If Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons are akin to wine tasting, then a Functional Integration session is comparable to fine dining: memorable and worth it.
A few weeks into my Budapest visit, a friend from long ago treated me to a multi-course tasting menu at a long established restaurant. The variety and subtlety of flavors excited and intrigued my palate and caused me to reevaluate my eating plans. Until then, I had been shopping for and preparing most of my food to keep my diet clean and my expenses in check. That hadn’t felt limiting as I enjoy exploring markets and cooking and even basic things, such as yogurt, created mouthgasms. I figured I’d discover cool places and things to eat by walking around or word of mouth. After that meal, I decided to try a small number of higher caliber restaurants, too, whose menus were light on gluten and which received excellent reviews. My friend twice mentioned BorKonyha (Wine Kitchen), one of just four Budapest eateries that in 2017 had received a coveted Michelin star, awarded by anonymous inspectors.
As much as I was curious about this place, I didn’t make a reservation. While I am a foodie, I’m not a fan of formality, fussiness or the testosterone-infused service that had tainted the tasting menu experience. While I often find it quite pleasurable to eat alone because I can focus my attention fully on the food, I wasn’t crazy about dining solo at a place where one meal, while quite reasonably priced by Western standards, cost the equivalent of 10 decent set menu lunches at a typical Budapest restaurant or more than a week’s worth of groceries. Having been treated shabbily as a single diner in Italy many years ago, I wasn’t sure if I’d be setting myself up for disappointment. To use a Feldenkrais term, my “cross motivation” expressed itself as follows. Just a few days before my return flight, I walked to the restaurant in the middle of the day. I studied the menu posted in the window, even though I had already looked at it online. I made a mental note of what I would order to keep the total within a palatable amount. Still, a sense of unease stopped me from going inside. I felt uncomfortable strolling into a top ranked restaurant without any anticipation or planning, as that seemed to violate a belief I held about when, or under what conditions, one is “supposed” to visit such a place. Certainly, I’d been conditioned to think I “should” go with another person (e.g. on a date) or that such a meal is to celebrate an achievement or a special occasion. I noticed that it was open until 4pm, and again at 6pm, so I walked around the neighborhood, filled with tourists, craft stalls and purveyors of food and mulled wine, to catch more of the sun and the festive scene. As I wandered, I gave myself a pep talk. I remembered something that my father, an unapologetic foodie, used to say: “Life is expensive but it’s worth living.” I reminded myself that, once I returned to the states, I would be glad to have tried a Michelin-starred eatery (and, I’d sorely regret it if I didn’t). Minutes after 3pm, I worked up the nerve to enter the restaurant. In Hungarian, I asked for a table for one.
“I’m sorry, the kitchen just closed,” said the slender, bearded maître d’. His voice, devoid of pretension or obsequiousness, gurgled like a gentle stream.
“But the sign says you’re open until 4pm,” I said. I looked around at the decor. Elegant but understated, it made me feel comfortable. I did not need to dress up to compete with the upholstery.
“Yes, but the kitchen needs to receive orders by 3pm,” he said in a tone so soothing I did not feel the sting of having missed lunch by a hair.
“Can I reserve for lunch tomorrow, for one person?” I asked, using an erroneous word for “person” in this context. In responding, the maître d’ stated the proper phrasing without making me feel as if I’d made a mistake. As Moshe Feldenkrais said, “To correct is incorrect.”
He got on the phone to confirm availability. While he chatted with the reservations manager, I changed my mind.
“What about this evening?” I asked, suddenly emboldened to dine alone after dark. “Is there a table for tonight?”
He glanced at a sketched diagram of the restaurant.
“Yes,” he said, “I can seat you at 6pm.”
