Reflections on international living and travel



The Dutch serve milk at business lunches.
The Dutch serve milk at business lunches. This is probably why they are so tall.


Europe's Business Lunch Rule of Thumb

Various European countries - By Jeffrey

As a rule of thumb, business lunches in Europe are increasingly grand the farther south you go; and increasingly boring the further north you go. I did not realise -- or perhaps I forgot -- this when I moved to Brussels from Bangkok in 1999. Mind you, when I left Europe for Asia in 1988, I was a young teacher of English as a Foreign Language and an aspiring artist, so I had not had many, if any, business lunches prior to the move. When I returned in '99, I had a contract with the European Commission and one of my responsibilities was overseeing a handful of EU funded research and development projects. Among my responsibilities was attending project performance meetings. These usually included lunch. But the lunch tended to vary depending on geography.


Never Ending Lunch in Pisa

My first such meeting was in Pisa, Italy. The meeting had gone well. Probably. To be honest, I don't remember it. I do remember lunch, at least the start of it. We went to a nearby restaurant where a large table had been reserved for the eight or nine participants. The meal had been ordered in advance and as soon as we sat down, waiters offered us a crisp, Italian white wine. I accepted a glass. Then, plates of seafood pasta were distributed. I am a vegetarian, but I am willing to eat fish and seafood from time to time to make life easier, especially for those inviting me to a meal. The pasta was a treat and when the waiter offered me a refill on my glass of wine, I thought: why not. We had got most of the important aspects covered in the morning and, in any event, my role was more of a meeting facilitator rather than having to do any serious work.

Full and ever so light headed as the waiters collected our plates, I was ready to go back to the meeting. It was not to be.

Instead, the waiters brought the second course. And then the main course. And then the dessert. There might even have been more courses. I honestly do not remember. I do remember that generous glasses of matching wine was served with each course. I also felt obligated to eat at least a bit of each course brought to me, even though I was not hungry.

By the time we returned to the meeting, I was stuffed to the bursting point and a wee bit tipsier than one ought to be for a business meeting. Fortunately, other participants were in a similar state of stuffed inebriation  and the afternoon bit of the meeting went surprisingly smoothly.

Later I asked the project partner from Pisa whether much work got done in the afternoons after lunches like that. He confessed that little work was accomplished in the afternoons. I suspect big boozy lunches in Italy might be like after work drinking in Japan. It serves as an opportunity to build relationships. 


I Discover Why the Dutch Are So Tall

I experienced the other extreme a couple of months  later. Another project's regular meeting was held in a business park just outside of Amsterdam. Business parks, incidentally, are remarkable in their universal blandness. A business park outside of Amsterdam is indistinguishable from one outside Bangkok, Tokyo, New York or Paris. However, this one was in Amsterdam. I know. I drove there.

The meeting went well and at noon, a young man wheeled in a trolley filled with a selection of sandwiches and drinks to consume at the conference table. No restaurants. No fancy lunches. No wine or other alcohol. Just sandwiches and drinks, one of which was milk. Yes, milk. I could not remember the last time I was offered milk at an event, but I was almost certainly under 12 years of age. However, as I later learned, this is a very Dutch thing: milk is often served at business lunches. This is probably why the average Dutch person is about three and a half metres (11.5 feet) tall. 

Reflecting back on both lunches, there was a stronger feeling of camaraderie and friendliness after lunch at the meeting in Pisa than there was at the meeting in Amsterdam. But the meeting in Amsterdam was undoubtedly more efficient. 

Not long after the project meeting in the Netherlands, I attended another project meeting that might have been in the same room as the meeting in the Amsterdam. But it was not. It was in a business park near Paris. I drove there too, so I am sure of this.

When the meeting broke for lunch, we stayed in our seats as a couple of women in crisp white suits brought in and distributed Styrofoam trays containing tasty warm meals and small bottles of wine which one could drink or not as one wished.

So, it was a more sophisticated, more substantial and warmer lunch than the one served in Amsterdam, but not nearly as spectacular as lunch in Italy -- or in Spain, as I later discovered at a project meeting in Madrid. After more project meetings in various European cities, and chatting with my European Commission colleagues who also enjoyed business lunches at project meetings, I realised that, indeed, business lunches are increasingly grand as you go south and increasingly basic as you go north; and increasingly dull as you go north.


To Follow Your Brain or Your Stomach?

I guess the takeaway for you is if you have to do business with Europeans and you enjoy fine eating, collaborate with the Southern Europeans. If you prefer efficiency and directness, collaborate with Northern Europeans. And, if you like milk, collaborate with the Dutch.


Dinner after a workshop in Windsor, UK
Dinner after a workshop in Windsor, UK.


North of Netherlands is a Business Lunch Mystery to Me

I never had a project meeting north of the Netherlands. It is hard to imagine that lunches could be much sparser than those served in the Netherlands (aside from not serving milk), particularly not in Sweden, the land of the Smorgasbord. However, I cannot verify this through my own experience.

That said, I once gave a keynote talk at an industrial group event in Gothenburg, Sweden. Lunch was nice buffet served in the restaurant located in the same hotel as conference room. Low alcohol beer was also served along with soft drinks, but no milk. This is why Scandinavians are not as tall as the Dutch. But, conferences are different than business meetings and almost inevitably include nice, but far from brilliant, buffet lunches, irrespective of where in the world they are held.


Speaking at an innovation conference in Malta - before lunch
Speaking at an innovation conference in Malta - before lunch.


Oddly, perhaps, for a lover of international living and travel, I am not much of a foodie. Don't get me wrong. I love good food and even when I am at home alone, I always take the time to prepare myself nice meals with fresh vegetables, pulses and grains. I despise processed foods and am not a fan of sweets. When I travel, I certainly like to try local specialities, but I do not get real excited about them and I certainly do not photograph meals. But, I also enjoy the occasional pasta, pizza or Thai meal because I simply cannot be bothered to seek local food.

Moreover, I was at the European Commission enjoying business lunches from 1999-2001. Social media as such did not exist then and normal people did not photograph their plates in restaurants and certainly not at business lunches. As a result, I do not have business lunch photographs with which to illustrate this article. Instead, I set up the shot at the top of the article and selected a few pictures that seemed relevant -- to me, anyway.


Giving workshop in Faro. I cannot for the life of me remember lunch
Giving a workshop in Faro, Portugal. I cannot for the life of me remember lunch.



A very strange business meeting
A very strange business meeting. No lunch was served.


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