We were driving along a narrow road in a remote part of the Philippines, when we found our way blocked by a large truck that some men were unloading. They saw us but continued the work in their leisurely way. The driver of our van switched off the ignition, and a moment later someone said, Merienda na tayo! “Let’s snack already!” - words I was familiar with, since I heard them several times a day. Hampers, bags, flasks, all were thrown open and the feast began. The van became a theatre of fun and singing and friendly conversation, like the hilarious Ihaw-Ihaw restaurants in Manila where the chefs and waiters, the management and the security guards, entertain the guests with spirited music and song. Even the parrot, who always travelled with us, joined in the feast, standing on one leg and holding a single potato chip in the other. (His grip on my finger is so strong, and so unexpectedly warm.) He was making a bit of a mess because he took the chip to be a large seed and would eat only the interior part, scattering the crust on all sides. Still, he was a member of the party, and would say a few words from time to time, Hindi bale! “It doesn't matter!” or Ano po? “What did you say, sir or madam?”
I remarked that ‘merienda’ seemed to be a favourite pastime here, and my friends explained why: “It’s because of the heat,” they said, “you need to build up your energy.” Several banana fritters later the owner of the parrot asked me if ‘merienda’ was part of things in Ireland. I said well yes. “It’s because of the cold!” someone else explained.... Altogether this was a genial cosmology: either way, you got ‘merienda’. It reminded me of the Scottish Dr Browne in the eighteenth century who believed that every disease was due to one of two causes: the tough parts of the body being too tender or the tender parts being too tough. His prescription in both cases was the same: generous internal applications of Scotch whisky.
Dr Browne’s theory needs further testing, but many people outside the Philippines still have a suspicious attitude to ‘merienda’, innocent snacking. I have seen a dire instrument called a ‘calorie counter’. And I have visited a religious community where the calorific value of every dish on the menu was displayed at mealtimes on a large noticeboard. There is some kind of displacement here. Scrupulosity has detached itself from sin and attached itself to food. Anxiety has to have an object, and so it fixes on the calorie, which, like sin, is a hidden property, all the better to bother you. You can still have all the stern satisfactions of Puritanism, but within a far more manageable field.
Scrupulosity was about little sins, the theological equivalent of a snack. As you remember, the smaller the sin the more it troubled you; that is the nature of a scruple. It enabled you to ignore your real sins, and not only your sins but your whole predicament, your real peril.
I don't think I have ever seen that particular compulsion neurosis in the Philippines. The people are without guile or pretence (at least, most of the ones I've met), they invite you into their lives and hide nothing from you, they seem to have a deep vein of humour that touches everything, and extravagant optimism. The best example of this is when they describe some total failure as “a bad success.” Their first instinct is to share food with you (I have been offered food by complete strangers). Not only snacks, but scrumptious meals. They eat to celebrate life. And between the meals, ‘merienda’; and whenever there is company, or a delay, or a truck on the road, or when it’s too hot, or too cold: merienda, merienda na tayo!