He pencilled my name next to that slot. Making the reservation felt good, as if I were taking myself out on a date. When I returned a few hours later, he greeted me warmly, as if we’d met many times before. A waiter seated me in an area close to the somewhat camouflaged kitchen entrance and near another couple. With one table between us, we each had privacy but I didn’t feel as if I’d been banished to a corner. The waiter handed me a menu. In the dim light, and having left my glasses behind, I couldn’t easily read it. Without missing a beat, the waiter brought two pairs of spectacles and placed them in front of me. The gesture was somewhat akin to a Feldenkrais practitioner offering a client a foam pad or other support to help them feel comfortable while lying down. Luckily, one of the eyeglasses magnified and clarified. Even though I had practically memorized the menu before, I slowly read it again to help me get settled. Perhaps that decision was the culinary equivalent of a body scan, which can help a person orient to themselves and the environment at the beginning of a Feldenkrais lesson. In deciding to take my time, I asked the waiter about the appetizer I had eyed earlier (guinea fowl with grapes and truffles). To my surprise, I decided to order a different one. My fresh, and more expensive, choice? Crispy duck liver and terrine with poppy seed and basil flavored apple. It seemed more Hungarian. That tiny shift reminded me of the importance of being present, of not entering restaurants (or other situations) with too much of a fixed idea, a tendency of mine.
Not long after, the waiter presented me with an amuse bouche, a sliver of cucumber with bright orange salmon roe, drizzled with something delicious, a tiny mouthful designed to stimulate the tastebuds. Most of my memorable and most effective Functional Integration lessons have contained an element of surprise. Either the practitioner changed the rhythm, moved me (or moved with me) in a novel way, or asked me to participate in a manner I hadn’t anticipated. The appropriate amount of surprise, at the right moment, can awaken curiosity and a sense of aliveness.
Soon, the the appetizer appeared. As I tasted a small, mouthwatering bite, the waiter brought another unexpected delight from the kitchen, a small cylinder of some kind of pâté. Its sumptuousness made me swoon. Several minutes later the same waiter quietly appeared and asked me which I liked better: the duck liver or the pâté? I couldn’t easily make a distinction in the moment so I told him they were both amazing. Still, his question made me pause and think more deeply about the food (in hindsight, the liver was a tad more exquisite). That he asked at all made me feel valued. Just that one question, perfectly timed, felt like the precise amount of interaction needed to enhance my experience of the meal. His unobtrusive presence and gentle tone didn’t impinge or create a demand. The small yet meaningful exchange reminded me of how Feldenkrais practitioners judiciously punctuate an otherwise wordless session by asking a client to sense differences. Not to judge or evaluate, but simply to notice. Awareness, whether of subtle flavors or physical sensations, is what helps us refine ourselves and improve our experience in life.
That the waiters seemed to be attuned to each diner and timed their cheerful but not exaggeratedly cheery appearances accordingly came as a relief and made me appreciate why this restaurant had earned a Michelin star. Attentive yet relaxed service is rare. Knowing I could trust the staff to let me enjoy the meal at my own pace helped me savor the main course, duck breast with gizzard ravioli and dried plum, a rich combination of flavors. When a dish is prepared and presented with care and attention to detail, the only way to honor it is to slow down, identify the various tastes and textures as much as possible, and appreciate every last bite. A skilled Feldenkrais practitioner is much like a high end restaurateur in that they create the conditions for the subtle work of sensing oneself with as much appreciation and focus as a foodie would give to a Michelin-starred meal.
Curiosity got the better of my sugar-free diet so I ordered dessert, a rectangular sliver of chocolate cake served with a Unicum plum truffle and garnished with two pink meringue kisses and a slender pirouette cookie. To my credit, I did not eat both kisses. To the staff’s credit, they left me to digest the food, contemplate my experience and absorb the restaurant’s warm atmosphere. When I eventually requested the bill, the maître d’ appeared with a handheld credit card reader. I asked him to add a certain amount for the tip but he pointed out, in a soft voice that acted like a salve, that the gratuity had already been included. When I walked out of the restaurant into the cold evening I felt much the same as I had after some of my more memorable Functional Integration lessons: connected to myself, deeply satisfied and with a refreshed spirit. The meal, I realized, hadn’t been an unwarranted indulgence but a necessity. I had to claim that lovely experience for myself.
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