Monthly Archives: July 2012

Restaurant Tips

Ile St-Louis, Paris (photo by Sally Reeder)

In U.S. restaurants, it is customary to leave a tip of 15% if the server brings your food sometime during the same calendar year in which you ordered it.  For exceptional service — if your server smiles, for instance — a tip of 20% of the total bill is a nice expression of gratitude.

By European standards, these amounts seem extravagant.  For instance, tipping is not common in Spain — by locals, anyway.  When they do tip, they tend to round up to the nearest euro. 

Rounding up is the practice elsewhere, too, although in France and Italy it’s to the next big number.  If the bill is, say, 32€, leave 35 €; if it’s 46€, go to 50 €.  In fancy restaurants, you might tip a bit more — 5 t0 10% of the total.

You may already be familiar with those guidelines for tipping restaurant servers, but here are some tips for restaurant customers.  The objective is to make your dining experiences more enjoyable by avoiding common mistakes.

No one who reads this blog needs to be told that when a waitress says, “Do you have any questions?”, it’s not appropriate to ask “Are you single?”  However, some of you do seem to need this advice:  When a server brings your food and says, “Be careful, the plate is very hot,” that means that you should not touch it.  For some reason, that seems to be the impulse — to ignore the verbal warning and test the temperature of the dish, even though the marinara sauce is still bubbling.

Here’s another tip:  If your business associate is making a big production out of the wine-tasting ritual, just look away to spare him embarrassment.  The point of putting a small amount of wine into his glass from a newly-opened bottle is just to determine that the wine didn’t turn into vinegar due to a faulty cork.  True connoisseurs (as well as novices) can usually tell in about a minute if the stuff in the bottle is wine or salad dressing; it’s not necessary to gargle it or to splash a few drops behind each ear.

Another common mistake in eating establishments happens when customers are making their decision about what to order.  “How is the sea bass,” they will ask, or worse, “Is the sea bass good?”

Does it seem likely to you that an employee will truthfully tell you that it’s awful?  Besides, you just met her a few minutes ago when she said, “Hi, I’m Kimberly and I’ll be your server this evening.”  Do you know her well enough to value her opinion?

And suppose she does blurt out, “It’s terrible, you’d be better off sawing your tongue with that butter knife”?  You’re probably still going to order the sea bass anyway, which can create an awkward moment. 

My tip is to frame the question in a way that allows you to interpret the server’s response — something like, “How is the sea bass prepared?”  If the server is evasive, or clueless, go with your second choice on the menu.

Oh, and one more tip about tipping:  At the outdoor cafes in Spain, a euro will usually make the accordion player go away.

When the Olympics Came to Town

1984 Olympic Games, Los Angeles

The predictions were dire.  Experts warned that the 1984 Olympic Games were going to cause gridlock in Los Angeles; traffic would be brought to a standstill.  Traffic is at a standstill every day in L.A. of course, but somehow this would be even worse.

For those of us who didn’t flee the city, things worked out very well.  If anything, the traffic was lighter than usual, and for a couple of weeks we had a wonderful celebration with visitors from 140 countries.

The Soviet Union, East Germany and several other eastern bloc nations didn’t come to the party — they boycotted the Games in revenge for a U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980.  Romania showed up, though, and we all cheered them every chance we got.

There were several historical highlights at the XXIII Olympiad, including Carl Lewis winning four gold medals in Track & Field, and Joan Benoit’s victory in the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon.  Mary Lou Retton won the women’s Gymnastics all-around gold medal.

My family wasn’t at any of those events, but we attended a lot of others, and here are a few fond memories of the ’84 Olympics:

•  During preliminary competition in Men’s Springboard Diving, the dive being attempted was announced — “Forward 2½ somersault from pike position” or whatever.  No matter what the dive was supposed to be, the divers from Kuwait usually just did a swan dive.  They were elegant swan dives, but they didn’t score very well with the judges. 

•  Baseball was a demonstration sport.  We saw a double-header:  The first game matched Canada against Japan, followed by South Korea against Nicaragua.  A lot of the action that day was in the stands, where fans were busy trading pins with each other.  The enamel pins featured official mascot Sam the Eagle in a variety of poses representing different sports and countries.  Pin trading was brisk at every Olympic venue in 1984, and there still seems to be some market for those souvenirs on the internet.

•  Joaquim Cruz of Brazil defeated world record holder Sebastian Coe in the exciting final of the men’s 800-meter race.  Cruz’s winning time was 1:43:00.  After he received his gold medal on the victory stand, the Brazilian national anthem was played — it lasted almost twice that long.  Seriously, have you ever heard the Brazilian national anthem?  It’s quite beautiful, but you can feel yourself getting older by the time it reaches its conclusion.

•  One of our son’s favorite Olympic memories involved a misbegotten promotional scheme by McDonald’s.  The slogan was “When the U.S. wins, you win!”  The hamburger chain distributed scratch-offs with the names of various Olympic events printed on them.  If a U.S. participant won a gold medal in the event on your card, you got a free Big Mac.  A silver medal was worth free french fries; bronze meant a free Coke.

McDonald’s hadn’t counted on the boycott by the Communist countries, and the record medal haul for the U.S. that resulted.  Americans won 174 total medals, including 88 gold, which was at least double what McDonald’s had expected.  Brian had free hamburgers for what seemed like months after the Olympics ended.

