12th Jun, 2008

Sketches of lunch

[For an explanation of what’s going on here, you might read Incognito ergo sum.]

My schedule here includes one meal per day in a restaurant. Given that restriction, it’s clear that lunch is the one to go for. Spain does lunch the way the US does an “international police action” (except that the Spanish have an exit plan). Perhaps this explains why they simply call lunch la comida: “the meal”, or even just “food”.

First of all, for those who are not familiar with the peculiar Spanish schedule, people don’t eat lunch until around two in the afternoon. By this time, one is pretty much guaranteed to be hungry. So they launch right into a three-course meal, usually accompanied by wine and followed by coffee. The best deal is always to be had at those restaurants that offer a menú del día (similar to the French prix fixe menu) which gives you the whole package for a single price; you just choose one first course, one main course, and one dessert from the list. Then if you’re lucky, they’ll take you home in a wheelbarrow for a siesta.

I must cut an odd figure, eating lunch all alone (no wine) and reading or writing quietly in the corner. But the local establishments seem to have gotten used to me fairly quickly. The contrast is greatest on the weekends, when the local townsfolk meet for lunch. I recently had Sunday lunch at a small and unassuming place with good food, where the air was so thick with smoke that it was hard to see the television, which is perpetually on. The owner not only recognized me, he brought me a steak knife, because he remembered that the last time, I had nearly maimed myself trying to cut the well-seasoned but durísima cutlet I had ordered.

I have noticed an interesting pattern: Four couples, say, meet for lunch. But the men sit at one table and the women at another, while the children (who presumably have eaten at home) go out to the street to play (yes, in Spain children are still allowed to play outdoors). Everybody seems happy with this pattern, which I noticed was repeated on this occasion in two generations: a bunch of thirty-somethings and a bunch of fifty-somethings. The fifty-something ladies, sitting behind me, were awfully cute. They were all equally gorditas, all had the same hair style, and were wearing almost identical striped tops: red-and-white stripes, black-and-white stripes, brown-and-white stripes. At first I thought they might be in a club, but then I concluded it was just the fashion (HOT THIS YEAR IN TERUEL: STRIPES!).

While savoring my delicious seafood soup, I kept noticing my attention being drawn to the bar. Then I realized why: I have been classically conditioned to associate a particular sound—THUMP-THUMP! CLICK-CLICK!—with the imminent arrival of coffee, which is always based on espresso here. Just thinking about that THUMP-THUMP- CLICK-CLICK makes me start to salivate. It’s interesting to note that in many places, coffee is not included in the price of the menú del día, but of course they’ve got you: When you hear the old THUMP-THUMP-CLICK-CLICK, you’ll pay up. Oh, the coffee here is soooo good…

A little while later, my attention was caught by a different sound. It was a rhythmic, high-pitched tinkling sound that reminded me for all the world of the castanet sound in the opening bars of the Concierto de Aranjuez, specficially the version on Miles Davis’ incredibly wonderful album Sketches of Spain. Especially given the fortuitous Spanish connection, my eyes bulged from their sockets and I whipped my head around to see that… the stripey gorditas were having decaf. In Spain, as in much of southern Europe, making decaf coffee is something one does at the table, by pouring together hot water and a little packet of powder. Then you stir-stir-stir until it dissolves. I recall people in Portugal explaining to me that the whole process was very ritualistic, and the stirring was an important part of the ritual. So here were my four ladies, each with a little glass cup, stirring their hearts out and unwittingly taking part in the great traditions of both jazz and classical music. A lovely end to la comida.


You have been rather quiet lately. I hope the dissertation is coming along.

Bless you for noticing, Erin! I got quite busy with a number of things, including the dissertation. I’ll post more very soon, I promise!

Phew, that’s a relief! As a supervisor of doctoral research myself, I too was a bit concerned that your bursts of lyrical description since you arrived in Spain might be signs of dissertation-avoidance-behaviour.

Very funny, John. I’m happy to say that my bursts of description took up a total of perhaps two hours, which, as you know, is not really very long to avoid one’s dissertation. Any lyricism may likely be attributable to the setting itself. I have a couple more Spain posts in the works, and then we’ll get back to exposing the inherent funniness of life in Sweden.

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