"Americans," my Belgian friend told me when I asked her the difference between us and Europeans, "don't know how to use their knives."
"Ah," I thought and asked her to explain.
"They keep their right hand on their fork at all times and their left hand rests in their lap. They sometimes use the side of their fork to cut their food." She went on to further explain that the knife should go in the right hand and the fork should go in the left hand and a reasonably intelligent person should be able to use both at the same time.
"Okay, fair enough," I said. We were at a restaurant and although my left hand was not in my lap, it was clutching my drink. I don't think I had used my knife all night.
For the next several months, I practiced using my knife and, thus, when I arrived in Paris, I thought I was culturally prepared. When my Parisian friend Virginie invited Jen and I to dinner with several of her friends, I was ready to eat with Europeans, in Europe. Sure I didn't speak their language and, outside of French fries, know anything about their food but I wasn't worried. Thus, the terrible silence and the look of shock that crossed Virginie's friends faces when they looked at me came as a quite a surprise. And I hadn't even ordered my food yet.
Jen and I had spent the day seeing every possible piece or art in Paris and we were quite tired. When the waitress asked me what I wanted to drink, I thought I would order a coffee. The caffeine, I figured, would kick start my nervous system and raise my IQ a few points (like it does every morning.) Yet, as I ordered the coffee, all conversation ceased and heads turned to stare at me.
"Before dinner?" asked Virginie who was translating for the waitress.
"Wee, wee," I said, using 90% of my French. The waitress turned away and eventually conversation resumed.
Three hours later, during dessert, one of Virginie's friends turned to me and said, "Cafe before dinner? I have never heard of such a thing!" He wasn't trying to criticize me - he was truly a nice guy who had actually never heard of someone ordering coffee before dinner. I explained that I was tired, somewhat jet lagged, and hopelessly caffeine addicted.
"But coffee has such a strong flavor, it will overpower the flavors of the food."
I had never heard of such a thing, but it made sense. And that, I think, is the best part of traveling - it expands horizons that you never knew needed expanding.
It wasn't until the check came that I realized the waitress never brought me my coffee.
Now, I try to order it after dinner so I can enjoy the subtle flavors of my food. And I'm still practicing using a knife.