x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

How to deal with our personal discomforts

For me, one thing I can't stand is a noisy restaurant.

I had picked 33A because it was the first available window seat. Thanks to my trusty alarm clock, I benefited from the British Airways online check-in 24 hours before the flight, which I boarded after a domestic connection that smelled like a wet bag of cheese. But when I reached my row, I discovered that the seat next to mine was occupied by a woman of such magnificent girth that the adjacent armrests had been raised in order to accommodate it – and its resultant encroachment.

I spent the entire nine-hour flight immobilised by the sensation of a stranger’s loins nestled against my elbow.

Eventually, the flight attendants clanged through the aisle with their carts and the cabin was filled with the scent of curry, a persistent curse of BA’s menu rotation, permeating clothes and hair so that passengers can disembark smelling like they spent the night in an alley behind an Indian restaurant. It was an otherwise -pleasant flight.

I recently saw a photo of a restaurant in Bora Bora. People sat waist-deep in warm seawater on plastic patio furniture that had been anchored to the white sand. Is this what people consider to be “having it all”? It just looks tacky and vulgar to me, which for some reason reminded me of my very first visit to the café at THE One in Abu Dhabi, where I watched a woman on the couch read a magazine, eat a piece of cake, then slide her big stubby feet out of her mules, balance them against the coffee table, and begin clipping her toenails. If I’m seated a few metres away eating lunch when something like this happens, at what point does it become my business?

Last summer, at Animal in Los Angeles, we capped off a fantastic dinner with a strident banshee scream of “Happy Birthday” to the guest of honour, who was sitting two feet away. She thought we were miming. There are things that drive other people nuts: long waits, restaurants running out of a signature dish, brusque service, cash-only establishments, limited menus. My main gripe is noise: throw me in a restaurant so loud I need to strain to hear the server and I’ll plead to eat elsewhere.

I met a friend at the InterContinental hotel’s Belgian Café the other night for a quick snack before the place filled up. Although it was an hour after opening, management had decided that 6pm would be the ideal time to perform a grating sound check for their Oktoberfest celebration. With comedic synchronicity, every time Felicia opened her mouth to speak, techno music blasted from the speakers. Our ears hummed. Our eyebrows frizzed. Then the decibels transcended our pain thresholds and it stopped being funny. “I’m glad I’m not having a bad day,” she said, “or I’d be crying right now.”

We ended up at the Korean restaurant Han Kang at Abu Dhabi City Golf Club and ate in peace, with service that was blissfully discreet and modest.

When you value manners on the one hand, but also personal boundaries, it can generate sensitive internal dialogue. There’s room for growth in situations such as these. It’s easy enough to suspend a sound check, but flying the friendly skies can get a lot less friendly if you’re intolerant or inflexible. My discomfort is my own problem, not someone else’s – though how I deal with it can certainly change that – and not necessarily for the better.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico