Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Out of place

My mother was serious about etiquette, especially when it came to table manners.

My brother and I were instructed early on in the proper way to hold silverware (known in these parts as cutlery), we were thoroughly warned against talking with our mouths full and woe betide the child (or husband) who rested his or her elbows on the table during the meal. Elbows on the table were an open invitation for Mom to jab the offender's tender skin with her fork.

Since arriving in England, however, I have sometimes felt like a bit of a slob, or, at the very least, a bumbling country bumpkin.

That's because you eat here using the Continental style of dining, which is rather different from how we eat in America. I still forget that when setting the table, I am supposed put the napkin on the left-hand side of the plate, under the fork, instead of on the right-hand side, under the knife. And you may not realize this, but you in England eat with both hands. You often hold your fork in the left hand and knife in the right, using both implements to neatly and politely cut up food and carry it to your mouths.

I, on the other hand, eat the way that is polite in America--I keep one hand on my lap at all times, or nearly all times, using only my right hand to hold the fork or spoon. The only exception is when I grasp the fork in my left hand and use it to hold the food in place while using my right hand to wield the knife. Once the meat is cut, however, the knife gets laid back down on the plate, I automatically switch the fork back to my right hand, and resume eating. The left hand goes back on my lap.

This is not my first experience with Continental dining. I spent the fall of 1999 as a student in Alicante, Spain, where I read in some cultural guide all about the differences in table manners. The only sentence, regrettably, that sticks in my mind is the one that said, "Europeans are suspicious of foreigners who keep one hand under the table, for nobody knows what that hand is doing."

Last weekend I accompanied my friend on a visit home to her parents in Kettering. It was a relaxing and fun few days, and we greatly enjoyed her mum's home cooking. One night at dinner, however, I looked around and realized that, as usual, I was the only person at the table who wasn't using both hands to eat. My left hand was resting politely on the napkin in my lap, as usual, as my right hand did all the work of using the fork.

"Ruth's mum probably thinks I have a terrible mother," I thought glumly, watching them all deftly work away at their meals with a piece of silverware in each hand. "But I'm actually very polite. In America."

Then I saw a few of the other diners resting their elbows on the table. It was all I could do not to go after them with my fork.

No comments: