Cultural Faux Pas – Buffet Canadien and Himbeergeist



… or as a good friend of ours once said, “I made a right pas faux”.

Sometimes life as an expat is not so rosy. Sometimes we make mistakes and look really quite silly. Moving to a new country is fraught with social danger, there are so many unwritten rules ready to trip you up. Much to the amusement of the locals.

When I was invited to party with “Buffet Canadien” during our first summer in Geneva, I was curious what would be served. Canadian buffet – would it be moose sandwiches and pancakes with maple syrup? I racked my brains to think of other Canadian specialities – were there so many that one could make a whole buffet?


When I turned up at the party, I was extremely embarrassed to realise that everyone else had brought a dish to share – what the Americans would call “Pot Luck Lunch” is in French a Buffet Canadien. Who knew?

As an expat of many years standing, I am used to being in the wrong when it comes to local customs. In Germany the store that we would call a ‘Chemist’ is divided into two separate shops – the Drogerie, where you can buy shampoo, shower gel and other toiletries, and the Apotheke, for medicine and health care products.  I once confused the Apothekerin by asking for a 35mm film for my camera (remember camera films!) For a long time I desperately missed Boots the Chemist where I could buy everything from paracetamol to make up and a photo album.

In my first year in Germany, we went to a cocktail bar and after reading the ingredients on the menu, I ordered a fruity sounding drink. It was made of Vodka, with “Himbeergeist” and other fruity ‘”geists”, so I presumed it would be quite light and refreshing. Wrong. Geist is another word for Schnapps. Sadly, I did not realise this until after I had finished my second.

Talking of Schnapps (and why are many of my German faux pas alcohol related?) I can recall suggesting to a friend that we go for a long walk after Xmas dinner to aid the digestion. Slamming a bottle of Schapps on the table, he replied, “In Germany we drink Schnapps to aid the digestion”. Oh. All right then. Don’t want to offend the locals.

Germans tend to take their alcohol consumption seriously – there is the saying “Wein auf Bier, das rat ich Dir, Bier auf Wein, das lass sein” which regulates the order in which beer and wine should be drunken. Drinking beer after you have had wine is, according to locals, going to give you a painful hangover. When I went to a wine festival with my Mother-in-Law-to-be and asked if they had ice cream, her friends reacted as if I had suggested buying a bucket of Sangria and 6 straws. My MIL is a charming woman and sent her son to a nearby ice cream parlour.


What about you? Any amusing stories of expat faux pas to tell?


Featured Image of a Feline Fashion Faux Pas by KayVee, via Flickr

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