Thougts about the Europe visit: Water

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.)

Utilitarian Water

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

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.

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Comments Feed57 Comments

  1. Ben Hutchings

    Don’t generalise about ‘Europe’; we may be united on some levels but there’s a lot of variation. In Britain some restuarants will serve you tap water at no extra charge, but this is not universal. In France, restaurants must provide ‘un carafe d’eau’ at no extra charge.


    John Goerzen Reply:

    That is true. I meant to point that out in my post, but forgot to. Thanks for catching it.


    Aneurin Price Reply:

    “In Britain some restuarants will serve you tap water at no extra charge, but this is not universal”

    I was under the impression that they were legally required to do that if you make it clear that you’re asking for tap water. Is that incorrect?

    Then again I can’t imagine many things more stressful than going to a restaurant, so my sample size is not large.


    Michael Williamson Reply:

    “I was under the impression that they were legally required to do that if you make it clear that you’re asking for tap water”

    Nope, there’s no obligation to serve free tap water, although most restaurants I’ve visited will do so. In fact, I can only vaguely remember one instance where this wasn’t the case. Of course, had I known how much the water was going to cost me, I might have ordered something a little more exciting.

    Mike (UK)


  2. Ben Hutchings

    “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.”

    Germans have an inexplicable fondness for fizzy water. Not flavoured or sweetened, just fizzy. Don’t ask me. Obviously you don’t get that out of the tap.


  3. anonymous

    “Don’t generalise about ‘Europe’”

    Well said. Europe is not a country but about twenty. Regarding water you won’t see the same even on different cities from the same country. Much of it is about local customes as much as local tap water quality. In can talk about Spain, where I’m from: while you would have water for free almost everywhere if specifically asked in Madrid, except top restaurants, you wouldn’t in, say, Zaragoza where water quality is much lower (not in a non-healthy way, of course, but is too “heavy”, too much CO3Ca on it).

    Regarding service, yes, things tend to go differently in Europe. While on most restaurants you can be confident that service will refill your wine cup, it’s not considered well mannered to refill the water one, only the first time if at all.

    Regarding fizzy water is not Germans but French the ones with preference for it, but they exported their liken to their neighbourghs.


    John Goerzen Reply:

    Yep. I get it :-) I really only visited four cities, and each for only two days, so I’m quite well aware that I’m not equipped to make generalizations.


    John Goerzen Reply:

    And, it should be said, that generalizing about the USA is perhaps equally futile. I wouldn’t expect experience gleaned from visiting New York City to teach much about rural Kansas, or vice-versa.


  4. if you run out of water

    just ask instead of writing silly blogposts. Hey, if you come to Denmark I’d be happy to give you a glass of tap water :-p if a waiter took my glass during dinner I’d quiet frankly be pissed.

    (ice)water here at restaurants is usually either free, or costs a symbolic amount, including “refills” of the decanter. fancy bottled water you ofc. you’d pay for each like you would with other beverages.


    John Goerzen Reply:

    Didn’t mean to offend (or complain!) I just wanted to note differences I saw. There weren’t as many as I had thought there might be, actually. This was one I noticed.


  5. Joey Hess

    This always amuses me, at least when I’m not paying 5 euro for another accidentially ordered micro-water. Which even happened to me in Edinburgh once, except there it was 5 pounds.

    I may have managed to get tap water at a restaurant in Germany once, but I sadly forget how. (It couldn’t have involved much familiarity with the language). Beer is a diuretic — so drink two. ;)

    And then there was the time Oslo had a heat wave, and I spent my entire trip’s budget on endless liter bottles of fizzy juice.

    OTOH, in Spain, I can report actual water fountains, and water customs that seemed unremarkable to this American southerner. Makes me wonder how much of America’s water customs are influenced by climate. (BTW, I think America probably has more regional variation in water fountain availability than you think.)

    This is an underdiscussed aspect of Europe, and I thank you for illuminating it.


