Intimate Restaurant Seating

See all those people at that long table? They are not together. They're parties of two, seated across from each other - and right next to someone else!

In Portland, there were a few restaurants that did this and it felt chic or modern, but for the most part, restaurants were split into separate tables. Here in Zurich, long-table seating is the norm because it maximizes space for the restaurant and it goes well with the culture of the city. Central Zurich has high density; people are used to politely ignoring each other to create the illusion of privacy anyway! ;)

So I was completely thrown off a few weeks ago when the woman next to me asked me a question! How dare she violate the invisible wall?! I was so in the mode of pretending she and her friend weren't there that I didn't even realize she was talking to me. Then, in summing up the story I had just told to my friend, I did one of those shoulder shrug, "Yeah..." trailing off things as if to say 'so that's that,' but the woman next to me took that as the answer to her question and did a real jaw drop move. Then my friend looked at me and smiled like he was slightly embarrassed and did a nervous laugh thing and looked back at the woman. Then, finally, I realized that she was asking me, through the invisible wall, if I minded if she smoked a cigarette? Well, of course I mind! I am American. Nobody smokes in America - anywhere! But here we are in Switzerland where everyone still smokes and with the invisible wall and everything had already become so awkward that I just said, "No, no! Go ahead." and so she did. 

OMG. So many levels of awkward! But, really, why break down the invisible wall to ask a question that isn't really a question? Clearly she was horrified when she thought I said she should wait to smoke - and even my friend was embarrassed that I had asked her to wait to smoke. If it's so acceptable, why ask at all? The longer I live abroad, the more I believe that humans can just never know a second culture like their own. It's like language. No matter how fluent you get in a second language, it's still not your mother tongue. We have so many non-verbal, body language, deep-seated truths that develop in our childhood about social interactions and customs, that we can't erase them. We can adapt, yes. We can even come to understand, but I'm convinced our fundamental social blueprint remains. That is why, for Americans, with our giant personal space bubble and reluctance to touch one another, long-table seating will never be as effortless and comfortable as it is for our touchy-feeling, kissing European counterparts. And let's not even get started on the smoking! ;) 

While there are still moments when I experience culture shock after three years in Zurich, the thing I  have come to dread the most is the reverse culture shock I'll surely experience when we move back to the States. While I'll never be fluent, I know that I have adapted and come to understand to Swiss culture way more than I think I have. ;) Have you ever experienced culture shock? Was it something big, or something small that shocked you?

(photo via City of Sydney)