European culture is a popular topic in the wine business with both the people who work in the industry and the many customers who support it. The differences between American and European wines often reflect the differences between the lifestyles themselves on each continent—the ways in which we eat, imbibe, and think about what we put into our bodies—and there’s an endless amount of debate on our sales floor about the merits of each side. One of the great things about traveling to Europe, however, besides all of the wonderful experiences and the memories that will hopefully last a lifetime, is getting the chance to see for yourself the way things actually work and create your own impressions. When you’re constantly listening to producers, merchants, importers, and customers tell you about life across the Atlantic, it’s nice to actually discover on your own what’s true and what isn’t. Personally, I’ve found that—more often than not—Americans tend to miss the point when it comes to the tenants of foreign culture. They generalize, cut and paste, or misinterpret the ideas behind certain practices (especially when it comes to incorporating those lessons into their own life back at home) and that misinformation tends to get passed from ear to ear.
I’ve been reading a wonderful book called The Shadow of the Wind during my vacation in France and Spain. It’s a fitting novel for this trip because all of the action takes place either in Paris or Barcelona: the two cities I’ve focused on during my stay. I won’t go into the whole plot right now (it’s a Di Vinci Code-style thriller that I would highly recommend to just about anyone), but I did want to use one of the story’s many classic lines to illustrate a point. While trying to uncover the truth about the novel’s central mystery, one of the characters named Barceló says: “When everyone is determined to present someone as a monster, there are two possibilities: either he's a saint or they themselves are not telling the whole story.” I find that generalizations about foreign cultures tend to fall into the same category of truth. When someone tells me that Parisians are rude, or that the waiters and waitresses in France won’t give you the time of day, it reminds me of being a kid and telling on my cousin after he and I would get in a fight. “He hit me!” I would cry at my mother, conveniently leaving out the part where I hit him first. There’s usually a backstory, or a reason the events turned out the way they did, but people often can’t help but tell you their own fantastical version. The first time I went to Eastern Europe in 2003, I wore a money belt around my waist because so many Americans had warned me about pick pockets. After four days of complete safety on the road, watching the other kids in the youth hostel stare at me, I took it off and threw it away.
The American importation of European cuisine often provides the same disservice. Charcuterie has been all the rage in San Francisco bars and restaurants for the last couple of years. Not cold cuts, mind you (like Icky Woods would say), but “serious” meats like Iberico ham or Spanish chorizo. All of a sudden it became cool to eat like an Oscar Meyer kid again. Channeling the great tapas bars of Spain or the rustic French country brasserie, the Bay Area’s many wonderful establishments began serving olive plates, small bowls of oil-drenched sea fare, and sampler trays of the finest European cured meats. There was just one gaping hole—one gigantic, glaring mistake—in their execution of this plan: there was no bread on the table. I’ve spent the last eleven days in Europe and I haven’t had one meal without any bread, even when I didn’t ask for it. You order olives, you get bread. You order cheese, you get bread. You order salami, you get bread. Leave it to the Americans and their current gluten obsession to completely fuck that whole concept up. You know why you get bread with those dishes? Because you’re usually drinking beer, wine, or spirits simultaneously and alcohol doesn’t pair all that well with an empty stomach. “This is what you would typically eat in __________,” a bartender would tell me. No it isn’t. If I were in __________ there would be a gigantic basket of bread with this.
But that’s current American culture for you. It’s better to have an opinion about Paris than to say you've never been there (even if you have to make it up). It’s good to have a collection of European cookbooks and follow all those wonderful rustic recipes back at home, just without the butter, the eggs, the gluten, and the sugar (essentially, without the skill or the flavor either). It’s cool to show you understand the European lifestyle by drinking Bordeaux instead of Napa Cabernet, but then wasting a bottle of that tannic, earthy, high-acid red as a patio sipper on a hot summer’s day. In cosmopolitan American society (or maybe just the Bay Area), it’s become the norm to transpose the best parts of Europe into our own daily life, but then completely lose the context of those components while doing so. The result? A total misinterpretation of what Europe is about and a hysterically false impression for the people around us observing who haven’t actually been there. When you finally get to go yourself and you realize that all the salami does come with bread, the pastries actually have real butter, the wine is actually simple to understand and is always paired with the right foods, and pretty much everything else you were excited about is just as wonderful as you had originally hoped, it’s a total and utter relief.
I don’t want to be one of those guys who goes to Europe for ten days then comes back with a whole new expertise about life that he absolutely has to share with every single person he runs into, but someone has to at least offer a counterpoint to all this California foolishness. Don't be swayed by the American interpretation of Europe. Don’t be afraid to go to Paris—the people are wonderful, kind, and incredibly helpful even if you don’t speak French. Don’t be afraid of stuffy French restaurants—you can order whatever you want a la carte and no one will care. Don’t obsessively study your wine labels before going, fearing you may appear naive—no one gives a shit about the details over there. Don’t make a list of the ten best places to eat and obsessively go down the checklist—the ten best places we ate at on this trip were all complete accidents.
Of course, this is just a summation of my experience. It wasn’t anyone else’s but my own. The best thing you can possibly do at this point is ignore everything I'm saying, and everything else you hear about European culture, and just go do it on your own.