Last summer I was preparing to cook up some burgers for my family at my parents’ condo complex back in Connecticut. I was taking advantage of the facility’s communal grill, one of those monster barbecues which served in a former life as an armored car, and I was getting ready to make use of the large table behind me when suddenly another family trotted by and occupied the very place I had envisioned myself sinking my teeth into an ear of corn. This was entirely unexpected and gravely altered my plans; but I hadn’t laid claim to the table so there was little I could do. Taking a chance on a prayer, I kindly asked them how long they expected to be there and they replied tersely, “a while.”
I was discouraged by the answer and decided to come up with a Plan B, which ended up being a makeshift setup twenty yards away, only to discover a half an hour later that the original table was once again empty, abandoned by the people who had usurped it from me.
“I thought they were going to be here for a while,” I thought to myself. What happened?
Well, it was simple. What had happened was that I had suffered from an acute attack of reverse culture shock. Instead of being an American trying to cope with Spain, I was an American with a Spanish mentality trying to cope with America again.
I had somehow kicked into Spain mode when I heard their reply and figured they would be there for hours on end chatting away, having coffee, picking at cookies and other sweets and sipping licores. I had forgotten that Americans, after about 30 minutes, generally have nothing else to say to each other and get up to leave. I know this because that is what I do.
Had I heard those words back in Spain, the announcing of “a while” would have meant just one thing: the mighty sobremesa, or after-meal table talk.
People from around the world enjoy spending a few extra minutes talking after the meal is over, but the Spanish certainly know how to stretch it out to lengths unimaginable in other cultures. I remember once being at a lunch for a christening where the sobremesa took on historic dimensions. We rose from the table at 9:30 p.m., and only because it was time to think about where to have dinner!
Nowadays, in the fast-paced life of big city Madrid, people don’t always have the time to kick back and carry on a prolonged conversation, but when they get the chance, especially on the weekend or after dinner, they return to their origins. The chit-chatting can cover any kind of subject, and may or may not be accompanied by some background television.
Most people would associate the sobremesa with the after-lunch time slot, but nighttime sobremesas have become increasingly more popular at restaurants as more and more diners prefer to order their after-dinner mixed drinks, lately gin and tonics, at the same table instead of moving on to some local bar or night club where the music is so loud you can’t even have a sobremesa chat with yourself. The drinks are often cheaper the dinner table and the atmosphere more relaxing.
The concept of the sobremesa, as I see it, touches on a number of classic Spanish values and customs: the importance of family, friends, gatherings and verbal communication. The importance of taking the time just to be with each other. The importance of speaking your mind.
This wonderful Spanish tradition has also been an endless source of enjoyment and information for me. I can’t begin to name the times I have learned about bits and bobs of details about Spain by simply sitting back and listening to elderly Spaniards recount their youth, people with opposing political views spar over this issue and that, or just friends bringing up general discussions about the latest news, events and even gossip, both personal and national. In fact, there really isn’t a subject that can’t be covered.
The sobremesa can be an unnerving experience to the novice witness, since the Spanish tend to talk quite a bit at the same time. That can make it tough to follow what’s going on and even tougher to get a word in. It’s important not to let these issues stress you out. Take it easy and let yourself get absorbed by the situation. Little by little you’ll get the hang of it.
Born in New York City in 1967, I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. I’ve been living in Madrid since 1991 as a teacher and a writer. And I’d say I’m here for the long haul. I love just about every aspect of Spanish culture, except for maybe “callos”!
I’ve published two books on Spain and Spanish wine, and more recently a book about the Camino de Santiago. I have two daughters.
Image Credits: Mauro Entrialgo