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Personal essays

Profits - Essay from Newsletter 132

What is it worth


My recent European trip ended with a week in Spain and Portugal.

I travelled to Logroño for the NSSpain conference.

The people were wonderful, the places were amazing, but the food - the food was indescribable.

My second day there someone posted a question. It was 4:30 and they were heading into the city center for tapas and wanted recommendations of where to go.

Fortunately, someone set them straight that most of the places wouldn’t open until 8 or 9 that evening.

I’d made that mistake my first time to the city and ended up with food that targeted tourists that didn’t know any better.

Now I was a tourist who did know better so my first night there I’d taken a nap around 5 and headed to Calle Laurel just before 9.

I should have connected with others but the conference wouldn’t begin until the next night and I knew I’d be immersed in groups for the next few days and wanted some quiet time just eating my way down the street.

Each place seems to have specialties so you order a couple of small dishes and a glass of wine and enjoy the food and the atmosphere before heading down the street to another place.

I overdid it early and didn’t have room for a tortilla (spanish omelette), potatoes bravas, the mushroom caps, or the fresh seafood.

Don’t worry. I had plenty to eat.

I knew I’d be eating plenty in the week to come and I’d been eating out in Liverpool, Wales, and London for the past two weeks.

But if the choice was not eating these amazing foods or being thin… as much as I’d love to be thinner than I am, I just couldn’t see passing these places by.

More than one of the women I dated during my year of online dating were on low carbohydrate diets. That probably wasn’t the reason it didn’t work out with any of them - but I can’t imagine not baking bread and I can’t imagine not eating the bread that I bake. (I have pizza dough rising in the other room right now.)

It’s like the old joke about living longer if you give up the foods you love. You don’t really live longer, it just feels that way.


That Saturday I took a bus to Bilbao.

My brother and his wife had gifted me a dinner in a Michelin starred restaurant there so after I dropped my bags at the hotel I wanted to stop to eat something - but I didn’t want to ruin my appetite.

Bilbao is in Basque country and is famous for pinchos. I stopped at a bar and stood at the counter and pointed to food and the woman behind the counter did her best to describe things to me. Her boss came by and pointed at an item and said that I would like it - and I did.

But my favorite was the most simple item. A woman cut good fresh bread and toasted the slices. She then went to a meat slicer and sliced off the thinnest pieces of ham you can imagine. She then topped each slice of bread with this orange emulsion of tomatoes and good olive oil and covered the sauce with the ham she’d just cut.

Anyway, the dinner that night was spectacular. Each of the fourteen courses was cooked perfectly. The service was exactly right.

The next morning I flew to Lisbon thinking about the people who make these tapas, pinchos, and that perfect dinner every day.

Each tiny step is important and the combination is a synergy that I can’t hope to recreate at home.

Each place put in all of that work for the look on each of our faces as we paused to enjoy and appreciate their work.

I felt the waiter bristle at dinner at the couple eating across from me who barely noticed the food they were eating. Every other table in the single room restaurant was filled with people who paused to pay attention and savor what they were eating.


The last couple of days of a trip are hard for me.

I’m tired. I want to be home.

But I don’t want to be that couple at the restaurant.

So I dug in determined to be where I was. I dropped my bags off at the hotel and took a train to Sintra. I’ve got a fear of heights but a love of history so I swallowed my fear and climbed the towers of the Moorish Castle and looked down over Sintra.

In the morning I visited the Castle of São Jorge and followed the winding streets down the Alfama. I ended up in the Baixa and found that my metro ticket was good for an elevator up to the Bairro Alto designed by one of Eiffel’s students. I wandered around a bit knowing that I was going to return in the morning for a more curated exploration. I finished the day with a food tour that for some reason didn’t include the custard tarts that Lisbon is famous for.

The next morning I returned to the Bairro Alto and explored using a free Rick Steves audio tour that was very good. I ended in a coffee house and then down the street to a place he recommended for the tarts - the pastel de nata.

They were good but a friend had recommended I get them at the place they were invented: Pasteis de Belém. Again, my metro pass entitled me to take the train to Belém so I headed there.

I suppose I could have taken a twenty minute train ride just for a couple of pastries but I figured while I was there I should probably see the Monastery for Jerónimos and the adjoining church. The stonework and the scale were stunning and I found myself walking by a chapel for Mary.

Kim had always stopped to light a candle for Elena after she died and after Kim died I always stopped to light a candle for each of them.

I don’t know why this always strikes me so deeply.

I’m not Catholic. I’m actually not really religious at all. Why should lighting candles mean so much.

Maybe it’s a moment we’ve taken to be with someone who’s no longer here. A moment we’ve chosen to celebrate in a way that meant something to them.

And why light a candle?

I could easily have paused to think of Kim and Elena in the church without lighting candles for them.

But it matters. Even if I can’t tell you why.


Most of us do things for the thing itself.

We open our browser and try our hand at the crossword puzzle or sudoku or Wordle to start our day.

We travel to see new places or visit familiar ones and too hang with faraway friends.

Some people engage in a competition for the fun of the sport while others lose sight of everything but the outcome.

They rush through Lisbon checking off items so they can tell their friends that they did them.

I know that sometimes you have to go out for tapas at 4:30. That’s the only time that’s available to you so you do it.

That’s ok.

Anyway - I know this seems to be a rambling essay in search of a point so I want to take you in the other direction and tell you what spurred it.

The other day my brother sent me a link to a story about two guys who cheated in a fishing competition.

A fishing competition.

A competition where people invest in boats and equipment and they study tides and have favorite locations - but you assume when they come back with the fish they’ve caught it’s fish they’ve actually caught and nothing else.

It’s a local story here in Cleveland so I’d seen it but him sending me the link gave me pause and I ended up watching an hour interview with the judge of the competition who exposed the cheating.

The guys walked up to the scales with fish that the judge figured were between four and five pounds.

The judge fishes himself and also judges enough competitions that he has a feel for how much a fish should weigh based on its size.

These five fish averaged nearly seven pounds each so he had a feeling that something was wrong.

He cut the first one open and found lead weights.

He cut the other four open and found more lead weights and fillets from other fish.

I think the number of MF’s dropped by the other fishermen in the couple minutes of video of the judge cutting these fish may set more of a record than the weight the offending fishermen attempted.

The cheaters had won competitions and benefited from their cheating. They were playing a different game than the others who were just fishing.

I want to be one of the fisherman who were just out there to fish and have fun.

I’m sure I could be richer if I would cut corners. I’m sure I’d impress more people if I returned home with selfies of me in front of the places you’ve seen on tv. I’m sure I’d live longer if I was more careful about what I ate.

But would I really be richer?

Would I really be there?

Would I really live longer? Or would it just feel that way?

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 132. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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