close encounters with a food culture: mealtimes

We got our Grom gelato probably a bit after 5, and though we were tired and facing an early flight the next morning, our first night in Lugano had taught us some important things about meal times in Italian cultures. Namely, that you don’t mess with them.

After our first hike, we thought that a moderately-priced (as though such a thing exists in Switzerland) sit-down meal would be a nice reward and a good way to continue fending off jet lag into the evening. We didn’t go far, just a few steps down the waterfront path to La Lanchetta. Its patio was full, so we figured it must be all right. Good food, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

Lanchetta ended up being a false cognate with the Spanish lancha, for a canoe or other small boat—a launch. This, with my ignorance of Italian pronunciation rules, led me to ask a waterfront waiter in Morcote the next night, roughly, “Where is the wHoorf for Lugano?” He confirmed that I was looking for the boat, and I understood just enough of his answer to get that it was right down the street. It took looking at the ferry’s timetable to figure out that the rest of his disquisition must have been about how it was a holiday and so we’d missed the last one by half an hour.

Back at La Lanchetta that first night, we took a table just inside the open door to the patio and waited a while for a waiter to come over to us. (In general, we both find the European custom of paying waiters as staff, not independent contractors striving for tips, to be a good thing. It’s more humane, and it usually makes the service less obsequious. The consequences of those different incentives more than pushed the limits this time, though.) The wait was long enough for us to see that no one else seemed to be eating yet, so we ordered two beers, which thankfully came to us with a plate of snacks.

Those stale bread things and characterless beers were all we ever got. We watched the first party of diners come in and order, and it was clearly a bit of a scramble for the waitstaff and kitchen. It was also clear from lip-reading that the couple were speaking English, not Italian. The next two parties to order dinner, the same. Still no Ticinese diners, but by the time the third English-speaking party had ordered food, it seemed like the ice might be broken enough for us to follow suit. If only we could get our waiter to come back to the table…

He resisted all attempts at eye contact. We were right by the door to the very busy patio, right in his flight path. As he came through the door, he always turned his back. After a while of this—the first diners were gone by now—we decided just to pay the tab and get food at the kebab stand a bit farther down. Each of us managed to catch the waiter’s eye once and make check-signing gestures. He nodded at each of us, but never came by. I was beginning to think that we should just leave ten franchi (surely that would be enough) on the table and walk out. J-P asked for the check one more time, this time with results. It turns out I would have shorted the place four franchi.

Whenever we were on our own on this trip, we butted up against this inflexibility around what is to be eaten when. The waiter who wouldn’t serve us, the cafe-bars mysteriously empty at what we felt was lunchtime, the woman in the osteria who was clearly put out that we wanted a snack while waiting for a post-hike bus out of Mergocia, the limited morning coffee and inevitable late night, post-dinner espresso. It is true both that American food customs are practically non-existent, especially in comparison, and that our hodgepodge of tv-dinner, drive-thru, and fast-food options wreaks havoc on our health, the quality of our food, and the time we spend together. But I couldn’t help feeling that I’ve established good habits and constraints for myself within my food culture’s chaos, and that it’s easier to do that than to conform to the strictures of a real food culture. Especially as a traveler, when your lack of a kitchen means that all of your dining–and your attempts to flout the rules you don’t even know–are performed in public.


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