Mysterious Meal by Robyn Boswell
The email popped up in the middle of a boring day at the office when I was knee-deep in writing meaningless reports destined for the Ministry but likely to languish unread in someone’s inbox. At least I could tick my own ‘done it’ box.
We are pleased to inform you that your workshops for the World Council for Gifted Children International Conference in Adelaide have been confirmed.’
What a privilege. That was something to look forward to. Luckily my team were not only work colleagues, but had also become firm friends who were lots of fun. We persuaded the University to pay for all of us to attend, so we booked our flights, found an apartment for the week, then booked our workshops and the conference dinner.
I’ve been to many conference dinners and they’ve ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. The sublime included a conference dinner in Sydney many years ago where we were bussed to a restaurant in the hills for a wild evening of great Australian food and a bush band that had us all dancing and singing along. My expectations were high for Adelaide.
Arriving at the conference we received our ‘goodie’ bags with the inevitable bundle of brochures that we’d discard before we packed our bags to fly home, various little treats to get us through the week, a thick programme of many and varied workshops and keynotes, the ubiquitous name badges and, of course, tickets for the conference dinner. We were curious about the venue, but the only hint in the tickets and programme was that it was to be a ‘magical mystery tour’ by train and we wouldn’t find out until we were on our way. Intriguing!
It was a fabulous week, filled with stimulating opportunities to hear speakers from throughout the world. My workshops went well. People seemed to relax and have a few laughs at ‘If Laughter is the Best Medicine Then How Come You Can Die Laughing?’, my workshop on Humour in Gifted Education. The first time I’d presented it, at a New Zealand conference, my friend in the neighbouring room complained that no one could concentrate on her presentation due to the gales of laughter echoing through the walls.
Throughout the week, we discussed the mysterious dinner we’d been promised and there was much speculation as to where we might be going. Adelaide is close to the beautiful, bounteous Barossa Valley, home to most of South Australia’s award-winning vineyards. After a bit of sleuthing someone discovered that one of the best wineries had a restaurant that you could visit by train from Adelaide, so the rumour spread that that was our destination. I had been to the Barossa a couple of times before, so looked forward to it with eager anticipation.
Finally, the evening arrived. We were all pretty conferenced out by then. There’s only so much information you can squish into your brain at a time. As a result, some of us had sneaked off for an afternoon’s shopping, much to the disgust of one of our travelling companions, a pedantic school principal, who attended every single second of the conference.
In the end around 300 of us, following the instructions to board our train at the Adelaide Railway station, wound our way down the platform, like a huge crocodile of school kids, buzzing with excitement at the mystery about to unfold and anticipating an evening of wine, good food and music. A few minutes after leaving the station, an elderly gent dressed in an archaic railway uniform meandered through the carriages and announced we were on the way to the Adelaide Railway Museum. Not quite what we expected, but we were primed to have a good time, so as our hopes of vineyard fine dining disappeared, we looked forward to something a bit different.
We soon arrived at a massive railway shed – a huge concave roof like an aircraft hangar with no walls at either end curved over a collection of old steam engines and carriages. A long platform held stylish round tables set with white cloths. It was mid-winter, 10C we found out later; there was no heating apart from one outside café-style heater and a breeze was blowing through the open-ended shed. We were dressed for a dinner – indoors – no one had thought to tell us that warmer clothing might be needed. It was absolutely freezing! A crowd instantly swarmed around the gas heater, jostling for position and the few who managed to fit secured their places for the night and wouldn’t move.
Most of us hadn’t eaten since lunchtime and it was nearly 8pm. The tables were elegantly set with silverware and glasses and in the centre of each table were colourful, enticing platters of vegetables and breads. Everyone fell upon them with gusto and quickly demolished the lot. As we finished wolfing them down a very frazzled woman stepped up to the microphone to inform us that we had just consumed the salads that were accompaniments for the main meal. Oh dear! I’d worked at a caterers in Scotland that specialised in huge banquets. You tiptoed around the temperamental chefs who were the kings of the kitchen and likely to start throwing objects if things weren’t going their way. I dread to think what must have been going on behind the scenes.
At least there was plenty of wine and that did warm things up a bit. After quite some time the first plate of food was delivered by somewhat embarrassed waiters. The plates were gigantic and very white and of course lacked any garnishes because we’d already scoffed those. In the very centre of each plate there was one lonely kangaroo sausage residing in a vast sea of white. A terrifying sight! Ten minutes later the waiters arrived with a platter of seafood skewers and proceeded to deal out one each. I asked for another one, feeling somewhat like Oliver Twist, only to be told firmly that there was one each and no extras. Fortunately, the meal was not yet done. Another ten minutes or so and yet another vast white plate arrived with one small lamb cutlet and one tiny piece of steak, all alone, not even any sauce or garnish. The final and even more curious course –if it could be called that – was very dry piece of bread with a slice of cold beef and a smidgen of burning hot horseradish sauce.
Dessert didn’t seem to be forthcoming, so the next item on the agenda was the after-dinner speaker. Most conference dinners I’ve been to have had very entertaining speakers who add a bit of fun and liveliness to the occasion. By this time, most of the audience had been imbibing freely of the large quantities of wine available and the noise was echoing off the tin roof. Petrified would be understating the countenance of the gentleman who took the stage. He looked ready to hijack one of those big steam engines and get out of Dodge as fast as he could. It would be terrifying at the best of times to talk to an audience of 300 educators, let alone those who were public speakers in their own right. The speaker had actually donated the wine for the occasion – and very nice wine it was, but unfortunately his public speaking skills were less than competent. He droned on about owning a vineyard and making wine but could barely make himself heard over the crowd who had certainly enjoyed his libations – possibly a little too much.
Finally, the main entertainment for the evening took the stage – a bush band. They were fantastic. With the space around the heater at a premium, and the cold wind howling through, everyone was shivering, so the opportunity to get warm on the dance floor was more than most could resist, and it was soon overcrowded. At our table we grabbed all of the leftover cutlery and set up a cacophony as we drummed on the table and sang along loudly – and in my case extremely tunelessly. A shy American woman at our table found the whole Antipodean antics a bit much for her and looked slightly overcome by the mayhem that ensued but eventually she picked up a teaspoon and tapped it lightly and genteelly on the table edge.
The dance floor eventually turned into a raucous and extremely drunken dance-off between the Kiwis and the Aussies as the wine continued to flow.
We’d had enough as we were very cold and tried to find a way to magically summon a taxi, but that proved impossible, so we were stuck there until the train departed at midnight. When we left, we took all the balloons from the tables and an enduring memory of this dinner was the sight of several hundred balloons bobbing their way through Adelaide station around midnight – and the astonished looks on the faces of those who weren’t in on the secret.