I have friends who are baffled as to why I love Europe so much. I can understand that; there’s a lot about Europe that is easy to dislike. Germans do tend to be blunt, French (Parisians, in particular) can be politically incorrect, and the postal service – like a lot of business – in Italy can be positively glacial. And to be fair, Americans have their own (mostly justifiable) stereotypes in Europe. It is still a pretty reliable way to detect Americans in Paris by looking for sneakers.
But the stuff I like about Europe, the things that are missing in the US, I really like. Lately, I’ve been musing on the social aspects. I miss the way small businesses operate in Eurpoe. They have a different relationship to their customers than in the US; it’s rare to come across businesses like this in the states. Maybe it’s because Capitalism rules all here, and niceties have no short-term commercial return.
The last time I was in Paris, Brett and Marnie were still living there in the 8th Arrondissement, and one evening Brett and I walked from their apartment to a small pizza place a few blocks away. It wasn’t fancy, and it certainly wasn’t a typical restaurant; if you can imagine walking into a café and ordering a pizza, that’s what this was like. Anyway, we got there and placed our order, and when we sat down to wait, the lady who took our order brought us out two small glasses of wine to drink while we waited. I have never, in my life, had a better time waiting for a pizza. Brett and I talked, and drank, and watched the other customers until our pizzas was ready. I’m not a Paris noob; I wasn’t blinded by the glitz. That year we went to Paris three times, and once we were browsing in a cramped, busy shop where the owner was obviously complaining about the American tourists who were blocking her customers. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, but I’m capable of ignoring assholes, and the niceties more than make up for it.
Which leads me to my next example. When I was living in Munich, there was a small greek restaurant around the corner that we’d frequent. When we would get together at our apartment with friends, we’d often end up down there for food (we never cooked for guests) and drinks. They had backgammon and chess boards, and you could go and sit, and drink and smoke and play games. It was a nice place. Anyway, after we’d been there a few times, the owner started coming out when we were done with our meals with a bottle of Grappa and glasses, and he’d sit down with us and drink and talk, and crack jokes. Again, I’ve been a regular customer at places in the states, but I’ve never had anybody do that here. The closest I’ve come is when Jason and I were going to Rock Bottom weekly; there was a period where the wait staff was pretty stable, and one of the waiters got to know us to the point where he’d just confirm our orders rather than asking us what we wanted. Not quite the same.
At this point, you might think I’m waxing rhapsodic about getting getting free booze. It isn’t that; it’s what the free booze represents. It’s a little indication that the owners appreciate your business; it’s the personal touch. It’s a little something that makes you feel like your more than just a mechanism by which your wallet gets around. It turns a transaction into a personal, social interaction, and in my opinion, it is enhanced by the fact that the French and the Germans are not insincere in their interactions: they are not falsely friendly. When you encounter a kind gesture, it’s much more likely to be honest.
One final parting story. When I first arrived in Munich, my first trip to Germany, the very first day, I visited Anne at her work for lunch. I was jet lagged, alone, had almost no money, and spoke no German, but I got instructions from Max’s mom, got on the S-Bahn, and made my way into town. Somehow, I found the place – this was in 1990, before the inter-webz and smart phones – and we went to a grocery store to buy the fixings for sandwiches. During check out, I did the tourist struggle with the currency, and during this, the cashier and Anne had some exchange which she later deciphered for me; the cashier said: “Oh, don’t make such a circus out of it,” to which Anne replied: “Oh, just hold on. You’re not going anywhere.” That was it. There was nothing intentionally rude about it, by either the cashier or Anne, and I’m glad that I learned about the Bavarians and their tendency to bluntness before I learned enough German to be offended by this sort of interaction. Anne’s much better at melding into this sort of environment than I am. I never did learn to overcome my hyper-politically correct, artificially friendly tendencies. I don’t like conflict. But I can respect the honesty, and find that I prefer it.
Well, so much for randomly musing about Europe. I wanted to say something about Italy, but I’ve only been there enough to know that I’d like to spend more time there.