The Good Side of the Badlands

White River Valley Overlook, Badlands N.P., South Dakota

If you were given the responsibility of attracting tourists to the Badlands, you might consider changing the name.  Somehow, Badlands doesn’t sound as inviting as, say, Fountain of Youth, South Dakota.

That area of the U.S. Great Plains has been called some version of “bad lands” since humans first encountered it.  The Lakotas called the region mako sica — you can guess what that means.

When French-Canadian trappers showed up centuries later, they made a similar assessment, calling it (in French) “bad lands to travel through.”  Maybe it was the lack of water and shade, along with the volatile weather conditions, that gave them that impression.  The jagged landscape probably influenced their opinion, too.

It is undeniably rugged — but that is part of its appeal.  The rock formations, the colorful peaks and gullies created over millions of years by erosion and other geological forces, are mysterious.  Some people consider the Badlands a spiritual experience.  It’s definitely unusual.

Badlands National Park is about 80 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota.  Every few hundred yards along Interstate 90 are billboards for Wall Drug (in the town of Wall), but other than that, it’s wide-open prairie.

The entrance to the park is a few miles off the Interstate and connects with Badlands Loop Road, which meanders through spectacularly stark scenery.  There are numerous overlooks and trails just off the Loop Road; one of them features fossils of some of the beasts who lived here millions of years ago.

Current inhabitants include bighorn sheep, coyotes and prairie dogs.  In hopes of seeing some bison in their natural habitat, we left the main road and went a mile or two along a rutted gravel track called Sage Creek Rim Road. 

At times I had trouble holding the steering wheel because the road was so bad — it felt like it was going to shake the car apart.  Hey, in case you happen to work for the rental car company that supplied our vehicle, just ignore that last part — of course I wouldn’t do anything that would void the rental contract!  (For everyone else, when the car starts shaking, stop and then resume driving at a very low speed.)

The noise our car generated must have scared off the bison, but we did see a lot of prairie dogs in the area.  Obviously, the Badlands themselves are the main attraction; this is wilderness with an emphasis on wild.

On the return to civilization, it’s probably worth stopping at Wall Drug, since it claims to be the world’s largest drug store.  It was once a small establishment in a town of a few hundred people, but now occupies most of a block on Main Street.  Apparently the owners gobbled up neighboring stores over the years.

They probably fill an occasional prescription, but most of Wall Drug’s trade is in things like western wear and arcade games and souvenirs. They even have a traveler’s chapel, in case you’re seeking a spiritual experience in a drug store.  Let’s just say it’s quite a contrast to nature’s vast cathedral down the road in the Badlands.

Part-time Employment

Rizzuto and Berra, Suit Salesmen

The minimum salary for a Major League Baseball player is $480,000.

If you’re a corporate CEO or an investment banker that’s chump change, but the rest of us could probably manage to scrape by on a half-million bucks for 7 or 8 months’ work.  That’s the minimum, remember; the average MLB salary this year is $3,095,183.

It hasn’t always been this lucrative to be a ballplayer, of course.  Just to give you an idea of how things have changed, the Major League minimum in 1973 was $15,000, and the average salary was a little over twice that amount.  Only a relative handful of superstars made what was considered big money — over $100,000.

That meant that until fairly recently, most professional athletes have had other jobs during the off-season to supplement their incomes.  Even Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, who is generally considered to be the first player to make a million dollars a season (1979), had a series of other jobs during his baseball career:  One year he worked as an air-conditioning installer (1968).

New York Yankee legends Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra, back-to-back American League Most Valuable Players in 1950 and 1951, were employed during the winter by a Newark department store, where they sold men’s suits.

Richie Hebner, a third baseman who spent most of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, was a gravedigger at a cemetery operated by his father and brother.  Another third baseman of the same vintage (1970s) was a trumpet player.  Because Carmen Fanzone was with the Cubs before Wrigley Field had lights, he would occasionally take gigs at Chicago jazz clubs, performing at night after playing baseball during the day.

It wasn’t just baseball players who had other occupations.  Basketball’s Dave Bing was a seven-time NBA All-Star during a career that spanned the mid-’60s to the late-’70s.  He went to work as a teller in a Detroit bank, moving up the ladder there; following his retirement from basketball he established his own business.  Bing is currently the mayor of Detroit.

Professional football player Bill McColl studied medicine at the University of Chicago when he wasn’t playing defensive end and tight end for the Bears in the 1950s.  He eventually became an orthopedic surgeon.

Another football player who hit the books during the off-season was NFL Hall of Famer Alan Page.  While with the Vikings, he attended law school at the University of Minnesota.  Zoom forward a few decades:  Alan Page is now an Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Then there was the unusual off-season job of baseball pitcher Gene Conley:  he played basketball.  Or maybe he was an NBA center and forward who played baseball in the off-season.  Either way, he’s still the only athlete to be a World Series champ (Milwaukee Braves, 1957) and an NBA champ (Boston Celtics, 1959-61).

For those who are now saying, “Hey, what about Bo Jackson?”, I didn’t forget him.  Bo was the first All-Star in two sports (football and baseball).  Of course, since he was a full-time athlete with no off-season, he never got the chance to rotate tires or stock shelves or wait tables.  So — secretly Bo probably envies us, don’t you think?