Friendships, Food, and Foreign Cultures

Think of your typical Friday night. You and your friends decide to eat out, maybe you choose Mexican this weekend (let’s be honest I choose Mexican every weekend). You sit down to gossip or just goof off after a long week of tests and never-ending assignments. When is graduation again? 404 days, in case you weren’t already counting. Before you know it your waiter/waitress is already taking your entrée order and you haven’t even finished your queso….or your first margarita!

All of a sudden, you’ve received your check and you haven’t even begun to tell your friends about the awful date you went on last week. In the United States, restaurants will have you served and out in an average of under an hour. You don’t need me to be the one to tell you that us Americans like to get things done quickly and efficiently, but we rarely take time to stop and smell the roses. It took a trip across the world to Europe for me to realize that in the US, we don’t take time to sit and enjoy a meal with family or friends, it’s always a rush to turn the table and get another tipping customer in our spot.

Expectations vs. Realities of Eating Out Abroad

Of course, before the trip, we were warned of the pride that Europeans take in serving their food, especially the French, but with the overwhelming excitement of traveling out of the country for the first time alone, it was hard to retain all the information that was offered to me. It didn’t take it long for all of us on the International Business Seminar trip to realize that dinner wasn’t going to take a quick hour…it would be slow and relaxed for two to three hours.

At first, I’ll admit the American in me came out, “what is taking so long? Can we please get the check?” Let me be the one to tell you that it’s worth taking your time. It’s intimidating to sit at dinner for two to three hours with a ton of strangers you just met on a study abroad trip. You’ll want to go do something other than just talking with each other, but dinner with the amazing group of men and women I met on this trip are some of my favorite experiences that I reminisce about. Sit and learn about each other, don’t be afraid to open up about yourself.

I remember our first dinner in London, United Kingdom. There was a complication with our rooms and we ended up waiting hours for check in, but even with this unfortunate complication, we were able to walk the streets of London and grow closer together.  We ended up back at the hotel restaurant, all 36 of us, pushing tables together, laughing, and planning what time we were going to be ready to go out to Piccadilly Circus to see the London nightlife. By the end of it, we had our first inside joke: “There are big ships and there are small ships, but the best ships in life are friendships.”Needless to say, we went out and had a great time. This is our first ever selfie together:

american students studying abroad in europe

My point is, don’t be afraid to sit at dinner for two hours with the people you’re going to travel to Europe with, build friendships.

Meals are About the Food

These two to three-hour dinners aren’t just about bonding with your fellow travelers, it’s also about the food. European food and serving culture is so much different than US culture. When you go to eat, get every course: an appetizer, a wine, an entrée, and a dessert!  They put so much work into their food, it’s cooked to perfection (or not cooked at all if you get the tartar – get the tartar) and presented beautifully on the plate. Our first night in Paris was mostly spent at dinner enjoying the best Italian food I have ever had in my life. I mean, they have calzones bigger than our head!

food in london

In France, eating is more of a pleasure than just giving the body what it needs to sustain itself. This is similar to Louisiana culture, which made the eating culture in Paris feel a little like home. Eating is a full experience rather than just something that we must do to keep going throughout the day. The experience is not just pertaining to the food, but the atmosphere of the restaurant and the presentation of the food on the plate as if it were a masterpiece.

Differences Between US and European Dining

You can already pick out the major differences in the eating culture in Europe versus in the US. Even if you aren’t studying abroad in Europe, appreciate the food. Take a second experience the country you’re in through the food and drinks by trying new things and embracing the culture. When in Rome, right? When in France, Germany, Switzerland, China – wherever, be in the country that you’re in and branch out from your personal norms.

Along with eating for pleasure, they also tend to shoot for quality over quantity. That’s another difference, in the US we go big or go home. The French and other European countries strive to ensure their dish quality is above and beyond, it’s legitimately an art for them. This is why they perceive Americans who are in a hurry at their restaurant as rude and maybe a little ungrateful.

No matter where you are, thank the waiter or waitress. Let them know how you felt about the food, you have no idea how wonderful it makes them feel to be complimented on something they are so passionate about. Not to mention a compliment from a tourist who genuinely enjoyed it.

common dishes from london

I, personally, loved the long dinners and lunches by the end of my 15 days abroad. My advice to future and current travelers is to enjoy the experience. Put your phone away (with the exceptions of snapping a few pics #foodie), learn about the people you are with, embrace the culture, and thank those who put so much work into making your experience unique and memorable. It’s not every day that you get to gallivant around a foreign country, so stop and smell the roses!

breakfast in london

Ellen Heath

School: Louisiana State University

This trip was more than worthwhile, it gave me confidence in my career choice and experiences and friends that I will carry with me forever!

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