Friday, August 14, 2015

Check, please!

Nothing makes a United States citizen abroad more anxious than uncertainty over how or when the check will arrive after eating out in a restaurant. We as a country have come to expect that soon after our plates are clear—or maybe before—the bill will appear with a curt “Take your time,” an invitation that is rarely made in earnest. We pony up, burp loudly, and move rapidly home so as to not miss the season finale of the Bachelor.

Not so elsewhere, where the expectation seems to be that, as a diner, you will want to linger, converse, digest, and perhaps if the mood strikes order a coffee or glass of schnapps. How then, do you actually go about bringing the meal to an end and settling the business of exchanging money for goods and service received? Most of the time, it involves catching the waiter's eye and simply asking for the check, although the whole getting the waiter's attention piece of the dance can sometimes be a challenge. I am convinced that at some places we have eaten, the staff is involved in a bit of side action with money riding on who can keep his or her customers seated the longest.

I have always liked Mexico, where, as here in Europe, it is required that you ask for the check, done in Spanish with a brief, “La quinta, por favor.” In my experience, without exception, this is greeted with a pause, a slight inward gaze, an internal calculation, the tossing of hands in the air, and the exclamation: “Ah! La quinta! Si, senor.” Unspoken, but carried in subtext, is: “The check! What a great idea! I never would have considered that, but now that you mention it I can think of no better way to bring our time here together to a close. When I return home tonight, I shall light a small candle to the Virgin of Guadalupe in honor of your vision and courage! The check will arrive momentarily, and I thank you for your wisdom!” Soon thereafter, the bill arrives, I pony up, burp loudly, and move rapidly to my hotel to catch whatever tele-novela is on that night.

In Germany, I initially also asked for the bill--”Die Rechnung, bitte”--but have started following the lead of those around me and just saying we want to pay--”Wir wollen bezahlen, bitte.” So I did recently at a beer garden in Lenngries, a small resort town in the Bavarian Alps. The proprietor came over with the ubiquitous leather wallet, used to make change in every place with table service I have ever seen in Germany, settled the bill, and then asked, “Where are you from.”


Tell someone you are from Alaska, and you generally get one of two reactions. The first, and more common, includes a widening of the eyes, a slow whistle, and a shake of the head, all intended to let you know that you are crazy for living somewhere so cold, notwithstanding that anywhere north of the Alps probably gets as cold or colder than Anchorage over the course of a winter. The second reaction also includes wide eyes and a slow whistle, this time with a slight nod and various statements about how badly the person speaking wants to go see the place. But the man in Lenggries went off script.

“Alaska? Really! You see my nephew over there? The boy in the blue shirt?”

“Yes.” Indeed, his nephew had just earlier brought me a second beer.

“He thought for sure you were French. Hey! They aren't French! They're from Alaska!”

The nephew walked over. “Really? But the way you ordered a beer: 'May I have another beer, please.' It sounded so French. Alaska, eh? What the hell are you doing in Lenngries?”

Now that was a good question.

We had actually intended to be in another town altogether. Once in Munich, a friend had sent a number of tips for the Bavarian Alps, most involving stays at alpine huts for which we couldn't quite figure out the logistics. But he also sent a link to a hotel on a mountain lake that looked lovely, particularly in contrast to the heat of Munich. C started looking online, followed some links, declared the price south of reasonable, and we decided it was time to head into the mountains. C booked us into a room for a few nights—at a non-refundable rate.

I started looking at train tickets, which is when we started to realize that C had followed the wrong link and booked us into a completely different hotel in a town we had never heard of. As it turned out, though, the place we booked was only a valley or two over, and the original hotel was priced well north or reasonable and not a valid option after all. So, win-win. To Lenggries we went.

Lenngries is at the base of a ski hill, that I gather is a rather large and popular winter destination, but they also boasted summer fun, with, among other things, ski lifts to alpine hikes. And, as luck would have it, Lenngries was hosting a week-long traditional Bavarian alpine festival that started the day we arrived. The festival appeared to draw crowds from neighboring towns, but only a handful of other tourists. The tourists were all immediately recognizable as the ones without lederhosen or dirndl dresses. It turns out that traditional clothing isn't all kitsch in these parts, but still gets worn by young and old when the occasion calls for it. Brass bands played, the locals went on parade, and a giant beer tent welcomed all.

None of which, though, did I tell the nephew. I just said it got hot in Munich and we decided to come to the mountains for a few days. Then I burped, and C and I went back to our hotel to watch Freiburg play in the Second Bundesliga match on TV.

(Just, you know, out walking the dog and the kid in my lederhosen.  That's just how we do here in Bavaria.)

(Follow the horses on parade at your own risk.)

(Let us take a moment to recognize the real heroes of the Alpine Fest.)

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