Austria,  Czech Republic,  Greece,  Norway,  Oct 2018,  Poland,  Sept 2017

Beer, Tip, Water, Bread, Olives, and the Foreigner Tax

In Prague, you can buy a pint of beer for around $2.00.

And I’m not talking a Bud or Miller Light kind of beer. I’m talking a top-quality, world-renown pint of happiness. It’s a point of pride for Czech people, and I can see why.

After getting off our first, one-way train, exhausted, thirsty, hungry, and schooled, finding that those fabled prices were true helped get us back on the right foot.

Beer #1 in Prague.

Prices are low in the Czech Republic in general, and the beer definitely takes the cake.

Unfortunately, not all prices in Europe are this low.

In Oslo, we wanted to grab a quick bite of lunch our first day, and picked (according to Yelp) the cheapest restaurant in our neighborhood. When we arrived and started consulting Google for exchange rates for the items on the menu, the cost of living in Oslo slowly dawned on us.

At this “budget” restaurant, the cheapest lunch on the menu was $30. That’s 3-0. For a couple balls of fried chickpeas and a disc of pita bread. We stared around the restaurant at everyone else eating this surely gold-laced food with our chins on the floor. Suddenly it made so much sense why our friends said, “See ya later!” when we’d invited them to come out to lunch with us.

Later, we found that a typical beer at a restaurant runs a cool $18.

While Oslo was quirky and beautiful, we spent the rest of the stay pining for the pints we remembered in Prague (and COOKING). We also learned to look this sort of thing up before arriving to a brand new country…

About what we learned we could afford in Oslo (Rhubarb juice which is actually delicious!).

While definitely not all prices in Europe are this high, I will say that across the board, European restaurant prices seem high to people from the States. Usually, this is just because we’re not used to seeing how much our food actually costs when we order. Taxes (and sometimes service) are typically included menu prices in Europe, so what you see is what you pay at the end (what?).

When our European friends talk about their visits to the US, this is something they usually talk about in the same, appalled way that US friends complain about European waiters not automatically bringing the check when you’re done eating.

In Europe, it’s rude to rush you out of a restaurant while you’re spending time with someone or relaxing after your meal. In the US, it’s rude not to help you rush out the door. #culturebasedlogic

Tip, though, is another thing that became routine to research in every new area. Each country and region have their own cultural rules for if and how much to tip and when—sometimes even depending on who you are. I have yet to find another country that expects a tip higher than 10%–and I’ve been told this is due to waiters being paid a living wage without tip (though to be fair, I’ve never asked a foreign waiter about the reality so take that with a grain of salt).

Sometimes cultural etiquette says to leave the tip in cash on the table.

Sometimes it’s customary to type it in on the card machine as you’re paying.

Other times, you have to know things like pausing while they tell you the total is really a silent question about how much you’d like to tip them.

This protocol is especially stressful because not only is it awkward to tell a person how much their service was worth to you, but you also have to compute the tip quickly in your head while they watch (while remembering which percentage is polite in this particular country).

But for me, the biggest lesson to learn as a restaurant-goer in Europe was to not take anything for granted at a restaurant. If the menu didn’t mention it explicitly on an item’s description and it comes to your table, it’s anyone’s guess if it will show up in another line on the receipt.

There are extraordinarily creative ways you can be surprised about a bill at the end of a meal. I’ll start with something most people from the US take for granted at a restaurant.

It is always refreshing to dine with fellow United States-ians in Europe because anyone from the US also typically drink copious amounts of an exotic beverage called water.

Have you ever seen such a beautiful sight?

If you’ve been to Europe, you know how unusual drinking more than a small glass—or sometimes, any at all—at dinner is to the rest of the world. Water is just not a thing like it is in the US. Bet you didn’t even think that drinking water during a meal was a cultural thing.

Oh, it is.

Fortunately for us, France has a water culture that’s pretty US-friendly. When you sit down to the table, they’ll typically bring you a carafe of water and then won’t charge you at the end for it. That’s double-points: automatic and free. While we still always end up drinking WAY more than our neighboring tables, at least it’s free.

In other countries—Holland, for example—you can find the other extreme. Between the face waiters make and the time (and number of requests) it takes for it to come to the table, asking for water gives you the same feeling as though you were asking for a free side. Eventually, I just learned to chug water before and after dinner and enjoy a glass of wine instead.

I didn’t understand why I felt so rude until someone told me that Dutch waiters are sometimes charged out of their own check for providing water to tables.

And that made everything make sense.

In Germany for Oktoberfest, both of us being way overdue for some rehydration, Kevin ordered a liter of water at the end of the night. 10 minutes later, the waitress returned and slapped another liter of beer in front of Kevin. Thinking the waitress hadn’t understood, he tried to clarify that he had wanted water—to which she declared, “Here, beer is water.”

Touché.

To be fair, those are the extremes. In most other countries we’ve visited in Europe, if you ask for water, they’ll happily bring some. Usually, they bring a large, beautiful bottle of mineral water…and then charge you just as much as a drink for it at the end. It’s not sneaky, it just seems to be what most people prefer. Kevin and I have learned to make “tap water” part of our survival vocabulary in each country’s language.

Whatever the case, the fact remains: I still don’t understand how everybody here stays hydrated.

There are other surprises, too, that spring up from time to time.

One night while we were in Vienna, Austria, we went to a restaurant for dinner. Trying to cut costs, we decided to split a goulash (kind of a stew) and a main entrée.

As we were eating, the waiter came and placed a basket of bread on the table. While I was suspicious that we were probably going to be charged for it, I figured it was worth it. Besides, we were splitting a soup and an entrée–we had a little wiggle-room.

At the end of the meal, we packed the remaining pieces of bread goulash into a to-go container as we waited for the bill.

And when the bill finally came, I was shocked.

My suspicions were correct: we were charged for the bread.

To be more specific, we were charged for every individual piece of bread.

$2.00, to be exact. We ended up paying something like $12.00 for that stinking basket. In retrospect, the waiter’s smile while setting the basket on the table began to look more like a smirk.

In the end, just like every other surprise, what were we going to do? All we could do was laugh at our naiveté. We’ve learned label these surprises “the foreigner tax”—aka the price you pay for never knowing what the heck is going on— and then move on a little wiser.

At a few restaurants in Poland, surprises worked the other way around.

A couple times we were charged for olives or chips that we didn’t order that came with our beer. When we would ask about it, waiters explained that they actually take money off of the cost of the beer and place it on the olives in order to save us money on tax—since the alcohol tax is much higher than the tax for food. Upon careful inspection through Google Translate, we realized it was true. That kind of tax I could get behind.

But for best surprises at meals, Greece wins all of the awards. Like France, water is usually automatic and free (so you know they’re already winning big points there with us water-guzzling Chicagoans). Then, every time you order a drink, they bring out free munchies, too—sometimes including delicious, Greek dishes. * Angels singing * If that wasn’t enough, you almost never leave a meal without a dessert arriving on the table, always on the house.

Conclusions? Research all of the things before hand—tip (when, how, and how much), water, and exchange rates. Be weary of anything arriving to your table if you didn’t ask for it. And have that Google translate app out and ready to go. And when things go wrong, chalk it up to The Foreigner Tax and move on.

And in the end, if I had my pick, I’d eat in Greece and drink in Prague forever.

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