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Cultural Shock Column: And Water, Please?

By Chetna Krishna – Kleve, Germany

Isn’t water the most basic human necessity? Photo by Oliver Pacheco.

It was five in the evening and already dark. As always on my way home, I passed by Ali Baba, a restaurant run by an old Turkish man. Usually, I avoided eating out to save every penny. Today, I finally decided to give in. So, I entered the restaurant.

I waited for ten minutes staring blankly at the menu written in German. Besides the fact that I understood nothing, the only vegetarian dish I could identify was pizza Margherita. I placed the order.

Twenty minutes later, my pizza arrived. I was surprised that it was not cut into slices, but that wasn’t the only thing I found odd.

“Und Wasser, bitte (And water, please)?” I asked in my broken German.

‘‘Achso, hier (oh, it’s here),’’ the man said, pointing toward a refrigerator that contained a few sealed bottles of water.

I had expected a glass of water before the food was served. Wasn’t it obvious? Looks like it wasn’t. I couldn’t ask him for an explanation due to my lack of German language skills.

Back home, in India, serving water before a meal is normal. India doesn’t have potable water running in all taps, unlike Germany. Even so, water is free in restaurants in India but costs money in Germany. I had a hard time believing that something as basic as water isn’t free in Germany. But it wasn’t just about water in fancy restaurants.

In India, offering a glass of water to anyone who comes to your house is a common gesture. But in Germany, that’s not what they do as I found out when looking for an apartment in Kleve. None of the landlords offered water when I arrived. Of course, I could ask for water myself if I was thirsty, but wasn’t it supposed to be a sweet gesture made by another person? Why would I want to ruin that?

I had never noticed before how significant this was for me. I suppose you only miss some things when they are gone.

“Atithi Devo Bhava” is a Sanskrit phrase that translates to “Guest is equivalent to God.” It is taken from an ancient Hindu scripture.

“Be one for whom the Mother is God, be one for whom the Father is God, be one for whom the Teacher is God, be one for whom the Guest is God.” The phrase eventually became a code of conduct for the entire society and practiced in many households in India, irrespective of religion or status. This kind act or belief, underestimated by fellow Indians, came to the limelight once again when it became the theme of a 2008 tourism campaign for India.

I don’t know if that’s how the practice of offering water originated in India. I was just someone who grew up in that simple tradition of asking a humble question: Do you want water?

By the way, although I’ve lived in Germany for two years now, I still haven’t bought water in a restaurant. I just can’t bring myself to do it. I’d rather pay for cola or beer.

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