Lesson One: Curses at Vorkosigan House
- For what could go wrong, please see Miles’s chart and treatise on Vorkosigan House Infamous (Cursed) Dinner Parties. Cursed since the day Ekaterin ran out on his proposal – according to Miles.
- …But if you’re of a nervous disposition it’s probably best you don’t read it.
- Note: Do not ask Ekaterin about this chart or curse as you will get The Look.
Lesson Two: Seating Plans
- If possible, make sure you’re seated near someone who will be your back-up i.e. Be on your side i.e. Will not screw you over and try and humiliate you in front of other guests. This is not to suggest that this type of behaviour is the norm but if you don’t know everyone and you are new (see Lesson Four) it’s best to have your own reinforcements.
- If Miles does the seating plan for the dinner, try to get hold of it first. Get him to explain his quirky choices and why the hell he’s sat you an entire district away from your lover.
- Note: If you want to irritate Miles use the term lover to describe your partner, as it makes him twitch – s’funny.
Lesson Three: First Time Introductions
- If you’re a woman and you meet a Barrayaran male for the first time he will either try to shake your hand or kiss it. After being acquainted with you he may switch to kissing your cheek. I have no idea as yet when they decide it’s acceptable to move to the cheek kiss, but I think it may perhaps depend on the age of the recipient - it can also depend on which part of Barrayar they are from. If they need to greet you and there is an object in the way they may just give you The Nod, it’s a formal nod or you may receive the Small Bow - they may also do this if they’re nervous. (If you’re a male you will more than likely get the handshake or the nod from a male. Not seen many herm to Barrayaran male/female interactions except at the Barrayaran Embassy on Earth and it was always the handshake that was proffered.)
- If you want to avoid having your hand kissed, clasp your hands behind your back or sit on them (if you’re sitting down, of course). They will get the hint. If you don’t like the cheek kiss, and you know it’s forthcoming, employ a minimum safe distance or wear a large awkward hat.
- You can pre-empt all this by thrusting your hand out first for a handshake. (Some Barrayaran males don’t like women making the first move, but if you’re a galactic it’s excused - more than if you’re an indigenous female. Basically, if you’re a galactic you can get away with a lot - initially.)
- Also please see Lesson Ten re references to Lady Alys’s pamphlet, which has a more through explanation…of everything!
- NOTE: The above is regarding the indigenous Barrayarans not those raised off planet or who have mixed planetary heritage. I don’t know what it’s like at other Embassies, but at the Barrayaran Embassy on Earth you never knew what you were going to get greeted with.
Lesson Four: Newbies
- If you’re new i.e. you’ve known the family for less than a hundred years or/and you’re not fully acquainted with High Vor society - there are no safe topics. Brush up on the local protocol all you want but don’t over prep – it’ll just make you nervous. Observe and listen and face the fact that when you open your mouth you will be randomly shoving your foot in it, stepping on eggshells and navigating a conversation minefield until you find your feet. (Ivan says that’s a lot of feet. I’m going to stop reading parts of this out to him, as he’s getting very defensive and looking worried.)
- Expect: rapid fire debates, abrupt changes of subject, sudden silences and the odd Look. You will also witness many telepathic like conversations where people will finish off each other’s sentences, laugh at in-jokes and often not clue you in.
- Most family and guests will try and help you settle in but you have to remember that many of these people have known each other for years, so allowances are required on both sides. Hopefully you will have a friend who may be able to inform you of ‘what the hell that was all about’ at the dinner/after the dinner. This will not always be possible if it’s one of those ‘it’s a security issue,’ so they can’t elaborate. (According to Ivan, this excuse is also used if the situation was embarrassing/humiliating/about sex. For information about sex talk at the dinner table see Lesson Six. For information about sex on the dinner table see Ivan – hah! - I can’t leave that in, especially if I do let someone read it - Ivan’ll kill me! Besides, it was a kitchen table…)
- If you’re seated near Byerly Vorrutyer and it’s your first time, observe him in conversation first before you speak to him…Yes, he’s like that all the time. I’m still trying to figure him out. He goes easier on some people but I don’t know why. (By and I have made peace with each other now, although he now defines our ‘friendship’ as ‘more than acquaintances but less than friends’ and he says I’m not to trust him - when he told me that I hugged him. He didn’t hug me back but it’s probably the first and last time I’ll ever make him speechless. I did ask him to define his friendship with Ivan and he said it’s ‘without definition.’ Ivan is just as helpful – he says By is a grey area.)
