One Rant at a Time

Whatever heaves into view........better keep its head down.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Destination Oblivion

I'm in Rome after a couple of days attending a trade show and conference, using up half of my weekend for the greater good of my work. This sort of thing doesn't happen often, but when it does I make damn sure I try and derive some benefit. And in Italy, that benefit usually comes on a plate, with a glass or two of wine.

After a somewhat truncated meal -- the food was excellent, the service truly awful -- I wandered to the bar for a nightcap and a spot of people-watching. I was staying in the sort of hotel that the locals will also visit for a good meal, and last night being Friday, there were a fair few Italians enjoying their start to the weekend with a fine meal. And I compared the experiences -- theirs and mine -- with what I tend to see back in the UK.

Firstly, alcohol. In the UK, the rule tends to be that alcohol is an end in itself. Where else would you see people lining up drinks in order to drain them before closing time? What's the purpose of that? It can only be to get as drunk as possible in as short a period of time.

In Italy, drunkenness is a big no-no. It's almost worse than being seen in scruffy clothes (unless they were designed to be scruffy by some lacquered Milanese designer). You just don't drink to excess here.

That said, your average Italian can put away as much alcohol as anyone else, but it's how they do it that makes the difference. Your Italian consumes his wine interspersed with sips of water, makes sure the bottle lasts until the main course is finished, lolls over the last centimetre in his glass while consuming a hideously calorific dessert, and finishes it only when it's time for coffee. Then he might linger over a grappa as a digestif.

And when he gets up from the table, he's suffused in the warm glow of content, good will and general bonhomie that comes from a long, relaxed meal. And he won't be lurching from side to side, clutching at tables to keep his balance.

Compare this to your average closing-time jungle in the UK. Technicolour yawns round the side of the wine bar or pub, the shouts of anaesthetised beer-monsters as they seek out a curry house... which reminds me: why do British people drink first and eat later?

Another thing: children. In the Mediterranean countries, children are full participants in the soap-opera of eating out. They get stuck in right alongside the adults, they are respected, encouraged and accepted as part of adult life. They sit at the same table, their voices rise and fall amid the general hubbub, they get up and run around, they chat to neighbouring tables, the waiters indulge them.

Why does restaurant life in the UK look like the famous "American Gothic" painting by comparison? Kids are seen but ignored, their efforts to converse and interact are shushed, and they resort to slumping mutinously at the table, picking at their food. The result? They don't learn to enjoy the experience, because they don't learn how to. For them, dinner at home is more pleasurable than eating out.

When I first arrived in the UK over thirty years ago, there wasn't much of a restaurant culture. Sure, the curry house had already been around for a while, but when you compare dining today with dining back then, it's like night and day. And while it's a pleasure to see how far the UK has come in terms of gastronomy and experimentation, to see people now positively enjoying their evening meal in a nice restaurant, I don't think the concept has properly percolated down through the ages.

The pub culture is still so strong, and perhaps the Anglo-Saxon pursuit of oblivion at the bottom of a glass is merely shifting location from the old-fashioned spit-and-sawdust pub to the glossy, glassy wine bar.

When was the last time you made a glass of wine last half an hour?


At 6:18 PM, Blogger Minerva said...

Well, as someone who has just joined a GYM I can tell you, that it wasn't long ago at all..*halo*


At 2:19 PM, Blogger Cocaine Jesus said...

pub culture is fine but i'd much rather sit and eat a delicious meal and sip a glass of wine any day. and you are right about the uk's eating and drinking habits. macdonald's is almost custom made for that market. fast and faster.


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