  6. Laurent

    Like the others said — it will vary by country.
    In France, by law, restaurants have to give you a pitcher of water (and bread), and they will refill it when needed.
    It is true in my experience that water fountains are rare in many European countries. When I lived in France, in a pinch I would just drink from the sink faucet in the restroom. It’s commonly done, nobody minds (and I never got sick from it). In the US (where I have lived for ten years now) I find that water fountains often have dirty, crusty faucets, and/or the water tastes bad. I always get the feeling that they are there more for decoration.
    On a related note, in my experience restrooms are bigger, more comfortable, and generally cleaner in the US. I don’t like that stall doors and partitions don’t go all the way down though :-)


  7. Thomas Koch

    Hi Joey,

    my interpretation of the bottled water in restaurants story is, that it’s part of the overall calculation: The restaurants earn more money with the drinks then with the food, but people still tend to look only for the food price.

    The German water preservation habit actually is a big problem: The current canalization in Germany is usually much over capacity due to wrong demand forecast some decades ago. Which leads to such silly things that in summer they have to pump extra water in the pipes to keep everything floating. :-)


  8. Russell Cokler

    In Amsterdam the American comedy club “Boom Chicago” used to have a newsletter that gave bad reviews to restaurants that charge for water. The restaurants that cater to tourists try to make people pay for water but locals demand free tap water – Amsterdam tap water is nice.

    London tap water is (IMHO) nasty – when I lived there I only drank bottled water (even for brushing my teeth). It’s like Colorado water was in ~2000 (not sure if Colorado water still sucks).

    If a waiter claims that tap water isn’t good enough to drink then ask them what they use for cooking… ;)


    Jo Shields Reply:

    The Times’ food critic Giles Coren instituted the same policy in 2007.

    From now on, if a restaurant does not offer me tap water, politely, unsarcastically, and before they offer mineral water, then they will be penalised.



  9. .

    Mind you, I’ve found that when combining things, most places happily furnish a glass of tap water as well. I usually order a glass of wine and a glass of tap water or a coffee and tap water when I go out and the places that are greedy with the tap water are few enough to just loose my business – this is consistent with Thomas’s comment above. Of course, that’s more difficult when you are travelling and most likely to visit each place once.


  10. natxo asenjo

    Did you just try asking for a glass of tap water? I have done that in quite a few European countries and I cannot remember having been denied one …

    Public fountains are indeed scarce. In Spain (home country) you see one at least in every square. In The Netherlands where I live now I miss them a lot, but I just go ask for a glass of water at a café if I am thirsty. I usually drink coffee first, so maybe that helps to get a free glass of water, but I doubt it.

    I remember in Aix-en-Provence (in the south of France, close to Marseilles) when I studied in the nineties there was this really posh street: Cours MIrabeau. In it, on the sunny side there are lots of bars with terraces all year long. It is a place to sit and watch and be watched. There were people that would sit for one hour at one table with a free glass of water and go to the next one where they would order another glass of water and so one. Apparently by law a bar owner can refuse noone a glass of water. Maybe a French person could confirm this, but I have seen this many times during my year there.


    John Goerzen Reply:

    No, I never actually tried asking for a glass of tap water (based, perhaps, on the Lonely Planet advice). I just shifted to ordering orange juice or something like that.


    paurullan Reply:

    It is funny because here in Palma (Majorca, Illes Balears, Spain) there are almost no park fountains!


    RainCT Reply:

    I can also testify that in Germany I exclusively drank bottled* fizzy water. It took me and my brothers ages to get used to “normal” water when I moved to Barcelona (the same is true with other people; we once had a family come visit us and their daughter would only drink juice because she didn’t like the water).

    On the topic of fountains, where I lived in Germany and here in Catalonia there aren’t many either. And even when you find one, depending where (eg. Barcelona) you wouldn’t want to drink from it because of how awful they taste.

    * The environmental impact of that isn’t that huge though. In Germany bottles are mostly made of glass and are returned to the shop (in exchange for a refund of their value) to get cleaned and filled again.


