Have it Your Way: Communicating Across Cultures in Germany
Updated: Apr 25, 2021
Schnitzel is a veal cutlet that has been pounded paper-thin. It's the size of a small country and easily extends over the border of the plate.” I explained to Marlene “It’s wonderful! You have to experience it”. Marlene was traveling on a Eurail pass and only had a few hours before her train departed for the next European destination.
“Let’s have dinner at a traditional German Schnitzel House,”
I suggested. The Schnitzel house I chose was a cavernous room, with a hodgepodge of heirlooms; a porcelain chamber pot, a spittoon, and a butter churner, each sat on a pedestal, in a corner of the room. The light décor was reminiscent of dungeons and dragons. Heavy chains hung from dim fluorescent chandeliers. I made my way across the creaking planked floor. The gaps were wide enough to trap loose change, high heels, and small children. The server approached our table in a laced dirndl and wearing corrective shoes. There were sweat patterns in her makeup, yet somehow, she was still smiling. “Water, please,” Marlene said. “Americans,” She said as if to flip a switch in her head. Without preamble, she handed us English menus. “We have sparkling water, Perrier, Canada Dry, as well as Regional and Aquafina still waters, which would you prefer?” "Just tap water, please,” Marlene said. “You’ll have to buy the water, Marlene,” I said smiling at the waitress and trying to get her sympathy for my friend’s naiveté. “Can’t you drink the water in Germany?” Marlene asked. “Yes, but not in public,” I said almost in a whisper. I’ll have an alcohol-free beer” I added knowing that asking for water and alcohol-free beer put us on display as “foreigners”. The waitress turned on her heels and left. “This menu looks interesting. What should I order? Wiener schnitzel, Greek, Gorgonzola, Zigeuner, Madagascar, Jaeger schnitzel, there are so many,” Marlene said using the votive on the table for light to read the menu. “Try the Jaeger schnitzel, it’s with a gravy and mushroom sauce.” I counseled, “it’s very popular.” “That’s too much sauce,” She said, frowning at the plastic-protected picture of the dish. She scrunched up her nose. “You know what, I’ll get the sauce on the side. “Marlene, you can’t change anything,” I said, kneading my temples with my fingertips. I was afraid Marlene would be exercising her right to be “as special as possible”. I blame Burger King and their slogan “Have it Your Way”. Suggesting that any meal on a menu can be altered, adjusted, even abandoned due to our intestinal issues, time constraints, or political leanings. The waitress returned, placed our drinks on the table, and asked about our orders. “I’ll have number 38, the Weiner Schnitzel,” I said. Ignoring my advice, Marlene began, “34, the Jaeger schnitzel with the sauce on the side. I’ll have the salad instead of the fries and a side of coleslaw,” I shrunk in my chair as the harried waitress looked dead-eyed and inhaled, deeply, vacuuming the room with her nostrils. “Let me go talk to the Chef,” she said and left. “In Germany, they don’t like to take special orders,” I explained checking anxiously over my shoulder. Then, as if for effect I held up the votive candle illuminating my face with its flickering light like in a ghost story, “You are more likely to find hobgoblins here than special service.” fIt had begun to rain; I could tell by the people dashing past the window. Frenetic accordion music played over the sound system. I cowered behind my alcohol-free beer fearing the worse, while Marlene leaned forward emboldened. “We tip them for good customer service,” Marlene said staring down at the chef who was in a heated conversation with the waitress who was jabbing her finger in our direction. “Yeah, that. They don’t actually live from tips here like they do in the U.S. so, they have no incentive to practice anything beyond the bare minimum; bringing a meal.” Marlene’s mouth dropped open, for a moment I thought her bottom lip would graze the tablecloth.
After the chef’s blustery show in the entranceway with a meat ax, the waitress returned to the table with our orders. “I did it. Schnitzel with sauce on the side, salad instead of the fries, and a side of coleslaw. “Remarkable,” I said. She gave us a wink and a triumphant smile. “I was an Au Pair for a year in Canada. This is my restaurant.” When she left the table, we began our meal commenting on the beautiful presentation with garnish and parsley. “This looks amazing, I don’t know how I’m going to eat it all,” Marlene explained. I smiled, “Pace yourself!” We were there for over two hours enjoying the ambiance and our meals. “What a wonderful dinner. I won’t forget it,” Marlene said. We both were grateful for the waitress who came to the table several more times to check upon us. Even the chef came to our table to see how everything was going and receive our effusive compliments. As we paid to leave, Marlene wanted to leave a tip. “You don’t have to tip,” I said. “We have to tip!” Marlene said, “the service was excellent!”. “She said it was her restaurant. You don’t tip the owner,” I said firmly. “I don’t understand the customs here at all!” Marlene said, shaking her head.