Our family sat in the booth for what seemed like forever, waiting for water. It was our first time at what would become one of our favorite restaurants in Wellington, New Zealand, but for now we were just confused and the kids were getting thirsty after all the walking we’d done.
After 10 minutes or so, my husband finally flagged down a server and politely requested water. After a split-second hesitation, the server brought us tiny glasses of water. Needless to say, we had to ask him several times throughout the meal for more water. We also noticed some hesitation when we asked for the bill.
By now we were sensing the fact that we were causing confusion at this restaurant and at others, I figured we were doing something wrong or at least not aware of local behaviors. I finally asked a server, “What’s the custom for getting water, ordering and paying the bill?” They showed be how each restaurant has a water station (brilliant idea!) where patrons can get their own water at any time. When we’re ready to pay, we should approach the cash register and tell the cashier which table we were eating at.
That made our dining experiences MUCH smoother!
And now we have a routine during our first meal in a foreign country: We ask the server to explain what’s customary for getting water, ordering food, and paying the bill. Every person we’ve ever asked is happy to explain and it saves us (and them) awkward questions or extra work.
Eating in a foreign country is one of the best parts about traveling. And since I live in a rural area with my family where great restaurant options are limited, we don’t hold back when we travel: We try new foods, we eat out regularly at family friendly-places, and I eat out for lunch during the work day (something I’d never do at home!).
Of course, we can’t and don’t want to eat out 100% of the time. I love to cook at home but I have a love/hate relationship with grocery shopping and cooking in a foreign country.
How do you know which brands are best?
What’s the Spanish word for “dill?”
This vegetable looks like a zucchini but the sign says courgette, is that the same thing?
Why are butcher shops closed at 5pm?!
So here are a few tips I’ve learned:
- Bring a few of your favorite recipes from home with basic ingredients – that way you’re more likely to find them in the grocery store. I bring my favorite recipes for chicken parmesan, chicken nuggets, black bean soup and apple crisp.
- If you’re in doubt of what to buy for a meal, stick to the basics. You can never go wrong by picking up some chicken to sauté, a vegetable to steam and some tasty local bread or potatoes.
- To save on money, we’d make the kids something homemade like grilled cheese and vegetables, then send them to bed and order take-out for us adults!
- Ask around to find out where the locals shop for food. Maybe there’s a huge grocery store near you but the prices are crazy high and you don’t even realize it and everyone else is shopping ½ mile away at the discount store. Or maybe there’s an amazing fruit-vegetable stand a few blocks away. Ask local wait staff, or people at your coworking space, or the owner of the house/apartment you’re staying in and they’ll have ideas.
- New Zealand does not make a bad white wine.
- Ask your housing host if they have any cloth bags on hand for grocery shopping. You may be charged extra if they have to bag your groceries in plastic, and that can add up fast. I’d also bring a backpack grocery shopping and have them bag the food in there.
Bottom line: Cooking and eating while on a workation is an adventure and one of the best things about traveling, but having something familiar, fast and easy can make those weekday meals all the easier.