“Not Quite Right”

In the last month of the final year of the period aptly described as “The Decade from Hell,” I proposed a new feature based on author Peter Mayle’s (A Year in Provence) wonderfully informative guide “Acquired Tastes.” As one might suspect, Acquired Tastes is devoted to the little and not-so-little extravagances that make life worthwhile.

An excerpt from the jacket reads as follow: “Whether telling us where to buy the world’s best caviar or how to order a pair of thirteen-hundred-dollar custom-made shoes, advising us on the high cost of keeping a mistress in style or the pros and cons of household servants, he covers everything the well-heeled—and those vicariously so inclined—need to know to enjoy the good life.”

Now the skeptical might, rightfully, inquire as to why post instructions on the good life when there is so little bloody good to be had, but an appreciation for quality is rarely tied to wealth, but education. Who of us, after all, has not known an obscenely rich individual who displays vulgarity in all aspects of life — with impudence? While shouldering through a depressingly austere period of lack, why not develop a “prosperity consciousness” and train yourself in the ways of a discriminating connoisseur and practiced bon vivant.

For the Congenitally Rich

Something Is Always

“Not Quite Right.”

Expectations tend to increase in direct proportion to the amount of money being spent, and if you’re spending a fortune you expect perfection. Alas, life being the badly organized shambles that it so often is, and with so much of it dependent on the behavior of erratic equipment (servants), perfection is rare.

After a while, the rich realize this, and then they start looking for trouble. I’ve seen them do it.

Details that we would consider trivial assume enormous significance:

the breakfast egg is inedible
because it is marginally underboiled,

the silk shirt is unwearable
because of a barely visible wrinkle,

the chauffeur is insupportable
because he’s been eating garlic again,

the doorman is either
insufficiently attentive or overfamiliar —

the list of maddening blots
on the landscape of life
just goes on and on.

How can you have a nice day
if some fool
hasn’t warmed your socks
or ironed your newspaper properly?

 

This was brought home to me one evening a few years ago at the home of a charming couple who suffered from being abnormally rich. One of their guests—it may have been me, now I come to thin of it—accidentally nudged the heavy gilt frame of a murky painting in the living room. The alarm went off, and the security service had to be called and reassured and placated before we could sit down to dinner. While we were eating, our hostess spoke about another daily problem, that of the cutlery. It was beautiful old sterling, irreplaceable and heavily insured; a priceless heirloom. Unfortunately, the insurance was only valid if the cutlery was kept in a safe during off-duty moments, and so knives, forks, and spoons had to be counted and locked up after every meal.

Well, you may say, these are only minor drawbacks to the otherwise enviable life of bliss that is enjoyed by the congenitally rich. But after pressing my nose up against the window and watching them in action from time to time, I’m not at all sure that they enjoy themselves as much as we think they do. And why? Because, damn it, something is always not quite right.

…I remember a fact-finding mission to a luxury hotel in Venice, a magnificent establishment with an equally magnificent chef. Impossible, I thought, to fail to enjoy dinner in such a place. But I was wrong. Sitting at the next table were four resplendent examples of old money from Milan. They were not happy. The white wine was not chilled exactly to their taste. A finger was lifted, but the waiter took longer than thirty seconds to arrive. Good grief, what is the world coming to? Throughout dinner, I could hear totally unjustified mutterings of discontent. No matter how delicious the food, how splendid the surroundings, things were not quite right. And this atmosphere—almost suspicious, poised for disappointment—pervaded the entire room. There wasn’t a jolly millionaire in sight. It was the first and only time I have ever eaten in a subdued Italian restaurant.

After a few experiences like this, the thought of living permanently among the rich doesn’t appeal to me at all. But I have to say that some of their minor investments—the small consolation prizes that they award themselves as they struggle to get through each day—are extremely pleasant, and potentially habit-forming. Once you’ve tasted caviar, it’s hard to contemplate its distant cousin, lumpfish roe, with any real gusto.

Perhaps the single most enjoyable part of my researches, which covered a period of about four years, was meeting the artists themselves, the people who provide the luxuries. All of them, from tailors and boot makers to truffle hunters and champagne blenders, were happy in their work, generous with their time, and fascinating about their particular skills. To listen to a knowledgeable enthusiast, whether he’s talking about a Panama hat or the delicate business of poaching foie gras in Sauternes, is a revelation, and I often come away wondering why the price wasn’t higher for the talent and patience involved.

