Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Befuddled and perplexed: ordering drinks

No free water
No simple act is more confusing to Americans than ordering drinks in Belgium. Here is where subtle cultural differences that go largely unnoticed in other areas of life can hit you squarely in the face and they do so when least expect it. Let's start with some ground rules to clarify the situation.

Unlike much of the Western United States, Belgium has a wet temperate climate. There is no imminent danger of dehydration here. Nobody feels the need to walk around with fluids or drink while walking and doing so is generally frowned upon. The only people that walk around with drinks are tourists or teens trying to imitate them. Eating or drinking while walking is not cool.

Nobody needs cup holders in their car or even likes the idea of you bringing drinks into their car. This is not a country where you order drinks for take out. If you want to have a drink you go to a cafe, sit down and order something. Unless you are a child, a woman, or an athlete, you don't order sodas or water either. You drink beer, even at McDonalds.

Here is rule number two: nothing you order, or ask for, or do, in a cafe, bar or restaurant is free, not even going to the bathroom. People expect you to pay for everything. So don't ask for water or inquire about refills. Also, do not expect drinks to come in large sizes or in glasses filled with ice. To the average Belgian, ice is frozen tap water and diluting a drink you pay for with tap water is cheating. Unless you are at a festival or fair, all drinks will be served in a glass and drinking from the bottle is uncouth.

Traditional places won't serve ice cold drinks either. There is a strong belief that cooling drinks excessively masks the taste and is just another way to deceive the customer. The ideal temperature for beer is cellar-cool. That is a bit hotter than the average refrigerator.

In general, Belgians do not order water to drink. You can do so in an expensive restaurant along with your wine, or late at night, when you had too much to drink, but it is not customary otherwise. If you ask for water, the waiter is likely to ask you whether you want plat (non-carbonated) water or spuit (carbonated) water. The water will most likely come in a small bottle (25 cl) that is as expensive as any other drink on the menu. If you ask for ice, you may get one or two smallish cubes.

When it comes to regular drinks -which includes everything but expensive wine and beer, and then  only in specialized places-, Belgians are not brand conscious and you will get served whatever the establishment serves. When you order a cola, or a Coke or a Pepsi, you will get whatever cola drink the cafe or restaurant serves. Belgian cafes and restaurants have business deals with their distributers and it is the distributers who decide what is available. Nobody will ask you to specify your choice, or inform you that your favorite brand is not available. It simply does not occur to them that you could be brand conscious. Nobody will say "Pepsi or Coke?" or ask you if Pepsi is fine when you order a Coke.

The same applies to beer unless you go to a cafe that specializes in beer varieties. At your local cafe you can order generically (een pintje--a beer) or by specifying a brand, say a Stella, but you will get whatever it is they have. The same applies to more upscale brands such as Tuborg. You can order a Tuborg, but you are about as likely to get a Carlsberg or a Becks or any other brand the cafe considers more upscale. Een spa-tje, named after the city of Spa, is generic for (carbonated) water.
In Belgium, SPA is generic for carbonated water

One thing that really throws foreigners for a loop is when they order a Scotch. In most cafes Scotch will mean Scotch Ale and not wisky although most catch the error before the drink arrives. Belgian cafes are not used to serving hard alcohol since it was only recently made legal.
Scotch, Belgian style

As a rule, Belgian grocery stores do not have cold drinks ready to go. It used to be impossible to find cold drinks in a grocery store even if the place had in-store refrigerators. The notable exception to this rule is night stores (nachtwinkels).  These usually have a large selection of cooled drinks.

Nearly all Belgian coffee is dark roasted and most is of decent quality. The cheaper brands are bitter but in general the coffee is stronger and more flavorful than in the US. Contrary to popular belief, dark roasts have less caffeine than the light roasts that are popular in much of the US.

The most common way to serve coffee is the so-called filter. Some people just order een filter. When you do so you will get a contraption that includes a cup and a small coffee filter with reservoir on top. It may come already filled or the waiter may pour in boiling water. You wait until the drip stops and enjoy your coffee. A coffee will always come with a small piece of chocolate or a small cookie.

Nearly all other coffee drinks are misnomers and it is always exciting to see what you will get when you  order one. If you want an espresso, order a moka, because espresso (spelled expresso in Belgium) will get you a larger cup that may or may not be filled with coffee from the espresso machine. A Belgian cappuccino is a large cup of coffee with whipped cream on top.  In France, and some French speaking parts of Belgium ordering a coffee will get you a cafe au lait instead.

Belgians are not tea drinkers. Although nearly every place where you sit down and eat pastries with a drink is called a Tea Room, very few people drink tea. When you order tea, you are most likely going to get a cup of warm water with a lipton tea bag on the side. Some fancy places serve many different herb teas -what the French call infusions- but their selection of real tea is generally quite limited too.

Although Belgium has many unwritten rules, there are lots of exceptions too. The rules on walking around with drinks and food do not apply to tourist hotspots, such as the markt in Brugge, festivals, kermissen, and hence most bike races. Here you can order beer and food to go, although you will generally be served beer in a glass, and be expected not to wander too far so you can return the glass to where you bought the beer. At open air festivals such as the Gentse Feesten, you can wander around all over town drinking beer from the bottle, although most will want a glass even here. You can also order Frieten  (fries) to go. But once again, you are not expected to wander around too far from where you bought them.

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