A few weeks ago I had lunch in Paris with a close friend and it was a meal that so nearly did not happen. Tentative arrangements had started in the Spring. Out of the blue, Tom (see illustration), who lives in Australia, wrote to me saying he and his family planned to be in London at the end of the summer holidays – in September to be precise – and he wondered if I would be free for a meal. After checking my diary – we pencil in important dates months in advance – the prospect looked bleak. On the dates he proposed we planned to be in our cottage in Brittany. Missing our meal would have been a real disappointment, but for neither of us was there any obvious solution. Nevertheless, we promised each other to keep puzzling over the problem; we had to find a way. Then things went quiet.
I have been having meals with Tom for nearly twenty years. When we first met he was a medical student on the Graduate Entry Course – his first degree had been in Maths – and I was one of his tutors. For whatever reason we ‘clicked’. He is now one of just over a handful of close friends I eat with regularly; meals (could be breakfast, lunch or supper) take place once or twice a year, although for Tom, meetings are less frequent; before our Paris meal there was a lunch in London in 2020 and, earlier, a dinner in Sydney in 2018. On all these occasions there is nothing extravagant, just me with one, or sometimes two close friends, who eat together for an hour, feeling at home, sitting, catching up and sharing ideas, concerns, aspirations, reminiscences, perhaps even offering support. Some moments are personal, some are more matter-of-fact, but whatever happens, meeting in this way has become an important bedrock of my retirement.
Interestingly, such meetings were not possible while I worked – there was simply no time. Moreover, odd though it may seem, I actually did not see the added value of being with close friends and going for a meal just to ‘chat’ – that was something men did not do! What luck that this position has changed.
Of my ‘dining’ friends, most I have known for between twenty and forty years, but for three it is closer to sixty ; our long shared histories are a real bonus. Over half are men, most I have met through work, all happen to be atheists and left wing(ish), all are independent and precise thinkers who speak their mind, and all of them understand, and are happy to tolerate, me.
Tom’s trip to London was getting close when there was a flurry of activity – he wanted to make a suggestion. If Rohan and I could end our holiday sooner than planned and come up to Paris a day early, and if he could find a plane to bring him to Paris from Florence on that same day – he was planning to spend a few days there with an old, ‘mathematical’ university friend – our meal together would be possible. And so it was.
I booked a table for 12.30 at Brasserie Camille, my favourite Paris restaurant that happens to be situated in the middle of one of the city’s mediaeval districts. I got to the restaurant a few minutes early and sat at a table from where there was a view of the street. Then, on the dot, I saw Tom, who is very tall – around two metres (six foot seven inches) – walking towards the restaurant along the narrowest of streets. After all our planning with its carefully coordinated travel arrangements I asked myself whether the scene of his arrival was real. No question – it certainly was Tom and neither the lunch, nor the conversation nor the comradery let me down. It was, as is usually the case, another very special lunch.
Once this most carefully of planned meals was over, guided by Tom and his app we slowly walked together the five kilometres to the Gare du Nord where he would catch his train back to London. I often feel sad when parting after one of my meals, but this time, as we had a hug and I waved him off – it was as though he was going back to Australia – I was close to tears. At my age, another meeting in two years cannot be guaranteed!
The illustration is a photo of Tom taken during our lunch at the Brasserie Camille.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank, Tom, Rohan and Vivien.