A Man Walks Into a Bar ....

One of the more interesting things about foreign travel is how the unnoticed, little aspects of life you take for granted shift and change when you cross the sea. Going to a bar involves all kinds of specialized knowledge that we've long forgotten about, but visit another country and you're reminded of just how many little social agreements there are. Take, for example, the word "bar." This is an Americanism, and it isn't specific. We may use it as shorthand to describe a place with no food, a pool table, and cheap beer or a high-end restaurant with $20 entrees and $6 pints. (Oh, entrees? In French that means first course, not main course. See what I mean?) We use "pub," "tavern," "bar," "lounge," and "brewpub" to describe different kinds of drinking establishments, and we know that they can mean slightly different things. Imagine the confusion to a foreign visitor.

(I suspect our system reflects America's conflicted relationship to booze. We've ended up with so many euphemisms because, as a culture, we've never been comfortable with alcohol. Someone's always trying to inhibit its consumption, and others are trying to consume. So we have a system of oblique signals that shield the offended from the activities of the offenders. There's an old tavern down in Westmoreland--or used to be, anyway--called the Semaphore. I've always thought it was a perfect tongue-in-cheek nod to the issue.)

In Britain, the standard unit of measure is a pub. Unlike the baroque system we use in the US, a pub is a pub is a pub. Everything is very straightforward. You walk up to the bar, order your pint and food, and take it back to your table. Or, if you prefer, stay at the bar and chat with the locals who are invariably gathered around. It's ideal for the half-introvert like me; I can decide whether I want company or not. If you're out with friends, it's typical to rotate buying rounds, a process that encourages one to stay on past the first pint. Tipping is not typical, but a Londoner I spoke to said that if you spent an evening in a pub, you might throw in a pound or two after the final round for thanks.

In the south of the country, a pint will be poured au naturel, straight from the cask. In the north, they use a "sparkler" to produce a creamy head. (Ted Sobel, whose heart resides in Cumbria, in the north, will pour a sparkled pint if you visit him in Oakridge.) This is the subject of no small debate. Full disclosure: I'm a no-sparkler man.

In Belgium, you walk into a cafe. As with the United States, you can choose to sit at the bar, but if you sit at a table, you order through a waiter. I mentioned yesterday that most beer sold in cafes is available via bottle, and the waiter plays no small role in serving these. Presentation is a big part of the experience, so each beer might be handled differently. A gueuze may be poured from its own little basket. Effervescent beers require special care in pouring. In every case where I ordered a bottle at a cafe, the waiter made a special effort to put the bottle next to the glass--always a glass with the brewery logo--and rotate it so I could see the label. It reminded me of the way wine is served in the US. The waiter will likely not decant the entire bottle so as to avoid rousing the yeast in the bottom; the result is a clear, bright pour, typically with a beautiful, billowing head.

You don't tip in Belgium, either, unless you want to make a special point of your appreciation. Once, when we were in Watou near St Bernardus and Westvleteren, we found a restaurant completely empty except for the owner. Watou is a tiny town, and it rolls up at night like it's expecting a siege; we were so thankful that the guy was willing to cook us a meal (mussels, the biggest pot I've ever seen, with a local Hommel Bier) that I offered a rather hefty tip. I still wonder if I offended him--but it was one of the best meals we had in Europe.

So there you have it--three countries, three ways of doing things. I enjoyed them all, and I especially enjoyed that they all differed. Even in a pub you can tell you're in a different place.