A Feast I once had in Belgrade

Prijatno! En Guete! Bon Appetit! All around the world, people sitting down to a good meal begin it with a single phrase, but In America, we simply don’t say anything at all. We just sort of start eating unceremoniously, with no clear line signalling the beginning of a meal. The closest you will hear to “Prijatno” is “Bon Appetit!” Which of course, is not English, but French, one of the many foreign phrases we have incorporated into our language. Some Americans will say “Dig In!” or “Let’s Eat!” or “Enjoy!” But these aren’t really customary, they’re small talk, and they just don’t carry the happy familiarity of the word Prijatno.

Why don’t we have an equivalent word like Prijatno in English? Is it because it seems too formal, too old-fashioned, too indulgent? Or is it simply because most of us don’t give enough attention to the meal at hand? In a society where everything is convenience based, whether its fast food for the budget conscious or power bars for the health conscious, meal time just doesn’t get the attention it could. Meals are eaten in front of the TV, alone on the couch, or in the driver’s seat on the way to and from work. So to many Americans using a word like Prijatno would be a meaningless formality, obscure and irrelevant to their lifestyle.

I started saying Prijatno around my dinner table long before I went to Belgrade, since my Serb was always saying it to me, and now it feels strange not to say it.  In Belgrade, I was confused when hearing a shop keeper call “Prijatno”, after me, as I left the store. My Serbian grammar teacher explained that Prijatno, comes from the verb Prijati, meaning to suit, or to be pleasant. He meant, have a good day, not have a good meal. My teacher explained that the shop keeper was actually grammatically incorrect by saying Prijatno, and should technically say “Prijatan Dan”, however no one actually says that, and it would therefore sound very odd to do so. As someone who delights in correct grammar usage in any language, I loved this explanation! The intricacies of language are so fascinating, although sometimes infuriating! But I digress.

As a child, my dining experience was very structured, we would all sit down at the dinner table nightly, my dad on one end of our oblong wooden table, my mom on the other end, the 5 of us kids seated at our regular positions along the sides. We would sit quietly, bowing our heads over empty place settings, waiting until my Dad’s routine prayer was over before being served. After the meal each of us kids would need to ask a parent, “May I please be excused?” Their response signaled whether we were free to leave or not. This kind of routine seemed stifling compared to my friends. While I was confined to the dinner table, sitting straight in a worn bentwood chair, I imagined them lounging on a beanbag chair, eating mac n cheese while watching their favorite TV show. Later I was grateful for our meal time rituals, however puritanical they seemed.

I now say Prijatno instead of a prayer, drink wine instead of milk, and though my customs have evolved into my own, I’ve found I enjoy maintaining a bit of tradition at the dinner table, and in my case it comes in the form of an old Serbian phrase. To me, Prijatno means more than just have a good appetite. It means, lets enjoy this meal together. Let’s slow down, really taste the food, appreciate the preparation, let’s eat and talk and be happy, because good food is to be shared with friends and family. In a society where we have adopted many traditions from all over the world, I think its time to adopt one more, Prijatno!