Lesson Five: Tripping over your lover’s exes
- At these gatherings exes may randomly approach you and allude to the fact that sometime in the past they’ve slept with your lover - as if you should be surprised they’ve slept with other people. It’s always alluded to and never stated. Baffling behaviour.
- This may only be peculiar to Ivan’s exes, so if you want to you can skip this lesson.
- This rarely happens at dinner parties, but if it does the ex usually corners you before you’ve sat down to dinner (when you’re trying to eat those tiny pieces of food the host teases you with before the main meal).
- If this does happen, ask the ex for more detail about their experiences and tell them how glad you are that your lover had so many appreciative lovers, as you are now reaping the benefit of a variety of experience. This response will likely yield one of two outcomes: it will either stop the person from mentioning it again and they will leave your company quickly, or you will obtain some useful information. As far as I’m concerned, you win both ways. You may even make a new friend. (I admit, I’ve only received the ‘walk away’ response, once at a restaurant and once at a music party/dinner at the Vorbrettens - I can’t say who it was. Ivan was baffled when I told him ‘She told me never to tell anyone! What the hell was the point of her telling me to be discreet if she’s telling you?’ I didn’t think he would take it like that, so I may not tell him if it happens again, poor lamb. I’ve told him I don’t care about it, but he’s a touch sensitive about some of his exes.)
- And talking of exes…I now know about Ivan’s past with Lady Donna/Count Dono Vorrutyer. I couldn’t believe the amount of people who made the effort to allude to it (Vorbarr Sultana is like a small gossipy village.) I was curious, though. I asked Ivan if he was tempted to ask Dono for a before and after/compare and contrast thing - his answer was: No, I fucking wasn’t! God, no. No, Never. No. Fucking hell, no. (Ivan rarely swears so that gives you an idea of his reaction. He said he would have apologised for swearing if I hadn’t been laughing so much. You had to be there – I couldn’t help it.) I made an officer doeth protest too much remark and he told me he hates Hamlet! How can you hate Hamlet? Ivan knows the play inside out but he hates it. It’s so odd. He won’t tell me why – well, he said it’s Miles’s fault but offered no clear explanation. I now can’t help but quote Hamlet on occasion or ask him about Dono - you just have to time it right it with Ivan. (I’d be tempted to compare experiences - not with Dono! But maybe if one my exes had done that and if I still liked any of them. Dono is – hmm, yeah, I’m not sure about Dono yet and I know he’s not sure about me.)
- Oh and if the person is the type who alludes to this at the dinner table, in front of others, play it by ear. S/he is highly unlikely to be Barrayaran and their comments will not be appreciated by other guests.
Lesson Six: Sex.
- Don’t introduce topics related to sex at the dinner table. Ever.
- If other people introduce these topics that’s different, but tread carefully until you know who to trust- they may be setting you up. (See Lesson Four re Byerly Vorrutyer and also watch your step around Count Dono Vorrutyer too. They both have an interesting sense of humour.)
Lesson Seven: Back-up
- Take your back-up where you can. People can genuinely surprise you, e.g. people who were stand-offish/rude/acting like a complete ass may suddenly start being nice to you. You will have to use your instincts to ascertain if this is genuine or if they are playing games with you. Ivan and Ekaterin have been a great help with this but say I have to decide for myself.