    RainCT Reply:

    Ah, forgot to say that in Barcelona I’d expect you to get tap water at bars if you ask for it (never tried at a restaurant).

  11. Adrian Bridgett

    Sadly this is an area where certainly in Britain most places use it as an excuse to rip you off – as some other have mentioned, you have to ask for “tap water” otherwise you’ll get expensive bottled water.

    Fortunately bottled water is now, slowly, becoming less trendy as it’s obviously a huge waste of resources. The water companies here in England are always pointing this out and point to the stricter standards that they have to adhere to.

    Just give me a large jug of tap water with some ice cubes and a slice of lemon.


  12. Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho

    Heh, your description of America sounds closer to my part of Europe than your description of Europe, with respect to drinking water.

    (Except that I haven’t seen drinking fountains since I left school. At school, they were commonplace.)


  13. Daniel de Kok

    In the Netherlands, asking a ‘karaf water’ will usually get you free tap water. I do miss drinking fountains in public areas, but at least tap water does not taste like ‘chloride water’ as in many Western USA states.


  14. Christian Perrier

    I was about to comment about “don’t generalize” but many did already..:-)

    Anyway, thanks John, for this highly interesting set of blog posts. It just makes me really keen to have you guys at home if you ever happen to think about visiting Paris area with Terah (and hoefully your gorgeous kids).
    And, then, you’ll have plenty of tap water if you want, including in restaurants (as Ben pointed, one just has to ask for “une carafe d’eau”….but it’s true that ordering only tap water is quite uncommon in some other European countries, including Germany. For once, this is something we’re better at in FR, as it seems..:)

    Also, don’t expect to get free refills in various sodas in the various fast food restaurants in EU. *that* seems to be a USA-only habit…but I expect you’re not that fond of MacDonalds anyway..:-)


    John Goerzen Reply:

    Hopefully my added update clears up the “generalization” thing. I was really trying hard to avoid any sense of that, as I’m quite well aware that I don’t have anywhere near enough data to do so.

    As Branden said, refills are less likely to be free in fast food restaurants. I don’t frequently eat at them either, so I’m not well-equipped to comment. Some of them do, however, have a “serve yourself” fountain arrangement, and at those refills are almost always free even for sodas.


  15. Branden Robinson


    Actually you’ve got it the other way around.

    At the cheaper restaurants, soda refills are not free. I don’t know what the big fast food chains’ policy is because I’m never inside one.

    At the mid-line to finer U.S. restaurants, soda (and black tea) refills are practically always free. In fact I can’t remember the last time I ate someplace where there weren’t. Apart from the real budget places where the margins are very thin, as mentioned.

    Water, iced or otherwise, is always free at every dining establishment here.

    Now, someone needs to tell me where I can free refills on Macallan 18.


  16. Josip Rodin

    I agree that restaurants will use any water request ambiguity in order to overcharge. One thing that is worth pointing out is that typical cafes shouldn’t be as annoying – as long as you first order one paid beverage (like, coffee or soda), your request for water should be serviced for free. The waiter will ask you whether you want it carbonated, which is non-free, and you can easily waive that and just get normal free water. Yet, there are no implicit refills, you have to call the waiter and usually suffer a “oh not again” look. :)


  17. niq

    Everyone seems to be making the obvious points already. A couple more:
    (1) waiters can usually spot a foreigner who’s ripe for being ripped off!
    (2) Both tap water and bottled water vary by country and region. Bottled water here in the UK is pretty-much always crap, but in parts of the country (notably much of London and the southeast) the tap water is even worse. Go north and you’re in with a good chance of tap water that’s nice to drink. Contrast Italy where bottled water is often positively nice!

    Oh, and hotel showers really are pot luck. I think the most wasteful I’ve encountered was one in your Silicon Valley, where more water leaked out of the wrong place than came out of the shower head!


