Slow and Steady
By A.D. Freudenheim

20 August 2002

My wife and I have just returned from a visit to Scotland, and along with the beautiful and lush scenery, the omnipresent sheep and cows, and of course the whisky, I was struck by two small but stark contrasts to life in the United States.

Despite popular perceptions about food in the United Kingdom, most of what we ate in Scotland was delicious. What was more impressive was the consistency of the service we received: respectful, friendly, and most of all, unhurried. At every meal, waitresses only cleared our plates when both of us were finished eating, and we were never bothered with the typical American question "Can I take that away for you?" until it was quite evident that we were done. Conversations could continue uninterrupted until the point when a change in course was required by us both. Wine could be sipped and dishes could be shared without incurring the wrath of an impatient wait-staff. What a marked contrast to the United States!

Here in New York, the merest hint that someone is finished eating will cause a waiter or busboy to swoop in and attempt to remove the offending dish - without any regard to the overall status of the meal. Nine people in a party of ten could still be eating, and American restauranteurs would be happy to transform the dining experience into a version of Edward Gorey's Dwindling Party, slowly (but not nearly as inconspicuously) removing each person's plate until there are none. This tactic all too often passes for the usual American desire for expediency in all things - as the question "Can I take that away for you?" implies - but it is clearly just a ploy to speed up the process of eating and to encourage faster turnover of tables, and it is ruinous to the dining experience. To complain about crappy American table manners in contrast to the supposedly-cultured Europeans would be beating a very dead horse indeed, but this is an issue that goes well beyond the delicate questions of whether or not one should use a fork and a knife in unison. Rather, this is about the nature of restaurant service, and perhaps an acceptance on the part of the Scots that dining out means that each customer should be allowed to set the pace of their own meal.

A similarly respectful sensibility is evident in how the Scots drive, and we experienced this constantly as we crisscrossed the country: drivers were typically more aware of the other cars around them, and of their own pace on the road. This is partly a function of necessity, since much of Scotland is made up of single lane roads with periodic passing places carved out; being attentive to the cars coming towards you and the cars behind you is the only way to drive anywhere safely. However, there are also large and small highways connecting major destinations, and even driving on these is more a pleasant experience than using any American interstate. (Of course, there were a few daredevils who seemed determined to widen all roads by forcing drivers to go ever-closer to the edge, but these were the exception rather than the rule.) In America, by contrast, it is not uncommon to encounter people driving at (or below) the speed limit while in passing lanes, even on the biggest and best of our multi-lane highways; this forces other cars to go around them on the wrong side of the road, where visibility is poorer, or to weave in and out of traffic, all of which makes accidents more likely. Too many American drivers seem to be unaware that driving is not a truly solitary activity, and it makes our crowded roads that much more dangerous and undesirable.

In the end, our dining and driving experiences reflected a level of unhurriedness to life in Scotland that Americans might learn from. Certainly it is true that we were on vacation, and not only could afford to be unharried but wanted exactly that experience. Yet I cannot help but think about how much more pleasant daily life in America might be if our restaurants and our drivers were a little more aware.

Copyright 2002, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.