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Oct 11, 2010 02:18 AM

What hounds should know- International Edition

Reading through the international boards, I often find an American chowhound posting comments and questions that seem out of touch with protocols and practices of the place they are visiting or plan to visit. For example, on the UK board, European hounds are trying to explain to an American hound that coffee after dessert is not a matter of poor service, but custom. On the France board, I'm finding hounds trying to explain that quests for 'cheap authentic street food' may not be the most useful search terms or that expectations for 'simple good food well-prepared, like just some eggs with truffles' to be served after 2.30pm are perhaps misguided.

So, I invite everyone here to post on these matters and provide some international sensibilities here. This is not meant to chastise so much as to help hounds know not only what to look for but how to look for it.

And a note: American hounds, I'd recommend avoiding complaints of European visitors who do not tip adequately. As a predominantly American site, this area has been well-trod and tends to be sent out to the foreigners and ex-pats who are aware of such issues. Not to mention, the tipping discussions tend to go off the rails and get a thread locked, and I'd love to hear from people from all over the world about the misconceptions they find and what they wish people knew when looking for food.

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  1. One thing Americans traveling in Europe need to know is that doggie bagging is by and large not done, and you can get some very strange looks for even asking to take leftover food home with you. In most cases restaurants won't have containers to put leftovers in even if they wanted to. On the other hand, portions are generally more reasonable than in the US, so it's less of an issue anyway.

    Another tip, more country-specific: when in Italy, milky coffee drinks like cappuccino are mainly for breakfast. While you may order one on its own as a pick-me-up in the afternoon without drawing stares, ordering a cappuccino at the finish of a meal is a sure way to label yourself as a clueless tourist - not because of any arbitrary rule, but because an espresso is seen as a digestive aid, while milky coffee is not.

    5 Replies
    1. re: BobB

      I'm a big fan of small portions and appreciate this tendency in Europe.

      I would add that one should always seek out local joints, instead of the tourist traps. Follow Anthony Bourdain's advice and avoid asking your Maitre'D... they always tell you where they THINK you want to go.

      While I'm not travelling right now, per se, I am cooking my way around the world, one country at the time and blogging about it. Once in a while I post cultural information regarding specific countries in this vein.

      :) I've attached a photo of our recent Colombian poached egg soup to show you an example of a recipe I've tried. This is breakfast food in Colombia

      1. re: GlobalTable

        don't ask the concierge....ask the guy who works at the dry cleaner's across the street....the lady at the post office...ask real people where to find real food...and you'll very rarely be disappointed.

        1. re: sunshine842

          I'm afraid your advice only holds good if the lady at the post office, or the guy at the cleaners, knows about good food. Certainly, I would never dream of relying on the staff at our village dry cleaners or post office tell me the best restaurant food - even in the village. How could I have any confidence that they had the slightest idea of what good chow means?

          1. re: Harters

            A point about the 'wisdom' of random locals elaborated on further down below.

            1. re: Harters

              how could you have any confidence that someone at the hotel has any idea? Or doesn't have his/her recommendations driven by a given restaurant's contributions to his bottom line?

      2. I second BobB on the coffee issue in Italy. Cappucino past about 10 AM is going to get you a funny look or eye-rolling.

        However, one place in Europe where the breakfast rules don't apply is in Scandinavia. They value a big breakfast, and they are usually included in the hotel price. And believe me, it's worth it. I have travelled a long way, and have never seen restaurant prices quite like Scandinavia (esp. Norway).

        If your hotel includes breakfast, take it (and stuff your pockets on the way out).

        4 Replies
        1. re: chowbunny

          "and stuff your pockets on the way out", oh god, please don't don't do this. I've lived in Italy for the past 30 years and travel regularly in Europe for my job. Loading up and taking extra food from breakfast buffets is so's a a buffet meant to be eaten there, not a grocery store. I hate when I see this and yes I have some colleagues do it, and yes they are chastised for being cheap by my other Italian colleagues.

          1. re: alidrum

            Was visiting Vienna a few years ago, stayed at the Intercity Hotel, which included a fantastic breakfast buffet (now, they charge extra for it).

            Since we were in a hurry to catch the train to Saltzberg, we asked the hostess in charge if we could take some with us; she said it was not allowed but to go ahead. Later, she added that when the Italian tour groups come in, they are the worst about trying to make off with the food.

