“My name is Kaitlyn and I’ll be taking care of you!”

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 08.02.2019

This is the first line you’ll hear after sitting down at any restaurant in the American Midwest. Not every server is named Kaitlyn, of course – some are named Dylan – but each will open the dialogue with this precise comment. Traditionally, it’s delivered at a comfy volume with perky intonation.

Even within the United States, where people are often perky, the Midwest is known specially for its friendliness. A local patron might respond to such a cheery salutation by saying, “Hi Kaitlyn! That’s great!”

In Luxembourg, you might be harder pressed to observe this type of anonymous intimacy between strangers. In fact, we all know that it would never happen. On the Plëss, a server would more likely step on your crêpe than attempt to chat to you. If you accidentally cut yourself with a steak knife, your wails of pain would probably do little but add to the general tedium of the waitstaff’s workday.

Indeed, from corner bakeries to expensive bistros, servers in Luxembourg take no interest in you whatsoever.

The difference is not that American waitrons live off of tips (they do, but that isn’t the main reason for their friendliness). Rather, it is a true cultural difference. In the States, servers are salespeople. The nicer the restaurant, the more likely your waitron is to make an outrageous suggestion like, “You should totally go for the truffle fries. Oh, my god – they are to die for.” He or she may then whisper “yum!” while writing down your order, and congratulate you on a bottle of wine well chosen.

For Europeans, this type of interaction makes us Midwesterners look like a mass of villagers who have been whacking each other in the head for years. Why boast about the restaurant’s food when your customers are about to taste it and discover its quality themselves? Why take such a confidential tone with an anonymous group of patrons?

Nobody knows the real answers to these questions. Probably it’s true that we, as a region, have simply lost our minds. What’s important, however, is that everyone plays along: proud parents describe their children’s accomplishments to waitrons who nod along happily at the mention of Matthew’s new job at the toothpick factory in Tulsa; NBA fans moan about the local team’s defeat to waitrons who shake their heads, close their eyes, and quietly and respectfully curse; perfect strangers urgently recommend doctors to each other.

Ultimately, it’s not really about the food or the restaurant, but about what we consider correct behavior. In places like Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the public sphere is all about being ultra-friendly. We simply must be friendly. Amazingly, if you wish to be unfriendly, you still manage this with friendliness. It’s called “killing them with kindness” and it entails exaggerating your nice words so much that your target (hopefully) realizes that he or she is being mocked: “Oh, YEAH. HAVE A GREAT DAY. I HOPE YOU HAVE A REAL GREAT DAY. JUST A GREAT DAY.” This would be peak aggression, designed to bring its mark to the brink of tears. You would likely find a Midwesterner who has just delivered these lines shaking weakly from the intensity of it all.

One of the toughest lessons for Midwestern expats is that this technique doesn’t work elsewhere. At all. We end up treating our enemies with the utmost politeness, which is a real tragedy.

Anyway, since Midwesterners are apocalyptically unprepared for anything but warm chatter, dining in Europe can be a real horror. Adding to the different standards of attentiveness and small talk, however, is another factor: our utter reverence for Europeans when it comes to food. Across America’s social classes, from the gourmands to the garbage eaters, Europe is understood to possess a sorcerous and untouchable gastronomical superiority. It’s as if Europe invented not only food, but also the idea of putting it in your mouth. Michelin-starred wonders and roadside vendors are celebrated equally – in fact, Americans commonly believe that the quality of a European McDonald’s far exceeds that of our domestic ones. McDonald’s. The one food we are sure we invented!

Taken all together, our Midwestern expectations of friendliness and our respect for European food result in a tricky dining experience. Faced with the dismissive French tones of a server in Luxembourg City, visitors from the States will make a couple of assumptions. First, that the waitron has powerful taste buds conversant in flavors we cannot detect. Second, that the waitron is annoyed, rude, stressed, depressed, or maybe even mildly psychotic. To be fair, we usually credit this emotional vagary to a mysterious European sociality, which excuses any notion of unfriendliness. More experienced expats, however, will of course know that mildly psychotic is a very fair approximation of the French.

Anyway, when it comes down to it, it’s simply un-Luxembourgish to sell or encourage a positive opinion on taste, unless there is a personal or exceptional reason to do so. The same is true of making familial advances on a customer who has just walked in off the street. No part of this treatment is impolite, and many expats probably even grow to prefer it. Others, however, may forever wonder about the name of that quiet piece of mystery that once took care of them at lunch.

Jeffrey Palms
© 2023 d’Lëtzebuerger Land