Excerpt: Acquired Tastes, Peter Mayle, Bantam Books, 1986.

Photos: Top: Tim Walker
Bottom: Getty Images

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~ by eaesthete on 01/29/10.

13 Responses to ““Not Quite Right””

  1. Good grief, things are already too often ‘not quite right’ in MY life and I am far from rolling in the green. Just imagine the delight of being able to be disappointed far more often at far more trivial pursuits, oh the glamour.

    I always say ‘even the rich have to stop at red lights, they just do so in fancier cars’…

  2. “To listen to a knowledgeable enthusiast, whether he’s talking about a Panama hat or the delicate business of poaching foie gras in Sauternes, is a revelation…” (This is perfectly wonderful. Thank you.)

  3. I howled with laughter at this post. As a jewelry designer for many years now, I know what it is to be a “fournisseur” to well-heeled people. I’m massively lucky, however, with the clients that I do have. Every once and a while, though, you do meet the surly individual who’s never pleased. I’ve always thought how sad that is. Scott Fitzgerald was right, the rich really are different from you and me.

    Last summer, a friend and I were having a conversation about life and success and getting ahead, and he said something so simple yet so profound: things are never what they appear to be.

    Would I like to look at my bank balance and see five or ten million euros? You bet. But the fact that I haven’t ever experienced this fantasy hasn’t stopped me from having an extremely interesting life.

    Salut à tous!

  4. Ah, yes. The old black hubris has me under it skin! One doesn’t have to be rich to act like this: think of the maid of whom one expects higher standards than one would apply oneself, or of the busboy treated with such disdain as to make him invisible. Think of …. I could go on and on.

    • Blue,

      Interesting point, befitting what I think of as an attitude of “entitlement”. One has to wonder if hubris is the new aspiration of the times.

  5. I’ve had that curious blend of growing up in a home where a father hails from the “not quite right” lineage; a mother from the “how could it not be right?”. The opportunity to bemoan and rejoice, I am thankful, has allowed me to appreciate the beauty and the beast of the quotidien.

    We are all burdened by the quest to aspire; however, we get lost in the product rather than the process. A life attuned to the craftspeople, the artisans, the artists of which we are surrounded, so I have found, will morph into the truest of gems: appreciation.

    I recently wrote about tin top hats, made of humble materials but with the guiding force of adoration. These late 19th-century gifts given to a loved one on the 10th wedding anniversary were quite alright. Wouldn’t you agree?

    • Lydia,

      “…we get lost in the product rather than the process.” How artfully put. I have always been captivated by an artisan who can do anything extraordinarily well, as simple as lathering a stone with mortar, for example, and building a small protective wall to shield a garden. What’s interesting about the rich is whether their displeasure is more about themselves and the need for complaint, as the writer suggests, than about raising or enforcing a level of excellence.

      Do send me a link on the tin top hats. I’d love to know more.

  6. i push to meet the exception to the rule..always.
    interesting post and much for thought…;))

  7. I think we become estranged from life when we no longer create. To skate so thinly on this earth that we require—demand—all be done for us is, I think, a form of extinction. The need to create is life itself. The act and art of creation is a way to renew ourselves. I used to be a fund raiser, for a good cause, but still it was stifling to have to spend time with the “abnormally rich.” For an antidote, I began to build dry-stack stonewalls in my garden. Using amazingly few, but very satisfying to use tools, the zen of the stone made my unease disappear.

    • Home,

      What a wonderful antidote! When I mentioned building a garden wall, I remembered a shoot I had been on a long time ago where we had hired a mason to illustrate how a stone was laid. The man was a truly gifted. Unassuming, quiet, diligent in his efforts. And so wonderfully deft with a trowel. I was watching an artist and I remember marveling over his workmanship. I understand your need to build that stonewall.

  8. Alas, I’ll never know the vagaries of being rich, but would, of course, like to find out.

  9. Dear Errant, Where have I been? Who’s errant now? I gladly tip a hat to you. Enjoy these delights http://www.thecluelesscrafter.com/2010/01/tin-treasures-to-love/

    Though, apologies, for posting the link you requested here. I’ve scanned through, and to no avail found your email address. Twitter, yes. FB, yes. . .

    • Lydia,

      I am so charmed by that tin hat. A few years ago, a friend who scours the markets of fleas bought me a little tin man with a hat such as this. Magical!

      Thoughtless of me not to include my email.

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