We remain in Australia for this next article, which once again deals with travel and
cultural differences that you encounter amid fandom. The author of this article is
no stranger to travel, and in fact is a candidate in the current Down Under Fan Fund
Besides all these obvious differences, just as memorable are the odd behaviour and antics people display at 'settle the bill' time. A typical Australian procedure is that everyone puts in what they think will cover their portion, sometimes after requesting a copy of the menu to check. This is generally rounded up to the next convenient figure, such as $10, $15 or whatever notes they happen to have on them that can be easily changed from the growing pile in the middle of the table. The net result is usually a surplus which covers sundry table items, such as corkage, with fiddly change going as the tip.
A current example of this occurs at informal gatherings at K&Ms in Myers Arcade, Melbourne, on Friday nights. Complications can arise by people ordering two things, but at different tables, during seat hopping conversations, and consequently owing on two separate bills. However most of regulars there are reasonably honest and lack of payment is probably due to forgetfulness rather than duplicity. This system can even result in a sizeable refund if the waiter is not good at arithmetic! Clive Newall reminisces about the good old days at the Cafe Paradisio in Lygon Street, Carlton, where his social club usually benefited $8-12 per meal. Any K&Ms surplus is usually collected by Cath Ortlieb and donated to Friends of the Zoo. A case of 'FOTZ gaining the total's black'.
By contrast, while dining out with a group of American fans at Conspiracy in 1987, it was literally out with the calculators at the meal's end. Each bill item was ticked off for each person, individual totals were calculated and the appropriate tip added to them. Some pound coins were also sent to the cashier for changing before settling individual accounts with the pile in the centre of the table. I don't think the Americans were more parsimonious than other fans: it just seemed to be more a national eating out trait. Dining at an upmarket hamburger place in New York with a group of local fen later in my trip resulted in a similar occurrence. I checked the price of what I had had on the menu, added tip plus tax, then rounded the lot up to the next dollar, from $7.30 to $8 I think. The person totalling the payment pile made a point of returning 30¢ to me as I had 'overpaid'. Perhaps an explanation lies in the inherent tax and tipping systems in operation over-seas. In Australia, what it says on the menu is what we pay, with an added tip if the service impressed us. Overseas state tax (in the US) and tips, expected to be at least 10%, have to be added on afterwards, so it pays to check so you don't end up tipping twice.
I suppose one predominant theme about eating with fans is time, or rather the lack of it. Not that I mind this; while growing up on the farm, family meals usually took all of about 15 minutes actual eating time (I don't think my father ever ate at a restaurant where the meal took over an hour to be served and eaten while I was with him). Hosting the local Nova Mob SF discussion meetings once a month has led to trying a few nearby restaurants around Richmond. There was the Indian place, with a good chef and reasonable service. But when that chef left, and the time taken for a meal got so drawn out it was impossible to start at 6 pm and even finish main course by the meeting commencement time of 8 pm, we gave it up. I used to head off to open up, and hoped the others would arrive before the speaker got too annoyed. Of course if the speaker also happened to be dining, some of the attendees might have to cool their heels for a while on my front door. One night we overstayed and it poured rain while we were finishing dessert. Mark Linneman was not impressed with his wet feet gained while porch waiting.
We tried a Greek restaurant next, but lukewarm food and limited menu choices soon ended that. The Greek place was the Laikon, which was actually a trendy dining icon of the `70s. Now the Laikon has unfortunately fallen on low times. It came up in conversation at the recent ANZAPACon II, where I think it was Merv Binns who claimed they tried to take Jack Vance there during Tschai'con, but it was closed. It was cleaned out and vacant as of December 1993.
Currently (well, for the last 18 months) a Thai restaurant has worked fine. Seated by 6 pm, we've usually ordered by 6.10, and could have three courses and coffee over by 7 pm if we wanted to. Usually it's about 7.40 when we adjourn. The meals have been pretty consistent, and I can generally pick what the regulars will order. Bruce Barnes will inevitably go for tofu, Donna Heenan likes the cashew chicken, and Elaine Cochrane, after experimenting with lots of things, settles for prawn salad or spicy noodles and vegetables. I tend to order plum beef or pork. The desserts are a bit unusual in that pecan pie, date pudding, and chocolate mousse cake don't strike me as particularly Thai. The current chef considers himself an artist and the side walls are covered by his paintings and mottos. For our Christmas break-up we'll be going to a Chinese smorgasbord yum-cha in the city. This offers quite a few advantages over the usual yum-cha arrangement. You can eat the individual dishes in whatever order you prefer, not the random one they may arrive in. Vegetarians or people with eating preferences, such as gluten-free, can start straight away and not have to wait until a suitable dish arrives. You can also have as much of a particular favorite dish as you like.
Other moral dilemmas can also occur when eating out. Upon checking the bill you find that your main course hasn't been listed. Does this mean there is such a thing as a free lunch? Also, should you spread your good fortune by paying $1 each, say, to your fellow diners? Or do you just put in to cover for the rest of your meal, and guiltily wonder if the waiter will have the cost somehow deducted from their wages? Not only that, what happens if you know someone is about to leave and hasn't paid? Is hassling them in public worth it, or do you cover them and try to extort the amount later in private? And just how rude is leaving early so you can get home to watch that TV program you forgot to set the VCR for?
Anyway, eating out with fans is an experience in large group dynamics. Given that fannish preference for cheap meals means crowded, noisy, and cluttered surroundings, it's no wonder that they are mainly hectic events. Gafiation may actually be the search for a quiet intimate meal.
Title illustration by Peggy Ranson