In restaurants in the United States, you enter and usually there is a stand where a host is supposed to greet you or there will be a sign that says one of two things:
“Please seat yourself” upon which, you will find a table and seat yourself, most likely at the only dirty table in the restaurant, or “Please wait to be seated” which means you wait for the hostess to return to the stand and direct you accordingly. Whether customers follow the signs is another issue.
In Spain, there is no guidance when it comes to eating. There are several entrances to some restaurants, so when I enter I question if I entered the right door. Several servers also greet me, but only because I am a pretty girl and not because I am a new patron ready to spend money in their establishment, and so they walk right past me.
Tonight, I find a small restaurant with a lot of people enjoying the inside and outdoor seating areas. Thinking I have it all figured out, I stand outside the establishment where the menus are to indicate my desire to sit in the outdoor seating area, but I don’t look any different than the passersby trying to observe the cute setting before them because it’s “just so European looking.” I am left standing awkwardly. I say “Hi” to a worker, but he smiles at me and continues on. My life.
Eventually, after waiting and waiting, I take a seat. Isn’t that how it should be? Take what you can get while it’s available? I’m not served right away, but it seems that no one is annoyed that I sat myself. I know the staff has noticed because they walk right past me. I think I’m getting the hang of this.
When the waiter finally acknowledges my existence– a wait that I should be used to by now when it comes to men — I immediately order a glass of wine before he disappears again for another half hour.
Families around me have ordered paella, a popular dish of Valencia. It comes out on a big steaming plate full of seafood and rice. It looks divine. I wonder if it’s a plate I could put down on my own, but alas, it is a plate for a family, which I do not have with me. Nor do I have a boyfriend, an Instagram husband, or a play thing. I look around at the other customers and everyone is in love. I am in love with the guy who brings the basket of bread. Wonder what he’s doing later. I hope he brings bread.
I settle for a seafood dish recommended by the waiter and while I wait I gaze into the eyes of my lover for the night: wine. By the time the food arrives, I have finished the basket of bread, the dipping sauce plate wiped clean. I have no regrets.
Everyone around me is laughing, eating their shared plate of paella and drinking beer or wine. It’s a lively environment that attracts street vendors. They attempt to sell handmade bracelets, hats and roses by weaving in and out of the seating area. The man selling roses tries to sell to the males with their families or their girlfriends. As he walks about the tables we make eye contact and I prepare myself to politely decline the rose that I don’t want to buy, but he takes a step over in my direction and hesitates when he realizes I am alone. He moves on. Even a guy selling roses doesn’t want to approach me.
The bowl of food that sits in front of me is intimidating. I love seafood, but this is a plate of food I don’t know how to attack without looking like a caveman hunched over his most recent kill. I regret not watching the family of four next to me devour their paella. Piles of seafood shells sits around their table and all that’s left on the main plate are bits of rice. What is the proper way to eat unshelled shrimp and crayfish in Europe? But then I remember I am alone and who is going to judge the way I eat except maybe that family of four next to me? That stupid American that eats with her hands, we have spoons for that! Well, lady, the spoon doesn’t seem to crack open these shells as well as my fingers, so watch and learn.
I try to eat the crawdad (is that what it is?) like I’ve seen in movies by sucking out the insides, but the shell is still on and it cuts my lip. These things have spikes? I take a swig of wine. I try to eat the fish instead because that’s what I know, but bones poke my cheeks and I find myself pulling them out of my mouth. There is no sexy way of pulling fish bones out of your mouth.
I eat the shrimp because I’ve done that in Asia, skin and all. Finally, something I know how to do.
There are some unfamiliar items in the dish. I pull the head off and the meat from inside dangles from the tail.
I decide to move onto the broth that the seafood sits in. It burns my tongue.
The waiter fills my glass without me asking and I’m forever grateful. Maybe he realizes I need it. He also hands me a lemon-scented hand wipe.
“To clean your hands after,” he says, gazing into my eyes while backing away as if he had just placed a rose on the table to signify his love for me. I’m too distracted by how to eat this food, but it’s probably the most romantic thing anyone has done for me in years. I look around to find that everyone has a hand wipe and I’m just another poor sap that fell for a romantic gesture.
In Spain, they don’t eat to survive, they eat to socialize. I try to remind myself of this as I’m one of the last people left in the outside seating area. There is a younger couple and an older couple left as well, but the only difference between the couples is their age. Both are laughing. Both females make nervous gestures and look around while the men gaze straight at the female in front of them.
My wine glass sits across from me, the only thing I can depend on these days. I want them to fill my wine glass again, but the restaurant has closed. The streets are empty and the families that surrounded me have all left. I test to see if the waiters will fill my glass again and gulp down the remains. Then I try to peel the shrimp. Maybe that’s how they do it. It’s more difficult than it looks and I end up making an even bigger mess. It’s a good thing I’m alone.
My bread basket still sits on the table filled with nothing but the two end pieces that were too hard for me to chew on. My glass remains empty. It’s definitely closing time, yet the waitstaff sits at a table on a side alley near the restaurant. They are in no hurry. They chat, they laugh, they gesture quickly.
Now everyone is paying, except me.
I’m left alone.
The street cleaner passes through the alleyways, spraying the streets, the hum of the machine echoing off the stone walls. What time is it?
A busser offers to take my scraps away, but I still want more of my meal. For as difficult and messy of a meal it is, I can’t get enough of the flavors. The crawdad is juicy, the fish melts in my mouth and the broth swirls with the oils from the seafood. It’s delightful and salty and it’s a meal that I savor with every bite. I’m not giving up. I tell him I can pay now if he needs. He says in Spanish, “No, finish your meal. You want more bread? Wine?” This guy really knows how to please a lady.
He leaves me alone again and returns to fill my wine glass.
We have small talk as he cleans the tables around me. I drink my wine. He takes away my plate and I drink more wine, assuming that he’ll bring the bill, but I am in Spain. One of his friends sits on a motorcycle parked on the side of the plaza smoking a rolled cigarette. The booze has hit his system and he stares at the floor as if it’s far away. My waiter has gone to him for a chat and takes a few drags from the same rolled cigarette.
At other restaurants nearby I see the same thing. I believe I am the only one left on these streets, but I am mistaken. Down the alley at another restaurant sits another couple finishing their wine and smoking cigarettes. Their waiters stand at the corner smoking, chatting, as if they too were having a night out. Then they resume work and start putting the chairs away after throwing the end of their cigarette into the street.
I down the rest of my wine. The clock tower strikes midnight.
The wine has kicked in and I’m still left without the bill. The female waitress is mopping the floor inside. She catches me watching her as I remember that I’ve used that same type of mop and bucket before. The kind that spins when you press down to wring it out.
Eventually, I pay. Two hours after I decided to steal my table, the streets are quiet and I’m left wandering the alleyways alone. My stomach is full and the wine puts a smile on my face. To eat and not be hurried is a simple pleasure that really can only be enjoyed in the streets of Spain.