Before arriving in Europe, my travel companions and I were aware of at least a few of the more common European perceptions of American dining habits. In mealtime settings, we have been careful to keep our voices a bit more quiet than we might at home, and we have been careful to not occupy too much table space. We have even been graced with a compliment or two about the good behavior of our pint size travel companions (offsetting that time one pint size darling threw a credit card clear across a restaurant into the dinner of a very surprised lady, but I digress…). Although we try to abide by the old “When in Rome” adage, our American accents can be detected from outer space, and have led to a few interesting exchanges.
We’ve noticed, for example, that ketchup is offered with absolutely everything, and often with a knowing grin. Often, the only ketchup bottle in sight is the one placed on our table. I find it thoughtful, but curious. Our most curious dining experience was on the heels of a much more somber visit to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Visiting the Holocaust Memorial and adjoining museum was a bit overwhelming.
After spending a few hours reading and reflecting on these sights we went for a walk through the neighboring district, home to the US Embassy. The high concentration of Americans working in this area has led, predictably, to a large number of restaurants with English menus and other American-friendly touches. We stopped by a promising looking café for lunch… and stepped right into a parody.
The booth in which we were seated was huge – I mean, it was enormous! The menu looked fabulous – on the first page, and the third page, and the tenth page. Beverage cups were large, and filled to the top with ice. Our waiter was very friendly and informal, stopped by our booth often, and delivered a giant bottle of (you guessed it) ketchup with our lightening fast meals. The most terrible – er, I mean most popular – of American pop music played in the background. We felt genuinely welcome, even as we found the microcosm of American dining quirks a bit unnerving. We left an American-size gratuity at the end of our intriguing meal.
I didn’t give differences in dining preferences across cultures much thought after that meal, at least not until I browsed through a grocery store. One of my pint size travel companions was the one who spotted the unfamiliar item. Holding the item up in the air, he asked…
“What in the World is American Sauce?”