For lunch today I had chicken and salad in a brown bap. I bought it from my local sandwich shop and ate half of it while crossing a busy road on the way back to my office. The other half, I ate while climbing the stairs to my floor. I then spent the rest of my lunch hour half-working/half-browsing the internet — a state from which I emerged feeling a bit stressed. And now, as I type this, I’m in the iron grip of indigestion.
It was a moronic use of a lunch hour. But it’s not the first time I’ve behaved this way, nor is it likely to be the last. And I’m pretty sure there are people all over the country frittering away their lunch hours in a similar manner.
And I suppose there are probably harried office workers making a dreadful hash of their lunch breaks in many of the world’s busiest cities. But equally, there are plenty of places where this type of thing just isn’t done. I might be grasping at stereotypes, but I suspect more sandwiches are inhaled on busy English roads than on French, Italian or Spanish ones.
One of the best things about travel is the way it can shine a light on your own crazy behaviour. When you observe people from other cultures doing something well, you realise how oddly it’s done at home. And one of the things that continually strikes me when abroad is the zest other countries bring to mealtimes. Lunch, for them, is a real highlight — a chance to lose themselves in food, company and conversation. This is something we’ve never quite mastered. For all the talk of the great British food revolution, the lunchtime crowds I see still look a bit timid.
Yes our food’s improved. I’m old enough to remember the days when pubs served nothing but peanuts and restaurants would offer fresh orange juice as a starter. Yet there are still things I wish we did differently. Why, for example, can’t we have Dijon mustard as the standard condiment on our cafe tables? Why aren’t our seaside towns awash with stalls selling beautifully barbecued fish? Why doesn’t my local cafe sell red wine? And why (oh why) must lunch always involve bread?
Over the years, millions of Brits have experienced blinding culinary epiphanies while abroad. For many, these will have occurred in the bistros of France or the trattorias of Italy, but for me, the place that opened my eyes was Japan. From the miso soup and sashimi to the sauces, pickles, rice and fish, all laid out in a patchwork of tiny plates and bowls — everything seemed so fresh and light, and yet so wonderfully filling. It’s food that clears your mind and invigorates your body. Not only that, it was so easy to avoid bread — my own personal catnip-cum-kryptonite. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t see a single person eating their lunch while crossing a road.
At the end of my week’s stay, I felt stronger and sharper than I had in years. And I arrived home full of such good intentions — just as I had from Morocco. And Turkey. It’s always the same. You bring home a sushi roller, or a tagine, or some kebab skewers, and put them in your kitchen, pride of place. At work, you make an effort to seek out new places for lunch, shunning the local sandwich shops and opting instead for fancy soups, spicy stews or interesting salads. You take full lunch hours and turn them into social occasions, meeting up with old friends or dragging reluctant colleagues out to eat.
Then you get busy. So you skip the occasional lunch. Then you get busier. And the busier you get, the less inclined you feel to walk the extra distance. You’re surrounded by sandwich shops, all offering the same old fillings. It’s as if the good Lord only wants you to eat bread. Meanwhile, back at home, there’s a thick layer of dust on your sushi roller/tagine/kebab skewer.
Before you know it, you’re back to the same old combinations.
Chicken, salad, bap.
Road, stairs, indigestion.
Published in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)