  18. Aigars Mahinovs

    In Latvia there is no shortage of water, so little need to conserve it – for example, the tap water in most cities is just taken from the nearby rivers with some clean up and as these rivers are very full all year round and there are no capacity problems, there is absolutely no risk of running out of it. We don’t spray it around only because pumping it costs money and also because it is frozen for 4-5 months of the year and it is hard to keep outdoor pipes unfrozen unless it is essential. With water priced at a fraction of a euro per cubic meter (up to 1 euro per cubic meter for hot water) the popularity of economical shower heads is very low. A lot of people argue that you just don’t get the same feeling from a shower unless there is a solid wall of water hitting your head. Only people on the very top floors (where the water pressure is lower) consider the green shower heads, but only to get more pressure concentration.

    And about water, in most countries that I have been to, the best option for a tourist was to go into the regular food supermarket and get 1.5l-2.0l water bottle for 0.5-1€ and carry that with you. Locals are out and about less than tourists – locals go from home (drink there), to work (drink there) or friends (drink there). There is no need to drink water after each block and it is also perfectly fine to go out of your house, go to a dinner and a movie and come back home a few hours later without drinking extra water.


    John Goerzen Reply:

    I’m with you on no need to drink water after each block, but don’t locals do things like spend a whole Saturday afternoon shopping downtown, and then go to a cafe or restaurant for dinner? (Plenty of Americans would do something like that, anyhow, though it would probably involve more driving than walking here.)


    Erik Johansson Reply:

    I’ve heard that the retail market (shoppping?) is really important for the economy in the US, a lot more than here in Sweden. I know no one who shops all day.. :-)


    John Goerzen Reply:

    Well, there is, ahem, a certain segment of the US population that tends to shop all day. And a certain segment that finds that sort of activity annoying. I generally fall into the latter camp.

    I’ve heard a lot about Germany’s Christmas Markets, the trade fair in Leipzig, etc.

  19. Jevon

    Cool post. I am also a water-thirsty traveller, and visiting Europe soon, so will keep my eye out on how it all works over there :-)


  20. Aneurin Price

    This post has pointed out to me something that I’d noticed, but never noticed I’d noticed: tourists always seem to carry bottles of water around, like they’re on a hike or something :P.

    And here in England I don’t recall ever seeing one of those underground sprinklers, nor a water fountain that wasn’t in a primary school (I’m sure there must be some of those around though; maybe they’re just invisible to me).


  21. nab

    Here in the french speaking part of Switzerland, you usually ask specialy for “une carafe d’eau” to get tap water. If you don’t they’ll be happy to have you pay a lot for a small bottle of mineral water. It used to be free (and was legally required so). Now it’s changing that some restaurants make you pay for tap water if you don’t order another drink. Some restaurants always give it for free with a meal and some others other always make you pay. (And the legislation change from one part of the country to another.)

    But what never changes is that if you do not ask specifically for water from the tap, you’ll pay for the bottle.


  22. Frank Hartmann


    your post got me thinking. I was last november for a week in the US in Austin, Texas. I think I saw two of these water fountain things in the whole time: The one in the office was never used. The other on one of the airports, where I spent some hours was used once, while I sat there.

    The office people drank all the time extremly sweet stuff with caffeine and other wake-up ingrediants like dr pepper, cola, some tea limonade. The only other stuff avalable was coffee.

    The water out of the fountain tasted not good, I think there was some desinfection stuff, ‘chlorine’ applied.

    In the end I bought bottled water, “polands best” which did not sparkle (or is it frizzle?) and tasted like chlorine was applied too.

    I am living in germany and must say, that I am quite surprised with respect of the ‘shower head’ laws in the US. The prejustice here is that farmers in the US will produce rice in deserts as water and electricity are awfully cheap. I think I remember learning in school (198x), that the water usage per person in the US was three or four times higher than in germany. So things like “shower head” laws were not in my mental picture of the US.

    PS: I noticed some sort of strong reaction to your post in the comments and cannot understand these.

    I hope my words do not offend you or readers of your blog.

    kind regards


    John Goerzen Reply:

    Not at all offensive, Frank, and an interesting post. You’re right about farming with irrigation, though I’d say the largest example of that practice is probably with corn. It has resulted in some water shortages, and is probably destined to be less popular in the future.

