People often ask me what my favourite Indian restaurants in Oxford are - the answer to that is that I haven't tried all of them, but my top 3 are Aziz on the Cowley Road (often in the top 50 in the country), Bombay on Walton St (it's small, tends to fill quickly and if it is FULL to the gills, you'll pretty much only be allowed to hang for 90 minutes) and Spice Lounge in Summertown, my 'local', as it were. I have recently been told that Kebab Kid on the Cowley Rd and on Gloucester Green offer the best homemade Pakistani-style curry around - having tried a bite of Nahed's one evening, I have to agree. I'll get back to you when I've tried a proper serving size.
But of them all, it's Spice Lounge that's my haunt and my housemates' (yes, that's all of them) favourite for takeaway, and not just because it's nearest - the food is great, but on top of that, the people are fabulous. I feel like a member of the family there - I get huge grins and a warm welcome on my arrival. Ali, the owner and my favourite Hajji, and I check in with each other's lives - sometimes his kids are in the reception area, doing their homework. Often, if it's early and quiet, we'll have a proper chat.
So it really is like visiting an extended family member's home.
And as with all extended family members, there are the odd bumps in the road. We're human. Last night, an extremely capable and solicitous, but young and new, waiter stopped by our table about midway through and asked if we were finished. Now, to be fair, it was obvious *I* was, but less clear that my friend was. She took a final bite and sheepishly put her knife and fork down as we continued catching up on a year's worth of news.
A couple of minutes later, I gently asked if she was done, saying I wasn't worried about the time. She looked hugely relieved and said, 'Well, I'll just have some more rice, if that's ok.'
'Of COURSE it is - *I* had a Grande Eggnog latte before you arrived at Starbucks, then a small Gingerbread latte to keep you company. Eat away and as much as you want, I don't care!' She carried on very happily till her rice was finished, but I was aware that she might not have done so.
Also, I had a report from a friend who'd been asked a question she deemed personal and impertinent - NOT a come-on, I hasten to add. Just a question out of curiosity, but one that was just a bit too personal coming from a stranger.
Time, I thought, to speak to Ali. Maybe I could have pulled the waiter aside, but he was very busy and I did think that it was worth addressing with everyone, just in case he wasn't alone.
I turned around to see him by the coffee machine, checking on bits and pieces, excused myself to my friend, and tapped him on the shoulder. 'Hey, could I borrow you for a minute?'
'Listen, you guys are absolutely fantastic, I love how friendly you are and I love that I'm known here. Just a couple of things.'
'PLEASE. Tell me. Tell me, I want to know.'
'Well, first of all, I just want to say that your new waiter - the young one - is fantastic and totally on top of things. Just the tiniest thing: he came by and asked if we were finished - I obviously was, but she wasn't...and you know how it is. He obviously just wanted to get it right. Now, I'd just say, 'No,' and not be bothered, but...'
'Sometimes, especially if people are here for the first time, they get conscious about it and stop eating.'
'Exactly, whereas someone like me just isn't fussed.'
Then I narrated my other friend's story, prefacing it with, 'I know it was just curiosity, and meant in a friendly way.'
His eyes went wide, and even as he agreed with me as to motive, he said, 'But, from the other side, it's offensive, isn't it?'
'It could be, ja.'
'See, this is what happens sometimes when you aren't on the floor and when people are new - we got a new team whilst I was away (on Hajj). Sometimes, I just don't know. Thank you SO much for telling me.'
'Look, please - you guys are fantastic and so friendly, it's great, it's just those things.'
'Please. Always come and tell me. And tell your friends they can come and tell me.'
I walked away feeling great, and the rest of dinner included a decadent pudding thrown in for free and profuse thanks from Ali again on my way out.
It was amazing.
I was forcibly reminded, as I always am after a 'clear the air' session, how much better relationships are once things are worked through. There is space for conflict, space for anger, space for hurt, space for discussion - and every single time I've worked things through with someone, the relationship has come out stronger and deeper as a result.
I don't get the burying, the avoiding - I mean, I understand them, but I don't get them. Things don't get better, they get worse. Relationships where you're walking on eggshells are either going to be dropped into the space where you need to deal with things, or the relationship will just stop working.
Why? Because you can't trust someone who's lying to you. Without that trust, nothing works. When you open up, especially when it's most scary because you're having these intense feelings, and you're held in the space where they're accepted and understood, you know you can trust, no matter how hard it gets. You relax into the relationship, healed, becoming wholly yourself.
And you know what's real. Frankly, I'd rather hold intense emotions such as anger, grief, sadness, anxiety, woundedness openly in a space, no matter how painful it is, than have it as a relentless subtext to the relationship.
Had Ali gotten defensive or not wanted to know, no matter how good the food is, it's likely that at some point, I'd have stopped going, because the service would have fallen apart. Small problems need to be dealt with, or they become big problems, endemic to the place and culture. I couldn't have trusted it and I couldn't have been myself. And had I gone around telling everyone else about those incidents, telling them how angry I was, it would have hurt a damn good person and a good business. And he couldn't have trusted me. I wouldn't have trusted myself either.
But now, I know I absolutely can - Spice Lounge will continue to be my regular haunt - and extended family home - for Indian food.
If you're in the area, may I warmly suggest you make it yours.