Watch Out for the Waiter’s Scribbles!

Marienplatz view of Neues Rathaus in Munich

We had wandered the streets of Munich and ended up in the main square of the city, called the Marienplatz.  The Marienplatz is usually full of tourists and is a great spot for people-watching.  On one side of the square is the Neues Rathaus (the new city hall), which has a tower with a clock called a glockenspiel in it.  At certain hours of the day, the glockenspiel comes to life to reenact two 16th century stories of a Duke and his wife, the plague, and some barrel makers.  Stores and restaurants occupy the other sides of the square.

Marienplatz view of Neues Rathaus in Munich
Neues Rathaus in the Marienplatz, Munich

After the glockenspiel show, we headed straight for the nearest restaurant for a well-deserved lunch break.  We were a getting a little tired of sausages and sauerkraut and were ready for some pizza.  We were promptly seated by the hostess and a few minutes later the waiter arrived to take our order.

The waiter was a stout middle-aged fellow with slicked back hair.  He wore a starched white shirt, black bow tie, and a small apron around his waist.  So typically European!  He had heard us speaking English as he walked up to us.  He greeted us warmly in a thick German accent.

“Guten tag! Ja, what will you have?” he asked as he whipped out his little notepad.

His notepad was about 2 inches by 5 inches of rough buff-colored paper.  In his hand he held a small pencil.

We gave him our order of a couple of pizzas and soft drinks as he scribbled away on this little notepad.  With a final flourish of scribbling, he turned and scurried away.

The pizzas were very good.  We devoured them, fueling our bodies for the planned afternoon of touring.  With two hungry teenagers at the table, it didn’t take very long.  It was now time to pay the bill.

Getting a waiter’s attention in a European restaurant in order to pay the bill is almost always a strange situation for Americans.  In America, we eat, we pay, and we leave, so someone else can take our table and because we always have something else to do.  In Europe, people linger over their table and waiters have centuries of practice ignoring diners.

Our waiter walked by.  I waved.  He ignored me.  It happened again.  I tried a third time to get his attention.  Finally he got the message and came over.

“We’d like our bill, please.”

He rummaged in the pockets of his apron, looking for our bill.  After a few moments of searching, he pulled out a crumpled piece of notepad paper.

“Fifty-nine Euros,” he said.  I guess this was a restaurant where the customer paid the waiter, not one where the customer takes the bill to a central cash register.

As I dug into my wallet to get some cash, my brain started warming up.  How could this bill be 59 Euros?  These must be some expensive pizzas.  I don’t think the menu had prices that high for a couple of pizzas and drinks.  How could that be?  On an impulse, I asked to see the bill.

“Uh, Can I see the bill please?”

I think this was a new thing for the waiter.  He probably would go back to his waiter buddies and complain about the American tourists who wanted to see the bill.  Imagine, who would do such a thing here?

He flashed the crumpled note pad page in front of my face as he waived it around.  All I could see on the page were scribbles.  Some were numbers, some were doodles.

“59 Euros,” he said again, more firmly this time, holding his ground.

His behavior was now getting my attention.  My scam alert antennae were now in operation.  I started to visualize the menu items.  Let’s see, a large pepperoni pizza, a large sausage pizza, three Cokes, and a bottle of water.  That should be about 35 or 37 Euros.  Rounding up, it might come to 39 Euros.

“I want to see the bill again.  Let me hold it.”

He didn’t want to give it to me.  Now he pretended to not understand enough English to know what I was asking.  I motioned with my hands, pantomiming him giving me the bill and me looking at it closely.  Reluctantly, he handed it over.

I looked it over closely.  Yes, I could see our individual items, and almost illegible numbers for the total.  The final scribble showed a number that might have been a 59, but also might have been a 39.  This guy was trying to scam us dumb Americans out of 20 Euros.

“Drei nuen, nein funf nuen!” I said, trying to remember the numbers in German. I pushed two twenty Euro notes into his hand.

