Two years ago I was working in Liberia, West Africa and came to Chicago for a three-day conference. Coming out of West Africa to Europe and then North America is always a huge culture shock, and when I went all that way for just a weekend conference, I felt more disoriented than ever.
I stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott near O’Hare airport, and after arriving late at night after a series of long flights, I was excited to head down to the buffet breakfast the next morning. Here are a few observations on the experience.
I am amazed at what I see on the overstocked tables in front of me. There is enough American breakfast food to feed a small country, but it looks like it is all for me and the other hotel guests. By agreeing to pay $9.95 at the end of the experience, we can all eat as much food and drink as much coffee and orange juice as we’d like.
This inspires me to make sure I get a good value for my ten bucks, and the challenge is easy because the feast is enormous. Mountains of pancakes are stacked precariously in metal warming trays, but the crowd of eaters quickly works the stack down to the bottom as we go through the line again and again. We are encouraged to take lots of food, and our empty plates are whisked away in minutes after each visit to the buffet.
It’s hard to decide where to start. Platters of scrambled eggs are next to piles of bacon and sausage. French toast, fried potatoes, cereals, danishes, and bagels are all appealing. Enormous slices of melon and cartons of yogurt are available for the health conscious, and if you eat some fruit, you can feel better about the eggs with cheese and buttered toast.
Matching the food, the glasses and plates are jumbo-sized. Rivers of orange juice flow through bottomless two-liter carafes, and there is no such thing as decaf coffee here. My server comes by to refill the large glasses and asks if I’d like a Belgian waffle with butter and syrup. Really, a Belgian waffle in addition to everything on the buffet? No extra charge? This is amazing. Another server comes by and asks if I want an omelet, just in case the scrambled eggs at the buffet are not enough.
Why not have it all? I think to myself, and that’s exactly what I do. I start with a little of everything, and then I have a little more of everything. I’m hungry from traveling so far, and thrilled for the chance to have breakfast food that I don’t normally get.
I look around the room and see that everyone else is eating like me, so I assume that it must have been a while since they had a good breakfast too.
Hey, what civil conflict or natural disaster did you guys come from? I wonder. I had no idea that everyone else at the Chicago Courtyard by Marriott had just arrived from war zones like I did.
Later on I realize that my fellow diners have come from countries like Milwaukee and California and Calgary—funny, I didn’t realize there was a shortage of food in those places, but judging from how everyone is eating, there must be something I don’t know.
The whole experience is amazing and wonderful. And later on that morning, I feel a little sick from eating so much, but that’s OK. I deserved all of that food… right?
I don’t feel like having any lunch either, but I still look forward to the next day’s buffet breakfast.
Days Two and Three
I go down from my room the next morning and see that the feast has been restocked. The pancake fairy has visited in the night, and the omelet angel is there again, smiling at the customers and periodically bringing out huge platters of eggs.
Everyone is eating just as much as yesterday, and I start to get worried. I know that we all just came out of civil wars and natural disasters yesterday, but maybe the others think the food will disappear if they don’t eat as much as they can and as quickly as possible.
I stand up on the table, tap my spoon against an orange juice carafe, and get everyone’s attention.
“Hey guys, slow down! Don’t worry! The pancake fairy will come again tonight. There will be enough for everyone, I promise.”
(OK, I don’t really do that. But I think about it.)
I decide that everyone else must know more than me, and perhaps there really will be a food shortage later. I eat as much as I can and then some more before straggling over to my conference. This time, the stuffed feeling of having eaten too much doesn’t feel very good at all. For lunch, I only feel like eating some carrots, and I don’t even have my normal afternoon cup of coffee after drinking so much in the morning.
By my third and final day at the Courtyard, I’ve learned my lesson. I take only two trips to the magical buffet tables. I place myself on a strict diet of three pancakes and four cups of coffee. As hard as it is, two large glasses of orange juice will have to suffice for the morning.
When a luxury becomes a commodity, we quickly take it for granted. The first day I encountered the feast at the Courtyard by Marriott, it was a genuine luxury to me. I absolutely loved it. The second day, it was pretty good. By the third day, though, it was becoming routine. It was a commodity, and I appreciated it much less than before.
An abundance of choices is not always a good thing. Hotel breakfasts are a good example of this. If everything looks good, what do you eat? You probably eat some of everything, or at least I do. Taking away a few of the options can help you reduce the choices and eat less, just as in life it is sometimes good to have a few good choices instead of many average choices.
It’s OK to appreciate good stuff. Notice that I haven’t said anything about feeling guilty for eating pancakes when I had just come from a poor country. That’s because I didn’t feel guilty at all; I felt grateful.
This is a subject for another essay, but the short version is that if I didn’t eat the pancakes that day, nothing would have changed for anyone in Liberia. The problem is not that those of us in rich countries are able to eat as much as we want for breakfast; the problem is that breakfast isn’t always available for other people around the world.
Good stuff like unlimited pancakes should be appreciated. Don’t take pancakes for granted, but don’t feel ashamed about enjoying them in relative moderation.
One time I heard someone say that the best dieting practice is to make sure you are actively aware of each bite you take when you are eating. I think this relates the concept of conscious living in general, something that I try to practice as much as possible. Inevitably, my success rate is far from perfect, but now at least I notice when I’m not paying attention to things I should.
One more note: a few months later I was back in another Courtyard by Marriott in Washington, D.C. I had just arrived the night before from Denmark, which is a little different from Liberia. I went down to the dining room in the morning and saw the same scene as before: pancake fairies, platters of eggs, stacks of pastries, and everything else. Although there were plenty of Bluetooth chatterers eating as fast they could while oblivious to the world around them, I also noticed a few people paying attention to life.
I want to be one of the attention-payers. It takes a lot of discipline to be able to appreciate the way we live, deliberately choosing to embrace it without taking it for granted. As cool as breakfast buffets can be, there are some things even more exciting.