    We do have laws about water consumption of toilets and showerheads. The anecdotal evidence I saw suggests that American laws about toilets are weaker than German laws (or standard practice), and that the inverse is true about shower heads — though again I have no solid knowledge to base this on.

    You are probably right that US water usage is far higher than in Germany, though I wonder if the gap is still as wide as it once was — and I also wonder if it would be narrower were the large American agriculture sector excluded.

    I think that in the end, some US practices will have to change regarding irrigation of fields and lawns — at least in some parts of the country. And in some parts of the country, they already have.

    Though I do still think it was a bit ironic to see one of the most water-saving toilets I’ve ever seen right next to one of the most water-wasting shower heads I’ve ever seen in Prague ;-) Even if the irony is less than us in the USA saving water with our toilets and not caring much about our irrigation systems.


    Frank Hartmann Reply:


    the water discussion here is really interesting.

    Some more remarks from my point of view.

    I did not consider bottled water a environmental issue uptonow. (At least if it was somewhat regional water and not some far-away-water in blue glas bottles). There is a bottle deposit (Flaschenpfand) system in germany which blocked this mental path for me. But obviously the “fountain approach” is more energy efficient if there is no active cooling involved.

    My children carry daily 0.5liter of water to school which contributes to the 6-8kg weight of their backbacks. Add to these sport shoes + clothing and a music instrument and you get quite a heavy load for small people.

    The summers in germany are normally not really hot for a long period of time, so water irrigation for private gardening is rarely needed. The water company billed for my home (2adults+2children+small garden) 175.000liter water last year.

    During city trips with my children I carry a small bottles of water with me or buy it on demand in supermarkets.

    In my holidays I avoid not-cooked water like it is used in these refill ‘carafes’ and in ice-cubes in restaurants. This is meant as precaution against “Montezumas revenge”.

    Last year I was in france in the summer and the water in these carafes failed basic optical tests, by having particles swimming around. The beer called “pression” there was extremly refreshing. And drinking the local rose wine cooled a bit down was close to perfection :)


  23. maks

    The big differences that you forget to note:
    * Temperature: American water comes allways much to cold. Like any dreek here is allmost freezing. Allways wondering why you’d need so much ices here in the states.

    * Chemical addons: American water adds ton of Cl. I have seen this in Washington, Pennsylvania and Portland / Oregon. Thus if you drink the water not as chilly as one does here it may taste very strangely allmost like a swimming pool water.

    * Water quality – The quality of tap water varies a lot in Europe. Around the alpes you get extremely good tap water.

    * Order – In German speaking countires you have to order “Leitungswasser” for tap water and this is not priced.

    * Refill – Students usually have sports bottles were they refill their water. It is quite usual to do so in Europe.

    Otherwise the generalisations and tone of your blog post seems to convey American superiority, but I may be mistaken on that – still irrating.


    John Goerzen Reply:

    Hi Maks,

    That wasn’t my intent. Can you be more precise about what conveyed that attitude, so I can fix it?


    John Goerzen Reply:

    In fact, I think there are good things to be said about the various places I’ve been. The places I’ve been in Germany and Prague are far ahead of anywhere I’ve been in the USA in terms of water-conserving toilets. I’m sure we could save a vast amount of water each year in the USA by adopting tougher standards for toilets.

    Statistics suggest that both Germany and the USA have a problem with overuse of bottled water, and that it’s worse in Germany. We have a lot of drinking fountains in the USA, but many have unnecessary electricity-consuming chillers.

    A clear “country X is better than country Y”? Nope, I don’t think so, and I certainly didn’t see enough of even Germany to generalize about the whole country. My point is that different places are, well, different and can learn from each other for mutual benefit — though, of course, not everything that makes sense in one place makes sense in another.


  24. maks

    First of all this Lonely Planet quote seems off and agressive.

    Also I have never seen so many plastic waste bottles as here in Pennsylvania. Especially the waste of an usual college student lunch meal is big. It seems also that every small house generates lots of waste noticing that every week here. So speaking of US as an example in recylcling seems offensive too.

