Tag Archives: time

What it Means to Have Time on Your Hands

You would be hard pressed to find a group of people, an entire culture with more time on their hands than the Portuguese.

time affluent dinners in Lisbon, Portugal dining at night
Click on photo to see its upright beauty 🙂

Take the simple act of going out to eat. Much like their Spanish neighbors, the Portuguese eat dinner late. Most restaurants don’t open for dinner until 8pm. And many of these same restaurants officially “close their doors” at 10pm.

Truncating dinner time in this way has the enchanting effect—if you’re an open-minded optimist or the bewilderingly annoying effect if you’re a realist—of making dining out a crowded affair.

Dare to show up without a reservation? Expect some condescending questions, deep sighs, and ogling from the wait staff.

Once—hopefully—seated, expect to wait for someone—anyone—to swing by your table and assess whether you’d like to pay for a modest amount of water, a substance that costs 3x that of beer. You can imagine what I tended to order.

Nonetheless, once we placed orders, the food arrived fairly quickly. Now the consumption begins. Or if you’re Portuguese, doesn’t begin until after you’ve enjoyed a half hour of deep political conversation with your dining partner. The water’s most often served at room temp, so I suppose folks don’t mind room temp food either.

One pleasant aspect of witnessing the Portuguese dine was the absence—in almost all cases—of distraction by a mobile device. People evidently savored their company. Quite lovely, really.

Twenty minutes later, we Americans—and a sprinkling of Brits—had finished our meals. Despite our gustatory efficiency, ordering desserts required another hour. Requesting the check? Yet another.

If people needed three or four hours to dine at night, certainly they’d be rushing much of the day! Not so, it turns out.

Several hours prior to the “dining hour”, “Cervejarias” (literal translation: “place that makes and serves beer”) or “snack bars” harbored great masses of folk. In Lisbon, there lie probably one snack bar for every 5 persons.

Between the hours of 5 and 8pm, people—mostly older men—sipped on a few pilsner beers—SuperBock or Sagres—vinho verde, and port, and snacked on the typical fare of snails and nuts until that time when they could dine late-night style. All of this after having “lunched” from one until 3pm.

My friend Doug likes to say I have “NBT, nothing but time on your hands!” I can’t image what he’d think of the Portuguese aesthetic.

However, it turns out that those who work full time in Portugal work 42 hours a week (we Americans work an average of 47 hours). They work more than the Germans and Dutch, for crying out loud. So why all the loafing around? How come everyone seems to be idly sipping on vinho verde and sitting on park benches?

It might all come down to one policy that tricked me into thinking of the Portuguese as a time affluent people: forced retirement at age 66.

That’s right: the people we saw out during the day and early evening were mostly older men. Not sure what women were up to in the space between lunch and “snack time”—housework? bocci ball?, no that’s Italy—but men certainly outnumbered women by a wide margin.

What would happen under a forced retirement regime in the US? For one thing, such a policy would disappoint the working plans of 75% of American college professors.  And you could say goodbye to Walmart greeters, oh and large numbers of legislators and farmers and judges and crossing guards. Adios! Enjoy the retirement you can’t afford!

I wonder what might happen were we to blend American and Portuguese cultures. Each adopting some element from the other to improve its situation. For one, the Portuguese could—and given the energy needed to illuminate late-night dinner tables, should—eat dinner earlier.

Why not start dinner around 6pm? Why do  you need to “fuel up” just before heading to bed to work an 8+ hour shift the next day?

We Americans, for our part, can ratchet down our fixation with fast food and adopt the marvelous “snack bar” and formal Portuguese style of eating.

The ubiquitous snack bars vitalize places, blending lively conversation with animated street life.

And about the formality of dining, we ate at a fairly standard shopping area food court—one you’d find in most American malls—with ceramic dishes and silverware. After eating, as though at a restaurant, we simply left our wares for someone to whisk away.

I truly believe that both cultures should work less. Longer work hours does not = greater productivity. In fact, more flexible schedules and working closer to 30 hours a week maximize productivity.

Just think: we’d all enjoy more time for strolling in the park or watching football or playing real “futbol” and engaging with people rather than with machines. We could pursue gratifying hobbies and livelihoods. We could work toward directly satisfying the needs of life. All of this would possible when we have “NBT.”

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