My parents dragged me off to a fine-dining restaurant last week. As in, extremely fine. So fine that if it got any finer, it would snap off. With us teenagers loving nothing more than loitering around the community McDonald's or, in moments of weakness, sitting inside to watch the Tom and Jerry show in the kids' area, I slouched into the car with reluctance. I had been unceremoniously ordered out of ripped jeans and mismatched socks with trainers.
With my self-esteem already at a low ebb, Mum was now proceeding to give me the customary list of instructions. You know, the usual: "Don't stuff 10 canapés in your mouth at once" and "Forks and knives were invented for a reason. And that reason was not to prod olives with them so the juice squirts out." Honestly. Sometimes you'd think me still an immature, pimply-faced adolescent who can't tell the difference between soup and consommé. Well, I couldn't until last week, but perhaps it's best not to discuss that.
So there we were, at the foot of a building in one of those newly constructed areas in Dubai, the valet driving our car away to the parking. My incoherent moaning about concerns for the safety of the car and its contents were hastily shushed by my decidedly careless, too-trusting parents with a sharp nudge and a meaningful glance at the other valets. As we were the first diners of the evening, five bored waiters and waitresses descended upon us smilingly, holding back chairs and laying table napkins on our laps. I was beginning to like it less and less. My conviction that there was definitely something fishy going on became firmer - no one, not even a waitress, could beam in such a pleased way about having the pleasure of holding my chair out for a grumpy-looking me. I mean, it is me we are talking about, but still.
The starters were quickly brought out. Lost in thought, I had completely missed what had been ordered for me - probably no one wanted to risk having me demand whether I could get a decent hot dog round here. Sniffing the soup cautiously and pouring some of it into my mouth, I swallowed tentatively. It tasted like cream of mushroom. Not bad. A few more slurps had me choking on a mouthful of something so bland and squishy that I was now certain about the restaurant owners being evil scientists testing their newly discovered poison on innocent diners.
My indignant spluttering was sharply put to a halt with a rebuke: "Don't you dare spit your paté out." How did Mum know what I was choking on was paté? When I put the question to her, I received the unsatisfactory reply that she always knows everything. It may be a passing whim, of course, but I fancied my face rather more green the next day than it used to be. Failing liver, probably. The quail's eggs floating in the murky depths of the soup were edible, if not delectable, and I later made a thankful attack on the various buttered breads and canapés sitting tantalisingly on the table.
Although rather full for the main course, I plunged into my dish when the waiters set it upon the table with that little flourish thing they always do. Reaching for the wrong knife and fork, as I discovered later, I began to carve up my canard aux petits pois. It's funny how unimpressive it sounds when you translate the French - duck with peas. Anyway, carving up canard aux petits pois requires considerably more effort than one would imagine, and it was a full five minutes later that I managed to shove a tiny piece of duck into my mouth. Chewing it took another five. I stumbled on bravely through the meal, a heroine facing up to formidable challenges and defiantly refusing to give up, however thorny the path might be.
The parents simply sat and stared, and provided welcome relief after about 20 minutes with an irritable: "Oh, all right, you can order something else now." I politely offered Dad the remains of my meal. His plate wasn't any too empty either, and he was beginning to look unquestionably flustered. He took a brief peek at the now-shredded meat, huddled beneath an unappetising stew of mushed up peas. Groaning, he closed his eyes and turned his head away.
Taking inspiration from Anton Ego - the critic in Ratatouille - the idea of pompously summoning the chef and telling him exactly what I thought of his fare fleetingly passed through my mind. Then I glimpsed Mum poised on the other side of the table and sorrowfully rejected the thought. Reaching for the menu, I ordered three scoops of ice cream and settled back happily. Finally, the finest part of fine dining - dessert - was about to manifest itself. My manners now oh-so-perfect, I finished every drop - and it was good.
Lavanya Malhotra is a 14-year-old student in Dubai.