I don’t really remember learning how to set a table properly, but I do have a vague memory of my mother’s voice telling me that knives and spoons go on the right side of the plate and forks go on the left. I am also not entirely sure how I know that you start with the outside cutlery and work your way in, though I am fairly certain that lesson was imparted by either Emily Gillmore or Barney Thompson. Other table manners I know but no longer remember learning over my twenty odd years of life include:
• Elbows off the table
• Never chew with your mouth open
• Never talk with food in your mouth
• Cut things into small managable bites
• Never slurp up your soup
• Never bring the bowl of cereal to your face.
• Bring the food to your mouth, not your mouth to your food.
The point is somehow in my life I did learn how sit at a table and successfully pass very as a civilized member of Western society. What life has never given seen a reason to teach me, however, is how to effectively wield a fork in my left hand.
For as long as I can remember, I always held my fork in my right hand as I eat. If I need to cut something, it goes in my left with the knife in my right, but once the morsels are cut into more manageable size, I put my knife down and put the fork back into my right hand. I have asked a couple of other friends, and apparently I am not the only who does it this way – in America.
This habit of switching your fork into your right hand when you eat, apparently is not done here in Antwerp. It’s a small and insignificant detail that I am sure that no one else at the table notices, but I do. It may seem silly, but the fact that I struggle with to eat with the fork in my left hand suddenly makes feel like I am the quintessential uncouth loud American totally devoid of any civilized manners. The old reprimands from my parents of “elbows off the table” and “this is dinner, not a race” as I shoveled food into my mouth have never seem more relevant.
The effortless and elegance each person seems to manage while eating their dinner while holding their fork in their left hand amazes me. I watch as my husband is able to delicately use his knife to push too-thin-to-stab slices of lettuce and arugula onto his fork and manages to consume his sustenance without any problem. I, however, try to mimic this cutlery prowess and it feels awkward and precarious, as if any moment all of my careful piled pieces of food are going to leap from the fork back onto the plate. Then once the food is on the fork, I then proceed to make myself cross eyed as I try to bring the fork to my mouth without spilling it all into my lap. In my mind, I look about as competent at eating as my husband’s two-year old niece; however, it I imagine it is exceedingly more endearing to watch her contort her arm and swivel the fork in her mouth to ensure she consumes every last nibble than to watch me do the same.
When you move to a new country there is a certain amount of culture shock to be expected. You expect the language to be a bit of a challenge, and you expect the food to be a bit (or a lot) different. You expect to get over-charged at markets and money currency exchanges. What I didn’t expect to be different was something so small as holding a fork. I guess when you’re in a place that’s rather similar to home, you start noticing the minuscule differences that remind you that you’re not in Kansas any more.