April 4th, 2010
This is probably the only real “surprising to an American” post I’ll be making, because it was the little thing that was most surprising. And that despite the fact that I had been warned:
Don’t expect to get a glass of tap water at a restaurant or café; it’s an unusual request that probably won’t be understood or honoured.
— Lonely Planet Germany
Now, before I go on, I want to clarify that this post is NOT a complaint of what I saw in Germany and Prague; it’s just a description of how it was surprising to these American eyes, and perhaps also a description of how the American approach such a mundane topic might be surprising to people from elsewhere. (Update: I want to clarify that I only visited 3 cities in Germany plus Prague. I don’t want anybody to assume that I’m making generalizations about the entire continent here, despite my title; I think the comments reflected that I didn’t make this point clear enough. I lack data to draw much of any generalization at all; this is more of reporting on my experiences than anything else.)
I noticed that the vast majority of toilets I saw in Germany and Prague are of the extremely water-saving variety, with an option for a small or a large flush. These toilets exist in the USA, but are still rather uncommon here. I was glad to see this attitude of conserving water.
I was a bit surprised when I took a shower at our hotel in Berlin. Although that hotel was extremely environmentally-conscious in every other way — including the toilets, light switches with RFID sensors and timers, etc — the shower head was the most wasteful of water I had seen in quite a few years. I felt rather guilty of using so much water for a shower.
But our hotel in Prague took shower heads to the next level. The shower head there was this huge square monstrosity, about a foot long on each side. I have never seen a shower head that big. It had a voracious appetite for water, too. Although it could be pointed in any direction, doing so was useless because, even at full blast, it was clearly getting not nearly enough water to propel the spray forward. It seems that this shower head needed special water-guzzling plumbing. But even without it, I felt even more guilty for showering in Prague. I suspect that I used more water for the two showers I took there than I would have over an entire week at home. I also very much suspect that this shower head would be illegal in the USA due to its water consumption. (I should note as an aside that the shower heads I saw in private homes were no different than American ones.)
One thing I didn’t see was lawn sprinklers. This may have been because there is less open grass in the places we visited, or perhaps because spring hadn’t yet really hit. In any case, I wonder if our American habit of pumping water from deep beneath the ground, only to shoot it up in the air and spray it back on the ground again might appear a bit odd to others.
Drinking Water – In Restaurants
We did a lot of walking in Europe, and sometimes we’d have walked awhile to get to a restaurant. I really prefer water when I’m thirsty, and ordered water with my meal at restaurants a few times. I stopped doing that, though.
The presentation varied, but usually it went along these lines: they brought a glass bottle to the table, it cost EUR2 – EUR5, and generally contained almost as much glass as water.
The most impressive display of water was at a Berlin restaurant. I wanted some water, and so did Terah. So the waitress suggested we could share an EUR 4.90 bottle (0.75L). Sounds good, I guess — although it’s less water than you’d get in a typical American bottle for one person, it seemed a lot by typical German restaurant standards.
A few minutes later, our water arrived. It required the waitress to use a full tray to deliver our water and its, well, water accessories. First she carefully placed a frosted plastic water holder, precisely centered on the table between the two of us. Into this, she carefully placed the water bottle. It was, of course, made of glass, and also tall — taller than most wine bottles, though containing less actual liquid. I am not yet sure of the purpose of the holder; it certainly wasn’t to keep the water cold, as it was served warm. Perhaps they feared the bottle’s impressive height acting as a sail and getting knocked over by a gentle breeze.
In any case, next came our water glasses, which appeared to be exactly like wine glasses, but bore the logo of the company that bottled the water etched in the glass. After that, she picked the water bottle back up out of the holder, carefully opened it (it was just a regular twist-off lid), and then poured water into each of our glasses. She was careful not to have even a drop run down the side of the bottle, and filled each glass precisely 2/3 full. The glasses were, of course, positioned carefully on the table, and the bottle of water returned to its place of honor within the water bottle holder. This process consumed most of the small quantity of actual water in the bottle.
I do believe that is the most elaborate presentation of a small amount of good ole H2O I have ever witnessed. It was made with the kind of care I would expect to be shown to someone that had just bought a $100 bottle of wine, not a EUR5 bottle of water.
We had walked a mile (1.6 km) to get to that restaurant, and I was indeed a bit thirsty. I wasn’t sure I wanted to drink all of my tiny quantity of water presented so elaborately all at once, so I had a sip of the beer I had the good sense to order along with the water. The beer, incidentally, cost roughly the same per liter as the water and was simply plonked down on the table with a complete lack of fanfare. Sadly, beer is not really very good for quenching thirst, due to its diuretic effects over time.
Another surprise came at a restaurant in Prague. It appeared to have the typical prices for water, so I ordered a local Czech orange soda to drink. It, like the water, was served in a smallish glass bottle.