            She knew I was American, but, I guess she couldn't see I was half Italian.

            1. re: alidrum

              Granted, that's rude anywhere, even in the US.

              1. re: alidrum

                Funny enough, our hotel in Hawaii actually encouraged us to take things away from the buffet. They even provided cooler bags for such a purpose, called it Breakfast On the Beach "BOB".

            2. I suspect the reason doggie bagging is a little alien in Europe, certainly in the UK, is that food portions are much more modest over here than perhaps they are in the US. Certainly in mid to high level places I can't recall ever being daunted by the amount of food on the plate.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Al Toon

                I still have a hard time with this claim UK-wise. I just came home from a dinner where I left 1/3 of the dinner on my plate, and that was sans starter. But maybe that's me. Or that's Scotland.
                And frankly, I've only cleaned my plate in other nations (although never Czech Republic) through sheer gluttony and not through sensible eating. The US may have ridiculous amounts (that can lead to lunch and maybe even two lunches) but a lot of European nations are hardly petit fleurs when it comes to portion size.

                ETA: All that said, things like the 8oz burger are pretty common in the US whereas that's larger than most srvings here-- except for one pub that may enjoy going overboard.

              2. If you can't drink the country's water, stay away from the ice!

                30 Replies
                1. re: Gatogrande

                  Good one Gatogrande. My mom and I took a lovely ramble around England and France when I was a teenager and for some reason I listened to the warnings but she brushed her teeth using tap water in Paris. Big mistake.

                  1. re: givemecarbs

                    this is complete and utter hogwash, unless you were doing your visiting during the postwar years when France was forced to rebuild its infrastructure.

                    Tapwater is as safe in Paris as it is in any city of its size, and safer than an awful lot of them.

                    Not perpetuating out-of-date, incorrect stereotypes would be the first thing that international chowhounds should learn.

                    1. re: sunshine842

                      Indeed - tap water pretty much anywhere in Western Europe is perfectly safe to drink. You only need to be careful in second or third world countries.

                      1. re: BobB

                        The only time you have to be careful is on farmland where maybe the water is not coming from a sanitary system. But in restaurants in France I always order "de l'eau en carafe." It's free and fine.

                        1. re: BobB

                          My mom's relatives in Greece (Athens and Corinth) won't drink the tap water. They have bought jugs of water from a delivery service and fill smaller bottles from them for drinking for as long as I can remember. Funny enough this doesn't apply in my dad's village up in the mountains (Nemea).

                          At restaurants/tavernas etc. you generally buy large bottles of water for the table; I don't recall any that offer tap water but that may just be me.

                          1. re: Jasz

                            When I was in Germany, most Germans told me they don't drink tap water because it's "dirty", but I drank it all the time and thought it was tastes better to me than water in the US.

                            1. re: Fromageball

                              Why you ain't never drunk our well water. I was of the WC Fields ilk, but this water lead to a conversion!

                              1. re: Fromageball

                                Most of the "white" people in Rio I've met drink only bottled water whereas the "brown" and "black" people always drink the tap water. We drink the tap water.

                                1. re: c oliver

                                  Brazil is a large country where water quality varies not just with location, but from property to property. Due to water shortages or cost, in many places where city water is available individuals and establishments may drill their own wells (cesspool style septic systems are common outside cities and well water testing thoroughness varies). In addition, very common are per-building water tanks for storage which are sometimes cleaned at very irregular intervals and even when they are fed by city water, some people can add their own chemicals. This can include condos and hotels in fairly large cities. Plus city waters tend to be more heavily treated than people in the US are used to. Like you I also ingest much of the water (coffee, blender juices, teeth brushing) in cases where it definitely has not been boiled fully, but its more pleasant to either have a filter or to buy the large gallons overall for drinking. (BTW I do know Brazilians who won't even cook beans or anything with tap water.)

                                  Restaurants, though, like much of the world if you ask for water will sell you bottled water. They may serve it with tap water ice (although packaged ice is largely purified) but actually serving tap water is pretty foreign. Airports, bus stations, hospitals government buildings often have water fountains (usually with filters) but you are expected to fill a cup rather than put your mouth over the drinking fountain like many in the US.

