The other day I was floating around in a lake near Munich with a girlfriend whose 17 year-old daughter, wearing a very skimpy bikini, had just waded into the water. The daughter has such a narrow body, is so not wide in any way, that I frankly stared at her. I was particularly exercised because the girl had been stuffing Kasekuchen (cheese cake) into her mouth with abandon during Kaffeekuchen. Following my gaze my girlfriend stated “Nicht meine Gene” (“Not my genes”) with mock bitterness.
Not my genes either. I had picked on a small piece of Kasekuchen for a whole hour, fearful that it might take up residence -- without invitation -- somewhere on my body forever.
There exist plenty of data in the science of weight and metabolism that underscore the fact that bodies and their shapes and weights are not all about will power or “just eating right.” (I’ll write about obesity in another post). Genes do play a big role. So do aspects of the environment that are not strictly about food (http://www.aeonmagazine.com/being-human/david-berreby-obesity-era/).
The fact is, although I really do eat well and exercise frequently, I have my father’s body genes. This is good news in some ways because he had low blood pressure and good cholesterol and no heart disease. This is also not so good because he came from people (the Volga Deutsch) who were strong and square and had no metabolism at all lest they be subject to possible starvation because a wave of locusts obliterated their wheat fields. It’s happened. And my body behaves as if it could happen again. Very soon.
Some people feel that I look fine now (although, inevitably, I can't agree), but I was unquestionably a chunky kid. (To be honest, I prefer the French term “pulpeuse” for “round” or “overweight” because it makes a chunky girl sound like a peach or a nectarine.) Of course I suffered from this fact because I was surrounded in grade school and high school by both girls with thin genes AND by girls with eating disorders. Either way, they were all very popular because it was the 1970s, and very thin (without particular attention to exercise) was very in.
So, guess what, I don’t like sitting at the table on Sunday or for holidays (like people often do in France) for 6 hours. I mean, I can keep myself from eating, of course, but it makes me anxious and unhappy to sit at the table for an eternity. Or it makes me drunk. And those things might be related.
Although on occasion I love it when meals last forever, especially if someone else is cooking and cleaning up (all right, most times that someone else is cooking and cleaning up), there were too many times in the 14 years I lived in France that the sitting at the table became a competition, an obligation, a total control issue. No one can tell me that it is relaxing to sit at the table when my 3 year-old needs to take a nap. And, surprise, 3 year-olds still have to nap on weekends and on vacations. No one can tell me that I need to sit at the table when I am leaving for a long trip abroad tomorrow morning and would like to pack. (But should I decline the table sitting lunch or dinner in advance for this reason, I am told that life is too short to sacrifice long table sitting for the purpose of packing suitcases. No, it isn’t).
My husband and I felt at our most controlled -- table-sitting-wise -- one weekday night when we had been invited to a birthday dinner at the apartment of a colleague from work. We hired a babysitter to watch our boys, 5 and 6 years old (who would need to get up to go to school the next day, as would we), and arrived at the birthday dinner at 8 p.m., as invited. At 11 p.m. we were served the main course. At 1 a.m., before the cake was served, we suggested that we had to go home and liberate the babysitter. The host insisted that we stay for cake or offend her, but we took leave. We were all a complete mess the next day. But the most important thing is that we were a mess AND the dinner was not particularly fun. It was just very, very long. Most of the conversation concerned the same topics that were going to be discussed the very next day when we took our sophisticated and relaxing one-hour lunch with colleagues who were all in conflict with one another.
My feeling is that it is not necessarily more fun, more appreciative of life, or just better to sit for a long time at dinner. Not at someone’s house, not at a restaurant. It can be amazing, but it can feel like a terrible obligation that does not respond flexibly to current life conditions when it is stated as a requirement. The opposite, jumping up from the table, is also not desirable. In the two years since we moved back to the US we have sat at the table, even with people who have not lived in Europe, for most of the evening. So apparently it is possible for Americans to sit.
The point isn't that according to cliches one culture sits and the other doesn't (with the possible attendant claim that one culture enjoys life, or at least eating life, and the other doesn't). The point is that legislating pleasure, just asserting that sitting at the table is fun, makes it not fun. Not when you have a baby, not when you are leaving on a trip, not when you couldn't sleep last night, and not when, like me, this may result in a bizarre phenomenon by which the mere proximity of food causes the absorption of calories in case of famine.