The sunshine is nice, but the company is better

Smoke rises in the courtyard. As a crowd of bewildered American students watches, a French chef places a rack of snails over the barbecue pan. The smell of grilling escargot fills the air.

The smokey taste soaks into the shells of the garlicky, green treat. But it is as much the setting — outside between a church and a restaurant — as it is the flavor that makes this meal magical. On the West Coast of the United States, people enjoy the sunshine almost year-round, but outdoor dining is limited to a covered patio or a lot in the back. In Catalonia, on both sides of the French-Spanish border, most restaurants, cafés and bars have outdoor dining areas. Locals and tourists alike take full advantage of the warm sunshine, refreshing breezes and the company.

Some people may feel uncomfortable eating while brushing shoulders with passersby on the sidewalk. But these chance encounters create a feeling of community.

It’s natural when you’re eating out in the open to engage with someone you didn’t know before sitting down.

Along Avenue du Général de Gaulle near the train station in Perpignan there are at least four kebab stands within two blocks of each other, and each has a unique flavor and atmosphere. Sitting outside offers infinite possibilities for unusual encounters.

One day when I was sitting at a kebab shop, a woman walked behind me and slightly tugged a lock of hair uncovered by my beanie. That might bother some, but when she turned around at the end of the block with a smile on her face and then covered her mouth to suppress a giggle, all was forgiven. That is what makes eating outside so much fun — being outside one’s comfort zone and interacting with new people.

In my first week of living and eating in South Europe, in Barcelona, Perpignan and the beach town Colliure just north of the border in France, I’ve only eaten one meal indoors. I wonder: Why is this not more popular in the United States?

On the Fourth of July, most meals in America are cooked outside and enjoyed with mixed company. These are the best family and social gatherings. The food tastes better, the beer goes down smoother and the conversation is more enjoyable. But these al fresco meals are mostly reserved for special occasions rather than partaken on a regular basis.

Although it is not possible to eat outside during all times of the year, especially in the Northeast or Midwest in winter, during the summer Americans should take advantage of the warm weather when the sun stays out longer. Air conditioning is nice at home after a walk, but so is a cold beer and a fresh cigarette in the slight shade of towering palm on the sidewalk during lunch.

In Perpignan, lunch isn’t just a half-hour break from work to re-energize — businesses close at noon to give their employees two hours for food and conversation every day. People take the time to sit down and speak to one another about whatever is on their mind, even if the topic of conversation is the food itself.

Bosses in the U.S. probably aren’t going to give their workers two hours for lunch anytime soon, but this summer, from California to Maine, make it a point and take some time to go outside. Fill up the cooler with food and drinks and enjoy the gorgeous summer weather. But more importantly, enjoy the company and conversations while they are available.