                                  1. re: itaunas

                                    I was too simplistic in my reply :) I've never asked for tap water and have never seen it served. It's actually a little splurge for me. "Agua com gas" is a nice accompaniment to my caipirinha.

                                2. re: Fromageball

                                  the water in the US tastes radically different from place to place.

                              2. re: BobB

                                There may be taste thing going on here. It's a few years since I've visited America but I have recollections that the tap water is much more heavily chlorinated than we have in Europe. Now, I'd have to say, that causes me not to enjoy American tap water but I guess the same could well be true in reverse - we tend to like what we're used to.

                                1. re: Harters

                                  Harters, we have that situation when we visit Rio. The water is totally safe but heavily chlorinated. Many locals don't drink it. We usually start out making coffee and cocktails with it and gradually go to "straight." But I find it not so good at room temp. So I fill my water bottle with bottled water.

                                  1. re: Harters

                                    Harters, that reminds me of when I moved from the the CA foothills to the valley. In the area I lived and grew up, our water was heavily mineralized with many things including naturally occurring fluoride. To boot, the owner of the well we were on very heavily chlorinated the water (your eyes would get red an irritated as though you were just swimming in a pool after a shower, and you could smell it a bit).

                                    Well, when we moved down here to the valley, I all but stopped drinking straight water. The tap water tasted (and still does to me) weird, and bottled water to this day has a slight bitter taste to me. My tastebuds are so used to heavily chlorinated and mineralized water that "good, clean" water tastes really off to me. Oddly though, I can drink water straight from the creeks up in the area with no problems, and really the taste of pool water is not unpleasant at all. There is something in the water up there that lends a slight sweet taste, and I wonder if that has something to do with how a lot of water has the slightest bitter flavour to my tastebuds. Heavily chlorinated water also has a similar "sweet" quality for some reason.

                                    1. re: Harters


                                      The taste of water varies wildly across the US, so it depends on the city and the source of the water. Some cities are pumping water from the MIssissippi river. Enough said. The area with the absolute worst water in the US, IMO, is San Diego. I lived there for half a year and was forced to buy bottled water. The stuff from the tap tastes like what I would imagine to be the taste of stagnent pond scum. The smell was gag-inducing to me.

                                      1. re: Harters

                                        I was born & raised in Philadelphia and the tap water was very good. Went to grad school in rural southeast Ohio. The first time I poured a glass of tap water there, I was horrified--slightly brownish, very off-putting smell. I was amazed--rural area in the heartland, I expected really good water. As a test, I put the glass in the fridge, and the next day, all of the sediment, etc had sunk to the bottom.

                                      2. re: BobB

                                        I have travelled in places where tapwater wasn't safe for brushing your teeth.

                                        If you can't brush your teeth, you also have to avoid fresh fruit juices and pretty much any non-boiled, unbottled cold drink, ice, uncooked vegetables, period, and any fresh fruit that you can't peel. Because they will be washing the vegetables with the same stuff that comes from the tap.

                                        1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                          nobody was arguing that there are places in the world where tapwater isn't safe to drink (sad as that is)

                                          The backlash came from the assertion that Paris is one of them.

                                          I was, by the way, pretty surprised to be advised to avoid tap water (by hotel and restaurant staff) in Moscow.

                                          1. re: sunshine842

                                            It always depends, I think. I can distinctly recall when tap water in parts of Western Europe (Spain, France, and Belgium) was not to be drunk, although I can't ever remember not brushing my teeth with it.

                                            I do question Harters's claim to knowing the water tastes of all America. Goodness, water tastes different depending on where one is staying in the UK.

                                            So Harters's declaration is Impressive, but questionable. I remember staying in one state where water in one city was delicious while the other so nasty as to be practically unpotable (my brother and I would dare each other to finish the glass placed before us). I also recall a period in DC in the 1990s where water warnings were common and any immune-compromised citizens were advised against drinking. And New York's water, of course, contributes to the deliciousness of the pizzas and the bagels.

                                            I put this up as a reminder that things differ from region to region. These grand pronouncements are not really productive and can, in some circumstances (although not these), border on the offensive.

                                            1. re: sunshine842

                                              Same thing happened to me in 2005. In fact, I have ALWAYS been advised against using/consuming tap water in former Soviet countries - even in the cities, the water is often full of heavy metals and lovely things like giardia, which will take you out if your GI tract isn't used to it.

