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Searching for “sobremesa”


Her mission: learning to savor life

I landed in Spain with a mission, and that was my first mistake.

My mission was to let go and slow down, which is hard to do with a goal in mind. I had read about a Spanish tradition called sobremesa, in which groups sit conversing, for hours on end. I was aware that extended meals are commonplace in much of Western Europe, but I’d never heard this term. I was intrigued by the fact that the word couldn’t even be firmly translated into English. To me, this symbolized the non-existence of the entire concept of post-meal relaxed conversation.

So my goal was to experience sobremesa. Not just the physical act of chatting with friends after a meal, but the concept and associated lifestyle.

I was determined to live in the moment, and to engage meaningfully with my friends, professors, and surroundings.

Shutting off my phone service

The first change I implemented was turning off the service on my phone. That was easy, because I saved money by not paying for international data.

Alone in a coffee shop, I ordered an iced americano (so American of me), and sat by a window, with nothing to do. I couldn’t scroll on my phone, text anyone or chat with a friend. It was just me and my guidebook, so I became well acquainted with it, as I sipped the best coffee I’d had in my life.

Later, to challenge myself further, I decided to get dinner alone. I found a pretty restaurant near La Rambla that served tapas, and house vermouth. I observed the beautiful bar, chatted with my waiter (since everyone else was dining with a group) and read the book I’d brought, aptly titled “My Year of Restand Relaxation.” Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel follows a woman who medicates herself to the point of hibernation – not my situation; my journey was a more extroverted one – but the main character’s experience resonated with me.

The author’s first visit to a Barcelona bar. Photo by Ruby Hoffman

It was difficult to experience a true sobremesa by myself. Even so, I began to feel the relaxation and presence of mind I was searching for.

My classmates soon arrived, and on Saturday night, nine of us went out to dinner. I picked out a small Catalonian restaurant called Bar Muy Buenas from my pocket guidebook, which had quickly become my closest physical and emotional friend. I noticed that most tables were occupied by larger groups, rather than pairs as you often see in American restuarants. Many of the diners seemed to be Spaniards.

Our group ate and drank for at least and we even got shushed by our waiter for singing happy birthday to one of our number. After we split our bill (an arduous process), I noticed as we left the restaurant that all of the groups that had been dining when we had arrived were still seated, drinking and talking animatedly.

For the first time, I saw clearly and firsthand what I’d been searching for: relaxation and ease. I was intrigued. Did Spaniards actually use the word sobremesa?

Patricia Tamayo Perez, an architect who lives in Barcelona, told me that 90 minutes around the table following the meals I’d seen at Bar Muy Buenas is standard.

“We don’t finish eating and go. We think it’s very rude,” Tamayo said.

The scene at Bar Muy Buenas. Photo by Ruby Hoffman

Americans run at a completely different tempo. Tamayo Perez had visited the U.S. before, and highlighted some of the differences she’d observed between American and Spanish dining culture.

Her father takes three hour lunches every day, she said, during which he drives home to cook and eat with his wife. Much like the word sobremesa, this is unheard of in
the U.S.

Sobremesa isn’t just personal time. Any business meetings also take place over a meal, typically lunch. Spaniards are far less direct than Americans, Tamayo Perez told me. Instead of sitting in an office and cutting to the chase as in standard American business practice, Spaniards take the time to get to know each other before even mentioning business dealings. During meals, they ease into the conversation by talking about lighter topics, such as the weather, their families, or their hobbies.

“Sometimes the real conversation starts after the eating is done,” said Tamayo Perez.

My idea began to feel clearer. The Spanish perspective helped me understand the motivations behind the tradition I was studying. Many of the practices surrounding sobremesa are indicative of the slower-paced nature of Spanish culture. My new mission was that I needed to avoid having a mission. A goal is okay but now I understood that, if I was to experience sobremesa and Spanish culture, I couldn’t do that while always pursuing a mission. The longer I spent in Spain, the more present I felt.

On my last night in Barcelona, I went to the Harlem Jazz Club with a friend. The world of jazz is almost as foreign to me as Spain. I managed to sit listening to the music for more than an hour. For someone who can barely sit still for a class period, this seemed like quite the feat — and a valuable experience, too.

My sobremesa experience only deepened after we traveled West, to Basque country, and visited the coastal city of San Sebastian. In this slower-paced environment, I was finally able to meaningfully appreciate my surroundings. At the statue of the Comb of the Wind (by the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida) I dangled my feet blithely over a cliff, and watched the sparkling blue waves crash against the rugged black rocks.

I didn’t look at my phone. I barely took any pictures. I was present, at last.

We next walked for six kilometers along the Camino de Santiago. There was no cell phone service, so the only available entertainment was to talk with each other. I asked my professors about how they’d adjusted to remote learning, and they asked me my opinions about the same. I talked with my fellow classmates, now my close friends, about music and movies and how much our feet hurt — and how much we didn’t want to go back to New Jersey. For five hours, we talked about everything and nothing that came to mind, getting to know each other on both superficial and deeper levels.

At the end of our path, I finally understood. It was an emotional understanding, not a logical one based on information. My phone was dead, and powerless to distract me.

It was siesta time, so most people were at home, and the streets were all but deserted. Restaurants were closed until dinner, so my friends and I went to the supermarket, and grabbed a freshly baked baguettes, some cheese and a pack of salami. It was the best meal I have ever had, and not just because I hiked five hours to get it.

I understood that sobremesa doesn’t happen because Spaniards have nothing better to do. It happens because they care. It’s easy to achieve when you’re in an interesting place with interesting people. That is what makes this interlude special, and an enduring Spanish tradition.

About the Author

Ruby Hoffman

Professor: Mary D'Ambrosio
Class: Writing the Mediterranean: Spain

My time in Spain was amazing. The trip was a perfect blend of a getaway and on-the-ground field work, and I hope my piece reflects this. I had the opportunity to connect with fellow students, Spaniards and my surroundings. It was an invaluable experience that I will never forget!