The Bitter and Sweet Taste of Pleasure

In An American in Rome, Articles, Wine Insights & Thoughts by Lindsay GabbardLeave a Comment

Pleasure – try to define what it tastes like.  Is it easy to understand or does it provoke you and make you think?  Is it immediately obvious or are the effects delayed?  Soft and sweet, with a cherry on top or dark, bitter and contemplative?

We live in a world of instant gratification, shrinking the wait time required from the birth of our desires to the moment they can be fulfilled.  It’s a now, now, now world, where we ping-pong from one pleasure to the next, never having to experience the perceived pain of something as simple as waiting.  And this is what the school of hedonism is concerned with – the pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence as the most important intrinsic good and the aim of life. It’s a school of thought that no one can completely argue with – I have certainly never met someone who wants to be relegated to a life of pain, unhappiness and sorrow.  But in the extreme of hedonism, it’s a slippery slope of taking the myopic path of least resistance often to the demise of our long-term intrinsic happiness.

Being from the US, one thing I’ve learned from travel is that Americans are masters at the art of efficiency, pleasing and pleasures.  We do it faster, easier, softer, sweeter, nicer, tastier, more exciting with everything from foods, wines, films and more.  Take the all the top Blockbuster films – they’re action packed, predictable, with happy endings, designed to leave you ‘happy’ but somehow always wanting more.  The wine is typically soft and easy, slightly sweet, low in bitterness, acidity and tannins.  Quintessential American staples like hamburgers and hotdogs – sweet, salty, and fatty – all flavors designed around immediate pleasure.   It’s an evil cycle.  We enjoy something in the moment, naturally want to repeat it, it becomes familiar and familiarity is often associated with pleasure, we are scared to be disappointed by anything else so we keep repeating it, at some point we’re bored or worse yet addicted and being addicted usually means you’re not reaping the benefits of happiness anymore.  If you’re bored, you move on to something else, and maybe you realize that the false perceived variety around you is really all the same stuff with a different label on it so it doesn’t really make you any happier.

And what about not setting out to seek pleasure, but rather being caught up in the moment of surprise – how much more elating can that be?  How does it taste to take the pleasurably easy route, avoiding anything that might strain or pain us?  Is thinking you know what is best, seeking and then attaining it, that which brings you the deepest sense of pleasure?  Or is it having the blank canvas of an artist, an open mind, and letting it arise on it’s own, often bringing a sense of awe – a rare but meaningful emotion that has the ability to produce not only enjoyment but a new found understanding of the world, and even one’s own self?  

burgundyPondering this brings me straight to the time I chose to travel alone for 2.5 months for the first time.  I spoke some Spanish, but certainly not Italian or French, and wasn’t familiar with train travel – could I manage alone?  Would I get lonely, bored, scared or lost?  On that trip, I chose not to over-plan things but rather to just surrender to the idea of being open to what would arise.  For anyone who knows me, you know that trip opened doors on every level from career changes, passions, new friendships, even love.  Every new place found me in myriad of powerful emotions, even states of pure bliss and deepened my sense of myself.  Not choosing the easy route of a 2-3 week vacation, staying in 5-star hotels where I could be pampered with English speakers and Mai Tais, and rather schlepping 100 lbs of hand luggage and backpacks from airbnb to airbnb (often in 90 degree weather without AC and buildings with no elevators) ultimately bestowed upon me a sense of grit, confidence and lifetime memories and a new, rewarding life path.  If that’s not true pleasure, tell me what is.  (Picture – running into a co-worker from Santa Barbara in, of all places, Burgundy – a magical moment proving the power of manifestation)

tolstoyDoes the thought of reading War and Peace, Anna Karenina or an 800+ page book leave a bitter, tannic taste in your mouth?  And what about a wine from the slopes of Etna, that perhaps that shocks your palate on the first sip with its absence of that jammy fruit designed to hook you immediately, but sip upon sip, that unfamiliar dryness, smoke and minerality slowly become less shocking and makes you more curious, magically the glass is suddenly empty and your palate is salivating for one more?  That was certainly my first experience with them.

I think back to when I started to read some of the classics in literature.  The first 100 pages come with a daunting weight of knowing that you’re just at the 5k marker of the marathon.  Slowly the plot and characters begin to develop but quality literature isn’t some action packed Spielberg film, so your patience is provoked.  The thought of how much time it’s going to take, am I ‘wasting’ time, or would I just be ‘wasting’ time on Facebook, in a shopping mall, or doing some other irrelevant task?  Then, somewhere, somehow, you’re in it.  The worry of time melts away as you find yourself, your friends, everyone you know on the pages in these characters.  What started as a pain has magically morphed into a pleasure. You’re flipping (or swiping) eagerly, happily and effortlessly as you grasp a deeper sense and understanding of life (perhaps you’re even sipping a complex Barolo from Ornato in Serralunga meanwhile you read, and find the same thing is happening with your glass), not wanting the book to ever end.


The thought of dinner comes into your mind, and no longer is that hamburger and soft bun slathered with ketchup and mayo remotely appealing.  You pick up and dust off an old recipe book, find a braised beef recipe which is the perfect solution to using up that Yellowtail or Zinfandel, go to the market to pick up some seasonal bitter greens, and spend the next 4 hours joyfully cooking up a new recipe.  Your husband, wife or whoever walks in the door mesmerized by the savory smells and goes to grab for that beer in the fridge or that empty bottle of Zinfandel, which you kindly move to the side as you pour a glass of Barolo, which will pair perfectly with your meal.  You sit down properly at the table which you haven’t done in months, no TV or football game in the background, just an enchanting evening of meaningful conversation about life, and the joy of watching them getting past the struggle of the first sips of Barolo.  You thought you were happy before until you find yourself tickled in awe at what this new profound happiness feels like.

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