- Bear in mind that some people may not want to commit to any kind of friendship until they decide whether you’re genuine or not. Also, see Lesson Two
Lesson Eight: It’s not over until over
- NEVER assume the dinner has gone well until you’re safely in bed.
Lesson Nine: Physical Appearance
- I’m always the shortest adult. I know what you’re thinking but no, Miles isn’t shorter. Miles is never the shortest person in the room. If you’ve ever had a conversation with him you may have experienced this yourself. You know you’re looking down but you feel like you’re looking up. Having suffered this strange vertigo a few times, I’m now trying to figure out how he does it. I reckon it’s something to do with the way he hooks you with those grey eyes and talks into you.
- (I asked Ivan and he says it’s because Miles is secretly a dwarf wizard. Ivan can exhibit defensive/exasperated/petulant/proud/contrary/contradictory behaviour when you ask him about Miles – his brother in all but name; they’re bonded in a way I can’t even touch and I wouldn’t try.)
- Where was I? Oh yes. Because I don’t wear heels I’m always five foot two and half (or less), which I don’t mind and I don’t think is that short, but it does seem to bother other people especially as Ivan is a foot taller than me and I’m surrounded by a lot of…tallness.
- So if you have something obvious like this about your appearance - get your comments in first. Miles has some great ‘short’ jokes - we’re thinking of writing a book. I also have an armoury of jokes about my hip-length wild, wavy hair - which offends people due its lack of Vor slick and polish. Yes there are birds nesting in my hair but I can’t find them…
Lesson Ten: What to Wear and Footwear
- NEVER show your mid-thigh boots to anyone at the dinner table, even if you’re wearing leggings – apparently, it’s distracting. (They’re so comfy, though, I highly recommend them.)
- Wear what you’re comfortable in. If you’re not a native you can pretty much get away with anything – within reason. If you don’t want to shock, but you want to retain your own style, ask someone the dos and don’ts - Lady Alys has a pamphlet. Ivan has one too - don’t follow Ivan’s pamphlet; he wrote it as a joke with additions by Ekaterin - yes, Ekaterin. Hidden depths that woman. Great legs too – she’d look great in pair of thigh high boots. I’m going to buy her a pair for her birthday or for Winterfair. Ivan’s got a vid of his family all swimming at the lake and we got her leg measurements from there. He’s got a great piece of tech to get every measurement – we had a lot of fun with it. A lot of fun… (Hmm, maybe I should edit that bit out later. I don’t want to sound like a letch, although Ivan accused me of being one just because I was admiring portraits of his luscious father. Also, not my fault the uniforms were really tight back then, drew the eye I can tell you. It’s none of my business, I know, but I can’t help but be curious about his parents’ pre-marital relationship or how strict the societal rules were then. I’ve read such a mixture of accounts regarding that generation - including some revealing diaries that my history Prof gave me access to from the contemporary archives. And this is not a question to ask Ivan. My God, you cannot mention the word sex and his mother in the same breath - he gets all weirdly twitchy and not just because I’m being nosy. I think Freud would have got a few theses out of it! But perhaps that’s unfair; we’re still adjusting to each other’s norms, I’m still finding my feet and besides, he puts up with all my quirks without complaint…mostly; bless him.)
- If you’re not comfortable with sticking to your own style and you want to blend in, the higher social circles (more than most) are super-obsessed with the latest fashions.
- If you can afford it and if you can get an appointment, go to Estelle’s – it’s the place to go for special occasions (and if you’re rich – all your wardrobe). I’ve only been once and it wasn’t pleasant; that was due to a misunderstanding, which is water under the bridge now but I don’t want to have my wedding outfit made there. I’ve not told Lady Alys yet, she’s been so sweet to me lately - I don’t want to offend her. And I’ve not told Ivan; he said it’s up to me and as long as I show up to our wedding he doesn’t care what I wear or where I get it from. He’s a liar but a sweet one, although he did love the outfit I had made in his House colours. He practically grew up at Estelle’s, though and all the staff adore him. (He told me a story about an ‘experience’ he once had there when his mother made him work there in the summer when he was younger. I daren’t write it down. Hmm – he’s asking me what I’m writing. I’ll leave that one until later.)
