October 4th, 2006 04:14 EST
Pass the Torts, Please?
The four of them arrived at seven on the dot. The hamburgers sizzled pink on the stove, and oil popped around raw slices of potato that hadn’t yet browned to French fries. It was our idea of American fare, of which we’d decided to give my husband’s Austrian co-workers a taste. “We weren’t sure if you would be on time or not,” Matt said. “In America, everyone’s always at least 15 minutes later than you tell them.”
Alex laughed. “It’s like that here too. But we weren’t sure if that’s how it was in the states, so we figured we should be on time.” Sharing the occasional meal with friends previously meant a rush from work to a restaurant with pre-fabricated atmosphere and menus stuffed with choices for any bud’s taste. Europe had something more comfortable and less processed in store: the home-cooked meal.
Soon after our move, a flood of dinner invitations barraged our Austrian weekends, bringing with it a new form of dinner etiquette. This version goes beyond the collection of common table manners that encourage us all to ‘keep your elbows off the table’ and ‘swallow before you speak’; it is much subtler than a yakking mouth filled with half-chewed scraps. It is so subtle that as an American transplant, I nearly committed social suicide before I grasped the unspoken rules. Guests are not Allowed to Soap, Scrub or Squeak
At least one party guest with a penchant for self-torture and pruned fingers always concedes to help clear and clean the dishes. So once the guests had finished their hamburgers and only a layer of grease and ketchup remained on their plates, Stefanie’s request to help wash them didn’t sound out of the ordinary. While the guests’ conversations dwindled to an end, Stefanie helped to soap, scrub, and squeak the plates clean. Soon the foursome and their full stomachs had left our apartment quiet and empty, and we agreed that the dinner was a success. The sour tang of rule number two was still under raps, where it remained there until dinner at Frederick and Eileen’s place.
We had just finished dinner and I half stood, reaching for a crumpled napkin that sat precariously close to the table edge. “Can I help clean up?” I asked Eileen.
“No!” she said, appalled. I moved the napkin anyways, and she decided on another tactic. “Thank you, but I’ll clean up later. We should leave for the movies soon,” she said, and proceeded to carry all of the plates into the kitchen, returning empty-handed.
No, this refusal to let a guest clean wasn’t confined to Eileen’s apartment. Each German, British and Austrian hostess responded with the same squeak of alarm; a squeak all too reminiscent of the sound created by Stefanie’s towel squeaking my clean dinner dishes. The Statute of Invitations Runs Three Weeks
“It’s been four weeks since we had them over, and they still haven’t asked us back. I guess we’re not good enough for them.”
That was Belinda, an ex-patriot from London, who had just unveiled the ultimate dinner party rudeness: the non-invitation.
At the end of each meal comes a patter of compliments about the food, and then the silent moment. A tense film of expectation descends and stretches across the table to the guests. The meal has been complimented. This is their chance to compliment their host—not in the form of kind words or gifts, but by way of a return invitation.“We’ll have to have you over for dinner next week,” the guest offers.
This invitation has nothing to do with how good the guest can cook or how uncomfortable her maple straight-backed dining room chairs may be. Said guest may only know how to make hamburgers and fries, but by now knows that a dinner invitation isn’t really about the dinner.
So, she extends her hand by way of, “We’ll have to have you over for dinner,” and really means, “You’re a nice person and I want to hang out again,” confident that her foreign-speaking hosts get the translation.