Friday, April 20, 2012
A to Z: Restaurant Culture Shock
Before I came to Curaçao, I considered myself culturally sophisticated. I'd been to Europe, lived outside Mexico as a child, grew up with a father who was essentially a citizen of the world and valued the different much more than the average Mexican.
I was naive, and spoiled. Because, for all that traveling, I hadn't really stepped out of my comfort zone.
The "we're not in Kansas anymore" moment for me arrived a few months after moving to Curaçao. I realized that the bad service that left me aghast here wasn't all negligence and lack of manners--some of it was cultural.
this post). Waiters hover unobtrusively, changing ashtrays a split second after a millimeter of ash lands in them, refilling water glasses swiftly and without spilling a single drop, at your side the moment you look around for them.
It can't be on purpose. Right?
But it's not just that. It's the little things. Like, for example, how soon empty plates are removed from the table.
If you live in the US or Mexico, you're probably used, like me, to having your plate taken away a few seconds after you put your fork and knife down together on it.
Here? Plates are left on the table forever, sometimes even after the check is paid. No, really.
It's not laziness or bad service. Turns out, it's rude to remove empty plates from the table. For Dutch people (and for Curaçaoans, by extension), removing the plates equates cleaning up, which equates "get out of here".
That's taken some getting used to.
At dinner parties, for example, at someone's home, the same principle applies. Empty plates, smeared with sauces and the last bits of whatever the meal was, are left on the table as a sign that the party's still going on. At my place, I clear stuff up immediately--and then have to explain and get people to sit back down, because they think I want them to leave.
As weird as that is for me, I do get it. I actually know how they feel.
Yeah, you guessed it: in Mexico it is most certainly not done. In Mexico, one asks for the check, and until you do, it is not brought to the table. Because it is considered a dismissal, a veiled request for the customer to leave. A few decades ago, restaurant waiters and managers might have been shot over a gaffe like this.
So... I do my best nowadays, when I have people over for a meal, to clench my hands under the table and not look at the dirty plates on the table. I'm getting better--last time I managed to leave them in place for five whole minutes.