Last week, I promised to tell you about my favorite fall tradition. We will get there, but first, a brief interlude because you need to understand about Spain.
I celebrated turning forty with a trip to Barcelona with my friends Jenni and Maggie. It took mere minutes for me to fall head over heels in love with the art, architecture, beaches, food, and history of Spain. Everywhere we went, I asked the locals questions about their way of life. Everyone was friendly, engaged, happy to tell you why Barcelona was the greatest city in the world.
Until, that was, they discovered we were American. Then, invariably, we were forced to listen to the litany of things Europeans hate about the U.S. They despise our politics, believe we aggressively insert ourselves into world events that are not our business (I mean, they have a point). One waiter sneeringly shared a joke. “What is a European diplomat’s worst nightmare? An American representative who just wants to help.” We sat mute while person after person detailed the evidence of our moral bankruptcy: Suicide rates. Incarceration numbers. Health insurance. Poverty rates. Gun deaths. Our culture (or lack of, they often added). Though most people were civil, it was clear that they pitied us and our country of birth.
So we took the train out of the city to Sitges, a laid back coastal village known for its openness to Americans, thanks to the 1778 Free Trade Act, which allowed Catalonian citizens to emigrate to America and set up import and export businesses. This gave rise to Americanos, successful Catalan entrepreneurs who emigrated and returned to Sitges with large sums of money that were injected back into the village.
So while the people we met here still pitied us as Americans, they were also friendlier and more willing to talk with us. One day, we retreated to the shade of a restaurant on Balmins Beach. We were famished in that way that happens when one spends long, lazy hours in the sun. We ordered tapas and cold, white wine. Tapas is a Spanish snack. The word literally means “top;” barkeeps in medieval times would cover the glasses of wine with salted, crusty bread to protect it from flies. The salty bread made the patrons thirstier and resulted in more alcohol sales. In this tradition, tapas generally involve salty snacks served in small bowls.
We started with potato chips served with the ubiquitous rojo sauce, which is basically a ketchup-like aioli. We scarfed them in moments, looking around eagerly for our next bowl. And waited, growing peckish and irritated. Where was the damn waiter? Finally she appeared, with another small bowl, this one filled with six tiny, garlicky shrimp. We wolfed those down. Delicious, but we were still not satisfied. Where were our olives? Our baby squid with mustard sauce? Our roasted beets with feta? Our cheese board?
The meal took over three hours. Three hours until happy replaced hangry. When we were finally sated – and fairly drunk, since the wine kept flowing – the waiter pulled the fourth chair at our table out and sat down. She smiled, not unkindly. “Listen to me now,” she said. She looked like Shaikra, flowing golden locks down her back and that sort of sun-kissed healthy glow that no amount of Botox and self-tanner can recreate. “Americans rush, rush, rush. All the time, on the go. Everything fast to get to the next thing. It’s why you’re all so unhappy deep down. You must learn to be Catalonian. You must adopt siesta and sobremesa.”
Siesta and sobremesa.
Of course we knew about siesta. There is a law in Spain that limits shop trading times to only 72 hours per week, so most shops shut down during the hottest part of the day and stay open later at night. While few Spaniards actually nap, most will rest and recharge during this time, typically two-hours.
But sobremesa was new to us. The term means over the table and is the siesta’s brother. It is the practice of lingering over a long meal, talking, digesting, and relaxing. Sobremesa is why, after a meal in Spain, you won’t get a check until you ask for it. It is considered rude to rush your meal. Shakira winked. “In Barcelona, what we eat is not as important as how we eat. The most important part of the meal comes after the food.”
Shakira had read us like a book. We were chagrined to be called out so aptly, wanting our food immediately, wanting to eat as quickly as we’ve been encultured, so as to get back to our beach chairs as quickly as possible. How very American of us.
A few years later, siesta and sobremesa would become my family’s rallying cry during the pandemic and a tradition that abides to this day. Next week I promise to tell you more.