30 September 2014

Fast Food

"Anytime you're ready", said the waitress. "No rush." With that, she plopped the black check sleeve on my breakfast table this morning. I nearly chocked on my bagel, onto which I had only just smeared a generous layer of cream cheese.

I was sitting in the ordinary restaurant of an ordinary hotel in an ordinary Canadian city, and my expense account had just bought into the $16 continental breakfast buffet. Less than a minute before, I'd returned to my table from the buffet, carefully balancing a plate of baked goods and cold cuts, a bowl of cereal and a banana. A teapot was steaming in front of me. My meal was not about to be over.

Sadly, but commonly, this did not stop the waiter from already presenting me with the bill - an act that my European self understands as the ritual end of any restaurant visit. To my chagrin, the matter is handled rather differently in North America.

Not only is the check to be presented to diners the moment they put down their cutlery (or even before, as in my case today), entire restaurant visits are judged by how swift the service is: To my continued irritation, in establishments of every quality level, plates are pulled from under diners' noses while they are still chewing their last bites. No matter if everybody else at the table is still eating, the moment the first guest finishes his dish, his plate must disappear at once.

Intervals between courses last a few minutes at best, and on more than one occasion have I seen the dessert menu being brought to the table on the occasion of the waiter clearing the last main course plate. If one denies interest in any sweets, then without further ado, the bill appears. It is typically accompanied by the phony sweet "whenever you're ready" line, which feels about as authentic as a Russian mobster telling you that delayed payment would not be a problem.

It's a different culture, I often find myself rationalizing, trying not to let an uncalled for check ruin my impression of an establishment. Undoubtedly, many Americans must feel similarly poorly served in Europe, when it takes an eternity for their bill to be delivered - they may even have to ask for it! In America, the term "quick service restaurants" decribes almost every eatery, and not just what Europeans have come to accept as a "fast food" joint.

Fortunately, once again Québec revels in cultural exceptionalism. When I showed up at an upscale French bistro in Montréal last weekend with 5, instead of the anticipated 4 American guests in tow, the maitre d' was apologetic. Under the circumstances, he'd have to give us a different table, which would only be available until 21.30h. Would that be acceptable?

It was just after 19h when I put the question to my Yankee guests. They rolled their eyes - they had come for a meal, not an eternity. At 20.45h, I had to ask the waiter for the check.

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16 September 2014

Lord of the Rings

Have you ever witnessed love? True, deep, eternal love? I have. And not just in a fluffy manner of speaking. No; I've gone on file at Zurich's civil registry office. A little while ago, I have put my signature under my dear friends' wedding papers, attesting that they have freely and genuinely chosen each other.

In doing so, I delivered on the most essential, and formal, task that the happy couple had asked of me. When they put it to me a year earlier, I felt flattered, cajoled, but also somewhat unsettled by the request to be their best man. As the following twelve months were to prove, this role comes with a number of responsibilities, and with expectations that are different from what they would be in Canada.

When I started talking to my Canadian friends about the role bestowed upon me, they nodded approvingly. "You'll be great", they said, and "I'm sure you'll be very funny".

I was confused. Why would I be funny? On the contrary, I was meant to be button-down, organized and meticulous, for together with the bridesmaid, I was to be the chief organizer of proceedings before and on wedding day.

As it turns out, one of the key deliverables of a best man west of the Atlantic is a witty speech at the wedding reception. That was news to me - and fortunately, it is still unknown to those who are now husband and wife. Speechwriting therefore was not required, for the few announcements on wedding night were acts of improvisation.

Preparing for the big day, however, was not. The Swiss, with their fetish for perfection, expect wedding ceremonies to run like clockwork. Ceremonies, food, entertainment, transportation, surprises, everything is supposed to happen smoothly. Bridesmaid and best man are to make sure that it does, so that the happy couple can enjoy its day with friends and family.

Living up to this expectation takes a bit more than just signing a piece of paper. No surprise that, in the months preceeding the big day, the bridesmaid and I spent a fair bit of time on preparations. Me being overseas did not make things easier, though thankfully the bridesmaid was both understanding and very supportive under the circumstances. Once ready, we could simply run through the script on the day itself, and except for a few minor hick-ups, things went according to plan. They even said YES at the right moment.

Of course, some expectations of a best man remain the same. Inevitably, I found myself putting together, and drinking through, a bachelor's night one day this summer. Knowing me for longer than my sister does, the groom had a good idea of both my organizational and party aptitudes when he picked his best man. His liver, and his in-laws, must have been equally thankful for his choice.

Here and there, being asked to act as the best man is a big honor. It caught me by surprise, it touched me, and it made all the prep work a pleasure. And when it became too much, I simply delegated, not even shying away from child labor: The all important task of providing the wedding rings at the right time was dramatically executed by... the bridesmaid's toddler.
And they wore them happily ever after.

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