He looked at me with a blank look like I was an idiot child who couldn’t count.  That’s when I started to get annoyed.  I decided to pull the supervisor card.

“Let me talk to the manager of this restaurant.  Who is in charge here?”

Seeing that I was determined now, he quickly changed his tune.  He muttered something in his accented English about mistakes being made.  He took the notes out of my hand, plopped a Euro coin down on the table as change, and walked away.

“You see, kids,” I started in my typical Dad voice, “You never know when someone will try to take advantage of you.  You always have to be on the lookout…”  My kids rolled their eyes in response.  They get plenty of practice with this reaction.

“Chalk one up for savvy American traveler.”

The outcome was different in Rome.  We sat outside at a café on a glorious late summer evening.  The view of the Pantheon was splendid.  A horse and buggy were giving moonlit rides to happy tourists and local romantics.

A view of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy
Let's go for a ride!

The waiter, looking very competent in his European waiter uniform, attended to our every whim and desire.  He whipped out his notepad and scribbled away.  An appetizer, some vino, yes, a bottle of that fancy Italian water – no gas please…  scribble, scribble, scribble.

All of the courses were “al a carte.”  That’s Italian for “charge me an arm and a leg.”  And we couldn’t pass up desert.  It was chocolate cake.  Not my favorite, but not to be missed by others in my immediate family.  The waiter then brought us some limoncello, a cold desert wine to cleanse the palate.

After enjoying the nice meal, we enjoyed the view while hogging the table in European fashion.  Eventually it was time to leave.  It was the last night of our vacation, and a long travel day awaited us the next day.  Time for the bill.

The waiter was nowhere to be found.  I think he was in the kitchen practicing his penmanship.  I approached a guy who looked like the manager, although his name tag matched the name of the restaurant, so maybe he was the namesake and owner.  I motioned with my hands that we needed to go and wanted to pay the bill.

Without looking up from his newspaper, he said “One five nine Euros.”  Astounded, I gave him my best blank stare.  159 Euros, you’ve got to be kidding me, that’s over $200!  This isn’t even a nice restaurant, and the food was mediocre!

Before I could summon my best indignant, righteous anger, he pulled two crumpled pages of notepad paper out of his pocket while gesticulating wildly and spewing forth a rant in Italian.

I looked at the pages.  They were illegible.  Nothing but scribbles and doodles.  There’s no way I could reconstruct in my head what we ordered and approximately how much it cost.  As Kenny Rogers once said, you have to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.

Meekly I handed over my credit card. I had played the game with one win, and one loss.  It was time to go home.

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CDW? What’s that? Driving in Italy – Episode 1

My little yellow Vespa!

You might think driving in Italy while on vacation is a great idea.  Touring the wineries of Tuscany, admiring the neat rows of vines spread across the hillsides.  Stopping in romantic little villages for two hour lunches with plenty of vino to help you to your siesta spot.  Coming around that turn of the road to see yellow flowers stretching to the horizon.  You could take the bus I suppose.  Buses run between some of the towns in Tuscany.  Of course, you would be dependent on the bus schedule and also be prepared to use your own two feet on occasion to get where you want to go.  But it could be done.  For travelers sprinting across Italy in a couple of weeks, taking the bus doesn’t sound very romantic, and probably would take more time than most people have to spend.

So a car it is.  Yes, I can see myself now, cruising down the country lanes outside of Sienna in a red Alfa Romeo Spyder sports convertible while I think about what to have for dinner.  That’s what they drive in those old Italian movies, even the ones in black and white, I just know it.  But first one must pick up the car and get to where one’s dream reside.  That probably means driving in an Italian city, because they don’t typically have rental car offices in small, out of the way Tuscan towns.  Driving in the city, that doesn’t sound nearly as much fun…

