Monday, August 31, 2015

Kabul: The Joys of Entertaining

"Hmmm," I thought to myself as I opened the door of the caterer's vintage BMW, "this is unfortunate."

There in the backseat were several trays of wilted canapes - crusty mini quiches and pizzas, deflated tomato-and-mozzarella stacks, and the most pathetic of all: sweaty, discolored smoked-salmon bites.

"I'm really sorry," the driver told me. "Traffic was stopped."

A motorcade from the Palace had disrupted traffic, and as a result, my hors d'oeuvres had been sitting for nearly two hours in the sun.

The reception was starting at five, and the food delivery was scheduled for three.  It was 4:20 by the time it arrived.

A van arrived at the same time, and seven waiters poured out.  Having also been stuck in traffic, they were happy to be free.

After two weeks of preparations, working through a four-page checklist, it was half an hour to showtime, and things were going south.

The day had been hectic even before the caterer debacle.  My morning was spent finalizing the guest list, identifying VIPs, and submitting the details to the security office.  By midday, I was at the Ambassador's residence supervising set-up.  The Embassy's events team is very well rehearsed, so I just stood back and watched as the guys erected the stage and podium, placed cocktail tables and dressed them with tablecloths and ribbons, set up the bar, pitched a few tents for shade, readied the sound system, laid carpets, and handled a dozen other details.  Our flowers arrived at the same time - a bouquet for each cocktail table and an arrangement for the bathroom - so I signed for them.

Everything was looking good.  The glasses were neatly arranged and sparkling in the sun.  The microphone had been tested.  The flags were standing at attention.  The background music - sitar on this occasion - was dancing pleasantly on the air.  With everything checked and double-checked, I shut the equipment down and went to help with another meeting.

At around three, I returned to the venue in anticipation of the food delivery.

My colleague had given me the keys to a Gator, a little John Deere utility vehicle, to haul the food from the gate to the house, but as I hopped behind the wheel, I got two surprises.  For starters, someone had left the lights on and the battery was dead.  The second issue was the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of this particular Gator.  My whole backside was covered in dust from sitting on the seat.

After flapping about in the courtyard for a moment, my clothes were now only moderately filthy.  It was time to address the other problem.

I flagged down a security agent who happened to be walking by.

"Sure, I can get you up and running," he assured me.

He pulled up nose-to-nose in a different Gator.  There are dozens of these on campus - along with a similar breed, the Kawasaki Mule - so it wasn't hard to locate one.

"What do we do now?" he asked me, perched up on his little tractor.

So much for getting me up and running.  I had no idea how to jump the Gator, and I didn't have time to figure it out.  It was time for Plan B.

This guy wouldn't let me borrow his Gator, so I spotted another one with the keys still in it.  It was a fair bit cleaner than the broke-down one, so I was hoping it was in better working order.

Before I tried to fire it up, I decided to focus on a related matter, namely, identifying the best route from the gate to the house.  There is always construction on the Embassy compound, it seems, and on this particular day, the most direct path to the venue was blocked.  Thinking there might be an alternate route I hadn't considered, I asked some of the guards in the security shack for advice.  In the end, they deduced that the only way for me to get from Point A to Point B would be to load up the food in my "borrowed" Gator, leave the Embassy, and drive three-quarters of the way around the perimeter of the compound to another, better-positioned gate.  Security is very tight at the Embassy, and employees such as myself aren't generally allowed to leave except in an armored car.  Yet, I was being offered the chance to joyride around the block in a Gator.  The offer was tempting for its sheer novelty, if nothing else, but I decided against this course.  It seemed like a waste of time, and I didn't have much to spare.

When the food and waiters arrived, it was a perfect match.  There were 18 trays of food, and between the seven waiters, the driver, and myself, we had just enough hands to manage everything in one trip.

As we set out across the campus, I looked like the pied piper.  I had my two trays hoisted high, and behind me, a line of guys in white shirts and jaunty black vests marched along.

Pretty much everyone we passed with our trays of food made the same joke.

"Ah, thanks," they'd tell us, "you shouldn't have."

I can honestly say, it was just as funny the tenth time as it was the first.

Walking and carrying trays can get a bit tiresome after a while, and I was feeling the burn by the time we reached the building.  I suspect I was suffering more than the others because I had taken the heaviest load.  I figured that was the decent thing to do since it was my idea to hand-carry everything.

As we all crammed in the elevator, it was a tight fit.  The comedy of the situation wasn't lost on the guys, however, and we shared a moment of spontaneous laughter.

Once we got to the Ambassador's house, there were only a few minutes until the reception was set to begin.

prepping the bar

The waiters started arranging the bar and transferring the hors d'oeuvres from the large trays to smaller serving trays.  Since we needed to start service immediately, the waiters loaded the serving trays with the best looking canapes and left the rest in the fridge to hopefully revive a bit.

Guests to the Embassy compound must be escorted at all times, so seven of us employees were designated as escorts.  We all reported to the gate to start shuttling guests to the party, and I got the first batch of people - six of them to be exact.

When we reached the elevator, we ran into a few other colleagues who were also going to the party, and we loaded up.

I hit the button.  The doors closed, and they opened again.  Unfortunately, we hadn't moved.

I tried again, and still the elevator wasn't cooperating.  Some of the guests were nervously laughing to themselves, and some of my colleagues were wringing their hands.  Getting all the guests to the party without the use of an elevator would be tricky.

I pushed the button a third time, and it was then that I noticed something: the doors were about half a centimeter shy from coming together.  This lack of full contact was preventing the elevator from moving.

The fourth time I pushed the button, I physically forced the doors closed.  Now we were cooking with gas!

I dropped off my load of passengers and stayed with the elevator to shepherd a few more loads of people up.  After that, one of the security guys volunteered to be the permanent elevator operator, and I resumed escort duty.

Within half an hour, I had made at least a dozen trips between the gate and the house, and I was ready to join the party.  In any case, the flow of guests had tapered off, so we didn't need seven escorts standing around.

When I entered the party, I had to laugh at what I saw, for there was some serious bumble-bee waitering going on.  The waiters were swarming the guests, shoving three or four trays at once on a single person.  They were so aggressive, it was almost as if they were working on commission.

After I asked them to be a bit more discrete, they took it down a notch, and I sniffed out a glass of Chardonnay.

Despite the elevator and the Gator and the caterer and everything else, it was all working out in the end.

I just wondered if the salmon was going to get the last laugh.


Unknown said...

Always look forward to your artcles on experiences which are not alien to us where we live
..great descrptions

Becky Little Magee said...

Chris, you are always so calm and take things in stride. I would have been freaking out by the time the food finally got there and when it looked the way it did my freak-out level would have been amped up. LOL Love your articles/experiences.

Ollie and Floyd said...

Crazy to think, too, that the guests probably had no idea of all the work and stress and very near-misses that went into what turned out to be such a successful event. Nice job staying calm - that's probably the single factor on which the whole thing hinged. :) And you even found the humor in it, too.