    Also their is a distinction between “Mineralwasser” and “Leitungswasser”. The first one comes from a special source or may have added minerals. If one does not clarify which water you want it is often assumed in German speaking countries that you want Mineralwasser (can be still or sparkling). One has to really ask for the first “Leitungswasser”. It be much more useful if lonely planet would tell so. Only some very posh restaurants in German speaking countries may bill for that.

    hope that clarifies? :)


    John Goerzen Reply:

    Ah, I am under no illusion that the US is better than anybody else about recycling overall. Without even bothering to look up statistics on it, I’m quite sure that we’re worse on that than Germany is. I think in one small pocket we have a lower per-capita consumption of something that is environmentally damaging (bottled water), but I don’t know if we recycle those bottles as often as Germans do. My guess would be probably not.

    I’m sure there is diversity on that point in both countries, though; some US cities have strongly-enforced mandatory recycling programs, while recycling is barely an option in others, for instance.

    So this discussion has shown that Lonely Planet Germany probably gave me some bad advice here. I never attempted to ask for tap water in a German restaurant due to that advice. I can only plead that this quote was not mine and I didn’t intend to give it any special significance there, other than to suggest that I knew going into the trip that the approach was different.

    My intent was never to say the USA is an example for recycling. We have a huge problem with overuse of bottled water, and plenty of other huge problems in that area, too. The fact that the bottled water problem might be slightly bigger in Germany than here doesn’t mean that Germany ought to use the USA as an example; that would probably be pointless, since we’ve got the same problem.

    It clarifies somewhat — though I am surprised that you made the leap from my post to the assertion that the US is an example in recycling, which I certainly didn’t intend and don’t believe.

    That leads to the question: did I have some subconscious American bias in my tone? Or did some readers have a subconscious expectation of bias from an American? Or is it simply a case of two different people reading the same thing differently?


  25. maks

    agreeing that the drinking fountains are cool, noticed them already with much fun in Portland Oregon.

    forgot to say so.


  26. maks

    Guess it is the second case.

    Rereading it after knowing the comments and the conversation I no longer find it offensive. The Europe “generalisation” seems the trigger to assume a certain point of view and thus implying unwritten stuff.


  27. Kirklin

    Interesting discussion.

    While I am thinking of it, Christian, we have got dibs on those gorgeous kids…we had one of the best vacations of our life caring for them while John and Terah were on their own vacation. Seriously, we did.

    I am reminded here of the “necessity is the mother of invention” quip. While I view my self as a conservationist/environmentalist, in many regards, water usage on our little place out in the country is an afterthought. We have an unlimited supply that only costs us pennies to pump. Any extra we pump out simply re-enters the ecological system in a manner of its own choosing.


  28. Heinrich

    There’s an important point missing! Namely that the water you got in German restaurants is neither tap water nor bottled water, it’s actually mineral water (most likely, you might get ripped off and all that). There are many different brands of mineral water, like “Margonwasser”, “Gerolsteiner”, “Evian”, “Vittel”, “Apollinaris” with different tastes, and coming from different mineral spas.

    The advantage of mineral water is that you are (supposed to be) guaranteed that it was bottled straight at the source and is left completely unchanged, safe for some additional fizziness. In contrast, tap water might contain disinfectants like chloride (in particular in the U.S., I’m not fond of the taste of tap water there) and pick up all kinds of contamination from the pipes and the tap.


  29. John Allen

    In Luxembourg, where I’ve lived for 20 years, only once did I experience refusal to provide tap water in a restaurant. And I’ve just come back from a month in Switzerland, where almost all restaurants provided it willingly, on request.
    It’s true that you have to ask for it, but it’s not a difficult thing to ask for.


  30. DN

    “Often you’ll find [drinking fountains in parks] 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. ”

    In the parks where I run here in Silicon Valley, they do come in groups of three: one at “regular” height, one lower, and one about 5cm off the ground for dogs.


