Go on, admit it! You once (or maybe twice) have filched a banana from your hotel’s breakfast buffet to boost the contents of your picnic lunch, slipping this conveniently self-packaged fruit into your pocket or handbag before leaving the restaurant. You smiled at the headwaiter as you departed, hoping, of course, that he hadn’t observed your small transgression. However, he almost certainly did see this lapse in your otherwise impeccable hotel manners, but as he had seen it hundreds of times before, he chose to say nothing.
We have watched bizarre human behaviour many times at hotel buffet breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Theft is very common at breakfast as demonstrated by the Englishman who pocketed six ripe bananas and about the same number of apples in his baggy shorts. He sneaked furtively off to his room, only to return to embezzle a huge wedge of Blue Stilton cheese and half a dozen bread rolls to complete his mid-day repast.
A French couple at the Pousada in Sagres actually made their ham and cheese baguette lunch whilst still sitting at the breakfast table. The lady then produced a roll of aluminium foil and expertly wrapped the sandwiches along with some hard-boiled eggs and oranges – before furtively placing the lot in her large handbag!
Of course, some hotel staff members are not beyond doing a little food pilfering themselves. Egg theft by the kitchen staff had become so prevalent at our beach resort in Mombassa, that formal written requests were needed for guests to obtain their breakfast ‘egg’. After completing a requisition, and under strict security, the guest picked an egg from a bowl and handed it to the chef for boiling, scrambling or frying! Only one egg was permitted per person.
American businessmen invariably provide rich entertainment at breakfast buffets as they insist on holding long and very loud meetings with their clients whilst they gorge on their three ‘eggs-over-easy’ and humongous quantities of bacon, sausages and other fatty food.
Meanwhile, their foreign business partners, battered by this verbal and high calorific onslaught, struggle to keep up, munching quietly on a bowl of cornflakes and a slice of toast. After observing eating habits in the USA over many years, it seems to us that the main aim in life for the average American male is to cram as much food as possible into his mouth at every opportunity.
Large tour groups offer plenty of amusement. The staff at a hotel in Java had erected a large movie screen in the dining room ready to entertain some Japanese visitors during their lunch. Everyone in the dining room was then forced to witness an extraordinarily repetitive video of the Japanese group’s morning exploration of Borobudur, Java’s most spectacular temple. Every single scene showed the same dozens of happy smiling Orientals standing right in front of, and completely masking, the amazing architecture of the World Heritage Site they had come to see!
Russian and Chinese tour groups are newcomers to long haul travel. The former are keen to ensure value for money from their hard-earned Roubels, but have discovered that food quantities are sometimes deliberately limited at lunch buffets. The solution to this tetchy problem for one portly Russian gentleman in Malaysia was to maximise the amount of food per plate at each visit to the buffet table. After much jostling for position, he expertly stacked his bread, salad, fish, meat, vegetables, rice, fruit, assorted puddings, sauces and ice cream all together on just one platter. He then proceeded to scoff the resultant multi-coloured mess with undisguised gluttony! Hotel management teams in the Far East have discovered that feeding Chinese holidaymakers is also a particularly challenging task. The Chinese demand special menus and dine very early in the evening. There is absolutely no conversation during their meal and amidst joyful slurping and chomping, the tour group will typically finish their whole meal in less than 20 minutes. At this juncture, the women and children are required to leave and the men begin their evening entertainment by noisily gambling with cards.
The seating arrangements at business dinners for those from Indian sub-continent cultures have the highest-ranking manager resplendently perched at one end of a long table. There is a pecking order of seniority amongst the subordinates that stretches right down to the most junior clerk at the far end. When it is time to eat, the whole ensemble will wait patiently until the chief has collected his first course before the rest follow him to the buffet in a strict order of rank. This obsequious behaviour will typically be repeated for each course.
Finally, when the boss has finished and stands up to leave, all his minions will rise in unison and leave the table even if they haven’t completed their meal. This rigid mealtime etiquette is possibly a hangover from the sometimes-harebrained upper class conduct associated with the British colonial era!
However, it is not just the Chinese who don’t talk any more at mealtimes. Now we are immersed in the digital age, the sound of silence has pervaded hotel restaurants right across the world. Families collect their plate of food from the buffet and before eating, photograph it to send to their so-called ‘friends’ on Facebook (actually, none of their ‘friends’ is remotely interested in seeing what they are having for dinner).
Back at the table, each family member produces some form of electronic device. Then, in total silence whilst they dine, the kids play computer games, the teenagers text each other with rude comments about their parents and the parents scan the social media pages for the latest trivial gossip!
What we are witnessing is a brand new crime – the theft of conversation from mealtimes – skillfully aided and abetted by the moguls of the smart phone, tablet and social media industries. Surely one of the greatest pleasures in our lives is to enjoy pleasant, interesting and amusing conversation over a good meal?
Tragically, due to the excessive use of these digital toys, dialogue of any sort over meals in public places is disappearing at an alarming rate. However, our own policy will remain unchanged. We will continue to practise our best possible buffet behaviour and ban all such electronic devices from our meal table. We’ll also do our utmost to resist the temptation to filch a banana at breakfast!
By Nigel Wright
Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal eleven years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.