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May 11, 2015

It’s not just desserts

Alice Xiao / The Chicago Maroon

The Spanish concept of sobremesa can’t quite be translated into English. It’s the part of dinner that begins after you’ve finished eating—when you’re all sitting around the table, talking and thinking and drinking and laughing and digesting. It’s the spirit that causes you to dawdle at your house table for hours after you’ve finished lunch, eating plate after plate of dining hall French fries and talking about religion.

Sobremesa was one of my favorite parts of the housing system, and many people I know fondly remember those dining hall hours. After my fourth hour at South, and my 13th piece of pound cake, I felt an inevitable sense of belonging and peace. The things we said in the dining hall couldn’t have been communicated outside its doors, during a party or in class. We talked freely, with no stress or the need to impress each other. Sobremesa removed inhibitions but added respect, like a weird anti-alcohol, or incumbency in public office.

But how can we maintain that spirit after we move off campus and into the real world? Dinner at American restaurants and dinner parties tends to feel rushed due to profit-maximizing restaurant policies, as well as a need for politeness. Is sobremesa simply untranslatable to American culture? It exists elsewhere in the world—why not here? My family lives in Italy, where, thanks to sobremesa, waiters will never bring you the check, not on pain of death, not even if you ask for it, not even if the restaurant is on fire and the check is actually a fire extinguisher. If you make a reservation in Italy, the table is yours for the whole night. But in America, the check is sometimes brought to you with your food, in case you’ve forgotten that the best pairing for quiche isn’t good conversation but quick payment.

The same thing happens at American dinner parties. As soon as everyone is finished eating, there’s a race to helpfully stack plates and wash dishes. But what’s the rush? As a college kid, if there’s somewhere I regularly have to be at 9:30 p.m. on a Saturday night that’s doesn’t involve sitting around drinking cider and talking to friends over dirty dishes, then I should be getting paid for it.

The point I’m trying to make is that there shouldn’t be a rush. You experience sobremesa only in the brief aimless hours before plans and parties, but it’s a worthwhile feeling. Don’t ask for the check. Linger. Reflect. Stare at each other blankly across the table. Talk about the future. Hum under your breath. Laugh. Stall. Play tic-tac-toe on the tablecloth. Drink. Digest. Breathe. Smile at babies. Fold and re-fold the napkins. Be comfortable, but don’t force it. Enjoy life and the people around you. You’ll find that you’ll become much closer to others by just sitting and soaking in each other’s presence. Besides, you’ll have nothing to talk about if things are always happening.

Maya Handa is a third-year in the College majoring in public policy

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