Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Euroshock

Written by John Grabowski

The first time I ate in Europe, I experienced cultural shock, of the extremely pleasant kind.
It’s not simply a matter of different menu items or the high cost of food over there (and be prepared to empty your wallet). Europeans have a totally different philosophy of food and eating, one that would probably baffle many Americans.
For Europeans, eating is an extremely important ritual. It’s communal and in some places, such as France and the Czech Republic, downright sacred. I know of people in the latter country who turned down a better job in richer western European countries because the food, and especially beer, was just not as good. I can’t imagine an American ever taking that into consideration when planning a career move.
The French two-hour lunch is legendary. Recently there’s been an effort by President Nicolas Sarkozy to clamp down on this ritual, and to make French workers more like Americans, who often can be seen gulping a Coke, eating a Big Mac for lunch, jabbering on their cell phones and texting their coworkers, while driving.
And that goes on in Europe as well. Frankfurt certainly has its share of business-suited men and women running about making deals on sleek headphones in sleek cars. The streets in front of hotels and restaurants in the business districts of Berlin and Vienna are packed tight with Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs. But Europeans, no matter how busy, seem to manage to stop their urgent finance deals and stock transactions for what we can only call more civilized eating. Even a casual lunch on the go always seems to involve real napkins (no paper!), draped elegantly in the lap over an expensive business suit, an appetizer and an aperitif,(No qualms about drinking on the job here). Of course, no meal is finished until the espresso has been served.
Waiters in Europe take their occupation very seriously. They are not college kids with part time jobs this is a career. They are paid living wages and tips are just a small addition to the bill—you usually round up to the next euro or two and that’s it. Unlike American restaurants, in Europe it’s easy to estimate what the evening’s tab will come to beforehand. The bad news: it’s probably going to come to a lot these days compared to prices in the U.S.
The philosophy of service is very different. I often think that Europeans must feel rushed and slighted in American establishments. That’s because American restaurants “turn the table over” several times a night. In Europe it’s expected that it’s yours all evening. Slow service is good service. A server will not breathlessly rush your table the moment menus have been opened and ask if you know what you want already…and you have to ask for the bill, they will not bring it to you. That would be rude as would, expecting you to clear out so other customers can be seated at your table. Most people stay in restaurants all night, talking leisurely (there’s a word you hardly hear in connection with America) with large groups of friends (I’ve noticed Europeans tend to eat out in large groups more often than Americans), drinking, and smoking although ever-stricter regulations on where you can consume tobacco are becoming part of their reality.
I was floored a couple years ago in Salzburg when my wife and I were asked when we walked into a favorite restaurant if we wanted smoking or non-smoking. I felt like asking, “Since when?” But yes, many parts of Europe are now offering non-smoking sections or even banning the habit entirely. For me the change is welcome. I still remember the beer hall in Munich in ‘05 that was so thick with smoke we could not even see the other end of the room, or the gentleman in Berlin who lit up cigarette after cigarette at the next table and blew smoke my way as I was trying to enjoy a meal back in ’04. (My experience is if you shoot them a look, they think you’re miffed because they haven’t offered a smoke to you.)
There are quirks that take getting used to, “free refills” as a concept generally doesn’t exist. You have to pay for that second cup of coffee or soft drink, (trust me, the coffee is usually worth the extra dough)! Why Americans, who landed astronauts on the moon, never learned to make really good coffee is a mystery to me. And they don’t serve their drinks swimming in ice, cool to lukewarm is how most beverages arrive. You’d be surprised how fast you get used to it, too. There’s rarely free water for the table, and if you want some, you’d better specify tap (and many restaurants won’t like it when you do). If you just say “water,” they’ll ask some variant of “sparkling or still?” It’ll come bottled, and likely be very expensive, but will taste wonderful. Europeans drink more wine and other alcohol with dinner, it seems to me, though I haven’t “Googled” for specific stats. Almost every dinner table I see has wine on it, however, even in very casual (read “cheap”) restaurants. Many times that wine is cheaper than the soda.
For all the rumors I’ve heard that many European servers, especially in France, don’t like American tourists, I’ve rarely experienced anything less than wonderful service. They are attentive and genuinely seem like they want to make all their customers happy. One waiter I chatted with in Paris said he longed to come to America because he’d heard the food was so good here. Where here? Walnut Creek, California, about a half hour from where I live. As much as I love Europe and its magnificent cuisine, that comment made me realize what I easily take for granted sometimes.
This is the first column where I will be talking about eating experiences in Europe, of which I’ve had plenty. I hope you’ll come along as my “ipartner,” enjoying the foods I’ve experienced and the interesting restaurants, cafes, and pubs where I’ve experienced them.

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