A Picky Eater Goes Abroad

Perhaps it’s just all those movies I’ve seen in which outlandish caricatures of people from other countries engage in huffy, exaggerated outbursts whenever a foreigner—usually an American, natch—commits a cultural faux pas, but I can’t stand the idea of doing so myself. Before I travel to another country, I do some homework. I research cultural differences and look for red flags of behavior that’s considered normal in America but would be unacceptable there. I try to speak the language. I make every effort to not attract any more attention than necessary. The idea of perpetuating the stereotype of the unworldly American tourist who doesn’t bother to learn the language or customs of the country he’s visiting, and expects all the locals to speak English and cater to him, is mortifying to me. The vast majority of visitors from other countries I have encountered in America seem to have done their due diligence when coming here, and most of them have learned quite a bit of English—which I find rather impressive, given how complex English is—so I figure it’s the least I can do.

I’ve always been a picky eater, though I was worse when I was a kid. I know, all kids are picky, right? I was probably worse than most. I didn’t like most vegetables (though, oddly, I’ve always liked broccoli). I ate peanut butter but not jelly. And for some reason, until I was about 9 or 10, I didn’t like mashed potatoes, the food every kid likes, if only because they’re so much fun to play with. At 33, though, I still have some culinary quirks. I order sandwiches with mayo, not mustard. I hold the lettuce and tomato. And I absolutely loathe ketchup. Fortunately, most places in America will accommodate my idiosyncrasies without a fuss. My powers of deduction, along with watching far too many hackneyed foreign characters on the screen, have told me that this would not go over as well in other countries. Interestingly, in all the advice that I’ve read and heard about cultural differences, I don’t remember anything about not asking for customized orders. Nevertheless, I have made a conscious effort when I’m away from home to try to avoid dishes where I would like any modifications, so as to avoid causing a scene, which I continually fear will happen while I’m traveling. I’ve enjoyed every other country I’ve visited, but inevitably I find myself missing America after being away from it for a while. Knowing that most restaurants here won’t think twice about you asking for Cheddar instead of Swiss is just one of the things I miss.

A few years ago, my wife and I were traveling in Venice on our honeymoon and we came across a cute little restaurant that looked like a fun place to eat. We made a note to come back and try it in the next day or two, which we did. Unfortunately, once we were inside, it was a huge disappointment.

I really didn’t like the waiter. He seemed like he thought he was doing us a favor by waiting on us. And he took forever to get to us, even though the restaurant wasn’t packed, so by that time we were quite hungry. I probably could have ordered anything on the menu, but we’d been gone almost 2 weeks and an omelette sounded pretty good. So I broke my rule. On the menu, they had two separate entries for omelettes, one with ham and one with cheese, and I had the gall to ask if they could make one with both. He very abruptly informed me that they wouldn’t. Honestly, I don’t know why I asked. If I were going to choose an opportunity to pull a stunt that reeks of American ethnocentrism, I should have realized that the surly waiter that can’t even be bothered to feign a pleasant attitude around tourists was not the best time.

It’s only natural to be ethnocentric. We all do it. We compare unfamiliar things to those we already know. We hesitate to step outside of our comfort zone, and when we are out, we look for ways back in, even if only to get a temporary sense of relief or nostalgia before venturing out of it again. It’s very understandable, but there’s a time and a place for everything. This restaurant, with this waiter, wasn’t it.

I ended up ordering a fish cutlet. It was fairly mediocre. Compared to the vast majority of food we had in Italy over 2 weeks, it was pretty lackluster. The service and the food were bad enough that we didn’t want to leave a tip, but as he only seemed to come by and check on us every few days, we also didn’t want to wait around for him to bring us our change. So he got a tip, even though I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to stiff a waiter so badly. And that’s saying something, because I make a point of tipping pretty well.

Fortunately, the restaurant we chose the next night had much better food and service, like most of the others we visited. And we left a TripAdvisor review panning the bad restaurant, which made me feel better. I’m big on catharsis, even ex post facto.

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