In any case, I ordered a traditional Czech goulash to be served in a bread bowl, while Terah ordered some ribs. The waiter took our orders and menus, and returned a minute later bearing a bowl full of water and a lemon slice. This he put next to me, and announced, “wash for you.” My reaction was: Hmmm. This is different. (Which is why we went to Europe, after all!)
What is this for? Did he think my hands looked dirty and needed to be washed before eating? Or did he think I would get them dirty while eating, and somehow fail to use my napkin?
It turned out that the use of it became clear. I ate the goulash using the supplied spoon, but the bread bowl it was served in was of course edible too. It turns out it is pretty much impossible to eat a bread bowl that had contained a stew without getting your hands dirty, and the “wash” turned out to be quite practical and useful. It was free to wash my hands in, but I’m sure would have cost EUR5 had I wanted to drink it.
Drinking Water – American Restaurants
Some of you reading this may never have experienced water in an American restaurant, so allow me to explain. In a typical American restaurant, water is free and comes with unlimited refills. Americans generally think of water as healthy (and our doctors and government medical experts urge us to drink plenty of it), and water in a restaurant is a good way to save money while dining.
It would generally be considered questionable service if your glass of water at a restaurant got less than half full, and really quite bad service if it sat empty for more than a minute or two. A waiter at an American restaurant will typically go around with a pitcher of ice water. If your large water glass isn’t completely full, the waiter will pick it up and step a few steps back from the table before filling it from the pitcher. The waiter will then dump water and ice from the pitcher into it, usually overflowing the top such that some water and ice spills on the floor (so now you see the point of stepping back from the table). The glass will then be returned to your table, wet sides and all. It will be completely full, so you have to be careful not to spill when you take your first sip.
The fancier or more expensive American restaurants will offer a version of this, though without the spilling on the floor part. Usually at one of these restaurants, you’ll automatically get water set out for you when you arrive. This is free, and if you order another beverage, you’ll still keep your water. (Though at any restaurant, it would be quite acceptable to order water along with your other beverage.)
Needless to say, this water is coming from a faucet, not some glass bottle, but I’m fine with that.
A few American restaurants have bottled water on the menu, but I can’t recall ever seeing somebody with one in a restaurant.
Drinking fountains are common in the United States. They provide free tap water to anyone. You can find them near almost any public restroom, whether indoors or outdoors. You can also find them in virtually every park, along some walkways or bicycle routes, in airports and train stations, and even in museums. They’re so common that I rarely even think about being able to find water in a city if I’m thirsty. Often you’ll find them installed in groups of two or three, with one at a lower height so as to be usable by children or adults in wheelchairs, and another at a regular height. Many indoor ones even contain integrated chillers to make the water cold (which, sadly, probably more than negate the environmental benefits of water fountains.)
I saw exactly two drinking fountains in Europe, and I can say I got a drink at 100% of the drinking fountains I saw there. One was in the Hamburg airport, but notably it was at the place where you wait to have them check your passport. So you can use a drinking fountain in Hamburg, but apparently you must do so before you have officially entered Germany.
The other one was in the Prague airport. It was in an out-of-the-way corner, on the lowest level, by the gates for the people that are flying out on the small planes. Which we were. Above it was a placard bearing a icon indicating that this was, in fact, a drinking fountain and how to use it. I was surprised at the need for the icon at first, but less so after I observed a man walk by, glance at the fountain, and wash his hands in it (rather than do so at a sink in the restroom 5 feet away).
As a result, we were sometimes a bit thirsty in Germany. By the time we got to Leipzig, we realized what was going on and bought a Coke bottle which we could refill from the tap water in restrooms as we went along. (This we kept until it was confiscated at a museum in Prague). I didn’t see many Germans carrying around bottles of water, but it was still cold, so it’s possible they were but were in a coat or bag. I was left with the somewhat unwarranted conclusion that some Germans must be either always slightly dehydrated, carrying around hidden bottles of water, or paying EUR2 for a small plastic bottle of water all the time.
In the USA, we do have bottled water. Among people that care about such things, there are certain people that drink only from bottled water as much as possible, and then there are other people that view bottled water as exceptionally expensive and an environmental catastrophe and avoid it as much as possible. I’m part of that latter group. I’ve noticed that statistics show that Germans consume more bottled water per capita than Americans do, which is not really a surprise given what I observed.
Part of the reason I wanted to go to Europe was to experience different approaches to things, and we surely did. I didn’t expect it to lead to a blog post about something as mundane as water, but here it has. I’ve got to say I like the overall attitude of water conservation in Germany, which seems to have gone further than it has in the USA. I also like the system of water fountains we have in the USA, which also helps the environment by reducing demand for plastic water bottles.
The “wash” for me in Prague was just great. One of those moments where I was completely surprised (and in a good way) by something. (I’m just glad the waiter spoke a bit of English, because I wouldn’t have figured it out at all otherwise.)
In the end, part of the fun of traveling is learning about these differences. So next time, we’ll just plan on finding a bottle to carry around at the start of our trip, and then thirst won’t be a problem. Perhaps I’ll even try washing my hands in a drinking fountain.