April 30, 2006

In London, I have the opportunity to spread the word about pessimism.

I know. I swore off dinner parties. But I decided to give them another shot because I'm in London. And my friend Mallery invited me. And because dinner parties in London are very different from those back in New York. There, "I'm having a dinner party" means: "I'm reserving a table for 12 at a restaurant you can't afford and we'll be splitting the cheque evenly, no matter what you eat."

Only they never say that. So I'll order a house salad and a glass of tap water and discover later that I owe as much as the guy next to me who drank two bottles of champagne and ate filet mignon and two desserts. How is that fair? Then I have to point out that I ordered a piece of lettuce not because I'm on a diet but because I'm on a budget. I'm made to feel cheaper than a beaded handbag.

Worse, in Manhattan there is always someone who leaves before the bill arrives. They'll throw down cash, half of what they owe, and then people like me, who don't drink, end up paying even more. But if I try to pull the same trick, the hostess will shout: "Where are you going?" And it's not like I can claim I have somewhere to go: everyone knows I have nowhere to go.

But in London, dinner parties are in people's homes. Not only that, the guests are an interesting mix. The last time I went to one, the guests were from France, India, Denmark and Nigeria; it was like a gathering at the UN.

In New York, the mix is less eclectic. It's Upper West Siders and Upper East Siders; like a gathering at Bloomingdale's.

For New Yorkers, talking about other parts of the world means Brooklyn and Queens. But at Mallery's, when I said that I'd been to Burma recently, people knew where it was. In New York, people would assume it's a trendy new club.

What's more, in London, I have the opportunity to spread the word about pessimism and encourage people to access their gloomy side. After dinner at Mallery's, we all sat around and, one by one, guests began to reveal that they, too, had suffered moments of despair. It was fantastic. What had been a room full of cheerful, chatty optimists became a forum for hopelessness.

Suddenly, people were confessing that they, too, had spent days in bed paralysed by feelings of futility. They, too, had at times given up on humanity. Then, just when I thought the evening couldn't get any better, one guest who had been holding out gave in and said: "You're right. Life is pretty bleak."

None of this would happen in New York - it is impossible to meet anyone there who is not already deeply unhappy. How can I depress people if they're already miserable? New Yorkers are champing at the bit to share their misfortune, and it's a competition for whose "issues" get more air time. So if you say you're in therapy once a week, someone else will say they go twice a week. Then someone else will up the ante: "Couples or regular?" The answer is frequently: "Both."

It's comforting to be around that, but every so often it's good to spread the word. That's why I do so well at dinner parties in London. People love to hear from someone who complains about things other than the weather.
It's so exotic.