I have forever been fearful of predicting the nationality of someone I have just met since a shameful moment in the Dubai Marina Mall branch of Waitrose on New Years Day 2014. I was innocently shopping with a Canadian girl who worked at Carluccios; we’d met and exchanged numbers whilst I was dining there during the run up to Christmas.
Aside from possessing sparkling eyes and a come-to-bed smile, the sole piece of intelligence I’d gathered pertained to her job title of deputy head chef, a fact I’d independently confirmed through reading the name and title printed on the blue badge pinned above her right breast, and the lack of resistance she offered after I addressed her as Abigail, as the badge stated. In a transparent attempt to impress her, I had perhaps faintly amplified my culinary abilities and we’d agreed to meet in the Marina the following week to buy some food and serve up a storm back at mine. As we struck the deal, I was acutely aware that my performance in the kitchen would dictate whether I was allowed back on stage for an encore in the bedroom.
We met on the Marina Promenade and traded tales of our time in the world’s most superficial city as we wondered past the gleaming luxury yachts harboured at the water’s edge and the Arab men in matching white head-to-toe kandoras, segregated in separate cafes according to their keffiyehs, or headdresses; white for Emiratis, white and red cheques for the Saudis sitting next door and, further down towards the ocean, tied in a thick, white circle, the traditional turbans of the Omanis decorated a restaurant slouching in the shade of the Grosvenor House Hotel.
We stopped at a crossroads of three concepts; direction, quality and price. On our left stood the red, white and blue corporate crest of Carrefour, a byword for affordably priced, serviceable food. On the right, Waitrose was sneering at the commoners shopping at their inferior rivals. It is worth noting that in Dubai, Waitrose is even less competitively priced than in England, as the Middle East’s inhospitable climate prohibits the production of almost everything except camel milk and oil, resulting in expensive imports from Europe, Asia and Australia. It is also worth noting that this supermarket slash dinner date occurred at the epicentre of my saving spree for South America, which placed me in the awkward position of canvassing for Carrefour, whilst pretending I really wasn’t fussed about where we ended up.
“Shall we go French?” I tried to sound as ambivalent as possible while shamelessly drawing on the stereotype of French food being superior.
“Oh, but the food in Waitrose is so much nicer,” Abigail reasoned.
“Oh, definitely,” I reluctantly agreed, conscious that my performance in the supermarket was effectively the support act for my concert in the kitchen. We entered Waitrose hand-in-hand, Abigail was grinning in genuine delight at entering an emporium of culinary excellence. I was attempting to suppress a scowl.
I’d given the meal a bit of thought on my stroll down to the promenade and had decided to suggest lasagne; an inclusive dish we could make together, with the added benefit of requiring considerable oven time to allow for a couple of glasses of wine. If she found this too ordinary, I had a wild card up my sleeve: salmon and sharkfish pie. Only a real cunt would call that ordinary.
“Do you know what we should make?” Abigail asked, looking sweetly up at me.
“Go on?” I answered, doubtful as to whether salmon and sharkfish pie would be the next words I heard.
“Moroccan tagine!” This really wasn’t going to plan.
“Okay, sure.” I said, mindful I was going to have to invent an urgent need for whatever was shelved in the furthest aisle away, and then furiously google the recipe behind her back. We wondered through the vegetable section: she was picking them and I was nodding with the certainty of a man who had a few Moroccan tagines under his belt as she dropped each item into the basket.
“Let me just go and grab some green tea,” I said, spying the tea aisle in the far corner.
“Ooh, I love green tea, I’ll come too,” she replied, apparently intent on scuppering every plan I hatched.
“I’ll get you some, you get the meat.” I was careful not to specify which meat exactly, and also hopeful it wasn’t a vegetarian dish.
I found Abigail shortly after, perusing the beef products. “I’m not sure if we’ve got paprika, so let’s get some just in case,” I said, with the confidence of a man who’s just been on Jamie Oliver’s website.
We arrived in the queue for the checkouts, with a basket full of unnecessarily premium ingredients. All the cashiers were Philippinos, the second most populous nationality in Dubai, a nation of expats, after Indians. I had picked up some Tagalog, the primary language in the Philippines, whilst travelling there the previous year. I decided to impress Abigail by making some rudimentary smalltalk in Tagalog as we arrived at checkout number six.
“Magandang gabi. Kumusta ka?” Good evening. How are you? I asked the Philippino girl.
The buzz of activity around us seemed to stop and silence enveloped checkout number six.
The Philippino girl was staring at me, outraged. I racked my brain in fear, had I unintentionally insulted her family or implied she enjoyed multiple sexual partners? In Vietnamese, I remembered, the word for chicken and prostitute is the same, and differs only in intonation. But there are no such complexities in Tagalog, I was sure. Abigail was looking at me curiously, in the way one does when wondering whether a TV dinner for one may have been a better idea. The Philippino girl and I were staring at each other, locked in an awkward stalemate. I considered repeating myself, in case the words had caught her by surprise or passed her by.
Then she spoke. And her words lifted the curtain of silence to reveal a secret garden of shame and ignorance.