It was already past 2:00 p.m. and I was hungry. I found one of those little hole-in-the-wall types of bistros that are never listed in any tourist books but loaded with locals; I took a seat in the so-called non-smoking and ordered a vino tinto. I honestly don’t mind wandering alone as it gives me time to pursue my other favourite interest; people watching.
And there she was, at a table of 7 other people. Eat, eat, eat, chat, chat, chat, eat – and without warning – SHE PUT HER FORK DOWN. She took a sip of wine, laugh, laugh, laugh and her fork was – gasp – exactly where she left it. Nobody took it away! Nobody stole her food! She calmly picked the fork up and continued to eat. And – AND – she did this more than once during the same meal. I was left speechless. Who knew?
In North America, we don’t eat. We feed. Whatever we can get, as fast as we can get it and the most we can fit in all at once because only God knows, in the land of abundance, where our next meal will come from. It might actually be 10 minutes late and we would find ourselves starving to death. I’m sure I don’t have to point out the proliferation of fast food outlets but I may have to point out the hundreds of ‘quick cooking’ cookbooks and/or shows on the Food Network that encourages a gourmet meal in 30 minutes or less. Cooking and eating an inconvenience we must rush through and not an opportunity for pleasure, connection and time for us. Time for us to linger. There are actually courses now on how to eat like a family.
Ask any North American about the wait service in Europe and you will hear moans and groans about how terrible it is. How s-l-o-w they are. Many countries will not bring you your bill until you specifically ask for it; they never assume you are finished, nor are you rushed to get out until you tell them you are complete. And complete mostly includes lengthy conversation with the people you are enjoying your meal with and the wait staff would never consider interrupting that connection time. Nobody from North America assumes the fast service is wrong, we think the Europeans have it wrong with their ‘crappy service’. How mistaken we really are. In Europe, lunches and suppers are given sacred time and take at least an hour and a half, if not more. In Spain, everything shuts down from 2-5 so that a long leisurely lunch is enjoyed. Most stores in Europe are closed by 6 pm so that the shop owners can be home to enjoy supper with their family. Eating is enjoyment and not something you ‘stop for’ but rather look ‘forward to’.
Food as pleasure is intertwined with body as well. For what I can tell, no one here has a ‘body image’ problem. Many languages don´t have a translation or concept of “body image”. On the beach I can tell you that bikinis rule in Europe. Big and small, young and old, mostly everyone wears a bikini and with absolute confidence. Men wear Speedos and some, thongs. And trust me, not everyone is svelte and toned. Nor hair free. They are at the beach to soak up some Vitamin D and enjoy themselves and if you don’t like what they look like, don’t look. Females of all ages and sizes have no trouble topless sunbathing and from what I can see have no awkwardness whatsoever. I for one could not imagine tanning topless around my two adult children and I’m sure they would be equally horrified. Sitting at the beach is for pleasure, connection and time for you to recharge and everyone respects that.
The first thing that springs to my mind is how did it we get all so screwed up? Did not most of us come from European stock? How did food and pleasure and body image get all turned upside down and inside out? When did food become something we fight? We measure, we control, we judge? When did our body become something we fight? We measure, we control, we judge? And how are the two connected?
Just my theory and I may be totally way off base but I summarize the European eating and body culture as akin to the wise Queen, she is confident in her ways, her authority and her presence. She rushes for no one or nothing. She has become and is becoming. She asks no one for permission but is also not permissive. She is aware of the wisdom that has arrived with her age and uses it to her advantage. The food culture, for the most part, has remained in calm order and overall her Queendom is happy and content.
North American eating and body culture, however, is the Princess; attention seeking, navel gazing and reliant on her looks and using her looks, for power. Although she doesn’t like to admit it, nothing matters to her more than how she is perceived by others. (Young, skinny, sexy advertising.) She has so much ‘to do’ she has time for nothing. (Busy, busy, busy.) She can’t be thin enough or young enough for her Prince. (Gyms, workout equipment, diet food.) She wants everyone to be just like her for her own security. (Best selling diet books, Oprah phenomenon, judgement) Unfortunately, she is well aware of the coming end to her Princess age and is trying to control everything and fighting it all the way, (plastic surgery, Botox, superficial body changes) which can also show up as fighting with others to release the anger. None of this has worked well for the masses and now there is a mess of things. (Obesity epidemic, 23 year olds with 10 plastic surgeries in one day, diet mentality, family breakdown.)
But we know; we remember. When there is a special occasion, holiday, or celebration, what do we naturally gravitate towards? Loved ones and food. We give our inner Queens room to take control shine through. We prepare, we dress up and meet. Whether as a family, friends or date and have a special meal either at home or in a restaurant. We break bread, as it were, we eat. We linger, we laugh, we smile. We know how to do this, we have just lost our way, that’s all.
A few years ago concerned about my health and particularly some weight I gained, I saw a Chinese doctor and I mentioned to him that I was trying to lose some weight but nothing was helping. I asked him for some suggestions and as he began to speak I was sure he was going to transmit some ancient Chinese secret for a long life in my skinny jeans. Listening intensively, on the edge of my seat, all he said was, “Put your fork down, walk away.”
I’m taking that advice now – except for the walking away part. I’m going to let go of my North American Princess manners around food and body image, develop into the natural progression of things and be my own Queen, more confident in my journey and in my wisdom. And receive pleasure from my food. And connect. And enjoy. And slow down, linger and relax about it all. I’m going to put my fork down and stay.