The Four-Hour Dinner

Two unsuspecting Americans and a Croatian from Switzerland walk into bar...

Well technically a restaurant, but it’s my blog so go ruin someone else’s joke.

Anyway, welcome back for Episode #2 of Greetings from Marz. I officially touched down in Europe almost 2 months ago so that basically makes me an expert on absolutely nothing except for eating all the delicious food. But this isn’t a food blog so don’t expect me to break down the ingredients of some raspberry reduction or give you recommendations on where to find a good Eggs Benny.

I’m here to talk about dinner in general (and breakfast and lunch for that matter). Not the food, but the experience. Yes, I realize that last part makes me sound like some hoity toity snobby American. I bet you even imagined me saying the word “experience” in a faux British accent (you know, the one they use in movies where the characters are from some unknown foreign land) accompanied by an expressive, yet sophisticated hand gesture. However, I promise you this isn’t the blog for that. Plus, I may or may not have just taken a bite of some food I ordered on UberEats which means ain’t nobody got time for accents.

Okay back to the topic at hand: long-ass meals.

As an American [cough] Millennial, I’ve grown accustomed to instant gratification. I mean that’s why UberEats was created in the first place, right? However, meals eaten outside the home are often meant to be social experiences no matter where you are, but the length of these experiences in the states tend to be drastically different than those I’ve encountered here in Europe, especially in Lisbon.

Often in the U.S., you walk in, wait five to fifteen minutes or so for a table (sometimes less if you have a reservation, or more if you don’t). If you’re lucky, you’re seated immediately, get your food within a half hour and you’re shuffled out not too long after. The entire experience usually lasts an hour or so max, maybe more if it’s not busy and your waiter isn’t trying to close up shop. If it is busy, your waiter will passive aggressively leave the check on the table for “when you’re ready” in order to subtly remind you that you’re just a body filling a chair in this figurative trough who needs to finish up soon to make room for the other little piggies waiting to eat.

Throughout the meal, even a bad waiter will usually come to check on you a few times to fill your water, to ask if you need anything else or to give you that second side of ranch you so sweetly requested (side note: who do I have to talk to around here to get some ranch???). If you do have to ask for the check, it arrives pretty quickly and you often only have to ask for it once. Then you pay and get on with your day.

Touch down in Europe and you’re about to get a big wake up call. Planning to do dinner at 7 AND want to catch a movie at 8:30? Fuggedaboutit!!!

Going out for a meal here is like re-watching a video you’ve taken using the slow-mo feature on your iPhone. You know what’s going to happen, but the anticipation literally never ends. It’s a hard pill to swallow for us “go-go-go” Americans, but it’s also a nice reminder that it’s okay to slow down a bit. One word of advice: Umm, actually, I don’t really have any advice. I guess, just breathe?

The menu will arrive...eventually.

The wine will arrive...eventually.

Water? Order a big one or it may take you a while to get more.

Your food?

You might have to take another sip of wine for this.

Remember the food?

Yea, it’ll arrive eventually.

If you’re lucky, your waiter won’t disappear completely and you can attempt to make eye contact in order to ask for more wine, water, or the bill, which will arrive (all together now), EVENTUALLY. That is, if you don’t have to ask again (spoiler alert: you will).

Disclaimer: this doesn’t mean the waiters are rude. And I’m not here complaining about bad service. It’s just different. From what I’ve gathered, they simply don’t want to bother you by forcefully inserting themselves into your experience which is actually pretty great. I mean, in the U.S. I can’t tell you how many times a waiter has popped over right after I’ve taken a huge bite to ask how things are. Nice gesture, but dude, let me chew this bomb-ass burger in peace.

Here in Europe, you basically see your waiter at the beginning and then again at the end. Sure, they are in the service industry, but they want to serve you on your terms (i.e. when you ask). They want you to use these moments to connect with friends and family, to people-watch, to contemplate an after-dinner gelato (though isn’t the answer always a resounding Y-E-S?). Four hours later, after some delicious food, too many glasses of wine with a side of great conversation, you’re done and you look at the clock and wonder how the heck you got here. And then you smile, take one last sip of wine and say Obrigada/Gracias/Hvala/Merci/etc.

One thing to note is that these lengthy meals are a lot easier to acclimate to when you're on vacation without a care in the world. It's much hard when you're living and working in a place with meetings and deadlines and other obligations, but eventually you figure out the right balance.

Now that I’ve been here a while, I find myself no longer anxiously checking my phone for the time, which means (hallelujah) I’m finally embracing what I now refer to as "Marathon Dining". In fact, I think it’s going to be reverse culture shock when I get rushed out of my first dinner back in the states in a couple of months. I just know that while in Europe I need to give myself a buffer, especially if I have a meeting to attend or, you know, I want to go to bed before 2am. Because in addition to being long, these meals start super late which makes it impossible to do dinner and get to bed at a decent hour, but we won’t get into that right now.

Overall, these Marathon Dining sessions are just a reminder to slow down, to live in the moment and to really appreciate the people I’m with. Like I mentioned in my first post, I’m here on Remote Year to take back my time and it looks like Level One has been achieved. Cheers to Lisbon for teaching me to sip slowly, to savor every bite of food and to look at my fellow dining companions instead of at my phone.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read):

  • Meals last forevs in Europe, especially Lisbon

  • Wine helps take the edge off

  • That’s basically it

  • Miss you, love you