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.
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.
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.