There is a common view out there that when travelling, one absolutely must do two things: eat local food, and talk to local people. Otherwise, the wisdom goes, one isn’t a traveller at all.
I disagree. It’s narrow-minded, and assumes that everybody has a comfortable relationship with both food and people. As someone who has neither, while I do have some fond memories of meals and conversations, trying to force an experience with either only serves to make my trip worse.
When it comes to food, if I didn’t have to eat to survive, I’d give it up in a heartbeat. I dislike most food, and the act of eating is an unpleasant chore. As for talking to locals, well … A while back, Ron was chatting with one of our neighbours, who mentioned that I never talk to her. Ron’s response was not to take it personally because, “She doesn’t talk to anybody. She doesn’t like people.” And while that assessment might be slightly harsh, the reality is that I only like the majority of people in very small doses.
Like, say, for the length of time it takes me to drink a beer.
Interestingly, beer has become my way to connect with the places I visit. As someone with a limited diet, it’s a challenge for me to pick something particularly adventurous off the menu. There’s nearly always at least one ingredient that I either can’t or won’t eat. This means I’ve eaten a helluva pile of cheese plates over the years and, while I enjoy them and they usually feature at least one local cheese, it hardly counts as eating local cuisine.
But I genuinely enjoy the taste of beer. (Although I actually wish it wasn’t alcoholic, so I could drink more and still be able to drive home after the meal. However, as I don’t often drive while travelling, weaving my way back to the hotel on foot has become part and parcel of the experience.) So while if I order a meal and end up not liking it, I end up hangry, if I order a beer and end up not liking it, it’s easy to set it aside and order something different.
Not that I’ve often tried a beer and disliked it enough to set it aside.
I also find it helps me connect with people, most often with restaurant staff. Ron and I tend to be pretty popular with servers anyway. We’re easygoing and polite, and Ron’s an absolute master at putting others into a friendly frame of mind (a coattail on which I am happy to ride.) But while he’s having the pleasant chats, my strength lies in the following simple conversation, one that I’ve had verbatim more times than I can count:
Me: I’d like a beer, please.
Me: Oh, no, I’d like something local.
That simple statement often brings about the loveliest smile, and has helped many a server warm up to me. It only gets better when they suggest a beer, and I tell them I’ve already tried that one and ask if they have any other local brews. That’s when they realize both that I’m serious about wanting to explore the possibilities, and that I’m unlikely to be a difficult customer.
More than once, after I’ve made my choice, a sample glass or three of the other selections has landed on my table. Or, after an in-depth conversation about the different types of beer on offer, I’ve been convinced to get a flight. Or I’ve gotten extra end-of-meal sweets with my bill.
One of my problems with talking to strangers is that I can only take it in small doses, and when I’m done, I’m done. It’s like a switch gets flipped in my head, and I go from being mildly uncomfortable but okay, to needing to flee right now. It makes me reluctant to engage at all. I don’t feel like I’m going to get much out of it in the first place, and I know it will end with me making an awkward exit.
But I’m comfortable with service interactions. Part of it stems from having worked in the service industry since I was a teenager. It’s a dynamic I understand. I know all the things not to do or say so I don’t do or say them, and I know which positive customers have stuck in my memory over the years and I try to be like them. Plus it takes place in discrete blocks. It has a beginning and an end, then a break in between, followed by another beginning and end. It gives me the breather I need.
Discussing the local beer on offer is how I step outside of the transactional nature of the interaction. A server in Finland told me the entire history of the Aura brewery. A SwissAir flight attendant explained to me the significance of the imagery on the label of the Swiss beer I’d ordered. (She was so chuffed by my choice, she waited while I took my first sip to see what I thought of it.) A server in Prague gave me the export name of the beer I was drinking so I could look for it in Canada.
Those conversations often continue on to other topics over the course of the meal (or flight.) Turns out there are lots of people out there who love to discuss their cities and countries and histories. Beer has proven to be a good launching point for the dialogue.