiar British icons: a London bus; a telephone box; a red post box etc. My meetings there were always lively affairs, and it was always difficult to get across my points as they all talked over me and each other, very often in multiple languages. Some of the sales people were going to leave for the day so I took out my gifts and presented them. It seems it was customary to show appreciation of a gift of food by sampling it there and then. Blissful silence. The toffees stuck their teeth together and I was able to have my say!In 1996 I travelled to India, and my guide in Bombay ensured I only ate food that was ‘safe’, so the appetising bowl of seeds on the restaurant table was out of bounds. On closer inspection, the seeds were crawling with tiny insects. His constitution would cope with that. Mine would probably have gone into meltdown. A quick hop to Delhi for a few days at an open air exhibition and my hosts made sure I only ate what they ate. Until I saw a Wimpy Burger van near to our booth. I didn’t even like Wimpy burgers, but that reminder of home caused me to temporarily take leave of my senses. Thus Delhi Belly struck, and I arrived home a thinner and paler man. I had lost a stone in weight.
The only other time I have experienced food poisoning on that scale was on the return journey from Tbilisi. The food in Georgia had been exceptional. I hadn’t eaten the night before my early flight to Warsaw because I knew the long journey ahead would be punctuated with food breaks. I am convinced therefore that the complementary pancake and sausage provided in lieu of the excessive delays to my travel that day was the cause of another rapid slimming enforcement. I again arrived home a thinner and paler man!
We hired an independently owned holiday villa in Portugal in 2001, and immediately on arrival the owners appeared at the door to advise that my friend and distributor Eduardo had already made several calls to find out whether or not we had arrived. We arranged to drive to his holiday villa on the Algarve so our families could share a meal together. Eduardo knew of my allergy to shellfish and assured me his wife’s fish stew would be fine. It wasn’t. It rendered me useless for a few days afterwards because it contained shellfish! It would have been very rude to make an issue of it.
In 2007, when hosting a three day training session for a group of 20 Chinese business delegation they took me for a meal in a restaurant in Manchester’s Chinatown. There are two things I remember distinctly from that meal. First, they paid in Chinese currency. Second they had Chinese food cooked in the Chinese way, so we were presented with a whole range of dishes that I had not encountered before. As host I was given a special place at the table, so no matter how I felt about what I ate, it had to go down the little red lane with a smile and appreciation, and much of it I enjoyed. Few of the group spoke English so it was important to show due respect for their kind gesture of friendship.
In return, I took the group on an afternoon coach tour of Manchester. Unfortunately it rained buckets from the moment we left the restaurant, so I had to change the original plan, which, being a Red, was to finish the tour at Old Trafford for a walkabout in the souvenir shop. Our first destination was Manchester City’s stadium, ostensibly to take photographs by the Bee of the Bang sculpture that was outside the stadium at the time. The rain was so heavy that the best I could think to do was to park the coach outside the ‘wrong’ souvenir shop and let them loose in there!
Luckily I managed to agree a cut-price stadium tour. Rather than follow the rest of the group around the stadium, our group was led straight into the laser blue seats where, one by one, each of the delegates had a photograph taken with Mr. Reed the Red, then of the whole group with Mr. Reed the Red at the front in the middle. Astonishingly, a club steward then took the group into the home team’s changing room where, one by one, each of the delegates had a photograph taken with Mr. Reed the Red holding the shirt of City’s Chinese international Sun Ji Hai. So I felt I had returned their kind lunchtime gesture in spades. Now what was that I said about people who support the same football team?