I just spent the most magical two weeks in Spain for a full sensory immersion in a different culture. I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about being present, but it doesn't matter until I live it. My trip to Spain was an experiment in being present and engaging my senses for 10 days straight. Every sense was turned on from sight of incredible architecture, smell and taste with all the delicious tapas and wine, hearing the buzz of Barcelona, and touch of hiking around Montserrat - a mountain with gorgeous views and a 1000-year old monastery on top.
It connected me into my body to experience the pleasure of a new culture, especially with the food.
The Spanish have a lot to teach Americans about food.
One, they run on what my friends there call "Spanish time." The afternoons are so leisurely, often taking a 2+ hour full-course lunch. It's way different from a chain restaurant where customers pretty much eat and run.
Meals there are an experience. You sit down, relax, and take as much time as you want looking at the menu (or trying to translate it to Spanish). For lunch, we often had our biggest meal of the day - which I've always loved - as the "menu del dia." Most places had a 3-course lunch with small tapas, a main dish (like delicious paella!), a dessert, and often a drink.
Food is meant to be savored and shared, so I fully support the idea of tapas. It makes meals more than another "to-do" in the middle of the day when you can sit down and experience new flavors with friends or family. You don't need a full platter of food to enjoy it - my favorite tapas were 1 or 2-bite pieces like mini stuffed peppers with goat cheese and grilled artichokes.
Meals can be as short or as long as you like. It was surprisingly pleasant to eat without having a waiter stop by and ask how things were 10 times in a meal. In America, they typically come by always while in the middle of a bite...several times. In Spain, we were left to enjoy our meal, then could flag down the waiter for the bill - when we were ready. This was a real practice in mindful eating. I didn't even have to think about slowing down, savoring, or removing distractions - it just happened when leisure, time, and great company were there.
When you can savor food and the experiences, common fears around eating disappear, like:
- Should I order the salad or burger?
- What will my friends think if I get the burger instead?
- What if I overeat?
- Should I finish this or keep eating?
- Am I going to have to go to the gym after eating this meal?
Those fears keep us from enjoying the moment and the food in front of us. The food that was grown and prepared for us, and the food that is just as essential to living as the air we breathe. By switching our perspective back into our body and asking our body what it wants - rather than what you feel like you "should" eat - you are able to metabolize essential nutrients, as well as pleasure from the food and the whole experience.
Ask yourself what you WANT to eat rather what you think you "should" eat.
The lunch was big enough to feel satisfied on all levels afterwards, and some days, we also participated in the wonderful siesta time too with a short nap. I'm seriously considering adding in a 15-30 minute nap in the afternoon on some work-from-home days. It's incredibly refreshing and a time to just rest.
It was incredible to see how my body adjusted quickly to a new environment, especially with the time difference. By trusting that I would still feel hunger and fullness, I didn't need to pack snacks to eat every 2-3 hours when we were out. If we got hungry in between meals, we stopped for ice cream or just waited a little bit.
It's totally normal to feel both hunger and fullness. Intuitive eating isn't another diet to follow to eat ONLY when moderately hungry and stopping before feeling full. Yes, that's naturally what happens when I'm listening to my body most of the time, but in Spain, there were times I felt pretty hungry and other times when I was pretty full. Totally normal, and I survived it rather than judging my hunger or fullness.
Yes, I ate ice cream or chocolate (chocolate con churros!) most days there and didn't feel an ounce of guilt or worry about weight gain. I didn't feel the desire to stuff myself because I don't have rules around food, and I still wanted veggies with most meals. Yet, I gave myself permission to eat whatever I wanted, even if that means I ate more sweets or sugar than typical.
My body didn't "need" chocolate made by monks in a 1000-year old monastery, but I'm still allowed to enjoy food simply because it tastes good. I trust that my body is always seeking balance, and I don't have to worry that I'm going to keep eating only chocolate once I start.
Most importantly, food was only one part of the entire trip. It was just as enjoyable to allow myself to go out dancing until 6 am, to take an afternoon off and just rest, or to trek around Barcelona exploring and getting lost. If you ask my sister, directions are not my strength, but we always made it home!
What I'm taking out of this experience is the practice to dive in to life. Too often, I can find myself in my head, and overanalyzing or finding meaning for everything. While I love that I have a rich inner world, I need to let myself experience the outer world fully. Today as I'm writing, this means taking a moment to head outside with my dog, barefoot on the growing grass, and listening to the birds while seeing the trees blow in the wind.
The present moment is full of wonder if we allow ourselves to experience it.
Engage your senses, and live life.
(By the way, good thing I am not a food/recipe blogger. I'm too busy eating and enjoying myself to stop and take pictures at the perfect angle. Even if I tried, it's really hard to get food to look good in photos most of the time.)
In case you're traveling to Spain (or want to!), here's what I loved:
- Sagrada Familia in Barcelona - the still-under-construction, intricate church that Gaudi designed. There's no way to describe it but to say the design and the colors inside from the stain-glassed window is incredible. The thought of even dreaming up this wonder sparks my creativity.
- Montserrat - It's about an hour from Barcelona but well-worth the trip. The guide books all mention it as a nearly 1000-year old monastery on a mountaintop. While that is so cool, the hiking around it was my favorite - did I mention nature is my church? (note to self: do better research, and wear actual hiking clothes). While we managed to hike around in jeans and Tom's, it would have been more comfortable in different clothes.
- History Museum & Picasso Museum - The history museum is mostly Roman ruins underground where you can see parts of the old Roman city - it's pretty cool. We also saw the Picasso museum with a Dali exhibit, and I had no idea how prolific Picasso was. Museums are free or discounted on Sundays.
- Park Guell - An outdoor park designed by Gaudi with a paid and free section. Both are cool, and the free section has a lot of hiking to see the skyline of Barcelona
- El Xampanyet - This was recommended for homemade cava (basically Champagne), so we checked it out. It was super busy, but it's definitely an old, small restaurant with lots of locals. We grabbed cava and I found a few delicious tapas, but I'd recommend going at a less-busy time and making a meal out of it.
- Mercat de Boqueria - It's a market off of La Rambla with so much fresh food that I was in dietitian heaven. Fresh produce, olives (unfortunately, the only veggie I don't seem to like), nuts, dates, meats, cheese, fish. The food was fresh - so many different types of seafood & cheeses! We grabbed juices and chocolates there and later picked up cheese & ham & fruit for a picnic at the beach.
- The Magic Fountain show - I'm glad we made time to make it to this on the last night. It's a fountain show with lights and music (we heard Disney music!) in front of the big steps of the art museum.
- Valencia - Paella is traditionally from Valencia, so grab some there!
- What to eat: Paella, manchego cheese, iberico ham, grilled artichokes (!!) or any grilled veggies, spanish tortilla (omelette with potato), seafood, churros con chocolate - and yes, they eat dinner at 9 or 10 pm.
- What to drink: Cava, vino, sangria!