European Cafe Culture

As promised in an earlier post I wrote on Portuguese drinks, I wanted to write about the European cafe experience. Many Americans travel to Europe and are taken aback by the lack of friendly and polite customer service that greets them. It’s no surprise considering how friendliness and politeness at a dining/drinking establishment are the biggest indicators of good service, not to mention a reason to patronize said establishment again. Friendliness and politeness on the part of the waiters and waitresses is usually tied into them hoping to receive a lucrative tip from the customer. In many countries in Europe it is not like this. A professor of mine in Spain once said this about the lack of customer service there in cafes and restaurants-“they’re not working for tips…they can be as surly as possible not to mention completely ignore you if they want.” While it was hard for my American classmates and me to process this, we quickly learned to accept it and move on. I think the biggest cultural difference is simply the fact that America is always moving at a fast pace, whether it is in the workplace or at a cafe. While some people may in fact want to linger over a cup of coffee and a pastry, many do not, whereas in Europe, lingering is what people do and it is what they think other people will want to do as well.

In trips back to Europe since my semester abroad in Spain (Ireland, Belgium, France and now Portugal), my first “brush” with this kind of experience at the beginning of the trip after being away from it grated on my nerves. But then I do have to remind myself it’s how stuff is done there. While the American customer service experience would be a much welcomed alternative to things like never being given a menu, having to wait endless amounts of time for your order to be placed, trying excruciatingly hard in vain to ask for a refill on a drink, I can’t complain (well, too much) as it is neither my country nor my culture.

On our first night in Portugal we ended up eating dinner at a cafe since none of the restaurants in the village where we were staying opened before 7 PM. While the food was nothing to write home about, it came fast and was presented in a lovely manner (a tomato salad adorned our omelettes), not to mention we didn’t have to wait for the check (the jet lag was the ultimate victor that evening). Although the waiter never asked us how we were doing or if we needed anything else, anything that was required of him in his position, he delivered 100 percent.

When I travel abroad I often enjoy visiting iconic cafes (Cafe Deux Magots in Paris, Cafe Tortoni in Buenos Aires, A La Morte Subite in Brussels) and so after reading about Cafe A Brasileira, a haunt frequented by many academic and intellectual figures including Portuguese poet Fernando Pessao and writer Alquilino Ribeiro, I planned to go there. We arrived at the cafe around mid-afternoon and while its outdoor seating looked completely taken, its bar area even fuller, I did find a couple of empty chairs. While it took some time for a waiter to saunter over to give us menus, I didn’t let it bother me. I figured that we made it to the cafe I had wanted to visit and were in no immediate rush, so I just enjoyed admiring the cafe’s lovely interior.

When visiting a cafe in Europe, don’t go expecting the same service you would at home (this is directed more at any American newbies to European travel who may be reading this); it’s simply not going to happen. Never will you have a waiter or waitress fawning over you or wanting to chat. Instead, focus on the cultural uniqueness in both the cafe experience as well as any food or drinks you may try. And most importantly, relish the fact that you are somewhere where you would never be rushed. So if you want to lounge at that table while reading a book or chatting with a friend, go ahead. You certainly won’t be bothered.

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  • Reply
    October 11, 2012 at 4:47 am

    This is defiantly something you see in the Southern Hemisphere as well, particularly Australia and NZ. Americans and Canadians bring their tipping culture here, to an industry where minimum wage is not cut to allow for tips and tipping does not get you any better service. I think it’s important for all travelers to understand the culture and the reasons behind it e.g. Australians are notoriously bad tippers in the US because we don’t understand the whole working for tips concept, we assume they’re getting standard minimum wage.

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    October 11, 2012 at 11:57 pm

    You could not have said it better regarding the imperativeness of all travelers understanding and respecting the local culture. And I will remember that about Oz and N.Z. whenever I get there.

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