- If you don’t want to go to Estelle’s, but want the elite end of fashion, find a friendly expert to show you around the key fashion houses. Your guide does not necessarily have to be Vor, but no matter what anyone tells you - it helps; although they have to be a specific type of Vor or from the higher classes. From what I’ve observed so far there are many different kinds of Vor with some non-Vors considered more Vor than Vors. (The influence of Vors in modern Barrayaran society is an on-going debate here - covering history, politics, perception and reality. This is bound to be mentioned at gatherings, especially if you have Martya Koudelka or Professora Vorthys as guests. It’s fascinating stuff, especially when you see the people elegantly skirting around the debate – Ivan is one of them. He has more to say in private than in public, which is Ivan all over.)
Lesson Eleven: Coping Strategies
- Try to be the better person. There may be mitigating circumstances causing the other dinner guest to act like an ass. Even if there isn’t, the more they try to hamstring you the worse they look, although this may give you little comfort if it’s a long time in coming.
- If someone is really pushing your buttons, breathing exercises can work better, as does playing out the person’s death in your head. (Although then I feel bad and have to revive them in my head too. Until they do it again.) This will enable you to defend yourself more calmly and coherently – well, it works for me...most of the time. Ivan is an expert at producing the most expressionless of looks but he won’t teach me. Says it can’t be taught. Oh and if it’s Byerly pushing your buttons see Lesson Four and good luck.
- Most importantly of all, be yourself. It’s a cliché, it sounds trite but it is the truth. It will be your greatest strength. YOU were invited to the dinner and these people can spot fakes from a billion miles away.
Lesson Twelve: Merchandise
- NEVER, EVER bring illegal Barrayaran (especially Imperial) merchandise into any place hosting a dinner with Imperial guests, as you may cause a security alert and you could be interrogated. (NOTE on Imperial Guests: The Emperor and Empress may arrive at the House in their Count Countess personas – this is a protocol thing which I’m still adjusting to. There is more to it but when Ivan explained it he did a funny skit about it and all I can remember is that my stomach hurt from laughing so much.)
- Current legislation stipulates that all Barrayaran merchandise must have an official stamp or the merchandise will be incinerated and you will be fined. Any illegal merchandise depicting the Imperial family will lead to a larger fine and may lead to further prosecution. (This is Barrayar, people. They’re fucking serious!)
Lesson Thirteen: It’s All Gone to Hell
- If you’ve made a mistake e.g. like accidentally bringing a faulty, self-decapitating Emperor figurine into the House, which maims someone with its flying head (It wasn’t my figurine! It was my friend’s shopping! Our bags got mixed up!) face up to it immediately; even if your instincts are screaming at you to find the fastest exit, or you feel like weeping to death in a corner. (If only Lizzie hadn’t have woken up and found it and brought it to the dinner table…)
- If you’re at Vorkosigan House, I promise you that someone there will be on your side. They’re like that. Ekaterin was wonderful, didn’t even blink and Ivan was Ivan. He says I’ll laugh about it one day.
Lesson Fourteen: Food (Dessert, really)
- Have a supply of food on hand for after the dinner because you may be too nervous to eat at the dinner, or circumstances may arise where you severely lose your appetite. (See Lessons Twelve and Thirteen.)
- I find that anything with chocolate in it, on it or beside it works wonders for recovery, especially if there is a side order of Ivan Vorpatril to go with it.
Lesson Fifteen: Humour
- If you don’t have a sense of humour, cultivate one. It’s an essential requirement to survive all things Barrayar will throw at you, from dinner parties to love.