  31. dataghoul

    I’m sorry you had so much trouble with free water in restaurants, in the old continent.

    on the other side, down here you are allowed to obtain free medical services (yes, even if you’re a foreigner), which I was told doesn’t exists in your country.

    so, It’s up you: what would you prefer, free water in restaurants or free medical services for everyone?

    best wishes.


    John Goerzen Reply:

    It’s not that I had trouble with water. I was just noting a cultural difference is all. It won’t stop me from going back, and was more surprising than annoying.

    Incidentally, I don’t know this for sure, but I don’t believe that I would get free medical services. The US State Dept. alerts that the Czech Republic requires foreigners to have proof of medical insurance on entry, though this was never checked in our case. My American medical insurer also contracts with some German hospitals for coverage for travelers. So this would not be at no cost to me if I needed it.


  32. Arthur van Leeuwen

    One thing to note is that in most of Europe the heat rarely gets up high enough and the humidity low enough to really get dehydrated. One can get by on just the fluid intake from meals and the occasional cup of tea or, indeed, glass of water inbetween meals. This is somewhat different from large parts of the US, that do have long, hot, dry summers.


  33. Bernhard Link

    1) Shower heads

    There are some shower heads available around here that are very artful in saving water by mixing it with air and having many little sprays while still giving the impression of a single big jet of water. (No idea if you had any of those, but often the only way to see how much water something uses is looking at how fast water collects when you close the drain.

    2) water
    Even if it was not one of those but some old water-waster, there is not much need to feel very guilty. Central europe is one of the most water-rich regions of the world (warm gulf stream near in the west (with winds coming from the west in northern hemisphere)). Any water you waste will only mean wasted energy to pump and filter it (and as there is much water, it does not need to be pumped for more than a few hundred kilometers) but it will not cause ecological desasters in the area where the water is from. (More water needed means everyone get worse water, though, as water if of different quality.) The really expensive part is the post-processing of the used water. The worst thing to do is putting antibiotic
    stuff in the drain.

    3) drinking water
    Getting your water in Germany is indeed a challenge and many people indeed have always a bottle with them to fill with tap water (or dehydrate or buy expensive water).

    When you eat something in some restaurant, they are by decision of the courts required to supply you with tap water in case you need to take pills before eating (the law itself only forbids restaurants to force you to buy something to drink when you buy something to eat), so at most places you will get tap water (even without needing pills) if insisting on it. It is quire uncommon, though. Cheap restaurants make most of their incoming via the drinks and in expensive restaurants tap water is just considered inadequate, so that this is sadly unlikely to change. Difference with nearby countries are also intresting. While in France you used to get something to drink with every meal, in Germany drinking while eating was very uncommon in the past. So in France the mecial scientists tell you drinking while eating helps digestion, the same only a few kilometers to the east told over a century that drinking while eating dilutes the stomach accid and thus makes you ill.

    4) Water fountains
    Water fountains are indeed very uncommon in Germany. I guess the reason is to some extend some water-purity madness. Requirements for the tap water are so high in Germany that once you only looked at it is over most contamination limits by several degrees. Many Germans even buy bottled water for brushing their teeth when leaving the country, because the tap-water is so impure everywhere else.


  34. Juwan

    Awesome post. I agree with you 100%. I have had similar experience in most of Europe. Hopefully Europe won’t object to providing free water when one is dyeing of thirst.


  35. Hm

    In Europe, their either serve mineral water or tap water. If you ask for water, you will most likely get mineral water. Mineral water is indeed costly and usually costs the same as coke, or other sodas.

    If you want to have fizzy water without paying a lot, ask for “soda water” (keep in mind that this is indeed just fizzy water, thats it). To get free 0.5L of tap water, explicitly ask for it. Its usually free and if its not, its around 50 cents.


  36. DJ

    This post almost made me laugh with the sweeping generalisations that it made. Judging all of Europe based on being in only two countries is ridiculous! I might as well say that all of America is like New York or L.A. Each city, let alone country has its own customs and traditions


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