Wednesday, August 01, 2007

We’re Not in Southern Europe Anymore

It was abundantly clear this morning at breakfast that we were not in Portugal where all one has is a slice of white toast and a milky coffee, nor in Greece with the yoghurt and fruits. Our offerings were closer to what we got in Scotland, and even more like what I remember from Poland ten years ago. In other words, breakfast included quite a bit of fish. Not just the lox we’re used to having for brunch back in the US, but pickled herring and pickled salmon, and maybe even more fish. I’d only been awake 20 minutes, so I tried not to look too closely. Also available was cheese, ham, mustard, sliced tomato and cucumber, and a shredded onion and cucumber salad in a light oil and vinegar dressing (which is what I had). If you wanted to be boring and not so savory you could have pourable yoghurt, milk and cereal, or teeny croissants and jam. Ian had pickled herring.

Dining while on the road for so long has its drawbacks. For one thing, Americans seem to be the only people who regularly take partially eaten dinners away from restaurants (to molder in their fridges, mostly, instead of moldering in the dumpster behind the restaurant). In Portugal, for instance, if you rashly order an entire plate of Migas do Alentejo and your husband orders an entire other meal, and you can only eat 1/3 of it even though it was really, really tasty, and you ask if there’s a box so you can take leftovers home, they look sorrowfully at you (are they sorry you couldn’t eat the terra cotta roofing tile full of 3 kilos of cornmeal and pork fried together, or sorry to disappoint you in your strange request?) and tell you no. For the most part, we got around this by either eating too much (hence the current size of my thighs), only ordering one main dish between the two of us, or frequently some combination of the two.

There are also other dangers of dining out in foreign countries, including ordering something that ends up being tripe or octopus stew because you forgot the words or, even, the words weren’t included in the description of the meal. And there’s the endless issue of how and when to pay your bill. Obviously, you learn very early not to sit and wait for anyone to bring it. They don’t. They’ll hold onto it for hours, long after they’ve determined that you don’t want coffee or dessert or anything else. If you’re us, you learn, eventually, after 3 months and about 200 meals out, to ask for the bill when you tell them you don’t want dessert. Once you have the bill though, then what? They’re not all that quick to come back and see if you need change or the credit card machine (an exception is London, where they check back, and bring a wireless credit card machine to the table, which is impressively handy).

An added insecurity for me is that it takes us so little time to complete a meal. Ian, for one, is an Indy 500 eater. I eat much more slowly (we counted the average number of chews we each perform per bite and I was 54 and he was 7), but much of the speed or slowness of a meal depends on conversation, and since we have spent almost literally the past 2,208 hours together, we don’t have that much more to say to each other over lunch. Besides that, when you’re not traveling, restaurant meals tend to have a bit of ceremony about them, but since we are traveling, and for so long, they’ve become pretty mundane (aside from all the neuroses I’ve detailed here). So each time we go to ask for a bill I wonder if the server is looking at us askance for our uncouth speed. I admit, I have comforted myself more than once with the thought that we’ll never be back in that restaurant again, so our embarrassment ends when we walk out the door.

I realize that this is irrational behavior. Nevertheless, tonight’s dining experience was a relief and joy.

We ate at a Latvian buffet, which is probably related in origin to the Swedish smorgasbord. It was in a kitschy wooden “traditional” house with multiple rooms, artisan decorations, and lots of good foods. The offerings included a cold soup and a hot soup, several prepared salads drowned in sour cream (I had tomato and cucumber and avoided the pink beets), a salad bar, prepared dishes of deep fried garlic bread (a personal favorite), several hot dishes including fish and sausages (many also drowned in sour cream), a huge vat of fries, steamed vegetables, a juice bar, a dessert bar, bottled beer or beer on tap, teas, coffees, water, etc. We could meander around bumping gently into each other with our trays, choosing exactly what we liked the looks of, in exactly what quantities we wanted, and then we paid before sitting down. And then, joy of joys, when we were done we could simply get up and leave.

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