About a week ago we arranged with our friends here to convene for breakfast at Low Country Produce & Café at 9:00 o’clock this morning. The reason I am fairly certain about when the plan was made is that unusually the gathering was proposed and confirmed almost immediately on the heels of our having had dinner together. Not only is one’s appetite for breakfast normally diminished – if not in fact dissuaded – by dinner but also most social commitments customarily have far more breathing space. In this instance however – being seasonal interlopers on Hilton Head Island – our time together is limited and neither we nor our friends have any local competition for similar get-togethers. More important I suppose is that we enjoy one another’s company, a fact which trumps the sometimes diaphanous feature of blunt society. We have what I call a pleasantly languid alliance which contributes to a laid-back idiom.
As a matter of etiquette we both affirmed the date “in writing” (that is, by reciprocal emails). I am amused by such apparently trifling conventions since as a child there was bred into me by my mother similarly trite but mandatory observations. I was taught for example that a thank-you note is always in the same manner as the invitation (that is, by return telephone call or by written letter as the case may be) and in any event made or posted not later than 6:00 pm on the day following the event. I have no doubt that my mother regularly consulted Emily Post’s book of “Etiquette” particularly as my mother was initiated to the niceties of diplomatic life and entertainment as early as 1957 when she was only 31 years old and my father was appointed Chief Staff Officer and Assistant Air Attaché at Canadian Joint Staff, Washington, D.C.
As much as one may with the passage of time be inclined to dismiss the preoccupation with etiquette as frivolous and even tedious, at the time in Washington we were at risk of unwittingly exposing ourselves to potentially awkward circumstances. As diplomats our family was parachuted into the local residential area of Washington which was home to similarly inclined people. From the first City States in Rome it was considered imperative that the most parochial representative should be well positioned as a favourable reflection on his home government. The arrondissement in Washington was known as “Northwest”. For example our neighbours included Vice-President Richard M. Nixon (whose daughter Julie and I were in the same classroom at Horace Mann School), Harry Reasoner (one of the lead Counsel for the US government), Dr. D. Cox (whose son-in-law, an attorney, was later implicated in the Nixon Watergate scandal), and various industrialists such as the Suydam family who undeniably lived like the others in privileged circumstances with chauffeurs, maids, billiard rooms and swimming pools.
Northwest (NW or N.W.) is the northwestern quadrant of Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States, and is located north of the National Mall and west of North Capitol Street. It is the largest of the four quadrants of the city (NW, NE, SW and SE), and it includes the central business district, the Federal Triangle, and the museums along the northern side of the National Mall, as well as such neighborhoods as West End, Petworth, Dupont Circle, LeDroit Park, Georgetown, Adams Morgan, Embassy Row, Glover Park, Tenleytown, Foggy Bottom, Cleveland Park, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, the Palisades, Shepherd Park, Crestwood, Bloomingdale, Takoma and Friendship Heights.
Embassy Row is the informal name for the section of Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. between Scott Circle and the North side of the United States Naval Observatory, in which embassies, diplomatic missions, and other diplomatic representations are concentrated. By extension, the name may be used to encompass nearby streets which also host diplomatic buildings.
Considered Washington’s premier residential address in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Massachusetts Avenue became known for its numerous mansions housing the city’s social and political elites. The segment between Scott Circle and Sheridan Circle gained the nickname “Millionaires’ Row”.
In any review of social etiquette it is useful to recite the sobering observation of Emily Post on the subject:
With the greatest of respect to Miss Post’s insight, I believe her compelling adage disguises the deeper truth that “awareness of the feelings of others” doesn’t fully account for the skill of adept socialites to know when to keep quiet. Social faux-pas are a bit like the sound of a tree falling in the forest – no one notices unless they hear of it. By extension this line of conjecture can promote such absurd questions as that posed to Albert Einstein; namely, whether he realistically believed that the moon does not exist if nobody is looking at it. Barring the persuasion of such philosophical intrigue, I prefer as a result to equate etiquette not with an airy debate of perception and reality but with a less passive approach. It perhaps dignifies social reluctance to describe it as “guarded” behaviour. For me this captures the tact of discretion while preserving the notion of propriety, the admission of principles.
The fluidity of this morning’s social congress was manifest from the moment of our reunion. A subdued gentility subsisted. Though we were disappointed to discover that our restaurant of choice was closed today we rose above the temporary obstruction without regret and headed for what turned out to be the preferred advantage of sitting en plein air at another popular place preposterously called “Watusi”. Our rambling conversation under the umbrella in the courtyard on this balmy maritime morning alighted upon aimless topics, animated by dormant memories and general inquisitiveness, including of course a discussion of one’s health and the weather, the regular standbys, and even fleetingly the more distasteful subject of work. Round the corner of each talking point was a lead to another matter of absorption. We soon contrived to visit a local juice bar afterwards. Meanwhile the food arrived and our minds and bodies were replenished.
It was a purely serendipitous corollary to our foregathering that after breakfast and the juice bar (where we lingered unhurried for a good long while) we collected from our mutual estate agent the passcode for a condominium which our friends proposed to rent next year upon their return visit. By the time we arrived at the condominium the previous tenants had vacated and it had been cleaned by the staff. We were therefore afforded a proper view of the place and all of us were delighted with what we saw. The decision of our friends to take the place was only momentarily suspended by issues of size and accessibility comparative to their current bungalow; otherwise the view of the condominium upon Calibogue Cay carried the day. And the sound of the sea. It was with a bounce in our collective step that we left the premises.
Our sojourn at an end and our friends reunited with their current digs, we said our goodbyes as their departure from the Island is imminent. The remainder of the day was spent bicycling on the beach and taking in the sunshine.