In the restaurant
Last year, my wife took me out on my birthday, and we had lunch at the MNAC in Barcelona. The Museo Nacional de Arte de Catalunya is a very pompous building dominating one side of the mountain of Montjuic which closes off the western end of the city. The original heaviness of the archictecture has been converted into some wonderfully spacious and elegant galleries, and upstairs, overlooking the entrance portico, has been installed a restaurant with spectacular views over the heart of Barcelona.
That's where this story happened.
Observing is something that we all do, to a greater or lesser extent, all of the time - but perhaps we don't observe that we're observing as much as we should. I suppose I wrote this down, and took the time to try to get it right, because it was a magical moment in a very happy day.
The magic was to be granted, suddenly, a glimpse into the reality of the couple that my wife and I had been observing in an off-hand way ... almost as if for a moment we could see the couple the way that they saw themselves. The mystery of every other human being ...
In the restaurant
They are an ordinary couple - both middle-aged, correct, vaguely professional. They enter the restaurant a little hesitantly, he ushering her in first with a slightly clumsy half-bow, she looking around cautiously as if uncertain what to do next or which table to choose. The restaurant is spacious and filled with warm silvery light flooding in from the tall windows that look out over the city spread out below, bathed in a wintry sunlight. It is on the first floor of the national art gallery, overlooking the main entrance, and the first impression is elegantly modern - a gleaming cream floor, pale walls and dove-gray tablecloths. Then you look up and see the neo-classical columns and complicated decorations of the original architecture, all serious gray stone and russet browns, soaring upwards to a high vaulted ceiling. It is only when you sit down at your table that you notice the neatest trick of the architect who did the conversion - an enormous mirror, leaning out at 45 degrees above you, so that you and everyone and everything in the restaurant are reflected, and seen as if from above. This God's-eye view doubles the sense of space, on top of the view of the whole city from the vast windows.
"Look, we're not the last. I thought they weren't taking any more orders."
"It is pretty late, but ... well, there's hardly anyone here - the restaurant probably
needs the business."
"Boring shoes ..."
"Dunno why they've sat in the corner - there's no view. Anyway, have you decided?"
"I never remember - what's 'carpaccio' ?"
At the corner table, they sit at right angles, and open the menus. She sits slim and straightbacked, a hood of straight brown hair pushed back over the nape of her neck. Her glasses are oval with dark frames, firmly in place on a long nose. She has folded a dark overcoat on an empty chair, and her soft grey woollen top has a high collar swathed around her neck, with short sleeves that leave her forearms bare. She studies the menu, then asks a question, looking at him suddenly and attentively. He is bigger, but he slumps in the chair, peering at the menu through gold-rimmed glasses, so their heads are at the same level. His suit is a cold dark gray, correctly formal, but his tie is a surprisingly bright blur of red and blue. His face is rather lined and serious, with something of a double chin as he squints down at the menu in front of him - but it comes to life as he answers her question, a hint of a smile showing neat white teeth.
"Good ... well, I love the taste but it could be hotter. What's that like?"
"Really good - this sauce, what was it - 'frutos del bosque'? - sweet, delicious.
Here, try some."
"Mmm! That's good - better than mine. What are you looking at?"
"That couple... the ones in the corner."
"Well, what? I can't just turn round and look."
They order, the menus disappear, and they sit slightly stiffly, hands politely off the table and out of sight, and talk quietly. When their food arrives, they eat seriously and carefully.
"I wonder who they are..."
"Who? That couple?"
"Yes. I can't work out ..."
"Just married, I thought."
"Don't think so ... they don't seem to ... know each other very well, I suppose."
They have finished and are sitting politely again, watching each other across the corner of the table. He is telling a story and she is listening. He is animated, involved in his story but glancing at her at key moments of surprise or puzzlement or humour. She looks at him continuously, following every movement. He finishes, and she smiles, leaning forward to ask a question, intently.
"Oh ... their hands ... they're not in sight!"
"No - in sight - you can't see them, I mean."
"What are you talking about?"
"Well, don't look straight away, but that couple behind you ... don't look at
them, but look up, at the mirror ..."
The mirror peers down at the couple's heads and their shoulders, and also down below the level of the table. Her bare forearm lies on the cushioned corner of the bench, and her hand cups his forearm. His fingers stroke the flesh of her arm, gently, constantly, tenderly.
David Ripley 12 February 2010
Using the text
Step 1 ... give out the story and ask the students to read it.
Step 2 ... it may be best to ask for problems with the language - there are some relatively unusual words used, and they were chosen with some care. Notice that there are three descriptive set-pieces: the restaurant itself (ll. 4-14), the woman (ll.22-26), and the man (ll. 27-31). In dealing with the vocabulary in each of these sections, encourage the students to picture what is being described, as clearly as they can.
two different codes
Step 3 ... once you've got the descriptive sections out of the way, elicit the idea that the sections in italics, the dialogue, is written in a different way. The classic approach is to ask the Stupid Question "Is the whole text written in the same way?" ... and you get the obvious answer that it obviously isn't. And then the Real Question, which is "How do you know?" ... which leads you into the ideas that the dialogue is written colloquially ... with simpler vocabulary ... fragmented grammar ... incomplete but clear syntax ...etc
Step 4 ... So why? Why bother to write it like that?
Step 5 ... But what's the point? Some students won't see any point at all, but others will catch something of the idea that it's about the mystery of other people that I have referred to in the introduction. Dwell on this, and then expand into why people write stories at all - and especially why so many people spend so much time receiving stories, through films and plays and novels and ...
shaping a story
Step 6 ... Suggest a writing frame:
> two couples / groups of people, one observing the other
> dialogue + description
> the dialogue comments on the description
That is the 'formula' of this story, but it could be varied - you could have 'double-dialogue', where we hear what both groups are saying ... perhaps about each other because each group is observing the other ?
Or ... 'double-dialogue' + 'double-description', where the description reflects what each group is seeing, or chooses to see?
Links & extensions
LifeWatching ... it must be good for students to practise the close observation of real life, and then write about what they see, lucidly, honestly and expressively. Various pages in this site provide a range of different models of how to carry out this process...
> Narrative observed ... a section from a graphic novel which skilfully shows the first person narrator observing other characters and drawing conclusions - what we all do all the time, really...
> Flying with missiles ... a true story (it happened to me, honest!) which has then been polished and presented to make a short story - an example of how events which were pretty stressful at the time can be turned into an entertaining narrative...
> To make a play ... a poem about the writing of plays based on the relationship between observed reality and constructed fiction ... good use of simple grammar and vocabulary to express complex ideas...
> The blood of strangers ... a powerful short story about a doctor in Emergency who nearly makes a wrong diagnosis... obviously based on close observation of real individuals, since the author writes on the basis of his own experience as a doctor... points out how we assemble our ideas about people from very small clues...
> Nationalist myths ... from a book exploring national identities - but the text is written in a lively 'novelistic' style, the kind of journalism or reporting which uses techniques like direct speech and dialogue to involve the reader in a dynamic 'narrative present'...
> Tourist tribes ... an example of the primary process of observing, then thinking about what you've observed and formulating some kind of analysis ... also includes quotes of different points of view, by different observers...
> Observing behaviour ... watching people from a cafe terrace - specifically students, in this case... how you can infer a great deal from small details, and how you can develop humour... or satire... from this