I ate lunch by myself in a chain restaurant in the US yesterday and suffered jarring reverse-culture shock. I had heard this happens to ex-pats upon returning home for a visit or when their overseas assignments are finished, but it was disconcerting, nonetheless. Yes, ex-pats complain about things in their new country, but even as they are complaining, they are subconsciously getting used to their “new normal”, in spite of themselves.
America has an abundance of chain restaurants. The one I stopped in yesterday was called Ruby Tuesday’s. These types of restaurants are virtually interchangeable with one another, i.e. lots of leather booths, a big bar with a few overhead TVs tuned to ESPN or CNN, a chirpy hostess who walks you to your seat and menus that are as thick as a Sunday New York Times. They have silly names like Applebee’s, TGI Friday’s, Bennigan’s, etc. Whatever the name, it’s a safe bet that a diner will be a) expected to graze out of a salad bar at some point and b)served a portion of food that could feed a Swiss family for a week.
So, I walk in to the restaurant by myself with my USA Today under my arm to read while I am eating so I don’t look like a total dweeb who has zero friends, and the aforementioned chirpy hostess leads me to the table she has chosen for me for my subsequent dining pleasure. I have no problem with that, I am, in fact, expecting it. This is not Europe where you pick your own table, it is America where you are seated according to a complex rotation system devised by the management to ensure that each waiter/waitress gets an equal number of diners. Amazing to think that American young people can’t do math in school to save their life, yet can easily understand and execute intricate matrices when it comes to their tip allocation!
Here is where I started feeling all out of whack. There was a waiter at my table before I had even finished sitting down. I’m talking my knees were still bent and my butt was still hovering over the chair. Hi! My name is Mark! Can I get you something to drink to start you off? Well, Mark. Do you think I could possibly finish sitting, let alone open my menu, before ordering?
But then, I remembered the cadence of dining in America. You order a drink first without even looking at the menu. This is only possible because the restaurant will have WHATEVER you desire. Raspberry lemonade? Sure. J & B Scotch with a splash of club soda? Of course and would you like a twist of lemon with that or a kumquat wedge? Sprite Zero? Frozen Cherry Margarita? Diet Yoo-Hoo? Yes, yes, yes. Whatever you want, they’ve got it. They have to have it because if they don’t, it might be reflected later in their tip and that would be a very, very bad thing.
While Mark scurries off to get my Merlot, I open the menu and begin to browse. I have barely skimmed the appetizer section when he is back with a ginormous glass of wine, (it was at least 3 decis of wine, I swear, in one glass. 3 decis of wine would cost 27 dollars in Switzerland), a large glass of tap water with ice and a request for my food order. Y’all, I have literally been in my chair about six minutes. I haven’t even opened my USA Today! Deep breaths. Deep breaths. I ask him for a few more minutes to peruse the rest of the 18 pages of the menu. At this point, Mark is starting to get on my nerves. Stop hovering, Mark! Go away! I will make eye contact with you when I need you, or, if necessary, raise a discreet index finger. But until I give you the high sign, get the hell outta here!
I just needed a few moments to admire my glass of water.
A) I hadn’t even ordered it. It just appeared, as if by magic.
B) It was free.
C) It had a dizzying amount of ice in it. So much ice, that there was actual, physical condensation raining down the outside of the glass.
D) There was a (free) slice of lemon in it.
A thing of beauty. We have a referendum before the voters in the canton where I live in Switzerland right now regarding water in restaurants. Here’s the deal. All diners order water when dining out. It is understood that this will be bottled water. It is understood that it will cost money and the only thing you need to express to the waiter is whether this will be sparkling or still. HOWEVER. There has been a recent backlash of late all over Europe against high-priced bottled water because it’s not “green” and, most importantly to those of us in Switzerland, our tap water is delicious.
Anyway, here’s the issue before the legislature. Do the people of the canton of Vaud have a RIGHT to free tap water with their meal? Or do the restaurants have a RIGHT to charge for the tap water? This is an issue because minimum wage is $22 per hour and so who will pay for the time it takes to fill and deliver these free glasses of water and who will pay to wash and dry the free water glasses is the question on the table. A dilemma of epic proportions, to be sure. In the canton of Appenzell, they had to have a vote on whether or not to ban nude hiking; we have to vote on free tap water in restaurants. It’s a funny place, La Suisse.
Back to my lunch. I must confess, I did go a little overboard with the salad bar, just because there were so many choices and it was a nice change of pace from the Euro green salad. If you order a green salad in Europe, you get a plate of lettuce with French dressing (which is white, by the way, not orangey-red). The lunch main course arrived about 2 minutes after I started eating my salad. I was thinking “Mark. Dude. I’m still eating my abundant salad. Why are you here with my crab cake?” But I bit my tongue and just sort of pushed the crab cake out of the way to send a message to Mr. Speedy that he was rushing me.
Apparently, Mark is not good with subtle hints because he was back, uninvited, unneeded and unwanted in approximately 3 minutes. WITH THE BILL!! I was just digging into my salad and barely getting into the Life section of my newspaper and the article on who is anticipated to win American Idol, and there he was like a bad penny. He tucks the bill under the side of the crab cake plate which hasn’t even been touched yet. “I’ll take that whenever you’re ready.” Big American Smile. I didn’t know what to do. I was stunned. Was I being kicked out? I’d only been in the restaurant for about 20 minutes, tops, and I was being presented with a bill. I checked my armpits to make sure that I wasn’t sweating up the place and offending my fellow diners. All clear there.
Here’s a hint for American waiters and waitresses if they think they may have a European guest.
A) Don’t call yourself a server. A European will have no idea what you are talking about. They know waiter and they know waitress. A server is a porcelain platter on which one serves food or the piece of furniture in the dining room off of which one serves food. A server is not a person.
B) Stop rushing! A typical meal in Europe takes AT THE LEAST 1.5 hours and that is at McDonald’s or Starbucks. A meal in a regular restaurant is 2 hours, minimum. No exaggeration.
C) Do not be surprised if Europeans only order one bottle of wine for four people and that bottle will last through the entire dinner.
D) They will, (eventually!), order dessert, even with lunch. This comes BEFORE the coffee, not with, and after the cheese. Coffee is the last and final course.
E) By coffee, they mean espresso, served with one creamer, a pack of real sugar and a teeny, tiny chocolate bar.
F) Never, ever, ever bring the bill before the guests have specifically asked for it. The bill, l’addition, la cuenta, die rechnung, is the end. They are telling you they are ready to leave. It is a universal signal everywhere except America, where it only means that the server is washing his/her hands of that particular table. They are saying, “My job here is done. See you! Don’t forget to leave a healthy tip!”
G) Free water is a very, very good thing, especially when they are only drinking one or two little glasses of wine each over the course of two hours.
On a final note, stop worrying about your tip. They have read the guide books for America just like you do when you go over there. They are well aware that you survive on tips and make $2.20 per hour. They think you are crazy, but they understand they must tip you 15% so you can go buy things in Walmart. You will always get a 15% tip from a European unless you do something heinous like bring their bill while they are still on their first course.