One More Time

Let's give this rude waiter/Americans-don't-know-how-to-behave contretemps one more go around then be done with it.

You may recall this all began in the February issue when our reporter, Bruce Woelfel, described an unhappy experience at the Hamburg restaurant, Peter Lembcke. Bruce wrote that he and his wife Sally had been given a chilly reception, an indifferent waiter and food priced far too high in relation to its quality.

Then came the first salvo from Mrs. Paul Wildman, a German expatriate who lives in San Francisco. Perhaps it was the tone of her letter rather than its substance that Americans traveling in Europe consistently underdress and are often oblivious to local customs that stirred up the troops. Last month readers responded with numerous faxes and letters, several of which we published. A few offered mild support for the Wildman position, but the rest disagreed vigorously and used such terms such as snob, insulting and ill-informed.

Hard words, but one has to admit the letter was a little tough on Americans. The business about being "amused, because any German, Parisian, Swede and other northern European who knows typical American travelers, could have predicted the scene at Peter Lembcke" was, to say the least, undiplomatic. And then the part about having the "common sense" to notice upon entering a restaurant whether one "fits in," a concept to which "Americans, for some unknown reason, seem to be oblivious" and thus "ask for it when treated shabbily," further fanned the flames.

As a result, her point that many Americans don't "get it" when it comes to understanding German customs and etiquette, got lost.

She may be right, but I'm not sure I "get it" either and, what's more I don't think it's a matter of great importance when it comes to the way I'll be treated as a tourist. No doubt dozens maybe hundreds of German waiters, shopkeepers, hotel owners, gas station attendants and others with whom I have come in contact over the years, have thought to themselves, "now this fellow's a bit strange," all the while treating me with respect and courtesy.

Who cares if American men don't wear a coat and tie to Sunday breakfast in Europe? Some, but surely not most. On the other hand, who cares over here if Europeans put their fork in the left hand and use a knife to scrape food onto the underside of it? Hardly anybody. And for those who do care, could it possibly justify rudeness? Of course not.

Is it rude to ignore local customs? Certainly, but most people on both sides of the Atlantic are tolerant when they know such acts are borne of ignorance not malice.

So, while I strongly recommend knowing local customs and taking great care not to offend, I suggest Mrs. Wildman lighten up a little.

I'm sure she would take issue, and with good reason, with American references to "typical Germans." As we have learned the hard way in this country, making assumptions based on race, religion, gender or nationality is a sure way to find trouble. (At least in most cases. There are exceptions. For example, when was the last time you saw or heard a German character sympathetically portrayed in a TV or radio advertising spot?).

What happened to the Woelfels in Peter Lembcke had nothing to do with manners or "cold" northern Germans or ugly Americans or political correctness. And, the Woelfels weren't treated badly because they wore the wrong clothes. (Mrs. Wildman assumed they were improperly dressed but, in fact, they were not; Sally Woelfel even wore a fur coat politically incorrect in some parts of the U.S. but still chic in Europe).

No, it all comes down to a restaurant that virtually all parties agree is average and overpriced, and a waiter who is either incompetent or a jerk maybe both. Bad restaurant experiences happen in San Francisco, New York, Dismal Seepage, Oregon...anywhere. This time it was Hamburg.

So let's give Peter Lembcke zero points out of 20 and move on.

Use Debit Card In Europe

Last month we urged readers to rely on their credit cards not only for overseas purchases but for obtaining cash from ATMs. What we should have noted is that your bank will charge a fee usually about $2 to $10 if you use a credit card at the ATM and also charge interest from the date of the transaction. However, there won't be any interest charged if you use a debit card and the transaction fee will be less.

Read it Here First

Every now and then somebody complains about the price of Gemütlichkeit vs. such travel magazines as Conde Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure. To them we point out that our total focus is almost entirely on Germany, Austria and Switzerland, about 7,000 words every month. Most people subscribe to Gemütlichkeit because they are interested in a concentration of information on our part of the world. We seldom do pictures or use space-wasting layouts. The two travel magazines mentioned cover the entire world. Consider yourself lucky if either publishes five or six meaty stories per year on Germany, Austria or Switzerland. They have hundreds of thousands of subscribers and we have a few thousand.

Amazingly, these magazines see Gemütlichkeit as competition. They are extremely reluctant, for example, to rent lists of their subscribers to us. (I know what you're thinking; you abhor "junk mail." But let me assure you, without "junk mail" there would be no Gemütlichkeit. Direct mail is the only viable way to market our product and without qualified lists to mail to we would soon be out of business.)

Not only are we competition, apparently we are now an editorial source. The May issue of Travel & Leisure carries a story entitled Holy Fahrvergnügen. It is a brief auto tour whose overnight stops are Bamberg and the village of Muggendorf. The author recommends the Hotel St. Nepomuk in Bamberg and a visit to Brauerei Schlenkerla. In Muggendorf the overnight is the Hotel Feiler and its Michelin one-star restaurant. The piece also suggests the drive include the towns of Tchersfeld and Pottenstein and a visit to the Teufelshöhe, a series of caves. There were a couple of other restaurants mentioned but the towns, hotels and sights mentioned above were the essence of the piece. It was a good story.

But the interesting, almost eerie, part is that our "Grand Tour-Part I" story published last August, included, almost exactly, the itinerary offered by the story in Travel & Leisure—towns, hotels and things to see. Using us as a source isn't illegal, in fact it's a bit of a compliment. So, for once, those who dropped us because they could get "the same stuff" in Travel & Leisure and Traveler, are right. Of course, they got it nine months later along with about 900,000 other people and what took four pages of text, pictures and graphics for T&L to present, we did in less than two columns. By the way, we first reviewed the Hotel Feiler in January of 1988 and the St. Nepomuk in August of 1993. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. RHB

May 1996