Inviting Secret Conversation
The Gate Crasher: Jun. 2012
I am pretty good at being an outsider. If my life were a movie, I’d be pigeonholed into roles of perpetual foreigners begging those "Where are you from?" questions, answered with just a slight hint of a (fill in the blank) accent. Come to think of it, maybe my life is a movie.
There is a certain draw to being an outsider – a role coveted, I’ve learned, by many an insider. Outsider status allows observing privileges and rights to sweeping generalisations few insiders can afford.
Dinner parties are a great place to exercise these rights and privileges. Note to outsider wannabes: Make sure to bring the essentials – a hint of that (fill in the blank) accent, a little blue dress, and several flexible anecdotes adaptable to the circumstances.
So it was no wonder that the concept of this one particular party in April appealed to me: A bunch of strangers coming together for dinner at some other stranger’s house.
The idea behind these invitation-only, secret dinners, known as Geheime Schnatterei (www.geheimeschnatterei.at), is to play a foreigner in your own city, and reawaken the excitement you get when you travel, that often gets buried under the daily grind.
Even if Vienna is only our temporary stop, the banality of everyday life may soon weigh heavily on our initial, wide-eyed assessment of this regal city. A step back – a peek inside someone else’s life, a glimpse of a different world normally off limits – can readjust our gaze. Ideally, we become chronically curious again, about this city and its people. We all know our own Viennas well – the familiar façades we pass on the way to work, the favourite hangouts of our cliques, the inside jokes and insides of our friends’ homes. But what lies hidden behind strangers’ doors?
Behind one such door in the strip bar-crammed 15th District, I found the venue of the April Geheime Schnatterei.
Like casual encounters in travel, this was an opportunity to reinvent oneself – not through lies, exactly, but careful omissions and selective highlighting, through talk of your passionate pursuit of photography, or why you would consider inviting 12 people you do not know to sit at your dinner table.
"So why did you, Anton?" I asked one-third of the evening’s welcoming committee.
"So people can see our ‘classy red light district’ neighbourhood," Anton replied with an innocent shrug. And a gracious host he was, making sure everyone’s glasses were full.
The chatter that crescendo-ed with the aid of the introductory apéritifs subsided as the first course arrived. A delicious couscous salad engrossed us, and tongues were too busy to talk. The first bottle of wine, however, loosened them up again.
Next to me was a beautiful woman with smoky eyes and lacy top that showed a bit of well-toned midriff. She was studying shiatsu, she told me, and offered to cure my chronic stomach pains. Across from me, a middle-aged man was engaged in a fiery conversation with a brunette. I looked over at my date, a whole table length away; he sipped his wine contently and chatted up the petite host.
The house rules for the Geheime Schnatterei are simple. You have to like to eat. You must bring a guest of the opposite sex, a stranger to your hosts and the event’s organiser. You have to be ready for the unexpected. I know what you’re thinking, but no, this was not a swinger party. Well, maybe partly, but not all the way.
But if we think a little more broadly, if we understand a "swinger" to be someone who takes pleasure in new encounters and hungers for adventure (and of course good food), then perhaps we were all swinging a bit that night.
A reset button had been pressed – the one that jolts you out of the world-weary nonchalance some expats wear like a badge of honour. And I, for one, breathed a sigh of relief.