I saved a taxi ride by fortuitously planning to stay in an apartment near the Via Veneto in Rome, which happened to be only one block away from an office of a major international car rental company.  After a few days touring the sights, sounds, and tastes of Rome, it was time to move on to that idyllic vision of touring Tuscany by car.  The Roman-looking man behind the counter seemed polite enough, despite the verbal assault he was currently taking from a typically loud, obnoxious American tourist.  The tourist wanted a car with automatic transmission, somewhat uncommon in Italy and the rest of Europe.  “I’m sorry, sir, we have no automatics available,” said Antonio (according to his name tag).  In a huff the tourist stomped out of the office, taking his wife, two gangly teenagers, and fourteen pieces of luggage.

Next in line, I gingerly approached the counter.  “Buon giorno Antonio! I am here to pick up my car.  Unlike my compatriot, I am perfectly happy driving a manual transmission.”  I cheerfully exclaimed. Antonio started filling in the appropriate forms. And that’s when I knew it was coming.  The dreaded CDW speech.  The task of renting a car is always complicated by the fact that one can buy extra insurance, called collision damage waiver (CDW), which covers damage to the car above and beyond what any reasonable insurance company customer would think is covered by their car insurance policy.  I usually decline CDW, because I am always reading in credit card company junk mail about how I am covered if I use the credit card in question to pay for the rental.  Plus, I have car insurance, it’s required by law, don’t you know.  I rented a car in France once upon a time from an agent who didn’t speak English very well.  The next thing I knew I was paying several hundred dollars extra for renting the car because of unintended CDW.  Don’t want that.  I could spend that instead on Peronis and gelato.  The CDW scam, uh, I mean legitimate business tactic for improving net income, is used widely in Europe on jet lagged and unsuspecting American tourists.  However, I will not be caught up in it again.  And besides, I haven’t been in an accident since 1990, and that was when I ran into a deer that jumped in front of my car driving through the north woods of Wisconsin at night, so that doesn’t even count.

Antonio spoke very good English.  He gave me the CDW spiel, I understood every word he said, and I confidently initialed in the proper place declining the unnecessary and extra coverage.  Ha!  I have defeated the dreaded major international rental car company at their game.  Take that.

“I’m sorry, sir, we don’t have any red Alfa Romeo Spyder convertibles available.  And I see that your reservation is for a four door compact car, with a manual transmission.” Antonio informed me once the paperwork was done.  “I believe that the color of your car is grey, sir.”

“Whatever” I say, just give me the keys so I can get to cruising hill towns and sipping Chiantis.  The luggage would not have fit in the Spyder anyway.

Getting out of a major European city in a car can be a tricky and complex operation.  I study maps for weeks before the trip, as if I am attempting a winter climb of Mount Everest.  I print our several different scale maps of the area.  I zoom in on Google Earth to the exact location and memorize the street configuration.  I use Google Street View to know what I am up against.  I even map out my own directions, since most of the computer generated driving directions are wrong most of the time.  The goal is to get out of the maze of city streets onto a major road that connects to a highway that intersects with a freeway that leads out of the city.  Maps in hand, configuration memorized, views in mind, we prepare to set out.  After all the planning and preparation, I don’t even drive, I make my wife Lisa do it.  The reason for this is that I can only do one thing at a time.  I can’t drive and read the several layers of maps, street views, and street signs needed to escape the city’s orbit without crashing into oncoming traffic.  If I drive, that means Lisa navigates.  If she navigates, we usually end up going around in circles for hours until we run out of gas, while she asks me where on the map we are.  We make a good team when I am the navigator and she is the driver.

We take a left, a right, a left, and finally a right, adeptly navigating the Roman one-way streets.  Yes, we can do this!  Confidence builds as we hit the major road, then the highway, and finally the A1 freeway.  We have successfully driven out of Rome! We are racing down the Autostrada!  That wasn’t so hard.  I didn’t even use all of the maps I had printed.

My little yellow Vespa!
Give me a Vespa or give me death!

Stay tuned for episode 2…

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