'Sobremesa': An Untranslatable Spanish Delight

Don't rush off when the meal is done! You'll miss the best part of the conversation if you do. (Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock).

When I wrote about 7 cultural traditions we don't have in the U.S., some commenters dropped by to let me know I had forgotten a few. But the fact that I neglected sobremesa was especially egregious; I studied abroad in Spain, where I not only first heard of the concept, but also enjoyed practicing it too.

What Is Sobremesa?

While sobremesa literally means "over the table," the more meaningful translation is a bit longer-winded. It's that time spent after a meal, hanging out with family or friends, chatting and enjoying each other's company. It can be applied to either lunch or dinner, and often includes family members, but also friends — and it can even include a business lunch.

This sobremesa site gives a longer definition: "Time spent in conversation, digesting, relaxing, enjoying. Certainly not rushing. Not reserved for weekends — though it can be longest on Sundays — even weekday and business meals have sobremesa. For Spaniards, how we eat is as important as what we eat."

The tradition of sobremesa is why after a meal in Spain, you won't get a check until you ask for it. It would be thought rude to rush your meal, or to discourage postprandial chats.

What Is Tertulia?

Related to, but not the same as sobremesa, is "tertulia," which is a meeting, often over coffee, either at a coffeehouse or someone's home, whose subject is of literary or artistic merit. Usually these meetings would take place at 4 p.m. or later, and the closest English-language equivalent is salon (which can happen at any time, but is usually held at night and tends to be a larger gathering than a tertulia). Like a salon, participants (called contertulias) will share new work, like poetry, short stories, artwork or even music.

I can imagine a day where I would eat a simple Spanish breakfast, work for a few hours, sit down to a long, leisurely and no-doubt delicious Spanish lunch, enjoy sobremesa afterwards, and perhaps a short siesta. Then I'd head to the coffee shop for tertulia into the evening, after which I'd go for tapas and wine, then out dancing at the disco until 2 or 3 a.m. Sounds kind of perfect, doesn't it? (OK, maybe not for everyone, but I'm sure there are some of you out there who would like this schedule as much as I would!). And of course, most Spanish people don't do all these things every day.

Do people in many other countries around the world enjoy what the Spanish call sobremesa or tertulia? Sure, but they don't have a word for it, which makes these Spanish customs extra special — and a little harder to brush off in today's work-first world.