If there's one activity we all have in common—it's eating. Whether we're sitting down with the family at the kitchen table, grabbing a quick lunch at a nearby del, or sitting, tray-on-lap, while watching TV—we all have to eat.
One of the great joys of travel is finding fresh and stimulating ways to make simple things, like eating, memorable adventures.
Although the hours-long overseas flight doesn't offer a gracious dining experience nowadays, conversation with a fellow passenger may provide insight into the eating habits of a foreigner, perhaps one who speaks little or no English and has a curious way of using a knife and fork.
Eating on the go
Once you're on foreign soil, you'll encounter hurried in-and-out pit stops, which give you a challenge with a menu you cannot read, listing foods you can't figure out, and scant time to enjoy the native fare (not to mention your initial, and perhaps shocking, encounter with the W.C.) before it's time to climb back onto the bus.
If you're traveling with a group, you may have to settle for a boxed lunch issued as you board the sightseeing bus, eating it while you follow the tour guide's instruction to, "Look to the left, and see the royal palace," or, "Look to the right, and see the Changing of the Guard" (even as a big truck blocks the view).
The most fun may come when you are sitting in your train compartment, and your seatmates open their lunch boxes and begin eating some smelly sandwiches. You realize you've brought along no food (except a crumbled cookie) and will have to snag a food vendor as she wanders down the aisle. No matter what you succeed in buying, it'll taste good.
Seeking the familiar
When you finally arrive in a city, your first impulse may be to check out one of the familiar U.S. food franchises. (And there are plenty.) Will it be like the one back home, you wonder? Well, yes and no. It may take you some time to decide what you want to order. (Different names for the same stuff.) A glance at what's on other diners' trays offers help. The cost? Already you've found you haven't figured out the local currency. Sometimes I've merely cupped an assortment of coins in the palm of my hand and let the counterperson take what is needed.
Eating in such a place is an adventure in itself, particularly if you are alone. Maybe you're the only solo diner, and have a hard time finding a place to sit with your tray. Everyone else seems to be part of a family or twosome. Finally seated, you can relax a bit, and have fun observing the other diners—noticing what they're wearing, guessing about their relationship and eavesdropping on their conversation (even if you can't understand what they're saying). And later, of course, checking out the W.C., perhaps finding it to be unisex, and wondering whether you'll need to tip the male attendant.
On the other hand, a foray into your hotel dining room or a fancy restaurant provides another experience. You'll check out the amenities, study the décor, try to master the menu (which will hopefully be in English) and try to remember every detail of the meal. Again, if dining alone, this hour or so will be more satisfying and informative if perchance you exchange bits of pleasant conversation with a fellow diner. Maybe there'll be background music by a pianist sitting at a grand piano in a corner of the room. Bask in the romantic atmosphere.
By the way, you might be surprised to see dogs in restaurants enjoying "eating out" with their masters. Even in ritzy dining rooms.
Back in your hotel room, you feel like having a late night snack. No problem. Call for room service. But be prepared that the treat will be a costly one. And if you happen to notice a miniature refrigerator built into a night table and are overjoyed to see refreshing goodies and chilled beverages, help yourself to them, but beware that they're not for free. You'll find this (often exorbitant) treat added to your bill when you depart.
Best of all, if you have the good fortune to spend some time in the home of a friend or family member, you'll have the opportunity of getting acquainted with different types of food, alternative ways of cooking and serving things and interesting kitchen appliances. Fascinating! You'll see some familiar brand name food, some generic types and some foreign foodstuffs. You may even be able to collect some recipes from your hostess.
To market square
If time permits, perhaps you can visit a neighborhood grocery store, see how produce and meat are sold and priced. A stroll through the neighborhood outdoor market is rare fun too. You'll learn new names for familiar produce, and an amazing variety of meats, fish, and cheeses. You may want to sample some of the delicacies offered by the venders, or purchase some clothing, jewelry or trinkets from the stands. This is a good chance to buy souvenirs or gifts for family and friends back home (think birthdays and Christmas).
An (edible) affair to remember
Of course you'll want to fulfill one of your dreams, too, by enjoying a repast at one of the city's outdoor cafés. Go ahead, do it. Something else to remember.
For years afterward you'll look back at these European eating and grocery-shopping experiences, remembering the pleasure they gave you. And perhaps you'll improve your own meals and dining routine with what you learned.