                                              1. re: kathleen440

                                                the advice to avoid tap water, by the way, was offered this summer in a brand-spanking new it's recent advice, too.

                                              2. re: sunshine842

                                                Yeah, that's what I mean. If brushing your teeth is dangerous, so is eating salads and drinking fruit juice, and I've never seen advice for travelling in Paris telling you to avoid uncooked foods and ice.

                                        2. re: givemecarbs

                                          That couldn't be further from the truth

                                          1. re: givemecarbs

                                            This is like the scene from the first Sex and the City movie, where one of the characters is paranoid about the fresh fruit and produce at the upscale Mexican resort and only eats some kind of packaged food product made in Poughkeepsie or some such.

                                            She forgets on the last day, opens her mouth in the shower, and uh oh! Terrible time ensures.

                                            The other characters who were much more rational and ate and drank whatever there was, did fine.

                                            OK, this was fiction, but I've seen it played out several times in real life in all sorts of locations - there is something to the "too much hygiene" hypothesis - people who are overcautious end up with "events" - I guess their immune system was never exercised.

                                            The people who were a little less paranoid developed a better sense of what was more or less appropriate to risk, and fell ill much less.

                                            1. re: Rasam

                                              And some people, their bodies are just more sensitive, period. Take my husband, for instance. We go on a trip to interior BC, Kootenays to be specific. We both drink the tap water. Whatever, no big deal. It's Canada. Well a day later he's running to the toilet and his tummy hurtin' pretty bad. The rest of our trip there, he just felt off. I get home and tell my Mom all about this. Saying we couldn't figure out what was going on. It was until she told me my father had problem with water in many cities/towns they'd visit. We realized that's what it was because after that town we moved on to Penticton and happened to drink bottle water the rest of the time, no problems

                                              1. re: livetocook

                                                Yogurt will help your body adjust to new chemistry (and help to fight off anything that might be in the water, should you be in a place with questionable sanitation)

                                                Yep - I've known people who can't drink tap water in new places, either. Makes it hard for them to enjoy traveling at times, which is a pity.

                                                1. re: sunshine842

                                                  Yep, me too. When my brother-in-law came to live in the UK, it took many weeks for him to get used to our water.

                                                2. re: livetocook

                                                  Thank you! The one-size-fits-all prescription for food hygiene is so frustrating for those of us who struggle with food sensitivities! I know how people who don't struggle wouldn't understand it, and that's fine, but please don't judge me for it. My immune system has been 'exercised' plenty over the years, having lived in Costa Rica and Mexico, and I still get 'caught' sometimes when I go back. Yakult is my friend.

                                            2. re: Gatogrande

                                              Gatogrande does not specify Europe. In Mexico in the 70's, I wouldn't drink the water or have ice. My first wife ridiculed me for rinsing my mouth, after brushing my teeth, w/ beer. She used tap water. A day or 2 later we were at the bottom of Carlsbad Caverns, w/ no facilities, and Montezuma's revenge hit her. Don't go off the trail and peek behind the stalagmites. My fondest memory of that woman.

                                              1. re: Passadumkeg

                                                No, but givemecarbs does. Paris, no less! A classic example of mistaking correlation for causation.

                                            3. I think it's important not to make people feel like there's a bunch of things they shouldn't do. If you want to take your left overs, ask. The worst that can happen is they'll say no or be put out because you want to take there delicious food,that you paid for, home. The cappucino thing is also way overblown. No one in Italy drinks them in the afternoon, but no one cares if you do.

                                              Go, relax, have fun and don't worry.


                                              3 Replies
                                              1. re: JuniorBalloon

                                                Good points all. I think the key thing here is to note that if they refuse to offer a leftover bag, it's not so much bad service as that it's just not done so no one is prepared.

                                                1. re: JuniorBalloon

                                                  It may be overblown but it can lead to funny situations. Like my SO stepping confidently to the counter in a tiny caffe in Sicily at about 2 pm and asking in his bestest Italian for "uno cappuccino per favore." Without missing a beat the matriarch behind the counter says "Coca Cola?" and the SO returns dejectedly to the table, soft drink in hand :-).

                                                  1. re: grayelf

                                                    In Paris? My gosh. It wasn't the water that got her, my dear.