Submitted by Susanne Bacon
Have you ever wondered why Americans abroad are pretty quickly recognized as such as soon as they enter a restaurant? Especially in Germany? Even though they might not have a military haircut and not speak overly loudly? Here are some fun facts that I discovered over the years.
When I go out with my husband, he usually opens the restaurant door for me and lets me enter first. I had to wrap my European head around this when we courted. Because German men (and if the host is a woman, that woman) would certainly enter first – in order to check the grounds by sight. Maybe it’s too full, maybe somebody is behaving raucously, maybe whatever … It’s to make sure that the lady/guest doesn’t run into any uncomfortable situation.
In a German restaurant, in most cases you choose a table and sit down; in high-end restaurants, somebody might approach you and ask you whether you have booked a table or whether they might find you one. You usually don’t find anybody in a waiting area or a bar lounge, as over here, and somebody calling out your name when it’s your turn to be seated. Your first name at that! Germans go by their last names in everyday life unless you are their friend and have offered you to call them by their given name. Unimaginable a service person should call you by their Christian name. You won’t ever get to know theirs either, by the way.
As soon as I’m sitting down in a restaurant over here, I usually get asked what I’d like to drink. It keeps irritating me. I mean, I only just sat down. I don’t have a clue what beverages they have, and they are usually serving me a glass of ice water I never asked for (or am going to drink) anyhow. So, give me a minute! Don’t expect that free service in Germany, by the way. You will be handed a beverage menu, and they might leave you to ponder it until you signal them. Oh yes, you can! Sometimes you even have to. A slightly raised arm and a nod will call your waiter or waitress to the table. Over here, I have been hovered over by waiters sometimes to the point when I felt I couldn’t even have a private conversation without being interrupted by the question whether everything was alright.
Another fact? We probably all know by now that Germans, when eating with a knife and fork, will never switch hands and that Americans betray their nationality the instant they have cut their food by laying down their knife and switching their fork to that hand. Maybe it’s only half a joke that there is a reason for the latter – to have one hand ready at the gun under the table.
Reordering drinks with your finger count? You will have to be careful whether your finger count works with the nation you’re in. Showing a thumb and a finger in German means “two”, the first three fingers mean “three”, thumb in and four up … well, you get the picture. Allegedly, during WW II more than one American spy has been caught because of tiny differences like these.
You are finally in the last stages of your meal? Here in the US, you are being asked whether you would like anything else, often while you are still chewing. If you say “No”, your waiter will slip you (or the person they assume will pay) the check. It’s the signal that your table is up and waiting for the next person. Unthinkable in Germany. There, you might even sit and wait until they make sure you are done. And they will not deliver you the check until you have decided you are finished and want to pay. Theoretically, you can sit over another glass of your beverage for the rest of the evening, and nobody will question it.
Doggy bags have become a possibility only in few German restaurants these days. Servings are usually manageable. Here, in most restaurants I find doggy bags an annoying necessity unless you want to waste the food. Basically, I am not keen on leaving a nice restaurant, all dressed up and holding a plastic bag of food. I dislike reheating restaurant left-overs – they never taste as nice as they were when first served. And when I’m going out, I want to experience something one-time special – not the regurgitation of a memory by ways of a half-eaten Styrofoam box the next day. Therefore, I find myself sharing one dish with my husband at most times. Which limits choices for either of us just because the portions are oversized.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules. But they are hard to find. And as an American in Germany you will find yourself struck by some weird experiences while eating out just as much as I was when I first traveled here. I have gotten used to restaurant culture both sides of the Atlantic. But you are guessing right when you assume that I find that overseas more pleasant – even though, as you sit down, you get a glass of tap water for free over here.